The Monk (Matthew Lewis), Art and Women: The Scandalous Insight

I read The Monk, finally! I am so happy to say that because it has been a book that had been on my to be read list for so long. I first heard about it when I was fifteen years old and I accidentally read spoilers of how it ends, about the characters and also an analysis of the gothic elements the novel has. I was determined to read it when I had enough knowledge. It was a wise decision.

The Monk was first published in 1796 by British author Mattew Lewis, the novel is settled on Spain, unlikely other Gothic Novels that were written before, Lewis does not concentrate on the romance, neither on explaining supernatural causes narrated, he gave importance to the grotesque, sexuality and religion, the Spanish Inquisition and witchcraft.

But what called my attention is that it is an authentically visual novel. Lewis masterfully used art to present and introduce us to the horrifying scenes Ambrosio is going to commit. Art foreshadows what happens in the novel and also gives us an interesting vision of how women have been seen in paintings. Let’s see how that can be perceived in the novel.

The first time Ambrosio started to feel lust was when he stared at the image of Madonna that hung on a wall of his cell, which he had purchased and selected. After giving the first discourse where Antonia was present, he returned back to his cell, he fixed his eyes on the image that: “for two years had been the object of his increasing wonder and adoration” as he looked at it with delight he said to himself:

“What beauty in that countenance! …How graceful is the turn of that head! What sweetness, yet what majesty in her divine eyes! How softly her cheek reclined upon her hand! Can the rose vie with the blush of that cheek? Can the lily rival the whiteness of that hand? Oh! if such a creature existed, and existed but for me! Were I permitted to twine round my fingers those golden ringlets, and press with my lips the treasures of that snowy bosom! Gracious God, should then I resist the temptation?” (Lewis, p. 187).

“Madonna and Child” , Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1300. Tempera and gold. The Metropolitan Museum

But Lewis clearly makes a distinction between that painting and sacred art, not only because the woman represented as Virgin Mary is in reality a demon, as we later know, but because he breaks the conventions of the way Virgin Mary is represented in Catholic art that were established in the Middle Ages. Steven Runciman distinguishes two main representations of Virgin Mary during the Middle Ages. In the period known as the Romanic, Virgin Mary was represented as severe, serious and strong, she was supposed to generate respect and warn the observants to be aware of the danger of their sins. In contrast, during the Gothic period, Virgin Mary started to be represented as a tender mother, protector of humanity against Christ who was going to judge everyone. Lewis’ description of the Madonna and Ambrosio’s reflection on them, suggests completely the opposite: there is no tenderness nor respect, but a lustful attitude, especially seen in the white bosom which religious art representing the Virgin will never have, as she is always covered with clothes. For this reason, Ambrosio was devoted to a profanity art from the beginning of the novel, not a religious one.

Regarding women’s pictorial representation, when we think about ancient Greek art we might have inside our heads the image of a white statue of a naked female body. Believe it or not, such an image of the female body was an invention of a conventional pattern in art. Art historian Ernest Gombrich dedicates a complete subject on Greek art and beauty construction in his book A History of Art, it was based on something unnatural that was accepted as beautiful. That image of the ideal women’s body such as the one presented in the well – known Greek sculpture which is in reality a Roman copy of the original long lost, is Venus de Milo which has the sizes considered as beautiful even nowadays. The ancient Greek’s mode of representing women remained for years in European history. Even in religious societies such as the Renaissance (remember that the Catholic church was still powerful) representing naked women was allowed, but those representations were created by masculine artists.

“The Birth of Venus”, Sandro Botticelli, 1484 – 1486. Tempera on canvas. Ufizzi Gallery.

Georges Didi-Huberman in chapter “Ideal Nakedness: Medici Venus” proposes that artists during the Renaissance differentiated between a real naked woman and one represented in art. For this reason, “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli was not scandalous because it was a very white naked woman with a skin so white that resemble the marble of a sculpture, her hair coloured gold as light and the sun, both colours reflecting purity.

Now, in The Monk, interestingly, Lewis’ description of Matilda’s body perceived by Ambrosio when she was going to take away her life, seems to echo a common description of an ideal woman in art:

“The Friar’s eyes followed with dread the course of the dagger. She had torn open her habit, and her bosom was half exposed. The weapon’s point rested upon her left breast: and oh! That was such a breast! The moon – beams darting full upon it, enabled the monk to observe its dazzling whiteness. His eyes dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous orb. A sensation till then unknown filled his heart with a mixture of anxiety and delight: a raging fire shot every limb”. (Lewis, p.203)

Art historian Griselda Pollock has been studying for a long time how the female body is represented by women and male artists. She noticed some main differences, when represented by men: women expose their breasts to their expectators, they are the focal point in a painting by being illuminated with light; women’s looks are usually directed to their spectators in a passive form or inviting them to look at their bodies. These crucial characterisitcs are seen in The Monk when Ambrosio’s lust scenes are narrated, Matilda’s whiteness is remarked and her breasts are noticed, which seems to follow, for example, Peter Rubens’ painting “Venus and Cupid”.

Venus and Cupid, Peter Paul Rubens, 1606 – 16011, Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Notice that the woman in Rubens´ painting is extremely white, has an exposed breast that contrast with the dark shawl that covers part of her body and seems to be illuminated by a soft light, its position is facing the audience in contrast to the rest of her body. Her hair is gold, she is not looking at the spectator but to a mirror, which is associated with vanity. But through this mirror we can not only face herself but the spectator without needing to turn around. It is clear to me that Lewis might have seen paintings of ideal naked women in art galleries.

As the novel went on, Ambrosio started feeling lustful for Antonia, he wanted to posess her, to rape her and he was almost archieving his evil desires but Antonia’s mother, Elvira, suspected the monk’s true intentions. Matilda decided to help him by proposing to summon Lucifer through witchcraft, but at first Ambrosio declined. To persuade him, Matilda shown him a magic mirror where he saw Antonia without her realising that she was being observed. The scene that Ambrosio saw is the following:

“Antonia was undressing to bathe herself. The long tresses of her hair were already bound up. The amorous monk had full opportunity to observe the voluputous contours and admirable symmetry of her person. She threw of her last garment… Through unconscious of being observed, an in-bred modesty induced her to veil her charms; and she stood hesitating upon the brink, in the attitude of the Venus de Medicis. At this moment a tma linnet flew towards her, nestled its head between her breasts, and nibbled them in wanton play” (Lewis, 335).

Leda and the Swan
Adolf-Ulrik Wertmuller (Swedish, 1751–1811) Oil on Panel, 1783, Mutual Art

In that scene, Lewis uses two recurrent imageries that are used in art, specifically using Griselda Pollock’s terms, imageries that are found in paintings produced under a masculine gase to amuse men. First, we have the already mentioned Venus de Medici, which is what artist Cindy Sherman would call an stereotype on representating women, which men in Renaicesse protected as the revelation of the naked truth, but during the reconsideration of art from a feminist point of view, it seems clear that female observants did not perceive it that way. Through Ambrosio, a monk, Lewis shades light in the unconscious and dark reality of the aim those images have. Even more, there is an emphasis in the fact that Antonia didn’t know that she was being observed, otherwise, surely she would have covered herself, as women artists have done when representing naked women, think for example about Bether Morisot’s paintings. Second, the allusion of a bird that flies towards Antonia’s breasts, clearly reminded me of the recurrent motif of Leda and the Swan. Leda and the Swan is an ancient greek myth that tells of god Zeus becoming a swan, encountering Leda and rapes her by doing exactly the same that the bird does with Antonia in The Monk. Now, we should remember that in Ancient Greek women’s status was low and seen as objects, so this might sound normal in society. But, later on, that theme became recurrent in art and it was clear that it was an erotic image, ad we can see in Wertmuller ‘s representation, which also reflects a masculine gase based on fictional ideas that were put into words by Lewis.

Finally, there is another moment in The Monk where art seems to be a powerful resource for expressing ideas. Matilda made a new pact with the devil and he gave her a magic Myrtle which allowed Ambrosio to enter Antonia’s house without getting noticed as it casts a spell on everyone. Before Ambrossio disturbed her, Antonia had been peacefully sleeping in her bed but when he arrives near to her, the scene was the following:

“The heat of the weather had obligated her to throw off part of the bed clothes: those which still covered her , Ambrosio’s insolent hand hastened to remove…. A few tresses of her hair had escaped from beneath the muslin which confined the rest, and fell carelessly over her bosom… An air of enchanting innocence and candour pervaded her whole form; and there was a sort of modesty in her very nakedness, which added fresh stings to the desires of the lustful Monk… he bent over her…” (Lewis, p. 354).

The Nightmare, Johann Heinrich Fuseli, 1781, Oil on cavas, Detroit Institute of Arts

When I read that part, I immediately had in mind one of the famous paintings from Romanticism, “The Nightmare” painted by Johann Heinrich Fuseli in 1781, which represents a woman sleeping on a bed while a black horse is watching her and a demon lies over her. It is remarkable the use of chiaroscuro that highlights the sign of the woman over the other elements in the painting. This artwork has also been understood as a representation of the popular belief that women in their nightmares could have sexual relationships with the devil, which is basically what Ambrosio was going to do with Antonia if her mother had not saved her. For this reason, it seems to me that Lewis “The Monk” if it is scandalous, it should be as scandalous as the art of his times and the art that has been produced by masculine artists when representing the naked female body.

Interestingly, to readers the fact that Ambrosio is a monk his lustful fantasies appear to be even more horrifying, but Ambrosio’s attitude towards women seems to be a reflection of the masculine gaze artists have shown us in art when representing a naked female body. What makes Matthew Lewis´ The Monk a scandalous novel is that it speaks for the silent images we contemplate in art galleries which give us horrible messages but we do not speak about them.

✶⋆Have you read The Monk? If so, which images haunted your mind? Share us your thoughts on Instagram or below.

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