Academic journal article The Comparatist

Swallowing the Androgyne and Baptizing Mother: Some Modernist Twists to Two Basic Sacraments

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Swallowing the Androgyne and Baptizing Mother: Some Modernist Twists to Two Basic Sacraments

Article excerpt

THE EUCHARIST AND COMMUNION

A detailed schematization of aspects of the feminine gathered from myth analysts like C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell was among the helpful frameworks that Michael Palencia-Roth offered in his path-breaking comparative study of Joyce, Mann, and Garcia-Marquez (1987). My purpose here is to illustrate how the interest of modernist writers in "feminine" characteristics and paradigms sometimes was channeled in revisions of mainstream ways for treating two fundamental sacraments, the Eucharist and baptism. Of course, there is nothing strange in the fact that writers of more recent times, liberated after many centuries of anthropological speculation about myth and religion, would play with the tradition of the sacraments as part of their culture's poetic vocabulary. Switching or unifying "masculine" and "feminine" expressions of God was already attractive to some artists and writers of the high Middle Ages, as the researches of Caroline Bynum have established. A peaking of medieval fascination for the "body" of the Savior was manifested in the institution of a new feast day, Corpus Christi. One formative impulse can be traced to the nun Saint Juliana (1193-1258) of Mont Cornillon in Belgium who experienced a vision of a Eucharistic wafer which bled and she thought the sacrament was telling her to advocate the due observance of its mystery, Christ's sacrifice nourishing humanity. One of her important confidants, Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liege, called a synod in 1246 and ordered celebration of the new feast. The initiative was restarted when Jacques Pantaleon, Archdeacon of Liege, after his election as Pope Urban IV, declared the feast day of Corpus Christi in 1264 and asked no less a figure than Saint Thomas Aquinas to write liturgy for it that is still used and admired today. Probably antedating the official establishment of the celebration, ritual parades in which the host was carried about the towns in a monstrance amplified the public's opportunity to venerate His real presence in the consecrated bread and thereby to reconstitute the community of belief.

Jan van Eyck's (1385-1441) famous painting of The Lamb of God (1432) from whose breast bright blood spurts to fill the chalice on the depicted altar is one of many late recapitulations of the dramatic union of white flesh and bright red which the Eucharistic host suggested as nourishment. The lower central panel in the huge altarpiece of St. Bavo's cathedral in Ghent showing the beneficent Lamb focuses our adoration on the potency of the sacrament in a divine order. The fountain of life stands in the foreground below the throne-like altar, connecting baptism with Christ's nurturing. It is instructive to contrast to Van Eyck's mystical symbolism the radical portrayal of Christ's body in Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's (1571-1610) painting The Doubt of Thomas (1602-1603). The painter Rembrandt's version (1634) of the resurrected Christ's appearance to his followers more traditionally and tastefully depicts Thomas's amazement as Christ in an aureole of radiance lifts His garment to reveal the lance wound, while a number of other disciples look on similarly moved. Caravaggio, however, is provocatively naturalistic. Christ, with no halo, bares His chest with His right hand and with His left gently guides Thomas's right hand as the "doubter" probes the vagina-like wound with a large sturdy forefinger. We enjoy a view close up to the intimately clustered group of three apostles next to the Savior whose feminine face is inclined tenderly toward the intrusive finger. Unmistakably baroque in its tendency, this tension-laden picture combines eroticizing the act of testing the Savior's flesh with a feeling of paradox and controversy. We are made to puzzle over whether the painter is conveying a deliberately occulted message or teaching, rather than the standard story from Matthew. One of the mysteries suffering estrangement in the seventeenth century that may be reintroduced here is the motherhood of God and the "flesh" as God's channel (feminized Christ). …

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