The Unnamed Genderfluid Figure: Transgender and Intersex Interpretations of Medieval Christian Art

In celebration of Pride, Agnes Etherington Arts Centre highlights 2SLGBTQI+1 2SLGBTQI+ is an abbreviation of two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, plus (+) hirstories2The term hirstory is derived from the nonbinary pronoun hir (his+her) and story. Web. Accessed 3 June 2023 in the collections.

This architectural wooden relief3“Carved Architectural Ornament,” Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Web. Accessed 5 June 2023.  from the University Transfer Collection provides a marginalized example of gender fluidity within devotional art.4Definition of gender fluidity referenced in this article speaks to changing interpretations or language used to articulate gender expression, identity, or both, over time.  Accentuated features resemble High Middle-Aged representations depicting a Christ-like figure with long hair, a beard, breasts, and a crescent-shaped, hooded navel. Two small puncture holes surrounded by incised circles reveal remnants of other material once secured to the torso.5The two smaller puncture holes encircled by thin cut marks impressed in the wood, leave speculation as to whether these were once nipples applied as an alteration to the original piece with another material such as thin metal. Upon close inspection of the high-relieved areas above, you can see that the figure’s right breast has a defined etching of a nipple and areola. These mounds are also too forwardly positioned on the torso to be considered shoulders. The left breast on the figure appears worn. Such ambiguities leave room for interpretation.  On the lower half of the body is an ecstatic floral ornamentation of a finely relieved palmette6“Palmette,” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed 3 June 2023.  motif resembling that of a phallus pointing upward towards the belly button.7See footnote 3.  A square-shaped bore-hole proceeds through the lower quadrant of the piece.

Who is this figure with distinct gender fluid features carved from wood? How did they arrive in the museum’s collection? Scouring our collections database for any clues into the provenance of this figure, little is known about this piece, the date and location it was made, or who the artist was. What we know is that it is listed as being part of the University Transfer Collection. The University Transfer Collection is a vast collection of over 1700 belongings and ancestors8“Ancestors” in this text refers to human and beyond-human animate beings in the collection, referred to in Western museology as “artifacts,” “objects,” or “remains.”  donated to Queen’s University between late 19th and early 20th centuries from various donors. The collection was transferred from various units across campus to Agnes Etherington Art Centre, upon the museum’s opening in 1957. Often alumni or other affiliations with the University–such people who received honorary degrees from Queen’s, former faculty, staff, family members, missionaries, and anthropologists would bequeath–private collections derived from their travels throughout the Americas, Oceania, Asia, Africa, and Europe.

In conversation with Art Conservation, I reached out to colleagues with an interest in radiocarbon dating the figure to determine its approximate age. Further material analysis may also shed further light as to what region the piece originates from. Taking the previously recorded, collections description as a starting point–written in the 1970s by an Agnes9“Agnes” is the affectionately abbreviated name for Agnes Etherington Art Centre.  curator who describes the figure as evangelical10“The term evangelical derives from the Greek word euangelion meaning ‘gospel’ or ‘good news.’ Technically speaking, evangelical refers to a person, church, or organization that is committed to the Christian gospel message that Jesus Christ is the savior of humanity. The Greek root word is used in the New Testament and was popularized in the first centuries A.D. to distinguish the love-centric movement of Jesus followers from the violent Roman Empire that often made its own ‘good news’ announcements to celebrate military victories.” See: Jonathan Merritt, “Defining Evangelical,” The Atlantic, December 7, 2015. Web. Accessed 3 June 2023.–this article focuses on research pertaining to genderfluid and gender nonconforming depictions of evangelical figures in medieval Christian art. Once radiocarbon testing has been conducted, new directions in research can be explored in definitively determining what culture the unnamed figure derived from, if evangelical or a remnant of Pre-Christian cultures intermingled with church iconography.11Christina E.C. Smith’s research on 12th to 16th century misericords in English churches with depictions of carved wooden, mythological figures on the ledges of “mercy seats.” Kathleen J. Sullivan, “Crisscrossing England to study medieval wood carvings,” Stanford News, February 1, 2015.  Web. Accessed 5 June 2023.

Gender Studies scholarship or Art Historical and Historical narratives on the subject of intersex,12Leah DeVun, “The Jesus Hermaphrodite: Science and Sex Difference in Premodern Europe,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 69, no. 2 (April 2008): 195.  queer,13Cambridge Dictionary defines queer as, “having or relating to a gender identity or sexuality that does not fit society’s traditional ideas about gender and sexuality.” Web. Accessed 4 June 2023.  trans,14Trans has multiple meanings from transgender to transitioning, transgressing, transiting, et cetera.  and gender nonconforming15Definition of gender nonconforming: Gender nonconforming is a term referred to not conforming with gender norms.  or genderfluid figures in Medieval Christian art offer few examples in which to perform cross-collections analyses–emphasizing a necessity to include such perspectives in discourses on Christianity that are largely heteronormative. As Sophie Sexon writes:

Although trans identities tend to be regarded as relatively recent, close attention to primary sources, including texts, images and objects, suggests that medieval people could–and did–have an awareness of their own gender as signifying outside the dichotomized binary of male and female, even without identifying language or discourses surrounding gender identity being present in the medieval period.16Sophie Sexon, “Gender-Querying Christ’s Wounds: A Non-Binary Interpretation of Christ’s Body in Late Medieval Imagery,” in Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, ed. Alicia Spencer-Hall and Blake Gutt. (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2021), 134.

Unknown maker, Carved Architectural Ornament, unknown date, wood, varnish. Unknown source (M77-720)

Returning to the question of who this figure depicts, it appears to possibly represent an image of Christ or another Apostle and Saint, such as Saint Wilgefortis, also portrayed as a nonbinary figure with a beard.17Jade King, “Saint Wilgefortis: a bearded woman with a queer history,” Art UK, August 13, 2021. Web. Accessed 3 June 2023.  Hannah Skoda remarks on depictions of Saint Wilgefortis (translated from Dutch meaning “sterk van wil” or “strong willed” in English18Wikipedia, “Ontkommer.” Accessed 5 June 2023, Web. Also see: Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “fortis.” Accessed 5 June 2023, Web.) that,

No image of Wilgefortis shows a moment of transition, either growing the beard, or some putative removal of the beard. All the images, whether those that emphasize breasts, or those that remove any gender signifiers beyond the beard, present a figure who is emphatically non-binary and who just is.19Hannah Skoda, “St. Wilgefortis and Her/Their Beard: The Devotions of Happy Wives and Non-Binary People,” History Workshop Journal (April 2023): 16.

What sets the unnamed figure apart from other representations of Saint Wilgefortis is that, typically, Wilgefortis is clothed, although I have found one example of a wood sculpture of an unclothed Santa Librada or Saint Wilgefortis with an arrow puncturing through the rib cage under the left breast.20“Bienaventuradas sean las barbudas, porque de ellas será la soltería eterna,” Datos Freaks. Web. Accessed 5 June 2023.  Other renditions of Saint Wilgefortis are depicted with two arrows puncturing the chest such as the 18th century wood panel painting by an anonymous artist from New Mexico, Santa Librada (Saint Wilgefortis), in the collection of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Centre at Colorado College.21Santa Librada (Saint Wilgefortis), collection of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Centre at Colorado College. Web. Accessed 5 June 2023.

At the Museum of Notre-Dame à la Rose Hospital, Lessines, Belgium, The Lamentation around the remains of Christ, painted by an anonymous painter around the late 16th century, is a rare example of a representation of Christ with exposed breasts.22Fig. 1 in H. Valdes-Socin and M. Vuider, “The androgyny of Christ,” Journal of Endocrinological Investigation (2021): 44: 1125. Also see: “The Lamentation around the remains of Christ,” in the collection at Hôpital Notre-Dame à la Rose, Lessines, Belgium. Web. Accessed 5 June 2023.  The scene of lamentation is one of both grief and loving adoration where women and angels surround Christ.

In Caroline Walker Bynum’s Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (1982),23Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 115. depictions of Christ and Apostles as mothers appear to be unexceptional in twelfth-century imagery:

Bernard of Clairvaux, whose use of the maternal imagery for male figures is more extensive and complex than that of any other twelfth-century figure, uses “mother” to describe Jesus, Moses, Peter, Paul, prelates in general, abbots in general, and, more frequently, himself as abbot. […] Breasts, to Bernard, are a symbol of the pouring out towards others of affectivity or of instruction and almost invariably suggest to him a discussion of the duties of prelates or abbots.24Ibid.

According to Leah DeVun, “The Jesus-Mary […] hermaphrodites must be read in light of the growing significance of mysticism in the late Middle Ages, which developed the tropes of the feminized Christ and Christ as mother.”25DeVun, 210.  Earlier representations of Christ as intersex or conjoined mother and father, asserts DeVun, were drawn from representations of the philosopher’s stone where:

Alchemical texts played upon the metaphorical parallelism of the philosophers’ stone and Jesus Christ to claim Christ him/herself as a hermaphrodite, the perfect combination of contraries-masculine and feminine, human and divine-in one body.26Ibid, 195.

As early as the third-century, one-thousand years prior to the period of the High Middle Ages, non-canonized gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas by Apostle Thomas or Didymos (Greek for “twin”)27“Didymos is Greek for twin… The implication here is that he is Jesus’ twin. But this character, of course, also appears in the Gospel of John, he’s one of the disciples, the twin. Here he appears as if he’s Jesus’ twin, and he is one who knows secret teaching, which Jesus hasn’t given to all other people.” Elaine H. Pagels, “The Gospel of Thomas,” PBS Frontline, April 1998. Web. Accessed 5 June 2023. Also see: Melissa Harl Sellew’s reading of passages 22 and 114 as reflecting trans narratives in the Gospel of Thomas. Melissa Harl Sellew, “Reading the Gospel of Thomas from Here: A Trans-Centered Hermeneutic,” Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, vol 1.2 (Spring 2020): 67. attest to Thomas being the suggested twin of Jesus. 28Harl Sellew, 67. In the collection of Nag Hammadi codices found in Upper Egypt in 1945, the Gospel of Thomas provides insight into early Biblical philosophy in relation to trans identity. Here, passage 22 states:

Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, “These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.”

They said to him, “Shall we then, as children, enter the kingdom?”

Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom.”29Online version of The Gnostic Society Library, The Nag Hammadi Library, The Gospel of Thomas, translated by Thomas O’Lambdin. Web. Accessed 5 June 2023.

As Melissa Harl Sellew explains, passages 22 and 114 of the Gospel of Thomas, reference to the soul’s transgressive embodiment are “deeply resonant” to trans people:

As we will see, Gos. Thom. 22b suggests that the process of return to or attainment of authentic humanity would involve, to begin with, making the inner like the outer, and the outer like the inner. These are deeply resonant images for a trans person.30Harl Sellew, 67.

Representations of queer, trans, gender nonconforming and intersex affirmations in devotional icons such as the unnamed figure in Agnes’ collection provide a window beyond otherwise suppressed politically religious opinions. The ambiguity of the figure together with their undocumented provenance records, defy an ability to resolve their identity, specifically as a depiction of Christ, Saint Wilgefortis or otherwise, as well as their gender and sexual identity. This leaves room for interpretation. What is striking about the unnamed figure in Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s collection is that this was not an example of a secreted away religious relic such as the Nag Hammadi scrolls; this was a beautifully carved piece of architectural adornment that would have been attached to a place of devotion such as a chapel, church or cathedral doorframe, piece of furniture or other building fixture affectionately representing a complexity of beliefs on worship and identity.

— Sebastian De Line, Associate Curator, Care and Relations
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