Illuminating Women, with its surprising take on tired medieval stereotypes, might . . . be called a curatorial equivalent to Gal Gadot’s fresh and successful 2017 performance as Diana, Queen of the Amazons, this same summer. But the analogies stop there. For whereas in Wonder Woman, Hippolyta had to beg the male Zeus to grant her the right for her daughter Diana to be born, medieval women . . . knew the reverse to be true: God had asked Mary for the right to be born of her. Indeed, unlike a film about an imagined single goddess, the women who commissioned and sometimes created these manuscripts were real, and there were lots of them.
Empson’s academic career in England was over, at least for the time being, and the best job he could find . . . was a teaching position in the booming city of Tokyo. And it was while teaching there, in 1932, that he visited the old city of Nara, where, as Rupert Arrowsmith says in his introduction to The Face of the Buddha, “the beauty of a particular set of Buddhist sculptures struck Empson with a revelatory force.” And thus began a curious detour in his career, a project that occupied him off and on for more than a decade before it eventuated in a book whose manuscript was promptly lost, by a drunkenly careless friend, and only recovered twenty years after Empson’s death.