God's Vagina

Pop quiz: What do you see when you look at this image? If you were following the Women's March last Saturday, perhaps you see a woman empowered in her sexuality, resisting men who might feel the urge to grab her pussy. Perhaps if you talked with her, she might explain that she wants the right to be able to murder in the womb any babies that she might accidentally conceive, although how she expects to conceive them, if she does not allow men to grab her pussy, is a little unclear. Perhaps she makes exceptions for men that she likes (could there be men that she likes?) Perhaps she might also explain that she does not intend to conceive any babies because she wants the government, i.e. the taxpayers, i.e. you, to pay for the birth control to prevent the conception of those babies that she claims the right to kill in the womb if she ever happens to let a man grab her pussy and, well, you know, enter in. Or maybe I am reading too much into all of this. Maybe what she wants to do is demonstrate how women masturbate. Who needs men anyway? All they want to do is have sex to make babies so that they can become fathers and perpetuate the patriarchy. Who do they think they are, God?

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Okay, that's a little complicated. Maybe another image will help. What do you think about this one? Uncanny, isn't it? Somehow someone in late fifteenth-century Germany came up with a vagina costume! Except, wait, is that a vagina? It has hands and feet like the woman at the Women's March, but its face, if that is its face, seems to be that of a bearded man. Wearing something on his head. And what are those things inside the vagina? A heart with spikes, a label "INRI," and a cross inscribed "S. Mat. S. Mar. S. Luc. S. Ioha." What an odd set of images to place in a vagina! Perhaps the image is meant to represent another kind of wound.

I'm being snarky, I know. It's tough being a medievalist. Nothing shocks me anymore. Not even grown women walking around the streets of our nation's capital dressed as vaginas. Because, you see, we in medieval studies have known about these walking vaginas for decades. Except they're not vaginas--or maybe they are.

It's been quite the debate among my colleagues, let me tell you. When medieval Christians made these images, did they mean for the bloody slit so gloriously depicted to remind viewers of vaginas? It's hard to tell. Judging from the wounds in the hands and the feet, not to mention the wounded heart, the title, and the cross inside the "vagina," the woodcut image would seem to want to depict not a woman, but a man, or at least parts of a man, the parts of the man Jesus that were wounded as he hung on the cross. The "vagina" in fact is meant to depict the wound made in his side by the spear of Longinus, as other examples of this iconography make clear.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters
Here is one from a psalter made in the early fourteenth century for Bonne of Luxembourg, the Duchess of Burgundy, who died of the plague in 1349. Judy Chicago could not have imagined a more beautiful slit. In the psalter, the side-wound is shown life-sized, with the instruments of the Passion, including the spear, shown in miniature arranged to either side. What is one supposed to do with such an image? The bright red of the wound is clearly meant to draw the attention to the darkness at its center, almost as if the viewer is meant to imagine herself entering into the hole made by the spear. And yet why should the wound be shown vertically, as if Longinus turned the spear on its side so as to pierce through to Christ's heart?

National Library of the Czech Republic, Prague
This is where my colleagues' debate comes in. Images of the side wound associated with the arma Christi are a relatively late iconographic development. To the best of our knowledge, they seem first to have appeared in the fourteenth century in manuscript contexts often closely associated with women. Here is another one, from a devotional collection made for Kunigunde, abbess of the Benedictine monastery of St. George in Prague. On the body of Christ hanging on the cross, the wound appears horizontal, but in the close-up rendered life-sized to one side, the wound is vertical, as is the wound in the side of the risen Christ before which Kunigunde kneels in adoration later in same manuscript.

"Behold the wound and the cruel beatings that I bore," Christ tells the worshipping nun as she peers intently into the slit in his side. Was she, perhaps, thinking of other slits that likewise bleed? Perhaps those of her sisters with whom she enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh (or at least wanted to)? Some of my colleagues have suggested as much, pointing to the often clear erotic overtones in the descriptions of the nuns' love for God. "No, no, no!" others (including my dissertation advisor) have insisted. What we see in such devotions is more a meditation on food (the nuns also describe themselves as feeding on or drinking from Christ's side) and the experience of putting on the body of Christ and entering into his flesh through the Mass.

National Library of the Czech Republic, Prague
Much as I hate to disagree with my teacher, those who would insist on a more erotic reading of the images may have a point. Here is a meditation written in the twelfth century by the Cistercian Aelred of Rievaulx for his sister, a recluse, on what she should do in imagining the moment when Christ received this last wound:
Then one of the soldiers opened his side with a lance and there came forth blood and water. Hasten, linger not, eat the honeycomb with your honey, drink your wine with your milk. The blood is changed into wine to gladden you, the water into milk to nourish you. From the rock streams have flowed for you, wounds have been made in his limbs, holes in the wall of his body, in which, like a dove, you may hide while you kiss them one by one. Your lips, stained with his blood, will become like a scarlet ribbon and your word sweet.
On the one hand, Aelred's meditation makes clear references to the wounds as a source of food: blood and water, honey and wine and milk. But the images on which he is drawing come from that most erotic of spiritual texts, the Song of Songs. In the Song, the bridegroom exclaims to the bride:
My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow places of the wall, show me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet, and thy face comely...  (2:14)
Thy lips are as a scarlet ribbon: and thy speech sweet... (4:3)
Thou hast wounded my heart, my sister, my bride, thou hast wounded my heart with one of thy eyes... (4:9)
Thy lips, my bride, are as a dropping honeycomb, honey and milk are under thy tongue... (4:11)
I am come into my garden, O my sister, my bride, I have gathered my myrrh with my aromatical spices: I have eaten the honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk... (5:1) 
The question is, who in Aelred's meditation is the bridegroom and who the bride? More particularly, what is the cleft in which the dove is invited to hide? And what does it mean for the sister to feed from the wound in Christ's side, imaginatively placed (as the image from Kunigunde's manuscript shows) where, if he were a woman, his breast would be? Is not Aelred suggesting that his sister, in fact, suckle from Christ's wound as if from a mother's breast, drinking milk with the wine of his blood?

Back in the 1980s medievalists were giddy with the thought that Jesus might be some way imagined as a mother (thus the title of my teacher's book that made her famous). Wouldn't it be wonderful if God were associated not just with judgment, but with fertility? Not just with such masculine attributes as authority and discipline, but with softer, more feminine virtues of nurturing and compassion? Although, of course, if He were (or, at least, had been back in the Dark Ages), then somehow modern Christians (not to mention secularists) would have to come to terms with the fact that they were working with an incomplete understanding of their own tradition, never mind the character of the divine. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could somehow make God sexy again, much as he had been back in the day when monks and nuns imagined themselves crawling, dove-like, into his clefts?

Sadly, it never happened. While my teacher helped us see medieval women mystics as something other than crazy, she tended to downplay radically the suggestion that their responses to Christ might be at all sexualized. (Full disclosure: I did not appreciate this at the time, although it seems obvious now that others have pointed it out for me.) On the other hand, some of the very scholars who at first argued that Christ's side wound might be read as a vagina changed their minds, worrying about what it meant to associate vaginas with wounds, particularly those kinds of wounds in which God's lovers like Origen specialized. Still other scholars have focused more on the monks' erotic responses to being penetrated by God, allowing for a homoerotic, but not necessarily heterosexual understanding of the medieval imagery. What nobody seems willing to suggest anymore, at least not in the literature in my field that I have read, is that these images might be all of the above: both eroticized and maternalized, fertile as well as nourishing, masculine as well as feminine, heterosexual as well as virginally chaste, as much the product of men's imagining as women's, joyous and terrifying all at the same time. Which silence, at the end of the day, is what has brought us to the Women's March and the walking vaginas.

What could be less sexy than a woman dressed as her private parts? Who would ever want to grab them? It is not that the woman's costume is ridiculous--so is a disembodied side wound--so much as  it is utterly, grotesquely, obscenely passionless. There is nothing in it to stimulate desire or even lust precisely because it is what the woman wants her own womb to be (or at least what many of the women on the march seem to have wanted their wombs to be): sterile. Oh, she might enjoy a few orgasms here and there, the great spasming of her pelvic floor and the shuddering release of pleasure at the jiggling of her clitoris. But no life will come forth from this disembodied vagina, this doorway of death for any infants unlucky enough to be conceived therein. (As Milo might say, "Too much? But what do you think abortion does?")

Contrast with the wound that Jesus received after he had died: "But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side: and immediately there came out blood and water" (John 19:34). Dead, Jesus's body poured forth water and blood; crucified, Christ gave his life so as to redeem the sins of the world. And from his side, according to the Christian tradition, came forth the Church, the body of all the faithful, baptized by his blood into new life. As it explains in the Catechism: "'The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus.' 'For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the 'wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.'" This was the paradox that made the medieval meditations on Christ's side wound so erotic: not just that his wound might be imagined as a breast or a vagina, but because it was fertile. It brought forth new life.

Today there was another march in Washington, D.C., this one promoting the life-giving potentialities of vaginas and wombs. In the photos of the march, there are no pink hats, but there are plenty of women, many holding signs about how they oppose killing the babies that the women marching last week want to preserve the legal right to abort. I don't know about you, but to judge from the meditations on the joy that medieval Christians experienced in gazing on God's life-giving vagina, my guess is that the women on the march today are probably getting much better, much more passionate sex.

[UPDATE, in answer to some of my friends' Facebook comments: My argument here is not about limiting women's right to choose. Women should have the right to choose: to be virgins, to use contraceptives, to be mothers, to abort their babies. What I am objecting to in the contemporary political rhetoric is the refusal to accept the consequences of these choices, thus some of the crudity of my reflections on why women would want to have sex in the first place: for pleasure alone or for the potential of participating in God's creativity. What I dislike about the readings that my colleagues have given of the images of God's wound is their tendency to suggest that it was powerful as a image primarily because it was sexually titillating (erotic), whether to women or men. My reading of the image, placed in context with the vagina costumes, is that the image of God's wound was titillating to professed virgins (monks and nuns) not just because it was erotic, but because it was charged with fertility: it played directly off the tension between death and fertility, but with fertility winning over death. I do not say that the monks and nuns were wrong not to have children. I say that they appreciated the real power of sex more than most people marching for abortion seem to me to do now. Legal is not the same as virtuous.]

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