Image of the Month: William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805).

Romantic Illustration Network

William Blake, 'Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre' (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.  http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856  William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856

February’s ‘Image of the Month’ comes from Naomi Billingsley, PhD Candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester, and recipient of a Bibliographical Society Studentship to assist with attendance at the third RIN symposium, ‘Literary Galleries’.

This is one of approximately eighty watercolour illustrations to the Bible produced by William Blake for his loyal patron Thomas Butts (a civil servant) between 1800 and about 1805 (several designs were added after this date but the majority were completed in this five-year period).[1] It is not clear how these designs originally functioned as illustrations: they may have extra-illustrated a large Bible or they might have been kept in their own portfolio or volume as a Bible in…

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Encountering bodies at the John Rylands Library

On Friday I was at the John Rylands Library with two fellow PhD-er friends to see collections we’re using as part of an event called ‘Untouchable Bodies?‘ which we are organising in April.

The idea for the one-day symposium has arisen from a shared interest in bodies – Scott‘s research explores cyborg bodies, Kate is looking at how archaeologists deal with dead bodies, and I’m interested in Blake’s ideas about the body. From there we started to think about ways in which we think about and interact with bodies and particularly ideas of bodies as sacred, taboo, and ‘untouchable.’

We approached the John Rylands Library to host the event and incorporate a ‘collection encounter’ into the day. This will give us several representations of bodies from a range of cultures and time periods which we will use as a starting point for discussion of the theme, as well as thinking about the ‘(un)touchableness’ of historic collections.

Friday was a chance to look at the items we are going to be using and to identify specific plates we will look at and discuss. I’d chosen Blake’s illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which include a number of designs I have spent a lot of time thinking about for my thesis, and have written about for the JRL exhibition “Burning Bright”, but it was exciting to start to bring new questions to them as well as looking more closely at some designs I haven’t previously given much thought to.

Next up was Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), a foundational publication for the study of the human anatomy. Its many plates present an interest in the ‘minute particulars’ of the human body, studied and ‘opened up’ in fantastic detail.

Also up for discussion will be a book about mummies which will be a starting point for discussing the ‘untouchable’ qualities of mummies (a pertinent subject in Manchester which has long and esteemed history in the study of mummies), and a print of ‘Noli me Tangere’ (Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus when he says to her ‘touch me not’) from the Macklin Bible (1797).

It was fun to look at some items I wouldn’t otherwise be thinking about and to share different perspectives with Kate and Scott. I’m looking forward to giving them further thought in the coming weeks in preparation for the symposium, and to the discussions on the day itself.  Watch this space for more bodies-related musings.

More details about the event and the collections can be found on the event website.

Puttanesca for Mary Magdalene

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If I hadn’t gone into researching pictures, I would have loved to be a food historian. Maybe I can find a way into it in years to come. In the meantime, together with my Dad, one of my irregular diversions from PhD-land is collecting or inventing recipes to mark feast days.

Today, 22nd July is the feast of Mary Magdalene. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s been looming large in my research recently (although I’ve just finished working on that chapter for the time being) and I’m an alumna of her College, so it’s a good feast to mark.

I’m not aware of any tradition of a particular foodstuff for her feast day, but I have invented my own:  spaghetti alla puttanesca is such a remarkably appropriate dish that one almost wonders if it was created for this very occasion. The name literally means “whore’s pasta.” It is said to have been created in the red light district of Naples, though its red colour and spicy chilli make the name appropriate whatever its precise place of invention. Likewise, the colour matches the red garb and hair of images of Mary Magdalene.

Biblically speaking of course, Mary is not identified as a prostitute, but thanks to Gregory the Great and centuries of religious writers and artists, she is conflated with various other women in the Gospels so that we think of her as a penitent prostitute.  Aside from the name, many of the ingredients of puttanesca can also be linked to Mary Magdalene.

Recipe for two portions

Start by heating the olive oil from a small can of anchovies; you may find that you do not need all of the oil. The oil recalls Mary’s association with the anointing of Jesus, though your fellow-diners probably will not welcome you using any remaining anchovy-infused oil for that purpose!

When the oil is hot, reduce the heat and slowly sauté finely sliced garlic. When softened, add the anchovies, chopped, a can of tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes if they are plentiful), capers (the observant may notice I didn’t manage to get hold of any today), olives (I believe they ought to be black, but I only had green in stock) and chilli to taste. Capers are tear-shaped, so they evoke Mary’s identification with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and her lamentation at the death of Christ.

Leave the sauce to simmer while you cook your spaghetti (NB. you may need to allow longer for the sauce to cook if you are using fresh tomatoes, so make sure you don’t start cooking your spaghetti too early, or you will end up with soggy pasta).

The spaghetti recalls the hair of the women anointing Jesus’ feet. There are thinner varieties of spaghetti called capellini “thin hair” and capelli d’angelo “angel’s hair,” but you need the more robust spaghetti to hold the sauce.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, check the sauce for seasoning and combine. Serve sprinkled with parsley. This garden herb serves as a reminder that it was in the garden that Mary encountered the risen Christ on Easter morning, mistaking him for a gardener. Parsley is one of the easiest herbs to grow at home, even if, like me, you only have a windowsill and some potted herbs from the local supermarket.

More feasts to follow at irregular intervals.

Recent Discoveries

1. Mary Magdalene is probably more important than I first thought, but I have various ongoing issues writing about her: a) how to pronounce her name, b) whether I should adopt Blake’s (and as far as I can tell the standard eighteenth-century) spelling which omits the final “e” (my spell-check doesn’t like it, nor does my College loyalty), c) whether or not I need to refer to all the women associated with her as “Magdalene” (see Just a Brief Update). She’ll definitely be getting a section in the chapter I’m working on at the moment and maybe I’ll try to write a conference  paper on her (speaking about her would get round b) but raise the stakes for a)).

2. New parts of the library (new to me that is), namely Theatre, Law. My usual haunts are English and Art History, History probably coming in third, and increasingly less often Religion. Previous novel excursions have included Economics, and, most unexpectedly of all, Physics.

3. I missed a chance to see some Blakes in Cambridge. As previously bemoaned, I wasn’t able to arrange to see the Blakes I was hoping to at the Fitzwilliam, but I have since discovered that they actually currently have some of his tempera paintings on display, which I’ve never seen “out” there before. I have seen the one that’s relevant to my research before, but it’s always interesting to see things on display, not least to be able to eavesdrop on other visitors’ conversations! I know I’ll be visiting Cambridge again in August so fingers crossed they might still be out then.

Just a quick update

Today is the start of the Easter break, but my next few weeks are set to be busy rather than relaxing.

Besides trying to keep on track with my research plan for the chapter I’m working on at the moment (which is on Blake’s depictions of Christ’s public ministry), I am preparing for two conferences at which I am speaking in April (details on my academia page). This also means I’ll be travelling around a bit, which is exciting — home to Canterbury for Easter (Mum says we should go and check out “the new boy”), then to Leeds and Cambridge for the conferences.

This week I’ve been tied in knots by Mary Magdalene — even putting aside debates about the appropriate spelling (regrettably, Blake himself spells it without the second “e”) and pronunciation of her name (I favour “mag-da-len” and “maudlin” only for the College), there is the confusion between various women in the Gospels who have been conflated into the personality of Mary M and assumed to be “adulterous.” As an alumna of Magdalene, it’s a minor bugbear of mine that various figures are conflated and confused with Mary M; Blake seems to do this to an extent but there are a couple of inconsistencies to cause me problems.

In other news, I have added a new section to my site, “Ephemera”, which will be a place for me to deposit various eclectic items. The inaugural item is Wasteland, which is a reflection on Margate, Turner and T S Eliot, which came out of my time working with a film installation of the same title by Mark Wallinger at Turner Contemporary.