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With the greatest of ease: airborne female saints

24 August 2018

Serinity Young considers a preponderance of airborne female saints


Hadewijch of Brabant by Dina Cormick

Hadewijch of Brabant by Dina Cormick

MULTIPLE terms exist for the varieties of aerial experience: magical flight, transvection, apotheosis, ascension, assumption, and so on. Magical flight can refer either to actual bodily flight or to spiritual flight. Examples of both have been described in many religious traditions and in folk tales from around the world, making magical flight one of the earliest religious beliefs.

Transvection refers to being carried through the air by another entity — for example, an angel, a witch, a devil, or a Valkyrie carrying a dead warrior to heaven. Terms such as apotheosis, ascension, and assumption usually refer to after-death experiences of rising up to heaven by various means. Apotheosis refers to the deification of human beings upon death, a privil­ege usually, but not always, reserved for rulers.

Christianity, among other religions, describes ascensions, such as that of Christ and the assumption of Mary. These after-death examples of flight are not simply a desire to escape death; at the core of religious belief is the denial of death, and the promise of renewal, rebirth, immortality, or salvation.

Religions based on revelation, as well as folk-tales from around the world, group together an intriguing assortment of aerial and elemental beings who bring the other-world to the natural world, offering unattainable gifts and knowledge to human beings. Angels, specifically, act as messengers between God and human beings who have been singled out to hear God’s word and whose commands must be followed to the letter.

From the perspective of gender, the most important thing about angels is that they are all male. This is obvious from their descriptions in scripture and from artistic depictions up until the Late Medieval/early-Renaissance period, when angels first began to be portrayed as female. The angel who drives Adam and Eve out of paradise, the one with whom Jacob wrestles, and those that appear to Hagar, Daniel, Abraham, the Virgin Mary, the women at Jesus’s tomb, and Muḥammad are all male. Even the angels that appear in the biblical dreams of Jacob and Joseph are male, as are the angels that became visible to medieval Christian women mystics.  

A possible biblical exception to angels’ maleness occurs in Zechariah 5:9 when he sees two women:  “The wind was in their wings; they had wings like the wings of a stork.” 

In truth, angels are incorporeal beings without gender; nonetheless, they are understood to be male since human beings tend to gender the world and the male body is widely considered the normative body, making the female body deviant.  On the scale of existence, they are as different from God as they are from human beings; they are formless, bodiless, and immaterial and are often thought to be “elementals” made up of air, water, fire, and earth.

This makes them mostly invisible, except when becoming visible is necessary. The Jewish Bible (Tanakh) is replete with their appearances as messengers of God: They are necessary intermediaries between God and human beings, because humans cannot look upon God directly and live (Exodus 3:6).

Despite Solomon’s having had carvings made of them in the Temple (1 Kings 6:23–35), Judaism did not allow any figurative representations of its religious concepts, following the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image . . . of anything in heaven . . . or that is in the earth beneath” (Exodus 20:4).

Consequently, angels presented an iconographic challenge to early Christian artists, a problem largely solved by presenting them as winged men, examples of which already existed in pre-Christian art, such as the naked Erotes (members of Aphrodite/Venus’s retinue). Christian sculptures, paintings, illuminations, and texts presented angels as male in both popular and high art.

The feminisation of angels and the introduction of child angels (putti, later conflated with cherubs) began in early Italian Renaissance art. Neither female angels nor child angels have any basis in Christian literature or thought; they are an innovation introduced by artists of the period, an innovation based on the classical female forms of the goddess Victory and the childlike forms of the erotes. While masculine angels remained dominant, female angels began to perform some of their functions, appearing on tombs and flanking the Cross, while putti appeared in Nativity scenes and scenes from Christ’s childhood, as well as in scenes showing them crowning Mary Queen of Heaven. Belief in angels was waning, and the appearance of child and female angels was an indication of angels’ declining status: if women and children could be angels, then angels are less significant.

Female angels began to appear in large numbers during the 19th-Century Romantic movement, and the word angel began being used most often in connection with women, as in “the angel of the house,” a popular conception in England and the United States. The Victorian social myth of woman as the presiding angel of the hearth is one indication of how quickly female angels were domesticated in both winged and wingless forms.

The thing about angels (and devils) is that they are spirits and therefore do not actually have bodies, let alone sexual characteristics; rather, they can assume the appearance of a human being. Yet in the Medieval period it was not just the maleness of angels that was asserted; there was a parallel feminisation of demons in art and theology. Angels’ masculinity echoes the masculinity of Christ, and even though demons were fallen angels and would therefore presumably be male, their depictions are feminised. In fact, it is precisely their fall that feminises them; just as Eve is the first human sinner so, too, are the fallen angels the first heavenly sinners. Woman and demon have a shared status as primordial sinners, who continue to drag others (men) into sin.

Over time Christians demonised human flight. Churchmen were made anxious by any supernatural acts because the source for such powers could come from the devil (as in the transvection of Christ) as well as from God. In general, they perceived flying as a sign of demonic power, as in the case of witches, but the occasional levitations by a saint while engrossed in prayer were merely frowned upon. Demoniacs — those thought to be possessed by demons — were, however, commonly believed to levitate as well.

What we see in this history is the suggestion that when males fly it is good but when women fly it is bad — so much so that female angels are linked to the decline of the cult of angels. Even the patron saint of aviation, Joseph of Campolino, is male, despite the more numerous flying female mystics, to which we now turn.

THE following Christian female mystics are but a small representation of a rich tradition of the many women mystics who flew, were transvected, or levitated. All had visionary experiences, which gave them enough religious authority to have their views accepted and their writings preserved, and yet they were unique individuals. They lived in various countries, came from different classes, and had widely diverging educations. Most were cloistered, but found ways to move about in the secular world.

Each, in her own way, led a heroic life by being a woman of formidable will who overcame obstacles and stayed true to her own visions. At the same time, they were all celibate, which set them apart from other women, de-feminising and legitimising them. They also excelled at fasting, creating unimaginably light bodies. These aerial female saints form an intriguing contrast with the maleness of the winged angels that often appeared to them.

CREATIVE COMMONSSt Christina the Astonishing (Mirabilis) by George Baltus, Our Lady Assumption, Sint-Truiden, in Belgium. The frame read: “In pestilence, famine, and war, deliver us Lord. St Christina, for your community intercede”

CHRISTINA SAINT-TROND (1150-1224) of France, a laywoman from a poor family, became known as Christina Mirabilis (Christina the Astonishing), a title that she fully earned. Christina was no visionary flier; according to her hagiographer, the Dominican friar Thomas de Cantimpré, the witnesses whom he assembled testified that they actually saw her fly with their own eyes.

The Life of Christina begins with her death — that is, her death and resurrection. When she was about 32 years old, she grew ill and died. During the requiem mass said for her, “the body stirred in the coffin and rose up and, like a bird, immediately ascended to the rafters of the church,” (Life, 18), the first of many references to her birdlike activities.

She was soon forced to descend by the officiating priest and was questioned by her friends about what she saw while she lay dead. Christina answered that she had been taken by angels to see the suffering souls in purgatory and in hell, and that then she had been led before God, who gave her a choice to remain with him or to return to her body and through her sufferings deliver souls. She unhesitatingly accepted.

Christina continued to display her aerial abilities and her talent for more terrestrial forms of flight as she time and again escaped the chains with which her family and friends bound her, in the belief that she was mad or possessed by demons. The chaining and tying up of visionary women appears not to have been unusual.

Christina never joined an order of nuns. Instead, she struggled to maintain an independent and solitary life away from all people. She “lived in trees after the manner of birds” (Life, 20) or at the top of any lofty structure that she could find. In this practice, Christina used her body to demonstrate her interstitial state. By her choice, she was neither fully with God nor willing to be fully in this world. She continually fasted, creating the lightest body possible; being so poor, she had nothing else but food to give up for Christ.

The Eastern Orthodox church has also given us flying female mystics, as in the example of St Irene of Chrysobalanton (circa ninth century). Chapter 16 of her Life describes her practice of standing prayers, during which she struck a posture of flight by extending her arms towards heaven. She remained in this position for days, even a week. These long vigils required her to go without sleep for days at a time, even as she maintained such an intense fast that the skin was said to hang off her bones.

This rejection of bodily needs obviously led to an extreme loss of weight and a continual state of light-headedness that would be conducive to Irene’s own sense of flight, or, more accurately, her levitation. This seems to have been a frequent event for Irene, though there is only one witnessed account by an unnamed nun who saw Irene hanging in the air above the ground and praying with her hands extended towards heaven. The observing nun later said that Irene had lingered in the air for three hours or more (Life, 77).

CYNTHIA LARGEChristina the Astonishing by Cynthia Large

CHRISTIAN mystics such as Elisabeth of Schönau (1128/29–1164/65) and Hadewijch of Brabant (1202?–68), particularly focused on Mary’s assumption. Angels, assumptions, and ascensions are all expressions of a core Christian belief in an ongoing downward spiritual movement of God’s grace to human beings and an upward movement of human beings to a heavenly salvation. Christ’s resurrection and ascension and Mary’s assumption into heaven are not just their individual experiences: they are a promise that all faithful Christians will be bodily called to heaven on the Day of Judgement.

Elisabeth of Schönau embodies this dual movement, in that she claimed to have been transported to other realms and also to have been visited in this world by heavenly beings. In her Poem of the Assumption, she described her vision of Mary’s assumption, which popularised this belief, defined its imagery, and influenced its iconography.

Elisabeth frequently described being “carried aloft” by a male angel, as when he carried her to purgatory, where three young girls asked for her prayers so that they could ascend to heaven. On the basis of her visions, Elisabeth claimed an independent authority to address matters of religious truth, including the moral corruption in the Church. In keeping with her aerial nature, she found her own path and peopled it with authoritative women represented by the supportive community of her sister nuns, and by her visions of the Virgin Mary and of powerful, often royal, women.

Her ecstatic visions, which usually occurred after she had been ill for a period of time, began when she was about 23 and continued until her death 13 years later. Her poor health and frequent illnesses were probably exacerbated by her lack of interest in food or drink and her practices of physical mortification, such as wearing coarse garments and a harsh belt that tore at her flesh, as well her many tribulations, which she attributed to the “hand of the Lord upon her”. Not surprisingly, the visions occurred after she had received communion, as they did for many female mystics.

One of the most gifted women of the Middle Ages, Hildegard of Bingen, believed that Christianity was in an effeminate age (muliebre tempus), in which the failure of male leadership required women to define their own spiritual paths. Fittingly, Elisabeth maintained a correspondence with, and was influenced by, Hildegard: Elisabeth’s visions began one year after the publication of Hildegard’s visions, the Scivias, in 1151.

There were consistent differences between medieval women’s and men’s spirituality. Female mystics primarily experienced union with God within their bodies. Levitations, immobile and insensible trance, uncontrollable fits, and reception of the stigmata were all bodily manifestations of, and authentications of access to, the divine. Flying and levitation were considered supernatural, but not always problematic, signs of grace.

ALAMYThe Vision of St Teresa of Ávila by Sebastiano Ricci (1727)

In part, female mystics had internalised the association of women with flesh (and men with soul) articulated by philosophers and theologians, and thus they manifested their mystical experiences through their bodies, while male mystics did so through their intellects. They also profoundly enacted belief in the resur­rection of the body on Judgement Day. As we have seen in Christina’s life, their religious authority arose in large part from their somatic experiences.

Women’s religious lives were not always institu­tionalised in convents. Beguines, such as Hadewijch of Brabant, were independent religious women living and working all over Northern Europe. Likewise, Christina the Astonishing was always moving about when not actually escaping confinement, and was not part of a religious order.

Many of these women found a religious significance in ordinary life and its chores which “seemed odd and dangerous to male sensibilities”. They were part of a movement that sought to live as Christ’s apostles had: simply, in poverty, and doing manual labour. A large part of the problem they faced was that they were under no ecclesiastical authority — no men had a final say over their lives and practices, for which each community created its own guidelines. Joining a group of Beguines required only a sincere desire to live as they did, and one was free to leave at any time. Today, only a handful of Beguines are left in Belgium.

Hadewijch’s first recorded vision occurred just after she had received communion, which caused her to enter a trance. As it was for other female mystics, the eucharist was her chosen form of sustenance, and she transformed the hunger caused by fasting into hunger for Christ. Hadewijch frequently described her mystical flights as being “taken up in the spirit” and transported to a heavenly place. Her ability, through her visionary experiences, to be trans­ported through the air affirmed her belief that her soul was close to God.

PUBLIC DOMAINAssumption, Titian (1516)

AS ALREADY mentioned, the external behaviours of the possessed, whether divine or demonic, were perceived to be similar. The only distinction between them was internal and, therefore, dependent on the claims of the possessed person. Women were considered more susceptible to demonic possession than men.

Concurrently, women’s low status in medieval society added to the suspicion that their claims to religious authority were attempts to gain prestige. Even cloistered women mystics were public figures and thus more challenging to, and vulnerable to, male ecclesiastical authorities. Many of the latter thought that their claims to sanctity usurped male authority, and tended to question them on the basis of beliefs about women’s greater vulnerability to the demonic.

This was the time of the Inquisition, and women such as Hadewijch of Brabant and Teresa of Ávila (1515-82, a well-known levitator) came under its scrutiny. In contrast, male mystics were more often questioned in terms of doctrinal error or heresy.

Given the ambiguities between divine and demonic possession, a widespread campaign was initiated to educate clerics and laity in the discernment of evil spirits. In the case of women, it was usually presumed that possession was caused by an evil spirit, which required women to defend themselves, sometimes again and again, for years.

Beginning in the late 12th century, one consequence of this campaign was a concurrent increase in reports of demonic possession, just as reports of women claiming divine possession first appeared. Consequently, the female mystic and the witch were conflated, leading a number of women saints to be suspected of witchcraft or demonic possession — for example, Catherine of Siena, Lidwina of Schiedam, and Columba of Rieti.

Two prominent elements defined the sanctity of medieval women saints. First, they were celibate, which altered their status and gave them potential authority. The second element was excessive fasting, for which women saints were famous. This denial of and attempt to transform the body actually does make the body lighter, perhaps light enough to fly, as was suggested in Lives of Christina and St Irene.

Unfortunately, witches were also great fasters; so not eating could be attributed to a demonic or divine source. It was assumed that witches were fed by the devil in a symbolic rapport with a familiar or an incubus.

Fasting is deeply connected to miracles involving women’s manipulation of their bodies, including flying, levitation, and transvection. Their consciousness was undoubtedly altered, making them light­headed as well as light in weight, and stimulating visions involving aerial events. Their bodies were further transformed by physical suffering, illness, and harsh forms of asceticism.

Medieval female saints struggled with a Church that circumscribed their roles and constrained their abilities. Women such as Christina, Irene, Hildegard, Hadewijch, and Teresa of Ávila breached the boundaries of decorum, gender expectations, hierarchy, perception, and reality.

Despite the preponderance of airborne female saints, the patron saint of aviation is often said to be St Joseph of Cupertino (1603-63), one of the very few male levitating saints. In Images of Flight (University of California Press, 1988), Clive Hart opines that Joseph’s childlike nature — many referred to him as mentally retarded — made him “a convenient vehicle for the expression of a powerful and suppressed longing: endowed with spiritual authority by the participant’s sanctified state, the idea of free flight is purged both of its physical terrors and of its taint of the ridiculous”. That — or it’s good when a man flies and bad when a woman does.

Professor Serinity Young is a research associate in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languages and Culture at Queens College, City University of New York. Women Who Fly: Goddesses, witches, mystics, and other airborne females is published by OUP at £21.99 (£19.80).

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