“Crucifixes are sexy because there is a naked man on them.” – Madonna, 1985.
One of the first images of the male nude I encountered was on a pair of rosary beads. As a small child, they amused for a matter of minutes, and it was always fascinating to watch my mother and grandmother fiddle with them, whilst muttering under their breath. Yet why was there a miniature man on them and where were his clothes?
Later in church, I stood at a much larger depiction of the crucifixion and the sheer scale and drama of the piece was enough to leave an impression yet I still couldn’t quite comprehend the significance of an execution that took place in a time and place so completely removed from 1980s North London. Even today, one only has to look at the centre of a church to see a male nude – that of Christ on the cross, whose realistic depiction allows the congregation to understand the notion of the divine made human – a man suffering and dying on the cross for our sins (including the ones featuring nudity).
Yet nakedness also has age-old associations with sin, guilt and shame with the Church remaining an institution where the flesh and the devil continue to frolic hand in hand.
A strict Catholic background meant twice-weekly visits to church and later included a stint as an altar boy (the perfect opportunity to view spectacular art up close and personal and have fun dressing up in cassocks), and who wouldn’t want to aspire to the haloed saints all around? Yet amidst the cast of chaste virgins, bejewelled kings, doe-eyed martyrs, ragged old prophets and strange celestial beings, the Church has also strangely revelled in the male nude. The realistic depiction of flesh carries significant meaning to us mere mortals gazing upon it, to the holy men keeping the subjects’ stories alive and to the artists portraying it all for prosperity.
Christian art hasn’t always focused on Christ made man. Yet, as artistic tastes have developed, so have the depictions of Christ. Early depictions of Him show and celebrate him very much clothed and very much alive. By the 10th century, a shift in taste and ideology saw more emphasis placed on Christ’s suffering and final moments. The Gero Cross in Cologne Cathedral made around 976AD is regarded as one of the earliest sculptural depictions of the crucifixion, yet the crucified Christ remains rather static, with notions of anatomy clearly not igniting the Dark Ages imagination.
The Master of St Francis Crucifix in the National Gallery reveals an interesting 13th century take on the male form, where the reading of muscle and movement translates into a midsection that suggests an attempted study of the human form, as well as a consideration of the effect of gravity on a suspended adult man.
But to a Renaissance artist, the opportunity to paint a crucifixion scene would have provided the perfect excuse to revisit the Classical world and depict a male nude as beautifully and accurately as the Ancient Greeks, allowing the artist to prove their ability to incorporate scale, perspective and proportion in their work, and the growing interest in anatomy.
Michelangelo, and his over-muscular Christ reveals the master’s sculptural background and his interest in the science behind the human form that was to influence generations of artists following him. Yet his Christ appears as bored, fidgety and frustrated as many other artists must have felt at having to deliver yet another ‘faithful’ representation of Christ’s suffering.
The portrayal of Jesus’ suffering and death is indeed visually repetitive. Centuries worth of paintings tend to repeat the scene albeit for difference in the details – the landscape attempting to convey ancient Jerusalem or a more modern-day setting, a slight change in the positioning of those present or Christ’s gaze (usually heavenwards or slumped in death).
The visual repetition is understandable though when you consider the importance of Christ’s death which lies at the heart of Christian ideology. Any attempt at altering the usual depictions of the crucifixion would not be tolerated. At best it could lead to being ex-communicated, at worst becoming condemned as a heretic.
Yet the artistic freedom to depict the male form came about due to the unexpected rise in popularity of Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier martyr who famously survived being shot at by arrows before being beaten to death, called upon by thousands of devotees during the times of the plague. The cult of Saint Sebastian spread along with the pestilence gripping Europe. Subsequently more holy images of the holy protector were commissioned.
Finally, artists everywhere had a new subject to explore and the perfect opportunity to paint a male nude with the constraints of a crucifixion scene. Sebastian certainly offered relief from the repetitive, static Christs. Here was the chance to contort a usually young, handsome, naked male in a bid to explore the effect of light on muscle and tone, and to linger on male flesh without being burned at the stake for your sexual orientation – and get paid handsomely for it.
The result is a number of highly sensual, dramatic and suggestive portrayals of the saint that unsurprisingly has led to Sebastian becoming somewhat of a homoerotic hero.
El Greco’s Sebastian is a highly spirited martyr suffering an assassination attempt and a wardrobe malfunction, revealing a cheeky glimpse of pubic hair in the process. Guido Reni’s Sebastian painted in 1616 transforms the man into a boy, in a pose that appears as sexual today as it must have done to a 17th century audience.
Saraceni’s depiction of Sebastian is one of the most famous, most homoerotic depictions of the saint. Rather than suffering for his faith, Saracenispies on his subject who seems to have taken a break from his soldiering and converting duties to enjoy a rather private moment. The carefully placed arrow (the symbol for Sebastian) is as phallic as it is horrific, with the devil set to make work for idle hands. The saint’s pose is reminiscent of Bernini’s beautiful but equally provocative depiction Saint Theresa of Avila in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome is as jaw droppingly sexual as it is transcendental, with the nun’s head thrown back in orgasmic bliss in a heady mix of faith and filth.
Bassetti’s depiction of the saint is highly voyeuristic with a naked Sebastian on his back, oblivious to our presence, awaking from his sleep whilst van Honthorst’s Sebastian is as unblemished as he is handsome, with the artist’s suggestive use of the diagonal suggesting some pleasure amidst the pain.
Sebastian’s allure continues in more secular times, unsurprisingly proving a popular saint amongst gay artists. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe transfers Sebastian’s bondage into the bedroom whilst French duo Pierre et Gille present a number of super-kitsch, airbrushed Sebastians to cater for every taste, serving up the martyr in European, Far Eastern, industrial and sailor-boy flavours.
Derek Jarman’s 1976 feature-length film Sebastiane turns Sebastian’s tale into a tragic gay love story, where our mystical hero rejects his commanding officer’s advances and meets his death, in a daring piece of work filmed entirely in Latin that included nude wrestling, gay kissing and even an erect penis, firmly cementing the saint’s status as a gay icon.
On Sebastian’s enduring appeal, Kaye (1996) argues that “contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case.”
Yet, judging by the various portrayals of the saint discussed above, Sebastian is far from the sad, tortured soul or closeted homosexual, unaware of his sexual beauty and its effect. Instead, here is a man clearly aware of his physical presence and the effect it can have. Unsuprisingly Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes, becoming in effect the poster boy for notions of male physical perfection. He’s also a fantastic example of how art can subvert from within.
Unsurprisingly, unlike the naked Christ, the portrayals of Sebastian shown above all lack haloes – perhaps the saint hasn’t quite earned his place in heaven after all.