March 28, 2009

From Breasts to Beard: Pornography, Extreme Violence and other Weird Stuff in Works of Art from the Renaissance

Master of the Fontainebleau School, Gabrielle d'Estrees and one of her Sisters

Alonso Cano, Miraculous Lactation of St Bernard

Cornelis van Haarlem, Monk with a Nun

Quentin Massys, Grotesque Old Woman

Andrea Mantegna, Saint Sebastian

The holy and the profane, or the spiritual and the corporeal, begun to intermingle in Renaissance life and art. Towards the end of the Renaissance the erotic content became more and more evident. Mannerism produced images where a mythological or allegorical motif appears only as a disguise for erotic contents. Quasi sacred motifs such as Cornelisz's painting The Monk with a Nun were just cover ups for erotica if not almost pornography. This painting was meant for the Prinsenhof (the Princes' Court), which had been set up at the Friars Preachers' Monastery of the Dominicans.

Under the influence of Catholic propaganda, which was advertising the human body as 'sinful' and strictly forbidding any nakedness in Christian iconography, many artists themselves painted over the sinful nudity in their paintings. The Church resisted the spirit of the Renaissance, which had just learned that spirit and body are two sides of the same coin. Its medieval mentality postulated the holiness of spirit and recognized the body just as a part of decaying nature."

In addition to the erotic motifs, we have bizarre and/or extremely violent images including a woman with a full beard nursing a child, a man getting flailed in public and two women violently cutting a man's head off. Aiwaz notes, "The Renaissance cabinet of curiosities consists of unexpected motifs from real and imaginary life that displays, by means of twisted reality, the real spirit, mind and body of the Renaissance man, who is split between medieval superstition and the birth of a new Subject.

Jusepe de Ribera, Bearded Woman

Correggio, Leda with the Swan

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith beheading Holofernes

Giulio Romano, Jupiter and Olympia

Agnolo Bronzino, Allegory of Lust

Jean Fouquet, Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels

After Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan

Pieter Huys, Temptation of St Anthony

Jan Gossaert, Virgin and Child
photos and text via Aiwaz


  1. If you have a close look at the foot bottom left of the painting by Agnolo Bronzino, Allegory of Lust ... you may recognise the foot that Terry Gilliam used for his generic squashing foot in the Monty Python title sequence!

  2. Anonymous you're right! Excuse the tardy response; I'm just a little bit slow.