Imagining the Divine: where are the women?

In this short series, Dominic Dalglish responds to three appraisals of Imagining the Divine from some of the UK’s leading scholars. In the final piece, we focus on the presence of women in the exhibition. 

Over the course of this short series of blogs, we’ve looked at critiques from Mary Beard and Neil MacGregor. Responding to fellow academics is of course important, but members of the public have also raised some interesting points and objections, and it’s important to address them.

Panel - TORCH Sheldonian 17.1.2018
Neil MacGregor, Mallica Kumbera Landrus, and Mary Beard at the Imagining the Divine event in the Sheldonian © Stuart Bebb.

The comments were made by a member of the public at the event featuring Mary and Neil at about 1:09:50. I’ve selected them here because they were issues much discussed by the Empires of Faith project members, and because in the current climate they are not without resonance.

Member of the public:

I may have missed something in the exhibition but is it a shortcoming that there are no female representations of the divine… Did I miss something…? 

I saw lots of men, I saw lots of blobs, I saw lots of words, but no women!

A good question, to which Neil replied…


This is a question for Mary I feel…

And Mary said…


You didn’t see any blobs either!

It’s hard to argue with this – there are not a lot of female divinities in the exhibition. You will see Mary the mother of Christ – a central figure of Christian worship for many, but not a goddess. You will see Ariadne beside Dionysus too, but again she was not considered divine. There is a depiction of Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu, and we also see a Tantric goddess in the show, but in all these instances, the figures displayed are far from the focus.

BM 1872,0701.42.a multi headed Tantric goddess in black basalt
An 11th century multi-headed Tantric goddess, carved in black basalt, and produced in Bengal © The Trustees of the British Museum.

It would have been wonderful in the context of the exhibition, to have explored the development of figures such as Mary; to think about the place of Fatimah in Islam and the various means of representing her; and to have focussed more on the depictions of Lakshmi, an extremely important figure for modern Hindus in her own right.

But at the same time, because the exhibition is very broad in scope, we also chose to concentrate on those figures focussed on by the religious adherents of Late Antiquity. These figures are male – it is a fact of all of the major religions covered in the exhibition that female figures play a less central, if still vital role.

That excuse, however, leaves me feeling uneasy. It is not enough simply to make this claim, and to perpetuate clichés. Because in fact the problem goes beyond the representation of female divinities to inculcate our understanding of far more diverse religious phenomena.

It is a problem of archaeology and art that it is largely ungendered – we don’t know who made what, who gave it, who used it, who looked at it, in the vast majority of cases. It is a problem because despite this, we have tended to ascribe male intent and action to most of what we see. In certain cases, this is absolutely valid, but in many it is completely without justification.

There is surely more that we can do about this, and there is more thought that must go into understanding the role of women in relation to the study of religion in particular.(1)  So, as an attempt to address this issue within the context of the exhibition, I offer you some examples of women as makers, donors and users.

Parochet with Tablets of the Law and twelve important festivals in the Jewish calendar
Parochet with Tablets of the Law and twelve important festivals in the Jewish calendar, AD1676, northern Italy, © Victoria & Albert Museum.

The first object you are likely to see in the exhibition is a 17th century parochet.(2) It would once have covered the Torah Ark in a synagogue in northern Italy. This one is decorated with the Tablets of the Law at the centre, monumentalised with decorated columns and situated within a lush garden and even larger arch. Around the edges are twelve scenes representing important festivals and Sabbaths of the Jewish calendar, each surrounded by relevant biblical quotations. It is a stunning thing.

We know that this object was dedicated in the year equating to 1676 and dedicated in 1711, from the wording just below the central panel that gives the donor’s name, the honoured Joseph bar Haim Segal Polacko. The dedicator, then, was a man, and one of some standing in the community.

As far as we know, however, most Jewish embroideries from northern Italy were made by women. There is a very similar Ark Curtain in the Jewish Museum in New York, which has a date equivalent to 1698, embroidered by a woman called Leah Ottolenghi. Also in the collection of the Jewish Museum, New York, is a binder for the Torah Scrolls made by a Rikah Polacko in 1662. This Rikah is quite likely to have been the mother of Joseph Polakco whose name appears on the V&A’s curtain, and she may have made the parochet fourteen years after she completed the Torah binder.

Here we have a woman as maker playing an instrumental role in the way in which the image was rendered – an image and an object that lay at the centre of the community’s religious life. As an early modern example, it is perhaps not surprising that we can tell a more complex story than we can for many Late Antique objects, but we are not without equivalents in the exhibition.

Leaf from Nurse_s Quran
Bifolio of the ‘Nurse’s Quran’ (Mushaf al-Hadina), AD1019/20, from Kairouan, Tunisia © New York MET.

In the Islamic section, you will find the so-called ‘Nurse’s Quran’. This magnificent codex was written with only five lines per page, meaning that the finished volume would have been enormous. This object was meant for display – it was a grand offering. It was also commissioned by a woman, Fatima, and given to the Great mosque in Kairouan, modern Tunisia. It is extremely fortuitous that this information has passed down to us – often there is no dedication, and no indication of who gave what. But that a woman was responsible for this commission should make us question assumptions of a male imperative for other objects like it.(3)

Tombstone of a young girl, Ghariba
The tombstone of a young girl, Ghariba, Tunisia, now Ashmolean Museum © Stefanie Lenk.

Also in the Islamic section is the grave marker of a young girl, Ghariba. To say that Ghariba ‘used’ this object might seem odd – she had, after all, died. If the object was ‘used’ it was perhaps more by others and not this young girl. What such monuments should suggest to us, whether of prominent individuals or not, is the family or community behind them – these are never simply a collection of men, but a complicated structure of men and women, the old and young, the sick and the healthy. We do not have to over sentimentalise the object to locate women here – the association and delimitation of signs of emotion with women brings its own problems. We can rather think of the many roles that women played in diverse cultures in expressions of power and status, in rituals surrounding the dead, and indeed in expressions of grief, all of which might be traced in this object.

The critiques featured in this series have been welcome. Exhibitions do not belong only to their curators, but to everyone who chooses to engage with them, on whatever level. We have assembled a bunch of things to try and lead you in a certain direction, but there are different stories to tell too, and we as the curators aren’t the only ones to find them. Though Imagining the Divine is drawing to a close, we hope that the comments will keep coming – in short, keep critiquing!

(1) It is important to note that Gender Archaeology is a sub-discipline of Archaeology in its own right. Here, I claim only to be following the lead of a generation of scholars who have pursued such ends for most of their careers. 

(2) The V&A online catalogue has a fantastic amount of detail on this object.

(3) My colleagues Philippa Adrych, Robert Bracey, and Stefanie Lenk have written about this object and others in two sections of the exhibition catalogue, looking at the construction of female religious figures, and the role of women as donors and makers.


Author: Dominic Dalglish

Feature Image © Stuart Bebb.


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