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Male Homosexuality in Western Art

Bodies And Erotic Art

Male Homosexuality in Western Art

As Malta votes to legalize same-sex marriage, I decide to unearth again the topic of homosexuality in Western art. Since last time I wrote about lesbianism, today it’s time for male homosexuality. Ready?

Ancient Education

8Warren Cup (side B), 5–15 CE, British Museum, male homosexuality art

Warren Cup (side B), 5–15 CE, The British Museum

Warren Cup, named after its first modern owner, depicts a typical Roman banquet scene: probably an older, or more experienced man, engages in sex with a beardless younger man. Such practices were very common in the high society, older men picked adolescent boys to mentor them, educate in the art of loving and living, grant political influence in return for physical pleasures. First, they would all participate in the feast, eat and drink (from cups like this one), the young boys entertaining the old with their singing, dancing and reciting poetry (you can see the lyre on the left). Homosexuality was a part of life to the extent that the Romans didn’t even have a word for it.

Warren Cup (side B), 5–15 CE, British Museum, male homosexuality art

Warren Cup (side A), 5–15 CE, The British Museum

Not So Holy Middle Ages?

Moralised Bible Osterneische Nationalbibliothek, codex Vindbonesis, 2554, c. 1225-45 The British Library, male homosexuality art

Moralised Bible Osterneische Nationalbibliothek, codex Vindbonesis, 2554, c. 1225-45, The British Library


With the growing power of the Catholic Church, the approach to homosexuality completely changed. The same sex relationships were condemned as violating natural right of God, which explains why Dante included the ‘sodomites’ in the 7th circle of Hell, together with other violent people. In Dante’s day, however, male-male relations, often between a mature man and an adolescent like in the ancient Rome, were very common in Florence. Apart from the eternal fire which was promised to the sinners, earthly penalties ranged from confiscation of property to even capital punishment.

The Renaissance Of Sexuality

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Ecstasy of Saint Francis, c. 1594–1595, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, male homosexuality art

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Ecstasy of Saint Francis, c. 1594–1595, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut

I had to mention Caravaggio, probably the most famous suspected gay artist. The distinguished Caravaggio scholar Howard Hibbard stated that “Whether Caravaggio was essentially or exclusively homosexual is far from certain” but what’s certain is that he inserted many homoerotic hints in his paintings “to tear away [Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s] idealizing mask” from male nudes to expose (in such works as Victorious Cupid and St. John the Baptist with a Ram) “the true source”, as Hibbard put it. Michelangelo was gay too, just saying, and we have written evidence to support this claim: his love letters and poems to Tommaso dei Cavalieri.

Centuries Undercovers

Léon Choubrac, an illustration from: "La prostitution contemporaine : étude d'une question sociale" by Léo Taxil, 1884, Librairie Populaire, Paris, male homosexuality art

Léon Choubrac, an illustration from: “La prostitution contemporaine : étude d’une question sociale” by Léo Taxil, 1884, Librairie Populaire, Paris


It was really difficult to find any explicit visual evidence for 17th-19th century male homosexual art. Similarly as with lesbianism, the influence first of Counter-Refformation, Inquisition, later of prudery and Victorian convenance was too overwhelming. Artists had to limit their artistic license to homoerotic hints in history (the figure of Ganymede) or religious painting (the recurring motif of Saint Sebastian), and with, usually underground, distribution of prints. This print illustrates the so-called ‘Molly house’, which was an 18th and 19th century English term for places where homosexual men would meet.

Age of Liberation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry and Bobby Kissing, 1979, source: Luna, UMass-Amherst-Art History Image Collection, male homosexuality art

Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry and Bobby Kissing, 1979, source: Luna, UMass-Amherst-Art History Image Collection

The 20th century witnessed a real revolution. Not only did artists decide to come out of the closet, they also openly spoke about homosexuality in their artworks. This does not mean that it was easy, artists like Will McBride or Robert Mapplethorpehad had to fight intitutionalized censorship of their art in galleries, as well as many legal obstacles, since laws was still against homosexuals. The 1960s was probably the deciding decade for the entire LGBT movement, artists felt a social mission of raising awarness about AIDS (same happened during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s) and fighting for equal rights to love. The watershed event was most probably the Stonewell Riots of 1969 in the US which marked a shift towards making queer people more visible and less marginalized in the public discourse.


 

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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