Boettcher on Pearson, 'Envisioning Gender in Burgundian Devotional Art, 1350-1530: Experience, Authority, Resistance'

Andrea Pearson
Susan R. Boettcher

Andrea Pearson. Envisioning Gender in Burgundian Devotional Art, 1350-1530: Experience, Authority, Resistance. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005. Illustrations + index. $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-5154-3.

Reviewed by Susan R. Boettcher (Department of History, University of Texas at Austin)
Published on H-Low-Countries (October, 2006)

Startling Beginning for a Convincing Perspective

This expensive book stinks. Literally. The penetrating odor of the coated paper necessary for its many superb reproductions annoyed me every time I opened it to prepare this review. Are you paying attention now? Andrea Pearson convinces me of the value of the explosive opening scene in grabbing reader attention, for this book opens with a spectacularly suggestive anecdote about the centrality of gender to constructions of power in the Burgundian Netherlands. After Philip the Fair's baptism in 1478, his grandmother Margaret of York lifted the baby above her head, grabbed his scrotum, and announced to onlookers, "see here your newly born lord Philip" (cited on p. 1). With this attention-getter, Andrea Pearson embarks on a lively, often provocative tour of Burgundian art read in light of gender hierarchies in Burgundian court culture. In the end, she convinces readers that a consideration of gender factors is essential to understanding the social and cultural position of art at this most image-conscious and stylized of late medieval and early modern courts.

Pearson begins by establishing the gendered quality of two of the related types of devotional art she considers: books of hours, whose owners were predominantly women by a ratio of 3 to 1, and diptychs, which included male figures at a ratio of 6 to 1. The centrality of such gendering is enhanced, she argues, by the fact that both apparently "private" genres were also intended for a limited sort of public conception within the confines of the court and its visitors. She demonstrates this argument by reading the miniature Philip the Good at Mass (c. 1457) as representative of public orchestration of piety and its hierarchy, and augments this reading with a comparison of the depiction of Philip's son Charles in this miniature with the earlier Jean Wauquelin Offers His Translation to Philip the Good (1448), showing convincingly that the later depictions respond to Charles's challenge to Philip's sovereignty by reinforcing homosocial constructions of power in which male hierarchies were enforced and from which women were excluded. Because women sponsored their own art, however, in which competing notions of power were articulated, intersections of the masculine and feminine in Burgundian art reveal loci of resistance to dominant gender hierarchies. In particular, marginal figures at court can be seen through art to be manipulating these standards "in order to resist societal norms and assert their own status" (p. 27).

The chapters of the book demonstrate various examples of this general point. In chapter 1, Pearson treats books of hours as tools for the shaping of a particular feminine spirituality. She argues that the image Mary of Burgundy at Prayer in Hours of Mary of Burgundy (late 1470s-early 1480s) represents the creation of a woman's community of prayer and reading. Her argument is heavily couched in the assertion that this particular image does not show Mary in two different poses, but rather Mary reading and Margaret praying; I confess that I did not find this argument convincing on the basis of the specific evidence Pearson assesses--a comparison of the features of the two figures that she finds more divergent than similar; my impression after reading her description was just the opposite--although the larger argument about female spirituality seems plausible. Chapter 2 postulates that the female employment of books of hours in the construction of spiritual power challenged men, who quickly began to re-appropriate this genre for their own uses, as well as increasing their usage of the diptych, to assert their power and attempt to divert weight from the female emphasis on Mary as the creative vessel of Jesus' humanity to a more typically male emphasis on Mary as intercessor. Such "regendering" of Christianity involved males maintaining possession of female books of hours inherited from deceased relatives rather than passing them on, adding images of male worshippers to books owned by women, gifting other men with books that had originally belonged to females, and finally commissioning new books of hours. In their books of hours, men appropriated Eucharistic imagery in order to wrest it from women. Pearson connects this tendency to larger portraiture, such as the well-known image of Nicholas Rolin by Jan van Eyck. In particular, the sort of display of male genitals Mary of York executed with her infant grandson was increasingly mirrored in the depiction of the Christ Child across the fifteenth century. Here the ostentatio genitalium (sometimes shown engorged) refigures the humanity of Christ by asserting its inherent maleness, "reminding the viewer that God had chosen the male and not the female body for his son" (p. 76). While we may be suspicious of her characterization of the male position in religion as "precarious" (p. 88), one of the strongest points of Pearson's analysis, the ways in which gendered relationships fostered to the re-appropriation of gender, is demonstrated in her subsequent point about the shift in male depictions after 1470, that increasing depictions of male figures with Mary mobilized the cultural power of women's piety while reducing its importance.

Such male re-appropriations were not unproblematic; first, some females resisted them, but more importantly, they created priorities that led to tensions in the artistic mediation of masculinity and men's experiences, the subject of chapter 3. Here, Pearson compares alternative notions of masculinity in Low Country diptychs, focusing mostly on Hans Memling. Here the traditional sexual ideal of the medieval man as a married procreator conflicted with newer notions of the need for complete control of male sexuality, as represented by reference in the Diptych of Martin von Nieuwenhove (1487) to images of St. Christopher (which underlined physical strength), St. George slaying the dragon (which promulgated sexual control--an idea enhanced by the fact that artists increasingly associated the dragon with female genitalia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) and St. Martin (who ascetic practices underlined the need for bodily self-denial). These associations are reinforced by presence of glass in the diptych (a symbol of unbroken virginity), the garden (a symbol from Song of Songs that referred not only to Mary's virginity, but could also be read as a pun on Martin's last name), and the infant's penis, here centrally exposed but in this case innocently as a sign of Christ's physical purity. Here her reading of the image itself is stunning; less convincing are speculations about Martin's own potential interest in bolstering his reputation against the hypothetical taint of homosexuality or his later wife's possible response to the themes of the image. Appropriation of gender hierarchies was even more complicated in the case of the clergy, "the third gender."

Pearson's fourth chapter considers the matter of the use of diptychs by Burgundian women to challenge male figures of authority, focusing on the Flines diptych (c. 1506-13). Here Jean de Bellegambe's work is placed in the context of the fifteenth-century reform of the Cistercian order. To support her argument that abbess Jeanne de Boubais structured this diptych in order to show her compliance with gender and ecclesiastical hierarchy, Pearson provides a traditional reading of this reform in which demands for increased enforcement of enclosure are seen as threatening to nun's autonomy. Such readings are now heavily under challenge by research that suggests that one cannot generalize about nuns' relationship to enclosure and that, while some nuns resisted it, others sought it out and used it as a tool to enhance their spirituality. Nonetheless, awareness that the picture here of female response to observantine reform is more complex than Pearson admits does not significantly undermine her assertion that the diptych can be understood as an assertion of the responsibility of Flines convent in the face of accusations of misuse of its resources. The culminating but somewhat unremarkable fifth chapter treats Margaret of Austria's manipulation of the diptych genre (via the themes described in the previous chapters) to sustain notions of her own (female and Habsburg) sovereignty. As my summary above should suggest, not every argument is as solidly credible as Pearson might like. But her narrations are of high quality, like that of the best art history lectures, where as a listener one is occasionally suspicious of the details but convinced by the lecturer's overall expertise. Methodologically, I am somewhat concerned about her heavy emphasis of the agency of the patrons of this art in explaining its imagery; particularly her discussion of the role of genre in constructions of femininity and masculinity would lead me to expect a somewhat less seamless reading, one that emphasized more clearly the ways in which pictorial elements conflict with each other and that gender, like genre, undermines itself. (The chapter that most completely surmounts this problem is chapter 5, which clearly shows the intersection between patron intent, generic convention, ambiguous context and "spectator agency" [p. 141].) Nonetheless, this engagingly written, thought-provoking book should be of interest not only to scholars of art history or feminist studies but also, because of the accessibility of its arguments, to anyone ever awed by the art treasures of Burgundy and Flanders. To return to my surprising beginning: readers will find it a book more than worth the price--and the smell.

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Citation: Susan R. Boettcher. Review of Pearson, Andrea, Envisioning Gender in Burgundian Devotional Art, 1350-1530: Experience, Authority, Resistance. H-Low-Countries, H-Net Reviews. October, 2006.

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