Introduction to Visualizing Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages

Virginia Blanton, Jennifer Borland, Karen Overbey, Benjamin C. Tilghman, and Nancy M. Thompson


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(This PDF includes this Introduction, a Bibliography of Works by Rachel Dressler, and the Contributor Biographies.)


A celebration of the work of Rachel Dressler, this volume presents new research that engages with feminist approaches in the fields of medieval art history and material culture studies. In keeping with Dressler’s commitment to demonstrating the breadth and flexibility of feminist critique, the essays in this volume expand the way we look at gender and sexuality in the study of medieval visual culture. Though inspired by past accomplishments, they look resolutely to the present and future of medieval art history.

Quite frankly, the field of medieval art history would look much different without the extraordinary work of Rachel Dressler. Her contributions to the field include her ground-breaking study of the construction of masculinity in tomb sculpture, Of Armor and Men in Medieval England: The Chivalric Rhetoric of Three English Knights’ Effigies (Ashgate 2004). She has also published essays on the iconography, historiography, and materiality of tomb sculpture in a range of journals including Medieval Encounters, Peregrinations, Studies in Iconography, and Studies in Medievalism, as well as in edited volumes, including Conflicted Identities and Multiple Masculinities: Men in the Medieval West (1999, ed. Jacqueline Murray), which features her essay “Steel Corpse: Imaging the Knight in Death.” Known for her clear writing and teachable scholarship, Dressler has produced foundational work that extends discussions of the medieval construction of gender beyond images of women. A bibliography of Dressler’s publications is included here.

Her commitment to feminist approaches is exemplified through both her research and her role as a mentor and catalyst. She led a revival of the Medieval Feminist Art History Project, which organized several conference sessions and led to the essay “Artistic Representation: Women and/in Medieval Visual Culture,” included in A Cultural History of Women (2013) and co-authored with Marian Bleeke, Jennifer Borland, Martha Easton, and Elizabeth L’Estrange. Dressler’s leadership is also evident in the important essay published in Medieval Feminist Forum in 2007, “Continuing the Discourse: Feminist Scholarship and the Study of Medieval Visual Culture.” In this essay, she considers the relative absence of medieval art in feminist art history anthologies as well as the limited evidence of feminist scholarship in journals that were publishing on medieval art. That essay effectively demonstrated lingering resistance to feminist approaches and the continuing need for additional publishing venues to seek out scholarship on women and gender.

She is also a founding member of the Material Collective, particularly active in organizing conference panels and in the Collective’s advocacy for institutional transparency, including in publishing and peer review. Perhaps her most far-reaching and long-lasting impact has been as the founder and editor-in-chief of the journal Different Visions, an open-access journal devoted to progressive scholarship on medieval art. From the first issue in 2008, Dressler single-handedly led the journal for nearly a decade, anticipating the potential of online publishing while featuring cutting-edge research by both emerging and established scholars. We are thrilled to share this volume to honor Rachel Dressler’s leadership, scholarship, and mentorship, while publishing the sort of innovative and speculative work she has always fostered.

The essays in Visualizing Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages span a range of topics and a broad chronology, from thirteenth-century stained glass to a twentieth-century manuscript. In addition to a shared focus on gender and an indebtedness to feminist methodologies, the essays engage in various ways with a number of themes central to Dressler’s work. We’ve gathered them into clusters to highlight some of these connections‘Masculinities,’ ‘Gendered Expectations,’ and ‘Subjects/Subjectivities’but other concerns thread through the volume: materiality, especially in relationship to embodiment and agency; rhetorics of performance, theatricality, and display; medievalisms, both historical and modern; and an acknowledgment of the subjective, personal, and contingent nature of our work as historians and stewards of the medieval past.


Inspired by Dressler’s research into the representation of genderspecifically masculinityin English knight’s effigies, Marian Bleeke examines a very different set of tombs to explore how they, too, constructed a vision of manliness. Transi tombs, which depict the deceased as a decaying cadaver, might seem at first glance to present the very opposite of the robust, virile knights in Dressler’s studies. But Bleeke demonstrates that definitions of masculinity were both varied and highly socially contingent in this period, and reminds us of the power of the concept as a heuristic for examining artworks.

Virginia Blanton and Jack Walton also consider the constructions and conventions of manliness, here in an early twentieth-century manuscript created in a medievalist style: the Life of St. Didier, Bishop of Langres, by the artist Joseph Royer (1850-1941). Blanton and Walton argue that Royer reframes the city of Langres as a sanctified, communal space bounded by the virility of its patron saint, Didier. This essay is noteworthy as both formidable research on an understudied object from a local collection (the Spencer Art Reference Library at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City) and also as a highly successful collaboration between student and faculty, embodying the best in undergraduate research mentorship.

In a richly imagined and in many ways brave essay, Karl Whittington explores the experience of the sculptor of the famous Cluny Adam as they (most likely he) carved a mostly nude sculpture in the middle of the thirteenth century. Answering Eve Sedgwick’s call for a “reparative” queer scholarship, Whittington contemplates the mixture of anxiety, desire, embarrassment, and other feelings that might have vexed and perhaps compelled the sculptor as he formed Adam’s body. In working towards a queer account of artistic practice, Whittington directs our eyes and our haptic imaginations towards elements of the sculpture that had escaped traditional art historical commentary.

Gendered Expectations

Maeve K. Doyle’s essay focuses on two devotional manuscripts produced around 1300, the Aspremont-Kievraing Prayer Book and the Franciscan Psalter-Hours. Looking especially closely at clothing, gesture, and other attributes, Doyle argues that the emphatic gendering of owner portraits in these two books allows for devotional performances that traverse and even transcend the gender binary. Using the term “transgender reception” to describe the dynamic these representations produce when they interact with the experiences and identities of their viewers, she asserts that the multiplicity of transgender receptions available to the elite readers of these manuscripts situate personal devotional manuscripts as sites for exploring expansive concepts of gender identity in the later Middle Ages.

Reception is also the focus of Debra Higgs Strickland’s study of the Hereford World Map (c. 1300). By tracing medieval narratives of the “feminine” traits of pride, disobedience, and lasciviousness in sermons, dramas, biblical exegesis, and moralizing literature, Strickland reveals the didactic utility of the Map’s female figures, which include monstrous, mythical, and biblical women. She argues for the presence at Hereford of cathedral guides, who would have drawn on these varied sources to reaffirm women’s place in medieval Christian society; indeed, the medium of the mappemundi, as Strickland demonstrates, activates these misogynist messages in particular through spatial relationships and cartographic placement.

Martha Easton analyzes medieval images depicting women being silenced, often violently so, because they were perceived as unruly and non-compliant. Easton examines the connections between these medieval silencings and twentieth-century images of the “headless woman.” Easton argues that the prevalence of images of women being silenced indicates that in the medieval period, as well as today, women’s words were perceived as powerful and potentially threatening. Ultimately, Easton asks us to see these silenced women as inspirational because they used their voices in a society that both threatened and used violence to silence them.

Diane Wolfthal’s essay also concerns gendered violence, as she investigates the ideology of motherhood, drawing upon images of mothers who kill their infants (either as a form of protection or as a challenge to social expectation). Her readings of infanticide in the visual and historical record demonstrate the cracks in the social network for women who did not conform to the image of the ideal mother.


Taking a cue from Dressler’s work on the intersection of iconography, materiality, and historiography, Elizabeth Pastan reconsiders the subject matter of the lost medieval motif of Notre Dame’s rose window. While the modern image of a seated Virgin and Child is usually assumed to represent the original composition, Pastan carefully reviews the development of Marian imagery across media in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries to demonstrate the flexibility, inventiveness, and variety in visual devotion. Ultimately, she offers tantalizing possibilities for either a pictorial or allegorical rose window, and reminds us of the complexity of the beholder’s experience of even the most familiar of monuments.

The beholder’s material experience is also central to Donna Sadler’s investigation of a collection of diorama depicting the physical environment of the convent cell fabricated by vowed religious women between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sadler argues that these self-presentations for patrons, donors, and family members are carefully crafted interior spaces that become physical extensions of the nun’s body. These artifacts allow viewers to see and experience the nun’s interiority, even as they operate as a locus of memory for absent family members.

Ellen Shortell’s essay examines a stained-glass window depicting the blessed Oda of Rivreulle, a twelfth-century noblewoman, that was created between 1635 and 1644 for the cloister of Park Abbey, a male Premonstratensian house outside the city of Leuven. Shortell considers the window in light of: Oda of Rivreulle’s biography, with a focus on her act of self-disfigurement to save herself from marriage; the interpretation and visualization of Oda’s life for the window’s seventeenth-century male audience; twentieth-century collection practices; and the significance that the image and Oda’s self-disfigurement has for feminist audiences today.

Linda Seidel revisits Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) to consider not who the subject was but who the subject became in the afterlife of the painting, and especially what the painting may have meant to Margaret of Austria, whose collection held the painting in the sixteenth century. Margaret’s life was peripatetic and tumultuous, and by exploring the network of relationships around the painting, Seidel suggests how the painting worked as a reminder of Margaret’s Burgundian heritage. Seidel’s essay also prods at the art historian’s work itself: what histories might we write when we shift our gaze a bit, and take up our objects and subjects from different vantage points?


In addition to these contributions by Dressler’s colleagues and peers, this celebratory volume will include five shorter essays that we are calling Refractions: reflective essays, excerpts of works-in-progress, interdisciplinary studies, and visual analyses that suggest the wide influence of Dressler’s work. The writers — KellyAnn Fitzpatrick, Dénia Lara, L. Michael McCloud, Zaina Siraj, and Karen S. Williams —  demonstrate how Dressler’s scholarship and mentorship have impacted their own research, their habits of thinking, and their engagement with medieval art. We see these contributions as part of an ongoing conversation about legacy, community, academic disciplines, and public scholarship, a conversation we trace back to the first issue of Different Visions.


We also express our gratitude to the many amazing people who have contributed to this volume. We include in this list most of the peer reviewers for the issue, whose generosity with their time and energy have made this an even stronger collection of essays. Peer reviewers rarely get public credit for their labor, and through their naming we aim to acknowledge their work and model a more transparent mode of journal publishing. (Reviewers were given the choice to remain anonymous or be included in this list.) This transparency is also resonant with some of the earliest goals for Different Visions, such as fostering new modes of academic publishing that center conversations among authors and editors. We would like to extend our appreciation to the following individuals, including those who have served on our advisory board, as reviewers of essays, and in other capacities: Andrea Myers Achi, Jessica Barker, Marian Bleeke, Elise Braggs, Bevin Butler, Lindsay Cook, Maeve Doyle, Martha Easton, Shirin Fozi, Ben Gottfried, Tracy Chapman Hamilton, Anne F. Harris, Alyce Jordan, Bryan C. Keene, Ellen Konowitz, Elizabeth Lastra, Elizabeth L’Estrange, Sherry Lindquist, Risham Majeed, Janet T. Marquardt, Sara McDougall, Robert Mills, Asa Simon Mittman, Mikael Muehlbauer, Dana Oswald, Cassidy Petrazzi, Mariah Proctor-Tiffany, Alexa Sand, Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, Christine Sciacca, Maggie Williams, and Karen A. Winstead.