Beautiful Agony: The Taboo Nature of Religious Art

Icons have often served as outlets for desires and emotions, especially within the Catholic Church. The Virgin Mary represents a form of goddess worship, which helped promote the participation of queer women within the church. However, there are many forms of religious iconography that allow people outside of Catholicism to satisfy their homoerotic and BDSM desires as an appreciation for art. Images of saints and other religious figures undergoing some form of violence present an aesthetically pleasing vision of agony as ecstasy.

John Gray’s poem “A Crucifix: To Ernest Dowson” portrays the image of Jesus on the cross in a highly sensual manner. “Long fluted golden tongues of sombre green, like four flames joined in one, around the head, and by the outstretched arms, their glory spread” (Gray 6-8). He also goes into detail to describe the convulsions of Christ and the throbbing of his Sacred Heart, but it is peculiar that his verses are written to a specific person. Ernest Downson, to whom this poem is addressed, was fellow poet and member of the Decadent movement (as was Oscar Wilde). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [1]notes that some of his letters and works contained themes of pedophilia (and while this is still very much a terrible thing we can look at it in context with homosexual desires as two things that were considered taboo and often unfortunately joined together). Gray served as a priest to many prominent queer writers like Wilde and Michael Field aka Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, so perhaps his letters served as a means of showing Dowson how to write about unsavory desires[2] by using art and iconography as a mask.

Michael Field also delves into this, although it is an interesting perspective. Now we have two women with their own mindsets who occupy a space reserved typically for men. However, they are queer women and offer that insight into homoeroticism that society would try to deny existed in art. Their poem “Saint Sebastian” (in reference to the Antonello Da Messina painting) describes the body of the martyr as a playground for sexual appetite “He, with body fresh for use, for pleasure fit, with its energies and needs together knit in an able exigence” (Field 79-81). It is a type of BDSM art, the mix of both pleasure and pain hidden as piety and what it means to be a devout Christian saint.

This poem is not written as a letter, but it still addresses a specific piece of art so in some ways Michael Field is addressing not only the museum which houses this work, but the art historians who deny the homoerotic nature of these paintings. Michael Field is also two women who have gained access to an area of art and culture that was reserved for men, and as queer women they have a rare insight into this world as well as the bravery and wit to address it. Like John Gray they look at the art as a vessel to hold and fulfill desires. Being a mix of both pleasure and pain these works represent the culmination of aestheticism: experiencing everything, leaving no sense without nourishment and oversaturation. The pain comes with the pleasure, just as enacting these taboo desires unfortunately goes hand in hand with the backlash from society. Thus these pieces pose a question: Is the experience worth the price?


[2] Again, not condoning pedophilia. They just happen to be unfortunately coupled together as two taboo subjects of the 19th century.

Below is a link to the Wikipedia page for a film based on the cult following and homoeroticism surrounding the iconography of Saint Sebastian. The film is available online but it is also very graphic and might not be appropriate for an academic blog.

Sebastiane (1976)


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Noah S. Thompson

Noah S. Thompson is an Senior English and Art & Art History double major at Dickinson College with a passion for bees, gluten-free pastries, and all things queer. His work primarily focuses on portraiture and abstraction.