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European Art: Medieval  
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Particularly suggestive was the tale of a shepherd named Ganymede, whose beauty so captivated Zeus that, disguised as an eagle, the king of gods carried off the youth to rape or seduce him. If today we read the story as a tale of same-sex desire, in the Middle Ages writers often detected a veiled message about the love of God. The anonymous fourteenth-century author of the Moralized Ovid even turned Zeus and Ganymede into symbols of Christ and John the Evangelist.

Shorn of uplifting sentiment, however, the tale became a virulent condemnation of homoerotic yearnings, as seen, for instance, in a Romanesque capital at Vézelay, where a devil stares directly at the viewer while making a hideous grimace.

Sexual Ambiguity

Equally disturbing for medieval audiences was the depiction of sexual ambiguity, though here again the broader symbolic context colored the interpretation. In her study of early fifteenth-century manuscripts produced for the Valois court, Diane Wolfthal brings to light several instances of cross-dressing and gender uncertainty.

The most colorful example of from our period, however, is the legend of St. Wilgefortis, a woman who escaped the unwelcome advances of a male suitor only after growing a beard. Crucified for her noble resolve, she inspired a cult that lasted four hundred years (from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth century), as a result of which images of bearded ladies on the cross spread across Europe well into the modern age.

Christ's sexuality has also encouraged a certain amount of speculation, largely in response to Leo Steinberg's reading of the eroticized Jesus in Renaissance art. In a reevaluation of Early Christian and Byzantine art, Thomas Mathews proposes that several sarcophagi and mosaics depicted an Christ, not to celebrate the libido, but to neutralize it; while on the contrary, Richard Trexler sees the lightly-clad Christ in late-medieval Crucifixions as a challenge to male arousal.

For Karma Lochrie, images of Christ's wound suggest a vulva or vagina, giving a sexual charge to female mysticism, while for Caroline Walker Bynum, the critical issue is gender roles, not "genitality." As an example she cites a Swabian altarpiece of ca 1440 where Christ's feeding the apostles and washing their feet at the Last Supper casts him in a "female role."

Marginality and Censorship

Thus far we have surveyed types of scenes depicted by medieval artists. Where these scenes appeared is of equal interest. Not surprisingly, representations of sodomy often occurred in zones outside the main field of vision, paralleling the marginalization of "homosexuality" in medieval society.

In her pathbreaking study of Gothic miniatures, Lillian Randall finds a number of sexually charged motifs in the margins of manuscript pages, including men handling each others' genitals or shooting arrows up each others' hindquarters (interestingly enough, the most graphic descriptions from her list are not illustrated in the plates).

Misericords (or the carved undersides of wooden choir stalls) offered another opportunity for depicting lewd scenes, designed to be crushed by the clerics sitting on them, though the fact that these seats were sometimes displayed in the upright position raises interesting questions about conflicting goals of punishment and delight.

The uneven geographic distribution of such motifs may also be relevant. For instance, while several misericords in Spain (at Astorga, León, Seville, and elsewhere) portray homosexual acts, nothing comparable is known in England. Whether this regional difference reflects cultural attitudes, or the subsequent, post-medieval destruction of such material in England, is a question which further research will need to address.

It is clear, however, that some works were intentionally destroyed because of their homosexual content, providing a chilling parallel to the actual burning of sodomites in medieval Europe.

Examples of destroyed and censored images include Gerald of Wales's Topography of Ireland (ca 1200), which purportedly showed a same-sex union scandalous enough to be ripped from the book, and an Icelandic law prohibiting the representation of conquerors sexually penetrating their male enemies.

Sometimes images simply omitted offensive material, as in Nardo di Cione's fresco of Hell in a Florentine church, which portrays every torment described by Dante except that for sodomites.

In each of these cases, we find a different connotation for homosexuality. The Topography of Ireland preserves the response of an antagonistic viewer; the Icelandic law equates sodomy with humiliation; and Nardo's fresco suggests a fear of contaminating images. As James Saslow has noted, homosexual themes were particularly dangerous in art (as opposed to literature) because the representation of homoeroticism could promote the very behavior it sought to suppress.

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