Thursday, April 03, 2014

Mystical same-sex marriage affirmed in Renaissance art and new book "Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms”

“The Calling of St. John,” a 12th-century miniature, shows Jesus coaxing John away from his bride, and John resting his head Jesus’ chest. The text means, "Get up, leave the breast of your bride, and rest on the breast of the Lord Jesus." *


By Kevin Elphick

Carolyn Diskant Muir’s new book, Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Northern Renaissance Art is not only impressive as a scholarly work, but it has numerous beautiful paintings of male-male intimacy with Christ. Muir devotes a chapter to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, including his poem of marital bliss with Jesus and numerous images of Bernard and Christ. Another entire chapter is dedicated to St. John as the Bride of Christ.
With more than half of the saints Muir introduces being male, one cannot help but come away from her book with the impression that the Renaissance church was much more comfortable with the concept of same-sex marriages, albeit “mystical” marriages at that. In point of fact, the descriptor “mystical” does not diminish the marriage concept, but instead hyper-accentuates it, setting up mystical marriage as the ideal to strive for. The Renaissance church appears to have had no problem with male-male mystical marriage as an idealized model for conjugal bliss.

The book could not be more timely. While the work was delayed in publication, it ended up being available from its publisher in the same year as the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriages, and in which a record number of states (as well as tribal jurisdictions) passed their own same-sex marriage laws. Opponents of same-sex marriage equality have frequent recourse to the mistaken belief that marriage has been a monolithic institution through all of human history: one male, one female, united (often “by God”) for the purpose of progeny.[1] Dr. Muir’s book vividly demonstrates the many forms of marriage depicted in Renaissance art, drawing upon textual evidence, illustrated manuscripts, paintings, and sculptures.

Muir, associate professor of art history at the University of Hong Kong, vividly demonstrates to her readers that in the European tradition, “marriage” had another canonically sanctioned reality: marriage to God. (How ironic it is that in English we have the word, “deicide,” to connote the killing of God, but no word describing the act of wedding God!) In this book, Muir examines five saints who experienced this mystical marriage to God and were subsequently depicted in Renaissance art. In the Christian tradition, human marriage is a sacrament that points beyond itself to a greater reality, that of Christ wedded to the Church: “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32) Human marriage is transitory; marriage to God is an everlasting destiny. Where marriage of two partners is a finite event in history culminating at death, marriage of the Divine and Human is a transhistorical event toward which humanity was first created and ultimately oriented. “For your Maker is your husband.” Isaiah 54:5

Images of a saintly bride wedding Jesus might seem normative in the Christian tradition (think of the Parable of the Wise Virgins in the Gospels and the Bride of the Lamb in the Book of Revelations), but a male saint wedding the Christ is startling to modern audiences. Instead, Carolyn Diskant Muir begins her book with discussions of St. Catherine and St. Agnes, both depicted as paradigmatic brides of Christ. St. Catherine of Alexandria is the saint most often depicted in mystic marriage in Renaissance art. However, the potential for an implied sexualized dynamic to their marriage is precluded by the images of Christ being the Infant Christ or the Christ Child, often accompanied by his chaperoning Mother. The marriage “act” depicted is the bestowal of a wedding ring to these faithful virgins. As a play on words, St. Agnes’ marriage partner is not infrequently depicted as the Lamb of God, the Latin “agnus” meaning “lamb,” again obviating any overt sexual connotation to their wedded union.

Of the male saints in her book, Blessed Henry Suso represents a good figure to focus on to see the tension present in portraying a male disciple loving a God who is typically gendered as “male.” (This same tension is explored in a Jewish context by Howard Eilberg-Schwartz in his ground-breaking book, God’s Phallus: and other problems for men and monotheism.) In Bl. Henry we see a mystical marriage to Wisdom-Sophia, an ancient hypostasis for God, who has been portrayed as both male and female. There has been some scholarly research which suggests that the historical figure of Lady Wisdom developed in the ancient Jewish world specifically to traverse the tension felt by male heterosexual practitioners, loving an otherwise male-imaged God. Henry Suso draws upon this sapiential Wisdom tradition to give expression to his mystical marriage to God. Because the broad sweep of Wisdom literature portrays divine Wisdom as both male and alternately female, Blessed Henry does the same. However, each individual Wisdom literature author typically maintains a specific and consistent gender throughout their writings for their rendering of Wisdom. 

Suso however is conscious of his intentional gender switching for Wisdom and explains: “And so the style changes from time to time to suit what is then the subject….” In so doing, Suso presents a fluid image of the Divine without a rigid and set gender. In the overabundance of Suso’s experience of intimacy with God, a single gender role proves inadequate, necessitating his use of all available gendering to communicate the ineffable love of the Divine. The rich images Dr. Muir provides of Blessed Henry and his beloved Wisdom portray the vacillation between male and female partners in the person of Wisdom. In his writings, Suso leaves us a legacy of intimacy with God, in which God is both wife and husband, lover and beloved.

Interestingly, Dr. Muir makes no mention of German Renaissance mystic and theologian Jacob Boehme in her exploration of Bl. Henry Suso. Like Suso, Boehme transmutes his love affair with God into a relationship with Lady Wisdom. While at the far end of the period Muir is studying, this Protestant mystic had interesting similarities to and explicit contrasts with Suso. Like Suso, Boehme courts Lady Wisdom. However, in Boehme’s writings, Wisdom remains clearly and intentionally female. In point of fact, Boehme’s spirituality perceives an affectional relationship with the divine female Wisdom to be the natural order for humanity. For Boehme the “unnatural” and disordered relationship would be his pairing with the explicitly male Devil, who strives to entice good Christian men into what Boehme characterizes as an unnatural relationship. It is unclear if Boehme’s spirituality was translated into the visual arts as with Suso, although his influence is seen in Angelus Silesius, William Blake, and Milton.

“Christ Embracing St. Bernard of Clairvaux” by Francisco Ribalta

Muir’s second male mystic is St. Bernard of Clairvaux. A 12th century monk, Bernard is one of the founders of affective spirituality, an incarnational spirituality that incorporates personal feelings and emotions into meditation on the lives of Christ and the Saints. One of Bernard’s most influential works is his 86 sermons on the Biblical love poetry of the Song of Songs. In these sermons Bernard allegorizes the love affair between God and the human individual. When writing of the individual soul in the abstract, the soul is feminized in relation to a masculine God. In his own encounter with God, Bernard maintains his male identity with a male God. Bernard also applies the love poetry fashioned by the Song of Songs to the inner life of the Trinity. In the Trinity, the language of the kiss between lovers in the Song of Songs  is taken by Bernard to ultimately point to the Holy Spirit who is the “Kiss” between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. Through our union with the Incarnate Christ, Bernard believes we too participate in the Trinitarian embrace and “Kiss.”

Muir recounts an event from Bernard’s life in which, while praying before an altar, the crucified Christ reached down and embraced Bernard, after Bernard had reverently kissed him. This event from Bernard’s life precipitated a poetic prayer attributed to Bernard, which is the basis for the Bach hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” The 74 verse prayer is vividly focused on the crucified and wounded body of Christ. Muir describes it as “sensual -- even at times erotic -- in tone, with the verbs ‘kiss’, ‘feel’, ‘touch’, ‘explore’, ‘embrace’, ‘lick’, and ‘taste’ being freely used…” (p. 93)  to describe the encounter with the suffering, passionate body of Christ.

For Muir, this embrace between Bernard and the crucified Christ is their moment of mystical marriage. The poem-prayer is the song celebrating their nuptial bliss, the Incarnate body of Christ reaching out to unite itself to the body of Bernard. Muir’s artistic interest is then in the imagery of this union which she labels: “Bernard’s Embrace with Christ.” An example is Francisco Ribalta’s  “Christ Embracing St. Bernard” (1625-27). Muir provides numerous examples of this motif, with varying degrees of physical intimacy demonstrated between Bernard and Christ.

While Muir acknowledges that the motif of Christ embracing a mystic saint from the cross exists in other hagiographic traditions, she finds no visual arts tradition for others prior to the 17th century. (p. 113, footnote 16) Interestingly, she includes Francis of Assisi among these saints. However, she otherwise appears to be unaware of Francis himself as a mystical bride of Christ and his stigmatization conceptualized as the consummation of their nuptial union. Ubertino da Casale, a 14th century Franciscan (and a figure in the historical novel The Name of the Rose 1980), recognizes St. Francis' mystical marriage as taking place in his stigmatization. He describes the five wounds of the stigmata as "five of the freshest roses which adorn his nuptial bed." He goes on to explain that Francis was "in soul and body... beloved spouse to Him" [Christ] (Arbor vitae crucifixae Jesu Christi, Ch. 4, 1305 C.E.) In a similar manner by which Bernard's embrace by Christ is recognized as "mystical marriage" by Muir, so also is the penetration of Francis' flesh in the stigmata, his consummation of marriage with Christ. It would be further fascinating reading if Muir were to explore this rich literary and artistic tradition, all the more so given the later conflation in art of the image of Francis being embraced by the Crucified, derivative of the Bernard tradition.

“Saint Francis Embracing Christ” by Francisco Ribalta (Wikimedia Commons)

Of the five saints explored by Muir, the most intriguing is St. John the Beloved. Where historians like John Boswell had pointed to a limited tradition depicting St. John's marriage to Christ, dependent largely upon St. Aelred, Muir unearths a cascade of images of this tradition, demonstrating that not only was it widely known and venerated, but heavily influencing both women's and men's vowed spirituality.

Muir cites the apocryphal Acts of John, the Golden Legend, Pseudo-Bonaventure, St. Bernard, and Origen, as sources identifying the Beloved Disciple, John, as having been married to Christ. In some sources, the gospel story of the Wedding Feast at Cana is creatively recast as John’s own marriage. Jesus’ attendance occasions his call to John to forsake his new bride and follow him “to a higher wedding.” John necessarily follows this call, becoming Jesus’ beloved. As a virgin himself, John becomes the prototype for all subsequent nuns, monks, and religious.

Detail from “The Last Supper” from The Small Passion by Albrecht Durer (Wikimedia Commons)

Muir produces abundant examples of Renaissance art depicting Christ and John as a wedded couple. Many of these draw thematically upon the gospel narrative of John resting his head upon Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper.  One example in the book is Albrecht Durer's renowned Last Supper.  The little-known 12th-century C.E. miniature, “The Calling of St. John,” (pictured at the top of this article) depicts two scenes:  Christ calling the disciple John to leave his bride and follow him, and John resting his head on the breast of Christ, who in turn cups his chin. Notably, both Jesus and John are beardless. The depicted physicality of their shared intimacy is evident in the artworks she selects for this chapter, made all the more so by known artistic conventions to depict romantic intimates, such as joined right hands or a hand tenderly cupping the beloved’s chin. To undergird the legitimacy of an orthodox same-sex marriage tradition, there are fewer heavyweights possible than invoking the Savior himself wedding the namesake of the fourth Gospel.

Muir does address the question of the potential homoeroticism these images could evoke. But for her, “…that is not the issue here. In a way this entire debate is rather ironic. To modern eyes, it is the male-male embrace that has been considered shocking and potentially problematic, whereas such an embrace would have reflected the actual behavior of medieval men who did embrace on various occasions…” (p. 155) That being said, Muir’s work with mystical marriages in art surfaces a literary, theological, and artistic tradition that not only tolerates same-sex marriage, it is comfortable with idealizing it.

Muir's book reminds us of a medieval church at ease with male-male physical intimacy, even ascribing it to Jesus himself. In her Introduction she quotes the 12th century Benedictine, Rupert of Deutz, describing his mystical encounter with Christ: "I took hold of him [Christ] whom my soul loves. I held him. I embraced him. I kissed him lingeringly. I sensed how gratefully he accepted this gesture of love when, between kissing, he himself opened his mouth, in order that I kiss more deeply." (p. 11) Pope Benedict XVI called Rupert "a fervent theologian endowed with great depth." (December 09, 2009) But it would be wrong to dismiss these passionate images solely as symbolic metaphor. The images work effectively only if there is an already implicit affirmation of the erotic intimacy. Rupert is fervent not only in spirit, but as enfleshed male loving the fully-human Jesus.

Surfacing these images and traditions at this time in human history serves to remind us in the fervor of our same-sex marriage debates that at some level, the church and society were once comfortable with images of same-sex intimacy and commitment, to the point of divinizing it. Restoring these images and traditions to the worship space and the sphere of normative Christian life and perceptions will serve to ease the transition toward mainstream churches accepting same-sex marriage and normalize (moreover, actually restore) the practice within our faith communities. With this book, Muir has showered down a blessing from history upon the LGBT communities.

While not inexpensive at $132, Muir's book is comparable to other coffee-table size art history books. This hardcover edition captures over one hundred images and 16 full-color plates, serving to highlight those Renaissance artworks which most compellingly demonstrate her thesis. (And who wouldn't want, at their next dinner-party debate over same-sex marriage, to note that not only did Jesus support same-sex marriage, he was in just such a marriage with St. John? And thereupon open Muir's book to Chapter 3 to share the sumptuous images of their blissful marriage, a veritable Renaissance wedding album.).


[1] To illustrate a typical re-write of marital history in which marriage is portrayed as having the same form seemingly forever throughout history, one can look at an example found in the NY Catholic Bishops’ Statement on Marriage from June 1st, 2009. The eight bishops collectively wrote: “Throughout history, different cultures have had different customs regarding marriage. But the one constant has been the conviction that marriage is the union of a man and a woman in an enduring bond, ordered for the procreation and stable rearing of children.” (While re-writing marriage history, the bishops stealthily neglect to mention that their own definition of marriage considers a “woman” to be marriageable at 15 years of age; the requirement for the male being inexplicably older for licit marriage. Code of Canon Law, Canon 1083). Just to highlight some of the many historical variants deviating from this misleading portrayal of marriage through the ages, the bishops themselves conveniently forget the practice of child marriage, the polygamy of the Jewish patriarchs, the Levirate marriage obligation, the professed, virginal marriage of Mary and Joseph, and the Catholic tradition of marriages of continence (fully abstaining from otherwise licit marital sex) in their own faith tradition.

* Latin inscription on "The Calling of St. John" is: "Tu leve conjugis pectus respuisti supra pectus domini Ihesu recumbens."
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Kevin Elphick is both a Franciscan scholar and a supervisor on a suicide prevention hotline in New York. He wrote a thesis on “Gender Liminality in the Franciscan Sources” for a master’s degree in Franciscan studies from St. Bonaventure University in New York. Elphick also has a master's degree in Religious Studies from Mundelein College in Chicago and a Doctorate in Ministry from Graduate Theological Foundation with a focus in ecumenism.

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Related links:

Saints Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachy: Honey-tongued abbot and the archbishop he loved

Francis of Assisi’s queer side revealed by historical evidence

John the Evangelist: Beloved Disciple of Jesus

Blessed Bernardo de Hoyos: Mystical same-sex marriage with Jesus

"The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion" by Leo Steinberg. University of Chicago Press, 1996. This is the definitive work on the subject, with 300 illustrations.
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This post is part of the Queer Christ series at Jesus in Love. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.



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