In a new blog on intersectionality posted by the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women, literature historian Christina Luckyj confronted tensions that she identified between a contemporary, politicized intersectionality that embraces difference and her own work on the understudied, ultra-Protestant English author Anna Walker (http://ssemw.org/blog/uncomfortable-alliances-embarrassing-relations-resisting-and-reclaiming-intersectionality/). That writer’s vitriolic writings – “the pope is a whore” – aimed to suppress all views that conflicted with her own. Repulsed by Walker’s venomous rhetoric, Luckyj nonetheless concluded that her recovery of the author’s voice was in itself a productive intersectional act. Similar tensions between past and present are evident in the interests of the volume under review, Gender, Otherness, and Culture in Medieval and Early Modern Art. Its essays on northern European imagery expose historical biases about gender and other identity categories by uncovering ways that visual culture expressed and contributed to the marginalization of individuals and groups. Yet the book also reveals how visual representation could push back against such “otherings,” thereby aligning with the interests of the present. In this aspect, the book will leave readers wanting to know, and to see, more.
The book comprises eight chapters, organized chronologically; this review will reveal thematic points of contact among them. An opening essay by Sherry C.M. Lindquist perceptively interweaves past and present in a comprehensive discussion about the constant need to renegotiate the basic binaries of identity around which difference pivots. Female and male are porous categories on their own, but taken together with class, ethnicity, and religion, to name a few, opportunities for exploration seem unending, as she rightly concludes. Two chapters in the volume advance the important work of “encod[ing] multiple identities” (p. 3) through the lens of monstrosity. Beth Fischer interprets an early thirteenth-century figural reliquary of King David (now in Basel) to suggest how it challenged modes of desire that its rich materiality seems to elicit from the presumably male viewer. By using for the face of David an ancient Roman cameo, that Fischer views as the face of the monstrous Medusa, the figure conflates the Ovidian sexual temptress with the biblical king whose lust for Bathsheba inspired his repentance. As a result, Fischer argues, the image encourages viewers to hold their bodily desires in check. Marian Bleeke analyses a transi figure of Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendôme, in which the subject appears upright, mobile, and seemingly pregnant, yet her flesh is rotting and her entrails are dislodged. Defining pregnancy, birth, and motherhood as monstrous – high rates of infant mortality and women’s deaths in childbirth cast a pall over the imagery – Bleeke argues that the transi figure reflected Jeanne’s experiences as a mother of a dead infant son and widow of his father. By contrast, the transi of the French queens Anne of Brittany and Claude of France were subtly sexualized to suggest the act of procreation and the dynastic continuity it ensured. Catherine de Medici’s transi, on the other hand, shaped queenly power through motherhood, by reference to Venus, goddess of love and mother to the famed Aeneas.
Two other contributions explore civic-inspired imagery, one in reference to the preclusion of Netherlandish women’s judicial testimony and the other to the marginalization of German merchants in Venice. In her insightful essay on Dirk Bouts’s diptych of The Justice of Otto III, commissioned in 1468 for the Leuven town hall, Jessen Kelly demonstrates that the visual presentation of the moralizing narrative foregrounds female testimony in an era when women’s speech in court was suspect. That it does so not by oral but rather by visual means is essential, for the pictorial enables assertions about the veracity of female testimony through “gendered, normative constructs of honor and reputation” (p. 95). John R. Decker convincingly argues in his study of Albrecht Dürer’s Feast of the Rose Garlands that the patrons, members of the German Marian confraternity of the Scuola dei Tedeschi, commissioned the work to counteract their marginalization in Venice. Venetian authorities had limited the mobility and visibility of the German community through regulations similar to those by which they controlled women in the city. The painting countered this gendered othering though a pictorial language of ideal Christian brotherly unity.
Three chapters explore gendered otherings through the prism of embodiment. Holly Flora’s study shows images of women giving and receiving alms as a Christian ideal to advance a gendered, classist model of charity for their aristocratic female viewers. The images reveal “degrees of deservedness,” conveyed through signposts of sexual status, in which widowed women and the infirm merited alms, while prostitutes did not. Female saints also were sometimes shown giving alms to men who were defined as worthy by visible physical ailments. Such images promoted a pious virtue in which the economic and sexually suspect were deemed unworthy of largesse, a selectivity that reinforced prevailing otherings of such persons. Carlee Bradbury reveals how English illuminations of the Miracle of the Jew at Bourges provided exemplars for Christian female viewers. In this tale a Jewish mother saved her son from death after his father threw him into a furnace as punishment for attending mass. The villainous father remains a constant, while his wife is defined chiefly as a mother. The male Jew remains a threatening figure that reinforced anti-Semitism in the wake of the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, especially in comparison to his Christianized wife. Taking as her focus Rembrandt’s etching, known today as Naked Woman Seated on a Mound, Michelle Moseley-Christian argues that in Rembrandt’s work, this image of a rotund woman was designed in intersection with those of “wild women” and personifications of Gula (the deadly sin of gluttony). Through these points of reference the artist grafted onto his subject notions of “fleshly impulse” and “boundless appetite” (p. 202), which critiqued corpulent female bodies through a presumption of sexual and gourmandizing overdrives.
The volume as a whole advances varied art historical research for specialists, while also bearing on related fields in ways that would suit classroom use. The essays by Moseley-Christian and Kelly demonstrate how visual evidence can support an argument. For example, Kelly perceptively interprets the hot iron bar held by the wife of the wronged count in Bouts’s painting as akin to a “pictorial signifier of speech” that renders the trial by fire “as a communicative act that breaches conventions of feminine behavior in court” (p. 107). The essays by Flora and Decker cross disciplines with foundational scaffoldings that will be useful to scholars and students alike.
Concurrently, readers may note in the volume certain missed opportunities and unconvincing claims. Since Dürer’s Feast of the Rose Garlands was displayed publicly, at the church of S. Bartolommeo in Venice, one wonders whether some Venetian viewers might have been put off by its pro-German message that sets the sparring Pope and Maximilian on the same pictorial footing. One also wonders if audiences of the King David reliquary would have readily (or even at all) identified the figure’s masculinized facial features as Medusa’s, despite the cameo’s snake-like curly locks. Appreciation of the reliquary’s Christianization of a “pagan” object by appropriation seems more likely. Last, a challenge of the volume as a whole is the quality of the visual evidence. Readers need crisp views, sufficient details, and perspectives of sculpture that clearly support an author’s points; hence, my earlier lament about wanting to see more, in terms not only of intersectionality studies in art history but also of the visual evidence that supports it. The volume, nonetheless, takes a good step in the right direction.
American University, Washington, DC