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Path 5 - Crossing Borders

The fifth path introduces both historical characters and interpretations of gender reassignment and gender ambiguity.

Gender reassignment and gender ambiguity play an important role within the Bode-Museum’s collection. Both Christian and mythological works of art show how the representation of all forms of love was a recurrent concern throughout human history.

Aphrodite*

In the tales about ancient Gods that make up Greek mythology, Aphrodite was bestowed with a double personality of two different origins: Aphrodite Pandemos, which embodied the love of sensual pleasures and was daughter of Zeus (king of all gods) and Dione; and Aphrodite Urania, personifying the love of body and soul. The latter was conceived from the “foam” produced when the severed genitals of the god Uranus were thrown into the sea. Despite the distinction, both Aphrodites were regarded as equals. The fact that Aphrodite Urania came into being from a single sex, without any assistance from a woman, was picked up on by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895), a pioneer of gay rights.

Renunciation of Femininity and the Allegorical Status of Masculinity

There is a long tradition of considering the female body to be impure and sinful. However major early Christian authors such as Augustine (354–430) and Jerome (347–420) proposed a way that women could attain at least some kind of allegorical status of masculinity through spiritual fortitude and their renunciation of their femininity. The canonisation of Christian women was tantamount to the transformation and effacement of their bodies; it essentially nullified their gender and made them in a certain sense into “non-women” or “almost-men”.

Saint Wilgefortis – Divine Change of Gender

This was the case with Saint Wilgefortis (depending on the region and language, she corresponds to the saints Kümmernis, Uncumber, Liberata or Librada.) According to the narrative of Saint Wilgefortis, she wanted to remain a virgin and lead a Christian life. In order to avoid a forced marriage with a “hero”, she asked God for help, and he made a beard grow on her face (the example in the Bode-Museum, however, shows her without beard). As a result, not only did her fiancé break off their engagement, Wilgefortis was also sentenced to death by crucifixion – a martyrdom that was generally reserved for men.

Learning From History – People*

The question of how Saint George, Aphrodite, Lucy or Saint Wilgefortis would have defined themselves in terms of gender cannot be answered. Nor is it possible to know whether they wanted to or were would have identified with the conventional definitions of men and women. Their stories and the works of art based on them, however, point to an ancestral human need to reflect the absence of gender boundaries: in other words, the need to represent a reality that had little to do with Western social conventions.