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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Hermaphrodites  

In classical mythology, the nymph Salmacis loved the handsome but unresponsive Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite. When he bathed in her spring, she forcibly embraced him. As Hermaphroditus struggled to free himself, Salmacis prayed that they never part. The gods granted her wish, and the two became a single being with both male and female sexual characteristics. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 4.285 ff.)

In ancient art Hermaphroditus, either specifically or as a generalized type, is a common subject. He is either nude or lifts his garment to expose his genitals; alternatively, a satyr, who mistakes him for a woman, assaults him. The most famous portrayal represents Hermaphroditus asleep, lying on his stomach, head turned to the side, and torso twisted just enough to reveal his breast and genitals. (National Museum of the Terme, Rome, and the Louvre, Paris.)

Hermaphrodites disappear from post-classical art history until the Renaissance, when writers of alchemical treatises rediscovered them as non-erotic symbols for the union of opposites (a potent image for later Jungian psychology), and emblem books portrayed them as symbols of marriage. (For a modern interpretation, see Marc Chagall's Homage to Appollinaire, 1911.)

The tale of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis was portrayed occasionally in Renaissance and Neoclassical art. Among the depictions are the following: Jan Gossaert [Jan de Mabuse], The Metamorphosis of Hermaphroditus and the Nymph Salmacis (1505), Bartholomaeus Spranger, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1581), Francesco Albani, Salmacis Falling in Love with Hermaphroditus (ca 1660) and Salmacis Kissing Hermaphroditus in the Water (1660), and François-Joseph Navez, The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1829).

Since the Renaissance, hermaphrodites have most commonly been depicted as medical anomalies or sideshow freaks. However, contemporary scholars, such as Anne Fausto-Sterling, have demonstrated that hermaphrodites represent a naturally occurring alternative to the rigid designation of sex as exclusively male or female.

This new appreciation of hermaphrodites has affected the visual arts. See, for example, the notion of hermaphroditic architecture in Günther Feuerstein's Androgynos and the treatment of in Charles Moffat's paintings, Archive XIV: The Hermaphroditus/Salmacis Series.

Martin D. Snyder


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A Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Hermaphroditus (ca 200 C. E.).
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arts >> Overview:  Classical Art

Ancient Greek and Roman art represents a variety of homoerotic experience in several different ways.

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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:  Patronage I: The Western World from Ancient Greece until 1900

Patronage--the sponsorship of artists and the commissioning of artistic projects from them--is of central importance to cultural history.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Androgyny

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Ajootian, Aileen. "The Only Happy Couple: Hermaphrodites and Gender." Naked Truths: Women, Sexuality, and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow and Claire L. Lyons, eds. London: Routledge, 1997. 220-242.

Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Gilbert, Ruth. Early Modern Hermaphrodites: Sex and Other Stories. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Raehs, Andrea. Zur Ikonographie des Hermaphroditen: Begriff und Problem von Hermaphrodismus und Androgynie in der Kunst. Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang, 1990.


    Citation Information
    Author: Snyder, Martin D.  
    Entry Title: Subjects of the Visual Arts: Hermaphrodites  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 21, 2006  
    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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