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European Art: Medieval  
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To study medieval art is to leave the mainstream of contemporary thinking about the Middle Ages, to reflect, instead, on coded messages of gender and sexuality in the visual culture of a remote civilization.

Only in the past generation have medievalists begun to explore this unfamiliar territory, thanks to which four or five key problems of visual representation can now be identified: the depiction of acts "against nature," the portrayal of "homosexuality" in the Bible and in mythology, the representation of sexual ambiguity, and the marginalization or destruction of images.

Despite their apparent diversity, all of these issues intersect in the desire to construct an iconography--or subject matter--of medieval art, a period of European art that extends from about 300 to about 1400.

Sodomy and Acts "Against Nature"

The very definition of our subject is problematical once we accept the notion that sexuality has its own history. As historians such as John Boswell, James Brundage, Michel Foucault, Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller, Helmut Puff, and others have pointed out, even the vocabulary we use to analyze medieval experience carries an anachronistic burden, as "homosexual," "queer," and "gay" are all modern terms without equivalents in the terminology of the time.

The closest medieval analog would be , a word whose connotations ranged from same-sex sexual acts to bestiality, heresy, treason, and Judaism. At the same time, behaviors now associated with , such as men holding hands or kissing on the lips, were often asexual in the Middle Ages (at least, when these acts connoted friendship or feudal obligations).

Medieval categories were clearly different from our own, and the visual evidence is equally problematical. A corbel (or sculptured bracket) from the French church of La Sauve Majeure, now at the Cloisters Museum in New York, provides a case in point. Depicting two men locked together in a complicated pose, the corbel is sometimes interpreted as a scene of dual penetration, although it just as likely represents a fight: the interpretation depends in great measure on the assumptions each viewer brings to the image.

Or again, depictions of men playing chess may actually be intended to suggest that the men have other things on their mind, as Silke Tammen has suggested, since chess typically symbolizes seduction in medieval art and literature.

In other words, we may read sexual behavior in an image where there is none and fail to see it in cases where there is.

Key to the medieval rejection of same-sex sexual acts was the belief that such behavior violated nature. In art this idea is especially clear in the illustrated bestiary, a popular text on zoology whose readers would learn, among other things, that hyenas unnaturally change sex several times during their lives.

A twelfth-century English bestiary drew the logical inference by showing a homosexual encounter between two hyenas standing on their haunches to embrace (an image examined by Michael Camille and James Saslow). The point of the illustration was not the physical act alone, but the spiritual transgression "against nature" implicit in the comparison between unclean beasts, Jews, and idolaters. Perhaps the animal imagery also allowed artists to portray acts too shocking to associate with humans.

The Bible and Mythology

Medieval interpretations of scripture provided a particularly important source of attacks on homoeroticism. In the Bible Moralisée, a vast picture Bible first produced in Paris ca 1225, several miniatures have homosexual themes, linked by the supporting sequence of images referring to lust, greed, simony, heresy, blasphemy, idolatry, and the like.

One roundel depicts kissing women and copulating men below another roundel of Adam and Eve, in an opposition that draws attention to natural and unnatural couples (this is also one of the few known images of lesbianism from the period).

Tammen has suggested that, on another level, such imagery may reflect the increasingly repressive attitudes of the Church following the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

Sometimes we also find sodomites cowering in Hell, as in the Danish wall painting of Birkeroed and illuminated manuscripts of Guido da Pisa's Commentary on Dante, even though the Bible itself never puts sodomites there.

Classical mythology offered a more ambivalent reading of same-sex sexuality. In medieval interpretations of classical mythology homoeroticism could suggest damnation or salvation, according to the symbolic guise it assumed.

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An illustration in Guido da Pisa's Commentary on Dante showing sodomites in hell (ca 1345).
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