One of the great paradox’s of queer church history is that a period of extreme persecution of “sodomites” by the Inquisition, directly at their own hands or indirectly by secular authorities at their instigation, largely coincided with a remarkable series of popes who had sex with men, who protected family and friends who did so, or spent vast sums commissioning major works of homoerotic art. Of these, the most obvious and best known of these is Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes for then Sistine Chapel, which remains one of the must see attractions for any tourist visiting Rome. (Pope Paul III who commissioned these works for the chapel, also commissioned an obviously homoerotic theme, the Rape of Ganymede, for his bedroom.)
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For the thousands of daily visitors, this is a powerful depiction of the second coming of Christ, and so a source of religious inspiration – but may have been based, in part, on scenes of male and female prostitution the artist saw in the Rome of his day.
A new study claims that the huge painting is also based on the seedy scenes the 16th-century artist witnessed at Roman public baths which doubled as brothels for male and female prostitutes.
“The figures descending to hell and ascending to heaven are inspired by the virile, muscular manual workers and porters Michelangelo would have seen during his visits to the baths, which are well documented,” said Elena Lazzarini, a researcher at the University of Pisa and the author of the study. “It was here he defined the build of the working man as the ideal physique.”
The public baths which proliferated in Rome at the time offered steam rooms, massages and basic medical treatments with leeches, “but also rooms offering scenes of promiscuity and prostitution, both male and female”, she said.
Lazzarini pointed out that in the painting, which spans an entire wall of the chapel where papal conclaves are held, one of the damned is being dragged down to hell by his testicles while men heading for heaven hug and kiss “in an ambiguous fashion”.
In what sense is this image of men kissing “ambiguous”?
So, there appear to be two paradoxes here. One is the historical anomaly of open male prostitution and papal tolerance or encouragement of homoeroticism while simultaneously executing thousands of Sodomites, often by burning at the stake. The other is the apparent anomaly of placing erotic art, homoerotic and otherwise, in a papal chapel.
On the historical anomaly, I do not want to go further here. On the spiritual / erotic element, there is no contradiction at all. Eroticism, and especially homoeroticism, frequently goes together with spirituality. As Chris Glaser notes in his introduction to “Coming out to God”, sexuality and spirituality can support and reinforce each other. They are not in conflict. Outside the Christian tradition, many religions have explicitly embraced sexuality in religious worship, from Hindu erotic temple art, to male and female temple prostitutes in the Middle Eastern ancient world. Many societies even recognize a specific association between spiritual gifts and homoerotic attraction or cross-dressing, as seen in the American berdache, African sangomas, and Asian hijras – or even the “skirts” worn by many Christian male clergy, and the high proportion of gay Catholic and Anglican clergy. The history of Christian spirituality is filled with examples which use male erotic imagery, such as John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, or images of male friendship such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s “Spiritual Friendship”.
The homoerotic content of Michelangelo, in the Sistine Chapel and elsewhere, is self-evident: all one has to do is to look at it. But this is not only erotic – it is also powerfully, deeply spiritual. Indeed, when the painter Veronese defended himself before the Holy Tribunal on charges of “inappropriate” imagery in his Last Supper, he cited The Last Judgement as precedent – and the Tribunal responded that Michelangelo’s work was excused because of its great spirituality.
For most casual visitors today, the spiritual content of the “Last Judgement” is obvious: an inspiring image of the resurrection, and the prospect of everlasting life. For observers of his own day, the message would have been more terrifying – a reminder of the danger of eternal damnation, and hence of the necessity of redemption through the Church. The frequent commissions by the church of scenes of the Last Judgement, Michelangelo’s among many others, would thus have been a means for the church to remind the faithful of its own importance, and so consolidate its power over their minds. Robert Baldwin elaborates on this idea, and also observes that Michelangelo himself, by showing his own self-portrait in a flayed skin held by st Bartholomew, sees himself as a victim of the Church’s obsession with control.
So, where is Michelangelo’s spirituality to be found? I suspect that the clue comes in looking not just at his art, but at the man as a whole. His contemporary biographer Ascanio Condivi wrote that
Michelangelo ‘loved not only human beauty but universally every beautiful thing: a beautiful horse, a beautiful dog, a beautiful landscape, a beautiful plant, a beautiful mountain, a beautiful wood and every place and thing beautiful and rare after its own kind.. .’
-George Bull, at Catholic Ireland
This love of beauty was expressed not only in painting, but also in poetry, in sonnets (some of which are also clearly homoerotic in content).
A sonnet written when he was in his early seventies began with the declaration that every beautiful thing passed through his eyes instantly to his heart along a path open to thousands ‘of all ages and sexes’.
-George Bull, at Catholic Ireland
In his Mass to celebrate the restoration of the Sistine frescoes, Pope John Paul II had this to say of them:
‘The frescoes that we contemplate here introduce us to the world of Revelation. The truths of our faith speak to us here from all sides… The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the risen Christ, and even before by Christ on Mount Tabor…in the context of the light that comes from God, the human body also keeps its splendour and its dignity. .. If it is removed from this dimension, it becomes in some way an object, which depreciates very easily, since only before the eyes of God can the human body remain naked and unclothed, and keep its splendour and its beauty intact…’
-quoted by George Bull
In his praise for the paintings as presenting the “theology of the body”, John Paul is careful to select the representations of male and female, but the work itself also celebrates another element of beauty in the human body: that of male and male.
- Michelangelo’s Last Judgment ‘inspired by seedy brothel scenes’ (Guardian)
- Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment figures ‘based on male prostitutes’ (Telegraph)
- GLBT History Month (in Church): Cardinal Borghese (1576 – 1633), Homoerotic Art Lover (Queering the Church)
- Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints (Queering the Church)
- Homoerotic Spirituality (Queer Spirituality)
- St John of the Cross (Queer Spirituality)
- The Spiritual Gifts of Gay Sexuality (Queer Spirituality)
- The Medieval Flowering of Homoerotic Christiantity (Queer Saints and Martyrs)
- The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality (Queer Spirituality)
- “Finding God in the Erotic”: Fr Donal Godfrey (queering-the-church.com)
- Finding God in Gay Lovemaking (Queer Spirituality)