Posted by: phane20c | November 17, 2010

Altered Madonnas

In the chapter on Julia Margaret Cameron, Mavor refers to Cameron’s Madonnas as “altered” and “altared.” This struck me as a little confusing, because ‘altared’ is not a word. I tried to understand as best I could given Mark Taylor’s definition of the word ‘altarity,’ which Mavor mentions in the chapter. ‘Altarity,’ according to Taylor, is the semiotic play that the concept of alterity invokes within a space of Derridian undecidability. If I try to put this in more understandable terms, it comes out like: altarity is the symbolic play that altering something invokes withing a space of undecidability. This definition is still pretty confusing, but I think I can grasp it as meaning something to do with undecidability. This makes sense since the Madonnas are blurred and offer an array of semiotic contradictions: pure vs erotic, living versus dead, holy Mary versus earthly Mary Hillier, etc.
In addition to being ‘altared,’ Cameron’s Madonnas are altered. This concept is easier to grasp because the Madonnas are in fact different from traditional Virgin portraits. Cameron is using a real woman who hints at nonpurity and at a number of contradictions listed above.
Cameron’s work is beautiful, and I had not come across it before this class.


  1. Just a note, which may or may not assuage your confusion: “altared” (ppl. a.) has been a word since 1641, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “a. Furnished or honoured with an altar. b. Treated as an altar.” 🙂

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