By GLBT Historical Society
Written by Rainbow History Class
If you’ve wandered through a museum’s Renaissance collection, eyed off the number of writhing, muscular male bodies and thought that they felt rather homoerotic, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, there’s an excellent explanation for why even the most sacred religious figures have been depicted in a way that to our modern eyes feels more gay bathhouse than Sunday service.
Renaissance means rebirth, and it refers to an obsession with Classical Antiquity (That’s Ancient Greece and Rome) that kicked off in the 14th century in western Europe. While in the Islamic world, the Greco-Roman influence from the Byzantine Empire continued, in Western Europe a lot of Ancient Greek and Roman traditions fell out of style after the collapse of the (Western) Roman Empire and the ensuing middle ages.
But when surviving texts from the Classical period were rediscovered in the West, translated and circulated, Greco-Roman art, philosophy and culture underwent a major revival, and among them were the ideas of philosophers like Plato on same-sex relationships. These were were not only common and accepted in Ancient Greece, but Plato believed love between men was closer to God than its heterosexual counterpart.
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (about 1430–1440) by Master of Sir John FastolfThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The revival of Plato’s ideas can be used to explain why during the Renaissance period, depictions of sacred religious figures took a turn for the homoerotic. An excellent example of this is Saint Sebastian, the patron Saint of Plague in the Catholic tradition. During the medieval period, Saint Sebastian was represented as an older, bearded and not aggressively handsome man...
Saint Sebastian (1615) by Guido ReniMusei Capitolini
...but from the dawn of Renaissance, we see him nude, his chiseled chest full of arrows, boasting an expression that seems to walk the line between pain and ecstasy.
Saint John the Baptist (XIXth century) by Anonyme d'après Léonard de VinciCastle of Clos Lucé
Similarly, this depiction of John the Baptist by Renaissance icon Leonardo Da Vinci with a ‘come hither’ finger is suggestive on first look, but even more so when you discover that the model Da Vinci used was his own male lover, Gian Giacomo Caprotti (fondly known by Da Vinci as Salaí).
The revival of Greco-Roman thought lead to a kind of tacit endorsement of same-sex relationships during the Renaissance, which was great news for those who were same-sex attracted. In Florence, the Italian city at the center of the Renaissance, sex between men became so prevalent that authorities for forced to set up a task force to, at the very least be seen to, do something about it. The Office of the Night accused 17000 Florentine men of Sodomy over just four decades in the 15th century, one of which was Leonardo Da Vinci.
Bib Old T Creation MichaelangeloLIFE Photo Collection
Then there was Michelangelo, another Florentine artist of the Renaissance, who is responsible for decorating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with nude men arranged in a similarly homoerotic fashion.
If there needed to be more evidence to the inherent queerness in some of these paintings, we don’t need to look much further than the artists who painted them. Artists like Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Guido Reni (who was responsible for many a homoerotic rendition of Saint Sebastian) are all reported to have loved and had sex with men.
The male gaze is so often spoken about in reference to male artists’ erotic depictions of women, but the prevalance of the male toward male subjects during the Renaissance has so often been erased or explained away. Yet this imagery, much of it religious, was produced during a brief window where male same-sex love was exalted, and where the leading artists created sprawling homoerotic scenes in art and life.