Blue teeth paint por­trait of fe­male medieval artist

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Christina Lar­son

WASHINGTON — About 1,000 years ago, a woman in Ger­many died and was buried in an un­marked grave in a church ceme­tery. No record of her life sur­vived, and no his­to­rian had rea­son to won­der who she was. But when mod­ern sci­en­tists ex­am­ined her dug-up re­mains, they dis­cov­ered bril­liant blue flecks in the tar­tar on her teeth.

And that has cast new light on the role of women and art in medieval Europe. The blue par­ti­cles were

lapis lazuli, a semi-pre­cious stone highly prized at the time for its vivid color and was ground up and used as a pig­ment.

From that, sci­en­tists con­cluded the woman was an artist in­volved in cre­at­ing il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts — a task usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with monks.

The dis­cov­ery is con­sid­ered the most di­rect ev­i­dence yet of a par­tic­u­lar woman tak­ing part in the mak­ing of high-qual­ity il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts, the lav­ishly il­lus­trated re­li­gious and sec­u­lar texts of the Mid­dle Ages. And it corroborates other find­ings that sug­gest fe­male ar­ti­sans were not as rare as pre­vi­ously thought.

“It’s kind of a bomb­shell for my field — it’s so rare to find ma­te­rial ev­i­dence of women’s artis­tic and lit­er­ary work in the Mid­dle Ages,” said Ali­son Beach, a pro­fes­sor of medieval his­tory at Ohio State Uni­ver­sity. “Be­cause things are much bet­ter doc­u­mented for men, it’s en­cour­aged peo­ple to imag­ine a male world. This helps us cor­rect that bias.”

The un­named woman buried in the Ger­man church­yard was prob­a­bly a highly skilled artist and scribe.

Ul­tra­ma­rine, as the pow­dered form of lapis lazuli is

known, was the finest and most ex­pen­sive pig­ment in medieval Europe. The stone came only from Afghanistan. Be­cause of the cost of car­ry­ing it to Europe, ul­tra­ma­rine was re­served for the most im­por­tant and well-funded artis­tic projects.

“If she was us­ing lapis

lazuli, she was prob­a­bly very, very good,” said Beach, co-au­thor of a re­port pub­lished this month in the jour­nal Sci­ence Ad­vances.

Re­searchers pored over old paint­ing man­u­als to form a hy­poth­e­sis as to how the woman got blue flecks in her teeth: She pe­ri­od­i­cally licked the tip of her brush to bring it to a fine point for de­tailed work.

A build­ing ren­o­va­tion in 1989 un­cov­ered the woman’s tomb, along with those of other women who were ap­par­ently part of a fe­male re­li­gious com­mu­nity at­tached to the church. Ra­dio­car­bon dat­ing of the skele­ton re­vealed the 45- to 60-year-old woman died be­tween 997 and 1162.

In 2011, a team of sci­en­tists de­cided to use the fairly new tech­nique of an­a­lyz­ing tar­tar on teeth to gather in­for­ma­tion on long-ago di­ets.

But Anita Ra­dini, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of York in Bri­tain, saw some­thing un­der the mi­cro­scope she wasn’t ex­pect­ing: “It looked like noth­ing I had seen be­fore — bright blue par­ti­cles, al­most like robins’ eggs.”

METROPOLI­TAN MU­SEUM OF ART/AP

The dis­cov­ery of blue-stained tar­tar on a medieval woman’s teeth opens a win­dow about artists of that era.

CHRISTINA WARIN­NER/AP

Lapis lazuli is thought to be the cause of the stains.

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