By Jaime Nuño
Fornicators, exhibitionists, venerable old men masturbating, passionate lovers, lone phalluses... they seem strange images with which to decorate a Romanesque church in the middle of the dark and repressive Middle Ages. They are most often found on church walls, but also sometimes in baptismal fonts, on certain miniatures and even the occasional tapestry; they accompany biblical scenes, images of medieval warriors, horoscopes, various animals (real or imaginary), hunting scenes, laborers of different occupations, musicians or dancers, all treated with that humble naiveté which engenders charm. But if there is one thing that really draws the attention of today’s visitor from among all these portrayals, it is that group of works in which exhibitionism and sexual practices may even reach (depending on the observer, of course) outrageous dimensions.
From characters who are simply kissing, to copulating couples, naked men appear in the form of ancient atlantes, couples looking at each other or looking at the viewer while ostensibly displaying their respective sexual organs, men in obvious postures of lewd solicitation of women, onanists in thoughtful poses and even some group scenes – like the one found in the church of Santiago de los Caballeros in Zamora – which seems somewhat torrid, although of course it could also be our warped imaginations.
There is an interesting grotesque figure in the British Isles, known as sheela-na-gig in Gaelic, which smiles at the viewer while with both hands, which are almost claws, she opens her vagina, the most famous of which is the English lady of Kilpeck; occasionally a dog licking itself also makes an appearance, as occurs in Mauriac (France), or two rabbits in the act of perpetuating the species, as may be seen in Cervatos (Cantabria). And it is precisely the church of San Pedro de Cervatos which is the best known landmark of these types of representations, both for their abundance and their obviousness, with examples which are also duplicated at other sites in the region, both in Cantabria and Palencia, which led to the traditional belief that this was almost exclusively a phenomenon of the region of Campoo.
Nothing is further from reality, although admittedly there seems to have been a certain preference for this type of portrayal among the ancient sculptors of the region. We know them to be spread in greater or lesser intensity throughout the northern peninsula (at least from Zaragoza to Portugal, through Segovia), through France, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany and quite possibly the list may grow with new discoveries. Although it would be interesting to tour this whole repertoire of poses, postures and countries, we believe that it will be even more interesting to explore their reasons and meanings.
That they are an image of sin is the first and easiest explanation that we may think of. The doctrine and religious laws of the Middle Ages are filled with admonitions against various sins, but greed and lust are treated with a special dislike, such that the avaricious and lustful are specially represented in portrayals of infernal punishments. The Bible is exhaustive in its provisions about sex, which it considers at least impure, openly condemning homosexuality and bestiality, a practice which it punishes even with death, although in the mid-twelfth century French cleric Aymeric Picaud writes that it was one of the most common practices among the lusty people of Navarra, and describes it in some detail.
Contrary to the liberality of the Greco-Roman world, in which phalluses are worn as a pendant or appear as road markings, where sex scenes decorate rooms or appear frequently on ceramic fixtures and where highly erotic parties dedicated to lewd gods are held, Jewish tradition is much more chaste and from it drinks St. Paul, the greatest exponent of the early Christian doctrine. For Paul sex is sin. "Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers … shall inherit the kingdom of God," he says in one of his letters, and four centuries later Boethius concludes: "Do you want to lead a life of pleasure? But who will not look with contempt at the most vile and despicable thing, your own body?" Thus is opened wide the path of asceticism, chastity and self-denial that will be central to Christianity.
By the time of the Romanesque period the exaltation of sexual abstinence, following the example of Christ as told in the four canonical Gospels, is a constant in the writings of the ecclesiastical elites, for whom the woman appears as a constant threat, as expressed by Bernard of Morlaas: "abyss of sensuality, instrument of the abyss, mouth of vice, stops at nothing and conceives with her father and her son. Snake woman, no human being, rather ferocious beast. Perfidious woman, fetid woman, infected woman." Even in the Partidas of Alfonso X it clearly states that "chastity is a virtue that God loves and that men should love."
Accompanying this ideology, in practice, for example, there is also an attempt to regulate the days on which, within marriage (the only state in which it is allowed), there may be sexual contact between spouses, and it is done with such severity that Oronzo Giordano has calculated that, under certain circumstances, there could be more days of prohibition than there are days in the year; and the fact is that Gregory of Tours had already said, back in the sixth century, that "the monsters, the cripples, all the sickly children, as is well known, were conceived on Sunday night."
Church guidelines condemn certain sexual practices, especially sodomy, but also nearly all amorous postures, since it is understood that they are not strictly aimed at procreation, but rather at lascivious enjoyment. Even civil law touches on the topic of relations between men and women, which, interestingly, often reflects the rules of the ecclesiastical establishment. And it is well-known that when something requires legislation it is because the alleged crime is committed with some frequency; why else would the Law of Sepúlveda contain an article entitled He Who Would Grab a Woman’s Breast? Church and civil codes actually confirm facts, and sometimes even come to benignly accept certain practices considered sinful: "The Holy Church has established that no Christian man shall have concubines, because he lives with them in mortal sin. But the ancient sages who made the laws allowed that some could have them without temporal punishment, thinking that it was less sinful to have one than many, and because the children thus born would be more legitimate," is acknowledged in the Partidas.
The presence of an iconography of marked sexual character in Romanesque art, and which in some ways survives in the Gothic period, may seem at first a humorous game by humble stonemasons, who freely leave their popular mark in the remotest corners of some temples, a view expressed, among others, by Garcia Guinea. It is one of the most common explanations for this (in our eyes, irreverent) presence. Of course then it is difficult to explain why some of the most striking scenes are to be found in important monastic churches (where one may presume tighter control), or why they appear, for example, on the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which decorated the interior walls of the cathedral of that city and which was woven directly by the women of the family of the Duke of Normandy, William, to commemorate his conquest of England. And it would be equally difficult to understand the content of certain songs written, and publicly recognized, by another William, this time duke of Aquitaine (one of the most important states of the time) in which he openly talks about his sexual escapades and expresses reflections as striking as "Lord my God, who is leader and king of the world, / how did you not strike down the first person to guard a cunt?"
Other theories, like that of Ángel del Olmo, argue that these images are an incitement to procreate, due to the continuous need for population, but in fact the problem was not a lack of births, but the survival of the children because, although the data is very scarce and the conclusions are controversial, it is estimated that at least 35% did not reach the age of ten, although there are those who, like Pounds, maintain that four of every ten children did not survive the first year.
However the most widespread and accepted theory is that such images are an open condemnation of sinful practices and are found for that reason on the exterior of the temples, an image of worldly life, being absent in the interior, where the divine dwells. But this is also not the case: for example, in the Cantabrian church of Villanueva de la Nía, an exhibitionist woman looks at parishioners from the triumphal arch and another at the priest, while in Santillana del Mar, also inside the temple of this important collegiate church, there is a clear scene in which the woman fondles the staggeringly large penis of her lover. If it was a condemnation of sin, as maintained by Serrano Fatigati or Lampérez, we agree more with what Caro Baroja said, that "they create more curiosity about the vice than respect for virtue" and should even be understood as self-incrimination of the sinner stonemason who worked in San Quirce Los Ausines (Burgos) and depicts a naked woman whose attention is attracted by an excited man under whose erection is written IO, ie me.
In one of the most interesting critical written works on the subject, Ines Ruiz Montejo raised doubts about these ideas and wondered if such images would be better considered "the expression of typical life conditions of the popular culture in which the artist develops ", although it seems not to dare to go further. However it is an idea we believe should be explored.
From our point of view medieval man is more imbued with the ancient Greco-Roman popular tradition than what we would think. To judge it, in reality we only have available a few writings from the ecclesiastical elites, who seem to express the opposite, at least how sexual culture terms are concerned, however the same penitentials also picked up another set of practices openly inherited from paganism, the common man, or not so much, daily life and even goes so far as the apperance of religiosity. Suffice it to read the Cantar de Mio Cid to see the importance of fortune telling, also condemned by the Church.
In the Romanesque plastic art - but also in gothic art – there are still icons inherited from the ancient world, such as thorn pullers, atlases, or sirens. The phallus, prophylactic symbol in many cultures, is still present in medieval Christian churches, sometimes as the only decoration throughout the building and sometimes even found inside. Other images, like the character who masturbates while stroking his beard or naked, appear in the Iberian sculpture of Porcuna and is replicated in corbels, as the beautifully preserved of San Martin de Elines (Cantabria) , where onanism seems to match the seriousness of the reflective thinker.
On the other hand, for the medieval man sex could not be something cryptic, hidden, private, as it can be for us, because among other things the vast majority of families lived in humble huts divided in half, with one part for livestock and a single room for the whole family, where the whole family slept together and where privacy was simply impossible, so it is not surprising that some representations of February show a man and a woman basking in front of the fire while each is displaying their private parts.
Sex was part of everyday life and therefore well represented in the Romanesque, where women, with some exceptions – like the Segovian woman in Fuentidueña - are married (heads covered with headdresses), and the only orthodox posture, as God commands. It was primarily from the fifteenth century when houses begin to have more rooms and privacy was possible, we can assume that the depth to which that existed, it takes the patient work of the Church as it is imposing its doctrines, better revealed now with the great tool of the printing press. In mid-sixteenth century, both the Reformation and the Counterreformation emphasize the importance of chastity and the monitoring of sin; It will be after this, paradoxically coinciding with the new rediscovery of the ancient arts, when the last embers of the traditional pagan culture disappear. We are inheritors of this Counterreformation and with our eyes we try to understand the motive of those old representations.