From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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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 for the first time be freely depicted. The story of Bathsheba appears to be particularly useful. Bathsheba, a married woman, is spotted by King David from a roof top while she is bathing. 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 moving Bathsheba (image) by Memling.
One of the most famous Christian stories is that of the Holy St. Anthony, who sets off for the desert to live as an ascetic, where he is beseeched by certain temptations. There, 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 painter also 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 provides us with a voyeuristic scene in the style of Bathsheba. Like Bathsheba, Susanna takes a bath, unaware that two men are spying on her. The men try to seduce her, and Susanna 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 one more time 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 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. Beware of 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 finally acquitted. Potiphar's Wife by the Italian artist Tintoretto brings the narrative beautifully to life. (image).
Ever since the ancient Biblical tradition, Mary Magdalene is equated to the "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 of 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 in a Venus pudica-pose with ample view on her rather small breasts and hair so long that while covering her whole body it stills reaches down to her feet. The same hairs with which she dried Our Lord feet after having anointed them.
But the most beautiful Magdalene is a sculpture from a later age, by Antonio Canova (1757-1822) [picture]. 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 only shame scene is depicted: frivolous and morbid at the same time shown in a print by Jost Amman (1539-1591) [picture].