Polly Ellman

When we think of LGBT art today, we often start in 1969 with Stonewall, as though queer experiences did not exist until the rest of the world was jarringly alerted to their presence. The truth is that queer art (that is, art concerning queer identities and experiences) has existed as long as art itself. It has merely cycled through periods of suppression and amplification. Even in periods where homosexuality was largely accepted and regularly depicted in art, this portion of art history has often been erased or shrouded in layers of reinterpretation that strip it of its original meaning. We hide the parts of history that we find embarrassing or difficult to talk about, but this history still occurs.

Although the modern gay rights movement was born at the Stonewall Riots in June of 1969, the queer art movement had already been in existence for thousands of years, not as a political statement, but simply as one aspect of the art that was already being created. Queer art can be traced back as far as the classical era, and even farther when one considers the scattered examples from the early civilizations.

The idea of a dichotomy between heterosexual and homosexual is in many ways a modern idea. The art of Ancient Greece and Rome that today’s art historians might label “queer art” or “homoerotic art” was at the time simply art. It was one aspect of the human existence that was depicted alongside countless others. This lack of a distinction between different sexualities in the classical era led to an outpouring of queer art that is absent from many other parts of history. In some ways, people of the classical world were more tolerant than we are today.

The queer art of Greece and Rome was hidden for centuries behind moralizing Christian influences which attempted to reconstruct its original meaning, use it as an example of sin, or erase it altogether. Because of this, it is easy to overlook the importance of queer influences in this period. The classical era, however, is inextricably tied to queerness.


Ancient Greece:


Ancient Greece was marked by a celebration of love, passion and sexuality that was occasionally countered by Stoic asceticism. Plato himself even condemned most forms of non-procreative sex and Greek citizens were expected to marry someone of the opposite sex. Still, the Ancient Greeks generally accepted and often even encouraged homosexual relationships.

Achilles Binding the Wounds of Patroclus
Achilles Binding the Wounds of Patroclus

Along with the Greek celebration of love came a celebration of the comradeship between warriors. This bond was commonly depicted in art as it was considered to be an inspiration to civic duty. One example of this is Achilles Binding the Wounds of Patroclus, a red figure drinking cup made by the Sosias Painter in the 6th century BCE. Homer wrote extensively about Achilles, a brave Greek warrior, and his friend and lover Patroclus. The two are often depicted together and served as a model for the type of relationship that was valued among warriors. In Sparta, soldiers were even encouraged to have sexual relationships with other men to inspire loyalty on the battlefield. (2)


Peithinos Cup
Peithinos Cup

Most of the Greek gods were considered bisexual by nature, often engaging in affairs with humans regardless of gender. Mortals were presumed to mirror the sexual inclinations of the gods. Another painted drinking vessel known as the Peithinos Cup depicts young men courting young women as well as other men. That this subject matter could be portrayed on something as commonplace as a drinking cup shows just how pervasive and accepted homosexuality was in Ancient Greece. Part of the reason for this pervasiveness was the stratification of Greek society according to sex. Women were not educated and remained mainly in the home, while men could pursue education and careers. Because of this, women were deemed intellectually inferior, leading to the belief that only a man’s relationship with another man could be intellectually and emotionally fulfilling; a relationship with a woman could never bring about full satisfaction. (1)

Sappho and Attendants
Sappho and Attendants

Greece was a deeply patriarchal society, and because of this there is very little art depicting female experiences, including lesbianism. The only clear examples of lesbian art appear in the form of poetry. Sappho was regarded as the great female poet of Ancient Greece and she often wrote about love between women. (4) Sappho quickly became a cultural icon, and was often the subject of paintings and statues. However, these portraits tend to acknowledge Sappho’s sexuality only as the backdrop to her merit as a writer. In one red-figure vase from the 5th century B.C.E. Sappho sits surrounded by female admirers but focuses only on the book in her hands. (1)

Meanwhile, a different trend occupied male sexuality. Gay relationships in Greece generally involved an eromenos (from the word Eros, the name of the god of love, and menos, meaning small or less), or young man, usually under the age of 18, and an older man known as an erastes. The eromenos was supposed to be passive, while the erastes was active, pursuing the younger man. Relationships between men of the same age were somewhat rare, except among warriors. Vase paintings depicting the relationship between erastes and eromenos often depict the older man pointing at the younger man or reaching out to touch him in a symbol of courtship. (1)

Doryphorus
Doryphorus

One of the most influential Greek artworks ever created is riddled with homoerotic undertones. In Ancient Greece, the nude body was seen as the ultimate form of physical perfection. The sculptor Polykleitos attempted to find a mathematical Canon of the ideal human proportions in his sculpture Doryphorus or "Spear-Bearer." The sculpture was located in a palestra where athletes would train and (hopefully) gain inspiration from a portrait of the ideal human form. Doryphorus epitomizes the classical style, coupling realism with a perfection that suggests divinity. (3) This sculpture also highlights the idea that homosexuality was everywhere in Ancient Greece. Doryphorus stood in a location occupied almost exclusively by men who would recognize the significance of a portrayal of a young man just slightly too old to be an eromenos, past the age at which he could be pursued by other men, effectively untouchable. (1) Polykleitos' Canon would be used time and time again by artists of the classical era and beyond, including in Donatello's David, which is commonly interpreted by art historians as a homoerotic sculpture.

The Hellenistic Era:

The dawn of the Hellenistic era marked the introduction of an androgynous aesthetic. Bisexuality continued, but heterosexual relationships became more appealing as the idealized male body became less bulky and muscular, and more slender, elegant, and feminized. Deities such as Apollo, Dionysus and Hermaphroditus grew in popularity and these gods were depicted in sculpture as androgynous, still retaining male anatomy but slimmer and smoother. Apollo especially was depicted in this way because he was the god of music and poetry, both considered feminine arts. (1) Hermaphroditus, a god with both male genitalia and female breasts also grew in popularity and was worshipped as a god of marriage. (5)

Alexander and Hephaestion
Alexander and Hephaestion

Alexander himself was bisexual. Although he married a woman, his greatest love was Hephaestion, whom he often had depicted in sculpture. Early carvings depicted the two men as comrades, usually surrounded by women. Around 200 CE, an allegorical relief emerged in which the two men appeared without Alexander’s bride. Alexander and Hephaestion stand in the center with Hercules and his own male companion off to the left. By visually linking himself to Hercules, Alexander hoped to legitimize his own lineage, associating himself with the mythic ancestor of the Macedonians. (1) It seems Alexander also wanted to legitimize himself in another way. The appearance of Hercules with his male companion mirrors the presence of Hephaestion next to Alexander, suggesting that Alexander was heroic not in spite of his same-sex relationship, but because of it.
Two Women in Intimate Conversation
Two Women in Intimate Conversation

A few sculptures from the Hellenistic Era exist depicting emotionally, though not physically, intimate relationships between women. Until recently, modern art historians tended to give these works titles like “Two Women Gossipping,” ignoring the implied relationship between the women. Overall, women were absent from Hellenistic art. This is surprising considering the acute feminization of subject matter during this period, but despite the shifting attitude toward femininity, women were still not given a voice in the art world to speak from their own perspectives. (1)

Sleeping Hermaphroditus
Sleeping Hermaphroditus

During this period, Hermaphroditus grew in popularity not just in worship, but also in art. People of the Hellenistic era found the most attractive bodies to be those which blurred the line between masculine and feminine, embodying the most visually-appealing aspects of each. Hermaphroditus was the ultimate example of this. The god (whose typical pronouns are he/she) is generally depicted with a traditionally female body- breasts, long hair, and wide hips- but with one key difference: male genitals. One sculpture from c. 200 B.C.E. depicts Hermaphroditus asleep and nearly face down on a bed, with his/her genitalia barely visible. Hermaphroditus grows even more interesting as an artistic motif when considers the symbolism behind male genitalia in classical civilization. A penis generally represented power, allowing Hermaphroditus to be interpreted as a woman given the power of a man. (5)


Rome:

The Romans modeled much of their civilization after the Greeks and inherited both the Greek pantheon of gods and their bisexual tendencies. However, a new trend emerged in which males were associated with active, sometimes aggressive, dominance. Male love was no longer idealized by art and philosophy, although it was tolerated. (1) Lesbianism undoubtedly still existed in Rome, but it was confined to a private world. Male homosexuality continued to exist in the visual arts but took on a less prominent role than it had in Ancient Greece.

The Greek dichotomy between eromenos and erastes gave way to a new emphasis on male power and dominance and the new dichotomy become one of the active and masculine countered by the passive and feminine. This didn’t have anything to do with heterosexuality. The masculine and feminine roles had much more to do with power than with gender. (6) Men were free to have relationships with other men, but only in keeping with the law of Lex Scantinia, which punished high class male citizens for willingly taking part in passive sexual behavior. This law was intended to ensure that Roman men remained masculine and took on the active or “top” role in sex. Acceptable partners in the passive role included slaves, prostitutes and entertainers, who were not subject to Lex Scantinia. Freeborn male citizens were in theory off limits, although this rule was eventually considered to be more of a suggestion than a law that, if broken, was punishable by death. (7)
Antinous
Antinous


Most of the surviving homosexual art from Rome came out of the imperial period in which emperors enthusiastically commissioned portraits of their lovers, both for public and private audiences. Hadrian provides an especially extreme example of this. Days after the death of his eighteen-year-old beloved, Antinous, Hadrian deified the boy, established a cult in his honor, founded a memorial city, and ordered endless sculptures of him to be made. One of these statues was eleven feet tall and recalled Bacchus, the promiscuous god of wine. (1)

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans left a good deal of their art confined to the private sphere in palaces, wealthy and middle-class homes and villas. One wall painting depicts Hermaphroditus, the god of marriage who grew in popularity during the Hellenistic era. In this scene, the nature god Pan pulls back the
Pan Uncovering Hermaphroditus
Pan Uncovering Hermaphroditus
bedclothes from the lounging Hermaphroditus and, glimpsing the god’s genitals, recoils in comical shock. Pan’s reaction is not due to his disgust that the figure he assumed to be a woman has male genitalia; Pan was notoriously bisexual, as most nature gods and spirits were. Instead, Pan is merely surprised at what he has discovered. (1) This also speaks to the Roman belief in extremes of masculinity and femininity. In the Hellenistic era, androgyny was considered attractive, while in Roman times the idea of a gender or sex existing somewhere in between male and female became comical. (5,7)

Warren Cup
Warren Cup

Other private art took the form of drinking vessels and serving pieces commissioned by wealthy patrons with the intention of amusing banquet guests. These pieces often included highly sexualized subject matter, both for the purpose of entertaining guests and providing suggestions for later activities. A six-inch-high silver flagon known as the Warren Cup was made as a luxury object for a provincial home in the first century C.E. This cup depicts a domestic interior in which a male couple is having sex while being watched by a boy peeking around a door frame. Young male citizens were still off-limits by law at this time, so these figures are either of low social status, or the artist has chosen to portray a social taboo. This scene recalls the dignity and idealization of Athens, raising a highly eroticized image to the level of the class and status of Greece. (1)

"Female Couple" from the Suburban Baths, Pompeii
"Female Couple" from the Suburban Baths, Pompeii


In the public sphere, queer art took on not only the form of great works commissioned by emperors, but also graffiti and erotic paintings in bath houses. This setting was one of the few where lesbianism was depicted in Rome. Women were generally excluded from participation in Latin literature and other arts due to the assumption that they were not intellectually fit. The women of Rome were also typically viewed as sexual objects, not subjects. Sex was considered to be something in which women could not play an active role so for the most part, lesbianism was ignored. (7) Bath houses, however, existed at the margins of society and paintings in the baths could be made cheaply, brushed quickly onto dry plaster. This dry plaster technique did not allow many bath house paintings to be preserved to the present day, but may have provided a much needed outlet for the women of ancient Rome. (1) In one painting from the baths of Pompeii, two figures only identifiable as female by their hair recline on a bed together. (7)

The age of explicitly homosexual art came to an end with Constantine's legalization of Christianity in 313 C.E. through the Edict of Milan and the eventual establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the years following Constantine's death. With the Edict of Milan came the first laws against homosexuality and the beginning of an era in which sexuality was stifled, not celebrated, and queerness of any kind was condemned. (8) Although queer trends persisted in the art of the Middle Ages, depictions of homosexuality existed mainly as warnings against sodomy. It would take until the Renaissance for queer themes to once again be brought into the spotlight in Western art, and until the modern era for many of these themes to be recognized for what they were. (1)




Works Cited:


(1) James M. Saslow, Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts
(New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc. 1999).
(2) Morales, Manuel Sanz, and Gabriel Laguna Mariscal. "The Relationship between Achilles
and Patroclus According to Chariton of Aphrodisias." The Classical Quarterly ns 53.1 (2003): 292-95. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 6 June
2017. <__https://www.jstor.org/stable/3556498?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents__>.
(3) "Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear Bearer)." Khan Academy. Khan Academy, n.d. Web. 06
June 2017. <https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/greek-art/classical/v/polykleitos-doryphoros>.
(4) Mark, Joshua J. "Sappho of Lesbos." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History
Encyclopedia, 02 Aug 2014. Web. 06 Jun 2017.
(5) "HERMAPHRODITOS." Hermaphroditus. Theoi Project, n.d. Web. 06 June 2017. <http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/ErosHermaphroditos.html>.
(6) "Homosexuality in Ancient Rome." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Mar. 2017. Web.
06 June 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_ancient_Rome>.
(7) "Roman Culture/Homosexuality." Roman Culture/Homosexuality - Wikibooks, Open Books
for an Open World. Wikimedia, 12 June 2013. Web. 06 June 2017. <https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Roman_Culture/Homosexuality>
(8) "Constantine I." Constantine I - New World Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 June 2017.