Saturday, June 20, 2015

Moissac/Transi Chapter: Introduction

I'm back to the idea of "writing in public" and so of posting parts of the book as I write them, if only as a tool to get myself to actually write them.  The chapter I'm working on now is in many ways the hardest: it's the one I started with, but I've never been happy with it, and so a lot of my anxiety about the project is lodged in it.  Now I think I've finally figured out how it should work, but I'm still struggling to get myself to work on it.  Here is the Intro which includes an overview: let me know what you think.

The woman stands with her head bent down and turned slightly to her right.  Her thick locks of hair continue this downward movement as they extend down and out over her chest and shoulders.  One lock on her left side stands out as it extends straight down, crossing over the prominent horizontal bars of her ribs, and leading to her breasts.  Here the shape of this lock of hair is repeated, reversed, magnified, and multiplied as the heads and hanging bodies of two snakes that have attached themselves to her breasts.  The snakes’ bodies loop up and over her bent arms and then trail down around her legs.  The loops in their bodies form a line with her bent elbows and this line draws attention to her navel, positioned in the otherwise empty space of her abdomen below.  Its prominent mark is further emphasized as it is framed by the angled shapes of the snakes’ bodies above and by angled lines in her groin below.  These lines further extend the downward movement initiated by her head and hair as they lead down between her thighs to where another creature, conventionally identified as a toad but currently little more than a blob, attaches itself to her genitalia.
The line formed by the woman’s elbows and the snakes’ bodies is further extended, and their rounded forms are repeated and inflated, by the bloated belly of a demonic figure that stands on the woman’s right side.  His big belly extends towards her and the prominent mark of his navel further associates his swelling body with her form.  He reaches out to grasp her right wrist and the spreading locks of her hair connect this gesture up into her face.  This suggests the line of her sight, looking down first at his hand on her arm and then at his distended abdomen.  Above this line, the shape of his belly is repeated as another rounded form, another toad, that extends from his face and points to hers.  Here, damage caused by time and moisture has veiled her eyes.
This striking sculpture from the porch of the church of Saint-Pierre at Moissac is one of a group of images of women with snakes attached to their breasts found within the corpus of French Romanesque sculpture and found in particular on churches in western and southern France.  Other examples of this type of image appear on the churches of Saint-Pierre, Aulnay; Saint-Nicholas, Angers; Saint-Sernin, Toulouse; Sainte-Croix, Bordeaux; Saint-Jouin, Les-Marnes; Saint-Colombe, Angoumois; and elsewhere. The Moissac snake-woman sculpture stands out from this group, however, because of its size and its location.  Most of these images are on a small scale and appear in elevated positions; on sculpted capitals (Saint-Pierre, Aulnay; Saint-Nicholas, Angers; Saint-Sernin, Toulouse), in doorway archivolts (Sainte-Croix, Bordeaux), and on the upper reaches of church facades (Saint-Jouin, Les-Marnes).  The Moissac sculpture, by contrast, is a nearly life-sized figure that appears at the base of one of the sculpted side walls of the church’s entrance porch.  These differences heighten this particular snake-woman’s impact upon its beholders, both medieval and modern, by increasing the immediacy of their contact with the woman’s tormented body.  The Moissac sculpture has thus been a focus for art-historical inquiry into this group of images and will be the focus of my work in this chapter.
Most medieval art historians would immediately identify the Moissac snake-woman or femme-aux-serpents and similar sculptures as images of luxuria or the sin of lust, shown personified as a woman suffering torments in hell as punishment for her sexual sins.  Indeed, this interpretation of the sculptures’ significance has come to be such an art-historical commonplace that it has essentially ceased to function as an interpretation: instead luxuria in some form (luxure, unchastity) has come to function as the identifying name or title for these works of art and as a result their meaning as images of sexual sin is now simply assumed. In this chapter, I move to re-open the question of the Moissac sculpture’s meaning to its medieval beholders by re-reading the texts on which the current interpretation is based and by re-assessing the composition of the sculpture’s medieval audience.  I argue that both the texts and the sculpture present motherhood as monstrous in its combination of life with death and the human with the non-human (the demonic and the animal).  In the texts, that monstrous combination appears as women are punished in hell for their acts of infanticide by having serpents draped around their necks or attached to their breasts.  In the sculpture, the attention given to the woman’s breasts and genitalia could suggest either sexual activity or motherhood; however, motherhood is strongly suggested by the emphasis on both the woman’s navel and the demon’s, by the link this creates between his big belly and her form, and by visual relationships between the snake-woman and the demon and pairs of figures in the scenes of the Annunciation and Visitation – the same themes considered in the previous chapter – that are located on the opposite wall of the church’s porch.  The woman’s motherhood is made monstrous, moreover, by the intimacy established between her body, the demon, the snakes, and the toads, as described above.
The meanings attributed to these monstrous forms of motherhood, furthermore, would have differed depending upon their audiences, the readers of the texts and the beholders of the sculptures, who would have approach them from within their own horizons of expectations.  While male monastic readers and beholders may have understood these monstrosities within a moralistic framework, as punishment for the woman’s sins, I argue that lay women among the sculpture’s beholders may have understood its monstrosity instead in in relationship to their own experiences of motherhood. 
To make this argument, I introduce a second sculpture, the transi figure of Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendome.  Likely the product of Jeanne’s own patronage, this sculpture uses monstrous forms that are strikingly similar to those of the Moissac snake-woman as a form of self-representation.  Finally, returning to Moissac, I suggest that lay women at this particular site may have been able to see the snake-woman’s monstrous maternity as a form of salvific suffering and so may likewise have been able to give a positive significance to their own monstrous maternal experiences.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Paris, patterns, textures, textiles: A photo-essay

I head home from Paris tomorrow.  I've done a lot of work here: finished drafting an article and wrote my talk for Kalamazoo.  But I've also taken a lot of photographs of the city and done a lot of knitting, producing two now of these yarn-bombs for lamp posts (I'll install the second tomorrow morning before heading to the airport.  It was intended to replace the first, but since it's actually still there, the second will have to go on a different lamp post).  This blog post is meant to tie those last two pursuits together, very visually.  It's also, then, a meditation on one of the things I love about this city; the textures, the patterns, and the details in the architecture, the street furniture, and the street itself.

Yarn-bomb in the Place Louis Aragon on the Ile St. Louis.

Crosswalk on the Rue St. Antoine.

Yarn-bomb detail.

Detail of wrought-iron work on a tomb in Pere Lachaise.
Yarn-bomb detail.

 Architecture sculpture from the Musee Canavalet.

 Shadow-selfie in St. Germain de Pres.

Shadow-trees in the Place Louis Aragon.

Vuillard-selfie at the Petit Palis.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Changes at Chartres

I'm back in Paris working on a number of projects: an article on transi tombs (see my previous posts on the transis of Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendome and Henry Chichele), a presentation/provocation for the upcoming Kalamazoo congress on Medieval Studies, and the next chapter of my book.  A few days ago, though, I took a day off from all of that and went on a day trip out to Chartres.  My main reason for going was to see the restoration work that has been done to the interior surfaces of the cathedral.  This work has been somewhat controversial: in the US at least, it began with a piece by Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books, continued with responses by Madeline Caviness and by Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger, and then with Filler's response to their responses.  In going to Chartres, I was following Caviness and Hamburger's suggestion that we should go, see, and judge for ourselves.

Having done so, what do I now think?  Well, it sure is different! You can see that in this photo, in the contrast between the old/unrestored surface on the left- the mottled grey - and the new/restored surface on right - the tan/buff/beige with the white faux-mortar lines between the stones (faux because they don't actually correspond to the breaks between the stones).  And I'm not quite sure what's going on with the marbled-pinkish section to the far right.  In general it's a lighter, brighter, softer, warmer Chartres: much less "Dark Ages," which could be a good thing!  After all, the notion of a "dark" "middle" age was invented by Renaissance writers to highlight what they saw as the brilliance of their own time period.  Most medievalists that I know hate that term.

 Even as I write that, however, I'm aware of how much it is shaped by the expectations I had going out to Chartres this time and by the photographs I chose to take while I was there.  I went to see what was different, and so I saw it, and I chose to take photographs that would highlight exactly that difference.  Expectation and photography also played an important role in Filler's scandalized reaction to the restorations: he begins his original piece by remembering his first trip to Chartres, some 30 years ago, and remembering also his prior knowledge of it from photographs.   He apparently expected the building as it stands today to conform to his memory of that prior trip, much as his experience of it then conformed to his prior knowledge of it from, presumably, black-and-white photographs.  Certainly my first knowledge of this building in particular, and of medieval architecture and architectural sculpture in general, came from the black-and-white photos in my college textbooks from 25 years ago.  One of shocks of my early research trips in graduate school was realizing that, even without their original polychromy, medieval stone buildings and stone sculptures are rarely the grey that they appear to be in those photographs, because the stone itself isn't grey but tan or beige or buff or pinkish or a whole range of colors depending on what stone was used, depending on what stone was available in that locality.  And so one of the best things I can say about the tan color used on the interior surfaces is that it is very similar to the color of the exterior stone work, including the stone sculptures, now that they have been cleaned: the photo below comes from the north porch.  Although the cleaning of the exterior raises some of the same issues about photography and expectations: Anne Harris writes wonderingly in her own blog post on the restoration work at Chartres of how a playfully manipulated black-and-white photo of the north transept sculptures better corresponds to her expectations of the building than what is visible there now.

Another of the shocks of those early trips was realizing that these buildings are not exclusively, or even primarily, historical monuments, but are instead still living places of worship and so of human activity.  While I was Chartres on that Friday, people were walking in the labyrinth at the west end of the nave, praying in the Notre Dame de Pilar chapel, sweeping up the altar area in preparation for a mass, working in the gift shop, begging at the western gates, climbing up and down the exterior scaffolding to continue work on the building, and towards the end of the day gathering in "medieval" costumes for some sort of a concert I think (I had to go catch my train before I could see what was happening).  This not a building trapped in the past, not in Filler's memories of 30 years ago, and not in the Middle Ages either.  The restoration work as described by Caviness likewise moves the building through time: the restored faux masonry and painted vault bosses are baased on a fifteenth-century restoration of the thirteenth-century work and the choir has been brought back to a Baroque state.  

And finally even the idea of restoration itself warps time: the "new" restored surfaces, as restorations, are not intended to be "new" at all, but to be in fact older than the "old" unrestored areas!  Time doesn't stand still here, but neither does it move in a simple, straightforward, linear flow.  We bend and twist time at Chartres, through our memories and our expectations - Filler looking to see again what we remembers seeing 30 years ago - as well as through active interventions in the building itself

Monday, January 19, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Islamic Aniconism

As a wanna-be Parisian and a professor of Islamic art, I've been following the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris with interest.  I've been spending a month at a time in Paris every few years since 2006 (I will be there for the month of April this year) and have been teaching courses on Islamic art regularly since 2002.  The latter was my response to 9/11: although a medievalist by training, I've become a self-taught Islamicist in order to teach that material because I believe that Americans need to know more about Islam and because teaching Islam through art history has the advantage of presenting it as part of a sophisticated high culture.

In following reactions to recent events, I've been most interested in two topics: reactions against the "Je suis Charlie" slogan and discussions of Islamic attitudes towards - or against - images and specifically images of Muhammad.  The most recent Charlie Hedbo cover, which I've chosen to include above, brings these two issues together by showing an image of Muhammad holding the now-ubiquitous "Je suis Charlie" sign.  I want to explore that combination here, because I see the two as having in common a tendency to over-simply complex issues and in so doing to collapse the world into a binary of us-vs-them, and because this is a tendency that I want to disrupt. 

The case against the "Je suis Charlie" response is well stated in this piece by Roxane Gay from The Guardian.  If only way to express my opposition to the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is by identifying with them - by proclaiming that I AM them (je SUIS Charlie) - then I loose all ability to be critical of their work, and being critical of it becomes identifying instead with their murders.  And in this way the world becomes divided into us and them, victims and terrorists; you are either with us – indeed ARE us - or you are against us, there is no space in-between.     

Likewise, in this piece also from The Guardian, two spokespeople for contemporary Muslim groups in the U.K. state that Islam forbids images in general and images of Muhammad in particular, and one asserts that this has always been the case - despite recognizing the existence of images of Muhammad made by Muslims in the 12th and 13th centuries.   Their position seems to be that Islam is now/has always been what they/the groups they represent say that it is.  What get’s lost when they assert that position is complexity and diversity within Islam, both historically and in the present day.   Image use and its rejection thus become a wedge issue dividing us from them: “we” Muslims don’t use images where “you” westerners/Christians do; or “you” Muslims have this issue with images that “we” westerners don’t share and don’t really understand.

And yet, as Christiane Gruber has pointed out, repeatedly, in the piece I linked to above and in an article in Newsweek and in a piece for The World on NPR and elsewhere, the Koran does not in fact prohibit images in general or images of Muhammad in particular.  As Oleg Grabar discusses in his classic “Islamic Attitudes toward the Arts” from his The Formation of Islamic Art, the Koran doesn’t really say much about art or images and what it does say is oblique: the jinn make statues for Solomon as signs of his prophetic status, but then they also make him water troughs and cooking pots - what are we supposed to make of that?  Grabar goes on to argue that a largely anti-image position did develop within Islamic tradition, historically, over time, in reaction against the Roman/Byzantine/Christian context in which it developed; note that his title here is “Islamic AttitudeS towards the Arts,” not THE Islamic attitude towards the arts, so that he explicitly allows room for multiplicity and for change.

As both Gruber and Grabar state, furthermore, the Koran’s real concern is with idolatry: not with the existence of images, but with their (improper) use in (pre- and so non-Islamic) forms of worship.  And this is a concern that the Koran shares with the Jewish and Christian texts.  It is most clearly stated in the Jewish scriptures/the Old Testament in the 10 Commandments, where God warns first against worshipping other Gods and then against making idols/images of things that appear in the world and finally against bowing down to or worshipping those idols.  The concern in this sequence of ideas seems to be that making images will lead to worshipping them and so to worshipping things other than the one God who is to be worshipped.  The story of how Christianity in particular went on despite these warnings to develop a rich artistic tradition and to incorporate images into its forms of worship is a long and complicated one.  And it is marked at several junctures by rejections of images and image use: specifically in the Byzantine Empire in 700’s and 800’s and in northern Europe during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s.  These anti-image episodes were frequently marked by violence, furthermore, although typically violence against the images or artworks themselves rather than against their makers.   This period in Byzantine history is known as Iconoclasm, that is, the breaking or destruction of images.  And in Basel in 1529 a crucifix was dragged out of a church by a horse, hung as if it were being executed, and then buried in the horse’s stall (See Amy Powell's Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum). Thus rather than standing in between Islam and Christianity/the west as defining the difference between us and them, these concerns about images and image use, and the tendency of these issues to spill over into violence, are something that the two religions and their histories share.

Finally, to return to Charlie Hebdo, the real problem with the cartoonists’ work – because I do find it problematic - is not the fact that they depicted Muhammad, but the way in which they did so.  Because unlike the cover I included above, many of their images of Muhammad are highly offensive – and offensive in much the same way as many of their images of Jews and of the Pope.  Thus being offended by Charlie Hebdo is also something that Muslims, Jews, and Catholics, and many many others, have in common.  And this is because those cartoons were meant to be offensive to broad range of different types of people.  But that, of course, does not excuse or justify the murder of the cartoonists.  Nothing could.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Babel Beachcombing

Last week I was at the Babel Working Group meeting in Santa Barbara where I participated in an experimental "Beachcombing" panel organized by Lara Farina.  This is Lara's description of the project:
Participants in this panel have a scattered assortment of fragments of the medieval past to sort through. The tide has washed some of this flotsam and jetsam in to the site at Omeka, where shell collectors, treasure-hunters, and those just out for a stroll will find it littering the beach. They might pick some things up, sort them into displays, use them in making sandcastles or words scratched out with a stick, take them home, or throw them back. They might leave some of the things they brought with them behind--as a present to the sea or as unwanted junk. 
Participants in the panel worked (mostly) with the "flotsam and jetsam" collection of objects that Lara had assembled in the Omeka site cited above to create online exhibits.  Because of some technical difficulties, though, most of our work ended up at a second Omeka site provided by Hyperrhiz.  My exhibit is the one entitled "Sand, Sea, Sky" and the underlying collections are primarily Lara's original "Low Tide" and the additional items I added in "Shells and Badges."  Below is the text thaat I presented as part of the conference panel.

In creating my final, finished, exhibit for this project I decided to begin by taking Lara’s metaphor of beachcombing as seriously as possible and this meant working rather intuitively; because in my experience of beachcombing I typically collect things without a clear intention or motivation or outcome in mind.  Instead I pick up whatever appeals to me, for whatever reason, and without much reflection on those reasons.  And so I picked one item from our collective “shore” collection each day over six days, picking whatever appealed to me on that particular day, and creating a page in the exhibit for it.  However, in this case I did take a next step of reflecting in writing on why I picked that particular item, on what specific appeal it had for me: this writing forms the first paragraph on each page in the exhibit itself.   And the title of each page names its item’s specific appeal: Making, Difficulty, In/Complete, Wearing/Being, Intimacy, and Energy.
To stay as close as possible to the beachcombing metaphor, I then chose to pair the items that I had selected for the exhibit with a number of actual beachcombed objects, stones and shells that I had gathered on a trip to the Oregon coast several years ago.   I picked a stone or shell to pair with each item in the exhibit by trying to match the specific appeal that I had identified for that item with a similar quality in the beachcombed object: my reflections on that match form the second paragraph on each exhibit page.  Then I pressed the metaphor of beachcombing in the direction that Lara had set for us as a way of thinking about our relationships to the past.  I considered how the specific appeal I had identified for each exhibit item, the quality that I had then identified for the shell or stone, might also appear in relationships to the past; sometimes thinking specifically about my own work on medieval art and sometimes more broadly.   This work forms the third and last paragraph on each exhibit page.
Finally, for some reason, after that trip to the Oregon coast, I had assembled my beachcombed stones and shells into a landscape and photographed it: this is the image that appears on the Introduction page for the exhibit.  I decided to allow this image to dictate the structure of the final exhibit, taking the location of each beachcombed shell or stone in the landscape as determining its page’s place in the exhibit as a whole.   And this also then established the sections for the exhibit and their order, moving from foreground to background as Sand, Sea, and Sky.
Rather than talking through the exhibit further at this point, because you can of course look at it for yourselves – and I hope that you will – I instead want to take some time to reflect on my process of putting it together.  I will admit that this was a difficult project for me to work on: I put off getting started on it and I had several false starts before I finally came up with what I have here.  The issue was that I initially wanted to have a clear idea of what the outcome of my work, the final exhibit, was going to look like before I started to do any work on it.  And I didn’t have an idea so I didn’t get started.  And then I had a couple of ideas, but I wasn’t satisfied with any of them, and so I would get started on something sort of half-heartedly and then would give up on it and delete what I had done.  This has a lot to do with my tendencies towards anxiety and depression.  The uncertainty of not-knowing what the final outcome of something is going to be can make me very anxious and then can get in the way of me doing it at all.  Especially since I tend to try to jump ahead and imagine an outcome, but I often imagine negative outcomes, and that further discourages me from doing the work.  I don’t imagine that these are unique feelings, my understanding is that they are actually pretty typical of structures of anxiety and depression, and I’m sure I’m not the only person here who struggles with those issues.   
The key for me in finally getting past all of that for this project was shifting my attention from the end product to the process that I was engaged in.  And this is where I really found Lara’s beachcombing metaphor to be helpful; because when I think of beachcombing it’s typically a process that doesn’t have an end product.   On this trip to the Oregon coast, for example, my sister-in-law was also picking things up on the beach but I believe she left all of hers behind because she didn’t really know what she would do with them.  I brought my objects back to Cleveland with me and made this photograph with them, but then they ended up in this container of rocks that I use for drainage for potted plants, and I had to dig them out for this project.  The experience of working on the project, then, has me thinking about the tension between product and process; about our tendency to over-value product and devalue process, which has to do with these mental structures, but I think is also exacerbated by our current working environment and the pressure we all feel to be productive in order to prove our worth to our institutions as well as ourselves; and finally it has me thinking about ways of resisting that tendency and coming to value process itself.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Virgins Chapter: Intro

I've moved on to revising what will be the last chapter of the book, on fourteenth and fifteenth-century Virgin and Child sculptures.  I'm working on a couple of issues here: first, giving the reader a stronger sense of the sculptures themselves as objects and works of art; and second, strengthening the sense of argument throughout.  This is the first, intro section for the chapter and so crucial for both of those points: let me know what you think!

Like the fourteenth-century sculpture featured in the Introduction, this fifteenth-century Virgin stands with her weight shifted to her left, to where she holds the child on her hip with her hand.  The comparison of these two sculptures, however, points to the latter’s exaggeration of the mother’s body’s twists and sways.  Here, the draperies on Mary’s lower body form thick folds that move on strong angles over to the child and the top of her body repeats that action as her head bends over and down towards him.   These exaggerated curves extend this Virgin’s body out sideways and create a breadth to her form. This breadth is further extended as she holds her right hand out and away from her center and uses it to hold her draperies likewise out and away.  These draperies fall from her hand to fill the space that would otherwise have been emptied by her shift to the side and so accentuate her body’s breadth and bulk.  As they fall, furthermore, these draperies form broad folds that zig-zag from side to side, emphasizing the horizontal expanse of her form.
As discussed in the Introduction,the earlier sculpture simultaneously presses the mother and child together within its narrow vertical format, links the two through the child’s reach for her veil and the inside-out twisting of her mantle’s top fold, splits the two apart by contrasting her looping folds to his tight vertical pleats.  The later sculpture uses some similar drapery forms, but to different ends.  Here too long curving folds cross over Mary’s body, however, they now become horizontal lines that lead into the child’s body.  One line in particular runs from her extended arm in a deep fold across her body, into the scroll he holds in his hand, and finally into his legs and her supporting hand.  Below this major line, two other folds cross her body and lead into his legs, and above it, a fold crosses her chest to run into his lower arm.  This sculpture thus uses its draperies to integrate the child into Mary’s ample form.
These are just two of hundreds of sculptural representations of the Virgin and Child that survive, from France alone, from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  These artworks come in a variety of materials – including limestone, marble, alabaster, wood, ivory, and precious metals – in a range of dimensions – from a few inches high for an ivory up to over five feet (69 inches) for the fourteenth century example discussed above – and would have had a variety of original locations – from church interiors and exteriors, to the interiors of private chapels and domestic spaces, to the exteriors of other structures, and to crossroads and other outdoor locations.   The existing scholarship on these sculptures has typically passed over these differences and focused on others; on differences in drapery folds, facial types, other stylistic features, and iconographic attributes.  For the fourteenth-century sculptures, these differences have been used to identify patterns of both change over time and variation over space, with an emphasis on the latter.  Scholars have established regional groupings of the sculptures, considered the relationship between Parisian and provincial sculptural production, and sought to identify individual workshops and hands. The dominating issue in the scholarship on the fifteenth-century sculptures is their relationship to the work of the Burgundian sculptor Claus de Werve: can individual sculptures be identified as his own work, that of his followers, or of other sculptors influenced by him?  
The existing scholarship on these sculptures has thus focused on their production; on understanding who made what, when, and where.  My interest here is instead in their reception by medieval women and in women’s responses to them.   To approach these issues, I first need to focus on the differences noted above in the sculptures’ materials and dimensions, because of what these differences suggest about their original locations and audiences.   The majority of these sculptures are now in museums, after having passed through the hands of private collectors, and so their original situations are frequently unknown.  I have chosen to focus in this chapter on sculptures made in less-precious materials – primarily limestone and wood – and on a larger scale – three feet and above in height – because these are more likely to have been situated in public spaces – church interiors and exteriors and other outdoor situations – where they would have had a broad range of beholders, like the architectural sculptures studied in the first three chapters of this book.   Thus the fourteenth century example from the Introduction is made of limestone, is sixty-nine inches in height, and there is no documentation of its original location.   And the fifteenth-century sculpture introduced above is made of stone, is thirty-eight inches in height, and in this case the sculpture’s original location is recorded; it comes from the portal of the Sainte-Apollinaire castle, near Dijon.
Like the previous scholars who have written about these sculptures, I too an interested in differences in the forms of their draperies, as is demonstrated in the comparison above.  However, instead of using these differences to determine the sculptures’ dates, locations, or makers, I treat them as potentially meaningful aspects of the sculptures for the women among their original beholders and focus on the different relationships the draperies establish between the body of the mother and the figure of the child.   Given the large number of these sculptures that have survived into the present day, there must originally have been many more of them, making them a common experience for medieval beholders.   Medieval women would likely have seen several such sculptures during their lifetimes, which would have given them the opportunity to recognize the differences in the sculptures’ depictions of the mother-child relationship, and so allowed them to use the sculptures to consider the complex and ever-changing relationships they had with their own children.  The comparison above suggests some of the dynamics of those relationships in the contrast between the complete absorption between the mother and child in the later sculpture and the subtle tension between the two in the earlier example.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Intro Part 3: Lit Review and Overview

I'm very happy to say that I'm on schedule for my writing this summer: I've got a draft of this new Intro to the book finished just in time to leave town for my cousin Seth's wedding.  The last part of it, which I am posting here, is the review of the literature (edited down a bit for this forum) and thee overview of the book as a whole.  Let me know what you think.

Scholarship on motherhood in general has been shaped by a split between motherhood understood as an “experience” and as an “institution” since the publication of Adrienne Rich’s foundational work in 1976.  The experience that concerns Rich and those who have followed in her wake is that of the mother herself, as distinct from that of the child.  Indeed another set of terms for this distinction is between “maternal subjectivity” - that is, the mother considered as a thinking and feeling subject in her own right –and the “ideology of motherhood.” Institution and ideology alike refer to cultural myths and stereotypes of mothers and motherhood, and to the prescriptions and demands placed on women as mothers by society at large, and so to motherhood as both a culturally defined ideal and a socially constructed role.  By contrast, Rich’s maternal experience is primarily physical or bodily, although she and others argue against it being dismissed as mere biology.

This distinction has likewise shaped scholarship on medieval motherhood beginning with Clarissa Atkinson’s 1991 The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages.  Atkinson places emphasis on motherhood as institution or ideology, explaining that is she writing a history of ideas about motherhood as presented in various texts. And subsequent scholarship, in particular the essay collections Medieval Mothering and Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period, has likewise focused on motherhood as a socially constructed role, in particular that of caregiver or nurturer, while downplaying motherhood as a bodily experience as biological and so a-historical.

By contrast, my interest is in motherhood as an experience as defined by Rich; as a bodily experience that is also a meaningful experience as it becomes part of a woman’s subjectivity.  Where previous scholars on medieval motherhood have frequently dismissed physical motherhood as natural and a-historical, I seek to historicize it by considering the meanings it held for women in the medieval past. Finally my work shows motherhood to have been a much more complex, contradictory and ambivalent, experience than can be summarized as a single term such as caregiving.

To attempt to capture the complexities of motherhood as an experience for medieval women, this book is structured as something of a narrative of that experience.  It is divided into two parts: the first (Chapters One and Two) focuses on the woman’s process of becoming a mother, on pregnancy and childbirth, and the second (Chapters Three and Four) focuses on relationships between mothers and their children during the first few years of a child’s life.  The two parts are joined by a focus on the tension between life and death, the potential death of the mother in bringing new life into the world (Chapter Two) and the potential death of that new life – the death of the child (Chapter Three). The organization of the book is thus not dictated by the dates of thee sculptures themselves, indeed the chapters move from the thirteenth century (the Reims sculptures in Chapter One), back to the twelfth century (the Moissac and Autun sculptures in Chapters Two and Three) with a gesture towards the sixteenth (the transi tomb off Jeanne de Bourgogne-Vendome in Chapter Two), and then forward again to the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries (the Virgin and Child sculptures in Chapter 4).  Likewise I am not attempting to use the chronology of the sculptures to track changes in motherhood as an experience over time: my evidence does not support doing so. I also cross over the boundary between the art-historical categories of Romanesque (the Moissac and Autun sculptures) and Gothic (the Reims sculptures, the transi, and the Virgin and Child sculptures), simply because those categories are not relevant to my work here.  

Chapter One takes as its topic the Annunciation and Visitation scenes from thee west front of Reims cathedral.  I focus on the differences between their images of the Virgin Mary and argue for seeing these changes as the product of her impending motherhood – and so for seeing these sculptures as representing motherhood to the women of medieval Reims as a transformative experience.  Chapter Two focuses on a specific transformation wrought by motherhood, that of a living woman into a corpse.  The monstrous forms of both the Moissac femme aux serpents and the transi of Jeanne de Bourgogne-Vendome are understood to represent the dead mother who, in dying, gives birth to her own dissolution and decay.  Chapter Three continues to address issues of life and death, focusing on the life and death of the child.  The central sculpture for the chapter is the Eve from the church of St-Lazare at Autun, which is understood in combination with the shrine to St. Lazarus that stood inside of the church.  I imagine medieval women coming as pilgrims to this shrine on behalf of a sick, dying, or miraculously healed or even resurrected child, and argue that the emotionality of the Eve image would have provided a model for these women’s own emotions.  Chapter Four follows from the previous in focusing on the relationship between the mother and child as represented in multiple sculpted versions of the Virgin and Child.  The chapter’s primary focus is on the sculptures’ clothing, which structure the mother-child relationship differently in each sculpture.  I argue that these sculptures cumulatively created a discourse on the combination of merger and separation, love and hate, that characterizes parturition as an experience.  Finally the book’s Conclusion looks to representations of motherhood in contemporary (late twentieth and early twenty-first century) art made by women artists and looks for both continuities and changes in motherhood as an experience over time.