- In and Out of the Marital Bed: Seeing Sex in Renaissance Europe by Diane Wolfthal
This book is stunning in both senses of the word: not only is it beautifully illustrated with a range of well-known and oft-neglected illuminations, but it is also packed with insights that challenge long-standing assumptions about the place of sexuality and eroticism in Renaissance art. The picture that emerges from Diane Wolfthal’s study is of a culture anxious about sex [End Page 324] in secular and sacred spaces. For Wolfthal, the marital bed represents a case in point: on the one hand, spouses were expected to consummate their vows and follow God’s exhortation to procreate; on the other, they were restricted to one sexual position and enjoined not to fornicate. Wolfthal negotiates conflicting attitudes toward what she calls “conjugal chastity” by exploring illuminations that reimagine the metonymic relationship between marital sexuality and the marital bed. In this analysis, Renaissance illuminations do not simply reflect sexual ideology; they also participate in the discourse, often unsettling boundaries between licit and illicit sexuality.
Wolfthal identifies three primary aims of her study: to rehabilitate interest in works whose sexual content has been ignored or denied; to delineate correlations between sexuality and spatial topography; and to demonstrate that illicit forms of sexuality were linked through opposition and resemblance to the marital bed. These interrelated aims inform the structure of Wolfthal’s book, which begins with the bed and then proceeds, in subsequent chapters, to increasingly less private spaces—from the toilette, to the windows and doorways, to the public baths, and finally to the street. This arrangement enables Wolfthal to explore how various spaces are sexed and gendered. For example, the dominant ideology confined women to the home’s interior, while men negotiated more public spaces. This ideology does not represent the lived experience of those who lived in early modern Europe, but it does tell us something about dominant ideas regarding the so-called proper place of woman and man. Hence, too, it tells us what the dominant culture perceived as threatening to its hegemony.
Exploring fault lines in the dominant ideology, Wolfthal adduces numerous examples of subversive erotic art. For instance, in her chapter on doors and windows, she examines an obscure series of woodcuts, published in Strasbourg in 1482, depicting scenes from the story of Saint Mary the Harlot. Reading the woodcuts against the accompanying text, Wolfthal shows that the images undercut the moralizing narrative. None of the woodcuts depicts Saint Mary’s conversion, the signal event of hagiography. What’s more, the woodcuts portray Saint Mary as a powerful, autonomous woman. In addition to freeing herself from the doorways and windows of the bordello and traversing public, private, and liminal spaces, she dares to usurp male prerogative and return the gaze of her male clients. Another example of subversive art appears in the chapter on the street, a space frequently associated with openness and licentiousness. Comparing two paintings that use similar signs and spatial topography to depict a male couple, Wolfthal shows that illuminations were employed both to condemn homoerotic desire and to celebrate it. In both Petrus Christus’s Couple in a Goldsmith’s Shop and Housebook Master’s Falconer and His Lover, a male couple appears in the street; in both paintings a falcon, a sign of love, is perched on one man’s arm. However, whereas in the former painting the male couple is barely visible, a mere reflection in a small, cracked mirror [End Page 325] located in the lower right-hand corner of an illumination whose central image is a heterosocial couple preparing to wed, in the latter painting the male couple cavorting in the street is the central image, inviting the viewer to endorse the relationship and join in the revelry.
Fleshing out contested sites of signification is perhaps the greatest strength of the book. Wolfthal amply shows that contradictory attitudes toward sex and eroticism in secular and sacred contexts shaped, and were...