Good Women and the Good Book


Chaste, Chased, and Chastened: Old Testament

Women in Northern Prints

at the Fogg Art Museum

through October 24

Don't be deceived by the sexy name: "Chaste, Chased, and Chastened," the latest exhibit at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, focuses on an esoteric, but intriguing, historical phenomenon. Subtitled "Old Testament Women in Northern Prints," the exhibit demonstrates how a social and cultural revolution necessitated a revolution in imagery--how a fledgling society needed to visualize the new roles it had created.


Organized by Susan Dackerman, a Lynn and Philip Straus Intern at the Fogg, "Chaste, Chased and Chastened" is unusual for its thematic organization. Through her graduate research of Rennasaince prints, Dackerman discovered a surprising increase in prints depicting Old Testament stories. Once Dackerman realized that this Old Testament emphasis coincided with the Protestant Reformation's destruction of Catholic art, she had the makings of an interesting historical exhibit.

The extensive supplementary material which accompanies the exhibit discusses a relatively subtle process -- the religious, political, and social upheavals of the Reformation, and how these affected the art of the times. Adherents of the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Germany and the Netherlands not only contested the doctrines of the Church, but also its supposed idolotry. While the Church was busy commissioning the majority of artists into its service, many Protestants were claiming that worshipping the images was sacrilege. As a result, Protestants defaced and detroyed church murals, stained glass windows, and alterpieces.

This was a time of overall questioning, and the reevaluation of the Church's fundamental ideologies created a chaotic cultural climate. In particular, the role of women came into question and, along with it, the institutions of marriage, motherhood and the family. In short, 16th Century artists used the Old Testament stories to justify the new roles they were creating.

The exhibit categorizes the new moralizing into particular issues, such as "Good and Bad Wives," "Deceptive and Deadly Women," and "Heroic Women." Much of the work is decidedly chauvanist, apparently designed as a warning to men to beware of women.

Rembrandt, for example, used the story of Potiphar's Wife to illustrate the insatiable nature of women's sexual desire, how women could become dangerous when deprived of sexual pleasure, and how society should therefore ensure that women are safely married away. And of course, the group of prints entitled "Eve Sets the Standard" portray woman's inherent vulnerability to evil and fatal powers of persuasion.

While the exhibit features notables such as Rembrandt and Albrecht Altdorfer, the heart of its message lies in the fact that the body of this new, Old Testament moralizing on women's roles was not created by an artistic elite, but rather by the popular press. The exhibit stresses the fact that these prints were intended for a wide, though perhaps sophisticated, audience, and that they were bought for their content, not their artistic value.

In keeping with its historical emphasis, "Chaste, Chased, and Chastened" also includes a number of related programs, most interestingly a concert of music associated with the Old Testment, including the Biblical sonatas of Kuhnan and arias of Handel on Oct. 3.

The Fogg plans to continue its exploration of society's perception of women in the Spring. Although employing the same trendy tripartite alliteration, "Power, Pleasure, & Pain," this exhibit will update "Chaste, Chased, & Chastened" by displaying contemporary art.

If your plans for this weekend include brushing up your cocktail-party knowledge of famous artists, this exhibit is not for you. If, however, you find yourself in more of a reflective mood with pipe in hand, "Chaste, Chased, & Chastened" provides a fascinating insight into the age-old interplay between art, tradition and profound cultural questioning.