How did the visual arts of the Renaissance represent love & erotic desire?

Introduction

Leonardo believed that creation through paint was superior to that created bywords; arguing that the purpose of artists and their art is to arouse love.[1] Love and erotic desire during the Renaissance period is represented through the revival of paintings and sculptures which are reminiscent of the Roman Gods and Goddesses; these highlight the contemporary embracement of the nude body and ideals of superficial and unattainable beauty.[2] Whilst artists continued to illustrate pleasure and lust through the depiction of prostitutes and the artists’ lover, the average person tended not to be depicted in such a way due to the radical change in culture and intellect of the period, bringing about an apparent revulsion of the body and sin of sensuality linking with the rise of Christianity.[3] In contradiction, erotic images and statues were often given religious meaning in order to appeal to women.[4] In addition to these romantic and ideal representations of love through art, the presentation of family and negative love with regards to emotional and physical pain, must also be considered, with a focus on sin and failed marriage.[5]

Main Text

Love and erotic desire was represented in the visual arts of the Renaissance, as having a link to the spiritual world. With the rise of Christianity, the suppression of the nude due to the contemporary revulsion of the body increased, alongside the belief that lust was freakish, and sexuality was a madness as opposed to liberty.[6] Despite this, religion was used by artists to make sexuality appeal to women by drawing on the spiritual connection it would bring them; Bernini’s statue ‘Ecstasy of St. Theresa’ is possibly the most erotic of these.[7] The statue shows an angel shooting an arrow through St. Theresa’s heart whilst she endures a visionary experience, with her posture and facial contortion mimicking that of sexual pleasure; St. Theresa is said to have described the experience as erotic.[8] This suggests that artists represented love and erotic desire in a religious way in order for their work to be widely recognised and appreciated despite the strict contemporary Church opinion on lust and the body, making it appealing to those who followed the Church’s teachings devotedly in addition to those who believed and acted in sexual liberty. To further this spiritual link, in addition to the religious depiction of erotic desire across the visual arts, the Roman Gods and Goddesses featured in artists’ representations of erotica and beauty.

For Italy in particular, the Renaissance period brought about the rediscovery of the classical Gods.[9] The Roman Gods and Goddesses were either featured or had their features mimicked in examples of Renaissance art appreciating the beauty of the naked body, with the Apollo representing the strong athletic male, whilst the nude Venus was used to illustrate a proportional female figure; this depiction of the naked body being acceptable for those holding the Godly status as opposed to the average person.[10] Titian’s ‘Sacred and Profane’ depicts two versions of Venus, illustrating the contrast between the acceptance of the mythical nude in comparison to the modestly presented materially fashioned Venus, setting apart the unattainable spiritual beauty from the more grounded expectation.[11] This is further emphasised by the illustration of the castle representing contemporary materialism, whilst the church pointing towards the heavens represents the spiritual, heightening Venus’s beauty to a level that is physically unreachable.[12] Whilst this appears to be an innocent representation the Goddess’s superficial and spiritual beauty, one could argue that this could be an example of contemporary erotica as to see the material Venus next to the nude is to mentally undress her.[13] In comparison, Donatello’s statue of ‘David’, whilst not a depiction of Apollo, resembles aesthetic, Godlike qualities.[14] The naked figure of ‘David’ implies that despite the church’s revulsion of the body, artists had the human body and sexuality in their minds as a muse for their work.[15] Similar to the ‘Sacred and Profane’, the contrast between the real and ideal is represented across the statue’s body, with a godlike front with his ‘cocksure hip’, but ‘all too human’ behind with ‘fleshy buttocks’.[16] Again, a link between the spiritual and erotica is made by the positioning of the boots, ending just below the knee in a provocative manner which draws the onlookers eyes to the flesh, in addition to the symbolism of the phallically held sword representing the strength of the god-like figure in addition to erotic desire.[17] This appreciation of the naked body as seen through the depictions of the Gods and Goddesses was represented the general appreciation of superficial beauty of the human being and the celebration of the body.[18]

Renaissance artists were mesmerised by love and beauty during the Bella Donna (beautiful woman) period.[19] This is true of Fra Filippo Lippi’s ‘Madonna and Child with Angels’ where the woman has an elaborate hairstyle decorated with pearls, a slender neck and pink lips.[20] Her elegant appearance makes her stand out from the children and angels who are less aesthetically pleasing to the eye due to their stark plainness in comparison.[21] Paintings of beautiful women often represented the love of the artist creating the piece, the highest compliment and admiration a woman could receive as she would be forever young and immortalised for others to see long after her death.[22] Raphael Urbinas’s ‘La Fornarnia’ is a clear example of this as not only is his signature on the work of art, but the armband around the woman’s arm reads his name. From this we can infer that this woman was a love interest of his in some form.[23] In contrast to the stereotypical white European beauty depicted in Lippi’s work, ‘La Fornarnia’ depicts an exotic, foreign beauty, representing the diversity of what was considered physically attractive during the renaissance period.[24] One could argue that art is typically created for the purpose of pleasing the eye and gaining the attraction of the onlooker. Therefore, the Renaissance paintings of women convey superficial and surface beauty to which the onlooker would deem sexually attractive, regardless of whether the artist intended for the subject to only be scrutinised in this way; or whether they had other personal motives for having created the masterpiece.[25] In contrast to the presentation of beauty using the Goddesses, Urbinas illustrates a realistic beauty if one believes blush upon the cheeks to be an imperfection.[26] Whilst the subject is exposing her nude body, we can assume that the painting is supposed to represent Urbinas’s love for his own pleasure the woman rather than this being a painting to sexually arouse a wider audience, as she holds arms in an embarrassed, modesty covering position.[27] This is not to say that lust wasn’t expressed in examples of Renaissance art.

Leonardo believed that eroticism was art’s primary use.[28] As the representation of superficial beauty, as discussed in the previous paragraph, was represented through the artist creating an immortalizing work of art of their love interest, the same follows for the artists creating erotic pieces. Often the more sensual nudes reflected the emotional needs of artists who were keen to portray their enthusiastic sexuality.[29] On the whole, the Renaissance period is described by historians as being an ‘explosion of lust and life’.[30] With this in mind, pleasure and lust were depicted through Renaissance art in a more provocative and seductive way than art that was purely an appreciation of the beauty of the nude body; Although these often carried the same representation of a down to earth plump beauty, to signify the attainability and immediacy of these women.[31] A prime example of this is Giorgione’s ‘Laura’ who’s depiction radiates the art of seduction.[32] The distant gaze lacks eye contact with the audience suggests that she is not emotionally intimate with the artist, and will not be with her lovers, implying that her purpose is purely sexual arousal and pleasure.[33] This point is further emphasised with the dark rich tones of red, of what appears to be a coat, which is typically symbolic of lust.[34] The subject’s position and lack of clothing is far too ‘audacious’ to represent a young bride; from this, along with the apparent display of wealth through her clothing, we can infer from this painting that the woman being depicted is a prostitute or professional escort due to her willingness and lack of embarrassment in posing partially naked, contrasting with the woman in ‘La Fornarnia’.[35] In contrast, the homosexual desires of Caravaggio are arguably represented through his frequent depiction of young boys in his art.[36] In ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’, whilst the subject is half undressed and his bare shoulder exposed, this isn’t an inviting signal like that of ‘Laura’. Instead, the boy’s sexual promiscuity is represented by the surrounding flowers which signal his availability.[37] Furthermore the fruits the subject’s arm is reaching for are a symbolic of a sensual appetite, comparing the senses of richly smelling and tasting fruit and the smooth or roughened texture to the heightened senses of sexual experiences.[38] However, ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’ possesses darker undertones of pain, hence the title of the painting, which represents a cruelty of relishing in sexual liberation.[39]

Acknowledgement of unrequited love is apparent through Renaissance art, perhaps where the artist has suffered at the hands of love’s cruelty. Building on from Caravaggio’s ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’, this is a representation of someone who was wanting pleasure and was expecting to receive it, inferred from the reaching out for the fruit symbolising beauty and appeal. However, the lizard, which we know from the title bites the boy, is a symbol of the dark dangers which lurk beneath beautiful appearances; perhaps representing an instance of rejection the artist personally faced.[40] On the other hand, as this painting is not a self-portrait, it could express the remorse Caravaggio feels at having been the ‘lizard’ himself, rejecting or hurting the subject in the painting. Alternatively, if the painting is to be an expression of Caravaggio’s homosexual desires, this could be a warning to those wishing to express this type of love if it were to be frowned upon by society, depicting punishment for having sinned.[41] In comparison, Hans Holbein is undoubtedly confessing to a lack of love for his wife and family in his painting of them.[42] The lack of colour and overall dark tone of the painting could reflect the lack of passion he felt for his wife and family, as black typically symbolises death, decaying and depression, perhaps signifying the breakdown in his relationship with his wife.[43] This is supported by the bleakness of the subjects, they appear to have been ill or crying, with all possessing a serious expression of woe and sullenness. Overall the painting is downcast, with art historians deeming it an ‘unkind’ painting.[44] This shows that artists represented the struggles of love and relationships through their work, and further highlights the artists’ desire to convey their own emotions and experiences. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, love and erotic desire has many visual representations during the Renaissance period. Artists linked their views on beauty and erotic works to the spiritual world, through the use of the Roman Gods or religion, keeping it in line with the sexually repressive religious views of the time – in that it was acceptable for only Gods and Godlike figures to be illustrated naked; although these depictions of beauty tended to be unattainable due to their highly-perfected features. Often these mythical representations of beauty would be contrasted with a material and realistic version of beauty, shown particularly in the ‘Sacred and Profane’[45] and ‘David’.[46] Overall the visual arts of the Renaissance conveyed a general appreciation of superficial beauty and the human body, unrestricted to ethnicity or gender. Arguably Holbein and Carravagio’s examples of failed marriage and rejection are examples of art representing a lack of love, rather than passionate love[47]. Ultimately, regardless of the visual form or type of love being conveyed, Renaissance art represented the personal emotions, desire and experiences of the artists or their subject, using them as a muse.

 

Bibliography

Bayer, Andrea. Art and Love in the Italian Renaissance, Department of European Paintings, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (November 2008) Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/arlo/hd_arlo.htm [Accessed: 04.02.17]

Jones, Jonathan. The Loves of Artists: Art and Passion in the Renaissance, Simon and Schuster UK Ltd (2013)

Posner, Donald. Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works, Available at: http://williamapercy.com/wiki/images/Caravaggio’s_Homo-Erotic_Early_Works.pdf [Accessed: 22.02.17]

Art:

Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Santa Maria della Vitoria, Rome, Italy (1598-1680)

Caravaggio, Boy Bitten by a Lizard, National Gallery, London, UK, (c.1595)

Donatello, David, Museo Nationale del Bargello, Florence, Italy (c.1440)

Titian, Sacred and Profane, Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy (1515)

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with Angels, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy (c.1444)

Raphael Urbinas, La Fornarnia, Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy (c.1516)

Giorgione, Laura, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (1506)

Hans Holbein, The Artist’s Wife and Children, De Agostini Picture Library (1497)


[1] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists: Art and Passion in the Renaissance, Simon and Schuster UK Ltd (2013) p.51

[2] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists pp.160-1

[3] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists pp.160-1

[4] Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Santa Maria della Vitoria, Rome, Italy (1598-1680)

[5] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists p.175 & pp.249-52

[6] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p12

[7] Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Theresa

[8] Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Theresa; Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.283-4

[9] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists p.160

[10] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists p.11

[11] Titian, Sacred and Profane, Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy (1515)

[12] Titian, Sacred and Profane, Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy (1515)

[13] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, pp.131-2

[14] Donatello, David, Museo Nationale del Bargello, Florence, Italy (c.1440)

[15] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.2-3

[16] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.2-4

[17] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.4

[18] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.309-11

[19] Andrea Bayer, Art and Love in the Italian Renaissance, Department of European Paintings, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (November 2008) Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/arlo/hd_arlo.htm [Accessed: 04.02.17]

[20] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists,p.25

[21] Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with Angels, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy (c.1444)

[22] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists,p.25

[23] Raphael Urbinas, La Fornarnia, Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy (c.1516)

[24] Raphael Urbinas, La Fornarnia

[25] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.96

[26] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.80-1

[27] Raphael Urbinas, La Fornarnia

[28] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.51

[29] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.xii

[30] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.309-11

[31] Andrea Bayer, Art and Love in the Italian Renaissance; Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.54-7

[32] Giorgione, Laura, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (1506)

[33] Giorgione, Laura, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (1506)

[34] Giorgione, Laura, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (1506)

[35] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.60

[36] Donald Posner, Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works, Available at: http://williamapercy.com/wiki/images/Caravaggio’s_Homo-Erotic_Early_Works.pdf [Accessed: 22.02.17] p.2

[37] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.249-52

[38] Donald Posner, Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works, p.4

[39] Caravaggio, Boy Bitten by a Lizard, National Gallery, London, UK, (c.1595)

[40] Donald Posner, Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works, p.5

[41] Donald Posner, Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works, p4

[42] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.175

[43] Hans Holbein, The Artist’s Wife and Children, De Agostini Picture Library (1497)

[44] Jonathan Jones, The Loves of Artists, p.175

[45] Titian, Sacred and Profane

[46] Donatello, David

[47] Hans Holbein, The Artist’s Wife and Children, Caravaggio, Boy Bitten by a Lizard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: