Women frame the wisdom of Proverbs. The book opens with the headline theme, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, (1:6), learned from a father’s instruction and a mother’s teaching (1:7). Chapters 1–9 are dominated by female figures, most famously the personifications of Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly who call aloud in the streets offering divergent paths to life (Proverbs 8–9). Meanwhile, the final chapter of Proverbs begins: ‘The oracles of King Lemuel—an oracle his mother taught him...’ (31:1), providing one of the few direct references to female authorship in the Bible.
In this vein, two of the artworks chosen here are by women artists, Nina Koch and Amy Sherald. The subject of their artworks are bearers of insight and strength and exemplify the crucial role of women in social justice and cohesion—key concerns of King Lemuel’s mother (31:8–9).
Koch’s statue, with its door frame signalling the threshold between home and the outside world, reminds us of Katharina von Bora’s personal courage in crossing boundaries. We become aware of the crucial role of women in the Reformation and the social changes that Protestantism brought about for women. Katharina was a role model for a new kind of Christian wife and mother, shaping households in which the Bible and vernacular devotion were part of everyday family life.
In our own time, Michelle Obama has likewise been a pioneer, above all in becoming the first black First Lady of the United States. She spoke powerfully from this position into situations of poverty, health, education, and the need for respect for women.
Obama saw her portrait as offering a visual ideal for future generations. She said at the unveiling of her portrait:
I am thinking about all the young people—particularly girls, and girls of colour—who in years ahead will come to this place and look up and seen an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this Great American Institution ... I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls (Pogrebin 2018).
Domenico Ghirlandaio’s portrayal of Giovanna degli Albizzi, with her pure beauty, idealizes its subject in different circumstances and to different ends. Unlike Obama, she was painted after her death, her portrait proclaiming her perfect precisely as she is also mourned as mortal. The work gives poignancy to Proverbs 31:30: ‘beauty is fleeting’. But the verse goes on: ‘a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’, and it seems that in commissioning this work, Lorenzo genuinely wanted to ‘praise’ her for more than her outward attributes alone.
Giovanna’s large rubies recall the opening couplet of the poem, where the noble wife surpasses the value of jewels (31:10). Similarly, at the start of Proverbs, the female figure of Wisdom herself is also described as more precious than rubies (3:15) The good wife is thus directly aligned with the personification of Wisdom. Later, in the New Testament, this figure of Wisdom becomes associated with Jesus (for example in 1 Corinthians 1:30). So by a chain of association, the ideal wife can be read as directing us to God himself.
The poem closes with a focus on civic honour: ‘give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates’ (31:31). Giovanna’s portrait was not only a private commemoration, it spoke a ‘civic language’, embodying the ideal virtues associated with being a wife and mother in Renaissance Florence. Michelle Obama embraced the role of First Lady of the United States with a grace and dynamism that earned her worldwide affection—‘civic praise’ on an international stage.
Katharina von Bora, by contrast, did not generally enjoy such praise in her lifetime, but often faced social isolation and poverty, especially as a widow. Yet in Koch’s bronze statue Katharina appears to stride across the centuries into twenty-first-century Wittenberg, as the modern city acknowledges one of its great historical citizens.
These works all open a further question, however: the question of whether civic honour in this world is not the real praise that counts for the ‘woman who fears the Lord’, but the praise received in that greater city, the city of Heaven. Koch’s statue can help us imagine Katharina crossing this final threshold to reach an everlasting reward.
Pogrebin, Robin. 2018. ‘Obama Portrait Artists Merged the Everyday and the Extraordinary, 12 February 2018’, www.nytimes.com, [accessed 26 April 2018]