Sunday, 11 May 2014

Eve and Mary: the Search for Lost Beauty and Sensuality

An exciting voyage of historical and cultural discovery that steps into the stream of familiar legends and myths as well as other unusual and surprising events, seeking, exploring and making sense of the stigmatization of sexual pleasure and the vanishing of beauty in the Early Middle Ages in Europe.


How I came to write Eve and Mary:

Writing this book was my journey back in time to the Early Middle Ages. It brought me face to face with a bizarre phenomenon: I found that our Western heritage of art and in particular the concept of beauty, as handed down to us from the early Greeks, was wiped out of existence for some five hundred years! In my attempt to answer the question ‘why’ I was led to the issue of female beauty and the phenomenon of Mary Magdalene.

As a historian my interest in the subject was first evoked by one single incident. I had read somewhere that a rather unusual sculpture of the biblical Eve existed in a church in Eastern France. Believing in personal experience, I made the journey to Vézelay in Burgundy and ascended a hill overlooking the township in order to enter the abbey church known as the Basilica of Mary Magdalene. However, once inside the church I came up against immense difficulty in actually finding and viewing the sculpture. The nude Eve was positioned high up on a second row of marble columns and kept well out of sight from any prying eyes.

The question which piqued my historical curiosity and propelled me on the Eve-Mary track was – why on the one hand to publicly display the sculpture yet on the other, hide it from view?  

To realize just how unusual this specific sculpted church capital is, all you have to do is go into any medieval church in Europe and view all those flat, unrealistic, semi-human morbid looking sculptures and paintings and you’ll know what I mean. This artistic provocative realism of Eve was an exception to this art work. And the more I pondered it the more it acted as a lynch pin pointing forward to the future breakthrough in art in the Renaissance; and simultaneously looking over its shoulder at what had been lost for five hundred years, namely the western heritage – a thousand year tradition of realistic three-dimensional art, which claimed that the pinnacle of beauty was to be found in the splendor of nature and in the human body.

But my medieval journey had hardly begun. On walking away from the Basilica of Vézelay and descending the picturesque winding cobbled road of the old medieval town my historical ponderings reflected on why the sculpture was set in this Basilica, a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene of all places. Was there some link between Eve and Mary? If so, I was determined to discover it. And this question became my springboard for an astonishing journey into Burgundy and Provence in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene. I viewed her alleged habitat, relics, death mask, skull, grave and sepulcher and more to the point her more probable biography. And as strange as it may seem I found that the entire phenomenon of the Eve sculpture interlocked with the assorted images and legends of Mary Magdalene.

The Gnostic Gospels and in particular the Gospel of Mary Magdalene became one of my chief sources. I was impressed by Mary’s personal intimacy with Christ as well as the latter’s friendship with other women disciples. And it was this egalitarian (and feministic) approach by the early Church to the sexes that escapes us, as Jesus made no bones about gender issues. In fact, it transpired that Mary Magdalene was the most central figure in the Jesus drama and as such was certainly most fitting to be the first pope of Rome. So what when wrong?

At first the Church exploited Mary Magdalene in marketing its new approach to divine love in its battle against paganism and the adulation of Venus. But the backlash came in the sixth century when the totalitarian Pope Gregory the Great found her image and status threatening to the patriarchal church hierarchy. In a Stalin-like manner he eliminated her from her central place in the Christian matrix.  

The Church claimed that sensuality and physical beauty – particularly of the female form, were inextricably locked in sin. The Christian establishment attempted with considerable success to suppress the Greco-Roman ideals of beauty, femininity and sexuality. And here I found myself returning full circle to Eve: the temptation of Eve, the Church preached, had damned the entire human race - and ever since, humanity has been tarnished with the evil of original sin.

Taking pleasure in beautiful things and enjoying sensuality was surely an intuitive part of our human nature. How was the Church going to instill the message of original sin into the minds of both simple folk and powerful aristocracy when nearly all of them were illiterate? They found the answer in the power of a new art form. Artistic creations now had a new purpose – not to provide pleasure by delighting the eye but to be used solely in the service of the Church as a didactic tool for divine inspiration.

Mary Magdalene became my guide as I stepped back and forth in time. The image of the biblical Mary Magdalene is never far from the tug of war between the classical and Christian struggle over the mastery of artistic expression. I found this voyage of historical and cultural discovery not only enriching but also very exciting.
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Eve and Mary: The Search for Lost Beauty and Sensuality

My discovery of the virtually hidden medieval sculpture of "Eve in the Garden of Eden" on a church capital in the Basilica of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, Burgundy, eastern France sets the scene. This Eve sculpture evolves into a springboard for exploring in depth a number of significant historical and cultural themes. The sculpture itself is unique for its time as it displays an unexpected three dimensional realism in art and is...

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