The Cloth That Speaks
The story goes that the Holy Face of Lucca, a wooden figure posed in crucifixion and carved shortly after the resurrection of Christ, later carried from Palestine to Italy, was modelled on a priest and so clothed in a shade of purple, the scarce color reserved for nobility. The object, it has been told, was celebrated and adorned annually with extra clothes and jewels to follow the line of the crucified body (and its slightly forward show of thigh) and paraded through the streets of Lucca in this cross-dressed state. Reproduced multiple times since, the image of the Lucca figure accumulated a decidedly useful ambiguity of meaning in Christian culture, in part due to a particular tale in the Middle Ages in which the visage of the Holy Face was thought to have miraculously completed itself overnight. Since then, the image has come to designate the face of God (him)self—conduit to the original source—and celebrated as a representation; in part, drawing on the tradition of other ruler portraits, the reproduced image was valued as the ideal carrier of the divine, i.e., power. And partly as the visage appeared at the time of the Incarnation, so it has been said, so it too can be incarnated and replicated without its essence being tainted (all that much); to some extent the Holy Face was analogous to the sacramental bread.
This very ambivalence between the belief of the image and the belief in the image as inherently multiple offers us insight into how representation was thought about and how it was at work in the Medieval period, perhaps with more nuance than we first imagined. And it is again topical, as contemporary discussion focuses on representation particularly pertaining to identity politics—with too much fear in losing the identity of the nation-state. The subject is similarly read today as made of essences that are constantly shifting (I am a woman, who is both feminine and masculine and oscillating between these descriptors) as well as entities that get dressed for the occasion (I am a woman, who is susceptible to social climates, geographical too).
The face has been described as the most spiritual part of the body, perhaps for its immediacy, perhaps because it is “likeness.” The face is a form of identification (I see you seeing me) and of meditation (I look upon the iconic face of the Madonna and in turn I am mothered, possibly dangerously so in my belief of her, for she, the mother, is monstrous, for she, the mother, is the giver of life). The face, the Holy Face in this case, thus inscribes the nature of sight and of vision, allowing us to see that it is intrinsically tied to acts of narration and the invisible. Meaning: things are so much more (or nothing at all) than they appear to be. In this realization of, let us call it, “the crisis of liveness,” there is a certain horror and a sense of potential.
The double way of seeing the image in past times was both dependent on and independent of material substrate; the mediums of cloth and clay were, however, well-suited to invoking the divine and its ineffability. Copies, it would seem, only postulate the original source, i.e., God, and that is why representations often make the transition between the mundane and sacred spaces possible, as the painting does in this exhibition by Esper Postma (although it does so ever so differently).
The painting here depicts a body that is reminiscent of the Holy Face of Lucca, reenacting the position of the crucified and also wearing a purple robe, with one thigh a touch more out in front. The depicted Saint Wilgefortis, however, carries her own iconography and fable, yes, he is now she. As the Holy Face was replicated along the edges of the Alps and down into the mainland and onto the rare European island or two, such as Lindau, so did the story of Saint Wilgefortis. She was a princess who escaped her class and her family obligations by growing a mask of hair. She led her life devoted to the way of Christ and her image was cultivated as a sign of chastity and, let us say, liberation. Her androgynous body, breasted and bearded, became a symbol of sharing empathy with Christ, retaining and relieving grief as she, her icon, moved across Europe, going as far as the Netherlands and onto England. She is also an image for the hybridity of self and a figure in transit, echoed in the mobility of her reproduction—once again, highly topical. In Postma pointing to the painting of Wilgefortis out of the many items held in the museum’s collection, we also come to see that stories of agency such as her’s can be muted or forgotten, but again re-found.
A knowledge that was lost for some centuries and found again was the process of casting clay Nuns and Monks. This is the name for a tiling system used to roof dwellings. Both Nuns and Monks are the same in form, each tile modelled on the upper thigh of the human leg. The Nun would be placed concave, below, the Monks would sit on top either side of her, convex. The seriality of the repeated form ensured water-tight protection. Here, the axis has been turned and they all fall into a different alignment, upright: the patina of the gendered form is given more presence. Indeed, the history of this system includes times when an understanding of how to craft the structure as well as the value in the material itself went missing, notably after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and kept only as models by the monastery (likely the reason for its name). The casted body form, simple and direct, alternating and repeated, came back into view during the Middle Ages and is still known and enacted today in select places, specifically in those countries edging the Mediterranean.
The Tyrian purple curtains that frame these rooms, composing the trinity of spaces that form the exhibition’s total installation—from the painting to sculpture, we move from dark to light—also share link to this geographical region. The purple gives status of luxury for the scarcity of the Murex sea shells that had to be fished out of the Mediterranean and secreted to produce the pigment. It was also valued for the color did not fade easily, but instead became brighter with weathering and sunlight and time. The pigment today is digitally rendered for the original source is less than scarce. Tyrian purple may first have been harvested by the ancient Phoenicians; later production was tightly controlled during the Byzantium Empire, restricting the coloring for imperial silks to which our priests, our Wilgefortis and Christ, our Nun and Monk, both wore and wear (repeatedly).
The icon of the Virgin Mary and her repeated visage is usually rendered rather blankly, allowing for that projection of the mother figure. Here, again, it is the cloth that speaks as the Madonna’s garments sweep up towards her mouth almost to mask her expression of (restrained) shock. She too wears a slight shade of purple, yet stands singularly, alone, without direct reference to Jesus this time, marked by how her body is both plinth and form. The patron saint of all humanity, she is our watchful gaze, illuminating on what we have become. In Postma’s exhibition, she seems to be witnessing a horror (or is it potential?), which in having no image is now dissipating and becoming only light.