Esper Postma’s exhibition Rebis, in Stadtmuseum Lindau, is a reflection on ways of imaging identities during the Medieval period. In the Middle East and Europe of the Middle Ages, the vast majority of images made had religious motives. Pictorial traditions of representing God(s) and saints were never static, but were subject to change in accordance with the historical and geographical context in which they were produced. The appearance of icons were adjusted to adhere to contemporary fashions and prevalent morals of where they were produced and displayed. As these icons were reproduced and traveled across countries, their identity also mobilised in this transit; interpretation and reproduction alike were renewed with each different environment.
The windows in the exhibition are covered by a series of purple curtains, the fabric of which is sequentially thinner as one moves through the exhibition. The fabric ‘thinning out’ is an abstraction of the way that the image of the infant Christ was gradually but radically refashioned in the late Middle Ages. In the Byzantine tradition, the infant Christ was depicted resembling a small grownup rather than a child. Depicting him in the long purple robes of nobility was a way of emphasising Christ’s divine nature. From the 13th century onwards, when Christianity had a strong foothold in most of Europe, artists started emphasising Christ’s humanity instead. To prove that he was made of flesh and blood, more and more of Christ’s body was revealed. Starting with his legs, following with his chest; culminating in the fully naked infant Jesus of the Renaissance.
The image of St. Wilgefortis, depicted in the painting on display, is a result of an even more radical transformation of the image of Christ in the late Renaissance. Wilgefortis, so goes the story, was a princess whose father demanded her to marry against her will. Longing to devote her life to Christ instead, she prayed to be made repulsive; a prayer which God answered by growing her a beard. St. Wilgefortis, in her androgynous state, can be seen as a symbol for liberation from the restraints of patriarchal society. The image of St. Wilgefortis in this painting bares resemblance to a wooden crucifix called The Holy Face, located in Lucca, Italy. In this statue, Jesus is wearing a long purple robe, in the style of priest during this era, from which slightly accentuated breasts protrude. When pilgrims brought copies of the statue to Central and Western Europe, the figure of St. Wilgefortis was projected onto the feminine Jesus resulting in their representations intertwining as one form.
A non-normative way of imaging gender roles in Medieval Europe (and still today) can be seen through a roof tile called Nun and Monk. These tiles pertained their form from being moulded on a human thigh. They were arranged in a pattern in which the bottom layer are called Nuns and the tiles covering them are called Monks. This type of roofing originates from ancient societies, but after the fall of the Roman Empire the knowledge of this building material was only preserved by some monasteries, which is likely from where its name is derived. The use of the tiles on a wide scale only reappeared in the 13th century. Postma’s sculpture in the middle room places the tiles in their conventional pattern, but with the axis turned. Positioned upright, the Nuns are placed on an equal footing with the Monks.
As icons often enact shifting contemporary ideas on gender, the Virgin Mary stands as the most potent yet convoluted example. The 15th century statue seen here was originally part of a crucifixion scene and depicting Mary in a lamenting pose. As she was modelled after the subdued manners of a noblewoman however, she seems to suppress her sensation of grief, appearing reserved rather than sad. Positioned facing the last window, which is left uncovered, it seems as if she is hiding from the light flooding in.