Chances are, most of us have encountered the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. It’s the idea that women conform to two archetypes: the pure, nice girl that you take home to your mother as compared to the dangerous, sexually aggressive woman. We see this a lot in popular culture; Taylor Swift as compared to Kesha, Disney stars making the transformation from purity ring holding sweetheart to Hollywood wild child (Most often accomplished by posing in Maxim and taking on a string of roles playing rebellious characters. This example is really perfect because it’s a transformation restricted to young women; Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Demi Lovato’s actions are carefully policed while Zac Efron and the Jonas Brothers’ are not), basically every teen movie known to mankind where the cute band nerd wins the affections of the bitchy cheerleader’s bland yet generically attractive boyfriend, and so on. There are too many examples to list.
But let’s go back in time. Back to the original virgin and the original whore.
Carlo da Camerino, The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve, circa 1400.
Eve and the Virgin Mary are often paired within Renaissance artwork. They represent Christian thoughts on the roles of women in the church; one serving as a warning and one as an ideal. A great example is Carlo da Camerino’s altarpiece, The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve, in which the Virgin Mary sits with the Christ child, beautiful, kind, and humble; a role model for all good women of the church. Below Mary, however, lies Eve with the serpent; largely nude and lascivious as the serpent (feminized!) emerges from between her legs. Fur is wrapped around her hips, a symbol of lust.
In the church Eve is seen as dangerous because she disobeyed the word of God and led her husband into sin. She is seen as disobedient, and therefore a danger to the church’s structure in which women are helpmeets to their husbands, mothers to sons, and little else. The Virgin Mary, however, is the church’s ideal woman. A virgin, yet miraculously a mother, Mary is the impossible embodiment of Christianity’s conflicting ideas of what a woman should be. She resides within the church’s preferred realm of a nonsexual woman who does the bidding of her God and of her husband; obedient and therefore safe. Works linking these two women are typological in nature, requiring the viewer to link Eve and Mary together as the vehicle for mankind’s fall and for mankind’s salvation. Camerino’s work, as an altarpiece, is meant to police the behavior of men and women of the church into turning away from the actions of Eve and towards those of Mary.
The focus upon Mary and Eve’s bodies emphasizes the different attitudes towards the two women. Eve’s body is beautiful and sensual and is displayed as an object of lust. She is the embodiment of the era’s physical ideal of beauty with high, firm breasts, small feet and hands, curly blond hair, and delicately colored white and pink skin. She represents temptation at its finest. Mary’s body is clothed and maternal. The little nudity there is in this Madonna lactans is almost absurd in how non-sexual it is, with one bared breast emerging demurely from her collarbone. There is only one, and it serves to feed the young Christ. Eve’s body is for men in that they see her as a sexual object while Mary’s body is for men as a mother. Continue reading