The Medieval Sartorialist: On the Street… Wise & Foolish Virgins, Bern

June 24, 2011

Last Saturday, on his Medieval Hungary blog, Zsombor Jékely pointed out some exhibitions about dress and fashion in the Middle Ages which are currently taking place in Los Angeles, New York City and Paris (France). This has made me realise something slightly odd about our own blog: While we’re frequently writing about medieval stuff and equally often deal with the textile arts, we’ve never, so far, actually blogged about the textile arts in the Middle Ages. Admittedly, of course, neither [m] nor I are experts on medieval textiles, but still, I figured it might be fun to dip into our photo archive and show you some fancy medieval dresses for a change. I’m not sure if this will become a regular feature but it might, so I prophylactically came up with a series title, The Medieval Sartorialist, which totally rips off is a tip of the hat to our favourite fashion blog, The Sartorialist.

What you see in the above photo are late 15th century statues on the main portal of Bern Minster, showing three of the Wise Virgins. Ok, technically, what you see in the picture are modern copies of 15th century statues – for preservation reasons, the originals have been brought to Bern’s Historisches Museum. When it comes to detail, though, the originals are crafted with more care and refinement than the copies, so what you’ll be seeing for the rest of the post are photos of the actual late medieval sculptures in the museum. I’ve just included this one pic of the copies because it gives a good impression of how bright and colourful those sculptures would have been when they were new.

Anyway, the sculptures refer to the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins as told in the Bible (Matthew 25, 1-13). This was a highly popular subject in late medieval art where the Wise Virgins were meant to represent those who believed in God (or shall we say: in the teachings of the Catholic Church), while the Foolish Virgins stood for those who valued the joys and pleasures of the material world higher than the heavenly realm (again, the heavenly realm as defined by the Catholic Church). Often, this moral distinction was also visualised by the kind of clothes the Virgins wear: As a general rule you can say that the Wise Virgins are dressed in a way that passes as decent within the narrow framework of Catholic morals while the Foolish Virgins have a tendency to look a lot more, well, slutty. A good example for this is provided by the early 15th century wall-paintings in St. Margaret’s Chapel in Pians (Tyrol):


As you can see, the Wise Virgins (on the left) wear dresses with a high neckline and an overcoat covering their shoulder. The Foolish ones (pictured right), on the other hand, wear deep-cut, shoulder-free dresses that even leave the upper parts of their breasts uncovered.

In Bern, the basic scheme is the same, even though here the dresses are much more elaborate and even the Wise Virgins resemble fashion dummies dressed up like a downtown Christmas tree:

Their garments are accentuated by golden seams and borders and by exquisite accessories like jewelled belts. The fabrics appear to be rich and costly, sometimes with stars embroidered onto or applicated to them…


… even though it’s not always a hundred percent clear what kind of material the artists had in mind. After all, it’s rather hard to convincingly represent textiles in  the medium of stone sculpture!

But if you take a closer look you realise that in the dresses of the Wise Virgins in Bern, all that richness and opulence is restricted to hems and borders and accessories. The dresses themselves, however, appear to be rather basic, albeit finely tailored, and are worn over an equally plain underdress .

Now take a look at the Foolish Virgins:

Here, puffed sleeves and some sort of bodice appear to be involved, and the whole things seems to be stitched together from at least three different fabrics (though, again, due to the restriction of sculptural representation it’s hard to tell what kind of fabrics these are supposed to be. Well, it least it’s hard to tell for me. If you happen to know more about this kind of thing, feel free to chime in with a comment – as already mentioned, neither [m] nor I are experts on medieval textiles, so any help is greatly appreciated).

So with the Foolish Virgins the dress in itself is much more variegated and extravagant than those of their wise counterparts. Also, there are two more remarkable differences: Firstly, while the Wise Virgins are all crowned with garlands of flowers, the Foolish ones wear elaborate headdresses, a sure sign of fashion exuberance. Secondly, while the Wise Virgins’ dresses may be figure-hugging and not exactly hide certain parts of the female anatomy, the Foolish Virgins‘ dresses are cut in a way that actually emphasis their breasts…

Hm, I guess I’ll better stop here, because this was supposed to be a nice and apolitical post and right now I’m tempted to say the Foolish Virgins‘ breasts are practically framed in a way that goes to show how even in the Middle Ages certain fashion trends were all about compartmentalizing the female body and turning it into a sexual commodity. Geez, how do other people manage to write about fashion without getting sidetracked into some sort of feminist discourse?!


Update, June 26: I just wanted to add that when I said the Foolish Virgins were generally represented in a slutty way, that too was supposed to mean “slutty as defined by the Catholic Church” or “slutty by medieval moral standards”. It is NOT my personal opinion that wearing low-cut and/or shoulder-free dresses is slutty, morally ambiguous or whatever… Just wanted to make this clear in order to avoid misunderstandings.

3 Responses to “The Medieval Sartorialist: On the Street… Wise & Foolish Virgins, Bern”

  1. highlyeccentric said

    Oooh, cool! That was a really interesting post (and fashion-related feminist discourse can be fun…). :)

  2. Annie said

    A fascinating read, thank you :D

  3. [c] said

    Thanks for the nice comments, folks!

    @ highlyeccentric: I totally agree that feminist discourse with regard to fashion can be fun, it’s just not what I had in mind when I started writing this post. Seriously, this was supposed to be a happy “Ooohhh, look at them pretty dresses!” kind of post, but apparently it took a wrong turn somewhere along the way ;-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: