By Martha Easton
Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives in Medieval Art, Vol.1 (2009)
Introduction: One challenge of analyzing visual imagery using language is that the cultural filter of language itself inevitably nuances and reinterprets our initial nonverbal experience: applying words to images, we contextualize them, giving them shape, history, and meaning. Especially when the images in question have sexual content, the words selected to describe them can affect the way they are perceived: the same visual material might be deemed suggestive, titillating, erotic, pornographic, or obscene – and each word choice connotes, and at times perhaps promotes, a world of cultural and even physical response. There is really no word that is completely neutral to describe this imagery – even the word “sexual” itself suggests associations that may or may not be accurate.
When I selected my title for this article and for the conference paper from which it was derived, I was deliberately attempting to entice, and yes, titillate, my potential audience. My use of the word “erotic” to describe these images is also deliberate, as I am attempting to avoid what I see as the relativistic moral and judgmental potentialities of words such as ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic,’ even as I acknowledge that the choice of ‘erotic’ has its own connotations of intentional sexual stimulation. This leads me to my larger point — when we give meaning to images using words, exactly whose meaning is privileged? And further, when we allow images no words at all, what happens to them? Because of the traditional tendency of historians of medieval art to focus on religious imagery and monuments, secular objects become marginalized and secondary; in the case of the erotic images found in medieval art, they disappear, do not become part of the canon, and become all but eliminated from serious scholarship. Imagery that is sexual in nature, in either religious or secular contexts, becomes invisible to us.
In spite of the prevalence of sexual imagery in medieval art, both religious and secular, a misconception predominates, certainly in the general public and to some extent even among scholars, that Christian morality perhaps prudishly constrained medieval people. However, it is clear from even a cursory look through medieval writings as diverse as legal proceedings, penitentials, sermons, medical treatises, literature, fabliaux, and poetry, that medieval people themselves were very interested in the topic of sex. When sex and sexuality have in fact been examined, it has tended to be by scholars of history, literature, or medicine rather than art. The sexual image has received much less attention; the image has been divided from the word. Ironically, the category of ostensibly religious art contains the most explicitly sexualized images. It is perhaps the modern tendency to separate the sacred and the sexual in fact that has censored this material.