Thursday, December 22, 2011

"The Golden Virgin" of Amiens Cathedral

I'm not quite sure how, but I survived my first semester of teaching two literature classes and two humanities classes. I finished up this week, submitting final grades on Monday. Since then, I've been fine-tuning my syllabi for next semester. I'll be teaching two sections of the literature course that I've been teaching for a year now and two sections of HONRS 202, the second course in the humanities sequence. This course will cover The Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment. In preparation for the HONRS 202, I've also designed a sample "Art Presentation." For this assignment, I'm going to ask student groups to design a presentation that analyzes a work of art from the period. The assignment is detailed; if you're interested, let me know, and I'll send you a copy.

So, here is the rough script for my sample presentation entitled, "The Golden Virgin: A Tale of Lost Luster." Actually, it's a lot more like an essay at this point. I'll more it into a speech format at some point before I present it in January. The link to the slide show (which I made in Mixbook, so is more like a scrapbook than a slide show, really) is listed at the top. Enjoy, and give feedback!

The Golden Virgin: A Tale of Lost Luster

1. Today I’ll be talking to you about a sculptural piece built into the Amiens Cathedral in France known as “The Golden Virgin.” “The Golden Virgin” is a full-length depiction of Mary, who, in the Christian tradition, conceived a child through an act of God and ultimately bore Jesus Christ the Savior. In this piece, a crowned Virgin is holding the baby Jesus with one arm against her hip and pointing toward him with the other hand. Surrounded by angelic figures, Mary is smiling down at her child. In its typical Gothic portrayal of the Virgin Mary as both a sort of divine queen and a very earthly mother, this piece resonates with the larger tension of our Middle Ages unit between the spiritual and the secular. Because of this conflicted depiction of such an iconic female figure, “The Golden Virgin” also raises questions about the roles and treatment of women—and especially mothers—during this historical period. This presentation will show that the changing representations of the Virgin during the Middle Ages empowered women in some ways but mostly worked to contain them within the oppressive rhetoric of a male-centered church and culture in general. My subtitle, therefore, is meant to connote a double meaning; just as the Virgin’s original gold paint finally faded away, so, too, did the initial appeal of the “Cult of the Virgin” ultimately lose its luster for the women of the Western world.

2. In fact, I would argue that the rhetoric of the “Cult of the Virgin,” which we will examine in this presentation, has left us with a legacy that continues to work to oppress women. In order to move toward this point, I would like to start with a look at a couple of relatively contemporary depictions of mothers. As we are watching these clips, in fact, I’d like for you to watch for the tension between a spiritual form of mothering and a worldly form of mothering, the sort of tension that is depicted in “The Golden Virgin” of the early 13th century. So, now I present you with June Cleaver vs. Claire Dunphy. The first clip that I’d like to show you is from an episode of Leave It to Beaver, a popular sitcom that ran from 1957-1963. In this clip, the stereotypical 1950s suburban housewife June Cleaver is talking to her son about God. (Play June Cleaver clip.) Let’s take a look at a mother who plays her more earthly counterpart, Claire Dunphy of the currently popular Modern Family. (Play Claire Dunphy clip.) We will return to these two clips at the end of the presentation, but just keep these in the back of your mind as contemporary representations of the two sides of the tension between divine and earthly motherhood depicted in “The Golden Virgin.”

3. To return to Amiens Cathedral, let’s begin with some history suited to the Gothic style of the church. A cathedral at Amiens was originally built in 1137, and it always attracted its fair share of pilgrims because of its reputation for housing relics of local saints. But, when the head of St. John of Baptist was purportedly brought back from Constantinople by Crusaders in 1206, the cathedral became one of the most important pilgrimage destinations of Europe. So, when a fire destroyed the original Romanesque structure in 1218, church leaders used the money collected from pilgrims to fund a new Gothic construction. According to A Dictionary of Architecture of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the current Amiens Cathedral was planned and begun under the leadership of Robert de Luzarches in 1220. Thomas de Cormont and then his son, Regnault de Cormont, later took over the project, finishing around 1288.

4. Amiens Cathedral is a typical Gothic cathedral. The term “Gothic,” according an entry in Grove Art Online, refers to the architecture and visual arts of Europe during a period from about 1120 to as late as the 16th century. This style “overlapped chronologically with Romanesque and flourished after the onset of Renaissance art in Italy and elsewhere.” Gothic Cathedrals tended to use a “Latin Cross” or Cruciform floor plan, as is shown here to ideologically resemble a Christian cross. They are characterized by pointed arches. They give the impression of great height, and they emphasize light through expansive windows and less weighty walls than those used in the Romanesque style. They often contain multiple and richly decorated portals. They include stone sculpture depicting biblical figures. The Virgin Mary was a common choice for representation in this type of sculpture. To move on to talk a little bit about Gothic sculpture in particular, the characteristics of this art form include ornamentation with jewels and gold, attachments such as crowns, swords, etc., rounded features and draped clothing, and realistic stance and expression.

5. As we can see in these close-ups, “The Golden Virgin” fits many of these criteria. She clearly has a rounded nose and mouth and chin. Anyone who has ever held a baby would recognize her stance of propping the baby on one hip as highly realistic. She is also wearing draped clothing and, overall, her realistic posture is of that which art experts have labeled “Gothic sway.” And yet, to point to something that is less realistic and more heavenly, she is wearing an ornate crown. In this way, of course, “The Golden Virgin” represents a joining of the earthly and the divine.

6. The Virgin Mary was not always portrayed in sacred art as both queenly and tender, as she is in “The Golden Virgin.” Indeed, numerous scholars have shown that “the cult of the Virgin”—which is, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “the external recognition of [the Virgin Mary’s] excellence and of the superior way that she is joined to God”—was manipulated throughout the ages by church officials in order to meet the various needs of the developing church; her portrayal in art, therefore, changed significantly over time. Mary Thurlkill points out, for instance, that Mary was confirmed as the mother of Christ in 431 BCE in the first place only in order to settle a dispute between “two important church leaders” and to “prove,” for once and for all, “that Christ was God and man simultaneously” (13). In this way, stories about the Virgin Mary—who in this 5th century fresco proves that Christ is human by breastfeeding him—served to justify the ideological basis of Catholicism. During the Romanesque period, an expressionless Mary, like this second one, was often pictured as holding the Christ child in her lap and therefore served as a sort of throne for him herself. In this way, as Penny Schine Gold points out, Mary was literally used to “[present] her son to the world” (10). Through the end of this period, she was not necessarily a figure that women perceived as a model for their personal lives but instead as divine queen, an impersonal figure who served as a backdrop for Christ’s power and grace. And, finally, as in this final depiction, Gothicism was the first movement to present the Virgin as an earthly mother with feelings in her own right. For the first time, then, with the emergence of Gothicism, Mary became at least somewhat relatable, a model for real life women to emulate.

7. The new, more earthly representations of Mary affected women in both positive and negative ways. As Georges Duby explains, the most widely available model of womanhood during this time was of the type attributed to Eve: the treacherous sinner who just could not control “the raging sensuality that [people of the Middle Ages] believed naturally consumed [women]” (7). The Gothic Mary offered women a new ideal. Instead of sinful, women could reinvent themselves as the moral leaders of their homes. Instead of always suspect, they could imagine and portray themselves as valuable and sacred to the community. On the flipside, though, women were limited in some significant ways by the iconography surrounding this new Gothic Virgin. First and foremost, the Virgin is . . . well, a virgin. This required women who wanted to fit this model to reign in expression of their sexuality, to, in a word, turn ownership of their own bodies over to their husbands and the patriarchs of the community and the church. Also, the Virgin is a largely silent and sacrificial figure. In this way, of course, women who wanted to live up to this standard learned to care for their children and husbands and churches and not for themselves. With tongue-in-cheek, Thurlkill says that Mary provided “the right gender model for women to emulate: active within the domestic sphere as virgin, mother, and bride, yet yielding to masculine, public authority as holy [handmaid]” (98). In other words, because the Virgin is always portrayed in the rhetoric of the Church as submitting to and serving men, she is a problematic model for women in the real world to emulate.

8. At this point, I’d like to return to the two clips that we viewed at the opening of my presentation—of June Cleaver and Claire Dunphy. Even though we might now consider June’s model of motherhood outdated and Claire’s model of motherhood perhaps more realistic, I’d be willing to bet that many of us would still use words like “perfect” and “imperfect” or “moral” and “amoral” to discuss the differences between these two women. In this way, of course, I’d suggest that we still consider June Cleaver the ideal mother and Claire the “fallen” version of motherhood. And what is interesting to me about our continued respect for June Cleaver over women like Claire Dunphy is how it resonates with the rhetoric surrounding “the cult of the Virgin.” June Cleaver is more like a Mary figure than Claire Dunphy will ever be. If you recall, in the first clip, June is talking to her son about God’s ability to see all of his actions; in this way, she certainly acts as a conduit to God, a “holy handmaid,” happily going about the task of teaching God’s children to submit to his ultimate authority and discipline. When her son goes on to ask about his father’s morally questionable behavior, June is careful to maintain an attitude of the utmost of respect for her husband at the same time that she continues in her role as ethical guide to her son. In all ways, June takes on the posture of self-sacrifice and submission to the needs of her male relatives and God. In return, she is clearly venerated in this clip as the perfect spiritual mother, much like Mary herself. In the second clip, Claire Dunphy contrasts sharply with this image of June as a Mary figure. Instead of acting as a spiritual or moral guide for her children, Claire gives in to temptation and joins her daughter’s in talking negatively about the members of another family. Instead of bringing glory to a male God or patriarchal figure, Claire literally assaults a man because she is so wrapped up in her “sin” of gossip. While the Beaver perhaps ends up closer to God after his mother’s intervention, Claire’s daughters end up cracking jokes about being “felt up” by their mom and with lipstick all over their faces. Claire’s behavior—while perhaps more realistic than June’s—is not presented as suitable for emulation but instead laughable. So, although we perhaps acknowledge our imperfections as mothers and women more freely than 60 years ago, we still look to Mary-types as ideal mothers in many ways. This is one result of the introduction of the more realistic, relatable Virgin in the Gothic period. “The Golden Virgin” typifies the tension of the “cult of the Virgin” at this point in history between a queenly divinity and an earthly tenderness, a tension that ultimately led to less than lustrous results for the women of the Western world.

9. And here is my Works Cited page. Thank you.


  1. You are brilliant! What an excellent piece of writing! You held my interest, fascinated me, and left me wanting more! This is an affirmation that you are an outstanding professor and it was a true privilege to take your literature course.

    Though you are correct in stating that this reads more like an essay, I believe the material's alignment is perfect and that transforming this into a speech will be simple. This will be one hell of an outstanding presentation.

    Before I offer some specific praise, I do, however, have one bit of criticism. I feel that the mentioning of June Cleaver and Clare Dunphy early in the essay is too general. For instance, you portray June Cleaver as a: "stereotypical 1950s suburban housewife." This simple description is definitely substantial on its own and it does give the reader a mental image, but I believe that a few specific traits of such a housewife would make your description a little more stringent. After looking in to some of the characteristics of a 1950s housewife, I draw the conclusion of: "a hardworking (yet always well dressed), sexually inhibited woman without license to voice her opinion." By adding a few details, Clare Dumphy is better depicted as her "counterpart." Or you could reverse the whole thing by leaving June as a 1950s housewife and describe Clare as a career-minded, sexually liberated woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. Again, what you have stated is ample, but as a fiction writer, I believe that a little incidental detail helps to paint the picture.

    Now I would like to offer some acclaim towards this essay/speech. Firstly, when I arrived at point number four, I was blown away. The way you incorporate your research into your well-crafted writing is absolutely superlative! I mean, the whole piece is world-class, but the description and the background of Gothic art is fashioned together so well. It was the kind of writing that makes me want to take my journal, writing pen, and even my writing hand and toss them in a fire. You're good and I'm jealous. In Woody Allen's movie, "Midnight in Paris," the actor playing Ernest Hemingway says something like: "I'll hate the writing whether it is bad or good. If it's bad, it will bore me and I will hate it. If it's good, then he'd be a better writer than I so I will hate it even more." :)

    Now, one of your most fascinating observations was the transformation of Mary's depiction in art. In earlier art, she is seen cradling the baby Jesus, but in later art Mary was, "holding the Christ child in her lap and therefore served as sort of throne for Him herself." I took a note on that one. That will be good knowledge to impress my friends and family. :)

    The other passage of this essay, in my opinion, is the most original thought is: "...women who wanted to live up to this standard learned to care for their children and husbands and churches and not for other words, because the Virgin is always portrayed in the rhetoric of the Church as submitting to and serving men, she is a problematic model for women in the real world to emulate." I have that written down and will quote it someday in a paper of my own--"Dr. Andrea Wolfe states: 'women who wanted to...'" :)

    Anyways, this essay rocks! I mean, I liked reading the Pink Floyd essay, but this one blew my mind! Keep up the good work. I need to check back on your blogging more often!


  2. Scott, you are too kind. Thank you so much for your flattering praise and for your very helpful tip about providing a foundational definition when I first bring up the 50s housewife. Of course you are right!! I will make sure to incorporate this when I finalize the presentation. Thanks so much! Have you thought about becoming a professor and doing this feedback gig for a living? ;)

  3. If I make a gig out of providing feedback, honest feedback that is, I would build a reputation of an arrogant and pompous ass. :) Unless, of course, I come across rare talent like this. There are few bloggers writing this well. You should cut it out with the blogging and get this stuff published! This material is worthy of a citation in an essay written by a fellow scholar. I want to someday search "Wolfe" in JSTOR and find several feminist articles written by Dr. Andrea Wolfe!