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.