Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 7, 2018
Marian Bleeke Motherhood and Meaning in Medieval Sculpture: Representations from France, c.1100–1500 Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2017. 216 pp.; 4 color ills.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9781783272501)

In Motherhood and Meaning in Medieval Sculpture: Representations from France, c. 11001500, Marian Bleeke’s goal is to explore what medieval sculptures “have to say about medieval women’s experiences of motherhood” (1). She asserts that “these sculptures become sites where medieval women could consider their own maternal experiences and the meanings those experiences held for them” (3). In this study, the author makes a powerful case for exploring the potential experiences and perspectives of those people who have limited presence in the medieval textual record—a rather large, but decidedly understudied portion of the medieval population. It remains a shortcoming of medieval studies across disciplines that more scholars do not take up the (admittedly considerable) challenge of trying to access marginalized people of the past. Through its meditations on women as beholders of art and makers of meaning, this book fills an important gap.

The book’s premise is that all medieval beholders of images generated responses that were rooted in their own somatic and social experiences. In addressing the core problem of how to access difficult-to-reach viewers, Bleeke lays out her own approach with admirable clarity. Two perspectives, both developed in the field of literature, form the theoretical basis of the study: Hans Robert Jauss’s work on reception and Wolfgang Iser’s on response. Bleeke argues for the utility of both theories as two complementary halves of a whole approach to accessing the medieval beholder’s experience of an image: on the one hand, Jauss’s “horizon of expectations,” the knowledge and experiences that readers bring to texts (and, by extension, that viewers bring to images) and on the other, Iser’s positing of the “active role” a work plays in shaping its audience’s response. Bleeke also invokes Carolyn Dinshaw’s concept of “contingent history” in which past and present meet, thereby enabling the introduction of her own subjectivity as a further source of data.

Offering case studies of select objects, the ensuing chapters trace a narrative that follows experiences of motherhood from pregnancy to the mother-child relationship. In her choice of works, Bleeke has often opted to cover well-worn historiographic territory—some of the best-known Romanesque and Gothic images are featured here—yet she provides a completely different take on the familiar that does not negate previous scholarship but rather builds upon it. A case in point, the first chapter focuses on the jamb sculptures of the central west portal of Reims Cathedral depicting the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Presentation at the Temple. Bleeke’s point of departure is the marked difference between figural representations, traditionally discussed in terms of the dramatically divergent personal styles of sculptors working between 1220–50. Acknowledging the diverse hands at work, the traditional explanation for why the figures look so different from one another, Bleeke does not disparage this accepted view. Instead, she completely reorients the discussion by asking a different question: What did medieval inhabitants of Reims make of these stylistic differences? It is a fascinating question. Of course, attentive medieval viewers would have noticed the difference. In exploring possible responses, Bleeke looks to the few sources that might shed some light on the subject, including the economic and legal statuses of women in medieval Reims; contemporary churching rituals; and the mystical writings of beguines and the accounts of their chroniclers. In mining these sources, she argues that the sculptures reflected and reinforced a medieval understanding of motherhood as transformative and empowering.

The second chapter explores the afflicted or decaying maternal body in terms of monstrosity, focusing on the sculptures of women and demons from the porch of Saint-Pierre de Moissac. In this discussion, Bleeke considers different possible perspectives on a common subject of medieval art, the so-called femme-aux-serpents. Frequently treated by art historians as a symbol of luxuria, this figure and its variations are found in a number of different contexts; Bleeke argues for their polyvalence in the eyes of diverse medieval viewers. Her assertion that laywomen viewing the figures might have seen in it an evocation of the pain and suffering of birth is a step in a new direction as is her contention that such imagery, in contrast to the negative, moralizing message it held for the monks of Moissac, may have had a positive and salvific resonance for women who had themselves experienced the pain of childbirth. Within the discussion of the twelfth-century porch sculptures, Bleeke introduces a surprising subject, the sixteenth-century transi tomb of Jeanne. Arguing that the effigy’s decomposing, infested body speaks to Bourbon-Vendôme Jeanne’s own experiences of birth, the author offers the experience of one specific medieval woman to shed light upon the larger group of anonymous laywomen from Moissac.

Bleeke next focuses on another Romanesque sculpture that has long fascinated scholars: the lintel fragment depicting Eve from the destroyed east portal of the pilgrimage church of Saint-Lazare in Autun. The author specifically seeks to understand what female pilgrims might have made of this unusual image of Eve, horizontally oriented, surrounded by foliage, and holding a hand to the side of her face as a tear forms in her eye. Building upon the work of O. K. Werkmeister, Bleeke places emphasis on the significance of the gesture as a restrained expression of grief that might have been particularly poignant for distressed pilgrims. Following Linda Seidel, she links the figure of Eve to that of Mary Magdalene, who was once depicted prominently in the St. Lazarus shrine inside the church. She further proposes that the Eve fragment and the Martha and Mary Magdalene figures in the shrine together visualized a transformation from grief to joy brought about by the resurrection of Lazarus. In Bleeke’s estimation, this suite of images, encountered during the course of the pilgrim’s progress into and through the building, had the potential to mirror the emotions of mothers (or potential mothers) seeking out the shrine of St. Lazarus in supplication. Bleeke’s sensitive analysis of the sculptures’ emotional range is a welcome addition to the study of the Romanesque, which is still frequently and incorrectly portrayed as an emotionally impoverished style. The difficulty of accessing the emotional experiences of nonelite female pilgrims is duly noted by the author. Yet while her discussion of this subject with reference to the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Guinefort in Dombes makes sense insofar as it represents a rare documented case of a female-dominated pilgrimage, it is difficult to take the comparison very far, since the Dombes pilgrimage was so unusual (the shrine was dedicated to a greyhound) in comparison with the more mainstream pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Lazarus.

The fourth chapter looks to a number of late medieval Virgin and Child statues. Bleeke posits that medieval mothers beholding these sculptures would have had great potential to identify with Mary, and that many (though not all) of these images may have encouraged such identification. In this, the different sculptures offered opportunities for beholders to reflect on different aspects of that relationship, from the closeness of the mother-child bond to subsequent separation. For Bleeke, Mary’s garments mediate powerfully between image and beholder, variously suggesting bodily openness or closure, or perhaps mother-son relationships described in terms of “absorption” or separation. In this chapter, the section entitled “Fabricated Flesh” offers a fascinating analysis of the role of drapery in Virgin and Child sculptures, the understanding of which is inflected as much by the existence of multiple Marian garment relics as by the language of popular devotion. In the latter half of the chapter, Bleeke’s own observations form the basis of much of the discussion; dense visual analyses give way to discussion of medieval beholders’ potential reception and responses. Drapery takes center stage here, where it is read as a vector of psychological relationships between mother and child—a bold reversal of the traditional art historical uses of drapery. The discussion is engrossing and the method to be applauded, though it is difficult at times to reconcile Bleeke’s reading as a trained art historian with the potential readings of medieval beholders. The author nonetheless makes a crucial point about medieval beholders’ likely knowledge of multiple images of the Virgin and Child, namely that they would have compared such images and taken different ideas from them. Bleeke gives medieval beholders much more credit as creative and critical thinkers than they tend to receive in scholarship—a major strength of the work overall.

The book’s afterword goes beyond the Middle Ages to consider modern and contemporary women artists’ engagement with motherhood in their work, identifying parallels across time. Whether readers take this as an attempt to identify universalities between past and present, or perhaps to provide insight into Bleeke’s perspective and methods, the connections are compelling.

The discussions in Motherhood and Meaning in Medieval Sculpture are, at times, highly speculative, but this is the point, and the author handles uncertainty well. A reader’s receptiveness to the author’s approach will likely come down to how willing she is to venture beyond the shores of traditional art history. Bleeke’s work nonetheless demonstrates how exciting the journey can be.   

Julia Perratore
Adjunct Instructor, Department of Art and Music, Fordham University