Sebastián de Almonacid, “Triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors” (c. 1500-1520) (image courtesy of Luhring Augustine, New York and Sam Fogg, London)

“Let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts!” – Hélène Cixous

Women saints are fissures in medieval art, cracking the paradigm that power is pale, male, and stale. As tyranny surges in 2020, imagery of these holy ladies might offer more than first expected. Exploring their stories is an exciting subplot at Luhring Augustine’s new medieval art show, Gothic Spirit: Medieval Art. 

Now herstory may not be the show’s “official” theme, but I invite you to seize your prerogative as an active viewer, go rogue, and come down the feminist rabbit hole.

Saint Margaret’s first impression in stained glass may not strike as subversive. She just seems painfully catholic. But that’s because feminist medievalists generally aren’t household names.

Artist Unknown, “A Stained-Glass Window of Saints Margaret and Elizabeth with a Female Donor”, Germany, possibly from the church of Saint Peter, Cologne (1525-30) (image courtesy of Luhring Augustine, New York and Sam Fogg, London)

Many men tried to oppress St. Margaret, but to no avail. She rejected marriage proposals and sexual advances, so the men in power tortured and imprisoned her (#MeToo). The devil even snuck into her cell, took took the form of a dragon and swallowed her up. But she deftly irritated his guts, and he vomited her up unharmed. Subsequent attempts to burn her to death and drown her both failed. St. Margaret was tougher than all the male forces that tried to fuck with her. Medieval women venerated her for strength (amidst misogyny).

As a whole, this exhibition offers a wide cross section of medieval objects, including seldom seen illuminated manuscripts, rare medieval sculptures, and paintings. Alas, Jesus and the Virgin Mary are predictably but inaccurately depicted as white, as in most Western portraits. The fascinating trope of the Black Madonna is sadly not represented. (Most sacred sites refuse to sell their revered Black Madonnas, despite the handsome sum today’s market would probably pay for them.)

The Virgin Mary was once an undocumented immigrant in Egypt. She fled King Herod, killer of infants, who was desperate to retain power amid prophecy of a newborn messiah.” Jean Bourdichon painted this poor migrant woman outfoxing a corrupt King whose days were numbered.

Jean Bourdichon, “The Flight into Egypt, from the Hours of Louis XII” (circa 1500) (image courtesy of Luhring Augustine, New York and Sam Fogg, London)

For several centuries, so-called authorities have recast women saints as “goodie two shoes” that obeyed men. Feminists have drawn out far more complex dynamics bubbling under the surface in this iconography, that may have stirred minds of the women who venerated them. When you look at these grandes dames at Luhring Augustine, read between the lines and draw inspiration from their cunning. They faced down men and won.

Gothic Spirit: Medieval Art from Europe continues through March 7 at Luhring Augustine (531 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan). The exhibition is presented in partnership with Sam Fogg. 



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