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Emaciated women, weeping men: queerness and the saintly body in medieval Christian art, c. 1000 – 1500

Taylor, Charlie (2023) Emaciated women, weeping men: queerness and the saintly body in medieval Christian art, c. 1000 – 1500. Undergraduate Thesis, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Medieval conceptualizations of biological sex in part relied upon Aristotelian ideas of the male body as dry and the female as wet, with menstruation evidencing the abundance of fluid in women. What happens, then, when decades under the desert sun dry up a female body? How should we think of a man who is penetrated and bleeds profusely? Medieval saints occupied a role above the human, and as a result could transgress otherwise firm boundaries. This study investigates how saints’ bodies were sexed and re-sexed over 500 years of visual culture, aiming to capture a range of publics and mediums — these include manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, portable icons, and altar pieces. While focused on the Byzantine world, it places Byzantine objects in dialogue with Western objects, recognizing both these areas as part of a constantly shifting global Middle Ages.
The study begins with a consideration of gendered violence and humiliation in the Bodleian Menologion (Cambridge, Bodleian Library MS. Gr. th. f. 1) and the Walters “Imperial” Menologion (Baltimore, Walters Art Museum W.521), which take special interest in martyred saints and the manners of their deaths. Among the saints in the Imperial Menologion is Tatiana, a woman whose persecutors humiliate her by shaving her head before decapitating her. When Tatiana loses this marker of her femininity, she becomes a nonperson, and involuntary gender transition can only precede her death. More voluntary gendered transformations appear in the lives of ascetic saints; St. Mary of Egypt, upon her flight into the desert, performs miraculous feats of self-denial which render her body emaciated, tanned and nearly breastless. We might contrast this Mary — represented in the frescoes of Panagia Phorbiotissa in Cyprus (12th c.) — against the hairy, “wild woman” Mary of the Western tradition. The final chapter examines military saints and the tension between masculine virility and martyrdom, which renders the saint defenseless and dominated. Take the martyred military saint Demetrius, who in the Bodleian menologion appears penetrated by two spears in the moment in his martyrdom. Similarly, Giovanni del Biondo’s altarpiece (late 14th c.) presents St. Sebastian at the moment of his penetration as pale and curvy, with a soft belly. Together, these saints’ bodies, as miraculous objects, act as sites of boundary transgression. These bodies are fluid — transforming both over the course of a single narrative and with every representation — and that fluidity itself is a marker of sanctity.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Taylor, CharlieCLT76@pitt.eduCLT76
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairNygren,
Committee MemberFozi,
Committee MemberRoland,
Committee MemberGutt, Blakebag112@pitt.eduBAG112
Date: 18 April 2023
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 28 March 2023
Approval Date: 18 April 2023
Submission Date: 17 April 2023
Access Restriction: 2 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 2 years.
Number of Pages: 91
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: David C. Frederick Honors College
Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History of Art and Architecture
Degree: BPhil - Bachelor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Undergraduate Thesis
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Byzantium, queer studies, saints
Date Deposited: 18 Apr 2023 19:04
Last Modified: 18 Apr 2023 19:04


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