- The Meanings of Nudity in Medieval Art by Sherry C. M. Lindquist, ed.
In her Introduction, Sherry Lindquist claims that the traditional art historical canon restricts understanding of the medieval nude to a Christian aesthetic paradigm that has become problematic for understanding depictions of nudity in the medieval period. Conversely to the traditional norm then, Lindquist promotes a contextual understanding of nudity in medieval art that is multivalent, rejecting the notion of the naked body’s predominant association with sin and corruption. As a result, in this book, Lindquist’s aim is to ‘shift general standardizations’ (p. 31) of the medieval nude which have a subsequent impact on ‘larger historical, sociological and art narratives’ (p. 31).
As editor, Lindquist has compiled an impressive collection of essays from established and talented scholars. Their scholarship reveals multiple depictions and meanings of nudity in medieval art. Lindquist introduces the topic with a comprehensive and comprehensible overview of the historiography of medieval art, carefully developing the argument for a wider understanding of nudity in this period that encompasses an interdisciplinary approach. Each contributor builds a convincing case for Lindquist’s claim, [End Page 256 ] presenting varied topics and using interdisciplinary approaches like gender studies, literary studies, and the medieval body. The result is a collection of careful and nuanced analyses of selected medieval nude case studies.
Although the arrangement of essays is not chronological, Jane C. Long’s opening work sets the scene by considering the positive reception of the classical nude during the medieval period. As she astutely reveals, there are myriad medieval discourses that appreciated the erotic nude and valued desire and love alongside medieval texts which negated the classical nude.
Several of the contributors consider the nude in manuscript illuminations. Elizabeth Hunt’s meticulous work on the naked jongleur in the margins of four distinct manuscripts, considers the jongleur depictions in association with the accompanying text and manuscript ownership. Her approach considers work on the medieval body and issues of gender to reveal divergent meanings of procreation and sensual love among the manuscript folios.
Also working on manuscripts, Martha Easton’s study on the prayer book, Belles Heures, produced for Jean, Duke of Berry, reveals a careful analysis and juxtaposition of the sartorial splendour of the clothed woman and the virginal beauty and innocence of the partially clothed Saint Catherine. Easton reveals the complex and unstable interpretation of the female nude which inverses the traditional notions of sin and corruption through states of dress and undress in the illuminations of the Belles Heures.
Using written sources to assess art works, Penny Jolly tackles the interesting matter of body hair in late medieval art with a focus on Italian painters. She refers to medical and instructional texts that consider personal grooming, hair removal, and the body’s production of hair to compare the written contemporary practices to visual artistic representations.
Madeline Caviness’s epilogue is startling and revealing. It serves as a reminder of how, in the scholastic milieu, and to borrow from anthropologists’ vocabulary, cultural knowledge gained during enculturation shapes scholars’ works. For Caviness, this is particularly evident in the American culture and reception of nudity. This is what makes Lindquist’s edited collection all the more important. She has principally assembled a group of American scholars whose conscious or subconscious refusal to conform to the dominant culture of their society has enabled them to reject the traditional canon of the medieval nude and expand understandings of the nude in medieval art.
Lindquist states in her Introduction that this edition aims to ‘call attention to the importance of the medieval nude as a category, and to open up a broader dialogue about the meanings of nudity in medieval art’ (p. 31). Does she succeed? While individually, each work is a valuable stand-alone exposition of one aspect of nudity in medieval art, the importance of this [End Page 257 ] edition lies in the cumulative nature of the essays which indeed showcase the complex and multiple meanings...