Queer eye for the religious guy

By Lorenzo
Getting a thighful

It is a cliche that art has attracted a few queer (as in not heterosexual and/or gender conforming) folk over the centuries. (Are we really surprised that the sculptor of the magnificently homoerotic David was not exactly a raging heterosexual?) And, in past centuries, art was overwhelmingly religious. So, queer sensibility manifests, just occasionally, in religious art. Not only does the male figure above, from a side chapel in a Venezian church, quite gratuitously show a lot of thigh, with a vision of youthful male beauty next to him, but diagonally opposite was another male figure, mostly naked, with very sartyr-like facial features and congruent expression, standing in classic “teapot” camp pose.

Consider this Last Supper, on display at a Museum in Venezia.

The couple at the Last Supper

It does not merely have St John leaning on Christ’s breast (that is straight out of the Gospel of St John), the entire picture is framed–in the arrangement of figures, in its use of light–so that we see Christ and John as a couple.

There is a much longer, if somewhat subterranean, tradition of Jesus and John as a couple than people generally realise. For example, St Aelred of Rievaulx, in his Speculum caritatis (“The Mirror of Charity”) tells the reader that:

our Jesus himself, lowering (Himself) to our condition in every way, suffering all things for us and being compassionate towards us, transformed it by manifesting his love. To one person, not to all, did he grant a resting place on his most sacred breast in token of his special love, so that the virginal head might be supported by the flowers of his virginal breast, and the fragrant secrets of the heavenly bridal-chamber might instill the sweet scents of spiritual perfumes on his virginal attachment more abundantly because more closely. So it is that even though all the disciples were cherished by the sweetness of the supreme charity by the most blessed Master, still it was to this one that he this name as a prerogative of yet more intimate attachment: that he was called that disciple whom Jesus loved.

Emphasis in the original, translation by Elizabeth Connor, No.17 in the Cistercian Fathers series. To get a flavour of St Aelred’s writing, an English translation of the first part of his De spiritali amicitia (“On Spiritual Friendship”) is available here [pdf]). Another translation of the key part of the above passage is here. Depending on which is the better translation, St Aelred is implying or stating that Jesus and St John are married in Heaven.

There is also, of course, St Sebastian. The beautiful youth, pierced by arrows yet miraculously saved–as in this painting by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, better known as il Sodoma–(but martyred by being beaten to death shortly after) is such an obvious candidate for homoeroticism in religious art as to be something of an artistic cliche.

The role of queer folk in transmitting culture and (due to their distinct perspective) acting as a creative “yeast” in it has a long history.  Consider Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Carravagio, Alan Turing, to name a few.  Gay author and blogger Bruce Bawer puts it well:

Western civilization, far from being threatened by homosexuality, is to a staggeringly disproportionate degree the creation of gay men and women. Do you want to protect your children from gay influence? … Very well. Destroy the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, silence Messiah and Swan Lake, and burn Moby Dick and The Portrait of a Lady. Gay culture is all around you — and it belongs to everybody.

There are other enriching and preserving passions than the passion for progeny.

Indeed, many cultures take the creative skills (and thus social value) of “third gender” (not conventionally male and female) folk for granted; often specifically in a spiritual context.  By being typically less focused on family, the same-sex oriented can be more focused on the divine, on matters cultural, on wider service.  Many cultures have felt that those oriented towards their own sex were particularly appropriate as shamans or priests (third gender priests turn up in many cultures)—by embracing the form of one sex and the orientation typical of the other, they were deemed to be particularly gifted in connecting to the Otherworld and as intermediaries in this one.

Religious art brings these things together. So it is hardly surprising that we sometimes find a touch of the queer in religious art.


  1. Posted June 26, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Re St Stephen – I know that James I and IV of England and Scotland called George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham “Steenie” after St Stephen because of his physical beauty. James called the Duke “his sweet wife and child”, and their relationship was thought to be scandalous.

  2. Posted June 26, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    [email protected] James also told his Privy Council that “just as Jesus had his John, so I have my George”.

  3. Posted June 26, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    And now people are getting civil-unioned at US military bases in a ceremony presided over by a chaplain.

  4. Movius
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of the Bart Ehrman vs the internet kerfuffle over his latest book “Did Jesus Exist?” (yes according to Ehrman). Part of the debate centres around evidence, or lack thereof, suggesting the Vatican possesses a bronze statue titled “The Saviour of the World”, which is a rooster with an erect penis for a head.

    and then theres the probable hoax of the secret gospel of Mark

    I don’t think the disciple whom Jesus loved was necessarily John though. That was invented later by the alleged gay-hating church.

  5. Posted June 27, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Thank you. An excellent post, as usual, drawing attention to the insanity of religious persecution of queers. They’d gain great kudos by embracing them, and at the same time prevent thousands of gay murders and tens of thousands of other hate crimes as well as thousands of suicides. That would seem a fair trade off to me. But then God moves in mysterious ways, apparently.

  6. Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I had no idea that George Frideric Handel was gay, and doing a quick google search on the subject I find that it may have been something that surprised Handel himself… the theory seems to have been put forward by one scholar but I’m not sure whether it’s generally accepted yet. There certainly seems a lot of grounds for dispute – one being, would anyone have seen themselves as ‘gay’ in the 18th century? And given that Handel may have been queer, isn’t it possible that he would these days fall more into a bisexual category? Also: what’s wrong with chastity? Why not simply call him an independent gentleman who wrote good music? I don’t agree with the post-60s drive to sexualise everything.

    (Picking up on a very small point made in a quotation at the end of your post, sorry Lorenzo!)

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