Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Queer eye for the religious guy

Getting a thighful
It is a cliche that art has attracted a few queer (as in not heterosexual and/or gender conforming) folk over the centuries. (Are we really surprised that the sculptor of the magnificently homoerotic David was not exactly a raging heterosexual?) And, in past centuries, art was overwhelmingly religious. So, queer sensibility manifests, just occasionally, in religious art. Not only does the male figure above, from a side chapel in a Venezian church, quite gratuitously show a lot of thigh, with a vision of youthful male beauty next to him, but diagonally opposite was another male figure, mostly naked, with very sartyr-like facial features and congruent expression, standing in classic "teapot" camp pose.

Consider this Last Supper, on display at a Museum in Venezia.
The couple at the Last Supper
It does not merely have St John leaning on Christ's breast (that is straight out of the Gospel of St John), the entire picture is framed--in the arrangement of figures, in its use of light--so that we see Christ and John as a couple.

There is a much longer, if somewhat subterranean, tradition of Jesus and John as a couple than people generally realise. For example, St Aelred of Rievaulx, in his Speculum caritatis ("The Mirror of Charity") tells the reader that:
our Jesus himself, lowering (Himself) to our condition in every way, suffering all things for us and being compassionate towards us, transformed it by manifesting his love. To one person, not to all, did he grant a resting place on his most sacred breast in token of his special love, so that the virginal head might be supported by the flowers of his virginal breast, and the fragrant secrets of the heavenly bridal-chamber might instill the sweet scents of spiritual perfumes on his virginal attachment more abundantly because more closely. So it is that even though all the disciples were cherished by the sweetness of the supreme charity by the most blessed Master, still it was to this one that he this name as a prerogative of yet more intimate attachment: that he was called that disciple whom Jesus loved.
Emphasis in the original, translation by Elizabeth Connor, No.17 in the Cistercian Fathers series. To get a flavour of St Aelred's writing, an English translation of the first part of his De spiritali amicitia ("On Spiritual Friendship") is available here [pdf]). Another translation of the key part of the above passage is here. Depending on which is the better translation, St Aelred is implying or stating that Jesus and St John are married in Heaven.

There is also, of course, St Sebastian. The beautiful youth, pierced by arrows yet miraculously saved--as in this painting by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, better known as il Sodoma--(but martyred by being beaten to death shortly after) is such an obvious candidate for homoeroticism in religious art as to be something of an artistic cliche.

The role of queer folk in transmitting culture and (due to their distinct perspective) acting as a creative “yeast” in it has a long history.  Consider Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, CarravagioAlan Turing, to name a few.  Gay author and blogger Bruce Bawer puts it well:
Western civilization, far from being threatened by homosexuality, is to a staggeringly disproportionate degree the creation of gay men and women. Do you want to protect your children from gay influence? … Very well. Destroy the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, silence Messiah and Swan Lake, and burn Moby Dick and The Portrait of a Lady. Gay culture is all around you — and it belongs to everybody.
There are other enriching and preserving passions than the passion for progeny.

Indeed, many cultures take the creative skills (and thus social value) of “third gender” (not conventionally male and female) folk for granted; often specifically in a spiritual context.  By being typically less focused on family, the same-sex oriented can be more focused on the divine, on matters cultural, on wider service.  Many cultures have felt that those oriented towards their own sex were particularly appropriate as shamans or priests (third gender priests turn up in many cultures)—by embracing the form of one sex and the orientation typical of the other, they were deemed to be particularly gifted in connecting to the Otherworld and as intermediaries in this one.

Religious art brings these things together. So it is hardly surprising that we sometimes find a touch of the queer in religious art.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

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