Painter's brush with 'heresy'

March 26, 2004

Are there allusions to a medieval heretical belief that Jesus Christ had a sexual relationship with John the Evangelist in an unfinished altarpiece by Michelangelo?

A US scholar will pose the question at the Association of Art Historians'

conference in Nottingham next week.

Charlotte Houghton, assistant professor of art history at Pennsylvania State University, has analysed the Entombment , which is in the National Gallery, in London. She has also explored contemporary beliefs that may have influenced the Italian artist.

"I do not know for certain that Michelangelo intended this allusion, but it's an issue that merits discussion," she said.

Professor Houghton argued that there was a strong erotic charge among the three central figures in the Entombment , Christ, Mary Magdalen and the androgynous red-robed figure supporting him, identified as John the Evangelist.

"I think the androgyny is deliberate and part and parcel of what the work was about," she said.

Further clues emerge in the context of the artwork.

Some still dispute whether Michelangelo painted the Entombment at all. But in recent years, scholars have identified it as an unfinished work commissioned for the church of San Agostino in Rome, to which the artist returned his fee in 1501 after moving to Florence.

San Agostino was attended by prostitutes and also attracted the city's humanist elite, among whom homosexual activity was common.

Many in this congregation could have known about a particular heretical belief of a physical homoerotic relationship between Christ and John that Professor Houghton said was rarely discussed today.

There are no detailed records of this heresy, but there are anecdotal accounts.

It was cited by a 16th-century Italian priest in his defence against charges of heresy and sodomy, and also referred to in varying degrees by King James I of England, playwright Christopher Marlowe, Prussian monarch Frederick the Great and French philosopher Denis Diderot.

Sebastiano del Piombo, a fellow artist, alluded to it jokingly in a letter to Michelangelo, which linked John with Ganymede, Zeus' male lover.

Professor Houghton said it was clear that Michelangelo was aware of the heretical story and possibly of the implications of using it in his painting.

"I cannot tell whether the allusion in the painting was intentional or not, but regardless, members of its audience may well have seen this reference within it," she said. "It is my contention that Michelangelo was creating a model of love for Christ in this work that spanned a variety of the erotic preferences of his audience."

Professor Houghton said that the artist was fascinated with the devotional channelling of eros - erotic love - towards Christ, a preoccupation that left its mark on other pieces of his work such as his Vatican Pietà , the Doni Tondo in Florence and a number of his drawings.

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