In these times of social distancing and remote learning, visual art can still offer us consolation. Here, as part of her second piece in a rolling self-conceived series, Rochelle Roberts reflects on Dorothy Cross’ sculpture, Virgin Shroud, 1993.
I have always found Dorothy Cross’ Virgin Shroud a haunting work. I bought the postcard from Tate Modern when I was a teenager and it has been stuck to my bedroom wall most since then. I think what keeps me drawn to it is its mysticism and intrigue, a curiosity that keeps me staring and staring, wondering who is under the veil. In reality, it is just a steel structure, but it looks so human in shape that it is hard not to image someone could really be standing under there. I’ve never seen the work in real life, but I think if I were to be with it in a room, I would feel uneasy. The sculpture is big (measuring at 201 x 81 x 120 cm) and it is sinister. I imagine it looming over me in a gallery room, a faceless figure like a spectre.
Virgin Shroud is a sculpture in the shape of a person. It is covered in a large furred white veil with black accents which hang down in ripples. The veil is actually a cow hide. Beneath the hide, flows a piece of ivory silk, the train from from a wedding dress that once belonged to Cross’ grandmother. On the figure’s head are what appears to be spikes or short horns which stick out around the head like a crown. It always reminded me of the crown of thorns around Christ’s head. For a long time, I thought the spikes on the Virgin Shroud were made of some type of metal, but if you look closely, you’ll see they are the cow’s udders.
Dorothy Cross is an Irish artist who works in a variety of mediums. She often uses found objects in her work, as well as photographs and animal skins. Her work is surreal, both beautiful and troubling. Recurring themes include memory and personal history, as well as sexual and cultural identity (Tate). Virgin Shroud came about after the artist took a trip to Norway, where she encountered udders being used as sieves. She was fascinated by this and it inspired her to start using cow hides and udders in her own work (Tate).
There is so much in the Virgin Shroud that makes it such a powerful piece of art. Somehow there is something innately female about the figure, even without knowing what it’s called. And yet, there is nothing in the physicality of the body that tells you it is a woman. The only clue, perhaps, is the train of wedding dress that pools at the figure’s feet. I find it interesting that Cross uses a cow’s hide in this sculpture, and yet it seems to make perfect sense. There are the parallels of motherhood: the Virgin Mary, mother to Jesus, the cow, mother to her calves. Also, the white of the cow, symbolic of purity/virginity, although the black spots on the skin creates a dramatic contrast which adds to the unsettling aura of the piece. Despite this, it makes me think of the fact that even though the sculpture symbolises the Virgin Mary who is seen as the ‘perfect woman’, in reality no one can be perfect, and imperfection is part of what makes people, objects, nature who and what they are. Dorothy Cross wanted to interrogate a woman’s role in society, and I think she has achieved this in a way that is bold and strong.
There is something to be said about the fact that the Virgin doesn’t have a child with her, the fact that she is faceless. The artist said in a video for TateShots that she thought about putting an actual statue of the Virgin Mary under the shroud but found that it was too literal (Dorothy Cross — Virgin Shroud, TateShots). To me, that shows that despite the title of the piece, the sculpture could be of any woman. Anyone can stand under the shroud. It represents different kinds of women. You can project yourself or your ideas of womanhood onto the sculpture. When I look at it, I don’t see a mother. I don’t see a woman in service to someone else. To me, the sculpture is powerful. There is something distinctly strong about it. I’m sure not everyone sees the work in the same way. People will have their own thoughts about what she represents. But the point is that it allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. Yes, the title of the work is very suggestive. But as a physical object, it seems to have many layers and contrasting narratives. There are no distinctive identifying features. If you think about what the sculpture is made up of, the hard steel structure has very different connotations to the soft silk dress, the coarseness of cow skin. All of these things contained in a woman’s body. All of these things that make her up.
I’ve been thinking about this work in isolation. I think the solitariness of the figure speaks to me particularly in these times. I haven’t seen my boyfriend for almost three weeks, and I don’t know when I will see him again. I find it hard balancing working from home with being at home all of the time. It’s difficult to distinguish working hours, which seem to morph and seep into time, from when I don’t need to work. I can’t seem to concentrate for very long while reading a book. I haven’t been able to write poetry. Currently, the Virgin Shroud looks mournful. She seems to bow her head in sorrow, a sadness which is really in me. She is who I make her become. I project my feelings on to her and she absorbs them willingly.
About Rochelle Roberts
Rochelle Roberts is a writer based in London. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming with Visual Verse, Severine, Eye Flash Poetry, Merak magazine, Streetcake magazine and blood orange. In 2019 her poem, ‘On Being an Angel’, inspired by Francesca Woodman’s photography, was shortlisted for Streetcake magazine’s Experimental Writing Prize. By day, Rochelle works as Assistant Editor for the art publisher Lund Humphries. You can read her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @rochellerart and Instagram @rocheller.