Painting the Bodiless: Angels and Eunuchs in Byzantine Art and Culture
By Amelia R. Brown
Paper given at Sexualities: Bodies, Desires, Practices, 4th Global Conference (2007)
Abstract: At first glance, no figures in Byzantine culture of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages are as dissimilar as angels and eunuchs. The first were heavenly creatures, the messengers of God who brought ‘good tidings, of great joy’ to humanity; the second, at least in literature, were venal, corrupt, and evil, friends of prostitutes, corrupters of virgins, and unnatural monsters. We would thus expect court eunuchs to be depicted as demons in art, if at all; however, the fact is that during the Byzantine Empire the iconography of angels and eunuchs were closely linked, as a result both of their similar occupations and the traditions brought to bear on the problem of depicting angels, traditionally bodiless. Textual evidence on the roles and appearance of each group begins to reveal these connections, but it is only when the art of the Empire itself is examined that the close relationship of angels and eunuchs becomes clear. For while angels were always celestial beings who could look however they chose, Byzantine court eunuchs had a very particular appearance, reflected in both textual and artistic sources, and based on the inevitable physical manifestations of castration. The artistic sources give clues not only about their physical appearance, but also about their dress, functions in court ceremonial, and role in Byzantine society. Indeed, when Byzantine painters depicted the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, or most any other scene with angels, they drew, consciously or not, on the iconography of the otherwise freakish court eunuch. This borrowing was only one part of the larger influence of imperial iconography on Christian Art, yet it is fascinating for what it reveals about angels and eunuchs, their roles in society and the Church, and indeed the evolution of Early Christian Art and the Byzantine Empire itself.