Constructing the perfect woman: gender and power in the reign of Isabel of Castilla
ROME, July 2010- The Vatican released a series of new disciplinary rules, which described the ordination of women as a “crime against the faith”. Living in Australian society post the feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s, the position of the Roman Church appears outdated and sexist. From this modern viewpoint we could easily assume that the Catholic Church has always been a repressive institution for women.
Travel back in time more than 500 years to 1504, and we find ourselves located by the deathbed of Isabel la Católica (the Catholic queen) of Castilla. Castilla was the largest of the 5 kingdoms which made up the Iberian Peninsula, and the ancestor of modern day Spain. This woman was the first of early modern Europe to rule as a sovereign queen, followed by other better known names in our culture such as Mary Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England. Yet none of these women achieved what Isabel did during her reign: the conquest of the Islamic Kingdom of Granada, the discovery of the Americas and the reformation of the Latin Church in Hispania half a century before the Council of Trent.
At the start of early modern Europe women held a lower status than their male counterparts. This subjugation of women originated in part due to the late medieval understanding of the human anatomy. Women were considered to be of a complexion that was both wet and cold, while men were linked to heat and dryness. Although a very strange and primitive idea of human structure to us, this ‘science’ actually resulted in women suffering their status. The idea of wet and cold implied changeability, and society considered women irrational and inconsistent accordingly. 
Of course, better understood by us is the role played by the church. The Latin Church (the ancestor of what we now call the Roman Catholic Church) reinforced the idea of female inferiority through their interpretation of Genesis 3: 12-16. Eve’s natural weakness as a woman allowed her to be tempted by the serpent, and through her sexuality, she in turn corrupted the purity of her partner Adam. The female sex was not only weak and frail, but culpable and predisposed to evil. Against this misogynistic backdrop Isabel played out the great achievements of her life.
Although Isabel was married to Fernando, the king of the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon, she stilled ruled in her own right. The Florentine diplomat Francesco Guicciardi wrote that in all of the couple’s achievements “the queen’s glory was never considered to be secondary. Indeed, according to general consensus, the larger part of these achievements are to be attributed to her.”  The question we have to ask is, how did Isabel overcome the limitations of her gender in order to rule effectively?
Within the religiosity of the Latin Church the Virgin Mary served as the grand exception to the general assumptions made about women. Where Eve had condemned humanity to damnation through original sin, the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, the saviour of mankind. Obviously the focus on Mary’s virginity presents to us a notion of a pure, perfect woman. In other words, the Latin Church believed Mary to be the perfect woman.
Contemporaries of Isabel often compared the queen directly with the Virgin, making little difference between the two. In one of his works, the poet ĺñigo de Mendoza spoke of the queen in these words:
High enlightened queen,
of very real greatness.
to remedy our ills
by the grace of the God come,
as when was lost
by the fault of a woman,
God wanted to adorn us
by that manner and measure
that which caused our downfall. 
We find the most direct link between the Virgin and the queen however in artwork. In La Virgen de la mosca painted by an anonymous Flemish painter in the late 15th Century Isabel sits as a handmaiden of Mary. The striking thing about this image is the physical similarities between the two. Isabel and the Virgin both have blue-green eyes, a fair complexion and light wavy hair. This may all seem purely coincidental until we understand that in 15th Century Europe physical appearance demonstrated the qualities of the soul. 
So what does all this mean? Well, Isabel legitimised herself by being the perfect woman in the eyes of the Latin Church. To rule, Isabel had to be an exceptional woman, equal even to the Virgin herself. To this end, Isabel undertook an intentional campaign of propaganda to construct herself as an equally pious and pure woman as the Virgin. By manipulating the Church’s expectations, religion became for Isabel empowering rather than repressive. And so we realise that when examining women and the Church we can’t allow ourselves to make assumptions based on our 21st Century soapbox.
 Albertus Magnus, quoted in Elizabeth A. Lehfledt, “Ruling Sexuality: The Political Legitimacy of Isabel of Castile.” Renaissance Quarterly, col. 53, no. 1 (2000): p. 40
 Francesco Guicciardi, “Report from Spain, 1512-1531.” in The Black Legend: Anti-Spanish Attitudes in the Old World and the New. ed. Charles Gibson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), p. 40
 ĺñigo de Mendoza, “Dechado a la muy escelente reina doña Isabel, nuestra soberana señora.” quoted in Greogry B. Kaplan, “In Search of Salvation: The Deification of Isabel la Católica in Converso Poetry.” Hispanic Review, vol. 66, no. 3 (1998): p 298
 Miguel Angel Ladero Quesada, “Isabel la Católica vista por sus contemporáneos.” España Medieval, vol. 29 (2006): p. 233