Monday, December 29, 2008

Sainthood As Empowerment

During the Middle Ages, and also in the centuries that immediately followed, one of the few routes to genuine female empowerment was through religion- specifically through becoming a saint, though full recognition of sainthood could come only after the woman concerned was dead. Personages connected in a special way with sacred reality, saints were objects of veneration which had nothing specifically to do with their gender, and female saints were as much venerated as male ones. However, there were some limitations to this. Female sainthood was often strictly connected to the idea of the preservation of a woman's chastity. The most conspicuous apparent exception to this is St. Mary Magdalene, celebrated as a witness to the Crucifixion and the first person to see the resurrected Christ. Legend, not fully supported by the Gospels, made her a prostitute who repented of her sins and then spent the last 30 years of her life as an ascetic living in an alpine cavern. This aspect of the saint is represented in the famous statue by Donatello (1386-1466) which portrays her as an emaciated figure covered only by her long hair. The Spanish artist Luisa Roldan (c.1656- c. 1704), the only woman ever to be named sculptor to the court of Spain, follows the same tradition in her Death of Mary Magdalene- implying that sainthood involves the deliberate sacrifice of all physical attractions.

    A late medieval image of St. Walpurga (c. 710-779) presents a very different version of female empowerment, perhaps because it was made by women chiefly for women. It even uses a typically 'female' technique, embroidery. The saint is shown as a capable, dominant figure, totally unapologetic about her assumption of authority. This is in line with what we know about her life. Born in England, she was summoned by her brother St. Winebald to help him rule his newly founded monastery of Heidenheim in Germany. This institution contained both monks and nuns. After St. Winebald's death in 761, Walpurga ruled over the whole monastery.

   But her legend, too, like Mary Magdalene's, acquired an element of confusion. After her death St. Walpurga became identified with Waldborg, a German pre-Christian fertility goddess. On Walpurgis Night, the eve of her feast day which falls on 1 May, witches- in other words the servants of the old goddess, worshipping religion, later falsely portrayed as servants of the Devil - were believed to gather in the Harz Mountains. Even in nun's clothing, as she is portrayed here, St. Walpurga's image can be regarded as being yet another- wholly unexpected- example of a representation of the Great Mother figure.

    Some of the most familiar images of female sainthood represent saints in ecstasy. Perhaps the best known is the altar by Gianlorenzo Bernini ( 1598-1680) in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, which celebrate St. Teresa of Avila (1515 - 82,canonized 1622). This sculpture follows the text of the saint's own autobiography, in which she describes how an angel pierced her heart with a fiery arrow of divine love. Both the description itself and Bernini's physical embodiment have strong sexual overtones - the saint, as he shows her, seems to be in the throes of orgasm. This emphasis on a female hero's helpless bondage to sexuality might perhaps be read as a way of denying her power. There is no hint here of the capable and persistent ecclesiastical reformer which we know St. Teresa to have been , and certainly none of the intense asceticism which in reality typified her character. 

     Nevertheless, as forthright celebration of the powers of named, individual women, Bernini's altar and other works of the same genre have had a liberating effect on a number of contemporary female artists looking for new ways of asserting the achievements of their gender. The work by Amelia Mesa-Bains illustrated here is a case in point. It celebrates St.Teresa not only as a heroic woman but also as an integral part of the Hispanic heritage- someone whom Hispanic women can still look up to as an example to follow.

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