Friday, February 19, 2016

Medieval Paris: Female Saints at St. Germain L’Auxerrois

The central panel of this stained glass window depicting Mary Magdalene at St. Germain L'Auxerrois wasn't installed until the 15th century, so Christine wouldn't have know it, but it echoes the 13th century statue of Mary of Egypt on the exterior.
One could spend weeks visiting the churches of Paris. But on previous trips, I was happy to visit only Notre Dame. I’m not interested in the churches in the same way some visitors to France are.  I can appreciate their beauty, but it’s always a challenge for me to know that the stones of the churches were delivered on the backs (literally and figuratively) of the poor.

Even so, churches are at the center of medieval life, and there are a number of churches in Paris where Christine might have worshiped.  We know that she spent time in a small Queen’s Chapel at St. Pol because she writes about the interior decoration with wonder and affection.  On this trip, I wanted to go into the major churches of her time to see what she might have seen.

This Mary of Egypt statue was installed in the 13th 
century, so it has stood on the church portal since
before Christine was born. 
I explored a number of churches, and the iconography and stained glass in each was impressive, but walking up to St. Germain L’Auxerrois I got a sense that something about the church was different.  Most churches have Mary somewhere on the portal, but this church had a number of female saints, on some portals there were more female saints than male ones. 

Particularly intriguing was the sculpture of a woman who didn’t seem to be wearing any clothes.  Her body was covered by her sculpted hair. She held a small drape and seemed to be carrying three big stones or loaves of bread.  I’m not Catholic, but I’ve been interested in the Middle Ages for a long time, so I’m familiar with many saints.  This one I did not know.  I was sharing a flat with my friends, both of who are Catholic, but when I asked them later, neither of them were familiar with a naked female saint.

Inside, the images of women continued. Several windows in, I found another naked woman covered only by her hair—no drape, no rounded objects--just hair through which there was a titillating bit of skin around her belly button.

It didn’t take much research to discover that both of the women were named Mary. Both were reputed to be prostitutes before their conversions. It was a regular medieval practice to depict fallen women without their hair, so you may have already guessed that one of these women, the one in stained glass inside, is Mary Magdalene.

The other saint is Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who converted and spent 40 years of penance alone in the desert.  She took only three loaves of bread with her. The only contact with people she had was with a priest before her death who gave her the host and consecrated her burial a year later.

Another Mary of Egypt statue, the background
resembles St. Chappelle, but I'm not sure where
I took this picture.  Anyone know? 
If Christine visited this church, she might have been reminded of, as I was, the particularly conflicted role of women in church culture.  There are many female saints, many depicted in honor on the portals and windows of churches, yet it was a common practice for learned church men to complain, quite loudly, about women’s more sinful natures.

In her argument about The Romance of the Rose and eventually in her City of Ladies and the Treasure of the City of Ladies, Christine brings worthy female models to our attention as an argument against the widespread disregard for women.  Indeed, she mentions both Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt in her Treasure of the City of Ladies.

Visiting churches allowed me to read the texts of Christine’s day.  The statues and windows aren’t just ornaments on a medieval church, they are the Bible come to life, the lessons and stories that are intended to guide the lives of God’s people, most of whom would not be  encouraged to read the Bible even if they could. 

The church still maintained strict access to interpretation in the Middle Ages, and with windows and statues they could highlight the stories and values they wanted parishioners to attend to.  These values and stories could be set by the powerful abbotts and clerics who worked with the stone masons and architects to design not just the churches but also their ornamentation.

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