Artist Jessina Leonard writes: “‘First Sweet Truth’ is a photographic dialogue with visionary texts written by women in the late Middle Ages. These accounts are not only significant historically—many of them are the first known texts to be written by women in the West—but, also provide a foundation for non-anthropocentric knowledge. In our contemporary landscape informed by algorithms and data-driven forms of knowledge, mystical experience inherently defies the logic of our time. Today we largely assume seeing to be a disembodied act. In a constant flow of images, our eyes skim, understand, move on—what the philosopher Laura Marks calls seeing-as-mastering. In contrast, I examine what this lineage of female visionary experience reveals about other ways of seeing, a kind of seeing that gestures both towards the flowering of reality and the limits of representation.
“This project is at once an historical inquiry, a personal pilgrimage, and an investigation into the continued relevance of these women’s writings. I turn to my camera as a tool of translation. How do you photograph the ineffable? Rather than attempting to create direct representations of these visions, I turn instead to fragmentation, emptiness, dissemblance, and the sensual, often using the symbols and metaphors these women reference in their own writings. In an effort to get even closer, my project has taken me to the very place some of these women lived—in particular, a still-active Cistercian convent in central Germany, Kloster Helfta, where three of the most prolific Christian female mystics—Gertrude of Helfta, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Mechthild of Hackeborn—all lived in the thirteenth century, and where many of the nuns today have even taken on their names. For them, it is still a place ripe with divine presence.”