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Woodruff, Helen M.

    Full Name: Woodruff, Helen M

    Other Names:

    • Helen Woodruff

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 1899

    Date Died: 1980

    Place Born: IL, USA

    Place Died: New York, NY, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): manuscripts (documents) and Medieval (European)

    Institution(s): Princeton University


    Medieval art historian and manuscript scholar. Woodruff graduated from Wellesley College in 1922. She earned her MA and PhD degrees at Radcliffe College, completing a dissertation on the illustrated manuscripts of Prudentius in 1928. In 1931, Woodruff held the position of Reader at the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University, founded by Charles Rufus Morey. By 1933, she was appointed to the directorship of the Index by Charles Rufus Morey, a position which she held for nine years. Woodruff served as director of the Index until 1942, when she left to join the Women’s Reserve of the United States Navy (specifically, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service or “WAVES”), rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander during World War II. Woodruff’s major scholarship during this time included a study of the Bern Physiologus, an early Christian collection of naturalistic and allegorical descriptions from which the medieval bestiaries are derived, published in The Art Bulletin in 1930. A monograph version of her dissertation The Illustrated Manuscripts of Prudentius appeared from Harvard University Press, 1930.

    In 1942, Woodruff published the first Index of Christian Art handbook during the last year of her directorship. The handbook, with a foreword written by Morey, facilitated the use of the physical card archive and established standards for iconographic classification. It was the definitive guide for using and contributing to the Index of Christian Art for over 50 years. Woodruff’s revolutionary changes to Index organization included implementing a coding system and adding medium divisions for better organization of the card files. During her directorship, Woodruff established an in-house photographic studio to assemble more pictorial evidence from publications and devised a formulaic standard for written iconographic description that is largely still employed by Index scholars, (renamed in 2017 as the Index of Medieval Art). Woodruff’s study collection, comprising photographs of medieval enamel and metal liturgical objects, book covers, and crosses/crucifixes, is held by the department of Research Photographs in the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

    Woodruff’s contributions were recognized by the establishment of a biennial fellowship in her name granted by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the American Academy in Rome.

    Selected Bibliography

    “The Physiologus of Bern.” Art Bulletin 12 (1930): 226-53; The Illustrated Manuscripts of Prudentius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930; “Index to Christian Art­–A Progress Report.” Special Libraries 30:10 (1939): 347-48; The Index of Christian Art at Princeton University; A Handbook. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942.


    Morey, Charles Rufus. “An Important Instrument of Research.” Princeton Alumni Weekly 32:11 (1931): 236-37; “In Line of Duty.” Princeton Alumni Weekly 45 (1945): 3; Green, Rosalie. “The Index of Christian Art: A Great Humanistic Research Tool” Princeton Alumni Weekly 63 (1963): 8-10, 16-17; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: an Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971 ,p.  63, mentioned; Ragusa, Isa. “Observations on the History of the Index: In Two Parts,” Visual Resources 13:3-4 (2011): 215-51.  

    Contributors: Jessica Savage


    Jessica Savage. "Woodruff, Helen M.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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