18.10.05, Bleeke, Motherhood and Meaning in Medieval Sculpture

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Penny Howell Jolly

The Medieval Review 18.10.05

Bleeke, Marian. Motherhood and Meaning in Medieval Sculpture: Representations from France c. 1100-1500. Boydell Series in Medieval Art and Architecture. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2017. pp. xii, 199. ISBN: 978-178-3272-501 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Penny Howell Jolly
Skidmore College

Marian Bleeke's interest in female bodies and female agency, seen in other of her publications, continues here in her discussion of motherhood in relation to selected French sculptures spanning the twelfth to early sixteenth centuries. Here, however, her perspective shifts to the relationship between the beholder--as she prefers to call the viewer, thus reminding her readers of medieval ideas about the physicality of sight--and the work of art. As she explains in her introduction, this book is particularly informed by the work of Hans Robert Jauss on "reception" and Wolfgang Iser on "response." [1] Using Jauss's term, "horizon of expectations," throughout her book, Bleeke works to reconstruct those horizons for various medieval audiences, especially laywomen viewing public art. Thus she repeatedly poses the question of what prior experiences and ideas these wives, mothers, and widows brought to their viewings of artwork. Shifting to Iser's ideas, Bleeke speculates on medieval women's experiences while beholding these sculptures: how did the formal qualities of the work shape their responses? Bleeke asserts that women were "active thinking subjects capable of reflecting on their own life experiences, including their experiences of motherhood, and so capable of creating the meaning of those experiences for themselves" (174). This is significant, because, as Bleeke notes, medieval art was mostly made by men for predominantly male audiences and with intended meanings that did not consider a female audience or women's experiences. Her goal thus is to reconstruct medieval female voices that can add to our understanding of these artworks. While doing this, she reviews in detail the scholarship on medieval motherhood and, in the four main chapters, explores medieval women's responses to sculptures through a series of case studies focusing on pregnancy, childbirth, and the relationship between mothers and young children.

Chapter 1, "Motherhood as Transformation: From Annunciation to Visitation at Reims," considers the jamb sculptures on the central portal at Reims Cathedral: the Annunciation, Visitation, and Presentation into [sic] the Temple. The chapter also establishes the basic pattern of analysis that Bleeke uses throughout the four main chapters: she opens with a detailed description of the sculptural groupings, in this case focusing on the formal differences between the "Amiens" style of the Annunciation and the "Antique" style of the Visitation. Acknowledging and reviewing the scholarship concerning workshops and dating of these groups, she establishes that her goal instead is to explore how Mary's and Elizabeth's draped bodies were understood by laywomen, including wives, widows, and the local beguines. Thus she begins by considering in detail their reception through exploration of the life experiences of ordinary women, especially with regard to pregnancy and birthing, and the potential independence of widowhood. This further allows her to consider women's relationships to Reims' financial and economic systems, largely based on linen and wool production, and women's presence in markets surrounding the cathedral. Bleeke then moves to response, suggesting how women understood these sculptures and related them to their lives. For example, when discussing the Presentation, she notes the dominating presence of male authority surrounding the passive Mary, depicted here in the simpler "Amiens" style, while by contrast in the classicizing style Visitation, Mary's body "is activated by the contrapossto pose"--sic; a misspelling of contrapposto--and she and Elizabeth "both have active bodies and elaborate draperies" (29). She proposes that "Mary's transformation with increasing maturity[,] as from Annunciation to Visitation she becomes more like the more mature, active, and visually interesting Elizabeth...may have helped women to identify [the Visitation] with the change that came with widowhood" (29). Thus viewing those sculptures potentially empowered women. Yet at the same time, Bleeke's analysis of the women's horizon of expectations brought to viewing the Presentation leads her to the Churching ritual, the required purification ceremony following childbirth. While it could be empowering for the new mother, it was also restricting, and for Bleeke, here at Reims the formal qualities of the Presentation reinforce Mary's "subordination and submission" (37) to husband and Church authorities. Finally she considers how beguines might have understood these same sculptures in yet different ways.

I find not very convincing Bleeke's argument about widowhood in this Visitation, a narrative celebrating pregnancy. Her interpretation that Mary here appears more mature than at the Annunciation--Bleeke argues her belly is now rounded rather than concave, as at the Annunciation, where she is "submissive and sexually available" (37)--and that her juxtaposition to the visibly older and more active Elizabeth would make beholders think of widowhood and thus potential independence from male authority is weak; Elizabeth is elderly, but not a widow. Similarly I question both Bleeke's conclusion that "beholders of these sculptures may thus have been encouraged by them to connect widowhood with motherhood as potentially empowering experiences" (30) and her suggestion that "the possibility of seeing the Visitation sculptures as either empowered widows or celebrated mothers may even have allowed women to recognize in their experiences as mothers a foretaste of what was possible for them as widows" (38).

Chapter 2, "Motherhood as Monstrosity: The Moissac Femme-aux-Serpents and the Transi of Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendôme," again opens with a detailed formal analysis, followed by a brief review of the established literature on Moissac's twelfth-century porch sculptures, especially interpretations of the famous relief of a woman suckled by serpents. Diverging from those, Bleeke introduces the concept of "monstrous," defining it as the "collapse of categories, the violation of distinctions, and the breakdown of boundaries" (54-55), all of which she finds visible in the femme-aux-serpents. Bleeke follows this with a summary of her argument; a deeper analysis of the femme-aux-serpents figure as representing monstrous motherhood; textual sources regarding monstrous maternal forms; and a history of St.-Pierre at Moissac, including a more detailed overview of earlier readings of the porch. As she notes, those interpretations were based on the monks as the intended beholders of the reliefs. She then turns to her major focus, lepers and laypeople as beholders of these same sculptures, and works to establish these groups' differing horizons of expectations and their varied responses to the work. In this case, establishing the horizon necessitates exploration of a variety of topics, including conflicts at the monastery regarding townspeople's and lepers' access to water sources located within it, access to its relics, and changing attitudes towards leprosy. Due to formal similarities with Moissac's femme-aux-serpents, Bleeke introduces the Transi of Jeanne de Bourbon- Vendôme (c. 1500-25) into her argument, interpreting it as a self-representation of monstrous motherhood by relating it to Jeanne's difficult experiences with suffering, childbirth, and death. On one hand she proposes Moissac's laywomen "may have recognized the snake-woman sculpture as representing their own experiences of maternal pain and suffering in its image of a tormented maternal body" (77). Yet she ends the chapter on a salvific and empowering note, following discussion of twelfth-century attitudes towards the lepers, and notes they, too, were physically present in Moissac's entry porch and found in its reliefs: particularly in the Dives and Lazarus narrative. At this time, the affliction of leprosy was understood to be salvific: by suffering terrible penance here on earth, lepers were assured of salvation following death. Thus Bleeke finally concludes the lepers' presence "may have allowed [laywomen]...to transform their experiences of pain and suffering from a cause for despair into a means for their eventual salvation" (86). While again I find her final conclusion not fully convincing, her introduction into her argument of the lepers at Moissac and their conflicts with the monastery over water offers intriguing new perspectives for exploration of the reliefs' meaning.

Chapter 3, "Resurrecting Lazarus: The Eve from Saint-Lazare at Autun," follows a similar pattern of detailed description, literature review, textual examination, and establishment of laywomen's horizon of expectations and potential responses. Bleeke focuses not only on the Eve fragment--which, as Linda Seidel does, she identifies as simultaneously Eve and Mary Magdalen [2]--but considers the entire east (not north, as usually identified) portal and its relationship to the nearby interior shrine of St. Lazarus. Here she considers female pilgrims as her beholders, especially ones visiting Autun to address problems regarding pregnancy or children. Unfortunately, her discussion is hampered by the almost total ruin of both the doorway and the shrine, as well as the total lack of any miracle accounts regarding mothers and children in the records of Autun. Focusing on the fragmentary sculptures of Martha and the Magdalene from the interior shrine, Bleeke explores the history of emotions and Philippe Ariès's now widely discredited claim that due to high mortality rates, medieval parents did not grieve their dead children. Bleeke concludes society valued and expected emotional responses regarding the deaths of children, and she asserts the monumental shrine, with its Eve, Martha and Magdalene sculptures, "may have served to grant value to those emotions" (119).

Chapter 4, "Visualizing Parturition: Devotional Sculptures of the Virgin and Child," considers a variety of unrelated, free-standing sculptures of Mary and Christ, thus offering female beholders multiple examples of potential relationships between mothers and children. Again Bleeke's analyses are based on careful description, review, and construction of women's expectations and responses. Of course this chapter allows for an overview of the Marian cult in the later Middle Ages and its transformation over time, and Bleeke obliges well. As scholars note, overall Marian sculptures became increasingly naturalistic in the last medieval centuries, and so encouraged women's identification with these more physically human Marys. Bleeke turns to such sculptures, noting how the draperies and clothing shaped beholders' responses: much of what is visible in these works is textile, not flesh. She therefore explores three items of dress, visible in each of these Marian works but also standard items of dress worn by real women: girdles, mantles, and veils. Each is discussed, both in terms of metaphorical ideas and actual usage, and analyzed formally on the sculptures, particularly using analytical categories such as closed and open, and intimate and separate. The variety of relationships established, Bleeke proposes, offered female beholders a variety of models for motherhood, especially regarding the question of space: that is, the increase of separation between mother and child over time, as the child constructs his/her own independent identity. Turning to psychoanalytical theory and basing her work on Theresa Krier's concept of "parturition," she concludes Mary was a "good-enough" mother: a mother who supports her child but does not fulfill all its wishes, thus maintaining a distance between herself and the child's emerging subjectivity. [3] Due to the availability of these sculptures, Bleeke suggests female beholders saw them "cumulatively in a group" as "different moments in a single, complex, and ever-changing relationship between this one mother and her child" (157), thus validating their own experiences as mothers.

In an afterword, "Motherhood and Meaning: Medieval Sculpture and Contemporary Art," Bleeke explores these same themes of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, in works by contemporary female artists such as Susan Hiller, Mary Kelly, Elaine Reichek, and Andrea Bowers.

The strengths of Bleeke's book lie particularly in her ability to describe the horizon of expectations: her deep research into a variety of contexts and themes necessary to her later analysis of response. Her rich footnotes and up-to-date summaries of scholarship provide abundant resources for students and established scholars alike, and not only cover the important monuments discussed at Reims, Moissac, and Autun, but also address diverse medieval topics. Her treatment of themes such as motherhood, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, tears and emotions, weaving, textiles and dress, leprosy, the Churching ritual, and the cults of Lazarus and the Virgin Mary stand out as particularly useful. Similarly her discussions of religious practices and the contextualization of the works she treats are exemplary in establishing women's horizons of expectations. Bleeke also methodically and clearly explains her theoretical approaches and goals, laying out exactly what she will do in each chapter, making her arguments easy to follow.

While very useful in many ways, the book also demonstrates weaknesses. Most striking is its repetitive nature. Not only do the introduction, four chapters, and afterward feel redundant, often repeating the same or similar arguments as they focus on lay female beholders and their responses, but the four main chapters share similar structures, as seen in the summaries above. Additionally each chapter includes redundancies, as Bleeke offers first a rich preview of what each chapter will accomplish and how she'll make the argument, then repeats those points as she makes them, then returns to them in the final paragraph(s). Further, the book is--perhaps necessarily, given its focus on original meanings--highly tentative, with statements regarding medieval women's responses constantly expressed as "may have" or "could have," or a sculpture noted as "seeming" to function in a certain way. Indeed, while Bleeke's formal analyses are enlightening and often useful, I do not always find her conclusions regarding women's responses to the works' formal qualities convincing. While the book offers a wealth of information, too often the conclusions remain either unsurprising or highly speculative.



1. Hans Robert Jauss, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982); and Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

2. Linda Seidel, Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus, and the Cathedral of Autun (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

3. Theresa M. Krier, Birth Passages: Maternity and Nostalgia, Antiquity to Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 11.

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