What if women, exasperated by patriarchy’s resilience, were to create a retaliatory religion? For this thought experiment to work the new faith will need a name, so let’s borrow the acronym of a different organization and call this religion NOW (the New Oracle of Womanhood). Would NOW comprise a lonely tribe of warrior females cultivating the inner goddess on a secret island? Of course not. After all, Homer, who first recorded the Amazon myth, and William Moulton Marston who created Wonder Woman, were both men. Far more subversive would be to shrewdly incorporate men into NOW, even getting them to concede that NOW’s central ritual would entail damaging the phallus. At the same time, however, the ritually wounded males of NOW would hold prominent leadership positions in the new religion. Wouldn’t we (I write as a man) require our prominence to lure us in? But the spotlight would be only to expose our folly, and meanwhile, women—who shared in leadership as well—would be sneakily honored for disobeying their husbands. The God of this religion would be referred to with the male pronoun of course (anything less would chase away the men). But even the slightest investigation would show him to be beyond gender categories altogether, for only men and women both could reflect—without capturing—this God’s mysterious essence.
When NOW’s God chose to fully reveal himself, moreover, he would not incarnate as a female. Again, that’s far too easy, and would put we men to flight. A more subtle subversion would be to have the incarnate deity enter the world as a man, but without any help from men whatsoever. The male member—frequently intruding in procreative enterprise—would be, for once, silenced. The incarnate God of NOW would therefore not be a mother, a pagan strategy which has been tried and found wanting. Instead, he would have one, honoring the female sex by humbling himself beneath it in dependence. And as for this woman through whom God entered the world? She would not be a goddess, for such status, in addition to being another failed pagan strategy, would erect an unpassable gulf between her and real women. Instead, she would be God’s actual human mother. Men, to be sure, would really hate this part of NOW, but would ultimately have no choice but to acknowledge it as an unavoidable consequence of the new religion’s logic. Only at this point, with NOW’s God fully revealed, would that phallus ritual be forsaken, in favor of a more inclusive initiation that mystically united men and women into the NOW God’s mystical body.
Of course, as the above hyperlinks betray, this is no thought experiment. NOW need not be invented because in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the New Oracle of Womanhood already exists. But if so, comes the immediate objection, why has it not worked? Why has Christianity constantly kept women down, especially in the Middle Ages? There is, to be sure, some truth to these objections. Patriarchy, the unjust rule of men over women, is a long fight, one that the chronicles of NOW lament from the start. But there is also truth to this counter-claim: The assumption that Christian women perpetually languished in the Middle Ages is itself the invention of patriarchy, one that is being steadily corrected. Indeed, the stereotype of mild medieval maidens feels as dated now as a twirling Lynda Carter in the 1970s Wonder Woman television series, which aired just as Marina Warner published her equally outmoded secular critique of medieval Mariology, Alone of All Her Sex. Forty years of research into the surprising place of women in the Middle Ages makes the past look very different, and the show (with accompanying catalogue) right now at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Illuminating Women in the Medieval World, encapsulates many of these developments in one small room.
Illuminating Women, with its surprising take on tired medieval stereotypes, might even be called a curatorial equivalent to Gal Gadot’s fresh and successful 2017 performance as Diana, Queen of the Amazons, this same summer. But the analogies stop there. For whereas in Wonder Woman, Hippolyta had to beg the male Zeus to grant her the right for her daughter Diana to be born, medieval women—card-carrying members of NOW—knew the reverse to be true: God had asked Mary for the right to be born of her. Indeed, unlike a film about an imagined single goddess, the women who commissioned and sometimes created these manuscripts were real, and there were lots of them. As Gary Macy explains, there remains a “buried ‘City of Women’ ” in pre-modern Christianity that is only beginning to be uncovered. Which is to say, in the Getty exhibition, the lost colony of powerful women imagined by comic book writers and Hollywood CGI technicians is shown to actually exist.
With an understandable weariness, the exhibition’s creators acknowledge, both on the introductory museum label and catalogue book jacket, that most people imagine medieval women as damsels in distress, being rescued perhaps by a dragon-hunting St. George. One has to meet the popular mind, fattened by dismissals of the Middle Ages (“a world lit only by fire”), where it unfortunately lags. But to slay this myth as surely as St. George speared his dragon, the curators unfurled manuscripts of a different, lesser known legend, that of St. Margaret. Consumed by a dragon, Margaret ripped her way out of his stomach herself with a crucifix. Like Jesus, it seems, Margaret could be born (from a dragon at least) without the help of a man.
The tale of an undefeatable philosopher named Catherine of Alexandria features prominently in this exhibition of stunningly small illuminated books. But if the size is a nuisance, one can wander upstairs to the Getty’s massive storiated icon that broadcasts the same message, including the charming detail that Catherine’s philosophical career began when, as a child, she was handed an icon of the Virgin by a hermit (see the upper left—and parents: take note!). Both the prayer book and the icon revel in Catherine’s vanquishing the Emperor’s best pagan philosophers—all male, of course—in debate. When some of them convert to Catherine’s Christian faith, the result is an ineffective torture which ultimately gives way to her decapitation. Still, one illuminator—perhaps tired of painting —took a shortcut, reducing Catherine’s struggle against pagan misogyny to a single image: her using the Emperor Maxentius for her writing stool.
But Catherine was a legend, comes the understandable objection. What about real women? Consider Saint Hedwig of Silesia (1174–1243), for example, who is elegantly depicted in this catalogue, striking a pose with her prayer book, rosary, and Virgin and child statue (a reminder of the legitimacy of her sex), along with boots slung over her elbow so she could walk barefoot like the apostles. Between miracles, she was also known to supervise construction of new convents. Hedwig is but a snowflake on the iceberg of the extraordinary role of actual women in the Middle Ages, to which more evidence is added continually thanks the Feminae database.
Still another objection might arise though, this one artistic. Even if real women were prominent in the Middle Ages, the expensive depictions of these women were both made and read by and men, who—everybody knows—controlled all text production and education. Hogwash, reply the curators to this exhibition, alongside so many other major art historians in the last decades. While education was more common for men, ample proof of women commissioning, reading, creating prayer books, and even lovingly weaving manuscript wounds, makes their role in book creation and collection difficult to ignore. To a packed lecture hall at the Getty, exhibition curator Christine Sciacca revealed a fascinating case of his-and-her prayer books. Two manuscripts, one owned by the Getty and one by the Walters Art Museum, were uniquely designed for a husband and wife.
Reflective of their different levels of education, the wife’s prayer book is in German while the husband’s is in Latin. But overall the two books are surprisingly similar. In the margins, the separate coats of arms of this couple are tied together just as their hands would have been tied together in the medieval marriage ceremony. Bathsheba figures more prominently in the husband’s manuscript, for obvious reasons. His status put him more at risk of committing that particular sin. But the most important scenes are matched. In the crucifixion, the wife is depicted at the foot of the cross around noon time, with soldiers still present, while the husband appears to have taken the evening shift. There is another dramatic difference in the scene of the reception of the Eucharist. The wife’s illumination, in this case, is small. But the husband’s includes a hovering Virgin and child, almost as large as himself. Why the difference? Perhaps because men especially need the reminder that God has a mother as well.
But there is one last contemporary objection to this tiny show, where the eye has to strain in front of the devotional books to get any sense of detail. What can such miniatures possibly offer residents of the 21st century, whose pocket devices have more imagery at their command than all surviving medieval illuminations combined? It is the question that caused Christine Sciacca, surprised and delighted at the turnout for her lecture, to begin by wondering aloud, “Why aren’t you all at the beach?” It is a question that tends to cause some art historians to deploy their carefully acquired skill of sealing off the past from the present. And it is a question, I’ll admit, I had been asking myself the entire weekend of my visit to this loveable but Lilliputian show.
Earlier on in my trip I shared a Lyft with an actress from the circle of friends close to Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington who—after undeniable success in a music career—hung himself at precisely the age after which many aspirants vow to leave LA if they haven’t made it: forty-one. I couldn’t shake my encounter with this actress, which left both my Lyft driver and me considerably joggled as we dropped her off at her Hollywood apartment. Los Angeles, it turns out, is as saturated with Christianity in certain places as was the Europe that produced illuminated manuscripts. And as I visited several LA churches, I kept asking myself which of the services I attended would have ministered to the grieving actress I had just met.
Was it the First Presbyterian Hollywood, famed post of the legendary Bible teacher Henrietta Mears? The handsome, wooden-trussed church offered a ripping good sermon, a clear product of graceful intelligence. But there are omissions that even great homiletics cannot cure. On the way out of this venerable landmark, I spotted a shattered candle of the Virgin Guadalupe just outside the church’s imposing tower. The shattered Mary was unrelated to the congregation, of course (Presbyterians have left their iconoclastic days behind them), but was nevertheless evocative of the historic Reformed tradition. Could a church without a grieving Virgin minister to the actress I had met?
That same weekend, an eloquent preacher on Santa Monica Pier was issuing the standard Calvary Chapel message to be born again, and true as the message remains, I couldn’t quite imagine it registering with our grieving actress. And the anti-Catholic harangues of the next boardwalk preacher had still less of a chance. The shofar-blowing dispensationalist with his elaborate end-time chart on Santa Monica’s Third Street promenade may have had a colorful theory about the Ashkenazi Jews, some of whose beautiful manuscripts enhanced the Getty exhibition; but his fresh recalculations that proved the great tribulation would start in 2026 would offer this grieving woman little consolation at all.
As much as I love the communion in which I was both baptized and confirmed, I’m sorry to report that the moralizing, plodding homily on offer at the Roman Catholic church I visited would not have captured this woman’s heart. However, a prominent depiction of the Virgin of Guadalupe there on offer rectified what was missing among the Protestants. That said, the Episcopal church in Beverly Hills, where Reverend Allison English eloquently preached on the grace of doing nothing, might have afforded the tonic our grieving actress required.
Perhaps, on the other hand, the hipster megachurch known as Mosaic, at the mouth of Hollywood Boulevard’s river of tourists, could accomplish the job. This addictively vibrant evangelical movement certainly has the capacity to overcome a skeptic. The entrance may have felt more like a night club than an ecclesial experience, but no one was denied entrance for being insufficiently attractive, and the music’s sincerity and skill makes it difficult for even a hymn snob to resist. The darkness of the auditorium, moreover, would be a perfect place for our actress to weep. The sermon, a homiletical equivalent to a flexing body builder on Muscle Beach, reached the intensity of a Matthew McConaughey speech at the climax of a film—and was just as compelling. Indeed, here is a church that might have reached this woman, especially as any of Mosaic’s triumphalism has been expurgated through their lead pastor’s recent struggle with cancer.
But truth be told, I wonder if any of these congregations could have reached our afflicted actress without at least some help from the repository of wisdom we call the Middle Ages, so nicely encapsulated by Illuminating Women. The miniature depiction of Parisian noble woman Denise Poncher’s confrontation with death there on display would have mirrored to our actress her precise condition, possibly stopping her in her tracks. There is, after all, not much difference really between medieval Europe and modern Los Angeles, for both epochs and places are conjoined by that great adhesive of the ages: death. Denise Poncher’s entourage has been slain as surely as Chester Bennington, and the festering specter threatens her as well. But equipped with a prayer book she probably commissioned herself, Poncher’s face betrays an unexpected fearlessness. For death is something that—recent attempts notwithstanding—only the New Oracle of Womanhood has the audacity to challenge.
Whether or not our actress will ever see this gripping miniature I cannot say. As for me though, it brought to mind a beloved elderly man in my church whose wife—a caryatid of our tiny congregation—recently died while they were watching a television program together. She laughed at one joke, Roger shared with me, and at the next joke she was gone. But like the family who commissioned the double manuscripts mentioned above, the intertwined roots of this couple’s faith were not easily unearthed. Both were ready for death’s surprise visit to their home. “Walk with the king,” Roger whispered to his wife when he realized she had stopped breathing. That she is most certainly doing—and perhaps with the king’s mother as well.