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Appropriation, displacement and gender theft : figuring the Virgin and Christ in medieval Christian art Jansen, Judy


The female act of childbirth was deemed grotesque and an unsuitable subject for medieval Christian art while the veneration of images of the crucified Christ’s naked, ruptured, bleeding body was assiduously fostered. My dissertation interrogates the visual and textual interpretive frameworks that constructed the image of a dead, tortured, man as the mother of humankind while rendering women’s childbirth invisible. Saturating medieval visual culture with crucifixes, depictions of the naked, suffering body of Christ, and in images of Christ’s side wound isolated as an independent subject for veneration and depicted as preternaturally vaginal and sexual, the medieval church normalized the notion of the male body as parturitive. Striking, visceral fourteenth century frescoes of Hell are activated by a feminized Satan birthing “babies”, visually articulating the church’s misogynistic perception of the female body as monstrous and dangerously carnal and childbirth as ugly and grotesque. My dissertation examines how gender was manipulated in medieval Christian visual media to communicate powerful and enduring perceptions of the role of men and women, of the female and male contribution to procreation, and their contribution to the origin and existence of humankind. I argue that radical shifts in the figuring of the Virgin and Christ in the eleventh to fourteenth centuries neutered and infantilized the Virgin to construct Christ as the mother of humankind. Estranging the Virgin’s and Christ’s figuring in medieval art, I analyze the visual mechanisms deployed in constructing their gender – figural poses, gestures, activities, body language, clothing or state of undress, and demeanor – to explore the differences in their expressive potential, of their bodies ability to express mental, emotional, and physical states. My analysis of the shifts in the figuring of the Virgin and Christ, and the dynamic of their complex visual interrelationship, opens significant new discourses of appropriation and displacement, applying the expanding field of spolia to the plundering of the Virgin’s creative materiality to construct Christ as generative and maternal. My dissertation postulates that images – reinforced with the apparatus of religion, natural philosophy, medical, and art historical discourses – underpinned and sustained the displacement of female generative materiality onto Christ’s male body.

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