MY SUBJECT is a relatively recent book: a meditation on the crucifixion called christs. Produced in 1993, the book comprises a series of engravings by the French artist Henri Maccheroni, which are accompanied by texts from the poets Jean Claude-Renard and Raphael Monticelli. These engravings ostensibly figure the ribcage of the crucified Christ in a series of shadowy, inverted triangular forms.
So far, so good. But a crucial dimension of Maccheroni’s engagement with the crucifixion is its intersection with another longstanding fascination, perhaps obsession of the artist. And that fascination is explicit in his most famous work: Deux milles photos d’un sexe féminin, or Two Thousand Photos of a Female Sex. The work is what it says it is: a series of photos — and Maccheroni claimed that this series did not contain all the photos that he took — of a single vagina.
Indeed, the vulva is one of the governing forms of Maccheroni’s output. It appears not just in straightforward, erotic photographs, but in other, surprising places. In one sequence of works in paint and photograph, the interlocking of two branches of a tree suggests the labia; in another series, the figure of a bat likewise assumes a yonic quality. The vulva intimates itself throughout the natural world, appearing at all levels of organic life: the animal, the vegetable and even the mineral.
Perhaps most unexpected for us is that the vulva should appear in Maccheroni’s meditations on the Crucifixion. And yet the inverted triangle of the ribcage unmistakably possesses other anatomical allegiances. What are we to make of this? Is this not straightforward sacrilege? Is this a quintessentially French bit of scandal, which might have a place in an obscure corner of a college library, but surely not in a chapel?
TO understand what is going on in Maccheroni’s works, we need first to recognise that what is all-too modern here is, in fact, our squeamishness. For the representation of Christ in ways that make matters of sex, gender, and sexuality unavoidable is an important part of the inheritance of the Western Christian tradition. Maccheroni’s images, and indeed the texts that accompany them, reactivate that tradition, proving in some ways more in keeping with the historic spirit of Christian devotion than our prudishness about matters bodily.
This is not to say that Christianity has ever enjoyed an uncomplicated relationship with the body. There is abundant scriptural warrant for hostility toward the body: “mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth,” says Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians. Sex and the Fall are bound together in the Church’s imagination, through the story of Adam and Eve, who — having eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — realise that they are naked and, for the first time, feel shame. So it is that we call the sexual organs “pudenda”, a word derived from the Latin verb pudere, to feel or cause shame.
Miniature of Christ’s Side Wound, from a Psalter (15th century), held in the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge (© Master and Fellows of Trinity College)
But the doctrine of the Incarnation — the teaching that the Son of God became flesh, assuming the fullness of human nature — and of the Lord’s bodily ascension, necessarily ascribes abiding value to the body. The fact that the centre of the Church’s life is the eucharist, where the Word offers himself as food for the faithful, means the Church must acknowledge, even if reluctantly, that God’s commerce with us involves our bodily need and vulnerability.
Be that as it may, the ordinary Christian imagination need not dwell too long on the implications of the fact that Christ ate and drank like everyone else, or indeed, that he was circumcised. Not so, however, for the imagination of the visual artist. Writing about representations of Christ in the Renaissance, the art critic Leo Steinberg writes that the artist was compelled by their craft to ask “intimate questions that do not well translate into words, at least not without disrespect; whether, for instance, Christ clipped his nails, or let them grow past the fingertips”.
For Steinberg, a particular point of interest for Renaissance artists wasn’t something as ephemeral as the fingernails, but rather Christ’s sex. Steinberg presents an overwhelming quantity of Renaissance images, principally of the infant Christ, in which the child’s penis is a focus of explicit attention. Art historians have justified the inclusion of such details as “naturalistic”, Steinberg has other ideas. Instead, the prominence of the infant’s member is not naturalistic, but theological: for to represent the child as naked and as sexed is to manifest the fullness of Christ’s humanity. Christ was no Ken doll, and “the evidence of Christ’s sexual member serves as the pledge of God’s humanation” and kinship with his creation.
This incarnational emphasis accounts for a further aspect of Christian devotion that the contemporary Christian might find embarrassing: namely, the yearly commemoration of Christ’s circumcision.
For the preachers of the Renaissance, the circumcision served to affirm, on the one hand, that same willing assumption of vulnerability. But the circumcision does more: it is not just a sign of Christ’s assumption of human nature, but also of his willingness to voluntarily suffer, to shed his blood for the life of the world. The circumcision, understood in this light, is the first act of Christ’s passion, the “first fruits of his growing death”, to quote the poet Richard Crashaw. The circumcision is the first wound of the Passion.
THE last wound of the Passion is Christ’s side wound. Here, the willingness to suffer in the flesh for our redemption — first manifest in the circumcision — reaches its culmination, in a final, postmortem effusion of the sacred blood. Leo Steinberg sees a visual joining of circumcision and side wound in a particular trope of Renaissance art, what he calls “the blood hyphen”, the trail of blood that often runs from the side wound down into Christ’s groin, as in the Pietà here.
But the significance of this pairing of side wound and circumcised member is not exhausted by their standing at the opening and close of the Passion. For the side wound has also served to balance (or indeed subvert) Christ’s manhood in the Christian visual imagination. Devotion to Christ’s five wounds (two in his hands, two in his feet and one in his side), as the instruments of his Passion and thus of our salvation, reached a particular intensity in the medieval period, although they remain popular today. Among the wounds, the side wound attained particular prominence.
Miniature of Christ’s Side Wound and the Instruments of the Passion, in the Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg (before 1349), attributed to Jean le Noir, held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In visual images, the side wound could be isolated from the crucified body. It could be rotated 90 degrees, becoming vertical, rather than horizontal, and take on impossible proportions. In the process, the wound would take on a decidedly vaginal appearance.
If Christ’s male member was prominent in Renaissance painting, then nonetheless it was the fact of Christ’s sex, as testimony to the Incarnation, that mattered. There is no sense that representations of Christ’s penis had any erotic dimensions. The same cannot be said, however, for visual and written treatments of the vulvic side-wound. Consider The Life of Catherine of Siena, where Christ commands Catherine to drink from the wound, promising a goodness, an inundation of Catherine’s body that is opposed to her practice of chastity or abstinence. Meanwhile, Catherine’s lips are eager and her thirst slaked.
As with Christ’s male member, the sexualised side wound remains ultimately concerned with the union of Christ and humanity. In so slaking her thirst, Catherine is filled with Christ and joined with him. In other devotional texts, such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s The Rule of Life for a Recluse, Christ’s wounds are described as “holes in the wall of his body, in which, like a dove, you may hide while you kiss them one by one”.
Through the side wound, Christ penetrates and is penetrated by the devotee, each are joined to one another. Yet unlike Christ’s male member, the vaginal representations of Christ’s side wound allow for desire and eros to enter into this union, as a motivating force and satisfied need. Christ becomes an object of legitimate, bodily longing.
MEANWHILE, such depictions of the side wound serve to further the implications of Christ’s union with humanity by other, obvious means. Christ is representative of all humanity, his saving work embraces all people, insofar as his body is sexualised in both masculine and feminine terms.
His deeds can be interpreted not only in terms of a phallic virility that subdues even death, but also a yonic fecundity, as his death becomes generative of new life — his wounds a womb from which the Church is born. The significance of Christ’s life for humanity is such that it cannot but transgress those apparently cast-iron distinctions by which human life is organised.
Maccheroni’s experiments with the crucifixion operate along similar lines. The title of the work is, indeed, christs, in the plural and without a capital letter. According to Maccheroni himself: “The Crucifixion, in Western, Judeo-Christian civilisation, is emblematic of the human condition. . . The title christs with a lowercase c and a plural s refers to this permanent reality of the human condition, according to which we are all christs.”
The texts that accompany Maccheroni’s engravings in this work articulate this union of voices within the crying voice of the crucified. There are texts that describe a suffering so immense that it surely cannot be shared — can only be isolating: “a time of tar fused upon the skin”; “a time when blood is coloured with pulverised bone”.
And yet these texts rhythmically give way to the assertion of a common participation in that lonely, suffering body: “like his body on Golgotha, it is his life which kills us”; “like his body on Golgotha, his portion rips us apart”; “like his death on Golgotha, his love tears us”; “to be outside of him makes us less ourselves”.
The crucified Christ, in these works, is in a state of continual metamorphosis, as the particular, crucified body reappears as every other body. The amorphous, barely distinguishable quality of the engravings heightens this: the body is stripped of its particular form, since it is always in the process of gaining another. It cannot be localised, defined and thus restricted, but is instead constantly fading and reappearing elsewhere. One is reminded of Jesus’s words to his disciples: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you have so done to me.”
Jean Malouel, Pietà (c. 1400), oil on panel, held in the Louvre, Paris
It is in this quality of perpetual generation, transformation and universal presence, that Maccheroni sees an affinity between the symbols of the Crucifixion and the vulva. For Maccheroni’s vulva is likewise ubiquitous and thus often barely recognisable — hiding in the branches of a tree, or the wings of a bat, whilst the explicit, erotic photographs nonetheless imply other forms, such as a closed eye or a landscape. The vulva and the crucified body together possess an infinity of possibility, serving as universal symbols of the perpetual metamorphosis characteristic of all life.
Notice here how — as with the medieval images of the side-wound — habitual values are upended. A certain strand of thinking has argued that the crucified body is feminised insofar as it is rendered impotent, becoming instead a symbol of weakness and of lack. Values all too often ascribed to the vulva, which in much psycho-analytic thinking has been interpreted symbolically as the lack of a penis. But here we see the crucified body feminised, made vulvic, insofar as it is potent, generative, and alive.
Maccheroni’s works thus reveal the resources within the Christian tradition itself for exceeding the still all-too-dominant evaluation of woman as merely “Adam’s helper” and instead allows her to be an independent figure of God’s own creative action in the world.
BUT I think Maccheroni’s work — and the medieval tradition that it evokes — offers even more. And here I want to end with another, painful flashpoint in the life of our university and the wider “war on woke”: that is, with the rights and lives of transgender people. And it seems fitting to do so, not only because the works under discussion suggest it, but because today happens to be the 23rd International Transgender Day of Remembrance, when those who have been murdered as a result of transphobia are remembered.
It is a repeated refrain that supporters of “trans ideology” are having a pernicious effect on free speech in this and other universities, that their opponents are being silenced. Suffice to say I do not believe that someone has been silenced if their book is a bestseller, if they are regularly given guest columns in prominent newspapers, and if they are giving much publicised talks in august academic institutions such as this one.
Instead, I think the link between transgender people and a perceived threat to normative speech runs deeper. Access to the public sphere and the kinds of speech that one can exercise have long been a function of the sex one is determined to possess. To what extent is our discomfort with the rising voice of trans people a discomfort at the challenge to this settlement, a settlement that we think has been overcome, but whose values continue to dominate what is and isn’t acceptable speech?
And what should the Church’s response be? I would suggest that the works — indeed the whole artistic, devotional tradition — considered here, urge a welcoming, rather than hostile response. For these works depict a Word so powerful that it cannot but trans-gress, whose revelation is synonymous with the upending of the fundamental divisions by which we seek to order the world. If the body of Christ is, as these works suggest, the body of all bodies, then his body is also the trans body, and their word is his word.
As we attend to these challenging works in the Wren Library, may we also attend to these other voices, which lack such an institutional imprimatur but which are no less vital.
This is an edited extract of sermon given in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge on 20 November. The sermon formed part of a series of Evensong addresses on “Treasures in the Wren Library”. Given the strong public reaction provoked, the author adds:
I would like to offer two pieces of clarification. The first concerns the vulvic appearance of Christ’s side wound in medieval iconography. This is not news. It has been widely acknowledged and interpreted in the history of Christianity and Christian theology for some time. The texts and the images that I used in my sermon are commonplaces in this body of literature. I regret that I did not name any scholars, whose work on Christ’s side wound has been considerable: Caroline Walker Bynum, Amy Hollywood, Luce Irigaray and Karma Lochrie, among many others.
Second, I did not say that the historic Jesus of Nazareth was a transgender person, or that he had a trans body. When I say that “if the body of Christ is the body of all bodies, then his body is also the trans body”, I am making two points. The first is an uncontroversial consequence of the Incarnation: insofar as the Word assumed all humanity, every person, or every body, finds their truth in the person and body of Jesus Christ. The second is more controversial. I am indeed suggesting that the historic tendency in Christian iconography to present Christ in masculine and feminine terms may provide resources for the Church to discern the particular revelation or charism offered by trans people.
I make no apology for this. Such discernment is impossible unless we listen to what trans people are saying to the churches. We are immersed in speech about trans people; rarely is this the speech of trans people. We have moved too quickly to a posture of critique and correction, without first making the effort truly to listen to what we presume to correct. Advent is a season of attending to the messengers of the Word made flesh. I believe that we have nothing to lose and much to gain if, this Advent, we attend to the voices of trans people as messengers of the Word today.