Overview of Sexual Romanesque Art

The Medieval Romanesque churches, those centered around the 12th century (although there are examples from the 11th and 13th centuries as well), often have sexual carvings of all types.  There are representations of phalli, both male and female exhibitionists, fellatio, both anal and vaginal intercourse, couples hugging, women giving birth, and ithyphallic monkeys and animals mating, among others.

The main question is why were these incorporated into churches, and what meaning did they have for a person in the 12th century.  We cannot view them from a modern view point, and even Medieval scholars cannot successfully put themselves into the mindset of a Medieval person.  So what meaning did they carry?

I have an article by Maria Paz Delgado Buenaga on this web site, both in English and Spanish, that presents five different possible interpretations:

  1. Representations of sin and lust
  2. A result of the influence of Oriental cultures in Spain
  3. Indication of a path to perfection
  4. An incentive to procreate, to be fruitful and multiply
  5. The need for large numbers to be born because of high mortality rates, and to provide more laborers and thus more tithes to the church

I believe that there are indications that contradict these as well, and the explanation of the motivation and meaning lies in a combination of these possible interpretations.  The principle significance must be the representation of the sin of lust.  This view is shared by Anthony Weir, the author of Images of Lust.  However, the location of many, for example near the altar, suggests a possible positive interpretation as well.  Some say that they represent evil, and are therefore constrained to be outside the churches, as the evil could not be allowed inside the church.  But these people are sadly mistaken.  There are many examples inside churches, and sometimes located in the most holy of locations.  And while it is logical that they also were intended to promote procreation, that could not be the only intent when you consider that there are scenes of masturbation, fellatio, and anal sex as well.

Angel Del Olmo Garcia wrote the definitive book on the erotic art of Cantabria in 1988, Romántico Erotico en Cantabria. The newer edition is titled Iconografía Sexual en el Románico. This highlights a minor preference in terminology he has evolved into, and with which I agree. That is, that this art is more properly termed “sexual” rather than “erotic.” While the term “erotic” seems more polite, much of this art does not fit the definition of erotic. Webster defines erotic as devoted to, or tending to arouse sexual love or desire. While some of this art might fit that description, especially if you accept the interpretation the intention was to motivate procreation, much of the art does not appear to carry this meaning. For this reason I have decided to follow Angel Del Olmo Garcia and use the term “sexual.”

Some of Angel Del Olmo Garcia’s thoughts on the interpretation and meaning of this art include:

  1. The repopulation of Spain, after the battles of the reconquest from the Moors, and the crusades
  2. More people means more material benefits for the Church
  3. The Medieval clerics were often taking advantage of the pleasures of the flesh
  4. Popular religion included the Christianization of the pagan
  5. Exhibitionism may be related to the calendar, for example related to the people in the country warming themselves by the fire in the nude
  6. Sex and pleasure were sometimes incorporated into Christian liturgical rites
  7. A representation of lust as sin and related to Islam
  8. Be fruitful and multiply

Another possible explanation comes from Fernando Garcia Gil, who Paz (Maria Paz, author of the article above) and I met at the church in Yermo. Fernando is a student of the sexual carvings on Romanesque churches and he likes to talk about the subject. The three of us had a long conversation, and shared many theories and observations. Fernando’s theory is that these sculptures function in an apotropaic manner, that is, they are meant to protect the churches and the people in them. This theory is supported by the fact that many of the obscene sculptures are located above the doors and windows of the churches. Also, ancient phallic amulets also had a protective role, principally against the evil eye – the belief that a jealous or envious look could cause physical harm. For the ancient Romans, the phallus had not only a protective role, but was a sign of good luck as well.

Another book on the subject, La lujuria en la iconograía románica (Lust in the Romanesque iconography), by Jesús Herrero Marcos, proposes that these sculptures are principally representations of lust. Although his book is about Romanesque art, he examines many different cultures from different epics. He talks of the three sensations necessary for the survival of the human species – hunger, thirst, and the sexual appetite. He observes that in Christianity, Christ constitutes the aliments – the bread and wine represent the body and blood. And these aliments guarantee the spiritual sustenance that lead to the eternal life of His faithful. The sexual appetite is responsible for the survival of the species. He talks about the sins related to these three sensations – gluttony has to do with excesses of food and drink, and lust has to do with excesses of sex. You will note that the author of this book also rejects the term “erotic,” preferring to talk of the sin of lust.

See what the experts have to say in articles and interviews I conducted, here.