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Spring 2002

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Maternity and metaphor

     Portrayals of “family values” like marriage, pregnancy, birthing, and breast feeding have been at the heart of recent research by Skidmore art historian Penny Jolly. Holder of the Kenan Chair in Liberal Arts and a longtime scholar of medieval and Renaissance art, Jolly shared some of her findings in this year’s Moseley Faculty Research Lecture.

     Jolly’s slide-illustrated lecture on “Pregnant Moments: Maternity Clothing as Metaphor in Fifteenth-Century Netherlandish Art” held the large audience like a spy thriller. It even started with a puzzler: Since the ideal female body in the fifteenth century so often featured a generous belly, to symbolize fertility, how can you tell from a portrait whether a woman was pregnant?

Art historian Penny Jolly
     On recent research visits to Europe, Jolly closely examined numerous fifteenth-century paintings and compiled a database of works showing women known from Bible, myth, or history to be undeniably pregnant—such as the Virgin Mary’s cousin Elizabeth when she was bearing John the Baptist. Jolly’s data revealed half a dozen reliable “pictorial conventions,” such as the timeless gesture of a visitor’s hand resting on the expectant mother’s belly. Another common cue was the loosening of the front and side laces of the woman’s kirtle, or undergown.

     For background, Jolly recounted fascinating tidbits about courtship customs of the era, the layered look in Renaissance fashions, and the traditional belts wives wore to carry their keys and purses. These were not “chastity belts” but they did serve as potent visual metaphors for the “opening” of a woman’s body to her husband and its “closing” to all others.

     Flashing a red laser pointer over one splendid artwork after another, Jolly pointed out a lot of loose kirtles—and one big surprise. “What I had not anticipated,” she said, “was finding Mary Magdalene often shown clearly pregnant,” a condition first pictured in Rogier van der Weyden’s 1435 painting of Christ’s mother and a loose-laced Magdalene weeping at the foot of the cross. “There are no accounts of Mary Magdalene actually being pregnant,” Jolly observes. But her legend is loaded with analogies. Her agony of repentence is likened to the pains of labor, and after her conversion she is described like the Virgin Mary: filled with Christ and “full of grace.” In showing her “spiritually pregnant,” van der Weyden was just doing what artists always do: giving shape to the hitherto unseen. —BAM


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