A Renaissance Art Essay: Sexuality and Eroticism
Sexuality was always a taboo subject to speak about, especially in Medieval times. Gradually, the values of people changed and developed in the Renaissance period, which made sexuality in art history a central part. This period reveals the talents of the most significant artists, such as Parmigianino and Titian, who weren’t afraid of describing the beauty of the human body.
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What Role Did Sexuality and Eroticism Play in 16th Century Renaissance Art?
Eroticism and sexuality were not considered to be suitable subjects for open discussion until recently. However, sexuality is a unique field of human nature that is trans-cultural at all times. Without any doubt, art is the only human product that can perfectly reflect the sexual nature of a man and a woman.
The Renaissance was a special period of revival for forms of art such as drawing, fine art painting, sculpture, and architecture. It was also a period of rebirth for the principles of classical Greek art. On the one hand, during the first three periods of the Renaissance, the main idea of art and philosophy was based on high morality, high divine love, spirituality, and other religious features, retaining clear heritage from the Middle Ages. But on the other hand, the human form was moved to the center of the artist’s stage and explored with new interest, and the human became the main creator of his or her own life. Furthermore, this human had a body, and it was human nature. After the Middle Ages, with their blind faith and dogma of the church, artists finally saw the natural, material side. The human body, especially nude, was not depicted in Medieval art (the exception was a figure of Christ crucified on the cross), but in Renaissance art, the beauty of the body was shown in its entirety.
If we examine the works of such famous painters as Michelangelo, Raphael, Agnolo Bronzino, Jean Fouquet, Titian, and Giorgione, we can find harmony in the depiction of human bodies through smooth lines, softer forms, and a naturalistic depiction of human anatomy.
Compared to previous periods of the Renaissance, in the 16th century, female nudes more often appeared on canvases. A popular portrayal showed nude women as witches, who were supposed to have sexual power over men and who needed to be controlled.
An interesting example, as one of the most bizarre paintings, is Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim by Jean Fouquet (at the end of the 15th century). Madonna’s perfectly circular breast was bared to a clearly uninterested child Christ. But after the Reformation of 1517, such religious images were banned from places of worship.
One more scandalous work of art was a series of erotic paintings, called I Modi (The Ways), also known as The Sixteen Pleasures, created by the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi. He published these engravings in 1524, which resulted in his imprisonment by Pope Clement VII. The series and all its copies were destroyed.
The last period of the Renaissance, from roughly 1520 until 1600, was called Mannerism, which was an anti-classical movement and was quite different from the ideologies of the Renaissance. More artificial and less naturalistic paintings were produced, and figures on the canvases or sculptures seemed to be fighting, writhing, or twisting. The faces quite often showed strong emotions, such as sadness or sexual feelings.
One of the representatives of this period is the sixteenth-century painter Francesco Mazzola, known as Parmigianino (1503-1540). He showed eroticism in detailed imagery of sexual activity, both heterosexual and homosexual, and in a general sensuality. For example, his Madonna of the Rose, 1527 – 1531, portrays calm, mild eroticism and deep femininity.
Eroticism and sexuality have existed in art for the entirety of human history. The Medieval Ages hid them for centuries, but the Renaissance opened the beauty of a human body on par with the beauty of the human soul. And now we are happy to feast our eyes on the masterpieces that transmit to us that glory.
1. Forker, Charles R. “Sexuality and Eroticism on the Renaissance Stage.” South Central Review, vol. 7, no. 4, 1990, pp. 1-22. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3189091.
2. Hub, Bertold, and Pollali, Angeliki. Images of Sex and Desire in Renaissance Art and Modern Historiography. 1st ed., Routledge, 2018.
3. “Is the Renaissance Nude Religious or Erotic?” BBC, https://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190214-is-the-renaissance-nude-religious-or-erotic.
4. Thomas, Joe Alan. “Eroticism in the Art of Parmigianino and Its Implications for the Mannerist Style.” Academia, https://www.academia.edu/1566705/Eroticism_in_the_Art_of_Parmigianino_and_its_Implications_for_the_Mannerist_Style.