This is something typical of Medieval beliefs: we are reminded of Gawain’s pentangle with its five interlocking virtues, but Julian seems to take this further in that one image does not only exist alongside another, but one follows on from another in a chain of images and associations that traces the path from the physical to the spiritual, from bodily to ‘gostly’ sight. The vision of the bleeding head prompts a response based in language from Julian: ‘And as long as I saw this sight of the plentious bleding of the hede I might never stinte of these words: ‘Benedicite domine!
‘ But it is the connection of the visual images that is so fascinating. She understands ‘vi things’ ‘from the shewing’. The first is ‘the toknys of the blissid passion and the plentious shedding of his pretious blood’ and having contemplated this moves to ‘the maiden that is derworthy and moder’, then ‘the blissful Godhede’. The images get progressively less physical moving from the visible mortal body of Christ to his mother who conceived immaculately, to God himself. The next three images dwell on the creations of God, ‘that he hath made althing’, that he ‘made althing for love’ and that God ‘is althing that is good’.
Julian begins with the ‘physical’ ‘seeing’ of the body of Christ, and uses this as a platform from which to meditate on aspects of God and his relationship with his communications that have nothing to do with the bodily or the physical. This is perhaps related to the way in which seeing itself was thought to work in the Middle Ages. Images from the eyes were believed to bombard the front part of the brain, the ‘Common Sense’, and then move to the ‘Imagination’, which impresses these images on the brain.
To apply this to Julian’s vision, Christ’s bleeding body is in the Common Sense, and the subsequent connected images derive from the Imagination: the bodily sight leads to ghostly sight. At the same time as worshipping the mortal body of Christ, Julian is starkly aware of the frailty and insubstantiality of the human body. Her own bodily sight even prevents her from seeing the visions clearly enough: ‘This I saw bodily, swemely and derkely, and I desired more bodily sight to have sene more clerely.
‘ ‘But first bihoveth me to tellen you as anempt my febilnes, my wretchidnes and blindnes’. Julian sees the body as weighing her down, holding her back from achieving true communion with God: ‘we be so borne doun be weyte of our dedly flesh and derkhede of synne that we may not sen our lord God clerly in his faire blissful chere. ‘ Perhaps the limitation of the body that Julian feels most keenly is that of blindness, and this is due to the implicit connection in the Middle Ages and indeed today between seeing and knowing.
Julian lived at a time when sight was the most important of the senses, and any act of seeing involved entering into a relationship with that which is seen. For Julian, looking at an image of Christ involves in some way letting Christ into her; by viewing his body in the passion she is entering a dialogue, becoming closer to him in a way that transcends words and follows an unbroken path between seeing, understanding and knowing. As well as the suffering body of Christ, Julian also imagines the body of Christ as nourishing and sustaining us in the way a mother suckles her child:
The moder may geven hir child soken her mylke, but our pretious moder Iesus, he may feydn us with himselfe… The moder may leyn the child tenderly to her brest but our tender moder Iesus, he may homely leden us into his blissid brest be his swete open syde, and shewyn therein partly of the Godhede and ioys of hevyn, with gostly sikernes of endless blisse… ‘ This image of Christ as a mother with all its female and tender associations is another insight into the way in which the Medieval mind imagined the relationship between Christ and his people.
Christ’s bleeding body during the passion was seen as in some way connected to the female body, which was seen as more open than the male body. The dividing and segmenting of Christ’s wounds isolated the ‘swete open’ wound in his side as being specifically female, and the language here describes Christ as being almost pregnant in his encompassing of ‘the Godhede and ioys of hevyn’. For Julian there is a trinity of types of understanding: ‘I beheld it as one in God’s menyng. All this was shewed by thre: that is to sey, be bodily sight and by word formyd in my understondyng and be gostly sight.
‘ Julian repeats this idea later on: All the blissid teching of our lord God was shewid be iii partes: that is to sey, be bodily syte, and by word foryd in myn understondyng, and be gostly syte. For the bodily seyte, I have seid as I saw as trewely as I can; and for the words, I have seid them rith as our lord shewid them to me; and for the gostly syte, I have seid sumdele, but I may never full tellen it, and therefore of this syte I am sterrid to sey more as God will give me grace. ‘
In this instance Julian seems to imply a hierarchy, with bodily sight the lowest or first of the levels of understanding, followed by ‘word formed in my understanding’ and then gostly sight, which is seen as something god-given, perhaps stemming from the Holy Ghost. The relationship of these different kinds of sight to the body comes full circle through the depth of understanding allowed by gostly sight. So intense is the connection it creates, that the body reacts physically to reflect what it ‘sees’: ‘for which paynys I saw that all is to litel that I can sey, for it may not be told.
The which shewing of Cristes peynys filled me ful of payne. ‘ This physicality of communication with God is often described in terms of physical ecstasy, ‘the blissful touching of the Holy Spirit’ . The experience of some Saints such as Teresa of Avila also reflect this sense of a definite union with God that, although located in the physical, transcends all bodily senses to reach a spiritual climax. Ultimately the writings of Julian of Norwich highlight the complexity of describing, whether through words or through images, the relationship between God and mortals.
The body is represented as the word incarnate, as a feeble vessel for God’s love, as the focus and centre of Christ’s sacrifice for us and as the medium through which we can attempt to express our connection from that which is so far removed from the physical, yet which can affect us in extremely intense and physical ways. Sight can be a direct path from what we look at to what we understand, or it can be involved in a much more complicated system of seeing and not seeing, bodily sight and gostly blindness or vice versa.
Julian can only put across these ideas through an imperfect medium, but one which she handles skilfully. Ultimately, ‘the very process by which words are understood may act as a metaphor for the experience to which they relate. ‘
4 1 Marion Glasscoe, Introduction to Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love 2 Marion Glasscoe, Introduction to Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love 3 Marion Glasscoe, Introduction, Julian of Norwich A Revelation of Love 4 Marion Glasscoe, Introduction to Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love.