As we mark the 50th anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on parts of queer history that have otherwise been erased or censored. One manner of approaching queer history is to examine the icons of the past through a queer lens. My particular interest is in how Christ’s gender was depicted in late medieval art. I focus on manuscript illuminations in prayer books where Christ’s wound appears to resemble the vulva/labia.
Interpreting these images using queer theory may encourage a more gender-fluid viewing of Christ, who has historically been understood to be hyper-masculine in artistic representation.
Many representations of Christ’s side wound can be found in art, mystical writing and literature in this period, but it is not apparent how a medieval audience would have understood these representations. If medieval viewers had a fluid and complex understanding of gender 1, then it is possible they might have interpreted creative representations of Christ’s body as something that challenges the dominant masculine ideal.
In commonly used medieval prayer-books called Books of Hours there are images of Christ’s wound that float, disembodied, like giant vulvas in the centre of the page. The wound appears vertically in a mandorla shape, undoubtedly signifying as a large vaginal symbol that takes up most of the page. Sometimes these images appear close to, or next to, the prayer for Matins that begins, ‘Domine, labia mea aperies’ (Lord, open my lips).
Wound images would often appear with an encircling inscription stating that this was the ‘true measure’ of Christ’s wound, and that certain indulgences could be granted if it was touched, kissed or prayed to in the instructed way. Images of Christ’s side wound could be rolled up and tied to the body to prevent illness or sudden death. This has led scholars to believe that the veneration of wound images indicated a desire for the granting of indulgences or the promise of preventing pain.
Scholars such as Martha Easton have previously researched the possibility that there was an erotic significance to images of Christ’s wounds in late-medieval culture, acknowledging that the wound often resembles a vulva in these various depictions. There were not only linguistic associations in Latin between the ‘vulnus’ and the ‘vulva’, but symbolic antecedents in visual culture that the medieval viewer could draw upon to read the wound as a vulva.
These disembodied wound images were at times explicitly connected with the vagina. Not only did they resemble the vulva visually: they were used to prevent pains associated with the vagina. Birthing girdles often carried depictions of the side wound and were pressed against women in labour to help with the pain of childbirth. The images could also be pressed against women to help with period pain.
Other kinds of medieval objects indicate that the vulva was often depicted in public. Comparable images from around the 12th century can be seen in sheela-na-gig sculptures. These are figurative carvings of naked women displaying their vulva that are seen on the externals of churches and castles around Great Britain and Ireland.
Vulvae can also be seen on pilgrim badges, which have been found across the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. The production of pilgrim badges flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, and they form the largest corpus of medieval art objects to survive today. A small amount feature disembodied penises and vulvae going on pilgrimages or playing games. Like the Sheela-na-gig sculptures, scholars have often been baffled by their possible usage and meaning.
Scholars have argued that these images were nothing but a bawdy joke, or a warning not to engage in acts of sexual deviancy. However, explanations such as this display a modern bias and disgust at the open depiction of a woman’s genitals. What if, instead, these representations show that medieval viewers had a comfortable relationship with the body and wished to depict it across a wide spectrum of mediums?
Comparing these images to the shape of Christ’s isolated side wound in Books of Hours, it is arguable that these images destabilise Christ’s gender by drawing the focus on Christ’s body to a prominent bleeding vulva.
There are a variety of medieval accounts of people becoming aroused by images of Christ. Thinking about prayer books in particular, there is evidence that some of these vagina-like images were rubbed or kissed. Some scholars have argued that this kissing and rubbing of a vagina-like wound would have been erotic.
Medieval manuscripts were made of vellum (parchment made of calf skin), and so touching this image painted on skin might have been a very intimate act. 2 As those rubbing or touching these vulva-like images in manuscripts would have been people of all genders, there is a certain queer history to be uncovered in this erotic and sensual encounter with the skin.
Perhaps medieval image-makers and viewers were aware that Christ’s body, as an embodiment of the divine made into flesh, was supposed to represent people of all genders. If so, then the inclusion of vulva-like images embedded in Christ’s body becomes an innovative way of embracing gender-fluidity, where people would be rubbing, kissing and touching a wound/vulva hybrid image in both veneration and possible arousal.
Sophie Sexon is an AHRC funded PhD candidate in her second year at the University of Glasgow. This year she has presented papers on the queering of Christ’s wound at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Michigan and the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. She will be contributing a paper on this subject to a forthcoming volume entitled Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography in 2018. You find Sophie on Twitter @ladymede.
This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.
Image: Christ’s Side Wound, Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, circa 1349 [via WikiCommons]
Image: “The Measure of the Side Wound and the Body of Christ, an Indulgence,” hand-colored woodcut, circa 1484 – 1492 [via WikiCommons]
Image: Kilpeck Sheela Na Gig sculpture [via WikiCommons]
- Thomas Laqueur argued in his 1990 volume Making Sex: Body and the Gender from the Greeks to Freud that our two-sex binary model only came into practice from the 18th century onwards. Before this a ‘one-sex model’ prevailed in which the woman was considered an incomplete or malformed man. For more on this theory in application to medieval mystical writing, see Elizabeth Robertson, “Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich’s Showings,” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, eds. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993). There is also a belief that intersex individuals were recognised in the medieval period and could choose their gender so long as this did not result in sexual deviancy. ↩
- Nancy Thebaut argues that this practice allowed the viewer to get closer to the body of Christ, noting that there were widespread analogies comparing Christ’s body to the vellum that made the manuscript. ↩