As part of the launch of her latest book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber asked would-be readers to mail her their purity rings. Then she took the submissions and had them melted down and turned into a vagina statue.
While the action earned attention for its shock value, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren recently pointed out for CT that this was far from the first example of vaginal (or yonic) art in the Christian tradition.
“No reasonable person could say that these Christian yonic symbols indicate that the early church was a bastion of feminist liberation,” Harrison Warren wrote. “In the ancient church, as now, misogyny abounds. Still, at the very least, they show that the female body was not (and is not) deemed dirty, unholy, or otherwise bad.”
Christian art has always depicted women, says Robin Jensen, a professor at Notre Dame who specializes in the history of Christianity and liturgical studies.
“Surprisingly, though, what you’d expect to find in Christian art is sometimes not there in the initial stages,” said Jensen, the author of Understanding Early Christian Art. “If you were to think about the two most common themes in Christian art from all the centuries of Christian art through and time, you might say the crucifix and the Madonna and child. Neither of those are going to be appearing until much later.”
Instead, art based on Bible stories with male and female characters from both the Old and New Testament is what is initially most prevalent, says Jensen.
Jensen joined associate digital media producer Morgan Lee and theology editor Caleb Lindgren to discuss the extent to which fertility is a theme in Christian art, how nudity is generally handled in Christian art, and what’s going on with angels.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you by the MA in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership program at Wheaton College Graduate School, preparing leaders to serve the most vulnerable and the church globally. For more information, go to wheaton.edu/HDL.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you by Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, a ministry-focused insurance and payroll provider serving Christian churches, schools, and related ministries. For more information, visit BrotherhoodMutual.com.
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March 6 - transcript
Caleb Lindgren: Last week Christianity Today published a piece by Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren. The article was half a response to Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber's recent statue of a vagina, made from melted-down purity rings that she had people send in to her, and then the other half of the article that Tish Harrison Warren wrote was a history lesson. And I'll just read you a little quote from the article to kind of give you an idea of what was going on.
She says: "You want vaginal imagery? The church has you covered. Some early baptismal fonts, starting in about the 4th century, were quite intentionally yonic. The baptistery of Jucundus in Subetula, Tunisia and Vitalis' Baptistry [also in Tunisia] are two that look particularly vaginal, but there are a handful of others that art historians and theologians point to as yonic or at least womb-like."
So, with that on the table, it should come as no surprise that this article got a lot of attention and no shortage of reactions. And given this intense reaction, and it's also the start of Women's History Month, which is March, we thought it would be helpful to have a more thorough discussion of feminine imagery in Christian art.
So today on Quick To Listen, we're going to explore how Christian art has traditionally depicted women and women's bodies and have a deeper discussion about what's going on with all that.
Morgan Lee: All right Caleb, you have been on the show a couple times. So, you know that we do a gut check and there's kind of a decent number of things here to do a gut check on, but maybe the one that will pick for today is: Did you have a gut reaction to the actual article that we published?
Caleb Lindgren: I did, yeah. I thought the article handled a fairly tricky topic in a really careful way. I think she said some direct things that needed to be said in response to some of what Bolz-Weber was doing. Not all of which I think is totally bad, but I think maybe well motivated but ended up in a dangerous spot. But she also, and more importantly than specifically responding to what Bolz-Weber was up to, is I think she brought a lot of clarity to like, there's a history of this sort of imagery in Christian art that gets kind of swept under the rug, if you will. And I thought that was really interesting and as a history person, I really appreciated the sort of greater amount of context and background that we got. And so, I thought the article is written pretty well. I thought she handled it with care and with respect, but also with directness which was nice.
Morgan Lee: So, I'd never heard the word yonic before last week. I don't know if --
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, I don't think I had either
Morgan Lee: Which, from what I understand, and Robin can correct me if I'm wrong, this is the term that's used particularly to describe the vaginal form. And so, it's a modifier often times, when that's used in artistic capacities. So that was something that I just like flat-out learned. And I think kind of my gut reaction is actually just like the decision to kind of do this podcast, you know, which is this larger sense of spending some decent amount of time in Europe last year, which if you're there obviously, you know very quickly that you can find depictions of men and women all over churches all over Europe, and being kind of just interested about how the church really shaped ideas that we have about women. You and I, we were prepping for this, were just talking about illiteracy that was very common in many different centuries of church history, at least by, you know, populations that were by and large Christian, and to what extent these images that were all on the walls and ceilings of these churches kind of change people's ideas of femininity and so forth.
So, for the record, we have asked Robin some very deep questions, and I think you and I are both really curious about this topic. So, Robin we are thankful that you are up for the challenge of handling me and Caleb in this conversation. I think we just need to back up before we kind of talk about more of the specifics about women's art, and I'm wondering if you can just give us a very very very broad overview of some of the major eras of Christian art for people who feel like they have never really been familiar with this topic before.
Robin Jensen: You know, Christian art really follows just art history eras. I think nothing's different really about it that I would select to point out. We have, you know, early Christian art, which is really sometimes very close to Roman art and then Medieval art, which is sort of a Carolingian Gothic and Renaissance, as everybody kind of knows. I think the important thing is to think about Christian art as both Western and Eastern and not necessarily just European. So, you might think about Coptic art and Syriac art and art from the eastern part of the Christian world as well. But I think maybe most interesting, from my expertise and that people don't know, is that there really isn't any Christian art that survives before about the beginning of the third century. So that's one whole kind of a puzzle as to why, and there are lots of possible answers and might take us all afternoon to unpack that.
But I think that's kind of important to know that the earliest examples we have of Christian art date to around the year 200, at the very earliest, and probably even after that. And most of what has survived comes to us from the West, a good portion of that is from the area around Rome. Maybe people have heard of the catacombs in Rome, where there's paintings on the walls of these burial chambers. And also sculpture that was made for people, so we call them sarcophagi, but they're really coffins for bodies. So, in addition to the fact that we have a kind of have a limited time period in which to get started, we also have kind of a limited context that's mostly funereal, or to do with burial. And then by the fourth century, everything changes, and we have a lot more, though still West.
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, that probably relates to the advent of Constantine and his adjustment on position towards Christianity, and then later on you get-- shoot, I'm forgetting the emperor who makes Christianity the religion of the Empire--and so probably have--
Robin Jensen: Theodosius the First.
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, Theodosius. There it is, Theodosius. So, it's probably related in part to politics why you have access and preservation of the art. Is that true?
Robin Jensen: I wouldn't actually say politics as much as wealth. When the church is finally patronized by the emperor and aristocratic families more and more convert to Christianity, people have money to build beautiful churches and to make beautiful spaces. I tend to shy away a little bit from the political answer to everything, that's just what I do. But I think it's a time when the liturgies were elaborated and made much more complicated, but not for political reasons, but I think for the very fact that people are interested in the in the beauty and buildings. So, we start to see some tremendous changes in that time.
It would, again I don't want to I don't want to bore everybody with a long lecture on the history of Christian art, but it really does transform. For instance, Christians are the first ones to really glass mosaics in church apses around this time. That's a huge step. It's a wonderful thing to see, but it wouldn't have happened without the kind of patronage of wealthy aristocrats who become Christians.
Morgan Lee: I've traveled in both the Muslim and Christian world, and one of the things that you notice really quickly when you go to mosques is that you're never going to find humans depicted there. That is obviously very blatantly not the case when it comes to Christian art. Robin, I'm wondering has Christian art always depicted women?
Robin Jensen: Always. Always. Surprisingly though, what you expect to find in Christian art is sometimes not there in the initial stages. So, if you were to think about what are the two most common themes in Christian art from all the centuries of Christian art through time, you might say well the crucifix and then you might say the Madonna and child. And neither of those are going to be appearing until much later. So those aren't the things that we see immediately. Mostly what we see at the beginning are Biblical narrative images, and as much or more from the Old Testament as from the New. So that's kind of a surprise for people. And in that we do have women and men. Maybe a few more men than women, but I don't think it's significantly depopulated of women. So instead of the Virgin Mary, and we do have the Virgin Mary a little bit mostly with the Magi, Adoration of the Magi scene, but you also have the figures like Susanna. We see the woman with the hemorrhage being healed by Jesus. We have a lot of Eve, Eve and Adam together. Sarah shows up eventually, as well as Pharaoh's daughter. Other figures like that.
Caleb Lindgren: For those of our listeners at that aren't familiar with Susanna or may have forgotten who she is, she actually comes from the Apocrypha and in an addition to the Book of Daniel. And it's a story about a young woman, a virtuous young woman, who is bathing in her garden and some lustful Elders observe her and so they try to blackmail her into sleeping with them by saying that she was planning to meet a man. But she refuses to be blackmailed and stands on her innocence. And so, the prophet Daniel interrupts this discussion between them and finds no basis for their charges against her. The false accusers are put to death and so she's vindicated in that way.
Robin Jensen: Susanna, for some interesting reason, is very popular in early Christian art.
Caleb Lindgren: Why do you think that is?
Robin Jensen: One of the things I think that might explain it is that early Christian iconography or art is, as I said, it's largely biblical narratives in the beginning. And I think Susanna, I think she sort of a Christ figure in that she's an innocent who's accused and, in some ways, released by the figure of Daniel, sort of almost a Pilate figure. You know, he says, 'I cannot find this innocent woman guilty of this crime.' So, there's some thinking, our historians have sometimes suggested that she's a kind of female Christ figure almost. But she is a hero. I can't always explain why we have certain things, we don't have others, but that's just one thought.
Morgan Lee: All right, so I would like to hear a little bit about how these characters kind of fade away and we then kind of end up with seeing Mary or the Madonna all the time, because that is definitely been my experience. And so, when you're naming these other examples, I was like wow, I don't remember the last time I was in a church that had those particular characters Illustrated.
Robin Jensen: So, I actually have just teaching a class this semester on the art and imagery of the Virgin Mary in Christianity, so I'm pretty full of this.
Morgan Lee: Wow, that's awesome.
Robin Jensen: One of the things that one could say, with some carefulness, is that the cult of the Virgin Mary though it certainly existed in the first four centuries in some way or shape, it really takes off in the early part of the fifth century after the Council of Ephesus in 431 when Mary is declared to be the mother of God in that documental council. At that point the interest in the Virgin Mary, and the beginnings of the depictions of her, and even churches dedicated to her, really begin to emerge and become much more prominent. So, I think that's part of the answer. The other part of the answer I think, is that we also see a transition away from a lot of Biblical images into more what I would call iconic paintings, portraits of saints. And so that changes the character of Christian art and we started to have much more devotional art and less sort of didactic or storytelling art, if you would. So that is also a shift at the end of the fourth and into the fifth century.
Morgan Lee: Maybe you can talk a little bit about how icons first started appearing in the church?
Robin Jensen: We don't really have a portrait of Jesus as such even, and by portrait, I mean something where you just have a face or a body looking forward and not allow any kind of narrative context. It's not telling us a story. It's simply presenting us the figure. And that is quite, it's relatively late. I mean, we don't see a lot of that until the end of the fourth century and into the fifth. And then once that happens, I think people really become much more tuned to devotional images. They think that should pray with, images that would be used for inspiration and less for teaching. I don't want to make it this kind of really too simplistic, but that's a general move.
And I think it has a little bit to do with the fact that early on I think Christians were sort of reticent to think to do this because it looked a little too much like pagan idolatry perhaps.
Caleb Lindgren: That actually relates to something I wanted to ask about, related to the Cult of Mary. That it's been suggested by some that there is like fertility overtones to The Cult of Mary and in the way that the Madonna and Child is sometimes depicted, and that the Madonna-Child in the Cult of Mary was a way of sort of either addressing, combating, or sort of Christianizing the fertility cults in the pagan world and the kind of paganistic way of looking at that. Is that accurate or is that a misrepresentation?
Robin Jensen: I think it's an overstatement. I don't think there's nothing to that. Certainly, we can say that in Egypt maybe some of the Cult of Isis, some of the images of Isis may be influential in the way that Mary is depicted. I think we have to be careful about thinking about this goddess background to the Christian image of Mary. And yes, she's often depicted, in fact, in Egypt early, and then fairly soon in the West, in the Middle Ages, as a nursing mother. And I think that has a lot to do, I would not say with fertility, as much as with nurturing, as caring and feeding the child from her own body. So that becomes a symbol that I wouldn't say is a substitute for fertility. I would say it's a big emphasis on Mary is a type of the Church, and the Church is also our mother.
And so, this will get you into the baptistry. And I'm going to just say this very quickly but, hello Tish Warren if you're listening. Because she was at Vanderbilt when I was also there. And I like to think that maybe she found out about this baptistry from some work I did because I published this baptistry in Tunisia, and it’s really is a vaginal shape. It's an unusual one. I don't think there are a lot of these, but I do think it has everything to do with the church as mother, as the birth-giver to the family. I sort of step back from the idea of fertility, but I wouldn't step back from the idea of fecundity. That makes a difference.
Caleb Lindgren: I wanted to zero in on that sort of like distinction point because I think that's part of what's interesting to me in this discussion. One of the reasons why we get some really strong reactions to what Bolz-Weber was doing, and then the way that Tish was responding, was that a lot of like representation of the female form, in particular female sex organs and things like that, are very taboo in our culture across the board. It doesn't matter how you depict it, like there's a lot of debate these days about whether or not women should be able to breastfeed openly in public and things like that. And then, you know, you see what sometimes strikes our current sensibilities as shocking, these older Christian depictions of Mary breastfeeding Jesus, you know with the breast fully exposed. And the distinctions between like what is appropriate and what is not, and what signifies the wrong sort of exposure and the right sort of exposure, is really interesting to me. And I was curious if there is any kind of indication of how they made those distinctions. Like what constitutes an appropriate display?
Robin Jensen: If you look at those images of the nursing Mary, sometimes we call her Maria Lactans, a fecund term, but she's always covered except for her breasts. I mean, this is not a sexy woman. She's completely draped in her veil and her breasts often is not looking all that, you know, it's not very correct anatomically. It looks a little funny sometimes. And part of the reason for that is the baby's face is usually turned toward the viewer. And anybody who's ever nursed a baby, and I've nursed babies, knows that's pretty hard to manage. So, I think she's actually very modestly clothed in most of those images of the nursing mother. And so, the image is not suggesting sensuality, or sexuality, or I don't think even really fertility, so much as nurturing and feeding and caretaking and loving. If you look at the images that way, I think you see them differently.
There’re some interesting ones in which she's contrasted with Eve, often nude or partially drape or very diaphanously draped, because she's the contrast in that instance to the figure of Eve. But I will cite a really great article and I'm now blanking the name--if anybody wants to email me, I'll try to give them the name of this article and the title and where to find it-- but it shows how it's not so much, she's saying, a denigration of Eve, as a way of showing Mary as the one who somehow redeems Eve. Both of them women, one disobedient, the other obedient, and so forth. All those beautiful contrasts that we see often in the literature, and sometimes not so very nice about Eve. But I think that that is also part of the story.
Morgan Lee: So, in my experience, sometimes you're in this particularly male-dominated world, so much that the female presence or the female body itself can be something that is inherently political. Or inherently symbolic, I guess. Is that the case too? Does that start to creep into Christian art as well?
Robin Jensen: Yes, I think that's true. I think that, you know, if we show Eve and Adam together as nudes however, that's the story isn't it? So, I steer away from seeing it as a completely political, and I'm maybe just a minority voice here. So, you know, that that is true. Other people would disagree with me. But I steer away from seeing this acceptance, except in some very extreme examples in probably in the late Middle Ages, in which we're making any kind of hugely negative statement about women. And I think it's pretty wonderful actually that we have these images of the Virgin who is shown with the child on her lap and is the caretaking mother. And they're often very tender and very beautiful.
Maybe the interesting character to turn to in a discussion like this would be Mary Magdalene. And I was wondering about that because I've also taught some courses--I taught them and when I was a Vanderbilt--on Mary Magdalene, Eve, and the Virgin Mary together as sort of three figures in the history of Christian art. And it really was sort of surprising to my students that Mary Magdalene is not always depicted in a negative light at all. As a prostitute or something. In fact, for most of the time, in the earliest images of Mary Magdalene, she's the apostle to the Apostles, she's preaching, she's working miracles, she's doing all kinds of work. She's the first to witness Jesus resurrection in the Gospel of John, and so that scene of her reaching out to touch him is a very common one. So, these are not negative. In fact, even when she becomes rather sensuously depicted in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance periods by artists like Titian, she's actually quite passionate and she is sensual, but it's as if she's passionately in love with Christ. Not somebody who is scandalous in any way. She might be kind of nude sometimes, but as I think it's her passion that is so wonderful to contrast with the Virgin Mary.
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, that actually reminds me of the famous sculpture of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Similar passion, ecstatic experience, a lot of people argue there's an erotic side to that, but she's very modestly dressed. She's got this whole like kind of robe that she's wearing and it's sort of this, yeah, it's just like passionate modesty.
Robin Jensen: Because women mystics are very passionate and I think it's something that we could point to as a positive, not a negative.
Morgan Lee: So, you had mentioned at the beginning of the conversation this really great point that Christian art should be seen as both Western and Eastern. And so, the Roman Empire splits just before 400 AD and I'm wondering how you can talk about how that disruption changes Christian art.
Robin Jensen: It doesn't change it so tremendously much. I think what we have now is the ability to build beautiful churches, to decorate them. We are not looking only at the art that survives and funerary context, but now art that is in an ecclesial context. And the church has become more and more elaborate, the liturgies become more elaborate and that's the biggest change. It's just simply that you see so much more, in East and West. What is different maybe is, and eventually of course will have art from all parts of the Christian world, so I don't just want to say West and East, you know in time we're going to have Christian art from every part of the world and all the continents and in all kinds of ways. But while the West will recover the idea of three-dimensional art in the Early Middle Ages in the West, the East will never do that. It will continue to sort of resist statuary, whereas the West will emphasize that. And so that's a kind of interesting change.
Morgan Lee: Do you know why that was that that kind of died out?
Robin Jensen: Well, it didn't ever die out. The East would never do it. Because I think it might seem too much like pagan idolatry. So, if you have a two-dimensional painting, an icon if you will, they're very flat, they're very shallow in the in the way the images are depicted. And I think the whole point is so that you don't emphasize super realism or illusionary art that makes you think you're looking at a real figure, and you're looking at something holy and sacred, which is categorically different than the things that we have in our world necessarily that we see every day. In the West, the art becomes much more emphasized that we see much more statuary developing and there's less of a theological explanation for how one prays with these things. Although we still do that, it's not quite the same.
Morgan Lee: You mentioned earlier that when Eve had generally been depicted, she was depicted nude. I'm wondering overall, is there a way that female nudity is handled in Christian art that maybe changes over time?
Robin Jensen: Not really, because when Even is depicted nude, of course that follows the line of the story. And often Eve and Adam are depicted, sometimes they look ashamed, but they're usually covering their genitals. In the late Middle Ages, there's a certain amount of misogyny I think that creeps into the iconography or the art of Eve. But earlier, it's I think just a sort of representation, they represented a kind of, I would say even sort of model pair. The first married couple. There are nude men, too. So, Daniel, in the early church is in the West, is usually depicted as nude. Jonah is nude. So sometimes even Jesus at his own baptism is depicted nude. So, I'm not sure that I could contrast between the women and the men on that point.
Caleb Lindgren: The next sort of follow-up to that would be, is there an idealization of form where if that happens, when does it happen? Because like when you get later on into more Renaissance are there's very much an idealization of form even as they're depicting, I mean, like the statuary of Moses is often like he's got kind of heroic proportions to him once you get into those eras. But early on, it seems like in the icons that I've seen of Jesus he doesn't seem like he's particularly idealized, and likewise other biblical figures. In fact, a lot of times they go out of their way to make him look emaciated.
Robin Jensen: It's interesting. The earliest images of Jesus, he's often quite useful, even somewhat feminine and his body type. Mostly just youthful male, no beard, beautiful in contrast to the apostles who usually shown a little more burly and bearded and kind of older. You could see an idealized type there for sure, kind of almost Apollo-like figure. And then in time, even with other figures, other male figures and not just Jesus, and in fact, Mary Magdalene would be an example of this down the road, the emphasis on asceticism so that the emaciated figures may have more to do with the idea of heroic monk out of the desert. You know, John the Baptist is probably the best example of someone who would get that depiction. It's not to make him look ugly, it's to make him look like an ascetic, which is a good thing in that time period, not a bad thing.
Morgan Lee: One thing that I'm kind of curious about is skin color, and I know that this is something obviously in many European contexts you're going to see fair-skinned artistic representations of Biblical characters. But maybe you can talk a little bit about to what extent that's also true in Eastern art. And also, kind of the emergence of the Black Madonna as well.
Robin Jensen: The question of skin color, I just have a funny long email conversation with somebody a couple of months ago about this. One of the things that we do is we tend to want to depict our saints and our holy figures to look like ourselves. So, I think that isn't so much an assertion that Jesus was European, to make him look like a European, as to say well, he looks like me. And so, I'm very careful about this because I think that's every reason why we could have an Asian Jesus or an African Jesus. And so, we see sometimes, we call a Syrian type of Jesus, very dark, very swarthy in complexion, very heavy-bearded, as opposed to a kind of more sometimes European Jesus, who works a little bit more like he's got auburn-colored hair and light skin and light eyes. I think that because we don't know what Jesus look like, first of all, the Bible doesn't tell us what he looked like, there's some hints in the Book of Revelation about a wooly-haired figure, the Ancient of Days, but you know, we don't really get very much to go on. And so, I think there's where the artist's imagination is important and comes into play here.
And to depict the Virgin Mary in the West, often as a woman with beautiful blond or red-blond hair sitting in a Dutch dining room with her coppered Dutch plates, this is not to say that artists thought that that's what she looks like. This is how they're showing her so that we can relate to this. And the black Madonnas are, they're kind of interesting. In fact, we don't really have any reason to think that they're necessarily, they certainly don't have any African features. So, they're very holy and they're very ancient. Sometimes they're actually continued to be repainted black when I've seen them to come touched up every now and then. Of course, there's all sorts of theories about goddesses and so forth, but I actually think they were just darkened over time and because they were ancient or special or maybe even miracle-working, they became the centers of devotion. But I don't know if there's anything that we can say that means that the Blackness is specifically meaningful other than they're just very ancient and very holy.
Caleb Lindgren: Angels, in scripture they are almost always referred to with masculine pronouns. That doesn't say anything about their gender necessarily, but that's the way they referred to. You get a variety of different gender depictions in Christian art, but it does seem like was you get later and later more towards our contemporary age, you get more female angels. Do you know like when that shift started happening and why that might be?
Robin Jensen: Well, I have a theory about why it is. When it begins to happen, you know, you see Annunciation images, it's going to be a male angel but he's going to look a little bit feminine to our eyes because it's going to have a pretty dress on with long, long curly hair. But it will be still a male angel. And in the East, angels remain male and don't look like these figures in long white dresses with big wings, big feather white feather wings. If you think about a figure who has a long white dress with big white wings, it's actually coming from the goddess Victory in the Roman tradition, and she is a female figure. And so, I think that sort of standard, I don't even think that we see them so much in Western art as we see it in things like, greeting cards, and little pins, and all kinds of artifacts of sorts that show the angel as having-- like the angel the top of your Christmas tree? I think that's actually the goddess Victory adapted.
Morgan Lee: That's a lot of mixed symbols!
Caleb Lindgren: Pagan symbol on our Pagan Christmas tree.
Robin Jensen: Yeah, you might want to have a Seraph instead of an angel.
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, uh-huh. My dad actually, who doesn't have any background in Christian history our Christian art, though he's very well-read, he wants to make sure that we have a star up there because that's a Biblical symbol, and he's not kind of confident that the angels are actually Biblical in that way. Like why do we have an angel up there? So, he's been insistent for years.
Robin Jensen: I'm on his side of an angel on my tree. I mean, I'd rather have a star on my tree than an angel.
Morgan Lee: So that's where they were drawing all this inspiration then, when they began to depict angels like that.
Robin Jensen: And there may be a story behind that. There was actually in Rome, pre-Christian Rome, the Roman senate had an altar for Victory with the statue. And I have a hunch that the altar disappeared, but the statue got kept anyway.
Morgan Lee: That is really interesting, too. I wondered if we could particularly just home in on the Renaissance, which is a body of art that I would say our listeners are probably most familiar with. If we were going to do see a survey of Renaissance art, what are the Bible stories that we would see? Or who are the women that we would see in Renaissance art? Is there any other thing that you would want to know about Christian Renaissance art?
Robin Jensen: You know one of the most famous Renaissance painters, a woman by the name of Artemisia Gentileschi, would be something for you to look at. She did paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes. It's a very violent image actually; there's some spray behind. The fact that she was probably raped, her father was also an artist and she and I'm trying to remember the story if I don't have all the facts correct, I apologize, but her father's assistant may have raped her and she's a quite an extraordinary artist in her own right. But she did paintings of Susanna, also of Mary Magdalene, as I recall. We have beautiful Mary Magdalenes by Titian. We have paintings of Bathsheba that appear in the Renaissance, as I know. I'm not a Renaissance art historian. So right now, I'm going to apologize for those listeners who are, and I thinking of their favorite paintings. But I would I would point to those. I think there's some wonderful paintings of Hagar. So new biblical image is certainly encouraged in the Renaissance, and it's an opportunity to--also there's as a museum I should make a plug for, our museum on campus, the Snite Museum, which has an incredible image of Pharaoh's daughter finding Moses, for example. So, if we may see in fact more biblical figures of women coming up in the Renaissance than we would have seen earlier.
Morgan Lee: Hagar is such a fascinating character to include too, because of the strange role that she plays. It is interesting just to think the names of the women that you mentioned here, some of them in some ways are "problematic" for what they have done or have at various times kind of been vilified. But I don't know, the way that I see it if they're being painted and so forth, it's almost a way to kind of honor and recognize them.
Robin Jensen: Oh, you know, you have to remember that there are four women in the genealogy of Jesus in The Gospel of Matthew. So, Tamar, Bathsheba, Ruth, and who am I forgetting?
Caleb Lindgren: Oh, no. I can't remember either. I know I had all those other three.
Robin Jensen: I hadn't prepared to come up with this--
Morgan Lee: Rahab.
Robin Jensen: Rahab! Thank you! And you know, great things are written about why those four women are in that story and what role they play.
Morgan Lee: I don't know exactly enough about art history to know when we kind of like, do we still think that Christian art exists today? I don't know, does Christian art have an end to it? I know it's a bizarre question to ask.
Robin Jensen: Oh, yes, it does exist. Of course, it does. I think it's harder, to be honest with you, for artists who choose to make Christian themes particularly, to find a place in galleries. It may have to do with the fact that during the Reformation, of course, artists were sort of excluded from the churches in the Protestant world. And so, they began to develop other motifs and forms, landscape painting, still life, portrait painting, secular painting of all kinds. And over the centuries, Christian art has not in some sense ever recovered in the same way.
And I'm being really careful because there are wonderful Christian artists that I'm not meaning that they're not any good. I think they do would tell you though that is hard for them to find New York galleries that will accept their work in the same way. People are skeptical of religious art. I think they worry about it being driven by devotional themes that they don't necessarily share. It's really too bad because we desperately need artists, and we should be willing to encourage and welcome them. At the same time congregations tend to like traditional art from the earlier periods, and so it's hard for contemporary artists to find acceptance in the church has too, sometimes.
Caleb Lindgren: I wonder if it also takes, well so the denominational differences and the sort of Reformation Legacy I think, is a huge aspect of that to be sure. And there are certain churches, I grew up Presbyterian and Reformed and there was definitely a sort of allergic reaction to too much artistic depiction, in at least ecclesial art. And so, we had stained glass windows, but they were very abstract. We had cross imagery, which I've been in some reformed churches that don't even include that because I think it's too close to some level of idolatry. But in more liturgical traditions, there's a lot more room for that. And I wonder if it also requires creating a culture. The church I attend now, which is Anglican, has a lot of artists in it and a lot of them like to attend because they feel like their contribution to the church's communal life is valued, and we have a lot of their artwork on display as a part of the worship space. But it's a culture that's been created intentionally over the years to sort of develop that, and it's not it doesn't just happen on its own.
This also reminds me what you were saying earlier, Dr. Jensen, about patronage in the early eras, and there's also sort of a lack of patronage now where people are not willing to put their finances behind artistic endeavors in the same way.
Robin Jensen: Yeah. Yeah. So really well said and I went to give you credit for what your church is doing. It's wonderful. And at the same time, we have a kind of an interest in movement towards wanting to recover ancient traditions. I know a lot of Presbyterians who are looking over at Orthodox churches and saying what about those icons? Can we have any of those in our church? So, we may be seeing a movement of recovery, or a new interest in the nonverbal modes of expressing faith and surrounding ourselves with devotional images. And not seeing it is idolatrous. I'm hoping that's a good ecumenical shift that we might be seeing.
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, also not to get too in the weeds, but I think some have argued we're moving into a post-literate society, where literacy is very wide, but most of the way the people communicate is through imagery or audio things like that. And so, the need for visual representation that's done well and with a theologically informed purpose, in the context of the church, is probably really really important in our current moment.
Robin Jensen: Oh, yeah, that's very important. I'm glad you're saying that because I think I think we have to realize we're in a new era of the visual.
Morgan Lee: To kind of just bring this from the Reformation to the current day, is there anything that you would like to highlight about how women are depicted in Christian art during that five-hundred-year span?
Robin Jensen: Well, I think that in a church that still in the Reformed tradition, the recovery of women's stories would be really wonderful. Biblical stories. I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm Roman Catholic so I would have a different set of expectations, but I think especially if you're thinking about Reformed churches, I think Biblical women could be a wonderful opportunity for recovering these figures and telling their stories in different forms and modes and ways. And I often kind of try to help my students think about the Virgin Mary when I was teaching in a Protestant context, and other figures like Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman, you know, let's think about her. Let's do some work on this figure and story. On the Catholic side. I don't think we've ever had to worry about it, but it would be really nice to see more contemporary images of saints and representations of things that are not just from a mass-produced plaster statue, but something really quite beautiful as well. I think about the Los Angeles Cathedral with their fantastic tapestries. I'm not a modern art historian, but I think there's some incredible options and possibilities for artists to take these female figures and help us to see them in new ways and cover them for us.
Morgan Lee: Yeah, I'm looking at pictures right now of the Los Angeles Cathedral. It is really beautiful. It actually reminds me of another church that I love in Oakland called Christ the Light.
Robin Jensen: I love that church, too. And not everybody does, but I do love that great Christ image.
Morgan Lee: Well, the first time that I went in there, I just found it so refreshing because it didn't feel, it felt like some place that really was a church in America that I would want to go visit and check out for aesthetic purposes, which there aren't unfortunately that many churches in America that would elicit that for me.
Robin Jensen: I could show you some other great ones, but we've had to talk a long time about.
Morgan Lee: I guess that's another podcast.
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