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Queer Medievalisms in British Art

Recent work has interrogated the expression of alternate genders and sexualities in episodes of medievalism in British art, film, and literature. From Horace Walpole’s Gothic villa at Strawberry Hill to the art of Simeon Solomon and the films of Derek Jarman, the Middle Ages has served as a space during modernity to explore various forms of non-normative sexuality and gender identity. Britain’s own history, in which the sixteenth-century Dissolution of the Monasteries ended the “Middle Ages” and the Catholic/ monastic structures that defined it, constructs the Middle Ages as a lost, pre-modern period of sexual and social possibility that contrasts with a “reformed” modern present. For many British artists, social renewal was predicated upon an anachronic return to the medieval past, a reimagining of a lost social structure. In Jonathan Stein’s useful epitome, queer artists “looked to the past in the present to imagine the future.”

We welcomed submissions that explored how artists, architects, film makers and art historians constructed the Middle Ages, and its many significations such as Catholic monasticism with its inherent monosexuality, as spaces of queer potential. We particularly encouraged research that challenges canonical framings of queer British art, e.g. research that foregrounds work created by or about women, or highlights intersections between queer medievalisms and notions of race, place or social class. 

Session Convenors: 

Bob Mills, UCL 

Matthew Reeve,  Queens University 

Speakers: 

Whitney Davis, University of California at Berkeley  

Edward Burne-Jones’s Queer Hygiene 

The Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones ransacked the visual and material cultures of the Middle Ages—real and imagined—to explore ‘queer’ themes of monosexuality, mortified chastity, adultery, sexual idolatry, same-sex friendship-love, and homoeroticism—of social and erotic arrangements outside modern heteronormative monogamy. Some of his sources were and are well-known, such as Arthurian romances and mid-Victorian reconstructions of medieval chivalric codes (Kenelm Digby et al.). Others were more obscure and specialized, such as the iconography of the murderer-turned-saint John Gualbertus and the ‘sodomitical’ reversals of Christian symbolism found in ‘Templar’ relics (and forgeries). Though occasionally shocking in context, Burne-Jones’s queer pictorializations have long been seen as peculiarly anaemic and stereotyped, as if a great corporeal, sexual, and social truth has been systematically deflected. The paper explores the overdetermined cleanliness of Burne-Jones’s medievalism. 

Dominic Janes, Keele University   

Queering Medievalism in Oxford Students’ Cartoons, 1837–1939  

 Oxford University was sometimes thought of as being haunted by the last enchantments of the Middle Ages. Not only was it a medieval institution but it preserved a goodly scatter of buildings from that period. In the course of the nineteenth century these were supplemented – and in some cases such as Balliol College – supplanted, by medievalist gothic revival structures. Important works of Pre-Raphaelite art are preserved at the Oxford Union and at Keble College (Holman Hunt, The Light of the World). From this perspective medievalism appears to have been a normative cultural and artistic stance in the University. That notwithstanding, the Oxford Movement and its ritualist successor were mocked by university students in a series of cartoons published by one of the town’s leading printers and booksellers. This paper thinks about these images as not simply being the result of religious prejudice and opposition but as creative works of queer fashioning. They will be contextualised by discussion of other materials written by students, including debating society minutes and novels. The purpose of this is to illustrate the evolution of such imagery from associations of gender transgression to ones centred on sexualised identities by the inter-war period. It does this, in particular, by exploring the role of medievalist and antiquarian interests in the construction of the image of the university ‘aesthete’ who, it was often alleged, looked to the cultural and sexual example of Oscar Wilde.   

  

Thomas Elliott, University of Sussex  

All Nuns Bright and Beautiful’: Queer Medievalism and the London Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence  

In 1991 the London Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence canonised Derek Jarman as a living queer saint. While playful, this performance of ‘serious parody’ (Wilcox: 2018), drew upon many tropes which connect Catholicism to queerness and the medieval in the British imagination, including elaborate costuming, arcane ritualism, and the use of specialised ‘mystical’ language (Polari in place of Latin).   

While recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the Sisters, there remains little art historical work on their styles of self-fashioning as religious performance. This paper seeks to redress this balance. Taking records of the canonisation ceremony, archival material, and photographs published in the postcard book Get the Rubber Habit (1993), as a starting point, my paper posits that the Sisters make use of the medieval as a profoundly queer resource for bringing about a utopian, reparative spiritual space which retains the salvific power of Christian ritual while rejecting its homophobic and self-denying elements. The development of this queer medievalism can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when the Catholic, the monastic and the ritualistic as were positioned as ‘other’ in the Anglo-American imagination; queer, deviant, and medieval (O’Malley: 2009). By touching these two eras together (Dinshaw: 1999) I will show how Victorian constructions of the medieval, namely female monastic orders as sexually transgressive and deviant, and high church Ritualism as ‘effete Medievalism’ (Moran: 2007), remain with us today, having been shaped in the intervening years into a uniquely queer, liberating praxis of performative and visual theology.  

Evelyn Whorrall-Campbell,  University of Cambridge  

St Pelagius the Penitent and the Trans Divine 

This historicization of trans as an identity category has mapped a close association with modernity, tracing the emergence of the ‘transsexual’ as a pathologised medical classification across the twentieth century. More recently, however, trans scholarship has sought to explore ‘pre-modern’ gender deviance, interested in finding novel ways of telling transgender history before the advent of contemporary terminologies and categories of gender. For Blake Gutt and Alicia Spencer-Hall, as described in their introduction to Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, this long history explicitly aims at demonstrating the legitimacy of gender non-conformity, as set within the larger project of securing transgender rights. Following Leslie Feinberg, Gutt and Spencer-Hall describe the ability of medieval saints, such as Joan of Arc, to transgress the boundary between the human and the divine via acts of cross-dressing as narratives with euphoric potential for articulating alternative trans desires in the present. 

This paper explores an artistic response to trans sanctity, via the 1997 short film St Pelagius the Penitent, directed by Jason (Jewels) Barker. Interweaving documentary-style footage of a group of five friends discussing their own transitions with a re-telling of St Pelagius’s life as trans masc ancestor, Barker’s work enables a discussion of trans historicism within the context of experimental filmmaking traditions. This paper argues that St Pelagius’s formal and narrative strategies challenge the framing of trans medievalism through the acquisition of legal rights, instead articulating an interest in images of sanctity as a strategy for articulating an alternative metaphysics of the trans body as divine. 

Baylee Woodley,  UCL  

Breasts in the Basement  

In the basement of Gathering, a gallery in Soho, a figure reminiscent of Saint Agatha holds her breasts. These are not the neatly plated nor the violently severed breasts found in medieval images. Instead, a floating figure with a frilly, droplet-covered face draped in blue velvet cradles large, pink breasts still attached to a headless neck. Elsewhere in the basement, a green hand holds Saint Lucy’s eyes with its pinky poised as though holding a cup of tea instead of disembodied organs. The centre of the room is dedicated to an installation evocative of earlier work by the artist responsible for this basement of bodies. Complete with glass reliquary, loose wires, and golden pillars that merge neoclassicism with a ritzy laboratory aesthetic, it evokes Tai Shani’s earlier Dark Continent project inspired by Christine de Pizan. 

For Shani ‘exploring and communing with the past is a way of approaching the idea of the future.’ This paper takes up her invitation to commune with the past through her work as a mode of speculating queer futures, while also communing with her work through the queerness of the past. Building on previous scholarship on the queerness of medieval saints, it explores the fluidity of masculinity, femininity, divinity, and bodyliness inherent in the medieval itself and laid bare in Shani’s queer, fem(me)inist landscapes. Specifically, it investigates the queer possibilities that emerge for both past and future when the masculinizing redemptive language of medieval sainthood meets the fragmentary feminine utopia of Shani’s self-described ‘secular prayer.’ 

Theo Gordon, University of York  

Some Medieval Motifs in Art and AIDS Activism in Britain 

  In January 1990, the exhibition Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology opened at Impressions Gallery of Photography in York. Curated by Tessa Boffin and Sunil Gupta, the show featured the work of eleven different photographers and artists, several of whom incorporated medieval motifs into works aiming to contest the way AIDS had been represented in the UK by government and Health Education Authority campaigns. From Boffin’s angel wings and citation of the Wilton Diptych, to Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Alex Hirst’s painted icons mingling Yoruba and Christian symbolism, and Gupta’s use of Hindu calendars of household deities, Ecstatic Antibodies sought to locate the struggle to reconceptualise AIDS and illness within an erotic mysticism transcending national borders. 

In this paper I use Ecstatic Antibodies as a prism through which to consider the particular temporalities and materialities of the AIDS crisis in the postcolonial UK. The exhibition contributed to a wider effort to reframe safer sex as an erotic practice in visual culture and grassroots AIDS education posters, as witnessed in Terrence Higgins Trust’s 1989 ‘Get Set for Safer Sex’ campaign. The ‘queer medievalism’ of activist art and education in the British AIDS crisis, I argue, centred on the attempt to harness the auratic experience of images (in Benjamin’s sense) in a queer culture defined and constituted by print. I also aim to show that there is no autochthonous ‘British’ AIDS art and activism in the transnational pandemic, even as their conditions of emergence and possibility in the UK demand particular scrutiny. 

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