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Subjects of the Visual Arts: David and Jonathan  
page: 1  2  3  

In the Middle Ages David and Jonathan's embrace became the Christian icon of male friendship, figuratively related to Jesus's sitting with the head of John, his beloved, laid against his chest. Numerous medieval manuscript illuminations depict them embracing or exchanging what was typologically considered to be the Christian kiss of peace, as for example in the early fourteenth century French Somme le roi (reproduced in Saslow).

But in the light of the biblical narrative's repeated emphasis upon David and Jonathan's emotionally expansive and physically intimate relationship, the homoerotic possibility of such an embrace is impossible to discount, the viewer of such illustrations not always certain what he or she sees.

In 1983, the San Francisco chapter of Dignity celebrated its tenth anniversary by printing a poster-sized imitation of what appears to be a seventeenth-century Russian icon of David and Jonathan embracing, the organization's name providing an interpretive context that medieval manuscripts otherwise lack.

An even more telling example of such interpretive ambiguity is Sir Frederic Leighton's Jonathan's Token to David, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1868, which depicts the incident narrated in 1 Samuel 20 wherein by the ruse of practicing archery with a servant boy, Jonathan alerts the outlaw David of the need to flee the murderous wrath of King Saul.

In The Sexual Perspective Emmanuel Cooper analyzes the homoerotic appeal of Leighton's Jonathan (who, significantly, repeats the pose of Michelangelo's David) and his servant boy, but fails to note that Jonathan's wistful gaze is directed off the canvas, presumably towards the retreating David whom Jonathan understands he will never see again.

The biblical narrative notes that "the lad" who waited on Jonathan and was essential to the lovers' stratagem "knew not anything: only Jonathan and David knew the matter" (1 Sam. 20:39), making him an excellent stand-in for the naive viewer: a witness to--yet oblivious of--the homoerotic drama of Leighton's painting and of so many other homoerotically suggestive representations of David in art.

Gay Composers

David's story, especially his lament for Jonathan following the latter's death in battle, has proved an inspiration to gay composers as well. In his autobiography, Knowing When to Stop (1994), composer Ned Rorem reports that in 1947, when he dared to set the lament to music, a classmate at New York's prestigious Juilliard School warned him that "the 'gay' text (young David bewailing to Jonathan: 'Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women') would outrage the faculty."

And, after failing to engage, first Igor Stravinsky and later Erik Satie as his collaborator on a ballet titled David, Jean Cocteau printed a David and Goliath drawing on the cover of the inaugural issue of Le Mot (1914).

Shortly before his death in 1990, Leonard Bernstein began what he described in his working papers as an opera on the "Saul, David, Jonathan Triangle" that would hinge "upon suggestions, lightly done," of both the father's and the son's sexual attraction to David. According to biographer Humphry Burton, Bernstein "even drafted the dialogue for a full-blown love scene between David and Jonathan." Like so many of Bernstein's other projects in his last years, however, the opera was not completed.

It would be more than ten years before gay audiences could hear a biblically-inspired oratorio on the subject of homosexual love: on May 30, 2001, the Gay Gotham Chorus, in conjunction with the Cosmopolitan Symphony Orchestra, premiered a choral version of Stefan Weisman's 1996 epic poem, David and Jonathan, which applies to his lover, Jonathan, David's line in the Psalter: "Of all men you are the most handsome, your lips are moist with grace."

Raymond-Jean Frontain

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literature >> Overview:  The Bible

Perhaps no other book has been more influential--for better or worse--in determining the construction of gay and lesbian identity in the modern world, as well as social attitudes toward homosexuality, than the Bible.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Renaissance

The various cultural patterns, especially the conditions of artistic production and the types of subjects and themes represented, provide a great deal of evidence about Renaissance sexuality and art.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Nude Males

Throughout much of history, the nude male figure was virtually the only subject that could be used to articulate homoerotic desire in publicly displayed works of art, as well as those works of art intended for private "consumption."

arts >> Bernstein, Leonard

For most of his life, the specter of the closet lurked threateningly behind the glamorous and often brash public image of American composer Leonard Bernstein.

arts >> Borghese, Scipione Caffarelli

Scipione Caffarelli Borghese, a seventeenth-century Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, was a bold and influential patron and collector of the visual arts.

arts >> Cadmus, Paul

American painter Paul Cadmus is best known for the satiric innocence of his frequently censored paintings of burly men in skin-tight clothes, but he also created works that celebrate same-sex domesticity.

arts >> Caravaggio

The most original painter of early seventeenth-century Europe, Caravaggio imbues his art with homoeroticism.

literature >> Cocteau, Jean

An outspoken homosexual, Jean Cocteau was a prolific poet, novelist, critic, essayist, artist, and filmmaker.

arts >> Donatello

The varied oeuvre of Renaissance sculptor Donatello includes figures of beautiful male youths imbued with homoerotic sensuality.

arts >> Dutch Friendship Glasses

Dutch friendship glasses, which were made on order to celebrate friendship in the eighteenth century, may also have covertly celebrated same-sex sexual desire; one surviving friendship glass celebrates sodomitical pleasure.

literature >> Kipling, Rudyard

Rudyard Kipling, England's "Laureate of Empire," fashioned himself as the conscience of the English-speaking world, but the great love of his life was a young man who spurned him and whose sister he married after his friend's sudden death.

arts >> Michelangelo Buonarroti

The most famous artist who ever lived, Michelangelo left an enormous legacy in sculpture, painting, drawing, architecture, and poetry; while the artist's sexual behavior cannot be documented, the homoerotic character of his drawings, letters, and poetry is unmistakable.

arts >> Rorem, Ned

American composer Ned Rorem is one of the most accomplished and prolific composers of art songs in the world, but his musical and literary endeavors extend far beyond this specialized field.

arts >> Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen)

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arts >> Zeffirelli, Franco

Controversial Italian director Franco Zeffirelli has won both acclaim and derision for his visually extravagant opera, stage, and film productions, while also provoking the ire of many gay men and lesbians for his anti-gay religious positions.


Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Cooper, Emmanuel. Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1995.

_____.The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1994.

Hooven, F. Valentine, III. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Leddick, David. Intimate Companions: A Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirsten, and Their Circle. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Saslow, James M. Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts. New York: Viking, 1999.

Schneider, Laurie. "Donatello's Bronze David." Art Bulletin 55 (June 1973): 213-216.

Seymour, Gayle M. "Simeon Solomon and the Biblical Construction of Marginal Identity in Victorian England." Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture. Raymond-Jean Frontain, ed. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1997. 97-119.


    Citation Information
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Subjects of the Visual Arts: David and Jonathan  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 18, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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