Christ's Womanly Wounds

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! Christ’s Womanly Wounds

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! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! By Liz Lorenz

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© Liz Lorenz


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Image Gallery

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Figure 1: Jean le Noir, Wound of Christ and Instruments of the Passion, Psalter and Hours of Bonne of Luxembourg, Paris, c. 1345 [Cloisters Museum, Ms 69.86, f. 331]


Figure 2: Arma Christi, Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1415 [Musée Jacquemart André, Ms 2, f. 242r]

! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! Figure 3: Side Wound and Sacred Heart, Book of Hours, English and Flemish, c. 1404-1413 [Oxford, Bod. Lib. Ms Lat. liturg., f. 2r]

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Universally shared but unique to each individual, the body is the primary means by which human beings experience the world. Able to absorb knowledge and communicate globally, the body possesses an innate signifying strength in personal and public realms. Throughout human history, the body has surpassed its physical nature to become a medium for thought and expression; it acts as ‘‘a text of culture and locus of social control’’ where norms are enforced or new conceptions proposed (Irigaray, 65). Moreover, the female body is endowed with acute discursive abilities. Even though— perhaps because—it is widely objectified in society and visual culture, the feminine form can expertly speak to those outside of traditional power structures while continuing to attract said privileged groups. The corporeal holds ultimate fascination in its multifaceted meanings and incarnations, making it a frequent subject in artwork. From the prehistoric to the contemporary era, female bodies have consistently been depicted and reinterpreted. Women and their parts have been appropriated as both subjects and objects—likely the most reiterated motif in the history of art.

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Examples—even phenomena—of somatic representation which demonstrates the body’s extensive power but remain virtually unknown to modern audiences are the hundreds of medieval illuminated manuscripts depicting the isolated wounds of Jesus Christ. In the late Gothic period circa 1350 to 1420, luxurious prayer books from Northern Europe often feature representations of the Passion of Christ, including visceral imagery surrounding the Crucifixion. Besides the instruments of his torture, Christ’s side wound is rendered in raw detail. In the Psalter and Book of Hours created for Bonne of Luxembourg—along with many other private, devotional texts for mystics and lay aristocrats alike—the wound is isolated as a full-page ‘‘foci of devotion’’ (Binski, 125) (fig. 1). Here, Christian medieval viewers can contemplate the most essential tenant of their faith. The gash is removed from its bodily setting and vertically reoriented; it confronts the reader as a peach, pink, and scarlet mandorla-shaped cavity. A black slit outlined with the deepest shade of red lies at its center, creating an immersive and destabilizing image. The purpose of this aesthetic trope is much debated in art history, yet the visual similarities with the female anatomy are clear to audiences across centuries.


To approach a medieval attitude toward the body and ultimately sexuality and gender representation, it should be understood that in this period the physical form was ‘‘a site of sensation, where emotion and intellect meet the natural flesh’’ (Green, n.p.). Often the body was an active metaphor to stand in for spiritual concepts and larger social constructions. Furthermore, Christianity—essentially ubiquitous in the period and location discussed here—was the first monotheistic, universal religion to relegate the body a scared entity of worship (Binski). Rooted in the truth of Christ’s physical suffering during the Crucifixion and subsequent Resurrection, the body became a landscape for religious experience—the principal sign in matters of heavenly and earthly life. Yet, however ‘‘deeply interiorized, immaterial and transcendent’’ late medieval religion was, its imagery was simultaneously ‘‘somatic, body-centered and material:’’ a widely accepted paradox that helps explain the genesis of unflinching depictions of Christ’s wounds (Binski, 124). Although contemporary viewers will never completely understand the medieval psyche and beliefs on gender and sex, Augustinian and Franciscan doctrines and writings of Gothic mystics assert that the sacred and sexual were not mutually exclusive, likely stemming from a similar logic to the aforementioned paradox (Easton). Medievals were not fundamentally opposed to representing sexual themes because the body is natural and medical, alluding to the fact that no single institution governed all conceptions of the body (Green). Perhaps a surprise to today’s audiences, even heteronormative gender traits become destabilized at times, as will be seen with the wound imagery analyzed here. With this medieval lens, it is understandable why the wounds of Christ are brutally isolated and closely resemble a vagina. This infatuation with the body and the appropriation of female parts reveal universal cultural interests beyond Gothic religious and corporeal sensibilities.

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Before sexual allusions enter the analysis, it is important to address the utilization and implications of Christ’s human form in images, since it aids in understanding the treatment of the body during the late medieval period. Beginning in the 1300s, there was a shift in visual arts concerning aesthetics and subject matter. The rise of the macabre—which emphasized grotesque subjects like pestilence, suffering, and the grave—permeated daily life, spiritual concerns, and art. Along with immense


population loss from the Black Death, a period psychology of ‘‘decadence, fear, romanticism, guilt culture, [and] moral penitential thinking’’ created an atmosphere of extremes (Binski, 127). In doctrine and depiction, Christ’s humanity became more important, and his suffering was illustrated by an emaciated, gnarled body with contorted bones and bloody gashes. Affective piety—whereby the viewer is moved by ocular or physical discomfort to experience the plight of the divine—advanced to the forefront of religious devotion. ‘‘Visualizing becomes part of religious experience,’’ and the grotesque qualities of images endow them with great reverence and mystical attributes (Binski, 124).

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The Arma Christi Book of Hours made in Paris in 1415 relies on stirring emotions in this visceral manner (fig. 2). Christ’s body is missing from the illumination so that viewers can place themselves among the whips and thorns. The only somatic evidence of the Passion is Christ’s isolated side wound. His body is deconstructed so that symbols of his pain directly confront the reader. The trauma and voyeurism with which his body was treated, by both the Roman soldiers and the monk who illuminated the text, are characteristic of the medieval macabre aesthetic (along with aligning to the fate of many female bodies throughout history). The body’s fragmentation into parts is horrifying to imagine and fetishizing in its effects. When isolated, the wound becomes an evocation of pain that humans can identify with and an indication of the redemption they will receive because Christ accepted this fate. Thus, the fleshy cut stands for the whole body, and a relatable, corporeal component is worshipped as the divine—its nature infinitely elevated by this fetishization. Here, Christ’s body is surreally broken up as a relic and ‘‘reconstructed imaginatively…[subjecting it] to critical rethinking [in which] it [is] fetishized…[during] an internalized pilgrimage of the mind;’’ this logic created virtually no conflicts for the medieval viewer during spiritual contemplation (Binski, 124).

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Besides the mindset of the devout viewer, the fragmented wound appropriated religious and discursive authority despite deconstruction because of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead three days after the Crucifixion. To Christians, this is the ultimate gift which allows triumph over death and logic. Christ redeemed ‘‘humanity [by


taking on] human form’’ connecting his message of salvation and love ‘‘inextricably—if ambiguously—with bodiliness’’ (Bernau, n.p.). As affirmed by the sacrament of Communion where practicing Christians consume a portion of Christ's real body and blood, the fact of Christ’s corporeality ‘‘raised the human body from its lowliness and promised the possibility of radical transformation’’ (Bernau, n.p.). Thus, the inherent significance of the human body even in moments of fragmentation and fetishization is certain, provoking a stimulating dialogue when the vaginal motif is accounted for.

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The formal resemblance between Christ’s wounds and the female anatomy is not merely a contemporary assumption or over-sexualization. Art historian Karma Lochrie notes that said illuminations in Gothic texts such as the Bonne of Luxembourg Psalter are ‘‘constructed in the same way as the vagina in medieval visual culture’’ in both religious and secular contexts (188). This observation aligns with medieval beliefs that accept an intersection between the sacred and sexual, especially within art and literature. Understanding these unique Gothic norms, the presence of the vaginal wound —which represents the entirety of Christ’s body as argued above—effectively feminizes the body of the Christian savior. He is simultaneously a man dying on a cross and the quintessential attribute of femininity. This gender dislocation is fascinating in its ability to create more fluid albeit ambiguous conceptions of medieval sexuality. To Lochrie, this appropriation ‘‘introduces confusion at a very foundational level of religious language’’ as both sexes worshiped Christ in a physically loving manner, especially during private devotion and contemplation (188). Ultimately, Christ’s feminized body is appealing and relatable to males and females in multifaceted ways.

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The pain that Christ endured on the cross is often compared to labor pangs in early Christian and Gothic texts (Easton). Thus beyond a signifier of divine grace, his pain marks him as a genuinely compassionate figure for women. Medieval writers believed that the most sensitive flesh suffers the greatest: as women suffer more than men, the perfect Christ feels pain most acutely (Easton). Further feminizing his body, the comparison of labor connects to the vaginal wound imagery: the bleeding gash evokes scenes of menstruation and birth. As women bear children, Christ birthed the


Christian Church from the wounds in his side during the Crucifixion. A community of believers, the Body of Christ, sprang forth from his corporeal suffering. This widely-held doctrine provides a inextricable link between women’s experiences and somatic trials and the Christian savior’s; this further demonstrates an impetus for describing and depicting wounds as female genitalia especially within the texts of women. In an early fifteenth century Book of Hours, the illumination Side Wound and Sacred Heart depicts the isolated, vaginal wound (fig. 3). An ambiguous entity or heart protrudes from the laceration’s deep opening; the artwork features a literal birth as this red matter enters the world and the space of the viewer. Notably, female audiences gain ‘‘physical access to the sacred’’ through their ease in relating to the imagery where Christ’s body is equated to their own (Lochrie, 181). However, the sexualized wound imagery was not created solely for women, and all Gothic viewers inspired by this motif could consider Christ a mother due to his suffering to bear the Church. Further complicating the relationship between Christ and viewers of these illuminations, accounts exist that document his wound as a site of lactation and nursing.

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The late medieval period saw a rise in female mystics, known today through their writings. These women primarily honored the relics of the Passion relying on Christ’s feminized body and wounds to experience piety. Within the spiritual realm of ‘‘Mother Jesus,’’ they exercised a distinctly physical side of devotion in both imagination and practice. Catherine of Siena, who received the stigmata—or wounds of Christ—before she died, recounts her desire to put her mouth on Christ’s sweet wounds and suckle from them as lactating breasts (Easton). Transforming his male body with distinctly feminine attributes, she further destabilizes his gender. Catherine asserts Christ’s role as a nurturer. Reinforced by illuminations which isolate the wound in a Eucharistic chalice, Christ nourishes the world with redemption and knowledge through his suffering and compassion. Furthermore, Catherine’s language has sexual connotations that attest to a profound desire for her physical longings to be slaked by Christ’s body and to a mystical pleasure fulfilled by contact between her mouth and his side wound. To Martha Easton, the attitude of Catherine and other mystics broaches the ‘‘possibility of [an] experience that is both devotional and erotic’’(396). This obscures the role of Christ’s feminized


body when it appears fragmented and fetishized, along with any assumed medieval heteronormative predilections. Perhaps to Gothic people, Christ was lover as much as mother, and the two influential relationships could exist in harmony during the spiritual contemplation of religious teachings and illustrated manuscripts.

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Sexuality also exists in masculine responses to Christ’s wounds. From the skeptical apostle Thomas’s need to penetrate these gashes with his fingers in biblical times to medieval authors’ fantasies like James of Milan who was ‘‘enflamed with desire for entrance into the wound,’’ men too are entranced by the vaginal lacerations (Lochrie, 194). Their actions, vocabulary, and tone are distinctly sexual when the wound is considered an appropriation of female anatomy. In fact, James of Milan searches to join Christ’s wound with his, enter as a spear, and stay for eternity; revisionist art historian and queer philosopher Lochrie is sure to mention that the Latin word for wound, vulnus, is quite similar to its term vulva (195). A penchant for penetration as opposed to suckling is clear, suggesting the more aggressive nature with which men have tended to approach the wounds—that were created when a male soldier pierced Christ’s side with a lance, close to where the female womb would reside.

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Furthermore, there are medieval religious instructions for praying with this type of illuminated manuscript which invite the viewer to caress and kiss the lacerations. In one existing manuscript, the pigment has been rubbed off of the lips of the wound’s opening by an especially devote patron (Monti). Other illuminated books feature an actual cut in the paper that runs the length of the wound; the viewer is invited to penetrate the slit, fostering a transcendent viewing experience whereby the sensual allows access to a spiritual moment (Monti). Thus, Christ’s vaginal wounds are the ‘‘object of adoration and love but also the object of violence’’ (Lochrie, 190). They are fetishized as mystical parts of a perfect whole and abruptly isolated into bloody ailments subjected to profane treatment (during the Passion and even occasionally when addressed by medieval viewers in a voyeuristic manner).

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This duality is often apparent in the treatment of women in the contemporary era: they are reduced to the somatic, yet specific body parts are idealized; their beauty is revered, but their sexuality is debased. The fascination with and fear of the female form is a longstanding truth of the human, especially male, psyche. Female sexuality and desires have been dismissed or demonized, as the vagina dentata evidences in its visual incarnations from the Gothic to contemporary periods. Moreover, the vagina has been considered a locus of lack virtually since the founding of Western philosophical thought (Irigaray). Because of a supposed physical void, women lack ‘‘access to a signifying economy’’ which renders them incapable of of ‘‘founding [their] reality, reproducing [their] truth’’ in a society which is continually, albeit decreasingly, dominated by male norms (Irigaray, 88).

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Feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray believes that ‘‘any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine’...Subjectivity [is] denied to woman’’ (133). In Gothic manuscripts that feature the fragmented, magnified wound of Christ, the vagina—the agent of womanhood—receives an opportunity to embody essential religious truth. Christ temporarily merges with woman, represented by her most intimate part. In these illustrations, the wound/vagina performs the most important creative gesture in Christian doctrine—the birth of the church. If humanity receives honor because Christ became human, then the vagina, as depicted here, is certainly endowed with great power and respect when it brings forth the foundation of worship—the body of Christian followers, the central institution in medieval life. With this point of view, images of isolated vaginal wounds in late Gothic manuscripts such as the Bonne of Luxembourg Psalter are not examples of aggressive fragmentation or unmerited fetishization. Instead the appropriated vagina is activated in its isolation. This demonstrates a performative use of the female anatomy to constitute a signifier in the location where women have been denied one. The gesture effectively links the creative powers of women and Christ —a hypothesis appealing to many female Gothic mystics.

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Whether the majority of medievals recognized the aforementioned, quite liberal theory is unclear. Although the exact Gothic views about sexuality and gender


differences and equality are out of reach for contemporary audiences, many informed hypotheses can be constructed based on knowledge about somatic-centered macabre leanings and various philosophical and religious writings. In regard to the wound of Christ imagery, the visual trope’s existence provides evidence of a surprising connection between the sacred and sexual. The possibility of Christ as mother and lover is a phenomenon which obscures norms of gender and sexuality. Ultimately, this Gothic motif attests to the real power of images in mediating transcendent spiritual experiences and to the authority of the body in creating universal truth through its communicative abilities. Illuminations of these suggestive wounds assert the undeniable force of the female form to fascinate and evoke awe. By activating and asserting what is unique to them, women’s bodies have been and will continue to be a focus of representation, contemplation, and inspiration. 


! Bibliography ! Bernau, Anke. ‘‘Bodies and the Supernatural: Humans, Demons, and Angels.’’ A Cultural History of the Human Body in The Medieval Period (500-1500). Ed. Linda Kalof. Oxford: Berg, 2010. n.p.

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Binksi, Paul. ‘‘The Macabre.’’ Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996. 123-163.

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Easton, Martha. ‘‘The Wound of Christ, the Mouth of Hell: Appropriations and Inversions of Female Anatomy in the Later Middle Ages.’’ The Making and Meaning of Illuminated Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts, Art & Architecture. London: Harvey Miller Publishers in association with Brepols Publishers, 2006. 295-409.

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Green, Monica H. ‘‘Introduction.’’ A Cultural History of the Human Body in The Medieval Period (500-1500). Ed. Linda Kalof. Oxford: Berg, 2010. n.p.

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Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Lochrie, Karma. ‘‘Mystical Acts, Queer Tendencies.’’ Constructing Medieval Sexuality. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. 180-200.

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Monti, Elizabeth. ‘‘Ecstatic Somatic: Visionary Experience and Devotional Art.’’ Class lecture for Gothic Art In Northern Europe, New York University, 17 April 2014.