Image, right: Charity begins with clothing your naked neighbour. Ivory binding, the Melisende Psalter (Jerusalem, c.1131-43), roundel detail. This image is PUBLIC DOMAIN. Please click on it to take you to the source.
It's not difficult to find naked bodies in medieval art, though you may need a certain mind-set and a stiff constitution in order to pursue such a task. Fortunately, the Anglo-Saxon Monk manifests both as he casts his cerebral gaze over a bevy of bare bods ...
There’s always a reason behind the exposure of flesh, and particularly the exposure of genitals – not something with which I have a great deal of experience, blessed readers.
That reason, however, is not always the same. In biblical narrative art, for example, the naked body can convey both innocence and sinfulness: there's only a fig leaf between sinless docility and the awakening of rampant desire.
In scenes representing Judgement Day, the soul is usually depicted as a naked body as if to emphasize that we’re all naked before the Lord.
Nakedness is often linked to shame or humiliation, but the context determines whether we’re meant to engage our feelings of compassion or utter a disapproving Tut! Tut! at the sheer excess of it all.
So there are the poor, naked ‘least brethren’ of Christ’s parable, whom we will want to clothe as if they were Christ himself (Matthew 25:36, 40); see the ivory roundel above; and then there are those blatant exponents of luxuria who rightly meet with our severest disapprobation. Outrageous!
The most mercurial manifestations of nakedness in manuscripts are those really, really rude marginalia. Just what are we meant to think of half naked men balancing a spindle between their nether regions whilst inhabiting the floral border of a lady’s book of devotion? I jest not! I’m reddening even now at the prospect of taking you there ...
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Right, blessed ones, let’s start with a bit of moral highgrounding. This is luxuria, that awful state of excess often accompanied by licentiousness.
Put aside any notions you have of medieval theories of vision. Ignore the fact that this image is entering your soul via your eyeballs, that there is a process of interchange taking place, that you might as well be there yourself! Yes, please put that aside. For you are required here to condemn.
Lord knows why the woman entering the boudoir (this is a French image) still has her veil on. She gave up any pretentions to chastity the minute she tucked into that pheasant and fine wine.
As you can see, if you wander down the path of gluttony, one thing just leads to another. And before you know it, you’re in bed with some smooth-talking, curly-haired gigolo.
Mind you, that roasted bird does look nice.
Ah! The wonders of the East! You can always rely on monsters and marvels for a few naked bodies.
Here we have that epitome of ancient
conquest, Alexander the Great, encountering the headless and clothing bereft Blemmyae.
I’m not sure I really like big Alex, especially when I read those stories of his travels through the East. Well, if you've not read them yet, all I can say is that whenever he was given half a chance, he’d burn or hack to death some unsuspecting race of monstrous folk.
And that’s where the nakedness comes into play:
Now I know when you contemplate the Blemmyae, and other bare bodied monsters, that you’re pondering the great question, Did the Lord take his eye off the ball?
But really what you should be comprehending, blessed readers, is that nakedness is a convenient way to underscore the otherness of those folk beyond our borders – for, quite frankly, who would want to go around with just your facial hair as a cover for your bits?
But look a little closer, blessed viewers. If you dare!
This is the part of the book of hours known as the penitential Psalms, and if you can read a bit of Latin you’ll notice that at the top of the text the word ‘peccata’ (‘sins’) lurks. Yes, this is the part of the book where the reader ruminates over her sins as a precursor to confession.
What can be more devotional than to reflect not on her virtuous deeds but on those less than honourable ones that she’s perpetrated? So to help her with that spiritual process the kindly artist has introduced a few images to remind her of the depths of depravity that humans may sink to.
It’s quite simple in the end. Now and again it does everyone the world of good to reflect on wanton ways. It refreshes the soul.
As you ponder the image above of two faithful, golden-locked Christians, cast before the malevolent Minos, who will heartlessly feed them to the Minotaur, just reflect on those messages.
But, blessed readers, if you’re having a problem with my fellow monk’s rather complex message, he has sent me a link to what he terms a visual clue: something to do with a well known marketplace’s merchandise. I have no idea what he’s talking about: