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Patronage I: The Western World from Ancient Greece until 1900  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I (1588, attributed to George Gower; Woburn Abbey Collection) exemplifies the fusion of genders that she encouraged in her imagery. Characteristic of Renaissance depictions of women are the smooth, glowing, and still youthful skin of her face and hands; the lavish and minutely detailed costume and jewelry; and decorative accessories, such as the feathered fan. However, her upright posture and broad shoulders help to endow her with the sort of forceful presence, usually reserved for male figures in Renaissance art. Her "masculine" power is further emphasized by the sword, which she holds in her left hand; the globe, on which she rests her right hand; and the naval battle scenes, taking place in the background. As Elizabeth repeatedly stated in her public pronouncements, she is both queen and king.

Gioanna Piacenza (d. 1524), Abbess of the Benedictine convent of San Paolo in Parma (Italy), also utilized art to celebrate her challenges to male authority. Referring to privileges granted by the papacy in the thirteenth century, she asserted her right to supervise the convent without recourse to bishops or other men. She revoked rules mandating cloistered lifestyles and silence and permitted nuns to entertain visitors in their cells. With her forceful personality and substantial family wealth, she successfully defended her policies. However, immediately after her death, the convent was put under strict ecclesiastical control; the rooms that she decorated were sealed up (and not opened again until the late eighteenth century).

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In 1519, Abbess Gioanna commissioned Correggio (1489-1534) to execute the innovative decoration of Camera di San Paolo, which served as the salon of the convent. Scholars still debate the appropriate interpretation of all the details, but the Diana on Her Chariot--the largest painting, located on the chimney-piece--establishes the protofeminist intention of the project. The twelve lunettes, painted on the upper parts of the walls, feature mythological and allegorical figures, which symbolize various heroic deeds of women.

The vault of the salon was painted to resemble the trellises of a garden arbor, filled with playful putti. Among these is a pair who hold up the head of a deer. This group probably refers to Actaeon, who was transformed into a deer and hunted down by Diana when she caught him spying on her maids. The female nudes, featured throughout the program, are painted with notable sensuality.

Most scholars insist that the sensuality of these figures simply accords with Renaissance conventions and has no relevance to the analysis of the program. Yet, the intense eroticism of the decoration suggests that widely spread rumors about the "unnatural vices" of the nuns may have referred to their actual love for one another. Indeed, it seems possible that Abbess Gioanna selected Corregio for this project precisely because of the notable sensual appeal of his figures, male and female alike. Furthermore, she may have felt that the same-sex eroticism, apparent in his work, indicated that he could create paintings celebrating the friendship of her community.

Queer Subjects and Styles in the Service of Religion

As the case of Abbess Gioanna demonstrates, religious life can provide a supportive context for the visualization of love that transgresses conventional social norms. This might seem surprising because organized religions in the western world often have instituted prohibitions against homosexuality and other types of sexual and gender "deviance." Yet, the cohesive same-sex communities in convents and monasteries created environments inherently supportive of the development of same-sex love.

Furthermore, because religion encourages people to fulfill their inner spiritual impulses, it (perhaps unintentionally) fosters awareness of core aspects of individual identities, including qualities that contradict official teachings. Thus, for example, Saint John of the Cross (1541-1592) eloquently described mystical rapture in terms, as he described himself as the feminine partner in marital union.

While ironic, it is not surprising that a picture which has become in the modern era one of the most widely recognized icons of homoerotic desire, the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (1475-1564), is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the personal chapel of the head of the Roman Catholic Church, which has emphatically condemned homosexual acts. The painting of the Sistine Ceiling (1508-12) was one of the many artistic projects undertaken by Pope Julius II (Giuliano Della Rovere, 1443-1513; reigned 1503-13) in an effort to revitalize the cultural, as well as the spiritual, authority of Rome.

As is the case with many historical figures, evidence about Julius's possible homosexuality depends primarily upon negative sources. Rumors that Julius was involved as a passive partner in numerous homosexual liaisons are reported in Protestant polemical tracts and official reports submitted by ambassadors from friendly Catholic powers.

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