Despenser Retable, Norwich Cathedral
Quick thoughts on the depictions of Christ in two works of female authorship dating to the late 14th and early 15th centuries—
Both The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436-38) and Julian of Norwich’s Book of Showings (1390) paint portraits of Jesus Christ (and, by extension, of God) rooted firmly in his physicality, accessibility, compassion, and humanity. While depictions of Christ suffering—particularly on the cross—are far from foreign to us, the descriptions these two women give are striking in their contrast to the portrait of Jesus given in the The Dream of the Rood, wherein Christ was depicted as a heroic figure, awesome and, in many ways, remote. That Christ was something more than human. The Christ of both these women is not: he is a man who suffers bodily like the rest of us, who is accessible, caring, understanding. This Christ is not a conquering hero, but a man suffering, bleeding on behalf of the rest of humanity. He does not inspire awe, but compassion, which both of these texts seek to elicit through various methods. Both these texts rely on emphasis of the physical in order to understand Christ. In Julian’s case, this largely takes the form of physical description and overwhelming concrete detail about the body of Christ (the passage on 417 about Christ’s blood flowing from his brow is the most striking example here), while for Margery the physicality is not just Christ’s, but hers as well. That is to say that while Julian feels compassion for Christ, elicited by her visions of his body, Margery not only feels compassion, but experiences Christ’s suffering alongside him in her own body (her continual weeping and hysterical fits and also the manifestation of her love for God and Christ as a physical flame burning in her breast (432)). What Margery professes to experience is what Julian prays for when she asks that she receive Christ’s three wounds (“I would that his pains were my pains. . . with him I desired to suffer” (415)). However, though Julian suffers from a sickness, she does not experience her visions as physically as Margery does, but rather sees or them and reports them as an observer.
The importance of physicality and the body is evident even in the language the women employ to describe their experiences. Julian calls her vision “bodily sights” (415, 417) and Margery speaks of her “bodily eye” (429), both of which blur the line between sight and experience. For these women, the body is necessary to an understanding of Christ, to forming a connection with him. This emphasis on his and their bodies is emblematic of a larger characterization of Christ in these texts: his accessibility, understanding, and caring. The Christ of both women is one who is a sympathetic man among man, who speaks to us on equal terms (431) and understands us (“I will not be displeased with you whatever you think, say, or speak” (433). Just as much as he elicits compassion, he is compassionate. He is not aloof, but accessible, caring, protecting. Julian describes him as “our clothing that for love wrappeth us and windeth us, halseth us and all becloses us, hangeth about us for tender love that he may never leave us” (416), which ties in well with the portrait Margery gives us of a Christ and God who care what she thinks (431) and seek to help and protect her. All of these characteristics of the Jesus of these two women—as well as the emphasis on the body—are curiously feminine, particularly in contrast to the rather masculine traits of the Jesus in The Dream of the Rood. The passage cited just above from Julian could, did we not know it applied to Christ and God and were the pronouns ambiguous, be easily thought to describe a mother figure. Hence, Christ has not only been rendered more human and more accessible by these female writers, but also what might be called more feminine.