An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 28, 2014

Nagel: Medieval Modern

Never just modern: a review of Alexander Nagel. Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time. London: Thames and Hudson, 2012. 

Reviewed by Anne F. Harris (

In Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time, Alexander Nagel unlocks the doors of the museum and the archive and dislodges works of art from an art history driven by periodization. Here, in the cross-temporal interpretive space the book creates, the 13th-century silver-gilded reliquary bust of Saint Yrieix looks across a page break to the diamond-studded skull of Damien Hirst’s 2007 For the Love of God (66-67). Here, in the findings of Nagel’s meticulous research, Robert Smithson’s earmarked and annotated pages from the December 1966 issue of Scientific American link the artist’s fascination with the form and entropy of ice crystals to his writings comparing the form and entropy of Minimalist sculpture to those of Mannerist art (146-47); and student notes from Joseph Albers’s 1946 design course proclaim a haptic Middle Ages in the memorable phrases, “Renaissance afraid of texture. Gothic much more care of matière” (161). Here, through the book’s sustained concern for how modern artists joined forces with medieval art to resist the certitude and boundary of the frame, Moholy Nagy writes about medieval stained glass and its “spatial-reflective radiation” as a solution to the element of movement in his construction of the Licht-Raum-Modulator from 1922-1930 (255-57). The possibilities of interpretation, research, and debate that Nagel presents engage works of art, artists and theorists, and materials in a series of encounters between medieval and modern visual cultures that energizes contemporary discussions of works of art and the work of art history.

Pursuing the possibilities of studying the “plural temporality” of art explored in Anachronic Renaissance, co-authored with Christopher S. Wood (Zone Books, 2010), Nagel’s book joins the endeavors of Bruce Holsinger’s The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2005), and Amy Knight Powell’s Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (Zone Books, 2012), in arguing for the transformative presence of the Middle Ages in modernity. This is not just a book about how modern artists are inspired by medieval art; it is a book about how modern artists use medieval art to critique institutional standards of modern art; more specifically, it is a book about how artists in the 1960s and 1920s dedicated to the “open” work of art as an interactive, provocative, and boundary-shifting experience for an involved audience used principles of open-ness and interaction in medieval art to critique, indeed tear down, the “closed” work of art exemplified by autonomous easel paintings and sculptures displayed in museums and galleries. Broadly speaking, as Nagel himself puts it, it “is a study of how art responds when the old ordered cosmos has fallen apart” (169).

From its opening pages, Nagel positions Medieval Modern as a book of artistic and art historical practice. The first three chapters are devoted to the principles and methodology that will guide the interpretations to follow. A series of claims makes clear that this approach strives towards a new understanding of artistic interaction between past and present, and a new way of practicing art history. The interest of the book is in how “encounters with medieval art mark the whole history of modernism” (8) rather than in tracing a history of influence or development; the focus is on “structural analogies” rather than iconography (10); it seeks to delineate “patterns and themes,” not just disparate episodes. Medieval art is joined to the endeavors of modern art not by formal elements, but rather by five practices that render the pre-modern a powerful resource for the critique of framed and stilled art performed by the 1960s and 1920s modern avant-gardes that Nagel selects for study: these are installation, indexicality, replication and the multiple, collage, and conceptual art. In advocating for “cross-temporal surfacings” (26) and an acknowledgment of a “decenteredness” (33) shared by medieval and modern cultures, the book opens up both the time/history and space/geography of medieval art to include modern art’s ambitions.

Chapters 4 through 8 perform a series of smaller-scale recursions that establish interests in evocative surfaces, interactive spaces, and engaged audiences in medieval and modern art. A series of “unlikely pairings” (40) guide these chapters and seek to dislodge modern art from an art history that has made it largely antithetical to the Middle Ages. Modern art, these chapters argue, participates in more medieval practices than has been previously acknowledged. Early 20th-century airplanes are likened to altarpieces through the processions and potential mysticism of both; pre-museum spaces of medieval and Renaissance chapels link with the dislocation of museum space effected by modern site-specific works; the medieval relic proves an apt framework within which to understand the avant-garde’s critique of value; and medieval wall painting’s involvement with the (physical) space and (spiritual) experience of its viewers proves resonant with Minimalism’s dematerialization of the worldly art object in favor of large, meditative surfaces. Nagel works nimbly through these suggestive correlations, acclimating the reader to a cross-temporal, recursive art history and its possibilities of interpretation. His succinct and pertinent evocations of Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Derrida made me eager for him to engage with Bruno Latour’s critique of periodization and temporal demarcation in We Have Never Been Modern (trans. Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, 1993). The absence of a response to Latour’s sociological critique signals Nagel’s prioritization of theorists of visual culture. In this, Medieval Modern becomes a book about the practice and debates of art and art historiography, and indeed matters of social history are displaced in favor of a history of ideas; Leo Steinberg entertains more discussion than Meyer Schapiro.

Chapters 9 through 11 focus on the problem of space and site through a correlation between medieval art recollecting the Holy Land and late 1960s Robert Smithson’s Non-Site works. These chapters form the first of three in-depth explorations of modern artists’ explorations of the Middle Ages. The second exploration shapes chapters 12 through 14, in which the arrangement and multi-perspective viewing of the Justinian and Theodora mosaics at San Vitale in Ravenna feature prominently in a rethinking of painting as installation, and as “a surface for operational processes” (186) spearheaded by Jasper Johns’s 1960s transformations of the surface of painting. The third, in chapters 18 through 20, traces the shifting enthusiasms of the 1920s Bauhaus for the process-oriented, utopic and transformative “cathedral thinking” (241) of the Gothic cathedral.

The breadth of the recursive loop between medieval and modern becomes apparent here. The displacement of stones from the Holy Land and their reconfiguration as relics in the Sancta Sanctorum of medieval Rome functions as the “topographical destabilization” (121) that Smithson advocates in his Non-Site works. This medieval practice “brings us full circle” (125) in Smithson’s own displacement of red clay from Hebron arranged to form the number 1969 in Hebrew letters on the soil of Mount Moriah for a 1969 Jewish Museum poster (the poster was ultimately rejected in favor of an image of Smithson’s Mirror Trail from Patterson Quarry in New Jersey, revealing the continuing controversy of Holy Land topography and its multiple displacements). In the chapter linking the mosaics of Ravenna and to Johns’s concern to shift painting to considerations of surface, Nagel proposes a brilliant rethinking of Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message,” arguing that McLuhan is not only signifying that the means of communication are as important as the content, but rather that the means of communication matter because of the appropriation, re-investment, absorption, engagement, and adoption of old forms by new ones. This point will prove important in the final page of the book, when Nagel presents medievalism as “now encoded (usually unrecognized) in the DNA of contemporary art” (278), denoting a hidden life of forms (to paraphrase Henri Focillon). It also intersects provocatively with work by Graham Harman that has emerged since the publication of the book, notably “The Revenge of the Surface: Heidegger, McLuhan, Greenberg” (Paletten 291/292 (2013): 66-73) and “Greenberg, Duchamp, and the Next Avant-Garde” (Speculations V (2014): 271-54). The Bauhaus’s self-conscious appropriations of the processes and forms of collectivity (but only quasi-religious content) of Gothic cathedral building are traced in their shifts and changes from utopia to lived experience. The emblematic image discussed here, indeed the cover of the book itself, is Lyonel Feininger’s Cathedral of the Future, a print whose woodcut production hews to medieval practice, and whose use for the cover of the 1919 Bauhaus manifesto projects its critical importance. (On the print that Nagel identifies as the trial block for what would become this cover of the 1919 Bauhaus manifesto is a date which reads distinctly as “1922” – an explanation of this discrepancy would have been appreciated.) Feininger’s own decision to expand the image of the cathedral from a first print showing it as a framed image to a full-page cover signals the prominence of “cathedral thinking.”

At stake in these in-depth explorations of modern recursions to medieval practices is the heated contest between the elite autonomous work of art (rendered separate from the world by a frame or pedestal within the specific and prescriptive viewing space of the gallery or museum) and the pre-modern and avant-guard practices that presented art as contingent upon the viewer’s space and experience, and therefore more accessible, interactive, and transformative. The artists of these pages (with close analyses of Robert Smithson and Jasper Johns in the 1960s, and László Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger and Kurt Schwitters in the 1920s) and their theorists (Marshall McLuhan and Leo Steinberg in the 1960s, and Wilhelm Worringer and Adolf Behne in the 1920s) use the open-ness of medieval art (the decenteredness and displacement of works referencing the Holy Land; the multi-faceted surfaces of mosaics; and the process-oriented communal methods of cathedral construction) to shake the certitude and institutions that preserved the autonomous work of art. And yet Nagel argues throughout the book that the reign of the autonomous work of art was neither as assured nor prolonged as avant-garde artists believed: “It is difficult, now, to imagine that the museum picture could have loomed as such a mighty enemy in the eyes of the avant-gardes” (57). This remains a point of disagreement for me. On the one hand, I would very much like to believe that the pressures of pre-modern and avant-garde artistic practices squeezed the reign of elite, autonomous art to a negligible existence; on the other, I have a hard time denying the power of the institution of the museum and the economics of the market that autonomous art greatly benefitted from for well over two hundred years. (Nagel himself is vague about the reign of the autonomous work of art, at times setting its ascendancy in the 15th century, at others, in the 18th.) Seen from a cross-temporal perspective in which the pre-modern and the avant-garde forge a strong alliance, the autonomous work of art may not seem a mighty enemy; but seen within the historical specificity of its own institutions in the 1920s and 1960s, the autonomous work of art indeed seems formidable. The continuing politics of the museum and the place of the avant-garde today open up these chapters to welcome and vigorous discussion.

There are times within these chapters when the book’s title favors a reading in which “medieval” is but an adjective to “modern,” and the investigations of the book tip the balance between the two periods decidedly in favor of the modern. Medieval art is then presented almost exclusively for how it aids and abets avant-garde projects rather than with an eye to the debates that might have provoked artists, patrons and audiences in the Middle Ages. Describing Cage’s Fontana Mix, for example, as “Pollock rerouted, as it were, through Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages” (178) takes a certain degree of modern art expertise that may not be available to some readers. Strange, small mistakes skew the analysis, most notably placing the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose in the fourteenth century and, from within an otherwise brilliant analysis of Umberto Eco’s 1962 Opera aperta, positioning Jean de Meun as writing within a stable (closed) system of allegorical signification. Nagel goes on to use Eugenio Battisti’s critique of Eco to re-establish a “more ‘open’ reading of medieval material” (172), but there is a missed opportunity here to discuss the radical semiotic open-ness of the “couilles/reliques” discussion in the Rose, in which Reason claims that meaning (and moral value) are ascribed and not at all inherent to language, and that she could say “balls” as easily as “relics” to signify the thing in the world known as “relics.”

It is to Nagel’s credit that disagreeing with aspects of his book itself prompts further interpretation, in this instance of the ways in which his discussion of relics and reliquaries (from Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God to the dynamic of the reproducible) might intersect with further medieval sources which, like Jean de Meun’s Rose, question closed systems of signification. Nagel’s book opens up a challenge for medievalists to more vigorously question medieval artists’ own recursions to antiquity, not simply as appropriations of the past but as concerted efforts within debates of the Middle Ages. Linda Seidel’s book Songs of Glory: The Romanesque Façades of Aquitaine (University of Chicago Press, 1981) and its analysis of the use of visual forms of Roman imperial antiquity in both Carolingian reliquaries and Romanesque architecture comes to mind. Another recursive loop worth revisiting is that of gender exclusion. Of the 139 illustrations in the book, only two are by women artists. Gender is in some ways too much of a social history issue for the emphases of this book (a point of debate in itself), but the virtual absence of women should at least prompt further thinking about the hyper-masculinity of the history of the Middle Ages and the avant-garde presented here. Doing so would perpetuate one of the values of the book: to open works of art closed by institutions.

Nowhere does Nagel’s cross-temporal virtuosity shine as brightly as in his chapter on Jean-Antoine Watteau’s L’Enseigne de Gersaint. It is surprising that in a book devoted to the medievalism of modernism a painting from 1720 should have such a pivotal role, and yet the claims of chapter 15 (and those that follow in the next two chapters) are crucial to Nagel’s meta-argument about the open work of art. Painted at the height of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (for which Watteau had painted his Embarkation for Cythera as his reception piece in 1717), and during the first flourishes of the gallery system and art market, L’Enseigne de Gersaint is nonetheless presented here as a critique, “a commentary on a new system of art, offered from a position just outside the system” (201). Nagel’s agility is such that by the end of the chapter, the reader can understand L’Enseigne de Gersaint both within a very (very) long medieval tradition and a (very) nascent avant-garde critique. The painting’s placement (even if only for fifteen days) outside Gersaint’s painting gallery, its concerns with visuality in and out of the painted frame, and acknowledgement of the painting as surface (in “two-dimensional contingencies” (203) such as its elision of the female clients of the gallery and the women painted in the works of art they wish to buy) make it a meeting point of medieval art’s interactivity with a curious public and the avant-garde’s critique of the static image. L’Enseigne de Gersaint becomes a temporally hybrid image: not chronologically medieval (yet as a street sign participating in medieval visual culture of the public sphere), not chronologically avant-garde (yet as literally on the margins of the gallery, critical of the institutions of autonomous art). The re-appearance of figures from L’Enseigne de Gersaint within a photomontage of Watteau’s clients in cathedral space within chapter 19 (251) then becomes a tour-de-force of recursion. The next two chapters continue troubling limits Watteau had begun to push: of visibility with the diaphane and Duchamp and The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors from 1915-23 in chapter 16, and of originality with the idea of the reproducible, relics and acheiropoieta (art not made by human hands) linked to Duchamp’s readymades in chapter 17.

Nagel’s conclusion articulating the effects of a powerful dynamic of entropy which pulls consistently towards the Middle Ages is worth quoting in full for the power and presence that it credits to medieval art, and the momentum of medievalism in modernity’s confrontation of its objects of critique: “Medieval art flared into view amidst the breakdown of belief in the system of fine arts, in the museum object, in mimetic naturalism, in the idea of artistic originality and the unique work of art, in Enlightenment aesthetics, in linear history and rationalist models of time, and in a modern, colonialist concept of Europe” (275). In a cross-temporal art history prizing the presence of medieval artistic practices in the subversive tactics of modern art, medieval art is always already avant-garde. This is both the argument and the invitation of this provocative book.

Anne F. Harris
DePauw University

July 25, 2014

Montoya: Medievalist Enlightenment

Alicia C. Montoya. Medievalist Enlightenment: From Charles Perrault to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013. 256pp.

Review by: Kathryn E. Fredericks (

The subject of Medievalist Enlightenment: From Charles Perrault to Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Alicia C. Montoya is medieval literature, and this book is the second volume in the series Medievalism.  Volume I of the series is entitled Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination, edited by David Clarke and Nicholas Perkins.

In Medievalist Enlightenment: From Charles Perrault to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alicia C. Montoya provides an in-depth study of the period 1680-1750.  She explains that in this time frame "portions of the secular, vernacular literature of the Middle Ages – the romances, troubadour lyric and other narrative works we consider today as the age's literary classics – came to the fore: the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, or the period spanning late classicism through early Enlightenment" (2).  Reiterating the fact that the presence of medieval literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has already been documented, Montoya states that "the decades from the 1680s through to the 1750s have almost invariably been overlooked or addressed only in passing" (2).  She presents here, therefore, "the first book-length study addressing the literary medievalism of the decades from the 1680s to the 1750s" (2), and in this book, she sets out her intention specifically to "make the argument that modernity arose in part out of literary medievalism" (4).  In the abstract to her book, Montoya says that this 'literary medievalism' "played a vital role in the construction of the French Enlightenment; Starting with the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, it influenced movements leading to the Romantic rediscovery of the Middle Ages, and helped to shape new literary genres, from the epistolary novel to the fairy tale and opera."  Concerning the overall purpose of the book, Montoya writes: "From the re-evaluation of the medieval thus emerged not only the seeds of a new poetics, but also the central questions that preoccupied Enlightenment thinkers from Montesquieu to Rousseau", and "[a]t the centre of these debates was the notion of historical progress."  Montoya shows in this work that a careful examination of how this particular period of history considered the Middle Ages provides us with a better understanding of conceptions of modernity.

Medievalist Enlightenment is divided into three main parts, and is comprised of an Introduction, six chapters, and a Conclusion.  The first two chapters are found in 'Part I: Conceptualizing the Medieval', which discusses "late seventeenth-century conceptualizations of the medieval" (8) to "the reflections on the medieval of the philosophes and their critics of the 1750s" (8).  Montoya examines the following three authors in great detail: Charles Perrault, Jean Chapelain, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In 'Chapter 1: A Sense of the Past: Ancients, Moderns, and the Medieval', Montoya presents a discussion of Perrault's Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes.  She chooses Perrault's Parallèle "because this was the most complete and systematic text to appear during the initial phase of the Quarrel addressing the issues it raised (25).  Chronologically speaking, the "issues," she later explains, are two opposing ideas: "If, on the one hand, the medieval was moving closer to the present day, on the other hand modernity was encroaching on the medieval, for there was not always a sense, in Perrault's Parallèle, of a strict separation between the two" (32).  Montoya provides a particular example in Perrault's work: "The last volume of the Parallèle, which argued for the technical superiority of the Moderns over classical Antiquity, was perhaps the most surprising, for time and again Perrault resorted, for his examples, to the medieval period" (32-33).  Ideas regarding considerations of the relationship between the past and the present, and the question of where to place the Middle Ages in history, or how to label it as its own historical classification, are of central importance in this opening chapter.  

'Chapter 2: The Medievalist Rhetorics of Enlightenment' explores considerations of medieval literature specifically by Jean Chapelain and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Chapelain's dialogue La lecture des vieux romans and Rousseau's Discours sur les sciences et les arts are directly compared.  Montoya points out that "at first sight, the two texts may appear to convey diametrically opposed viewpoints.  While Rousseau ostensibly condemned the medieval, Chapelain's dialogue on the contrary argued for a rehabilitation of medieval romans, on moral rather than stylistic grounds" (47-48).  Montoya dedicates this chapter to showing how the two texts, though different in methodology, can both be viewed as favorable considerations of medieval literature.  Montoya concludes that "Chapelain and Rousseau drew on humanist precedents in order to propose a vision in which modernity could be perceived not as the result of a process of historical progress, but, rather, as moral and political degeneration" (68).  Montoya writes that the "[a]ges previously viewed as dark" (68) – as well as "barbaric" (68) – "were now viewed in terms of moral exemplarity" (68) during the time of the philosophes, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, or, the Age of Light.     

Chapters three, four, and five are found in 'Part II: Reimagining the Medieval'.  This part treats "concrete examples of literary medievalism" (8).  In 'Chapter 3: Survivals: Reading the Medieval Roman at the Dawn of the Enlightenment', Montoya opens by explaining that here she "will explore how, during the early period covering the 1680s to the 1700s, the roman or chivalric romance (roman de chevalerie) was read by contemporary readers, and how these readings related to other conceptions of the medieval" (71).  She takes as her prime example the letters of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné and "relates Sévigné's remarks on medieval romans to other traces of early Enlightenment readers and readings of medieval texts, and beyond these, to the critical debate on the significance of the medieval past for literary modernity" (72).  In this chapter, Montoya primarily discusses the existence of romans de chevalerie in eighteenth-century libraries, which ones were being read and by whom.  Montoya points out a "more interesting question" (83) as to "how [these texts] were actually read by contemporary readers" (83).  Here she mentions specifically "correspondences, journals, and other autobiographical works" (83), and takes the letters of Madame de Sévigné as a powerful example of "opening literature to new social groups" (95) – to a female audience and to different classes of society, for example.

In 'Chapter 4: Continuities: The Medieval as Performance', Montoya shows how two genres, the opera and the fairy tale, "invite us to think of the medieval not so much as text, but as performance: not primarily as content, but as a kind of musical mode" (12).  This argument is particularly strong with reference to the opera, where Montoya provides several detailed examples within the context of theatricality and performativity (117).  While the "performing authorship" (128) discussion of the fairy tales is indeed an interesting and novel approach, other considerations of the later influence of fairy tales could also be explored further, such as the evolution and development of the conte to the conte philosophique genre so characteristic of the Enlightenment and of the literature of the eighteenth century, including different European authors, and especially Voltaire.    

In the final section of Part II, 'Chapter 5: Reconfigurations: Medievalism and Desire, Between Eros and Agape' Montoya focuses primarily on the letters of Madame de Sévigné and the fiction of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Here, she "[explores] Sévigné's and Rousseau's rewriting of the Abélard and Héloïse myth" (12).  The purpose of this is to show "that these authors deployed medieval references in an attempt to secularize older notions of Christian agape, seeking to attain a new, distinctly modern reconciliation between secular and divine varieties of love" (12).  Specific topics discussed include "Earthly and Divine Love" (147), "The Role of the Heroide" (150), "Desire as an Instrument of Religious Realization" (154), " Sévigné: The Mother as Lover" (157), "Motherhood and Agape" (160), "Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse and the Héloïsian-Ovidian Model" (165), and "New Ideals of Marriage" (173).

The third and final part of Montoya's text is entitled 'Studying the Medieval' and includes the sixth chapter and the Conclusion.  Part III "argues that the professionalization of medieval studies coincided with broader philosophical shifts marking the beginning of modernity – and defining, too, the conceptual parameters within which we continue to speak of the medieval today" (8).  In 'Chapter 6: The Invention of Medieval Studies', Montoya "focuses on the ideological contest between academic medievalists, and aristocratic scholar-amateurs" (12).  Montoya begins her final chapter by stating that the "new, academic medievalism had its institutional basis at the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres" (185), from which emerged "an ideological struggle between two competing models of medievalism" (186), as Montoya suggests, "an older, aristocratic model of amateur engagement with the medieval, and a newer, bourgeois model of professional historiography" (186).  The chapter focuses on the varying considerations of medieval scholarship by three authors: Jean-Baptiste La Curne de Sainte-Palaye, Anne-Claude-Philippe, comte de Caylus, and perhaps most importantly, as Montoya notes, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, in whose works "in the actual practice and development of medieval studies, the two competing traditions came together" (219).

Montoya ends Medievalist Enlightenment with a section called 'Medievalism as an Alternative Modernity' (221), where she concludes that "[u]nderstanding [literary medievalism from the 1680s to the 1750s] is crucial not only to understanding the parameters within which we have ourselves come to conceive of the medieval, but also to understanding the epistemological debates on which [Enlightenment's] modernity itself was built" (224).  This work presents an organized, thoughtful, and detailed analysis of the presence and considerations of medieval literature in the early Enlightenment period.  The selections discussed here highlight pertinent entries from this volume, which is an excellent contribution to scholarship on both medieval and Enlightenment studies, and a valuable resource for scholars of each period.   

Kathryn E. Fredericks
State University of New York at Geneseo

Stromberg, dir: Maleficent

Maleficent. Dir. Robert Stromberg. Disney, released May 30, 2014, in theaters. 135 mins.

Reviewed by: Elan Justice Pavlinich (

Visually enchanting, comically elegant, and mildly violent, Maleficent is a feminist film that places women harmoniously in nature, against the impotent hubris of the patriarchy. Maleficent is Robert Stromberg’s directorial debut, and though it is written by Linda Woolverton, Charles Perrault, who published “Le belle au bois dormant” as part of his 1697 Histoires ou contes du temps passé, is credited too. Of course, the Disney Animated Classic Sleeping Beauty follows Perrault’s tale, but it is this 1959 cartoon that provides the visual foundation upon which much of Angelina Jolie’s characterization of the dark fairy is based.

Indicating an acquaintance with this textual history, the narrator begins the tale with the compelling challenge that she will “tell an old story anew and see how well you know it.” Now, audiences are aware that Maleficent is a modern adaptation of a familiar story from the villain’s point of view, and though it lacks the majesty of a typical Disney fairy tale introduction, right away the audience is presented with the problem of textual authority. Who is in charge here? Perrault? Sleeping Beauty? Or the contemporary cinema that is presently staking its claim to an oral tradition that challenges our cultural memory of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale?

The cross-cultural multitemporal setting is at once familiar and ambiguous, referring the audience to a time long ago that eludes any coherent spatiotemporal location. The tale implies an early medieval temporal setting based on the contrast between the fairy realm and the kingdom of humans, yet the architecture and costume design suggests postconquest Britain, which is evinced by the Anglo-Norman influence on the castle and costumes out of medieval romance that indicate a dominant French presence in an English court.[1]

Young Maleficent, played by Isobelle Molloy, first appears as a happy fairy in earth tones, at peace with nature and a healer who promotes wellness in the Moors, a land which is inhabited by all mythical creatures, in contrast to the architectural vista of the unnamed kingdom of humans. Maleficent meets Stefan, a boy who had been warned never to venture into the monstrous territory of the Moors. During this encounter we learn that fairies cannot touch iron without being burned, and so Stefan tosses his iron ring so that he can be closer to Maleficent. Their love, however, cannot withstand Stefan’s ambition as he is drawn to power in the kingdom of humans. His people fear the Moors, and their ruler, King Henry, promises that the one who slays Maleficent will advance to the throne. Relying on his intimacy with the powerful fairy, Stefan lures her into a meeting, drugs her, cuts off her wings, and delivers them to King Henry to signify that she has been vanquished. Based on these deceits Stefan becomes king, and his firstborn is Aurora.

On the day of Aurora’s christening the kingdom gathers to bestow gifts upon the child. Maleficent intrudes upon the festivities dressed in black, and Angelina Jolie delivers the iconic curse with magnificent wickedness, proclaiming amidst roiling green smoke that the princess will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep before her sixteenth birthday, and that she may only be revived by true love’s kiss. As a precaution, King Stefan rids the kingdom of all spinning wheels and sends Aurora to be raised in the countryside by three inept fairies, to return to her home only after her sixteenth birthday.

Over the course of Aurora’s youth, it is the vigilant Maleficent who protects her from the shadows, who are determined to see her curse fulfilled. To the audience familiar with medieval romance, while Maleficent appears to be monomaniacal, her curse serves as the seed for her personal epiphany concerning love’s triumph over hatred. Nearly sixteen years later, Aurora, now played by Elle Fanning, is made aware of her guardian, and a bond is cultivated between the two.

Still, the curse takes hold and Aurora is compelled to return to her kingdom. The curse conveys her through hidden passages and a company of women who are washing white sheets until she finds the room of discarded and dismembered spinning wheels. She pricks her finger, falls asleep, and the quest for her true love is begun. The logical remedy is a kiss from the dashing Prince Phillip, who anticlimactically fails to awaken her. It is Maleficent, Aurora’s fairy godmother, whose kiss restores the princess.

Her father however, King Stefan, has fallen prey to his own paranoia and sets a trap to murder the fairy once and for all. While Maleficent struggles to save herself, Aurora discovers her godmother’s wings locked away in another secret chamber. She frees the flapping members, which seek out the body to which they belong, and upon union Maleficent is restored to her full power so that she can defend herself. She does not vanquish King Stefan, however; rather it is his megalomania that leads him to his own death.

In the end, Maleficent finds happiness and is returned to harmony in the Moors, and Aurora is named queen of both realms. All creatures, human and mythical, are happy to uphold her as the rightful ruler.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Maleficent is a recycled story with very little substance and an ill-refined plot that conflicts too much with its predecessor, Sleeping Beauty.[2] This myopic assessment does not consider Maleficent’s elegant simplicity. The temporal aspects of the fairy tale have been collapsed. Now, instead of an entire kingdom slumbering for years, Maleficent presents Aurora, alone, sleeping for hours. Minimal character development and sparse dialogue indicate a refined narrative that relies on visual expression and the audience’s presuppositions. It is this very elegance that bespeaks a quiet complexity; one that is fully appreciated by considering Maleficent within the textual history of the Sleeping Beauty narrative and by recognition of the visual argument that promotes feminine empowerment. The fairy tale tradition has maintained gender dichotomies through such narratives, like the foundational Disney Animated Classic Sleeping Beauty, that foster tropes and archetypes, subconsciously enforcing notions of feminine weakness and servitude or monstrous corruption that requires rescue and order by means of masculine power and control. Maleficent is not only self-conscious of its relation to a literary history of androcentric narratives; it extricates itself by announcing its own textual authority as a representation of feminine empowerment in contrast to the impotence of masculine claims to power.

The first glimpse of this stunning cultural critique occurs in the teaser trailer for Maleficent. In accordance with other Disney previews that immediately signify their connection to the iconic studio, the teaser trailer opens on the Disney kingdom at twilight, but then the shot suddenly veers off in the exact opposite direction to show the peaks of a wild and untamed other, the Moors.[3] Upon first viewing it would seem that the preview is announcing that audiences will be taken into the dark mirror-realm that opposes the perfection of the Disney kingdom, but in fact, as we learn the politics of Maleficent’s diegesis, the Disney kingdom is self-consciously equated with patriarchy. The Disney kingdom is opposite Maleficent’s Moors, precisely in the same place as King Stefan’s castle, an industrialized realm of masculine authority built on treachery, where women serve to beget heirs or they work underground to keep the kingdom clean. Signifying the Disney kingdom in place of Stefan’s castle in the preview suggests a Disney film that defies the Disney tradition. Maleficent, following on the heels of Frozen (perhaps too closely), also promotes a practical notion of true love; one that relinquishes the old fairy tale tradition that commodifies women and bolsters masculine authority. The Maleficent teaser trailer makes fascinating use of space, for if we, the audience, are accustomed to the spectacle of the Disney kingdom, it would suggest that the Disney kingdom as patriarchy is constructed in such a way that it is constantly vigilant of its other, and that our point of reference is the feminist kingdom, whence we gaze.

The teaser trailer also plays on the audience’s androcentric expectations, in that Maleficent is publicized as a wicked witch, rather than betrayed fairy. Audiences are drawn to the character because she is portrayed as monstrous, yet Maleficent constructs a visual argument that privileges women rather than reducing them to sexualized or horrific spectacles. Once again, the teaser trailer is dark, with Maleficent shrouded in shadows as Aurora asks her to show herself and to not be afraid. Delivering a response that releases shivers, the mysterious figure says to Aurora that upon seeing her, “you’ll be afraid,” as she steps forward to reveal Maleficent in the flesh to audiences for the first time.[4] The promotional material for Maleficent conveys what Barbara Creed defines as the monstrous-feminine, in that it “emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity.”[5] Not only does cultural memory identify her as evil, but also Maleficent is still being depicted as the archenemy in the Disney videogame series Kingdom Hearts, and ‘Maleficent’ derives from the Latin maleficus, referring to an enchanter with the connotation of evil. While it would be naïve to limit Angelina Jolie’s Hollywood persona to a sex symbol alone, one cannot neglect her physical appearance and previous roles, which contribute to the cultural memory of her identity and the talents she brings to the Maleficent character. Jolie’s sexuality coupled with the dark nature of the previews, which boast blatant adjectives such as ‘wicked,’ insinuate a monstrous-feminine persona.

Conversely, Maleficent defies notions of monstrosity through a series of reversals that culminate in her sentimental epiphany and the union of the feminine Moors and the masculine kingdom under the harmonious rule of the beloved Aurora. In spite of the marketing techniques, the film undermines Maleficent’s monstrosity, using it instead for comical effect; her character development defies the horror genre the promotions promise to audiences, while maintaining the lessons advanced by feminist scholars like Creed: 
            The representation of the monstrous-feminine in patriarchal signifying practices
            has a number of consequences for psychoanalytically based theories of sexual
            difference. On the one hand, those images which define woman as monstrous in
            relation to her reproductive functions work to reinforce the phallocentric notion
            that female sexuality is abject. On the other hand, the notion of the monstrous-
            feminine challenges the view that femininity, by definition, constitutes passivity.
            Furthermore, the phantasy of the castrating mother undermines Freud’s theories
            that woman terrifies because she is castrated and that it is the father who alone
            represents the agent of castration within the family.[6]
Stefan, the embodiment of patriarchal values, is both fearful of castration and the castrator (of both Maleficent and himself). Female sexuality is represented as abject through the various dichotomies that are built upon a substratum of sexual difference, and yet the image of feminine sexuality permeates the film, not as monstrous, but a sensual source of strength. Maleficent is anything but passive; her role throughout the film exposes the impotence of the patriarchy by asserting her own authority over male characters, and her ultimate victory reclaims the women, such as Aurora’s mother and the washerwomen, who are silenced under baseless masculine power.

Femininity is conveyed through a series of images that assert not only autonomy, but also authority, in spite of the phallocentric regime. Maleficent’s lips constantly contrast with the color scheme of the film’s mise-en-scène; even the opening sequences of her childhood the earth tones of the Moors, her costume, and complexion clash in order to emphasize her lips. Her femininity commands attention. In fact, much of Maleficent’s appearance is vaguely vaginal, including her bright blood-red lips that seem to rupture the otherwise color-coordinated visual aspects, as well as the large and looming wings that are stolen from her by an untrue lover, and the horns that adorn her head, featuring tripartite curvatures that are reminiscent of labia. Maleficent’s appearance vividly portrays the feminine cross described by Luce Irigaray: 
            Two sets of lips that, moreover, cross over each other like the arms of the cross,
            the prototype of the crossroads between. The mouth lips and the genital lips do
            not point in the same direction. In some way they point in the direction opposite
            from the one you would expect, with the “lower” ones forming the vertical.[7]
There is no explicit reference to her sexuality—this is, after all, a Disney film—but her femininity is boldly emblazoned, dominating every mise-en-scène, to emphasize the power of her femininity in opposition to the patriarchal forces that seek to squelch her autonomy. In fact, some critics have recognized that the scene in which Stefan drugs Maleficent, cuts off her wings, and leaves her alone in the dark, suggests rape.[8] Her wings, commodified and cloistered by the patriarchy, are rendered tokens of Stefan’s masculinity. They are perverted to signify his patriarchal authority; an authority that exists only by relating itself to, and by the subjugation of an other.

Ultimately, the impotence of the patriarchy is revealed, and (unsettlingly) every masculine character is made subject to feminine forces. First, King Henry believes the land of the Moors to be a place of evil, and so he sends his troops to conquer it and to slay its protector, Maleficent. King Henry dies a pitiful death in his luxurious bed soon after his attempt at conquest. King Stefan is deprived of enjoying the company of his own daughter, Aurora, and even his wife, whom he neglects on her deathbed. Finally, after having been defeated by Maleficent and left to live out his life and maintain his throne, in a fit of anger he attempts once more to destroy her and accidentally hurls himself from a tower of the castle. Fittingly, the patriarch dies due the dangerous heights of the patriarchal structure, and the wide-angle shot of his armor-clad corpse with canted legs against the flagstones, looking small and vulnerable, visually conveys the emptiness of masculine avarice.

While King Henry and Stefan are motivated by greed, other masculine characters, who are not morally corrupt, are nevertheless rendered submissive to feminine power, namely Diaval and Prince Phillip. Diaval was once a raven, trapped by peasants and pitied by Maleficent; he was transformed into a man, and thus a servant to the mistress to whom he owes his life. Although he acts as advisor to Maleficent, he lacks control over his own body, because she alters his appearance to suit her needs, even violating his will by transforming him into a wolf in order to terrify soldiers. And Prince Phillip, the courtly lover, is also proven impotent by the narrative. Ultimately, his kiss fails to awaken the sleeping beauty, constituting the film’s reexamination of true love’s kiss. But the image of Prince Phillip under Maleficent’s sway, is suggestive of his own lack of power, and perhaps a hint at his true sexuality. Consider that, in order to manipulate people, Maleficent renders them unconscious and lifts them into the air by means of magic; so Aurora, levitated by Maleficent, rolls backwards gently, and floats supine as if slumbering. Prince Phillip, however, assumes a less dignified posture upon levitating. Instead of appearing to be at peace, his face is cast downward and his hind is slightly more elevated than his back, suggesting a masculine posture of submission. He is entirely unconscious as Maleficent traverses the thorny iron barricade that keeps them from accessing Aurora, and it is the three fairies, Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple), who deliver him to the cursed princess. Women in Maleficent defy danger; feminine forces facilitate masculine powers.

In the end, Aurora is crowned the queen who unites the natural and mythical realm with the kingdom of humans under one rule. But this is not the story “we” know. In spite of the triumph of feminine authority, contemporary audiences are currently living within the patriarchy and we are aware of the controversial effects that humans have on the environment. The magic of the Moors that appears to be synonymous with nature and feminine energy, ultimately, have not triumphed. Regardless of whether Queen Aurora and Maleficent lived happily ever after, we know that eventually these powers have succumbed to the patriarchy. The irreconcilable conclusion of Maleficent to its Sleeping Beauty predecessor raises our consciousness of the textual history of this particular fairy tale. Maleficent does not need to conform to the androcentric narrative upon which it is based, because the tension between Maleficent and the literary and cultural tradition whence it is derived incites the audience to wonder how patriarchal authority ever came to dominate the narrative. Of course, the newest generation of Disney audiences may not recognize themes of rape and contentions of the gender binary, but the Disney fairy tales are evolving to promote autonomy and practical notions of love, because a good fairy tale ought to grow up with its audience.

Elan Justice Pavlinich
University of South Florida

[1] Ardis Butterfield, “National Histories” Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in
Literary History. Ed. Brian Cummings and James Simpson (New York: Oxford UP, 2010), pp. 33-55.
[2] Keith Staskiewicz, "Maleficent," Entertainment Weekly, June 12, 2014, accessed July 7, 2014,
[3] "Maleficent Teaser Trailer," Maleficent: Official Website, accessed July 7, 2014,
[4] Ibid.
[5] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 3.
[6] Ibid., p. 151.
[7] Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993) p. 18.
[8] Hayley Krischer, "The Maleficent Rape Scene That We Need to Talk About,” The Huffington Post, June 6, 2014, accessed July 7, 2014,