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—–All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

——————————————-Julian of Norwich



Obsessed with these lines of yours during the pandemic, I traced their echoes through Auden and Eliot back to your visionary Revelations of Divine Love, the earliest surviving text by a woman in English. I find myself reacting viscerally to your sensory language. You describe your experience of God in metaphors drawn from daily life: fish scales, hazelnuts, blood. Your mystical insights are revealed through physical actions and material things.

Kiki McGrath. Consumed, 2023. Crypt of the National Cathedral, Washington, DC. Durational performance with book, edible paper, bone folder, pen, gold dust. Photo: Laura Litten.

Across the centuries, I feel a connection to your trust in fleshly experience, your way of giving embodied knowledge a creative form. Our lives couldn’t be more different: you were a medieval woman who chose to be enclosed in an anchorhold (a room attached to the side of a church). Devoted to prayer and study, for twenty years you reflected on your visions and integrated them with theological and church teachings in a manuscript written in the language of commoners-a remarkable religious and creative achievement amid the famines, plagues, and wars of the fourteenth century.

I am an American artist who lived abroad for several years, moving between countries and rented studios. Through drawing and performance art, my work explores the overlapping edges of ritual, contemplation, and domestic labor.

Decoration from a church office book, c. 1400-10. Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Your text became a portal for me, a way to imagine the tactile qualities and ephemeral gestures of medieval life. I began to draw and paint on the pages of a 1942 edition of your book, a reprinting of Grace Warrack’s 1901 translation of the so-called Long Text. This altered artist book became the core of Anchorhold, an installation in Washington National Cathedral’s Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage.

To see where and how you lived, I visited Saint Julian’s church in Norwich, England. Your anchorhold is long gone; a reconstructed chapel rests on the foundations of the ancient cell. Sitting in that silent room, I wrote questions in my sketchbook: How did these physical surroundings influence the language you used to describe “God, the Ground of [your] beseeching”? What did the chanting of the Office of the Dead sound like as you entered permanent seclusion, never to leave that stone room? Did solitude and contemplation spark your creativity, or did you long for the touch of another human body?

Reconstruction of Julian’s cell at Saint Julian’s Church in Norwich, England.

Staying in a former convent next to the church, I made observational drawings and practiced contemplation in preparation for studio work. I read chapters from your book and responded to the words with colors and images, layering watercolors and oil pastels onto its pages. Mornings and evenings, I joined communal prayer in the chapel, and one day I happened upon a Julian Meeting, an ecumenical community that prays in silence. Afternoons, I walked through the medieval quarter of the city to see the cathedral and the Despenser Retable, a five-panel altarpiece painted during your lifetime. Before enclosure, did you look at the colorful, vivid scenes of Christ’s passion? Did the images of his suffering body seep into your visions?

Kiki McGrath. Anchorhold, 2023. Installation at the National Cathedral. Linen, cotton, thread, chair, table, pen, paper, jute rug. Photo: Lee Stallsworth.

Imagining the world you inhabited, I drew plans for an anchorhold, a small, austere space filled with pale light. Wanting to trace a relationship between my home in Washington, DC, and your medieval city, I sited the enclosure in the crypt of the National Cathedral. Built in the fourteenth-century English Gothic style, its vocabulary of soaring buttresses and carved stone would have been familiar to you. The Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage hosted the installation in a room near Saint Dunstan’s chapel. Behind an arch, we constructed an eight-foot-square cell lined with raw linen panels. Soft light filtered through a white cotton cross shape cut into the black window curtain. This contemporary anchorhold was furnished with a wooden table and chair, jute rug, and pen and paper. Visitors were invited to step out of their ordinary routines and sit alone in silence.

Although you lived alone, travelers and locals came to your curtained window in hopes of spiritual guidance. After visiting with you, pilgrim and mystic Margery Kempe wrote: “Dame Jelyan…the anchoress was an expert in such things and could give good counsel.” Another small window in the cell would have allowed you to observe church services, and through a third opening in the wall servants would have passed your supplies; historical records name maids Alice and Sarah. Seclusion and community shaped your daily life, so the installation was structured similarly, with a solitary enclosure, communal gathering space, and chapel. I stayed on site for seven days, reading aloud and copying texts. Like a servant to an anchoress, I performed domestic labors (dusting, sweeping, hosting visitors) while protecting the seclusion of individuals inside the cell.

Kiki McGrath. Consumed, 2023. Photo: Laura Litten.

Anchorhold began as a personal response to your writings but developed into a communal project. During the month of November 2023, visitors were invited to celebrate the 650th year of your visions in the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Terri Lynn Simpson, the center’s program director, led contemplative practice workshops and hosted online writing retreats. James Estes, medievalist and librarian, wrote a guide to your texts and translations, and cathedral volunteers staffed the library. Some visitors walked into the enclosure and right back out; others lingered, and I could hear sounds of writing or murmuring behind the curtain. Families brought their children to draw and play with finger labyrinths, and small groups of people gathered in the communal area, eager to talk about their experiences. One day an energetic visitor invited everyone into the center of the room and led a sacred dance to honor your memory.

You wrote anonymously. Julian might not even be your given name. Would you be surprised to learn that your words still resonate six centuries after your death?

You describe seeing Jesus with your eyes, hearing him speak with your ears, understanding with your mind and through spiritual insight. To explore physicality and text, I repeated tangible acts of labor and devotion; writing, reading, and re-presenting your words. I developed a durational performance based on the medieval European Christian practice of eating holy texts, from an era when, according to curator Elizabeth Sandoval, “people believed that words written and read, spoken and heard, could imprint on the brain, heart, and soul.”

Performance art trades in sensory and visceral experience, offering ways to process information differently from rational or logical thinking. Durational art, as it is called, makes use of the passing of time, often through repeated actions or gestures, to hone our attention and allow images to arise from memory and an accrued history of touch.

I decided to approach your descriptions of mystical experience, both “bodily” and “ghostly,” with ritualized, repeated gestures. In the performance Consumed, I sat alone in the anchorhold, reading Revelations of Divine Love and copying lines of the text onto paper. Combining manuscript-making actions with devotional gestures, I dusted the letters with gold powder and smoothed them with a bone folder. Smelling, licking, chewing, and swallowing words for spiritual nourishment, I repeated these actions with the intention of cultivating attention and reverence.


We often imagine the act of reading as one of pure intellect, but it has a physical dimension-paper, ink, hands that turn pages, eyes that take in light. By making the “consumption” of the text literal and embodied, almost uncomfortably visceral, I hoped to gesture toward the theological implications of our embodied state: we read with both our minds and bodies because we are bodily and ghostly, matter and spirit.

But you knew this all along. Otherwise, why go into an anchorhold at all?

Unlike most women from your era, you had privacy and autonomy inside the anchorhold. I wonder about your decision to live in a room of your own: was this radical

Kiki McGrath. Lily, 2023. Altered book, oil pastel, watercolor, collage, graphite, gold leaf. 5¼ x 7½ x 1 inch. Photo: Thomas Whalen.

act of seclusion in response to loss? Did you crave solitude to contemplate your mystical experiences and write about them in safety? “God is motherly” and “there is no anger in God” contradict medieval church teachings. Did you need thick walls around you to say these things?

In choosing to take vows and enter the religious life, you committed to performing its daily rites. Ritual is an important part of my art practice too; it can be repressive but also liberatory. The repeated actions, the prescribed gestures and sounds, can lead to boredom but also to meditative states. For you, physical confinement paradoxically secured your creative and spiritual freedom.

You wrote in Middle English, the spoken language of your day. To write in the vernacular (from the Latin word for “domestic”) seems appropriate for a woman who lived and worked in her house. For centuries, your texts were not publicly available; the story of how they were hand-copied, smuggled to France, and translated into modern English is fascinating-and still a bit mysterious. When they were first printed in the seventeenth century, they were deemed the “ravings of a distempered brain” and cataloged under “Magic and Witchcraft” in the British Museum. Today you are heralded as a great theologian, yet you described yourself as “an unlettered creature.” Surely you knew that a woman’s claims to direct experience of God could cause trouble; Marguerite Porete, a thirteenth-century mystic, was burned at the stake for her unconventional writings.

I wanted to hear your words spoken aloud by a wide range of contemporary voices. As part of the project, members of the National Cathedral community, theologians, writers, artists, and friends read from your Long Text, creating a communal audio recording now available online.

I also made a series of collages combining female bodies and domestic architecture-a theme that has been plumbed by a number of artists, including Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in their feminist installation Womanhouse (1972), Laurie Simmons in her photograph Walking House (1989), and Louise Bourgeois

Kiki McGrath. Anchorwoman, 2023. Altered book, paper, watercolor, glue. 7½ x 5¼ x 1 inch.

in her sculpture Femme Maison (1994). Continuing to explore these forms, I chose to paint my anchorhold hot pink and placed it atop pale-yellow medieval stockings. I collaged it into your fourteenth revelation on God and prayer; the image inhabits the text, and the words create an enclosure on the page.

Julian, you wrote about suffering, sin, and ultimate reality, declaring finally that “love is the meaning.” I am still far from understanding your life, but your words let me glimpse the mystical visions of a remarkable person. Your choice to reflect deeply and share your knowledge was a fundamentally hopeful act.

Separated from you by centuries, we modern people are, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction”-but we long to connect with deeper currents. We have great need of your perspective; your words have been sustenance for me and my contemporaries as we navigate our own challenging times.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher, a translator of your work, said: “Words are delicious, they feed the soul. Find nourishing words and repeat them.”

Julian, I continue to feed on yours.



Kiki McGrath is an interdisciplinary artist based in Chicago. Her installations and durational performances explore the overlapping edges of ritual, gender, and domestic labor.




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