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  • Illicit Sex and Alcahuetas in Medieval Castile: The Pictorial Program on the Rebanal de las Llantas Baptismal Font
  • Harriet M. Sonne de Torrens

The representations of serpents suckling a woman’s breast and a naked couple fornicating on a baptismal font may seem today grossly inappropriate for the ornamentation of a blessed liturgical vessel, yet these images are but a sampling of some of the sexually evocative subjects carved on Romanesque baptismal fonts in the medieval kingdoms of Navarre, Aragon and Castile.1 Art historians understand the shocking realism of such imagery to be part of a persuasive naturalism that emerged in late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century Romanesque art in the Latin West. The images’ sexually explicit nature has been called repulsive; some writers suggest they are an expression of realism that was necessary to ensure compliance (Schapiro 327; Williams 442). It would be more accurate, however, to describe them as a form of pedagogical coercion.2 Much like modern-day advertising, images of this [End Page 97]

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Fig. 1.

Baptismal Font, Church of San Salvador, Rebanal de las Llantas, Palencia, Spain. Photo: Baptisteria Sacra Index.

nature had to be part of the everyday reality of the communities in order to be effective tools of persuasion.3 In the ornamentation of Romanesque baptismal fonts, sexually explicit motifs that border on the grotesque or shocking, should be understood as a form of pictorial exempla that use the [End Page 98] physical experiences of passion and sexual desires as teaching tools to assert the Church’s views on moral and social issues. The brazen corporeality seen on baptismal fonts dated to the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in medieval Iberia evolved as part of the Church’s wider efforts to instruct unlettered and rural communities. Similar attitudes can be seen in the parallel development of exempla in medieval sermons and didactic literature, as the works by Parisian and Dominican theologians demonstrate (Bernstein 84; Welter 67–69). In the prologue to his Sermones vulgares, the twelfth-century bishop Jacques de Vitry writes:

Having left obscure and polished words behind, we ought to turn our skill to the edification of the uncultivated and the instruction of the country folk, before whom, as it were, corporeal and palpable and such-like subjects, which they know by experience, ought to be presented more frequently. For they are moved more by external examples than by [quoted] authorities or profound propositions.4

(qtd. in Bernstein 85)

As the teaching responsibilities of parish priests increased, there was an emphasis on including corporeal experiences by use of exempla in sermons in the thirteenth century (Bernstein 82, 85).5

This article analyses the sexual images carved on the baptismal font in the parish church of San Salvador in the village of Rebanal de las Llantas (fig. 1), located today in the northern province of Palencia.6 The village of Rebanal de las Llantas is situated in what was then the farthest, northwestern part of the medieval kingdom of Castile in the region known as the Cantabrian mountains, la montaña palentina. Merchants actively traversed the region’s [End Page 99] main valley, which connected the southern towns of Castile and the northern ports on the coast with cities on the continent. As Castilian conquest of Muslim lands progressed to the south in the early thirteenth century, urban expansion accelerated at an unparallel rate, the prosperity of the noble, military and merchant classes increased as trade between Burgos and the Continent opened up with the marriage between the Plantagenet family and Alfonso VIII. Class distinctions were rapidly being defined by those who had little or by those who were quickly acquiring new wealth. New churches and universities were established. The pace at which new ideas spread quickened along the trade and pilgrimage routes connecting newly conquered lands with the Christian North (Ruiz 11–25).

The Rebanal de las Llantas baptismal font probably dates from the first decades of the thirteenth century and is the only surviving artifact from the earlier Romanesque church, which was replaced in the sixteenth century.7 It would have been carved toward the end of the reign of King...


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