The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 542-543
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Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and the Scopic Economy. By Madeline H. Caviness (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2001. Pp. x, 231. $55.00.)
Madeline H. Caviness spent the first several decades of her career writing books on medieval stained glass that were widely-acclaimed models of archaeological method and text-based erudition. Ten years ago she transformed her research through her current project, "reading as a woman," which brings feminist theory to bear on medieval visual culture. Her essay, "Patron or Matron? A Capetian Bride and a Vade Mecum for her Marriage Bed," in the April, 1993, issue of Speculum proposed a revolutionary reading of a famous fourteenth-century manuscript, overturning traditional readings of marginal imagery as humorous examples of artistic freedom and substituting their interpretation as gynephobic instruments of social control.
The engagement with neo-Freudian theory begun in the 1993 essay is yet more forceful in Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages. Caviness problematizes the concept of "the gaze," developed for film criticism in 1973 by Laura Mulvey from Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, and rapidly and broadly applied to the history of art. The volume begins with a theoretical introduction that scrutinizes gaze theory, followed by three case-study chapters that examine the representation and fragmentation of the female body in medieval and late twentieth-century imagery.
The "Introduction" is the major contribution of the volume, applying as it does the archaeological rigor of Caviness' stained glass monographs to postmodern theory. Caviness reviews Mulvey's use of the Freudian concept of the scopophiliac gaze and Lacan's notion of the mirror phase of self-realization, pointing out Mulvey's selective use of these theories. In this exhaustive critique of the implications of Freud and Lacan for feminist thought, Caviness interweaves the views of writers from multiple disciplines, from George Bataille and Kaja Silverman to Rosalind Krauss and Caroline Walker Bynum.
While Caviness suggests that the selections of the book can be read in any order, the case studies seem to depend heavily upon the introduction. Chapter [End Page 542] 1 discusses the proscriptions on a woman's gaze and the consequences of violating that ban, through the story of Lot's wife and daughters. Readers who balk at applying interpretative strategies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to medieval art will find abundant evidence in Caviness' text and illustrations that medieval imagery and indeed biblical texts were preoccupied with looking, with what Caviness styles "the ocular economy."
Chapter 2 examines the disproportionate number of illustrations of female martyrs' often sexualized tortures and mutilations. Here Caviness again employs gaze theory and raises the possibility that breast envy, dismissed by Freud as a psychological possibility, may underlie such images as St. Agatha with her severed breasts.
The final chapter joins the current discourse on the fragmentation and transformation of the female body. Caviness draws from Lacanian notions to examine such diverse objects as medieval reliquaries and ex-votos and the work of contemporary photographers Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman.
For this reader the comparisons with late twentieth-century visual culture, from slasher films to performance art, were less compelling than the medieval images viewed independently. I wondered, as well, if medieval viewers would have responded to the level of illusionism, or lack thereof, as Caviness assumes from her retrospective position; that is, if viewers of Romanesque images of the torture of St. Agatha would have perceived them as lacking in sensuality, as do we who compare the early images with Baroque or even Gothic ones.
These are cavils about a study that is the most intensive application to date of Freudian and Lacanian theory to medieval visual culture. Of Caviness' many insights, the most valuable is that the relevance of Freudian and Lacanian concepts to medieval art and indeed to biblical themes is not proof of the universality of these concepts, but of the long-entrenched patriarchal culture of which the Middle Ages, like our own time, is a part...