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From medieval to modern works of art, Christ has almost always presented as male, often with long facial hair, a square jawline and flat breasts. However, as many medieval scholars today will argue, Christ's identity is complicated by an enigmatic side wound that strikingly mirrors a vulva.

According to the New Testament of the Bible, Christ's right chest was pierced with a spear by guards during his crucifixion to ensure he was dead, and from this wound poured forth the blood that would save those who drank it and ate his body. Medieval theologies saw this wound as a mystical and meditative passageway to salvation, and as a way to interpret genderqueer Christ – not solely male or female but outside the gender binary.

The Dead Christ and the Virgin

The Dead Christ and the Virgin 1330s-40s

Giotto di Bondone (1266/1267–1337) (Neapolitan follower of)

The National Gallery, London

As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, 'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer, slave or free; there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.' Despite this representation in the body of Christ, Rosemary Radford Ruether notes in her essay, 'Racism and Christology', that gendered exclusion is one of, if not the, oldest form of persecution in the Church. As thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas explained, women cannot represent Christ because they are man's intellectually and spiritually defective partner.

Theologian Julian of Norwich is one of many who described Jesus in the 1300s as 'our true Mother', citing Jesus's ability to feed us with himself as a lactating person feeds a child

Grounded in the biological binary postulated by Aristotle, man holds the sexual power to form new life and thus exerts this power over women in social and spiritual spaces. He is thus also the only representative of the full humanness embodied by Christ. This idea has persisted to the present day, markedly by conservative theologians who continue to reinforce Christ's maleness as a way to perpetuate patriarchal religious power.

There was, however, a medieval period when artists and writers problematised this binary, arguing that God (and thus Christ) could not be represented by or explained within the terms of human gender. In a time when the vast majority of people were illiterate, manuscript illuminators, carvers and painters took to visualising Christ in a way that recognised how he superseded the binary. Medieval artists took on this challenge in a variety of ways but one of the most striking is the use of a mandorla to portray Christ's side wound.

Vision of the Blessed Clare of Rimini

Vision of the Blessed Clare of Rimini about 1340

Master of the Blessed Clare of Rimini (active c.1340–1345)

The National Gallery, London

Unlike God, who is often unseen in paintings and sculptures, Christ's body is immortalised as a devotional object for Christians to meditate on the physical pain that he endured. His body is on frequent display within crucifixion icons, paintings and prayer books, marking the centrality of his human form to the Christian religion itself. During the medieval period, artists often depicted Christ's side wound after a vulva, portraying the piercing as a horizontal almond shape with internal red flesh folds. This distinctly almond shape refers to a mandorla, an ancient yonic symbol associated with divine female power and the creation of new life.

Christ and Mary were both seated or standing within mandorlas in medieval artwork, the almond shapes flipped vertically to situate their heads and feet on the top and bottom points. Although Mary's mandorla imagery is connected to the passageway through which Christ entered the world, Christ's wound also has similar connotations despite never bearing a child. However, this bleeding, life-giving wound (from which springs salvation) likens him to a mother who feeds others with her body. His feeding of others with his body directly links into the Biblical account of the Last Supper.

Saint Vincent Ferrer

Saint Vincent Ferrer probably about 1473-5

Francesco del Cossa (c.1435–c.1477)

The National Gallery, London

For medieval artists, using this specific vulva imagery was one way that they could incorporate imagery traditionally coded as male and female into one body, and thus connect Christ to people whose abilities are traditionally viewed as feminine. Sometimes Christ's wound was even separated from his body and featured alongside other images of his crucifixion wounds. One of the best-known examples of this, Dr Maeve K. Doyle argues, is Bonne of Luxembourg's prayer book. In this text, Christ's wound is rotated vertically. The almond shape of gaping orange and red tissue invited readers to reflect on Christ's physical suffering.

Christ's side wound in 'The Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, Duchess of Normandy'

Christ's side wound in 'The Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, Duchess of Normandy'

before 1349, illuminated manuscript attributed to Jean Le Noir (active 1335–1380)

The Dead Christ supported by Two Angels

The Dead Christ supported by Two Angels about 1470-5

Carlo Crivelli (c.1430–c.1495)

The National Gallery, London

Scholars today have explored how this wound, as central to Christ's suffering and death, connects to menstruation, lactation and giving birth. Caroline Walker Bynum explains that Christ's body suffers and releases liquids like blood in line with menstruation, a process traditionally experienced by women. In her monograph Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Bynum emphasises that Christ giving his body for his disciples to eat at the Last Supper is also a traditionally maternal-coded ability. Theologian Julian of Norwich is one of many who described Jesus in the 1300s as 'our true Mother', citing Jesus's ability to feed us with himself as a lactating person feeds a child with their own milk and enlivens them with this nourishment.

Sophie Sexon explores this further in Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, arguing that Christ's side wounds mirror a mandorla and were traditionally used to aid women in childbirth and menstruation. Birthing girdles laid across the bodies of women during labour connect the suffering of Christ and the suffering of women, and when readers would touch and kiss these side wounds in texts and icons, thus entering or nearing Christ, it would further complicate gendered connotations to Christ. Dr Maeve K. Doyle notes that images of Christ's wound have paint loss from repeated stroking.

Art depicting Christ bending and obliterating gendered attributes and gender roles is not new. For example, medieval accounts of Saint Juana de la Cruz's life explained that she was initially formed in the womb as a man but was reassigned a woman by God at the request of Mary.

What began in the studios of medieval devotional makers as a way to reinforce Christ's divinity and life-giving power allows queer medieval historians – as well as modern religious scholars and artists – to imagine new queer pasts and futures in Christian art, and within Churches that continue to deny the humanity and sacredness of queer bodies. And this exploration of queering Jesus has continued with artists creating more explicit genderqueer depictions of Jesus.

Christ Androgyne

Christ Androgyne 1943

Colin Middleton (1910–1983)

National Museums NI

This pushback counters twenty-first-century dialogue about using pronouns and gendered language to describe Christ and God. Jack Rosenwinkel's 2020 article for The Fenwick Review, for example, lays out these arguments, claiming male pronouns are easier to use and are a widely agreed upon linguistic tradition rooted in the Bible, and that female pronouns for God are confusing and promote a political agenda. Each of these arguments – along with the conclusion that Jesus is 'definitely male' – is markedly flawed and rooted in sexism, queerphobia and misogyny within the Christian Church.

Emma Cieslik, religious scholar, museum professional and writer