Diane Wolfthal’s In and Out of the Marital Bed; Seeing Sex in Renaissance Europe is a fascinating examination of a subject that, until recently, has been taboo in mainstream art-historical scholarship. Perhaps this is because erotic images have been lost in much greater numbers than religious art, which has been protected and treasured by the Church over the centuries. Lacking the sanctity of sacred altarpieces, works containing sexual content were repeatedly handled in the context of every-day life. Many eventually succumbed to the ravages of time and human inclination, or were purposefully vandalized or destroyed. Others were censored or altered, their salacious details eliminated or covered.
In its discussion of the meager remains of erotic imagery, this book addresses the depiction in art of a wide range of sexualities, including homosexual and heterosexual acts, courtship and prostitution, voyeurism and fetishism, adultery and marriage. Its investigation of religious and societal perceptions of sexual habits and orientation is grounded in discussion of the contexts of place and space: the bed, dressing room, window, bath, and street. The book explores a broad range of images, subjects, and textual sources, from the obscure to the canonical. Its assertions are bolstered by a wide range of evidence, including dowries, poems, letters, sermons, religious treatises, proverbs, and objects of material culture. These sources, in concert with several intriguing visual examples, reveal how ideas about sexual behavior and desire circulated throughout Europe through an international web of preachers, merchants, humanists, aristocrats, and artists. With the dexterity that marks all of her writings, Wolfthal does not limit her purview to the traditional, arbitrary geographic boundary between the “north” and “south,” which often fetters art historical discussion of the Renaissance. She considers, with equal authority, works of art produced both north and south of the Alps, including the Netherlands, England, Germany, France, Italy and Poland. Moreover, Jewish works are also considered, often in relation to concurrent Christian examples. Wolfthal demonstrates, with devastating clarity, how the Christian definitions of chaste and illicit sex were reinforced, subverted, and often confused in early modern art and society.
The book’s chapters examine sexuality within the confines of specific spatial environments, beginning with the bedchamber, so often associated with silence, prayer, and withdrawal from the world, and ending with the city street, a noisy, public, worldly place to which the bedroom was often contrasted. The first chapter introduces the erotic implications of the bed. Ranging from the paradigmatic Arnolfini Portrait (1434) to more obscure manuscript pages, Wolfthal considers the meaning of the bedchamber as a site of chaste marital relations, sexual performance anxiety, and covert adulterous affairs. The chapter culminates in a convincing interpretation of the Arnolfini Portrait as a complex integration of related concepts of honor, wealth, fertility, and sexuality. Chapter 2 analyzes images of women at their toilette, and demonstrates that, despite moralists’ condemnation of premarital sex and their reservations regarding pleasurable conjugal sex, artists glorified erotic pleasure. Focusing on the Portrait of Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton (ca. 1600), Wolfthal considers several themes, including dressing rituals, toiletry articles, underclothing, and the enjoyment of marital relations. Most interesting is her contention that representations of the marital bed evolved over the centuries from a site of chaste celibacy to a place of potential pleasure, as wives and mistresses exchanged roles.
“The Woman in the Window” is the title of chapter 3, which examines long overlooked images of prostitutes, saints, Jews, young marriageable girls, and patrician wives, all of whom display themselves in windows and doorways in order to catch the eye of passersby in the street. Here Wolfthal demonstrates how architectural space reflects and reinforces social organization, and how the divisions between public and private, harlot and saint, could be blurred and interchangeable. Chapter 4 analyzes depictions of bathers and bathhouses, where the sacred and secular confront each other with contradictory frankness. It investigates images of and in public and private baths, including Albrecht Altdorfer’s racy mural, painted for a bishop’s palace in Regensburg, and a long-ignored frontispiece to a book of hours, which depicts a full-page nude bather. The fifth and final chapter focuses on the intersection of sex and the urban street. It begins by analyzing images of the cruel punishment of adulteresses, and culminates in a stunning original interpretation of Petrus Christus’s Couple in a Goldsmith’s Shop (1449) as a representation of a same-sex union in the civic context of fifteenth-century Bruges. Finally, the book’s “Conclusion” presents a thoughtful comparative discussion of sexual mores, then and now.
This important book contributes to the history of sexuality in several ways. First, it focuses on late medieval and early modern images whose sexual content has been ignored, obscured, or denied. Second, it examines the intersection between sex and place, situating intimate behavior within specific spatial topographies and exploring the many ways in which people learned to transform space to suit their sexual desires. Third, it explores how illicit forms of sexuality were linked, through opposition and similarity, to the ideal of Christian matrimony. Wolfthal demonstrates that the division between conjugal and other types of sexuality in early modern art and thought were permeable, making it difficult for modern viewers to distinguish saint from sinner. Images of sexual acts and sexual desire were not mutually exclusive, but often involve related issues of self-presentation, political or religious hegemony, the assertion of class or gender prerogatives, or transgression of societal limitations. Indeed, the book supports the conclusion that a vibrant tradition of independent erotic works once existed, and demonstrates that there was no clear binary opposition between sacred and secular art in the Renaissance. Rather, religious subjects, often framed in erotic imagery, were enriched by a permeable exchange with profane discourse.
In and Out of the Marital Bed enriches our understanding of erotic subject matter by clarifying how past generations conceptualized sexuality. It is a true “page turner” -clearly written, impeccably organized, and entirely lacking in artful obfuscations and ponderous verbosity. Diane Wolfthal has much to say, and she says it with lucidity, objectivity, authority, and grace.
Laurinda S. Dixon