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QUEERING CHRIST: Medieval Religious Art as Covert Revolution

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

As we traverse the 21st century, an era characterized by arguably the most potent intersection of religion and science there has been to date, we are left with relics of the past and mysteries of the future, each seeking to explain each other. Western Christianity in Europe and beyond has been the sole proprietor of these existential explanations historically. I wish to explore the amalgamation of these disciplines lost to time: mysticism. Mysticism sought to explore the inexplicable and divine through communion with the natural world. Emphasis was placed upon the soul, not necessarily the physical body. This gave way to many different gendered interpretations of the story of Christ, one being the divine worship of Christ’s side wound, the fifth stab made by a lance that was said to have penetrated and killed him. While many honor the side wound as a way to symbolize Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, many others interpret this final wound as a thing in and of itself, not just a symbol, but rather the very heart of Christianity. The side wound, artistically rendered almost exclusively in a fashion that resembles the female reproductive organ, speaks to a subsect of Christianity and mysticism that has been repressed and made invisible by the hegemonic Catholic Church, but one that was very much present in Protestant denominations in Bohemia and beyond. While the Church has sought to eradicate this layer of history and create a binary and traditional image of Jesus, a clear and visible artifact challenges their entire heist: one single book of hours made for a young Bohemian girl to comfort her on her journey to become the Dauphine of France.


John William Draper, American scientist and philosopher, states that “the pagan party . . . asserted that knowledge is to be obtained only by the laborious exercise of human observation and human reason. The Christian party asserted that all knowledge is to be found in the Scriptures and in the traditions of the church; that, in the written revelation, God had not only given a criterion of truth, but had furnished us with all that he intended us to know. The Church thus set herself forth as the depository and arbiter of knowledge; she was ever ready to resort to the civil power to compel obedience to her decisions.” Pagans, being those who simply practiced a religion that was outside of the status quo, have been a concept since the fourth century. These were people who, in the context of the Roman Empire, practiced polytheism or ethnic religions aside from Judaism, and believed more so in the worshiping of the Earth and nature’s sacred qualities rather than one paternalistic God. However, this term was used to be demeaning and actually translates to “heathen” – paganism was widely considered the religion of peasantry. This then gave rise to not just theological conflicts within society, but also socioeconomic ones.


Christianity was seen as not just culturally dominant, but also personally aspirational. A large part of its exponential spread and conversion rate was due to missionaries sent from Rome to teach those who were “unsaved” about this new and contemporary religion based on a modern and appealing savior. In its beginnings, Christianity and its teachings were seen as a peaceful, passive, and learned alternative to what may have been seen as “brutish” Germanic or Greco-Roman traditions and customs. As it garnered more power, financially and socially, though, the average follower considered themselves “milites Christi,” or soldiers of Christ. Christianity became something that needed defending – from what, exactly, is how we can determine that the Catholic Church had reached cultural dominance. Anyone or anything who challenged or merely worshiped differently was seen as a massive threat to the Church and its dominance. Draper goes on to say that “[the Church] thus took a course which determined her whole future career; she became a stumbling block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years.”


But what was Christianity truly defending itself from in its distaste of intellectual advancement? The answer is buried under years and years of rhetoric that religion and science are inherently separate pursuits, with completely opposing goals in what they seek to achieve. This, however, is one of the greatest subterfuges ever used by the Catholic Church to breed societal obedience. Their careful PR had worked; Christianity was seen as a state to aspire to, and Christianity was not only mutually exclusive with science, but science was considered sacrilege in the context of Christianity. Heretics like Galileo were imprisoned or killed for proposing scientific ideas that challenged any scriptures. More than this, it is worth mentioning that the Catholic Church, when they were not met with obedience, had no real intention of converting those who did not believe. John Dowling wrote in his 1871 piece A History of Romanism that “from the birth of Popery in 606 to the present time, it is estimated by careful and credible historians, that more than fifty millions of the human family, have been slaughtered for the crime of heresy by popish persecutors, an average of more than forty thousand religious murders for every year of the existence of popery.” The Catholic Church is responsible for millions and millions of murders of those they deemed throughout time as pagans. Just because these people were erased, though, does not mean that what they believed, that they, didn’t exist. Quite the contrary; the Church’s silencing of these identities speaks to their incredible power.


One of these identities, whose posterity is thanks purely to her socioeconomic status, is Jutta of Luxembourg, later known as Bonne of Luxembourg. Jutta was born in 1315 in what is now Prague unto King John of Bohemia and his wife, Elisabeth of Bohemia. She was betrothed two times to various Western European noblemen, none of which came to fruition. However, because of her father’s political aspirations, King John and King Phillip VI of France met and decided to form an alliance for territorial purposes. A “sweetening” of this deal, so to speak, was that King Phillip got to select a bride for his son. Because she was 16 at the time and of childbearing age, Phillip selected Jutta for his 13-year-old son, future King Jean II. He was married to Jutta and knighted, and her name, meaning “good” in Bohemian, was changed to Bonne, the corresponding translation in French.


Bonne is not unique in that she was one of hundreds of thousands of highborn brides throughout history presented as a political consolation by and for the men in her life. What renders Bonne an as a significant figure to us, though, as we try to piece together the past, is merely one artifact kindly and humbly saved by time: her personal book of hours.


Bonne's Book of Hours

Before King Henry VIII and his notorious split from the Catholic Church in 1532, it was not common practice to have what we consider today to be a Bible. On top of the fact that printing presses were still about a 100 years from standard dissemination, it was generally thought that scripture should only be heard from the mouth of a priest; the read word was reserved for those who could afford it. In this way, prayer was a privilege. Peasants’ only communion with God was through the mouth of Church officials, and they were not encouraged to read or explore the ideas of the Bible beyond what had been given to them. While the nobility and royalty could commission prayer books, they could not commission a written Bible at this time. These prayer books, called a “book of hours” or a “breviary,” broke up the day in seven canonical hours (prayer times) with common prayers from the Catholic Church, often adorned with illustrations and intricate typography. The art of book-making in that time was a tedious one, and, until around the 13th century, mostly reserved for monks in abbeys – this rendered most illuminated manuscripts as religious texts, or visual embellishments of religious texts. While the cost of beautiful illustration and rich attention to detail was one factor as to why nobility commissioned books of hours (obtaining the book itself was status symbol), that wasn’t necessarily why the visual components were included. Even among nobility and royalty in that time period, illiteracy was somewhat of a norm; people needed the visual to guide them through the text, if they could even read at all. This tells us that these illustrations were chiefly important to a book of hours, even more so than the text.


Additionally, these books were made on commission. Monks or secular illustrators made these illuminated manuscripts specifically for the individual that commissioned them, and while they included standard prayers and stories, a personal book of hours was meant to be an intimate reflection of how that person chose to worship. Standardization for writing as a concept did not yet exist; each manuscript made was original and unique to the subject, the artist who made it, and the person who commissioned it. As clothes or music taste today is an acute expression of who you are on the inside, a book of hours was one of the only ways for self-expression or a visualizing of someone’s inner feelings and desires.


However, as future queen of France and member of both House Luxembourg and Valois, Bonne’s manuscript was most likely made by a royal illustrator employed by King Jean II. Though the manuscript was probably commissioned for Bonne by Jean, Bonne’s choices and preferences were obviously listened to, and reflect a deep part of who she was. The book, after a short calendar section, opens with the “Psalter,” the section that takes up the largest part of the manuscript. This Psalter concerns David, who is said to have authored the Psalms, or the text, that Christians worship. It contains multiple illustrated scenes from David’s life, including his legendary confrontation with Goliath, and his ascension to the throne.


David and Goliath

Other standard Psalms were illustrated as well. In the margins of the pages, beyond the religious depiction, though, we see more of Bonne’s personality; hundreds of delicate birds fly around the page accompanied by lively and active trellises of vines, complete with Jean and Bonne’s coat of arms intertwined by two galant lions. Here, Bonne is showing her interest and patronage in the arts, as well as revealing herself as devoted to her King, husband, and country. These images were within the realm of the standard for the time, as well as her Psalm choices. They also reflect the attitudes of the region and religion – the “fool” (common term for unbeliever in Christ) is depicted multiple times with strikingly Jewish features, signaling a movement of French anti-Judaism and discrimination against those who held different beliefs on behalf of the Catholic Church. Many of the Jewish beliefs were considered dangerous to the binary vision of Jesus they had created. This is an aspect that Bonne did not specifically ask for most likely, but instead, an indicator of the Catholic norms at the time, and within what parameters people were allowed to pray.


It is not until we move to the second section of the manuscript, though, that we start to see a more intimate and raw portrayal of Bonne’s faith. This section, called The Passion narrative, switches from the Psalter’s prescriptive Latin to Bonne’s vernacular French, indicating already a shift in the personality of the manuscript. This shows that, while Bonne would have been able to read Latin, she decided to print the stories most important to her in her native language, making them perhaps covertly and personally more accessible to her. These stories represent a darker and more contemplative side to Bonne’s personality that is beginning to show that she was not as invested in the Catholic Church as she was her own faith. Notably, this section illustrates a famous (not necessarily religious) French poem entitled “une moult merveilleuse et horrible exemplaire” by a minstrel at the service of one of Bonne’s predecessors, Margaret II of Flanders.


“What you are, we were, and what we are, you will be.”

The illustration is full page spread, with the left page containing a depiction of three mortal men, and the right three dead. In their conversation with the other, the dead stare into the face of the living and utter the words: “what you are, we were, and what we are, you will be.” The three men, traditionally depicted as Kings, were illustrated in this case as one poor, one rich, and one Kingly. This speaks to a level of introspection and interpretative communion with the true meaning of faith and transcendence on Bonne’s behalf. It is the final two pages of this book of hours that confirms this about Bonne, thus confirming an invisible belief system that has been lost to time.


The Crucifixion

Bonne’s second to last page depicts Christ’s death with her and Jean kneeling before the cross. As he dies, Jesus points to and perhaps even reaches into his final side wound, the penetrating stab that killed him by Roman officers. Not only Bonne, but Jean as well, pray at the altar of not just Christ, but specifically his wound.


The final page is a rendering of the side wound itself to scale at 2 and 3/16 of an inch. As we study the wound, presented not in its anatomically correct horizontal fashion but instead vertically, painted in pinks and reds, and most closely resembling in shape an almond, we can see that this is not just a wound, but another symbol entirely. This symbol is meant to represent the feminine qualities of Christ, and in doing so, presents itself in a vaginal nature.



Christ's Wound


By her ending her religious text with this symbol, we can tell it was of paramount significance to the Dauphine, and perhaps even the Dauphin (therein the people France and by political proxy England at the time). This book is one of many that features an illustration of Christ’s wound, but it is however, one of the only texts that gives us an intimate portrait of the beliefs as well as the believer.


Because of American Christianity especially, we are very used to thinking of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a man, or male-like figure. Even though Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are said to transcend mortal qualities such as gender, the Church made it so that we think of religion and our icons in an extremely paternalistic way – all of our “mortal” leaders are men. This was not always the case however, and perhaps this evidence can give us insight into the strong Anti-Jewish sentiment at the time. Hebrews in the time of Jesus believed in what is called “shekinah,” or the feminine powers and qualities of God. It was widely understood that God and Jesus were both men and women, and simultaneously neither. Theologian Clark Pinnock claims that, though we use male pronouns to refer to the Holy Spirit, it is actually more scripturally accurate to use female pronoun: “Using a feminine pronoun picks up the grammatical feminine of the Hebrew and honors [the traditionally and culturally-defined] female-like functions of the Spirit, such as birthing, nurturing, grieving, and sheltering. It also recognizes Spirit as associated with such feminine images as Wisdom and the shekinah presence.” Though Jesus founded Christianity, he himself was born Jewish. The Gospel of John shows us that Jesus believed that shekinah lives inside us all, and said it, “like rivers of living water, will pour out of us into the world.” Judaism, and Jewish mysticism even more so,  inherently honored and respected the feminine, and Christianity, as an extension of it, would have had these same mystical properties in the time of its conception. While the term shekinah has been over time watered down to mean vaguely the presence of God, it is understood that it has and continues to for some represent the feminine.


As the Church gained power, these are beliefs and ideas that could not be discussed out loud. Due to this, as a form of covert revolution, the feminine ideal of God was represented as the final wound, the sacrifice for humanity, depicted only in a vaginal manner. More than this, in medieval times, followers of Christ wished to drink from the wound which emitted not only blood, but also “discharge” with healing qualities. In some cases, Christ was depicted as giving birth to his reincarnation from the side wound, accompanied by God acting as the midwife. Most famously, though, is Carravagio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, that shows Jesus reincarnated surrounded by unbelieving Saints. The painting freezes at the very moment in which Saint Thomas inserts his two fingers into the wound.


It seems as though we have been left clues by those past – while these are ideas that could never be fleshed out out loud, we rely on the minds and hearts of the enlightened to show us their humanity, and remind us that these people, too, were mere mortals with the same inclinations and inquiries of life that we have. These deliberate drawings show us Bonne’s innermost desires, and while they perhaps weren’t based in the sapphic, they were indisputably based in the concealed worship of the divine feminine. These illustrations exist as pieces of covert revolution and disruption, and dwell cleverly and slyly within the parameters set by the Church.


We view these people and their accounts, if they are caught or acknowledged, as “mystical,” something that exists outside of the carefully constructed hypothetical we have set forth as the story of humanity, the story of Christ. But, when we step back, what is religion if not mysticism without a love and honor of the natural world, the natural spirit, the inexplicable and the scientific? An absolute indifference to the flesh, and an absolute emphasis on the soul? What is traditional Christian worship if not the deliberately watering down of the holistic experience of life, which invariably includes the unexplained and non-binary qualities of the human condition? It seems that early mystics understood this in a way that is not schematically possible for us living in the modern world – it seems they, for their lack of technology, civilization as we know it, and access to modern resources, that they understood that life exists only on a continuum. Nature, gender, life: none of it is quantifiable. The Church, though, and in turn Western civilization sought to quantify and codify the experience of life, and did so through a means of suppression of free thought. This, done for the sake of power awarded to men, exacting their mortal wishes and desires disguised as the divine onto millions of people, violent, foolish, or otherwise. These men knew that power is not won through careful catering to each person’s beliefs, control is not won through peace. Control is achieved not only through a physical battle, but an intellectual one as well. We can never get back the centuries we lost to this lust for control, the faith and peace that was deprived of people. But, through attempting thoughtfully to understand an artifact as not just an object, we can bring back to life some of this lost and erased faith.


Bonne never saw the crown – she died a year before accession of the Black Plague. King Jean II married Queen Joan less than a year later. Despite Joan’s queendom, Bonne gave him ten children, and the future heir to the throne, King Charles V. Her bloodline lives on through the English and French thrones. Bonne, however, despite her care for the material world, seemed to be at peace with the fickleness of life and death. The worn out page, written in French, decorated with soaring blue birds and the staggering vibrancy of climbing vines, the vigorous color, intent on survival, stared back at her each night. While she reads all of her hours throughout the day, one is her favorite. She looked in the eyes of the dead man and did not pray, but instead communed: “what you are, we were, and what we are, you will be.”



 


Works Cited


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