Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Virgin at Chartres, White Supremacy, and Medieval Studies

Medieval Studies blew up online this past weekend when a Rachel Fulton Brown, an Associate Professor in the History Department at the University of Chicago (my graduate institution, although I did not study with her), published a few pieces on her blog aimed at Dorothy Kim (an Assistant Professor at Vassar College, who I know from the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship) for her insistence that medieval studies as a field needs to grapple with the way its materials have been and are currently being used by white supremacists to support their ideology and that those of us who teach medieval materials need to signal our rejection of white supremacist beliefs to our students.

While the first post begins (and the second continues) an attack on Kim, the bulk of it is given over to an argument about the Virgin Mary that is framed around a famous window from Chartres Cathedral, known as Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere (our lady of the beautiful window).  According to Fulton Brown, the window shows Mary with dark skin, identifying her as a Jew, and further identifying her with the "tents of Kedar" as a tabernacle that contained the presence of God.  Her overall argument seems to be that since medieval people could understand Mary as having dark skin and being Jewish, then medieval studies as a field can't be implicated in white supremacism today.

There are several problems with this argument.

One, the second point does not logically follow from the first: even if medieval people did not hold white supremacist views, that does not mean that materials from the Middle Ages have not been and are not being used to support those views today.  The fact that medieval materials are being used in this way has been documented repeatedly.  For documentation see David Perry recent interview with On The Media, and his piece in in Pacific Standard, as well as the Public Medievalist's special series on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages.

Two, and this is the point I want to focus on here, the Virgin in Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere does not have notably dark skin.  She might appear to in the extreme close-up view that Fulton Brown includes in her post (after a view of the window as a whole) as a way of proving her point and that has been repeated (on its own) in a supporting post by Milo Yiannopoulos.

But when seen in context, as in the photograph to the right here, her skin is not markedly darker than that of the child in her arms or the angels around them, particularly not the angel in the upper-right section near Mary's head.   Click here to see this image in a larger size and with more detail.

The Virgin's skin tone here does appear somewhat different from the child's in being more mottled and inconsistent in color.  Several stained-glass experts who commented on the window in a Facebook discussion in the Material Collective group over the weekend suggested that this might be the result of damage over time from exposure to the elements.

But all of this does not take into account the fact that it has been extensively restored.  The Virgin's head in particular was restored by Felix Gaudin in 1906 (Corpus Vitrearum France, Vitraux du Centre, Baie 30, p. 32 - and I owe that reference as well to stained-glass scholars commenting in Facebook).  This may account for the difference in weathering in that the 1906 glass may have reacted to the environment differently than the original 12th-century material.

Fulton Brown struggles to deal with the window's restoration in her post.  In it she quotes extensively from Margot Fassler's book on the Virgin at Chartres, including the following passage: "Radiant too is her restored head, surrounded as it is by a beaded orb of light" (Fassler, The Virgin of Chartres: Making History Through Liturgy and the Arts, p. 217-19 as cited by Fulton Brown, emphasis added).  Fulton Brown inserts an asterisk here and then states at the end of her post "Not being an art historian, I am a little unclear on what Fassler means here.  Even if Mary's face has been restored (and who is to say whether it was restored accurately) my argument still stands: somebody in Europe wanted Mary depicted as dark, whether in the Middle Ages or the nineteenth century..."

As an art historian, although not a glass specialist, I think it is quite clear that Fassler is referring here to the restoration of the head portion of the Virgin.  She seems to be doing so in order to signal the fact will not subject the Virgin's head to detailed analysis, even though she does so for the rest of the window, because it is not original.

Fulton Brown is correct that we cannot know now how accurate that restoration is to the original colors of the Virgin's head.  But the fact of the restoration should raise doubts about attributing any specific significance to the Virgin's skin tone as it appears in this window today.  If she did have a notably darker skin, then it would make a difference if that skin tone reflected the original medieval coloring of the window or if it were a product of the restoration.  But regardless, the Virgin's skin tone here is not significantly darker than that of other figures in the window.

Looking at other images of the Virgin in the stained glass at Chartres reinforces my point that her skin tone is not shown to be notably darker, or lighter, than that of the surrounding figures.  Instead, skin tone seems to be consistent among the figures in any given window, although it does vary from window to window.  That variation may have to do with the original dates of production of the individual windows, the level of damage each has incurred over time, the amount of restoration each has been subject to, and the circumstances under which the photographs of the windows have been taken - which is an issue that should also be taken into account for Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere.  Here are some examples (all from

The Nativity from The Life of the Virgin Window (ambulatory, Bay 28B)

Virgin and Child with Adoring Angels, from the Miracles of The Virgin Window (Bay 38)
Virgin Mary from the Tree of Jesse Window (west end, Bay 49)
Virgin and Child Enthroned from the Infancy and Early Life of Christ Window (west end, Bay 50)

Virgin and Child Enthroned from the center of the North Transept Rose

 One window at Chartres where I might be willing to see a meaningful difference in skin tone is the lancet showing St. Anne holding the Virgin as an infant, from below the North Transept Rose (shown to the left).  Here Anne's skin tone does seem to be significantly darker than Mary's and that difference is reinforced by the different colors of their garments.  This difference may be meant to signal their age difference, for in medieval texts on art-making, instructions are given for special skin tones for older figures.  In his discussion of fresco painting, Cennino d'Andrea Cennini first gives a recipe for the flesh tone for youthful saints, including the Virgin, and then advises darkening it for an old man (Chapter LXVII).  Likewise, in his section on panel painting, he suggests tempering the paint used younger people with the whiter yolks of town eggs, and the paint for older people with the redder yolks of country eggs (Chapter CXLVII).

Fulton Brown continues the note at the end of her post with "Plus, this is not the only Black Madonna that survives; there are hundreds more."  She is correct here, but Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere does not belong in this category of images.  That group is made up of two types of works of art, Byzantine icons and western European sculptures, not stained glass windows.  Fulton Brown seems to think that motifs translate across media and genres, but art historian have long known that they do not.  

Interestingly, there are two sculptures at Chartres that have both been categorized as Black Madonnas and that Fulton Brown could have discussed in her blog post instead of Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere. Like the window, however, both are objects with long histories of restoration and even reconstruction and that has to complicate discussion of them.

The older of the two, a sculpture that dates back to at least the eleventh-century, is known as Notre Dame de Sous-Terre (our lady underground) because it was located in the cathedral's crypt.  This sculpture was burnt during the Revolution in 1793.  In 1976 a new sculpture, based on drawings of the original, was installed in the crypt in its place.  This recreated sculpture is made of cedar wood and is unpainted and so has an overall dark coloration (shown above).

The other known as Notre Dame du Pilier (our lady of the pillar), because it sits on top of a stone column, dates to the early 1500's.  It was originally placed in the nave in order to be accessible to pilgrims.  It is also wood, but was polychromed or painted, and traces of that paint survive on the sculpture today (shown to the right).  According to information from the cathedral, it was known as the Vierge Noir or Black Virgin because there was also an alabaster and so white Virgin installed in the nave.  It was renamed Notre Dame du Pilier in 1806 when it was reinstalled in its current location in the chapel in the north ambulatory.  Since 1855 it has been crowned and enveloped in richly decorated garments.

This sculpture has recently been restored, as part of a general restoration project underway at Chartres, and its skin tone has been considerably lightened, in keeping with the restoration's general lightening and brightening of the building.  The reason given for this overall change at Chartres is that it is removing layers of smoke from candles, lamps, and fires, and returning the building and its decoration to their original appearance.  The change, including the repainting of the sculpture, has been controversial.  A similar explanation has been given for the phenomenon of the Black Madonnas in general, that their dark color is the result of accumulated smoke and soot.  Only a detailed investigation of these images could determine if that is the case for each individual work of art.

Third, and finally, if some medieval sculptures did represent the Virgin with darker skin (although again Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere does not), what would tell us about medieval attitudes towards race, or more specifically, towards skin color as a marker of significant differences between people?  In that case, Fulton Brown would probably be correct in saying that the Virgin's dark skin had to do with her very particular devotional and theological identity.  It then most likely did not identify her as belonging to a group of people defined by their skin tone.  Jews are not typically distinguished in medieval art by skin color.  As Debra Strickland, Sara Lipton and others have shown, Jewish men can be identified by their beards, by distinctive pointed hats, and often by their large, hooked noses - a feature that pushes these images over the edge into antisemitic caricatures.  Images of Jewish women are rare, but the Jewish-identified figure of Synagoga is typically distinguished from the Christian Ecclesia by her blindfold and her defeated posture.

The possibility of medieval artists showing Mary with darker skin feeds into the complexity of medieval attitudes towards skin tone as a potential marker of difference.  That complexity is demonstrated in several of the pieces in the Public Medievalist's series on Race and Racism.  In a piece entitled "Were Medieval People Racist?," for example, Paul Sturtevant argues:
Medieval people were likely not significantly more racist than we are today (if such a thing could even be quantified). In both times, if you look to find racism, both personal, institutional, and structural, it can be readily found. And in both times, you can find those who reject it. What we can say is that medieval racism was very different. This should not offer us any comfort; nothing gives modern-day racism a pass. Racism is a problem that plagues most periods and cultures in humanity, but the most successful, innovative and just societies are those that can most effectively conquer it.
It is this complexity of the medieval past that Kim, Perry, and others are calling for medievalists to emphasize in their teaching, emphasizing specifically the fact that this complexity should undermine any attempts by white supremacists today to appropriate this past to legitimate their own beliefs.  Kim, Perry, and others are further calling for medievalists to make that point explicitly in their teaching.  Otherwise, as Perry states in his On the Media interview, we risk leaving a blank space that white supremacists are able to fill with their own agenda.  


  1. Thanks for a great discussion of this topic, Marian, which really is important to have. And reading over it, I'm realizing that Fulton Brown committed another profound professional error, which is important if not quite as bad as the bullying. It's clear from her scholarship (which I've read, benefited from, and cited in my own work) that Fulton Brown really does know her history. That she would make such an extraordinary error in discussing this window either means that either a) she really has no clue how to work with art as a historical resource or, b) that she knowingly proffered shoddy scholarship in the service of her invective. Though it's impossible to say for sure, the latter seems increasingly more likely to me (she is, after all, one of the leading authorities on the medieval Marian devotion). That she might have abandoned the principles of intellectual integrity to advance a personal attack like this is very sad indeed.

  2. Excellent post! My only "criticism" and I use that term very, very loosely, is this: in your point one, you are far too nice in noting FB's failed connection between medieval views as indication of present appropriation by the white supremacists. It is a logical fallacy, an obvious non-sequitur of the most fundamental sort. Quite apart from the politics involved, that a scholar of note (or any scholar for that matter) should engage in such errors of reasoning and follow it up with denigrating invective, is really beyond the pale and inexcusable. So let's add fallacious reasoning to her list of crimes in this affair.

    On another note, has anyone looked into her use of Carolingian liturgy? Not my area, but I do wonder if her application of that is as problematic as her use of the window.

  3. A very satisfying read. Thank you!

  4. Many thanks for this very thoughtful and useful discussion. I've returned from about 10 days on holiday to a storm of emails and social media excitement, and am slowly trying to disentangle what's happened, what reactions there have been, and what I should do in response to it all. This has helped a lot!