Book of Hours (Cistercian), Bleeding wound on cloth held by two kneeling angels, Walters Manuscript W.218, fol. 28v by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts

I’ve got a great book called Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others that talks about this type of religious imagery:

It is not only symbols in dreams but symbols depicted in extant medieval artworks that we must beware of interpreting by solely modern standards. The wound in Christ’s side created by the penetration of a lance at the crucifixion was often depicted in later medieval art in a way that looks like a vulva, or at least that looks like a vulva to a modern observer. The image could even be abstracted from Christ’s side and used on its own as a devotional object, particularly by nuns or pious laywomen. …

First of all, it is not clear that medieval people would have immediately thought “vulva” when they saw an image like this. to medieval people a vulva might have looked like a wound, rather than a wound looking like a vulva. … This is not to say that it did not also have erotic meaning, and in a culture that treated women’s genitals as sexual and shameful, suggesting that the entrance into Christ’s body was like the entrance to a womb was a powerful image of inversion. It is important to note the complexities of images, to recognize that medieval people brought different meanings to them, and not to think we know what it meant because we read it a certain way.

Only someone living in the modern age could have written these last few paragraphs about how the erotic and the spiritual overlap. A medieval writer would not have put it the same way. While for us the erotic equates with the carnal, for many medieval thinkers the erotic, to the extent that it overlapped with the spiritual, was opposed to the carnal. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, who wrote a series of sermons on the Song of Songs in which he imagined kissing Christ on the mouth and something even more holy, “that most intimate kiss of all, a mystery of supreme generosity and ineffable sweetness,” would have wanted to make a sharp distinction between his spiritual understanding of this action and a carnal understanding that would equate it with erotic activity between men, or between men and women. One was sublime, the other polluted. But he would, at least, have recognized the similarities in language and the possibility that it could be taken the wrong way; he suggested that novice monks cannot understand the true spiritual meaning until they are prepared for “nuptial union with the divine partner.”

It goes on to talk about the development of pornography in Europe out of these types of images.

Huh, a bit like the Islamic mystics.

this is the part where someone pastes in some erotic poetry about God



I’m ready, my Lord

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s