Tag: Non-binary

Medusa

Medusa


Artist: 
Unknown
Media: Painted terracotta
Date & Location: Around 500 BC, Italy
Where can I find this item?: The British Museum
Image Source: Photo by the author

(This object was included in the exhibition “Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic” at the British Museum, which ran May 19th to September 25th 2022)

♥Trigger warnings for mentions of sexual assault♥

Significance to Queer Art History

This relief sculpture shows the famed Medusa with her characteristic serpentine hair as well as a beard and tusks, which is not uncommon for images of her made in Ancient Greece. Gorgoneion is the term used to describe these ancient images of her severed, serpentine head. Since Medusa’s image was believed to possess protective powers these objects were thought to be imbued with apotropaic (or protective) qualities and this one was likely mounted on a roof to serve this purpose.

A fragment of a relief sculpture painted with burgundy and black of the head of Medusa with two curved tusk and a round u-shaped tongue protruding from her/their mouth, a wavy beard, a rounded face, and dark hair.
Terracotta antefix with the head of Medusa, 6th century B.C. Currently on display at the The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 171.

In Greek mythology Medusa is one of the Gorgon sisters born to two sea gods, Keto and Phorkys, and is famously killed by Perseus who reflects her gaze in his shield. Upon her death, her children Pegasos and Chrysaor spring from her neck and her decapitated head retains its powerful deadly gaze. Roman mythology adds that her transformation from mortal human to lethal legend was her ‘punishment’ after she was raped by Poseidon in the temple of Athena.

She is often taken up as a feminist symbol. Her hybridity, transformation, and the queer mode through which she creates her children also have queer potential. These bearded early representation further take this legendary figure beyond binary bounds. Anne DeLong (2001) compares the snakes in Medusa’s hair to the bearded witches in Macbeth for their mutual refusal of hegemonic femininity, and these bearded Medusa-figures certainly strengthen the bond between these temporally dispersed figures who are linked in lore through their body hair. They all have a place in the ever-growing archive of defiant, dangerous, protective, and powerful queer bodies that can be found throughout hirstory.

Resource(s)

British Museum, “Divine Femininity: The Divine to the Demonic,” exhibition and catalogue, May 19th to September 25th, 2022.

British Museum, “Antefix,” accessed 2022-06-26.

DeLong, Anne M. “Medea and Medusa: The Archetype of the Witch in Literature”. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2001.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Medusa in Ancient Greek Art,” accessed 2022-06-26.

mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Resurgence of the People

mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Resurgence of the People

Artist: Kent Monkman (b. 1965)
Media: Acrylic paint on canvas
Date & Location: 2019, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Significance to Queer Art History

Kent Monkman is a Cree artist who works across the media of painting, photography, performance, installation and film. He is known for his critical interventions into ‘canonical’ European and American art history that highlight colonial violence (both historical and ongoing), queer sexualities, and resilience. This painting, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Resurgence of the People, shows a reinterpretation of Washington Crossing the Delaware from 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, which is also housed in the Met. Instead of George Washington, though, it is Miss Eagle Testickle at the helm.

Monkman often includes his gender-fluid, Two-Spirit persona Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in his work. In this painting we see them adorned with rainbow earrings, flowing sheer and glossy red fabric, and Lou Boutons.

“I created Miss Chief Eagle Testickle to offer an Indigenous perspective on the European settlers and to also present a very empowered point of view of Indigenous sexuality pre-contact. We had our own traditions of gender and sexuality that didn’t fit the male/female binary. Miss Chief is a legendary being, she comes from the stars.”

Kent Monkman
Miss Chief Eagle Testickle

Resource(s):

Dr. June Scudeler (Métis) who is assistant professor in Indigenous Studies at Simon Fraser University and Issaku Inami who is an MOA Volunteer, Associate Gallery Host, and queer activist discuss Monkman’s work in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCeWhcyfYxg.

Kent Monkman’s website: https://www.kentmonkman.com/.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” Accessed 2021-11-03. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/11417.

Tim Barringer, “The Big Review: Kent Monkman at the Met,” in The Art Newspaper, 2020. Accessed 2021-11-03.
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2020/02/06/the-big-review-kent-monkman-at-the-met

Le Roman de Silence

Le Roman de Silence

Artist: Unknown
Author: Heldris de Cornuälle
Date & Location: Early 13th Century, France
Media: Pigment on vellum (calf skin)

A miniature showing Queen Eufeme sitting on a throne in her private chambers with Silence beside her. the private apartments are represented through a distinctive architectural frame, which here manifests as two arches. The two are seated with Eupheme on the viewer’s right and Silence on the left. This miniature, consistent with the illustrative program, emphasizes Eupheme’s position in court through hierarchical scale and a golden crown.
Queen Eupheme (right) seducing Silence (left), WLC.LM.6, Roman de Silence, f. 209r. Used with permission from University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections.

Significance to Queer Art History

The French narrative Le Roman de Silence was written by Heldris de Cornuälle in the 13th century. This is the only known surviving copy, also from the early 13th century, which exists between the vellum folios 188r-223r of WLC/LM/6 at the University of Nottingham.

This narrative, including the eleven miniatures (images) containing narrative content, is based on another medieval text: De Planctu Naturae (The Complaint of Nature) by Alain de Lille (c.1128-1212). Alain de Lille focusses especially on “sodomy,” and so does Heldris de Cornuälle.

Sodomy, and characters representing sodomy, does not match with our modern cis-heteronomative presumptions. This means that the “sodomitical” characters represented in Romance de Silence don’t conform to these presumptions either.

There are three characters (Silence, Eupheme, and the Nun) who do not conform to their assigned gender roles, and one of these characters has been called by contemporary scholars a “lesbian” figure.

This is a miniature on folio 222v. This miniature shows Silence standing naked on the left with her hands raised revealing one breast located — in truly medieval fashion — closer to her shoulder than her chest. King Evan stands fully clothed in blue with a golden crown making a dialogic gesture towards Silence.
Silence standing nude before Kind Evan, WLC.LM.6, Roman de Silence, f. 222v. Used with permission from University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections.

Summary

Since these images are so connected to the story, here is a brief summary of these three “queer” characters and their role in the plot:

**Please note: Various gendered pronouns are used here to discuss the narrative, and I do not want to negate any trans/non-binary interpretations, which I think abound. Please interpret them in whichever ways resonate for you. Additionally, these characters face violent endings so, while this is a piece of the history of queer representation, this is a loving heads-up before you dive in.**

Silence

Silence is initially described as a woman, but raised as a man after the king decrees that daughters can no longer inherit.

Silence is revealed to be a woman by Merlin at the end of the narrative, and she is then married to the king.

Silence’s body had taken on physical masculine features before being revealed, though, which are described as being “refinished” by Nature (ll. 6457–6460).

It is also worth noting that Silence had desires to make the transition permanent. He sought out Merlin to that end, but was foiled by Eupheme (ll. 6457-6460).

He is also accused of liking “young men a lot” and being an “herite” (ll. 3945-3947).

“Heretic” came to be synonymous with “sodomite” in late medieval France.

Eupheme/Eufeme

Eufeme/Eupheme is sent to marry King Evan to stop a war. She arrives with her black hair on a boat which also carries black horses to be gifted to the king (ll. 231-233).

She falls ill upon arrival delaying the wedding, but it happens three days later.

She tries to seduce Silence, and is described as being “highly skilled in such matters” (l. 3713). She is also described as loving and feeling “anguished yearning…/for this young man who was a girl (ll. 3698-3704).

Another of Eupheme’s lovers is a nun who is revealed to be “a man” near the end.

This plot point has been referred to by other scholars as further suggesting her preferences for women.

The gendered hegemony is perpetuated at the end of the narrative when Eufeme is executed by equine quartering (l. 6656). This was a common sentence for sodomy.

Adjectives used for Eufeme include: “female satan/cis sathanas” and “lady harlot/la dame fole” (l. 6273).

The Nun

A nun is in Queen Eupheme’s entourage when they intercept Silence bringing Merlin to the king.

While dressed as a nun, she/her pronouns are used for this character: she said/fait ele (l. 6250).

The nun is then revealed by Merlin in his long, riddle-like speech to be “Eufeme’s lover/… deceiving [the king] in woman’s dress” (ll. 6531-6532).

The gendered hegemony is reinforced once again when the nun is made to strip before the king (ll.6570-6571), and then executed with Eufeme (ll. 6655).

Saint Wilgefortis

Saint Wilgefortis

It is my sincere pleasure to introduce you — my sparkly, queer, and quarantined friends — to my favourite medieval Catholic saint.

Saint Wilgefortis shown on the cross with a beard, a crown, and a light blue dress with a fiddler at her feet. There is a column of text to the left of the image.

Date & Location: 1678, (currently) Städtisches Museum, Braunschweig, Germany

Artist: Unknown

Media: I believe it is pigments and ink on a wooden panel, but I will keep investigating! I wanted to get her name out to you all even while awaiting the reopening of libraries.

Significance to Queer Art History:

Saint Wilgefortis (or Saint Kümmernis) was martyred on a cross — the same martyrdom as Christ. According to her hagiography (the formal term for stories of Saint’s lives), she was being forced into marriage by her father, but wished to remain a virgin married only to God. She prayed to God to save her from her fate. He responded to her prayers by giving her masculine features, such as a beard, so that no one would want to marry her (perhaps the medieval version of finding freedom through the defiance of cis- het- standards)! Her father sentenced her to death for her disobedience and had her crucified.

Since she has a beard and died on a cross, images of the gender-bending Saint Wilgefortis are often easily mistaken for images of Christ. Some distinguishing features are: her missing shoe on the right foot, a fiddler, and sometimes a gown.

Saint Wilgefortis is a valuable component of the web of intersectional queer and feminist art “hirstories.” She is commonly seen as the Patron Saint of Abused Women, and she makes us question premodern/medieval constructions of gender and sexuality. Transformation between binary genders, as well as non-binary characters like Saint Wilgefortis herself, abound in the medieval imagination from biblical narratives to courtly romances.

The Vatican also removed her Feast Day from the Catholic calendar in 1969, and so her story continues in the discourse of trans- and homophobic exclusion, the resilience queer cultural memory, and contemporary art activism.

German image of St Wilgefortis. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Resources:

Friesen, Ilse E. The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis since the Middle Ages. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001.