Rare and beautiful, medieval depictions of women in secular portraiture are remarkable parts of national collections. Normally small in scale, these works are at once tender and luminous in equal measure. In most of these works, the sitter wears a wimple – a headdress or scarf covering the head. Medieval artists lavished both time and love in their depiction. Why did they adore the wimple, and what does this mean for us today?

Remove the wimple mentally from the collections they live in and each becomes a lightning bolt allowing us to consider contemporary culture. These tiny treasures of art pack a punch.

A Woman

A Woman about 1435

Robert Campin (Master of Flémalle) (c.1375/1379–1444)

The National Gallery, London

This portrait of a woman by Robert Campin (1375/1379–1444) is the perfect example. Here the sitter wears a crisp white pinned and layered wimple of fine cloth. An almost sensuous play of light and shadow is seen on the treatment of material – it hangs in both volume and tactile softness around the face. At the time, Christian teaching on modesty, piety and expectations of married women dictated that heads be covered with little – if any – hair showing. Campin captures for us a very gendered expression of identity where fashion speaks as a narrative for the society in which he lived. Inside this, we have an authentic, lifelike and lovingly made depiction of a conventional medieval woman.

The sitter simultaneously displays her wealth and status in the materials used, while the artist basks in the opportunity for virtuoso painting. The characterisation of the veil aches with beauty and technicality – complemented by the youthful, wary and delicious detail lavished on the skin tone. The wimple is coded as a vehicle to read both the woman and Campin's skill visually, and the artist leads us there effortlessly. Fashion and piety merge here, a conversation still so politicised and personal in today's culture. It's fascinating to consider an artwork over 600 years old carries such relevance today in shining a light on our own society.

Finding depictions of secular women in medieval sculpture are tantalising when we think about faith-based expression.

Head of a Woman Wearing a Wimple

Head of a Woman Wearing a Wimple 1500–1540

British (English) School

Eden District Council

This partial sculpture of a woman wearing a wimple illustrates the power of arts education. Melancholic in how it's weathered, the sitter still shows both head and neck covered in fabric. Once vivid in detail, we now see a face faded almost to abstraction by time. Take a second look though – if you didn't know this was medieval European, could it be a hijab you are looking at?

A veil covering of the hair and face has existed cross-culturally at least since ancient Greece, and across many faiths and religions. Reading this artwork through contemporary expressions of gender identity and faith returns the humanism and emotion that is sometimes lost. In doing so we are not suggesting the link to medieval history and contemporary faith in Britain is negative or reductive. Instead we find a rich source of lived experience on headwear for religious expression that viewers can bring to the artwork. Through sharing, we expand our understanding and engagement of the artwork and the meaning of the wimple.

The ghoonghat, turban or wigs worn by Jewish women are other powerful examples – how can we use medieval portraiture to reflect on contemporary lives and faith? In turn as the lived experience of women comes to the forefront, then as now fashion is a vehicle to consider a very gendered world. Portrait of a Lady by the studio of Rogier van der Weyden (c.1399–1464) captures the expression of religion and fashion simultaneously.

Portrait of a Lady

Portrait of a Lady about 1460

Rogier van der Weyden (c.1399–1464) (studio of)

The National Gallery, London

The young sitter passively looks down away from us in a pose of considered female modesty, conscious of being both seen and objectified. Delicate layers of gauze frame her, hair hidden and bound in cloth. Consider the hairline though – way higher than naturally occurring and shaved back. Instead of covering the face further, hair is sacrificed to expose more of the face, a clear aesthetic choice for fashion. The sitter is presented to us as pious – but crucially with highly personalised fashion.

Dual messages in art can carry dual opportunity. The stunning piece Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family by an artist of the German (Swabian) School shows the artistic opportunity of the wimple.

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family about 1470

German (Swabian) School

The National Gallery, London

The sitter's headwear complies with contemporary expectations of modesty as the hair is carefully covered. Her hair is neatly pinned and hidden, with the delivery device of the cloth being beautifully stitched and lavish in scale. The wimple is deliberately posed to frame and face and shoulders. Rich jewels shine next to the crisp cloth – messages of faith and fashion shine through.

Added to this, can you spot the small detail of a fly sitting on the cloth? Crucially positioned and deliberate in the composition, we have an added message conveyed through the headwear. Dating from about 1470, this would have been made within living memory of the Black Death and bubonic plague, devastating the population of Europe. Is this a small example of a memento mori – that death is always around the corner? Details in the wimple can offer so much insight on a time in history.

Let's move to a medieval big hitter and masterpiece – the Jan van Eyck work popularly known as the Arnolfini Portrait.

Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife

Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife 1434

Jan van Eyck (c.1380/1390–1441)

The National Gallery, London

This jewel of a portrait at The National Gallery defines the word exquisite. Gallery professionals have witnessed visitors audibly sighing in front of this piece with happiness.

Small in personal scale, its depth and coded messages still have art historians debating and researching today. The male figure wears an exaggerated medieval wide-brimmed hat, whilst the woman gathers the decadent fur-lined gown to her almost as a fabric recreation of pregnancy. Its extreme, uncomfortable and impractical to modern eyes. Is our first reaction to consider the meaning of the fashion, or does the novelty of past clothing hide deeper meaning? We can forget that artworks were and are now still powerful and high-profile statements on personal politics.

The more we consider the wimple, the more it reflects on today. Next time you see a portrait like this, it's worth reflecting that we share society with others that carry lived experience in covering their hair, and how this feels. Conversations on gender and diversity are at the core of our historical collections – a powerful reminder when you see a medieval portrait.

Jon Sleigh, freelance arts educator