From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
I already mentioned that the depiction of biblical eroticism during the Middle Ages is scarce and consists of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Song of Songs, the story of Bathsheba in her bath, the temptations of the holy St. Anthony, the depictions of Susanna and the elders and Lot and his daughters. We could add to this list the fallen and penitent woman Mary Magdalene and the theme of Potiphar's wife, but then I'm finished and I would even have to add that Saint Anthony was not even a biblical figure, and neither was Susanna.
Starting in the Renaissance, these stories can now for the first time be freely depicted. The story of Bathsheba appears to be particularly convenient to bring nudity to the canvas. Bathsheba, a married woman who happens to be bathing, is being spied upon by King David from a nearby roof top. The story has a fatal outcome, but the most frequently painted scene puts the viewer as voyeur on the strategic location of King David, where he has ample view of her feminine beauty. There is a very beautiful and lively Bathsheba (image) by Memling.
One of the most famous Christian stories is that of Holy St. Anthony, who sets off for the desert to live as an ascetic. Once there, he is beseeched by certain temptations. Demons appear to him who seek to distract him from the righteous path. Painters usually depict the monsters who scare him to death, but an occasional artist depicts the lure of the beautiful maidens who challenge his virtue. We already saw a very strange 'woman as landscape' in the Brussels version of Bosch's Temptation of St. Anthony. Flaubert would eroticize the story in the 19th century, and in that same century, Félicien Rops gives us the definite visual version.
The story of Susanna and the elders is similar and it provides us with a voyeuristic scene similar to that of Bathsheba. Like Bathsheba, Susanna takes a bath, unaware that she is spied upon. In Susanna's case the voyeurs are two elderly men. They try to seduce her, but she naturally declines to respond. In revenge, the men falsely accuse her of adultery. The Flemish painter Jan Matsys (ca. 1510-1575) has a beautiful stylized version of the theme (image). The Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) also has it in her oeuvre (image).
Also part of biblical eroticism is that classical incest story of Lot and his daughters. Lot lives with his wife and daughters in Sodom, along with Gomorrah notorious for the 'depravity' of the inhabitants. The only righteous ones are Lot and his family. They are summoned by two angels to leave Sodom and not to look back. Lot's wife (we are never told her name) cannot resist the temptation, she turns her head around to glance at her native village once more and is immediately turned into a pillar of salt. With his two daughters Lot withdraws in a cave. His girls are childless and have no husband, so one day they decide to get their father drunk and seduce him. Both become pregnant and give birth to a son. The German artist Albrecht Altdorfer (ca. 1480-1538) paints the picture of Lot with one of his daughters, the other is visible in the distance (image). From the name Sodom was later derived the term "sodomy", an umbrella term for unnatural and therefore sinful, forbidden sexual contact, most often used to specifically refer to homosexuality, and anal sex in general. In the Dutch language, the words 'opsodemieteren' and 'besodemieteren' are still in use.
And then there's the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. What if you were being falsely accused of rape? It happens to the biblical character Joseph. The unnamed wife of Potiphar tries to seduce him, but when that fails, she becomes furious and accuses him of having raped her. As evidence of her ordeal she produces a piece of cloth from the garments of Joseph. The unhappy soul is subsequently arrested, put in jail for ten years before being eventually acquitted. Potiphar's Wife by the Italian artist Tintoretto brings the narrative beautifully to life. (image).
In Biblical tradition, Mary Magdalene is equated to a "penitent sinner". What exactly is her sin? Nobody knows for sure. Sinner here must be read as "fallen woman" or "woman of loose morals', which in turn is a euphemism for a whore, if one skips the word prostitute. In that capacity, she is often depicted in legend and art, unrightfully so, because her infamy is based on an erroneous interpretation by the 6th-century Pope Gregory I.
Mary Magdalene is not only a sinner, but also penitent. At the end of her life she sees the light and wants to atone for her sins. In that pleading, penitent way she is depicted from the Renaissance onwards in innumerable sculptures and paintings, such as two paintings by Titian. My preference goes to the version in the Pitti Palace in Florence (image), with a particularly striking, plump Magdalene whose swooning eyes ecstatically turn to the heavens. Despite of her Venus pudica-pose we are allowed ample view on her rather small breasts and hair so long that while covering her whole body must still reach down to her feet. The same hair with which she dried Our Lord feet after having anointed them.
But the most beautiful Magdalene is a sculpture from a later age, from the hand of Antonio Canova (1757-1822) (image). It shows a kneeling Magdalen, her buttocks on her feet, her arms outstretched, the palms of her hands resting on her knees. Her head is bent forward, humble and docile. But also: the right upper half of her flimsy dress is pushed down, partly baring one breast. The skull at her side is a reference to the vanitas motive. To this day Magdelena is the patron saint of prostitutes and the prototype of the hooker with a heart of gold.
The depiction of Adam and Eve also witnesses an evolution. Whereas in the Middle Ages the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is depicted as a narrative sequence of images, in the Renaissance the shame scene only is depicted: frivolous and morbid at the same time in this print by Jost Amman (1539-1591) (image).