Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Virgin and the Whore: Mary and Eve in Renaissance Art

Chances are, most of us have encountered the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. It’s the idea that women conform to two archetypes: the pure, nice girl that you take home to your mother as compared to the dangerous, sexually aggressive woman. We see this a lot in popular culture; Taylor Swift as compared to Kesha, Disney stars making the transformation from purity ring holding sweetheart to Hollywood wild child (Most often accomplished by posing in Maxim and taking on a string of roles playing rebellious characters. This example is really perfect because it’s a transformation restricted to young women; Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Demi Lovato’s actions are carefully policed while Zac Efron and the Jonas Brothers’ are not), basically every teen movie known to mankind where the cute band nerd wins the affections of the bitchy cheerleader’s bland yet generically attractive boyfriend, and so on. There are too many examples to list.

But let’s go back in time. Back to the original virgin and the original whore.

The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve

Carlo da Camerino, The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve, circa 1400.

Eve and the Virgin Mary are often paired within Renaissance artwork. They represent Christian thoughts on the roles of women in the church; one serving as a warning and one as an ideal. A great example is Carlo da Camerino’s altarpiece, The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve, in which the Virgin Mary sits with the Christ child, beautiful, kind, and humble; a role model for all good women of the church. Below Mary, however, lies Eve with the serpent; largely nude and lascivious as the serpent (feminized!) emerges from between her legs. Fur is wrapped around her hips, a symbol of lust.

In the church Eve is seen as dangerous because she disobeyed the word of God and led her husband into sin. She is seen as disobedient, and therefore a danger to the church’s structure in which women are helpmeets to their husbands, mothers to sons, and little else. The Virgin Mary, however, is the church’s ideal woman. A virgin, yet miraculously a mother, Mary is the impossible embodiment of Christianity’s conflicting ideas of what a woman should be. She resides within the church’s preferred realm of a nonsexual woman who does the bidding of her God and of her husband; obedient and therefore safe. Works linking these two women are typological in nature, requiring the viewer to link Eve and Mary together as the vehicle for mankind’s fall and for mankind’s salvation. Camerino’s work, as an altarpiece, is meant to police the behavior of men and women of the church into turning away from the actions of Eve and towards those of Mary.

The focus upon Mary and Eve’s bodies emphasizes the different attitudes towards the two women. Eve’s body is beautiful and sensual and is displayed as an object of lust. She is the embodiment of the era’s physical ideal of beauty with high, firm breasts, small feet and hands, curly blond hair, and delicately colored white and pink skin. She represents temptation at its finest. Mary’s body is clothed and maternal. The little nudity there is in this Madonna lactans is almost absurd in how non-sexual it is, with one bared breast emerging demurely from her collarbone. There is only one, and it serves to feed the young Christ. Eve’s body is for men in that they see her as a sexual object while Mary’s body is for men as a mother. Continue reading

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Vanity in the Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch)

Here’s an interesting detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:

Detail, Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503-1504

Bosch’s hell forces its inhabitants to overindulge in their vices. For example, this woman has to stare into a mirror for eternity; a punishment for the sin of vanity. And her gaze falls upon an interestingly placed mirror, with her reflection eternally affixed to the ass of a demon.

Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503-1504

Bosch’s triptych is most commonly read as a warning about life’s temptations and depicts Adam and Eve in a paradise that has already been corrupted (monstrous hybrid animals wander the fields), men and women frolicking lasciviously through what is possible a pre-flood world, and sinners being tortured in hell.

Sins of the body are pretty heavily emphasized here, whether through a provocative glance shared between Adam and Eve or through a sow dressed as a nun beating a lustful man. It’s a surreal and interesting look at the Protestant Reformation’s view on sin.

Here’s a few more details I personally enjoyed: Continue reading

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The Sexualization of Eve and the Fall of Woman

The story of Adam and Eve is one most of us are familiar with (Even those without religious upbringings can hardly avoid the constant pop culture references!). God creates Adam and Eve in the beautiful and paradisiacal Eden, free from sin. Yet, due to the tempting lies of the serpent the two eat from the tree of knowledge and are eternally banned from the garden. Now with the awareness and shame of their own nudity they are cast away from paradise, having brought sin into the world. Because Eve disobeyed God first she is cursed with the pain of childbirth and tasked with subservience to her husband while Adam is told that mankind will have to work the Earth and suffer mortality.

Think of the biblical serpent from the fall of mankind. Visualize what you imagine it would look like.

Have an image in your head? Good. Now were you picturing anything like this?

Hugo van der Goes, The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise, 1479 CE.

Renaissance artists lived in a patriarchal culture very concerned with the relationship between man and God, fixating upon the idea of women’s sin, guilt and redemption. This patriarchal bent becomes very obvious within artwork created during the period in which both Eve and the serpent are sexualized and feminized. The question becomes, why? Biblical texts refer to the serpent using generic male pronouns, and in most cases in which gender is not specified in the bible, the figures are interpreted as male. So in this specific instance, why does the church do the opposite? The idea of the tree of knowledge introducing general sin into the world doesn’t fully answer this question. However, if the knowledge gained were sexual in nature, specifically the sexual awareness of a woman, the choice to depict a female serpent begins to make much more sense.

The female serpent is a metaphor for women’s sexuality. The serpent tempts Eve into gaining sexual knowledge, and Eve, in turn, acts as temptress to Adam. An ideal example of both a feminized serpent and a sexualized Eve is found in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of The Fall.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Fall, detail of the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512.

Keep reading to learn more about the sexualization of Eve and see some pretty ridiculous lady serpents! Continue reading

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Boston Museum of Fine Art: Dynamic Endurance

This Spring Break I went to Boston for the first time. It was a fun trip; visiting friends, eating delicious food, and exploring a ton of interesting places. I would travelling here, particularly if you’re a college student.

One of my favorite experiences was visiting Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The museum has impressive collections of work ranging from their large exhibitions of American and ancient art to their assortment of Asian and European works. I was particularly taken by their American art, which prominently featured portraiture by Copley, Sargent (who painted the murals covering the ceiling of the dome and the main hall), and more, as well as by their contemporary collection.

A Boy With a Flying Squirrel (1765)

John Singleton Copley, A Boy With a Flying Squirrel, 1765. One of the museum’s many Copley paintings.

If you get a chance to check it out I would recommend their current film exhibit, Dynamic Endurance which features a collection of three videos with feminist content. It includes “Standing on a Watermelon in the Dead Sea” by Sigalit Landau, “Blood from a Stone” by Kate Gilmore, and my favorite, “Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg, and Moore” by Ann Carlson and Mary Ellen Strom.

Sigalit Landau, Standing on a Watermelon in the Dead Sea, 2005. Video still. Visit her website to see video clips and stills.

Kate Gilmore, Blood From a Stone, 2009. Video Still. Check out her website here where you can view stills and clips from her performances.

This last piece featured four lawyers (actual lawyers, not just actors) performing a choreographed routine composed by Carlson and Strom after observing the men in action. The dialogue is somewhat absurd, at one point a lawyer points directly towards the viewer and shouts, “You are the biggest baby in this room!” after which he beckons us to approach. The film speaks to masculine performance in the white-collar workplace, gently mocking the rituals of this male-dominated field. It’s hard to take the suit-clad lawyers seriously when they rhythmically clap in a way reminiscent of childhood games, or gently close their eyes and pretend to be planes. Continue reading

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