The Trouble with “Female Sexuality”

By Sarah Salih | Published in Issue Five

Karma Lochrie’s book, like most studies of medieval sexuality, is primarily concerned with textual sources. Can the visual arts contribute to this work of categorisation? This brief overview will suggest that such a focus tends if anything to find more uncertainties of various kinds; to indicate that “Female sexuality [in the visual arts] … wasn’t.” The encounters of women, the visual arts and eros, that is, are so heterogenous and their boundaries so unclear as to make the category elusive.

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I contend that the images of bathers, though limited in number, reveal a larger tableau wherein the canonical sensuous naked body of the female undergoes construction and deconstruction. In an attempt to discuss the nature and scope of these images, I will rely on the concepts of the “male gaze” and “visual pleasure” as formulated by cinema critic Laura Mulvey, as well as the notion of “third gender” developed, for instance, in Gilbert Herdt’s study as a theoretical tool in the study of gender. The “female” thereby transcends traditional gender boundaries and is no longer portrayed as a fixed perception.Her image acquires a new identity as a “third gender” and emerges on common ground with the male body. This turn of events creates a dissonance between anatomical sex, gender, and identity, what Judith Butler calls “gender trouble.” In my conclusion, I will test these interpretations against the probable cultural and contextual setting of the images—a Greek monastic community alongside its values and ideals.

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This article will analyze the image of a naked woman exposing her breasts in various sacred contexts in three different manuscripts, all of them intended for ritual use, and illuminated for or by German Jews during the fifteenth century. Together with the images we will look at the people involved in their design, as well as the patrons, men and women, for whom these books were intended.

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Engaging images in quest of excavating these complex phenomena is a delicate task, inasmuch as their multivalence is firmly rooted in the constantly shifting domain of perception, both past and present. This paper attempts to explore one such phenomenon as it was visualized in a late-fifteenth-century altarpiece commissioned for the Pühavaimu Kirik (the Church of the Holy Spirit) in Reval, and dedicated to the life of St. Elisabeth. The panel, I propose, interrogates Elisabeth’s sexuality, suggesting the indecent and immoral body of the leper transmogrified into the diminutive, bleeding Christ as an object of Elisabeth’s desire.

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Active Objects: An Introduction

By Karen Eileen Overbey & Benjamin C. Tilghman | Published in Issue Four

Taken as a whole, these essays demonstrate the diversity of approaches and insights made possible by a “New Materialist” approach, even when the material is restricted to Western medieval art. These projects can constructively challenge our methods of social art history, particularly iconography and iconology, which often focus on single, holistic moments of meaning-creation or interpretation.

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This essay asks if, when, and how the concealed substrates of these precious-metal liturgical objects would have come to matter publicly, and it marks the first step of a much larger project. Were medieval subjects seeing beneath the surface, or did a gold surface sufficiently satisfy and thus arrest their gaze, or did these precious-metal objects prompt a viewing mode at once penetrating and willingly beguiled?

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On the Enigmatic Nature of Things in Anglo-Saxon Art

By Benjamin C. Tilghman | Published in Issue Four

One of the more vexing problems facing scholars of Anglo-Saxon art is the simple fact that we often do not know precisely what it is that we are dealing with. I am speaking not so much of the questions of dating and localization that hamper the study of medieval art. Rather, it is that we cannot even say for certain what many of our most famous objects even are, or were intended to be.

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It may be useful to begin this essay with a very basic observation. Aside from kinetic sculpture, objects are only as active as viewers allow them to be. They shape our perceptions, and direct the physical, intellectual, and perhaps spiritual movements that we make in response to them, only insofar as we agree to be influenced.

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