A nun stands in thought within a walled garden in Charles Allston Collins’s Convent Thoughts (1851). The painting emphasizes the sexless purity of the nun, with her downcast eyes and her featureless pillar of an entirely veiled body. She is cold and grey in contrast with the Pre-Raphaelite profusion of detailed plant life, so pallid that the fish that swim into her reflection seem bleached by her presence.
It’s the nun’s self-denial, enclosure, and passivity that make her a fit subject for a nineteenth-century portrayal of the feminine ideal. It’s those same traits that also make her a fit model for some features of today’s evangelical purity culture.
In episode 1.2 of the Christian Feminist Podcast, “Introductions and Intersections (Part Two)” (you can find the show notes here and the episode here or on iTunes), Victoria Reynolds Farmer, Lisa Korthals, and Sarah Morrow Cerniglia address Christian discussions of modesty. They point out a couple approaches to modesty that make an effort toward addressing women and men equally, but the episode focuses largely on how Christian discussions of modesty tend to target women, at least in mainstream evangelical culture.
This focus on women, and especially on women as obligated to create a physical display of purity, has the detrimental effect of encouraging the judgment of women based solely on their bodies, and of demanding that women “other” each other. Lisa shares an instance of this when she tells of a female student confronting her. The student informed Lisa that God was judging her for her clothing and because she “obviously cared about her body.” And when Victoria, Lisa, and Sarah talk about the now-infamous “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” blog post, which chastises young women for posting “sexy” selfies to social media, they point out the post’s troubling objectification of women, animalization of men, and reliance on too rigidly binary a construction of gender.
The description of the young woman in the selfie that the post positions itself as responding to—she’s in a towel, and with “the red carpet pose, the extra-arched back, the sultry pout”—could be the opposite of the portrayal of the nun in Convent Thoughts. And that’s why the young woman in the selfie is seen as objectionable. She’s embodied, active, and open, unlike the restrained nun.
When I was at Oxford for an undergraduate study abroad semester, I was struck by Convent Thoughts when I saw it in the Ashmolean. It seemed as if there was something tragic and lovely in the nun’s denial of the life of the flesh for the life of the spirit. (Similar, perhaps, to the projected denial of social life for intellectual life by a young woman planning on graduate studies?)
I bought a print of the painting, and it hung by my desk as I worked on a master’s thesis on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century representations of nuns in English novels. In the process, it was borne in on me that the tragic loveliness of the nun in a painting like this one stems at least in part from her presentation as a sexual object. For Victorian (and earlier) writers and artists, a nun tends to be sexualized by her titillating inaccessibility, by the spectacle of her chastity. The sexual appeal of a nun’s display of desexualization was wryly recognized in the eighteenth-century slang that termed prostitutes “devoteés,” brothels “convents,” and procuresses “abbesses.” (Portrayals of sexualized and licentious nuns also had to do with English Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda, but that’s another story.)
Something similar happens in today’s evangelical purity culture. “Modest is hottest” because the focus on a woman’s physical display of purity is a focus on the woman as a sexual object.
Today, I was on a daytrip to Oxford, and I went back to the Ashmolean to look at Convent Thoughts again. There is the angel-in-the-house model of womanhood there. There is the sexualization of the nun through her triple enclosure by wall, moat, and habit, through her physical and spiritual removal from the world. I like to think that there might be a little ambiguity there too, though.
What are the nun’s convent thoughts? The passion flower and the prayer book, open at the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, suggest the Passion of Christ as the subject of her meditations. But could she also be contemplating embodied passions and human experiences more generally? The passion flower is a sexually suggestive blossom, the Annunciation a moment of physical conception, the garden a place of flowering life. The painting’s frame quotes Song of Solomon 2:2—“Like a lily among the thorns, so is my darling among the maidens.” A metaphysical description of Christ’s love for the church? Or an indication that the nun might be thinking on the more earthy desires described in the Song?
Of course, this interpretation still leaves the painting emphasizing the nun as sexual object with heightened appeal because these sexual convent thoughts are not actions. But perhaps it’s also, on some level, a painting about the nun’s rebellion as she reads and thinks and questions the physical and social restrictions that enclose her.
The fetishization of virginity and the accompanying objectification of women is only one of the many negative aspects of purity culture. (You can read more about problems with purity culture from many others, including and especially Dianna Anderson.) I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that every individual participating in purity culture must always view all women solely as objects. That’s far from true. But encouragement toward that objectification lurks beneath the surface of many purity culture discourses. The impulse to judge a woman’s value based on how well she conforms to arbitrary guidelines on bra straps and yoga pants, on whether or not she posts a “sexy selfie,” is one aspect of that.