The Queer Body of Christ

By Jude Jones

In the lead-up to the festive period, we’re republishing this article written in 2022 – and originally published in the Cambridge Language Collective – by acting managing editor Jude Jones on the queer art history and medieval iconography of Jesus Christ, opening new possibilities for reading the body of Christ this Christmastime.

In December 2022, Trinity College Cambridge junior fellow researcher Joshua Heath and Dean Dr. Michael Banner fell into minor tabloid controversy by referring to “Christ’s simultaneously masculine and feminine body” in certain medieval manuscripts, suggesting that “if the body of Christ is […] the body of all bodies, then his body is also the trans body.”

Accusations of woke-ism and attempts to rewrite history were quickly thrown, however as Emily Lawson-Todd demonstrated excellently in her Varsity response to these pieces, such accusations completedy missed the point. No, Jesus wasn’t trans (if only because such a concept didn’t exist in the Middle Ages), nor was this idea ever seriously presented as gospel. However, the description of Christ’s body of a “body of all bodies” open to everybody, including trans and non-binary people, is one with serious historic precedent that shows how reductive modern understandings of medieval theology have become and why it is necessary to revise and queer how we look at gender, sexuality, and religion in the Middle Ages. All are welcome in Christ, and they always have been.

Jean Le Noir, Miniature of Christ’s Side Wound and Instruments of the Passion, detail, folio 331r, in the Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, before 1349. The Cloisters Collection at the Met Museum.

The scripture that Heath and Banner were referencing was a French one, the fourteenth-century Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg. In this illuminated prayer book, there is a particularly suggestive depiction of the wound inflicted to Christ’s side during the crucifixion which, to quote researcher Sophie Sexon, resembles a “giant [vulva]”. This subtext was not lost to medieval audiences. Indeed, the vagina, contrary to our modern-day assumptions that the early medieval period was one of prudity and sexual asceticism, was often featured in Christian sacred spaces, as the appearance of Sheela-na-gig carvings, grotesques of women pulling open their labias, in certain medieval Romanesque churches attests. The yonic wounds of Christ thus became a fairly popular image in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, found elsewhere in the Loftie Hours – a fifteenth-century prayer book made for a woman named Margriete Rogm[arie] – and birthing girdles that were used to relieve menstrual and birthing pains.

A 12th-century shell na gig on at the Church of St Mary and David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England.

Five Wounds of Christ in the Loftie Hours, c.1440-1450. The Walters Art Museum, Maryland.

The connecting theme here is the yonic wound appearing on objects of intimate female devotion, the explanation being the growing cult of affective piety around the fourteenth century, a belief that worshippers needed to contemplate and feel Christ’s bodily human suffering in his dying passions as if it was their own. So, if female believers were to understand the pain of Christ on their bodies, it was first necessary for them to not only see their own body in Christ, but to feel his body through theirs. Thus, when Christ points to his wound in the Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, He is not only asking the reader to visually contemplate the gash but to touch it as well, a reading reinforced by Alicia Spencer-Hall’s work on the tactile dimension of medieval prayer books and objects: wound-decorated birthing girdles were to be pressed against the bodies of suffering women, while traces of tactile engagement have been found on the wound paintings in the Loftie Hours. Meanwhile, Marguerite d’Oingt, a thirteenth-century French nun and mystic, directly compared the pains of Christ on the cross to those of a birthing woman, writing:

“My sweet Lord… are you not my mother and more than my mother? Ah! Sweet Lord Jesus, who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth? For when the hour of delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross… and all your nerves and all your veins were broken. And truly it is no surprise that your veins burst when in one day you had to birth the entire world.”

Complex networks of identification are thus established: Christ’s side wound, inflicted on Him as He died for the sake of humanity, literally becomes a vagina that births a new world and with it the Christian faith, the pain of this ‘birth’ (i.e. the crucifixion) becoming a metaphor through which female worshippers could affectively understand and contemplate the suffering of Christ.

Jean Le Noir, Miniature of Christ’s Side Wound and Instruments of the Passion, detail, folio 331r, in the Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, before 1349. The Cloisters Collection at the Met Museum.

Frances Vanni, Saint Catherine Drinks the Blood of Christ, c.1594.

Relationships with Christ and both body and wound could be queer as well. St Catherine of Siena, according to her hagiographer, imagined that Christ:

 “[…T]enderly placed his right hand on her neck, and drew her towards the wound in his side. ‘Drink, daughter, from my side,’ he said, ‘and by that draught your soul shall become enraptured with such delight, which for my sake you have denied, shall be inundated with its overflowing goodness.”

James of Milan comparably envisioned himself as the spear penetrating Christ’s body and wished he could stay there forever, further echoing Catherine’s desire to “[enter] right into that wound”. And Rupert of Deutz, a twelfth-century French theologian echoing the controversial Song of Solomon, narrated an encounter with Christ where:

“I took hold of he whom my soul loves […and] kissed him lingeringly. I sensed how gratefully he accepted this gesture of love, when between kissing he himself opened his mouth, in order that I kiss [him] more deeply.”

Medieval relationships with the body of Christ were deeply personal, deeply intimate, and deeply complex. Christ’s body was a body to be touched, consumed, and entered. Piety was spiritual, but also affective and erotic. So, if Eve Kofosky Segdwick has influentially defined queerness an “an open mesh of possibilities,” Christ’s body, and medieval relationships with it, become endlessly queer, beyond any binaries – Christ is at once living and dead, male and female, fully divine and fully human – and any singular state, a body that transfigurates, transubstantiates. Jesus wasn’t trans, but his body did represent this “open mesh of possibilities” and a “body of all bodies” that transcended any singularities. In that sense, the body of Christ was, and still is, a body that is fundamentally queer.

Jude Jones is the managing editor at GAY45. He is also a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, whose interests include the literary, visual, and academic cultures of HIV/AIDS in Britain, France, and the USA.

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