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Penny Howell Jolly, Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550: Addressing and Undressing the Sinner Saint (Ashgate, 2014)

Penny Howell Jolly, Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550: Addressing and Undressing the Sinner-Saint (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-4724-1495-3, 290 pp. £58.50.

Reviewed by Helen F. Smith


[1] In Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550, Penny Howell Jolly examines a fascinating aspect of the portrayal of Mary Magdalene during late-medieval and early modern visual culture: the metaphor of her spiritual pregnancy. The idea for the book was conceived in response to her students’ curiosity about the lady of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait, in which (to their modern eyes) she appears to be pregnant. Having noticed similarities between the Arnolfini lady and depictions of Mary Magdalene, it is in the endeavour to explore this trait of Mary’s presentation that Jolly considers the changing cultural significations of pregnancy, the female body and representations of the body of Mary Magdalene, in over one hundred years of art history.

[2] As a sinner-saint Mary Magdalene is a complex, ambiguous, and multivalent figure to explore. Yet, whilst the cult of Mary Magdalene has already been widely examined throughout the humanities, the visual metaphors of the saint’s spiritual pregnancy is an angle of inquiry that has been ignored by the academic community. The depiction of Mary Magdalene in northern art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also represents another area that is worthy of greater scholarly attention than it has received to date. It is in this respect that Jolly’s book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of women and gender in art history, as well as late-medieval and early modern cultural devotion to Mary Magdalene.

[3] In Chapter One, Jolly begins her journey of enquiry with Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. This image, which was commissioned in 1435, features what is believed to be the earliest example of Mary Magdalene with maternity laces on her clothing. It was the most widely copied image of the saint in its time. The artistic tradition of portraying Mary Magdalene as spiritually pregnant begins with this painting. Throughout the chapter, the author considers the complex significations of van der Weyden’s Descent, placing her analysis in the context of previous research. In this image, the pregnancy of Mary Magdalene is considered to symbolise her rebirth and renewal in terms of her moral and spiritual transformation. Mary’s ‘pregnant’ body is concurrently a symbol of her redemption and the carnality of her sin. Jolly supports these interpretations with a range of medieval sources, including the twelfth century Vita Beatae Mariae Magdalenae et Soraris ejus Sanctae Martha and the late-medieval Digby play of Mary Magdalene, both of which use the metaphor of fertility in the narrative of the saint’s spiritual transformation.

[4] The focus of the second chapter is van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych (ca. 1452). As Jolly continues to investigate the duality and contradiction in the significations of Mary’s body, she argues that the representation of the saint in this triptych is as a Wise and Foolish Virgin simultaneously. The Wise and Foolish Virgins feature in the Parable of the Ten Virgins from the Gospel of Matthew. Within the parable, ten virgins await the appearance of the bridegroom at a wedding, but only the five Wise Virgins have brought enough oil for their lamps. As the five Foolish Virgins have to depart to acquire more oil, the bridegroom arrives. Consequently, the Foolish Virgins are too late to join the celebrations. The lesson of the parable is to be prepared for the Day of Judgement. As a Wise Virgin, Mary Magdalene is spiritually pregnant in her identity as a Bride of Christ, an interpretation that Jolly takes from the opening laces of Mary’s clothing. The author also explores visual similarities between this image of Mary Magdalene and depictions of the Wise Virgins elsewhere in visual culture, such as a tympanum (ca. 1285-1300) from Freiburg Cathedral. This image of Mary Magdalene depicts her holding a jar of ointment, in a posture that echoes the Wise Virgins holding their oil lamps and Ecclesia (a female personification of the Church) holding a chalice. Significantly, the oil lamps and chalice are in direct alignment with Mary’s jar within the tympanum. Since the lamps of the Wise Virgins burn with caritas, Jolly uses literary evidence of Mary’s connections with charity to support her argument. For instance, in the Digby Mary Magdalene, which dates from the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century, Mary displays her charity by washing the feet of Christ. Conversely, Jolly argues that Mary Magdalene can be interpreted as a Foolish Virgin in van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych because her lavish clothing provides a visual suggestion of her vanitas and sinful past. The suggestion of Mary’s sinfulness is therefore an indication of the fact that Mary, like the Foolish Virgins, is not prepared for the Day of Judgement.

[5] Artistic representations of Mary Magdalene do not begin and end with her own body. In her third chapter, Jolly discusses Quentin Massys’ Mary Magdalene Opening Her Jar (ca. 1515-1525), in addition to other works of art that imitate Mary Magdalene and symbolically allude to her identity, such as Bernard van Orley’s Margaret of Austria as the Magdalene (ca. 1520), which displays Margaret of Austria opening a jar in imitation of the saint. Over the course of this chapter, Jolly considers the market niches of such works of art, the value they had to their owners, and how images of Mary Magdalene begin to adapt in accordance with contemporaneous expressions of religious devotion and changes within society and culture. Jolly outlines that cultural standards of the ideal female body had changed by the time of the sixteenth century. Instead of rounder or ‘large-bellied’ women, the slender female body dressed in fitted clothing prevailed as the ideal, which meant that the roundness of the womb became a more conclusive symbol of pregnancy in early modern visual culture. The fashions of this period, such as the lacing of overgowns at the back (rather than the front and sides), also affected artistic traditions of pregnancy, as Jolly discusses in relation to the Virgin Mary. These cultural changes, in turn, affected artistic representations of Mary Magdalene. Thus, for instance, in Massys’ depiction of Mary Magdalene Opening Her Jar, Mary’s open jar of ointment takes on the symbolism of her ‘spiritual’ womb.

[6] The fourth chapter is another in which the symbolism of the spiritual pregnancy of Mary Magdalene is examined and discussed beyond the realms of her physical body. Moving into the art of the 1520s and 1530s, Jolly devotes her attention to the numerous paintings of Jan van Hemessen that depict Mary Magdalene performing music, and she considers the responses of Catholic and nascent Protestant audiences to these works of art. In these images, such as Mary Magdalene with a Lute (ca. 1530-1530), Jolly explains how playing the lute could connote sensual love, and that the shape of the instrument could signify the pregnant womb through its roundness as well as its opening. Yet, even the lute could be a complex and multivalent symbol in sixteenth century art, for it could signal desire as well as fertility and pregnancy, therefore continuing to represent Mary’s duality as a sinner-saint.

[7] In the fifth and final chapter of her book, Jolly examines the portrayal of the melancholic Magdalene in the work of Flemish artists, Adriaen Isenbrant and the ‘Half-length Master’, during the sixteenth century. The images produced by these artists continued to innovate the iconography of Mary Magdalene by situating her portrayal within a wider landscape, allowing the viewer to focus on different areas of the painting such as the wilderness narrative in the saint’s hagiography. These landscape images of Mary Magdalene also portray the saint with a melancholic posture, mourning for the absent Christ. The focus on Mary Magdalene’s body changes once again in the work of these artists, with the exposed flesh and breasts of Mary Magdalene’s body on display either openly or through her diaphanous clothing. Jolly speculates that this is perhaps due to a conflation of the hagiographical narratives of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt, although she offers alternative interpretations. The eremitical grotto of Mary Magdalene’s wilderness narrative in these images is itself another symbol of her spiritually pregnant womb.

[8] In Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550, Penny Howell Jolly makes a convincing argument that the visual symbolism of Mary Magdalene’s spiritual pregnancy is a consistent and evolving feature of Northern Renaissance art. One of Jolly’s great strengths throughout this work is her ability to comprehend and explain the complexity of signification within art history, and its capacity to subtly change meaning over time, even whilst, simultaneously, specific artists continue to allude to van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross in repeating his motifs. Jolly uses a formidable range of resources in the endeavour to support her claims, drawing upon the literature and drama of the Northern Renaissance as well as its art, thereby demonstrating the interconnections between these different mediums in terms of the complex significations of the body of Mary Magdalene. Whilst the idea that images of jars, lutes, and caves, were used as visual substitutes for Mary Magdalene’s ‘spiritual womb’ may seem tenuous, Jolly’s astute observations and carefully-considered evidence leave the reader firmly convinced in the validity of her interpretations.

[9] Illustrated throughout with colour and black and white images of oil paintings, manuscript paintings, triptychs and tympanums, this is an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating read and an accomplished and valuable contribution to the field.

University of Edinburgh, June, 2014

William Calin, The Lily and the Thistle: The French Tradition and the Older Literature of Scotland – Essays in Criticism (University of Toronto Press, 2014)

William Calin, The Lily and the Thistle: The French Tradition and the Older Literature of Scotland – Essays in Criticism (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-4426-4665-0, 432 pp. $70.00.

Reviewed by Emily Wingfield


[1] In the eighty years since Janet M. Smith published The French Background of Middle Scots Literature (1934) relatively little work has been done on the influence of French on medieval and early modern Scottish literature; with the exception of some notable articles by scholars such as R.D.S. Jack and Priscilla Bawcutt, most scholarship has instead focused on the influence of Italian, Latin or English literary culture. Calin’s The Lily and the Thistle – in many ways a companion or ‘sequel’ to his The French Tradition and the Literature of Medieval England (1994) – is therefore a timely and welcome return to a topic eminently worthy of study.

[2] The book is divided into four parts (with a series of independent chapters within each part). Part 1 makes a case for reading James I’s Kingis Quair, Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, Douglas’ Palice of Honour, Dunbar’s Thrissill and the Rois and Goldyn Targe and John Rolland’s lesser known Court of Venus, alongside the French dit amoureux tradition. It is well known that texts in that tradition by writers such as Machaut and Froissart had a large impact on those Middle English writers such as Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate with whom subsequent Scottish authors engaged but Calin here proposes that the Scottish and French material should be read directly alongside one another rather than simply through the lens of a Middle English intermediary. In some cases, this is more successful than others. Thus the symbolism of the Tudor rose still strikes me as a more likely context for Dunbar’s Thrissill and the Rose than French texts rich in floral imagery or allegory (such as Gerbert de Montreuil’s Le Roman de la Violette) and Rolland’s Court of Venus was, I suspect, written under the more direct influence of Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas rather than the French Belle Dame sans Mercy Cycle. However, Calin makes a very convincing case for the influence on James I’s Kingis Quair of Machaut’s Remède de Fortune, La Fonteinne amoureuse and Le Confort d’Ami, and Froissart’s Le Paradis d’Amour, Le Dit dou Bleu Chevalier and La Prison amoureuse, and he finds useful analogues for Henryson’s Testament in both the aforementioned Belle Dame sans Mercy Cycle and in a series of French texts that engage with leprosy (e.g. Beroul’s Roman de Tristan, Ami et Amile, La Queste del Saint Graal and the romance, Jaufre). Interesting parallels are also drawn between Douglas’ Palice of Honour, the dit amoureux tradition, and French ‘Honour poems’ such as Octovien de Saint-Gelais’ Séjour d’Honneur, but I have some reservations about the influence of the latter’s Les Énéydes de Virgille translatez (1509) on Douglas’ Eneados.

[3] Part 2 brings together a collection of comic, satiric and didactic texts and examines the French sources and/or analogues of Henryson’s Morall Fabillis, Dunbar’s Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo and various ‘court’ poems, Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, Testament of the Papyngo and Squyer Meldrum, the little-known Freiris of Berwik, and King Hart. In the first chapter, Calin reasserts the influence of Old French fable collections (Isopets) and Marie de France’s Fables on Henryson’s Fabillis (and along the way makes the interesting suggestion that the lion might stand for Aesop and the mouse for Henryson in ‘The Lion and the Mouse’). In the second chapter, Calin positions Dunbar’s Tretis firmly within the French chanson de mal mariée tradition and draws parallels too with several bawdy French fabliaux and Jean de Meun’s part of Le Roman de la Rose. Links are also made to three later French texts (Le Fèvre’s Lamentations de Matheolus, Deschamps’ Le Miroir de mariage, and Les XV Joies de mariage) before, in the final half of the chapter, a case is made for seeing Dunbar and Deschamps as kindred poetic spirits. Subsequently, Calin detects in Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre the influence of French farce, moralité, and sottie (and the combination of all three in Pierre Gringore’s Le Jeu du Prince des Sotz et de Mère Sotte) and draws parallels between the Testament of the Papyngo and Jean Lemaire de Belges’ Les Épîtres de l’Amant Vert. The Freiris of Berwick is then usefully compared to the French Le Povre Clerc and King Hart, somewhat more tenuously, to René d’Anjou’s Le Livre du Cuer d’amours espris.

[4] In the third section of the book, Calin analyses five romances: Fergus, Lancelot of the Laik, Golagros and Gawane, Rauf Coilyear and Eger and Grime. Fergus is not often studied as part of the Scottish romance corpus but Calin sets a useful precedent in doing so and suggests that the text ‘be considered the rough equivalent in Scotland of the Anglo-Norman romance in England’ (p. 179; c.f. p. 5). The next two chapters on Lancelot and Golagros reassert prior critical arguments about the importance in the Scots translations of advice to princes elements that are either minimal or not present in the original French versions. Analogues for Rauf Coilyear are sought in certain rustic Christian warriors in the French chanson de geste tradition and Calin’s overall reading of the romance attends well to its blend of comic motifs and more serious political themes. In the final chapter, he successfully compares and contrasts Eger and Grime to the chanson de geste and romance versions of the Ami and Amile story (already discussed in relation to Henryson’s Testament).

[5] In Part 4, Calin turns his attention to material by Mary Queen of Scots, James VI, William Alexander and William Drummond of Hawthornden. In the first chapter he offers a brief but tantalising reassessment of French language material ascribed to Mary Queen of Scots, including the infamous Casket Sonnets, which he places both in the general French context of fin’amor and more specific context of writing by female love poets such as Louise Labé. In the second chapter, he examines the many uses James VI made of French writers (especially Guillaume de Saluste du Bartas) and argues that James was deliberately ‘writing against’ the influence of his mother and her writings by self-consciously constructing himself as a Protestant and epic poet. The next chapter provides a much-needed reassessment of Alexander’s Monarchicke Tragedies by placing them in the wider context of French humanist tragedies popular in the Sir Philip Sidney/Countess of Pembroke coterie. The Tragedy of Darius is, for instance, read productively as a synthetic response to Daire and Alexandre by Jacques de La Taille; one only regrets that Calin did not discuss the earlier Scots Alexander tradition in Part 3 since a number of useful comparisons (especially concerning the significant role of female characters and questions of statecraft) might have been drawn. Finally, Calin makes a case for the significant influence across Drummond’s corpus of French (and not just Italian) writers and the chapter ends with a detailed consideration of the use Drummond made in his Flowers of Sion of works by Ronsard, such as his Hymne de l’Éternité and Hymne de la Justice, and a fruitful comparison of Drummond’s Forth Feasting (a panegyric on James VI/I’s first return to Scotland in 1617) and Ronsard’s Panegyrique de la Renommée (in praise of King Henri III).

[6] As convincing and thought-provoking as most of Calin’s comparative readings are, he does not always consider in sufficient detail how the Scottish writers he studies accessed the French material cited as sources and analogues. The chapter on James I’s Kingis Quair is particularly strong because of the attention Calin pays to James’ probable access to texts in the dit amoureux tradition during his imprisonment in England – perhaps alongside Charles d’Orléans – and sojourn in France with Henry V, but such analysis is often lacking in subsequent chapters. It would also be helpful if translations of French quotations were provided.

[7] That said, the wide-ranging The Lily and the Thistle will certainly make a significant contribution to the field and no doubt bring about a reassessment of the sources for and influences behind some of the most well known Older Scots literature. It should also prompt much-needed further study of the role of the French language and culture in medieval Scotland. Groundbreaking work has emerged in recent years on the so-called ‘French of England’ by scholars such as Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Ardis Butterfield. The Lily and the Thistle will, I hope, form a vanguard for a similar study of the ‘French of Scotland’.

University of Birmingham, June 2014

Conference Announcement: Reconsidering Donne


Lincoln College, Oxford

Reconsidering-Donne-poster-mediumAn international conference to consider past, present, and future critical trends in Donne Studies. Plenary Speakers: Achsah Guibbory (Barnard College, Columbia University), David Marno (University of California, Berkeley).

Proposals for 20-minute papers on any aspect of Donne are warmly invited. We are particularly interested in papers that reflect upon their own methodologies, or engage critically with the roles that have been, or should be, played by theory, religious history, rhetoric, form, genre, scholarly editions, biography, and book history. Please send proposals to peter.mccullough@lincoln.ox.ac.uk by 1 October 2014, and write to the same address for registration details.

There will be bursaries available for registered students.

For further news and announcements, see here.

Marianne Montgomery, Europe’s Languages on England’s Stages, 1590-1620 (Ashgate, 2012)

Marianne Montgomery, Europe’s Languages on England’s Stages, 1590-1620 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). ISBN 978-1-4094-2287-7, 162 pp. £54.00.

Reviewed by Nadia T. van Pelt

Montgomery Jkt_Montgomery Jkt

[1] Europe’s Languages on England’s Stages is a compelling addition to the Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama series published by Ashgate. In an earlier publication from this series, Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage (2011), Peter Hyland focused on the visual distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ in early English drama through the use of costumes, and argued that:

Disguise is of its essence metatheatrical and while of course not all plays had a particular interest in exploiting this potential as very many did, I argue that there must always have been a level of dual consciousness in the audience’s understanding of plays (Hyland, p. 15).

Marianne Montgomery’s study complements Hyland’s, as she identifies a self-aware theatricality in the early English plays that stage European languages. The book likens the use of foreign languages on stage to theatrical disguise by calling it ‘a kind of disguise through speech’ pointing to both ‘the flexibility of identity licensed by theatricality’ and the importance of ‘the sound of language to the experience of the playhouse audience’ (p. 6).

[2] Montgomery closely follows studies on the process of national self-identity in the early theatre including Steven Mullaney’s The Place of the Stage (1988); Andrew Hadfield’s Literature, Politics, and National Identity (1994); and Michael Neill’s Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama (2000). Furthermore her work is informed by a number of studies that have attended to issues of race, colonialism, and ‘the early modern construction of bodily and cultural identity’ (p. 15), such as Mary Floyd-Wilson’s English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (2002) and Ania Loomba’s Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (2002). Finally, her methodology for studying sound effects on the early modern stage is notably influenced by Bruce Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England (1999) and Wes Folkerth’s The Sound of Shakespeare (2002). Uniting these multiple critical discourses about early modern drama, it is Montgomery’s objective to open a new line of thinking by suggesting that the use of European language in plays could make audible early English concern with national, civic and social identity, as well as English self-identification through drama. One of the book’s strongest features is its reluctance to accept the satirizing of foreign languages as their only raison d’être in English plays. Indeed, the study offers an excellent discussion of how the use of foreign languages in the playhouse defined communities, and forged ‘aural bonds between fictional strange speakers and the playgoers who hear, understand, and respond to their languages’ (p. 133). As such she offers an optimistic view of cosmopolitan exchanges of a social and commercial nature in early modern London.

[3] Montgomery’s book opens with an extensive methodology chapter, followed by four chapters which concern five European languages that featured on the commercial London stage between 1590 and 1620: Welsh, French, Dutch, Spanish and Latin. Each of these languages make perceptible a different set of cultural issues and each chapter shows, through a selection of individual plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, how these issues were explored and made audible on stage, as well as how they were ‘understood as part of a performance’ (p. 17).

[4] Foreign language featuring as a prop is the subject of the first chapter: ‘Mother Tongues’. This chapter considers the gendered representations of speakers of French and Welsh in Shakespeare’s second Tetralogy. Starting off with the question ‘to what extent … people [are] mastered if they still speak native languages’ (p. 21), Montgomery contrasts two female characters with respectively Welsh and French as their mother tongues, which offer ‘theatrically powerful alternatives to English’ (p. 18). The Welshwoman in Henry IV, Part 1 when speaking her native language on stage utters a stage language. Her language makes ‘Wales audible in the theater and performs Wales as distant from and resistant to the king’s England’ (p. 47). Katherine in Henry V speaks French in order to maintain her cultural identity and to avoid ‘becoming an English queen and an English mother’ (p. 47). Identified as the mother of the Tudor line, Katherine’s language problematically also becomes the Tudor mother-tongue. Montgomery convincingly argues that what the Welshwoman in Henry IV, Part 1 and Katherine in Henry V have in common, is that they ‘both speak in ways that complicate the history plays’ visions of English dynastic power and conquest’ (p. 47). Montgomery identifies the self-referential theatricality of language in Shakespeare’s Tetralogy, and the relationship between the King’s triumph over his foreign antagonists and the languages that they speak. Therefore, it is surprising that Montgomery omits any reference to James Calderwood’s Shakespeare’s Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (1979). This work was one of the pioneers of metatheatrical theory, and the first to draw a link between the metatheatrical potential of language in Shakespeare’s historical Tetralogy and the notion of rulership.

[5] Language as a disguise is the issue at the heart of Chapter 2, in which Montgomery studies Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan, Middleton’s No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s, and Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. This chapter argues that the Dutch language provides early English playwrights with a way of thinking about ‘commercial identity, identity based not on nation but on occupation’ (p. 49). Montgomery reflects that the ‘Dutch’ plays engage with the distinctions between persons of different social classes and geographical circumstance within England, as much as with the difference between English and foreignness emphasized in the plays. Furthermore, by staging issues of economic and social identity in the economic institution of the commercial theatre (p. 57), plays that use Dutch are self-referential about drama as a commodity.

[6] The last two chapters are concerned with the use of foreign languages on stage as a metatheatrical device. Chapter 3 focuses on Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Jonson’s The Alchemist. It observes that Spanish on the early English stage is only ever a stage language, made up of a combination of languages, and a convention of cultural identifiers. This convention made it possible for playgoers to understand the codes and signs used to ‘produce’ the stage Spaniard (p. 83), a type of role that became essentially metatheatrical (p. 94). Chapter 4 studies Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The chapter argues that making the sound of Latin available in the commercial playhouse was in itself a metatheatrical act that reflected on ‘problems of perception’, and on ‘what happens to language when it sounds beyond the text and thus is received by ears unprepared to interpret its cadences and capitalize on its potential’ (p. 127).

[7] Montgomery successfully dismisses the stereotype that foreign languages on the early English stage only served to provide stereotypes for mockery and easy laughter. Indeed, her positive view of the ways in which early English spectators were invited to identify with characters speaking a foreign tongue is refreshing and important. This book makes a welcome contribution to the field and is a must-read for anyone interested in the representation of cultural identity in early modern England, as well as students of and specialists in theatricality and performativity.

University of Southampton, June 2014