Fig. 1 “Transgendered Processional Cross”, St. May’s Church in downtown Rochester
While recently researching images of Christ from the fourth and fifth centuries, I was made to think of the transgendered processional cross that is used at St. Mary’s in downtown Rochester (Fig. 1), as well as the legitimacy of similar contemporary interpretations of Christ. The corpus of the cross, while small, is unambiguously female with wide hips , and breasts.
The cross is actually a variant of the Resurrected Christ Cross; a type of cross that emphasizes the resurrected Christ over the suffering Christ.
To my point: A significant number of images of Christ from the third through the fifth centuries also have obvious feminine characteristics. That’s the conclusion of well respected art historians, not just me. The number of examples and their scattered production throughout the Roman Empire suggests a deliberate interpretation and not a localized peculiarity.
Two figures in particular are interesting as stories related to them highlight their feminine appearance. The first (Fig.2), when it arrived at the Museo Nazionale della Terme in Rome, was titled “Seated Poetess” as it, well, looked like a female figure.
Fig 2 “Statuette of Seated Christ” (ca.350), Rome, Museo Nazionale della Terme
In 1914, research revealed that it was strikingly similar to the figures of Christ used on sarcophagi. The statuette depicts a smooth skinned youth with gorgeous locks of hair and female breasts.
The second figure with an interesting attending story is the large center figure of an apse mosaic (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3 “Vision of Ezekial” (ca. 425-50)
As the story goes, the artist had carefully rendered a figure of Mary in the center of the apse. Returning one morning to finish the rest of the work he discovered that the apse mosaic had miraculously changed into an image of “Christ in Glory.” The wide hips of the figure, the long flowing hair, smooth face and generally feminine curves do, in fact, suggest a female figure.
Men, of course, can exhibit feminine physical characteristics and, depending on the amount of body fat, have pronounced breasts. Are these two examples, then, accidental or intentional expressions of femininity?
A third example makes us think the feminine characteristics are, indeed, intentional. In a sarcophagus front (Fig. 4) Christ is shown standing on a rock outcrop or hill between Peter and Paul. To the sides of the central scene are represented the patrons: a husband (far left side) and wife (far right). Christ is shown with breasts (compare with the wife; contrast with the husband).
Fig. 4 “Traditio Legis” (5th c.)
Take a look at one more example: another seated figure of Christ (Fig. 5); young, smooth shaven, breasts, and hair delicately curled.
Fig. 5 “Seated Christ” (5th c.) Detail from a sarcophagus.
There are many other examples we could look at but let’s leave it at these few.
What are we to think of all this? Are these images proof the early Christians had a feminine understanding of Christ/divinity that was eventually suppressed by a male dominated hierarchical Church?
In Parts 2 and 3 we’ll take a look at some of the contextual background to the images we’ve looked at and offer an explanation for their appearance.
In Part 4 we’ll layout an alternative argument for why the use of feminine imagery for Christ faded away and conclude with a judgment on the liturgical appropriateness of the St. Mary’s processional cross.
I hope you find the subject intriguing.
(Do you know of any other transgendered or female images of Christ in use liturgically [not privately] in the diocese of Rochester? Please let me know.)
Book suggestions: Thomas F. Mathews’ The Clash of Gods (revised and expanded edition), pp119-138, which is what got me thinking about this subject as a possible post. Some of the examples we will look at came from his book.