06/02/2014 03:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Culturally Inscribed Canvas: Physical Agency Over the Christian Female Body

De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti via Getty Images
Caitlin Ferrell is a 2013 graduate of Southwestern University, where she double-majored in religion and art history and graduated magna cum laude. Advised by Laura Hobgood-Oster, professor of religion, Caitlin's capstone project combined both her interests in the intricacies and cultural expressiveness of the fine arts as well as the role religion plays in the lives of its devotees. She is currently exploring graduate school possibilities.

Throughout the history of the Christian tradition, the religious landscape has been littered with ideas of sacrifice, the fruition of these sacrifices, and the role of the human being within the execution of them. Ranging from celibacy, vegetarianism and physical isolation from society to radical asceticism, starvation and martyrdom, self-sacrifice became an integral aspect of the Christian religion at its advent. Due to the heavy emphasis on self-sacrifice, the body also became an important entity within the religious sphere both through its ability to withstand or succumb to the regulations of the Christian doctrine. Though this tradition has a fundamentally patriarchal foundation, the bodies that are affected by self-sacrifice and the demands of Christianity are not only masculine. Women have played equally essential roles in this tradition, using their bodies to express their undying faith. Two of these women are Thecla, the "protomartyr" of Iconium, and Clare of Assisi, one of the most radical female ascetics and the leader of one of the first major female monastic movements, the Poor Ladies. Through an analysis of their lives, it is evident that the bridge between the physical body and contemporary Christian ideals is a mutually influential one. Both of these women's bodies act as canvases on which are illustrated the cultural and regulatory constructions of the female body within their societies and religion. However, I would argue that these bodies are also mediums through which these women can channel their own forms of agency and challenge those restrictive constructions, enacting their own independent and purposeful influences on their religion and culture.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla outlines Thecla's situation prior to meeting Paul, her journey to the stadium to be publicly sacrificed and the remainder of her life as a prominent female figure within early Christianity. It begins with a picture of Thecla as a daughter within a well-known family of Iconium, engaged to its most important man, Thamyris, during the first century C.E. When Thecla hears word that Paul has come to town to preach the Christian word on chastity and purity for men and women she is captivated by him. He is then arrested and she follows him to prison where she is put to trial as well and is sentenced to be burned at the stake by request of her own mother. Thecla is brought to the arena where she is stripped and bound to the stake. She shows no fear, and after the flames are set, they are immediately doused by a divinely caused thunderstorm, saving Thecla's life. From there, Thecla rejoins Paul and follows him to Antioch where she is subjected to wild beasts in the public arena twice for rejecting the advances of one of the most important men in Antioch, Alexander. Both times she is miraculously saved by divine intervention and is thus released to practice holy celibacy as she wishes for the remainder of her life.

The early Christian social and political atmosphere is characterized by a patriarchal constitution, in which men are in charge of most aspects of society, including women. Since Christianity is such a bodily experienced religious tradition, it was the man who was considered the full member of the religious community based entirely upon his body being the most potent and valuable. Women were innately weak and reduced to mere objects within the considerable property that a man can accumulate. The main area of power for the female of the Roman Empire was in reproduction and motherhood. In this sense, the act of voluntary celibacy by a female-bodied person can be seen as a threat to the Roman Empire. Not only do they challenge the traditional roles of women within ancient societies as a constant suppliant, they attempt to bring about "the end of the world" through their refusal to procreate. Therefore, when Thecla chooses a life of celibacy, she ignores her prescribed societal role and poses a viable threat to its continuity. Though this chain of reasoning may seem to degrade the female body even more, it lends a tangible sense of agency to the choice of celibacy. The ability for women like Thecla to choose to be celibate utilizing her faith is a grand feat unto itself, an expression of incredible bodily power.

Outside of its essential role as child-bearer, the female body was thought of as the antonym of the male body. Where the male body existed as the symbol of perfection, the female body was incomplete, tainted and irrevocably flawed. As is expressed in The Acts of Paul and Thecla, many female martyrs were stripped before being burned or fed to beasts. The Christian population would see this as a humiliating exposure of the true "nature" and inherent weakness of human flesh. In this sense, the female nature is seen as the female body itself. Baring the body would be equivalent to baring the martyrs' femininity and incalculable weakness. Through this seemingly crippling exposing martyrdom, the female body still possesses a clear sense of agency. When being questioned in her trial, Thecla was given the opportunity to reject her charges. She could have spoken up, she could have chosen to repent and would have escaped her close encounter with death. However, she used her body as a medium of religious agency, allowing it to be subject to destruction by her own choice.

The image I have chosen to utilize in my analysis of Saint Thecla is an Egyptian Coptic relief in limestone from the fifth century C.E. in which she is depicted in the center, flanked by lions and angels. The figure of Saint Thecla is facing her audience fully and thus harnessing the attention of her viewers with authority. Her sheer and unabashed dominance of the pictorial frame insinuates her control not only over her own body but also over the ferocious lions on her side. The placement of the angelic figures establishes the recognition of the public that Thecla's actions and her miraculous salvation from multiple attempted slaughters were sanctioned and facilitated by a higher power based upon her unshakable faith. Through an in-depth analysis of this image, it is clear that the figure of Saint Thecla, both in life and in memory, stands out as a physically domineering persona who utilizes her body as a means of instating and exemplifying her religious beliefs.

Transitioning from the first centuries C.E. to 13th-century Italy, the female body is presented with another avenue for physical religious expression. Having been on the rise since the third century, asceticism had by this time become an incredibly popular and revered lifestyle for expressively religious individuals. Ascetics were "holy men and women who believed they would achieve maximum closeness to God by divorcing themselves as completely as possible from the world" and the human body. Through this ideology, the ascetic lifestyle could range from extreme poverty and social renunciation to self-starvation and corporal punishment. During this time, women were able to find a niche in the monastic life and would gain respect and a significant following within this religious realm.

One of these monastic women included Clare di Favarone, born in 1194 to a well-to-do family in Assisi, Italy. Leaving her comfortable home and refusing her fiancé, she joined the ranks of the ascetics with the blessing and permission of Saint Francis of Assisi in 1212. After traveling between monasteries to escape the anger of her family, Clare settled at San Damiano monastery and lived a strictly monastic life. She became an increasingly dedicated ascetic forming her own cloister of the Poor Ladies and establishing the first female monastic Rule, a formal dictation of an ascetic lifestyle. Within her Rule, Clare of Assisi dictates the specific practice of her monastic aspirations and her considerable following. She outlines how to successfully and correctly practice extreme poverty, the necessary ascetic fasting, the initiation of new sisters, and the importance of enclosure within the monastic setting. Clare's Rule, like the Rules of other monastics and ascetics, provided the backbone for her rigorous practice and the continuation of it.

One of the most important attributes of the ascetic lifestyle that is unique to the female experience is that of its enclosure. At this time, the female body was seen as weak and utterly corruptible by outside forces. Necessarily, it would be easier for it to exist within the walls of a monastery where these temptations could be minimal if not eliminated entirely instead of encountering them regularly in wandering ascetic travels. Clare gleans an undeniable sense of power from her enclosure through her perseverance in making her Rule a reality and her decision to make the monastic lifestyle an essential aspect of it. The best way she believed that there was to achieve the lifestyle dictated in her Rule and to establish a controlled kingdom of heaven was through the seclusion of herself and her sisters.

Along with this enclosure and the many other things that the Rule established, it professes an intense schedule of fasting. Through asceticism and the Franciscan fellowship, food was constantly regulated. The restriction of food is the repression of a basic bodily function and served as an incomparable means of separation from the physical needs of the body. Without food, the body deteriorates and relinquishes some of its earthly hold over the soul. For Clare and her sisters, fasting and renunciation were not physical punishments enacted on their bodies stemming from a foundation of shame or degradation but were testaments to their faith and essential elements of their religious experiences. In this way, the ability to control her consumption of food and the role of her physical body in her spiritual life gave Clare an unmatchable agency over her body.

The image of Clare that I analyze is from a fresco by Simone Martini in the Saint Martin chapel of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy. It depicts a framed and haloed Saint Clare in a relaxed stance holding a stem of blooming lilies. The plainness of her garb as rendered in this image alludes to her dedication to a life of poverty and her use of her own body as an avenue for the expression of this. Along with this is the proud presentation of the lilies to her audience. These flowers symbolize her professed celibacy and spiritual marriage to Christ. Therefore, through the iconographic choices that are embedded within this image, it is evident that Clare's power as a religious female and her depth of Christian faith was executed through a severe and expressive control of her physical body.

In conclusion, it is evident that the Christian sphere is littered with culturally constructed ideas of femininity and the physical manifestations of them on the female body. In Christianity's burgeoning years through the thirteenth century, the cultural scene was characterized by patristic political and social norms declaring a palpable distaste for the female body as something to be feared, dominated and never exposed. Though these ideas could be seen as degrading and destructive forces acting upon the bodies of female martyrs and ascetics such as Thecla and Clare, it can also be seen as an avenue for their own form of physical agency. Yes, the cultural constructions and ideas of femininity were impressed forcibly upon the female body but to the woman who is being tied to the stake or fasting in a monastery, it is her choice and it is enacted separately from cultural body identifications and subjugations. It is her depth of faith, her unfailing and unshakable belief that empowers her to take a stand and suffer for the personal and cultural validation of her religious path. Therefore, it becomes evident through Thecla of Iconium and Clare of Assisi that the female body is both a canvas for the inscription of culturally patriarchal ideologies but also a steadfast, insurmountable avenue for the enactment of religious female agency.

--Caitlin Ferrell

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