Temptation and Redemption: A Monastic Life in Stone
Equally in God’s Image: Women in the Middle Ages, Edited, Julia Bolton Holloway, Joan Bechtold, Constance S. Wright (Peter Lang, 1990)
Literature on monastic life from Saint Benedict to Saint Bernard is filled with references to monks’ fear and hatred of women. Hildebert of Tours (1057-1133) puts women in first place when he remarks on the three principal dangers to a monk: “hurtful to holy men are women, avarice and ambition.”And yet the written word is not the only source we can tap to try to understand medieval monastic views of women. Indeed it might, by itself, be a misleading one. Depictions of monastic life can be found in the Romanesque sculpture of France as in the sculptures of the life of Saint Benedict and of hermit saints at Vézelay. The many images of women found there, for example, the repeated images of Eve and Luxuria, suggest a particular fascination on the part of a twelfth-century audience with women.
The unusual depiction of a scene from the life of Saint Eugenia on a capital at Vézelay provides a junction of these two interests: the central figure of the saint at once exposes her breasts and wears a tonsure and habit (figure 1). She is paradoxically both woman and monk. An exploration of contemporary monastic concerns as expressed in texts provides an interesting forum for a discussion of the capital’s meaning while suggesting the direction for an interpretatin that concerns itself with monastic life and with attitudes toward women. I hope to show, hoever, that the Eugenia capital visually conveyed to its monastic audience a complex set of ideas that did not find full or explicit expression in the written word. On one level, the Eugenia capital used the image of a female to portray a woman in a positive light, something that monastic literature itself appears not to have addressed.