Transforming Colour into ‘Carne’, or, the Saints’ Flesh Exposed [Arjun Motwani, UG II, Roll 20]

“Difference of sex no more we knew
         Than our guardian angels do;”
                                                   John Donne,The Relic
“To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest”
                                                  T.S.Eliot, The Wasteland


In 1443, the Franciscan friar Bernardino of Siena brought to completion a Latin treatise called De inspirationibus, where, while discussing the pervasive moral corruption of the times, he observed with palpable horror – “I know a person who, while contemplating the humanity of Christ suspended on the cross (I am ashamed to say and it is terrible even to imagine), sensually and repulsively polluted and defiled himself.” [i] The incident that Bernardino is ashamed to even repeat, however, is symptomatic of a certain complicity of the sacred and the erotic in religious art itself since the age of the Quattrocento. As early as 1402, a noted bishop of Paris lamented the “filthy corruption of boys and adolescents by shameful nude pictures offered for sale at the very temples and sacred places”. [ii] Vasari too, in his famous Lives, mentions a certain chapel where members of the congregation started flocking to the confessional after an image of the undraped Saint Sebastian was put up there, “having sinned at the very sight of the allure and suggestive realism given to the figure by Fra Bartolommeo.” [iii] The image Vasari mentions, it is worth noting, eventually had to be taken down because of the impious thoughts it was arousing among the otherwise pious churchgoers. We would, therefore, not be amiss to argue that eroticism is not something modern viewers ‘read into’ the devotional art of the Renaissance, which seems indeed to have acquired considerable erotic potential with the growth of representational realism. And this erotic potential was registered by contemporaries too.


Yet, it would be wide of the mark to argue that the full-fleshed, semi-naked (or fully naked) Davids or Christs featuring increasingly in religious art since the Quattrocento were necessarily the products of a prurient imagination. These magnificent figures with perfect (and therefore sometimes seductive) physiques reflect, rather, the revival of kalokagathia, or the Classical aristocratic ideal of beauty, in the Renaissance – an ideal which glorifies the complete human personality, harmonious and perfect in both mind and body. Now, since physical beauty is easier to depict in art than spiritual, Renaissance art gradually moves towards a celebration of every contour of the human body and also towards what Vasari calls a deftly achieved transformation of colour into carne or flesh (he observes this with reference to the Mona Lisa). As Arnold Hauser remarks in his classic study, The Social History of Art, “the irreconcilable conflict [of the Middles Ages] between the life of the unsensual spirit and the unspiritual body” loses its significance in the Renaissance, with physical beauty and power becoming the valid expressions of intellectual and/or spiritual beauty with the advent of the Cinquecento.[iv]  The 15th century develops a loving eye for the attractions of the body, leading to the flowering of an art which would find it inconceivable that, for example, “the apostles should be represented as ordinary peasants and commonplace artisans…For this new art, the prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints are ideal personalities, free and great, powerful and dignified – a heroic race in the full bloom of ripe, sensual beauty.” [v] The threshold beyond which the superbly fleshed out saints and apostles cease to inspire veneration and incite lust instead, is difficult to determine with precision – a lot depends on the subtleties of posture and expression, and the mood evoked by the individual artist. Besides, it is difficult to formulate a criterion for these figures to be called ‘erotic’ – Caravaggio’s sensuously draped Bacchus, for instance, has much stronger sexual resonances than Filippo Lippi’s almost naked Christ. What, however, can be traced with some certainty is the path along which the representation of specific religious figures develops during the Renaissance, at the end of which artists almost inevitable do away with even the vestiges of traditional iconography associated with that figure, and focus wholly on their physical splendour. Saint Sebastian and John the Baptist are the two saints whose changing representation in Renaissance art will be explored in this essay, with especial reference to the erotic charm that increasingly imbues their bodies as the Renaissance progresses.

Saint Sebastian penetrated by the arrow

The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was a favourite subject among Renaissance painters. According to his legend, he became a soldier in the Roman army around 283 A.D., and by dint of his military skills he was later made captain in the praetorian guards by Emperor Diocletian. Soon, however, it was discovered that he was a practicing Christian who had already converted many soldiers, and so he was bound to a stake and shot at with arrows, until, if we are to believe de Voragine’s Golden Legends, he resembled a hedgehog. The archers left him for dead, but he was nursed back to health by a Christian widow called Irene. Immediately after his recovery, he went to the Imperial palace in Rome, where he harangued Diocletian about his cruel treatment; but the unrepentant emperor now ordered that he be clubbed to death. Not only were the orders executed, but as a final insult, his body was thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s main sewer.
The cult of Saint Sebastian possibly began in the 7th century, when he was invoked against the bubonic plague. In medieval times, the disease was conceptualized as a lethal arrow flying through the air; and, as Steve Cox argues, “given his legend it was logical to nominate him as agent of intercession.” [vi] In keeping with the medieval penchant for narrating the whole story instead of zooming in on the subject in such a manner than the background or context becomes redundant, Sebastian was often depicted till the Quattrocento with his full martyr’s paraphernalia – there are the many archers, the spectators, the stake, and the arrows too, which, unlike in the Renaissance, do not seem to be flying into view from oblivion. The central panel of Giovanni del Biondi’s altarpiece showing the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and scenes from his life (fig. 1), conforms to Voragine’s hedgehog description; he is a gaunt, bearded man with stoical endurance. His half-nakedness in purely incidental.

Figure 1 – Giovanni del Biondi, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian and Scenes from his Life, 1370.

It is interesting to note that the earliest surviving representation of Saint Sebastian, which is a mosaic in the Byzantine style in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (dated between 527 and 565), shows a sturdy centurion of middling years in traditional Byzantine court dress, holding a laurel wreath. He seems fit enough to be a captain in the praetorian guards. The halo around his head signifies his sainthood; but he seems the patron saint of soldiers, not homosexuals. Surprisingly, there are no arrows to be seen.

22.4.2010: south wall, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
Figure 2 – St. Sebastian, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 527-565.


The convention of depicting Sebastian as a middle-aged, bearded man, which is what the historical figure must have looked like, continued unhindered till the 14th century, with the symbolic iconography of the arrows developing during the ravages of the plague. It is from the late Quattrocento onward that he starts acquiring androgynous features. The Renaissance Sebastian is, as will now be shown, a depilated youth of Apollonian beauty who wistfully gazes heavenward even as his flesh in pierced by arrows. His body is “made porous and feminised by the experience”, and his “receptivity to this penetration also has obvious associations with male homosexuality.” [vii]  Furthermore, the full eroticisation of Saint Sebastian is, in a great many paintings, achieved through an ingenious technique – his loincloth, threadbare as it is, is shown slipping off his body and yet somehow clinging on to it with a tenacity that seems improbable , the struggle serving to highlight the viewers’ gaze directly to his genitalia.


In the Saint Sebastian by Dosso Dossi (fig. 3), the martyr is tethered to an apple tree, while a green shroud, whose presence is difficult to fully account for, contorts itself impossibly to cover his genitals, and then slips between his clenched thighs, only to reappear again as it falls in a train behind him to the ground. Apart from very prominently drawing attention to his concealed genitals (the emerald green is thrown into sharp relief by the milky whiteness of the saint’s loins), the serpentine shroud, when seen in conjunction with the apple tree, evokes subliminal Adamic associations which “reinforce the notion of Sebastian’s humanity and his sexuality”.[viii]  In Jacopo de’ Barbari’s engraving from the same period (fig. 4), we see a more obvious reference to Sebastian’s carnality. The loincloth wrapped around his waist has evidently begun to slip off; and yet it curls around something unseen beneath, which prevents it from falling down.  Steve Cox’s discerning gaze leads him to conclude, perhaps rightly so, that this unseen object is the saint’s phallus, which, “if not erect and pointing straight towards the viewer, is certainly turgid enough to effect this ‘pinning’.” [ix]

Figure 5 – Perugino, St. Sebastian, 1490s.

Perugino’s full-length portrait of Sebastian (fig. 5), executed in the 1490s, not only highlights this practice of simultaneously concealing and focusing on the saint’s genitals, but goes a step beyond – it effectively creates a second phallus for him by making the material of his loincloth suggest and mimic the actual one.  The improbably long end of the loincloth, which protrudes out of Sebastian’s pelvic region and dangles between his thighs (along with the tapering red end), is an almost too literal suggestion of his carnality.

Figure 6 – Bronzino, St. Sebastian, 1525.

The representations of Sebastian from the High Renaissance onward demonstrate a shift in emphasis to the saint’s subjective mental experience at the crucial moment of his martyrdom; but the expressions of wistfulness or bittersweet anguish that Sebastian’s face is invested with,  acquire, in the hands of artists like Bronzino and Il’ Sodoma, distinctly homoerotic overtones. In 1525, Bronzino painted an unconventional Saint Sebastian (fig. 6). It is denuded of traditional iconography and the usual accoutrements of devotional painting so thoroughly that it would not have been possible to identify the figure as Sebastian, had it not been for the solitary arrow quite elegantly (also suggestively) piercing his flesh. Inexplicably, Sebastian seems to have intercepted another arrow, which he holds in his left hand, despite not even looking in the direction of the putative archer. He gazes, instead, at an unseen figure, offstage.  The sensuous pink material which drapes Sebastian, and his intent languorous gaze, impart to the painting an unmistakably erotic flavour.  Janet Cox-Rearick, in an article on the painting, argues that the arrows are “erotic emblems: one has penetrated his body, the other is casually, but suggestively, held against the pink drapery, the saint’s index finger curled around and almost touching the arrowhead.”[x]


What is perhaps most enthralling in large number of late Renaissance representations of Sebastian is the ostensibly religious ecstasy which he undergoes as the arrows pierce his flesh. His face is invested with an expression which is fully neither agony nor ecstasy but a virtuoso fusion of both. We may, perhaps, recall Crashaw’s sensuously charged description of the ecstasy of Saint Teresa, where the language of devotion and the language of desire refract into each other, as Christ becomes the ardent, burning lover, and the piercing dart symbolizes the force of passion –

Oh, how oft shalt thou complain

Of a sweet and subtle pain,

Of intolerable joys,

Of a death in which who dies

Loves his death, and dies again,

And would forever so be slain,

And lives and dies, and knows not why

To live, but that he thus may never leave to die.


How kindly will thy gentle heart

Kiss the sweetly-killing dart!

And close in his embraces keep

Those delicious wounds, that weep

Balsam to heal themselves with.   (Richard Crashaw, A Hymn to the Name and Honour of the Admirable Saint Teresa, l. 55-67)

Considering that in Renaissance English literature the word ‘die’ is often a euphemism for orgasm, it seems probable that the death described by Crashaw is at once the death of religious ecstasy and the death encountered in the moment of sexual climax, which itself is a means of transcendence. In both El Greco’s painting (fig. 7) and Bernini’s sculpture (fig. 8), Sebastian seems to be in the throes of precisely such “delicious wounds, that weep / Balsam”. And it is precisely the haziness of the boundary between religious and sensual ecstasy that makes Sebastian’s supple, near-naked body, and his thrown-back head with mingled pleasure and pain, objects of enduring homoerotic appeal.

In fact, with the advent of the Baroque style, depictions of Saint Sebastian become almost self-consciously emblematic of the moral conundrums faced by the Christian homosexual – the landscape turns totally bleak and desolate, mirroring the saint’s inner turmoil. (There was already a well-established association between Sebastian and homosexuality, as evident from the roles of ‘Sebastians’ which the disguised Viola and Julia adopt in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the Two Gentlemen of Verona respectively).



It is important to note that the historical Sebastian suffered only physical torture, but the Sebastian we encounter in Baroque art mostly suffers a spiritual turmoil (the dross of physicality is sublimated) which is projected onto the surrounding landscape. The world in which he is trapped is a bleak waste land; his only hope is Heaven, at which he gazes longingly. This is one of the strongest reasons behind the eventual transformation of Sebastian into a modern gay icon who epitomizes homosexual desire while simultaneously demonstrating the agony of the closet.


John the Baptist, but not in the wilderness

John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness in his rough camel-skin or baptizing Christ in the river Jordan, has remained one of the most oft-depicted New Testament figures in religious art throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The medieval iconography of Saint John sought to highlight his austere lifestyle, his status as the promised return of Elijah, and his role in preparing the way for Christ – accordingly, he is mostly seen wearing a camel-hair cilice (in this he resembles Elijah), holding either the cross or a scroll or sometimes both. At times he also points symbolically at the Agnus Dei. He is always a bearded man of middling years, with long matted hair that reminds us of his anchoritic life.



Generally speaking, the depiction of John the Baptist did not undergo an overhaul as dramatic as that of Saint Sebastian during the Renaissance. Even though the principles of artistic representation changed thoroughly, Saint John was not divested of his traditional attributes; and, as such, he is easy to recognize when encountered in Renaissance art.  Jan van Eyck’s Saint John in the Ghent altarpiece (fig. 14), wearing a camel-skin cilice and with copious facial hair, holds a holy book from which he is presumably reading out; also, as expected,  his hand is raised in blessing. The jewelled mantle draped around him and the rays emanating from his head to form a halo signify his majesty and his sainthood respectively. In the Perugia altarpiece by Fra Angelico too, Saint John is similarly painted and easily identifiable. The only difference is that instead of the holy book, there is a cross with an affixed banner which reads ‘Ecce Agnus Dei‘, the words most typically associated with John the Baptist (fig. 15).


The practice of depicting Saint John with all the usual accoutrements of the hermit continued well into the Cinquecento (some exceptions, as will soon be discussed, were there). Titian, for instance, not only incorporates all the traditional attributes in his painting but also adds the craggy rocks of the Judean wilderness mostly absent in medieval art; and there is a river, probably Jordan, in the background (fig. 16). He invests Saint John with a radiance and splendour quite unlike the seductive charm of the nubile Sebastian with his precariously placed loincloth. As late as 1600, the Mannerist painter El Greco paints a Saint John who inspires unadulterated piety (fig. 17). While his Sebastian had a captivating physique and seemed in the grip of a powerful ecstasy, El Greco’s Saint John is contemplative merely, and his body is modestly covered. The landscape is bleak, with the Agnus Dei resting on a slab of rock, but Saint John is bathed in celestial light.

The representations of John the Baptist during the Renaissance, however, are too heterogeneous and varied for us to discern in all of them a common solution of the problem of depicting flesh in religious art. Vasari advised his contemporaries against placing nude or attractive figures in churches11  ,as the spiritual meaning of the image might get overshadowed by its carnal illusions. While it is true that by and large Saint John remained a pious and indubitably masculine figure throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, with no erotic overtones conveyed wither through suggestive clothing, or posture, or expression, it would be hasty to conclude that no deviant trends of representation emerged. In the Cinquecento, a practice developed among the painters living in or associated with Florence, of painting Saint John with strikingly androgynous features. Indeed, in the works of these painters, Saint John began to differ so strikingly from his traditional image as gaunt ascetic, as to become a veritable Sebastian sans the arrows and the stake. Leonardo, in one of the most enigmatic paintings in the whole body of Renaissance art, conceives of Saint John as a hermaphroditic figure emerging from the darkness “to bear witness of the Light” (John 1:8).

Figure 18 – Leonardo da Vinci, Saint John the Baptist, c. 1513. 

Kenneth Clark, in his classic monograph on Leonardo, draws attention to the directness with which Saint John confronts the viewer, and also to the cryptic smile, which, for him, is an echo of “the eternal question mark, the enigma of creation.” [xii] To Giancarlo Maiorino, the painting seems pregnant with the spirit of Platonic myth, which emphasizes the primordial unity of the male and the female. [xiii]  In his Symposium, Plato famously argues that originally there were three sexes – the man, the woman, and the more powerful union of the two; but the ‘androgynous’ race revolted against Zeus, who punished it by splitting it into male and female. It is the idealization of the ‘eternal androgyne’ that, according to Maiorino, finds eloquent expression in the figure of Saint John.

The erotic resonance in Leonardo’s painting and the ‘feminisation’ of the saint, however, can be explained equally well by referring to the language of love in the Gospel of John itself, where John the Baptist invokes the metaphor of Christ as bridegroom and the faithful as the brides of Christ. [xiv]  The saint is pointing heavenward, possibly to indicate the coming of Christ; and the coy, half-teasing smile may be said to imbue the Christian ideal of submission to the beloved Maker with amorous suggestions. Such a reading, in fact, places the painting within a deep Christian tradition dating back to the Song of Solomon, which sees sexual love as a metaphor of divine love. Yet, whatever the Platonic or Biblical echoes with resound in the painting, it must be remembered that the deep love Leonardo bore its model and his favourite pupil, Andrea Salai, must have contributed to its exquisite beauty. Salai’s beauty and grace have been praised by Vasari, and his long curly hair (painted so meticulously in the image) is something in which, we are given to understand, “Leonardo greatly delighted”. [xv]

Leonardo, however, cannot be credited with having been the first artist to break away from the accepted conventions of representing Saint John. In 1445/50, Domenico Veneziano (contrary to what his name might suggest, he spent a major part of his life in Florence), painted an altarpiece in the Church of Santa Lucia dei Magnoli, a panel at the base of which shows a youthful figure, clearly Classical in appearance, exchanging his rich, worldly clothes, for the rough camel skin (fig. 19). The youth is John the Baptist, and he is one of the earliest embodiments of the Renaissance fascination with the Classical paradigm of physical beauty. This painting does not seem to have any conscious homoerotic subtext, even though a study of its socio-cultural context, or the social circumstances in which its creator lived, must necessarily take into account (as this essay will shortly attempt to do) the changing aesthetic and sexual mores of the times which led to this fascination with the Grecian ideal of beauty in the first place.

Bronzino’s painting of the saint is remarkable for its gratuitous display of flesh. Saint John’s nakedness is concealed here neither by his mantle nor by his camel-skin, both of which have somehow slipped off, but instead by the way he contorts and holds his own body, positioning his left leg in front of his genitals. The cross, the lamb, the scroll, the beard of the hermit, and in fact all the external markers which would help us identify the figure as Saint John, have been dismissed as superfluous. Bronzino the Mannerist is evidently more interested in the exhibition and virtuoso deployment of his artistic skills through a focus on the saint’s perfect body and complex posture, which are more challenging to paint with dexterity than a cross or a scroll. Painters like Raphael and Andrea del Sarto, painting just a few years earlier, still show a preoccupation with the traditional iconography of Saint John. Their saints, despite having undergone the transformation to blooming, half-naked youthfulness, hold on to the cross or the scroll and the chief focus is not on the delineation of their chiseled bodies. It is the flowering of the Mannerist and ultimately the Baroque styles which bring about the final transfiguration.


In Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist (alternatively called Youth with a Ram), this change reaches its logical climax. Not only can we clearly discern the artist’s manus, but there is also a powerful sense of erotic soliciting (fig. 23). The protomartyr becomes a completely nude adolescent, who embraces a horned ram, tantalizingly half-displays his genitals, and smiles mischievously at the viewer. Avigdor W.G. Poseq argues that the Agnus Dei is deliberately changed into a horned ram, because it is easily confused with the he-goat, “the traditional symbol of lust and lechery in the Bible, and a canonical metaphor for sinners, who, at the Last Judgment, will be refused God’s mercy.” [xvi] Indeed, the youth in the painting bears so little resemblance to the middle-aged hermit preaching in the wilderness and living on locusts and wild honey, that a visitor to Cardinal del Monte’s collection in the 1620s mistakenly described the painting as Pastor Friso (Friso the Shepherd). Phryxus (Italianised as Friso), in Greek mythology, is a handsome Boethian prince who escapes sacrificial death by fleeing on the back of a golden-fleeced ram and later sacrifices it to the gods. We might indeed have believed the boy to be ‘pastor’ Friso had not Cardinal del Monte’s inventory specifically entitled it Saint John the Baptist.

Figure 23 – Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist or Youth with a Ram, 1602.

The painting evokes a sense of unredeemed sexuality, as the nubile youth gazes invitingly at us, only to counter it by a movement away from the solicited viewer. Caravaggio depicts a body at once presenting and withdrawing itself in an act of what may well be called erotic teasing. The same may be said of his Reclining Baptist(fig. 24) , which is so dominated by chiaroscuro that only a few swathes of light selectively illuminate the youth’s clenched thighs and a part of his chest, thus frustrating the viewers’ desire to see more of his body. Cecco, Caravaggio’s supposed adolescent lover who models for the painting, appears also in the more shockingly dramatic Amor Vincit Omnia or Victorious Cupid (fig. 25). Here, the smile is even more suggestively mischievous and the genitals, revealed so starkly almost at the center of the canvas, become the chief focal point. For Caravaggio, it was the same dissolute temperament and fascination with the delights of the flesh that guided the artistic representations of a Cupid and a Saint John.

While painting the dismembered head of John the Baptist in another painting (fig. 26), however, Caravaggio restored the saint to his original dignity – he invested the face with the beard and matted hair, imparting to it a somber calmness. This is probably because Caravaggio did not find in the dead body as much potential for eroticisation as in the living flesh; and so, he granted the decapitated head of Saint John its due grace, while focusing his imaginative powers on the living saint. In his feminization of the living male figure, Caravaggio may well be said to be indicating his preference for homoerotic subjects [xvii] since, right from Classical antiquity, androgynous figures have had associations with homosexuality. It is safe to conclude with Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit that “viewers of Caravaggio’s time found his youth androgynous” and they must have felt that he was “representing homosexual subjects.” [xviii]

Figure 26 – Caravaggio, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, 1607.

The firebrand priest Bernardino of Siena (whose horrified response to lascivious conduct within the walls of the church has already been mentioned), berated those living in the ‘city of flowers’ from his pulpit in 1433 – “… [the Florentines] are the most wretched upon earth, owing to sodomy and women’s extravagance.” [xix] Bernardino, however, is far from being the only one to speak disparagingly of the Florentines’ sexual misconduct. Florence during the Renaissance had gained such notoriety all over Europe for encouraging the ‘vice’ of sodomy that florenza became the usual slang for a sodomite. Before the consolidation of Medici power, steps were taken by civic authorities to curb what was essentially seen as an epidemic, and the ‘Office of the Night’ was set up to police sodomy and pederastic practices. The Office proceeded on anonymous denunciations dropped in secret boxes by citizens throughout the city and its domains, summoning the accused to answer the charges. John A. Garrity reveals that over two generations, a staggering 17,000 men (out of a total population of 40,000) were legally implicated on charges of sodomy [xx] – a ‘vice’ which spread as if by contagion in a city with an immoderate number of bachelors and not correspondingly high matrimonial scope. It was only after Cosimo de’ Medici became the de facto ruler in 1434, that an increased tolerance of sodomy was reflected in legislation and stringent anti-‘buggery’ laws were relaxed. Cosimo was a humanist and an ardent lover of Plato, under whose patronage (also the patronage of his successors) the practice of depicting immaculately formed male bodies in the nude developed, probably for the first time since antiquity. The depilated Grecian youth with chiselled torso gradually became the paradigm of physical beauty as represented in art; but it is difficult to trace the exact development of sodomitical inclination among artists from this point on – did the profession attract sodomites, or did painters engrossed in the fervid study of stunning, half-naked male bodies, develop a predilection for the masculine over time? Whatever the exact source of this ‘unnatural’ attraction, it was in the homosocial environment of the Medici household that stalwarts like Donatello, Verocchio, Michelangelo, and Leonardo brought their artistic endeavours to fruition. The suspicion that a great many of the primary movers of the Florentine Renaissance were, in varying degrees, interested in exploring carnal delights with members of the same sex, is not wholly unfounded, considering the fact that Leonardo  at the age of 24, was charged with sodomy with a well-known male prostitute Lionardo de Tornabuoni.

Before concluding, however, we must briefly pay attention to a conceptual error which it is often easy and tempting to commit while discussing sexuality in the Renaissance. It is to be noted that there are fundamental differences between the conceptual grid through which Renaissance culture understood sexual behaviour and our own modern constructions of sexuality. James Saslow cogently argues that the modern ‘gay’ identity is basically a “sense of core individual identity as an inherently homosexually oriented person, and a sense of group identity based on this shared orientation and participation in collective social institutions.” [xxi] It is the rise of self- aware urban subcultures after the Industrial Revolution, and the 19th century invention of the medical-psychological term ‘homosexual’, that led to a separate social category being formed for men sexually and romantically attracted to other men – a man living during the Renaissance would hardly have seen himself either as homosexual or as heterosexual or as lying anywhere in this continuum. For instance, Michelangelo, writing sonnets to his supposed lover Tomasso de’ Cavalieri in a language pregnant with powerful feeling, insists that “The love for which I speak of reaches higher”; it is an idealized male love modeled on such classical exemplars as Socrates’ chaste love for Alcibiades. It is a taxonomy in which “male-male love is understood in terms of classical amicitia.” [xxii] On the other hand, the high prevalence of the physical act of sodomy, which could be sporadically engaged in by a variety of people with or without spiritual bonding, highlights the impossibility of classifying male-male association in the Renaissance under any one category. The only thing that can be said with any degree of certainty is that, either under the growing influence of the  Classical kalokagathia, or due to a rather widespread fascination among the artists with the erotic potentials of the male body, or  owing to both of these factors, Renaissance devotional painting often shows an almost too lively interest in evoking the fleshly charms of its male saints. In doing so, it indeed transforms colour into carne.


[i] Robert Mills, Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 193.

[ii] Quoted in Steve Cox, Saint Sebastian: Part 1, (accessed 15th November, 2015).

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art : Volume I (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), 350.

[v] ibid, 351.

[vi] Cox, Saint Sebastian: Part I,          (accessed 15th November, 2015).

[vi] ibid.

[vii] ibid.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] ibid.

[x] Quoted in Cox.

[xi] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times (New York City: Modern Library,2006).

[xii] Quoted in Paul Baronsky, “The Mysterious Meaning of Leonardo’s ‘St. John the Baptist’,” in  Notes in the History of Art, Spring 1989 (Vol. 8 No. 3), 14. (accessed 10th November,2015).

[xiii] Giancarlo Maiorino, Leonardo da Vinci: the Daedalian Mythmaker (Pennsylvania: Penn State University, 1992), 96.

[xiv] Baronsky 14.

[xv] Vasari, Lives.

[xvi] Avigdor W.G. Poseq, “Caravaggio’s ‘Pastor Friso’,” in Notes in the History of Art, Fall 1998 (Vol. 8 No. 1), 13. (accessed 5th November, 2015).

[xvii] Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Caravaggio’s Secrets (Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1998).

[xix] Quoted in John A. Garrity, Sexuality in the Lives of Florentine Renaissance Artists, 3. (accessed 7th November,2015).

[xx] Garrity 6.

[xxi] James M. Saslow, ” ‘A Veil of Ice between My Heart and the Fire’: Michelangelo’s Sexual Identity and Early Modern Constructs of Homosexuality”,  in Studies in Homosexuality, 1992,  139.  (accessed 14th November, 2015).

[xxii] ibid, 140.




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