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Art, sexuality and the Vatican's vast creative riches

Should the Holy See's masterpieces by gay artists inform the discussion on homosexuality?

  • Jonathan Jones
  • International
  • August 1, 2013
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The Pope has uttered some common sense words about homosexuality– and about time, too. While stopping well short of a full recognition of gay rights, his declaration that he does not "judge" is at least the start of a better approach by the Catholic church.

If Pope Francis wants to think more about this issue, he could do worse than take a tour of churches and galleries in Rome and the Vatican where, for centuries, gay artists have created the glories of the church.

In the Vatican museum he should contemplate Leonardo da Vinci's St Jerome in the Desert. An ascetic sits in anguished thought in a rocky wilderness in this unfinished masterpiece. It is a great, introspectively spiritual work of religious art whose creator was well known for his love of young men. Leonardo surrounded himself with good-looking assistants and painted a subversively gay icon of male beauty, his bronzed Saint John the Baptist. When da Vinci was in his 20s, he was formally accused of sodomy.

Brooding on these facts, the Pope might walk into the Pauline Chapel, to look upon Michelangelo's frescoes there. This chapel is in a private part of the Apostolic Palace not open to the public, but I don't think the Pope would find entry difficult. There, looking at the suffering of the saints, he might consider how Michelangelo courageously expressed his love for men, even as he created some of the most eloquent art of the church.

Is there no escape from this issue? Remembering that some art historians deny the so-called "calumny" that Caravaggio and his clerical patrons were gay, perhaps the Pope might visit the Roman church of San Luigi dei Francesi to look on this master's paintings of St Matthew. But the demons of desire cannot be suppressed. The naked male flesh in Caravaggio's paintings tells its own story. By the time Caravaggio came to Rome in the 1590s, Leonardo and Michaelangelo – not to mention the aptly named Italian painter Il Sodoma – had already blazed a gay trail through the art of the Holy City. Caravaggio made art dangerous and exciting again by taking that homosexual impulse to new extremes.

The history of art is inseparable from the history of sexuality. Artists were adventurous characters in the past just as they are today. To make great art you have to take great risks. The Catholic church in its golden age knew this, and it commissioned the boldest and best, whatever the artist's personal lives.

Perhaps the honesty of Pope Francis will renew art history, for pious timidity blunts understanding of great art. In particular, the myth that gay sex did not exist in the past, or was too risky, or could not be imagined, is nonsense. By the 18th century, gay clubs existed across Europe. The gay scene in Georgian London was intense. Is it really plausible that all this was going on in 1700 but unimaginable in Caravaggio's Rome in 1600?

It is daft to deny the obvious homoeroticism of Leonardo or Caravaggio, and sophistry to claim that it's irrelevant to their art. The British Museum is leading the way by drawing attention to the gay content of its collections. The Pope should urge the Vatican to do the same. Let the church take pride in its gay artists.

While the catechism has long recognized the dignity of homosexual persons, a Church battling relativism and secularism has at times opened itself to the fair criticism that it just might think God was particularly perturbed with homosexual sins against chastity, even though it is well known that the Church’s very exalted vision of human sexuality is one that heterosexuals frequently fall short of as well. Thus, Pope Francis’s recognition that homosexuals, like everyone else, can accept the Lord and have good will, against the backdrop of recent Church history, puts into practice for the Church what the Church has long asked of homosexuals: to recognize that they are first children of God struggling toward holiness, and secondarily people with same sex attraction.

Is it possible that Pope Francis might at some point invite a theological reflection with an opening toward the approbation of homosexual sex? It is possible. But it should be noted that even if Francis is 100 percent certain that the Church’s teaching about the call to chastity for homosexual persons is correct, that teaching will only be fruitfully conveyed when the Church is convincing in its love for people with same sex attractions. Thus, both those who believe the Church is mistaken and those who embrace its teachings might be encouraged by Pope Francis’s emphasis here.

Finally, it was noteworthy that Pope Francis declared that he perceives this to be a “time of mercy” and a “change of epoch,” in the course of discussing the Church’s pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics. While acknowledging the complexity of the challenges, the pope placed the question in the broader context of history that I tried to suggest earlier is the way to understand his emphases and his actions. It is far too early to tell whether this change of epoch will bring with it significant changes in doctrine or discipline, in part because doctrine and discipline do not appear to be at the heart of Pope Francis’s understanding of the epoch in which he is called to lead. Rather, establishing a warm, joyful and welcoming invitation to Christ, going out to the world and especially to the poor, seem to define his vision far more than fraught or enervating theological controversy.

Full story: Holy smoke! Take the Catholic church gay art tour

Source: The Guardian

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