JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Molly Bray

April 14, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

Molly Bray is a student of Art History and Book & Media Studies entering her fifth and final year at the University of Toronto. Having completed coursework on medieval art at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford, her work considers the invested cultural significance applied to textiles across the middle ages as communicators of collective and individual identity within intersections of gender and social positionality. Molly joins the JHI in 2022-2023 as one of our JHI Undergraduate Fellows and received the Jukka-Pekka Saraste Undergraduate Award in the Humanities.

What are your main research interests?

My research revolves around the lives and art of religious women across the Late Middle Ages, particularly those in Germany and the Low Countries. I am most interested in the interrelationships between their material and devotional cultures and how they inflect and reflect theological, ecclesiastical, and secular activity. I turn to feminist and queer theoretical frameworks alongside performance perspectives to draw these connections, re-assessing the institutional structures, piety, and artistic labour of such women.

What project are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it?

While at the JHI, I have been developing my undergraduate senior thesis, titled “Tactile Devotion: Weaving Marian Labour into the Late Medieval Convent.” Centring their artistic output, I address religious women’s textile production in Germany and the Low Countries across the 13th-15th Centuries. My research extends the Virgin Mary as an exemplar for religious women’s woven wares, accessed through an imitative meditation that unfolds in both the actual and imaginary. Their labour, I theorize, recalls Mary’s, playing the part of productive agent in the local intercessional economy and reproductive agent in their private devotional experience. In this configuration, we can then look to textile production as devotional praxis where sensorial and temporal ritual confirms its sacrality and centrality to a Marian meditative performance. Secondarily, I consider how these textiles have been received in scholarly literature and the curatorial distinctions between low art and high art.

What are you hoping to experience as a JHI Fellow?

The JHI fellowship has offered an otherwise rare opportunity in the undergraduate context: the ability to develop and concentrate on a singular project over an entire academic year. I have been able to engage with the research process itself in greater depth and broader scope relative to the term-based projects that, as undergrads, we are so accustomed to—and it has been so enriching! I am also very grateful for the resources and mobility that come with the fellowship; thanks to the support of JHI, I will soon be visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library, and the Burrell Collection to conduct material research within their collections (which I am sure will make for an excellent experience).

What have you enjoyed the most so far?

As others have surely mentioned, the sense of community fostered by the JHI has been immensely helpful in building up my skills as a researcher. Gathering every week in a setting with such varied disciplines gives us the rare and wonderful opportunity to learn about matters entirely outside of our own field. As a result of this interdisciplinarity, how I approach my work and the methodological paths I can follow in doing so have shifted—I have so many new ‘tools’ in my ‘toolbox’ now!

Share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by

I began reading Lauren Groff’s Matrix (2021) on the first day of the fellowship and have slowly made my way through it as the year passed. In the novel, Groff reimagines a life for the poet Marie de France as 12th Century prioress. Groff’s prose-like writing style is incredibly vivid and radiant and has served as something of a springboard for me as I write my thesis. Especially as an art historian (and visual thinker), her novel and manner of bringing the convent to life have kept me excited about the art and women with whom I spend so much time.

What is a fun fact about you?

I come from a long line of textile workers, with my matrilineal great-great-grandfather being a velvet maker, great grandmother being a skilled seamstress, my grandmother being a fashion designer, and my mother being a costume designer. I would like to think that with my research on textiles, I am carrying on a familial thread (if you will excuse the metaphor!).