Before approaching John’s audacious gesture, it is worth considering sexuality as a modern addition to human kind vocabulary, as mentioned by Michel Foucault. Although the Renaissance could easily suggest some high libertinism, it is rather depicted as the rebirth of sensuality. As a synonym of carnal desires and pagan temptations, the ancient transparency did not re-appear for the intelligentsia’s sake:
Christian unease was major all through the 15th century. Only poet Petrarch had found the words to illustrate love as an inner experience, contrarily to his Middle-Age predecessors; time had come for Renaissance artists to adore love, if not veiled and heretic erotica, as it used to be. The Greeks, major trend-setters, except perhaps from the Egyptians before them, found in being honestly naked a sign of civilisation. In other words, Renaissance art is made of eroticism. Back to basic. Cocks and elitism.
Of all Renaissance artists Leonardo Da Vinci is the most accessible thanks to his drawings and writings. Although he shared with the world the most recognised smile of all time, Mona Lisa was not, relatively speaking, his actual muse. Handsome pupils were always to be found in his studio, looking after his drawings or research notes, if not trying to reproduce one of the master’s paintings. Interestingly, Da Vinci, and Botticelli after him, revolutionised the technique of portraiture: no painters had ever before captured female faces with such authority. Delightful, isn’t it, to unveil some of the secrets behind the emotional depths of Renaissance masterpieces! Straight from the bedroom.
As far as the eye can associate images and symbols, Leonardo’s St. John the Baptist owns some libidinous traits. How rude from him to point an ambiguous finger towards Heaven! Leonardo is apparently playing here on the edge of sexuality’s blasphemously dark boarders. An early Mapplethorpe, with the exception of possibilities and suggestions. Way more daring than Dan Brown’s enigmatic code but not as heretical and sinful as Bosch’s love feast and nudes of the Counter Reformation. Leonardo could “play the game“, tells Jonathan Jones in his book The Loves of the Artists, “while a young man [was] waiting for him in his bed.“
Both Milanese pupils much loved Francesco Melzi and Salaì, cherished by grace, accompanied Leonardo in his last days, as an undeniable source of pleasure offered everyday to the artist’s gaze. He openly showed his ardent feelings, wrote Melzi on 2 May 1519 after the death of his master. The scandalous masterpiece St. John the Baptist mischievously hides its painter’s feelings for men, unveiling how ready he was at the end of his life to boldly present it in pigment.
Francesco Melzi Salaì Believing in art’s function to arouse love, Leonardo defended the painter, gifted for illustrating the erotic power of art, as superior to the writer. Turning a holy subject into a piece of erotica, he dangerously made a painting talk, inviting the viewers to a reciprocal response, ideally a kiss. Sex becomes then a means to an end, not only represented in the Florentine Renaissance creativity, but also transforming art in an erotic activity itself.
Let’s thank the Da Vinci clique for mastering the bedroom activity that brought us flesh and intrigue on top of mythology and history. Imagine now Rembrandt in bed. Where light meets darkness with an open-heart. How anatomically un-Catholic.
By Cindy Fournier