Journal of the History of Sexuality 13.1 (2004) 1-25
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The Sodomitic Lions of Granada
Glenn W. Olsen
Even before the appearance in 1980 of John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, scholars had shown some interest in the presence of "homoeroticism" in medieval Spain.1 Their attention centered on erotic themes found in Jewish and Muslim poetry associated with the tenth-century urban culture of Andalusia, the Muslim south of Spain. According to many scholars, during Andalusia's "golden age" adherents to the three monotheist religions—Islam, Judaism, and Christianity—lived tolerantly together in convivencia.2 Moreover, according to Boswell, Andalusia was a particularly good example of what was common throughout early medieval Europe and lost only in the High Middle Ages—a society that tolerated homosexuality and gay people.
Though erotic poetry provides a particularly rich lode for those wishing to study same-sex phenomena in medieval Spain, other kinds of evidence have also survived—sculptural as well as textual. Sculpture embodying sexual motifs was more abundant in the Christian Romanesque north during the eleventh and twelfth centuries than at any period in Islamic Spain, presumably because portraying the human body was proscribed by Islam. Still, in 1982 Norman Roth brilliantly linked the sculpture on one of the Islamic ablutional basins discovered by archaeologists near Córdoba [End Page 1] earlier in the century to the treatment of love of boys in the poetry.3 Though part of the argument of the present study is that Roth made some important mistakes, his goal is noteworthy: a contextual interpretation of a basin that at first glance has nothing sexual about it. He established a historical context by using contemporary Jewish and Muslim poetry to "read" the basin's sculpture and extract its sexual meaning.
Such a contextual reading seems to me a reasonable way to approach much medieval sculpture. On matters sexual, the artistic record of both the Christian north and Muslim south of Spain is especially difficult to interpret: no surviving written documents explain straightforwardly its meaning. In an earlier study I attempted to show for the Christian church in the north of Spain that has the greatest profusion of erotic sculptural themes what a contextual reading can achieve.4 Here I wish to do something similar for a quartet of Islamic ablutional basins, including the one studied by Roth, that originated around 1000 in the vicinity of Córdoba but are now scattered in northern Africa and Spain.
My goal is not simply to place specific works of art within a plausible historical context but to illustrate the degree to which a historical context can be recovered by giving attention to all the kinds of evidence that remain—political, geographical, literary, religious, and artistic. The end in view is the recovery of a way of life, in particular, the interlace of sexual attitudes, ideas, and practices. Of necessity, Jewish and, especially, Arabic poetry have a prominent place in the discussion that follows. But Christian materials fill out the picture, showing how relative outsiders viewed "goings-on" centered at the caliphal court in Córdoba. The life of a Christian saint, Pelagius, recently studied for what it tells us of "sodomy" at this time, reveals even more when aligned with the nonliterary record.
Today in the Museo Arqueológico de Córdoba stands a rectangular basin (figure 1) discovered in 1926 in the ruins of Alamiría (Almería), the palace or country house of Almanzor (939-1002) in the Sierra de Córdoba, just to the west of Medina al-Zahra.5 Alamiría was an extensive palace city that was begun about 936 by Caliph Abd al-Rahman III (912-67) and took [End Page 2]
Click for larger view
| Figure 1 |
Late-tenth-century ablutional basin discovered in 1926 in the ruins of Alamiría, now in the Museo Arqueológico de Córdoba.
twenty-five years to complete, only to be plundered and destroyed in the Berber revolt of 1010-13.6 The four...