Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Apostle John on the breast of Christ
  • Creator: Heinrich von Konstanz
  • Description:

    This image of Christ and St. John the Evangelist was a popular subject of German sculpture in the late medieval period. The carving, which is based on the Gospel text of the Last Supper, captures the touching physical tenderness between an older, contemplative Christ and “the beloved disciple” who is wrapped in his arms. John looks young and androgynous, and he rests his hand trustingly in his lord’s and his head upon Jesus’s breast as he sleeps. The gospel of John is unique in its deeply personal emphasis on love, and many medieval people considered John to be the archetypal lover of Christ in the mystical sense.

    Sculptures of this type often were located in a chapel or over the entrance of nunneries or monasteries. Michael Camille argues that by identifying with St John, the cloistered women could seek more intimate contact with their beloved, Christ, as was traditionally possible in their reading of the Song of Songs, in which they would identify with the bride. The gentle hands of Christ on the shoulder of John provided the nuns with the promise of a loving intimacy within a spiritual union.

    However, nunneries and monasteries were also places where spiritual and carnal love were not always neatly separated. James M. Saslow argues that the writings of Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monk, suggest that this image was used to justify the love shared between monks. Aelred wrote, “It is a great consolation in this life to have someone with whom you can rest in the sleep of peace, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity.” However because he was aware that such words might imply sexual consequences, he goes on to say, “Lest this sort of sacred love should seem improper, Jesus himself transfigured it” by allowing only John to lean upon his breast.

    It is understandable that Aelred would try to downplay the sexual connotations of his words because there was a great stigma against homosexual desire during the late medieval period. By the late 1100s, sodomy had become very visible, and the dual powers of the church and the state felt compelled to root it out entirely. Thus, a series of heavy-handed reforms were implemented. In 1123, the Church formally demanded the celibacy of all the clergy who had by that time gained a notorious reputation for engaging in sodomy. The Third Lateran Council of 1179 specifically condemned sodomy and decreed excommunication for any member of the clergy or laity found guilty of this “crime against nature.” By 1300, a slew of civil laws decreed the death penalty for sodomy.

    However, this pairing of Jesus and John was one of the few Biblical “role models” of male same-sex intimacy that was sanctioned by the authorities. James Smalls suggests that it was iconographically related to another example of male intimacy, the relationship of David and Jonathan. Their relationship was narrated in the Biblical book of Samuel, and in 1 Samuel 18:1 the narrator proclaims that “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David,” and that “Jonathan loved him (David) as his own soul.” When Jonathan and his father, King Saul, were killed in battle, David lamented: “The beauty of Israel is slain upon the high places; how are the mighty fallen!...I am very distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant has thou been unto me: thy love was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1: 19-26). David’s elegy for Jonathan has been utilized as a religiously sanctioned means of representing same-sex desire.

  • Source: DAMS Antwerpen website. Provided by the Museum Mayer van den Bergh.
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Affective Piety Homosexuality Homosociality Jesus Christ John the Apostle
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 13
  • Date: 1280- 1290
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Bergh
  • Original Location: Antwerp, Belgium
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Sculptures
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Walnut; Paint; Gold
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 141/73 / 48/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Camille, Michael. The Medieval Art of Love. London: Laurence King Publishing (1998). Pgs. 122-129;
    Saslow, James M. Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts. New York: Viking (1999). Pgs. 67-69.;
    Smalls, James. Homosexuality in Art. New York: Parkstone Press (2003). Pgs. 56-59.