Similarities Between The Libro De Buen Amor (The Book Of Good Love) And Sexual Iconography In Romanesque Churches


What I will examine in this paper are the similarities between the Libro de Buen Amor (LBA) (Book of Good Love) by Juan Ruiz and the sexual iconography of Romanesque churches (which I will refer to as sexual Romanesque art (sRa))[1].  While two centuries separate the LBA and the sexual Romanesque art (sRa) - 14th and principally the 12th century respectively - medieval life was very similar for those living in Spain during those times.  The role of the church was an important part of medieval life for both time periods.

The similarities that will be examined include (1) ambiguity, in meaning, intention, and reception; (2) the duality of profane and sacred, sex and religion; (3) humor; (4) censorship.  I’d like to open by paraphrasing Glenn W. Olsen. Given the limitations of space of this study, the aim of this first sketch cannot be comprehensiveness but taking notes of some significant examples which illustrate these similarities. (Olsen, 2011, p. 328)  It is my hope that this sketch demonstrates the need for further study of the subject.

[1] While the term “erotic” is frequently applied to this sRa, very little of it could be said to arouse feelings of sexual passion, and are instead offensive or obscene. Weir, Anthony and Jerman, James. 1986. Images of lust : sexual carvings on medieval churches London: Batsford. P.23.  Please also note that the subtitle of Weir’s book states sexual carvings.  Likewise, Olmo changed the title of his 1988 book Románico Erótico en Cantabria to Iconografía Sexual en el Románico in the 2015 update.

1. Ambiguity

The issue with both the LBA and sRa is that neither one can be defined by a single all-encompassing motivation, objective or meaning, although some have tried. It is a trap to think that either the literature of the LBA or the work of sRa can be approached successfully with an either-or, or black and white frame of mind.  When there are several possible explanations and meanings, with the probability that the truth involves some combination of the possibilities, what we have is multiple ambiguity.

Over a period of centuries, with hundreds of studies analyzing the LBA, there are many theories of what the book as a whole meant to medieval people.  The LBA is studied today in many universities.  There is no one accepted definitive singular explanation for its intended meaning.  In contrast, the sRa has not been studied as long or as extensively, although there are dozens of studies examining the subject. Correspondingly there are many theories of the meaning of the sRa, not necessarily mutually exclusive.  But even today the topic of sRa is overlooked or passed over in most universities (Delgado Buenaga, 2016).

The story of King Alcárez in the LBA demonstrates that five seemingly disparate positions can all be simultaneously correct when the prince dies all five predicted ways at once.  The sexual Romanesque iconography has even more explanations, and the truth lies, in my opinion, in several different ones being applicable simultaneously.  Likewise, I believe that the LBA is best studied from the position that there are multiplicities that are not mutually exclusive.  Those multiplicities will be examined in more depth below when I take a look at the sacred versus the profane.

The LBA “was intended to be obscure and difficult to interpret…” (Ruiz and Willis, 1972, p. xix) when it was written, and it is even more challenging to decipher now.  Looze observes: “There is perhaps nothing more dangerous for modern readers than to believe, as Hart and Dagenais did, that they can actually read as medieval readers; we can never do more than read a medieval work as a modern mentality would have medieval readers do.” (Haywood et al., 2004, p. 149).  Also, “Juan Ruiz’s use of ambiguity, the juxtaposition of contraries and parodic perspectivism obfuscate any single unitary, particularly serious or didactic, interpretation of the LBA; but this does not rule out the possibility that such readings are feasible or that Juan Ruiz intended the LBA to be seen as having a loose, overarching structure.” (Haywood, Vasvari and Ruiz, 2004, p. 38).  Was the intent didactic or parody, or both? Irony or satire or allegory? Or all of the above? What are the meanings of buen amor, loco amor, and limpio amor? We must accept that the ambiguity requires compromise at times and indeed there can be more than one meaning.  Louise M. Haywood recalls the assertion by Alan Deyermond in 2002 “that a single theory is insufficient to interpret the LBA. (Haywood, Vasvari and Ruiz, 2004, p. 9). Weir notes that “In arriving at the meaning of a work of art we must carefully distinguish between the significance it has for us, and the significance it may have had for its creator.” (Weir and Jerman, 1986, p. 60).

 Commenting on images and texts, Haywood and Vasvari say, “Whereas art history uses literary texts in recovering the meaning of pictures, in the other direction we are only beginning to use pictures, church portals, misericords, and so on, as a means of recovering the meaning of literary texts.” (Haywood, Vasvari and Ruiz, 2004, p. 17).  That the LBA and sRa may be mutually beneficial to interpretation merits more study.


From the very beginning of the LBA, we must deal with ambiguity.  Through this ambiguity, “Juan Ruiz sustains intricacy of thought and purpose” and “the LBA’s ambiguity should be considered an artistic accomplishment.”(Zahareas, 1965, pp. 22, 23)

I will discuss the initial exemplum of the Dispute of the Greeks and the Romans (st 44-70). This is appropriate due to its placement at the beginning of the book, Juan Ruiz’s preface, and his instructions after the debate which all indicate that the debate “was intended to serve as a kind of paratext or framing device for the Libro as a whole” (Francomano, 2016, p. 324).  I also examine the dispute further below while discussing humor.

This debate between the Romans and Greeks is a humorous demonstration of misinterpretation on both sides.  The Romans want to receive the laws of the Greeks, but the Greeks do not believe the Romans are capable of understanding them.  Both sides agree to a public debate using sign language.  The Roman debater is dressed up as a scholar and is joined by the Greek doctor.

First the Greek stands and points his index finger to the sky.  The Roman responds by pointing three fingers towards the Greek.  Then the Greek holds out his flat palm.  The Roman responds this time by holding out a fist.  Now the debate is ended and the Greek tells the other Greeks that the Romans are indeed worthy of the Greek law.

The Greek doctor interprets the debate as follows: His one finger signified that there is one God, and he understood the Roman’s three fingers signified that God is in fact a Trinity. The Greek’s palm indicated that the world was subject to God’s will, while the Roman’s fist demonstrated that God holds the entire world in his power.

But the Roman explained the debate differently:  The Greek’s finger was a threat to put out the Roman’s eye, and the Roman’s response of three fingers was to suggest that the Roman’s response would be to poke out both of the Greek’s eyes and smash his teeth.  The Greek’s palm was perceived as a threatened head slap, and the Roman’s response of a fist represented the hardest punch the Greek would ever receive.

So each side misinterprets the signs of the other side, demonstrating the ambiguity in communication.  But the Romans get the Greek law in the end, although perhaps undeserving of it.  Mignani observes that the story indicates “that a sign can be interpreted variously, depending on the reader’s enlightenment, but with a guarantee of beneficial results no matter how it is interpreted…” (Ruiz et al., 1970, p. 4).  Juan Ruiz surely intended this to indicate that his LBA could also have various interpretations, not necessarily accurately representing his true intentions.

Vincent Barletta points to three earlier ambiguous analyses of this dispute: “Leo Spitzer presents the episode as the centerpiece of the Libro’s overarching concern with Christian didacticism,” while Félix Lecoy says it is either a parody of university scholarly debates or the monastic use of signs. (Barletta, 2012, pp. 349, 350).  Louise O. Vasvari observes that while many have suggested that this episode is indeed a parody of monastic sign language, it is not likely.  The monastic use of sign language was based on humility and not on the Roman’s aggression we see here in the debate between the Greek and the Roman.(Vasvári, pp. 97, 100).

Then Anthony Zahareas argues that the debate “is shaped by a very original (and performative) concern with irony, ambiguity, and humor.”  Finally, Alan Deyermond “suggests that the episode is a kind of shotgun parody, hitting several targets at once: academic disputations, the system of signs employed by clerics sworn to a vow of silence, the transfer of Greek learning to the Latin West, and the often tortured readings of Biblical exegetes.” (Barletta, 2012, pp. 349, 350).  Barletta also says that both Luis F. Bernabé Pons and María Rosa Lida de Malkiel agree on two points – that the debate is intended to be a theoretical manifesto in addition to a funny story, and that little else of the Libro offers “modern critics as many interpretive challenges and potential rewards.” (Barletta, 2012, pp. 350, 351).  We see that although the significance of the story seems obvious at first glance, the interpretation of this debate is indeed ambiguous.

St Augustine guided much of medieval thought.  Gerli notes that he recognized that humans are always capable of being misunderstood, which can help explain some of the duality and interrelationships of the LBA. Gerli also notes “The LBA’s fascination with the ambiguities of its meaning is, in addition to its richest artistic device, an extended meditation upon the temporal nature and limits of language and, in this way, yet one more manifestation of the metaphysical problem of the Fall.” “It is always possible to read texts and signs two ways: carnally and spiritually,” not only in the case of Augustine but with the LBA as well. (Gerli, 2002, pp. 418, 426).

Not only do the Greek and Roman debaters both have mistaken interpretations of each other’s signs, but the Archpriest has presented in the prologue of his book three different possible interpretations of his book and their results: the wise with good will and the wise with good faith will learn how to save their souls while the fool may interpret the book well, but will follow loco amor of the world. (Francomano, 2016, pp. 324-5).  And the “foolish or sinful will laugh but not avail themselves of the hygienic application of laughter, the utility of the content for memorization, or appreciate the artistic virtuosity.  The wise will use the LBA appropriately but miss or lack the hygienic ability to laugh.” (Haywood, 2008, p. 150).  I would say that this could apply equally to the wise man and the fool of today and how each applies the LBA.

The message first evident from this episode is that we all tend to see what we want to see, what we expect to see.  “As a famous crux of the LBA seems to suggest, the work can say what one wishes to make it say: ‘bien o mal, qual puntares, tal te dirá ciertamente’” (st 70b) (Haywood, Vasvari and Ruiz, 2004, p. 131)  Again, this is true of the medieval reader of the LBA, as well as the student or researcher of today.  That is why the Archpriest warns us at the beginning of this story that we need to take care in the interpretation of his book: “Understand my words correctly and ponder their meaning.” (st 46a); and at the end: “This is why the proverb of the shrewd old woman says: “No word is bad if you don’t take it badly. You will see that my word is well said if it is well understood: understand my book well and you will have a lovely lady.” (st 64)


I am using the terminology of sRa – sexual Romanesque art - to describe these obscene (from our viewpoint) sculptures on Romanesque churches.  The common term is “erotic,” but I agree with Olmo and Weir that “sexual” is more accurate for the majority of cases (see note 1).  Weir notes that some of these scenes cannot be called erotic (Weir and Jerman, 1986, p. 23).  Perhaps this is the first ambiguity though, as because Olsen compares the ugly Sheela-na-gigs with the Spanish sRa then notes that the Spanish sRa is more erotic (Olsen, 1999, p. 92).

 There is an abundance of theories, no one of which can adequately explain the language of Romanesque iconography.  Angel Olmo opens his book with the statement that “The Romanesque language itself is ambiguous and polysemic, so the iconographic readings that can be made are multiple.”[1] (Olmo García, 2015, p. 9).  And Olsen observes that too much of the sRa is subject to “honest disagreement in interpretation” (Olsen, 2011, p. 327).  Some researchers even limit themselves to cataloging the images without attempting to interpret them.  And as was noted above while discussing the debate between the Greek and Roman in the LBA, people see what they want to see.  For example, there is a bird with a long slender neck eating a rabbit on a corbel of the church at Yermo that many people take for a phallus.

The sexual Romanesque sculptures include representations of both male and female exhibitionists, coitus, sodomy, fellatio, masturbation, etc.  These appear on and in Romanesque churches, mainly of the 12th century.  While it is possible that a term like “grotesque” may be more in theme with the medieval reception of the sRa, I will use the generally accepted term of “obscene” in this study in recognition that we today see them as inappropriate, especially for a church.

 The widest spread theory is that these sculptures represent luxuria and are advice against sin. But as Olsen asks, “How exactly are figures with huge phalluses a warning against lust?  How does portraying sexual intercourse warn against sensuality?” (Olsen, 1999, p. 95), especially when we are not even sure if the “subject of a sculpture is adulterous or marital love.” (Olsen, 2011, p. 332).  Also, part of this theory suggests that because the profane is represented outside the church while the sacred is represented inside, the sRa is located on the outside of the church, such as on corbels.  The difficulty with this interpretation is that the sacred is located on the outside of the church as well as inside, and more importantly, some of the sRa is indeed inside the church.  Two specific examples of this are examined below in the discussion on sacred and profane.

Another theory is that these sculptures were intended to encourage procreation.  The reasons for this include the need to repopulate and settle large areas of Spain during the Reconquest from the Muslims, the need for more soldiers for this Reconquest, to counter the high mortality rate, and the fact that increases in population meant increases in tithes and taxes collected. (Olmo García, 2015, pp. 56, 189). But the scenes of masturbation, fellatio, or anal sex would not seem to support this theory.  Also, Jaime Nuño believes that the problem was not in the number of pregnancies or births, but in the high mortality rates – such that encouragement to procreate was not necessary (Nuño González, 2016).

Then there is the theory that these works were the result of picaresque masons taking liberties with their work to provide humorous and sexual images.  Olsen asks if the sRa at Cervatos was “a kind of private amusement or joke?” since the sRa images faced the monastic enclosure of the time. (Olsen, 1999, p. 91).  This theory is problematic because many sRa works were in important highly visible locations, and the church and other officials paying for and monitoring the construction would never have permitted these sculptures had they been utterly contrary to their wishes. (Weir and Jerman, 1986, pp. 8, 99). “Also, it should be remembered that Cervatos was a Collegiate church, and the young – probably illiterate - people being instructed there might very well have had corbels pointed out to them to illustrate sins that might not even be able to be talked about.  I think this is the case for all the churches with sRa on them, but especially ones like Cervatos, which has so many.” (Weir, 2017)  It should also be noted that there is more than sex represented, only about 25% of the Cervatos corbels are sexual. (Valle Barreda, 2016)

On the other hand, there is a case of a sculpture on the cathedral in Cologne where a bishop is named and depicted in the act of auto-fellatio.  This was a revenge of the masons for an increase the bishop imposed on beer to help fund the completion of the construction of the cathedral.  And this one is indeed difficult to see by the casual observer, but I believe it to be an exception to the rule.

 One theory is that everyone makes the subject more complicated than it needs to be and that these sculptures simply represent scenes of daily life[2] (Olmo García, 2015, pp. 40, 41) and popular culture, including carnivalesque festivals.  There was very little privacy in the medieval home.  Usually there was only one room where parents, children and even grandparents lived together.  All would eat, sleep, dress, and the parents would have sex, all together in that one room. (Nuño González, 2016).  And “it was normal not to wear any nightwear.” (McDonald, 2014, p. 115).  Nudity and sex did not have the same stigma that they do today when they are generally private.

 Another theory is that these sculptures are derogatory representations of the Muslim enemy being driven out of Spain.  The majority of experts discount this theory because the appearance and dress of the figures in the sculpture do not support it.  It has also been proposed that they could be representations of Jews, but that idea is not generally accepted either.

 Jacobelli raises several possibilities for this obscene art, discussing in one case a church painting of the 15th century with representations of various sexual positions, as well as some of the obscene sculptures on churches.  They could be a result of a revenge of an artist not properly compensated, a satire against the cleric, or even a residual of a pagan fertility cult. (Jacobelli, 1991, pp. 61, 63).  While the sculpture in Cologne discussed above was indeed (an isolated case of) revenge of the masons, again, I believe this was an exception, and it is too much of a stretch to invoke the remnants of a fertility cult.  The fertility cult theory is however somewhat popular in explaining the Sheela-na-gigs of the British Isles.

These sRa sculptures could function in an apotropaic manner (Weir and Jerman, 1986, pp. 10, 17, 21, 29); (Olmo García, 2015, pp. 101, 189), to ward off evil and protect against the evil eye.  In ancient Roman times especially, the phallus had this function, as well as signifying good luck.  There are Romanesque sculptures of singular phalluses, some even winged, on these churches.  Although the Roman phallus has survived to exist in the sRa, “it may not exactly imply the survival of the same meaning [as for the Romans].”[3] (Olmo García, 2015, p. 105).  But then again, the evil eye was a popular belief throughout the Middle Ages (Olmo García, 2015, p. 112).

This theory that the sRa is apotropaic is also sometimes applied to the Sheela-na-gigs of the British Isles, principally Ireland. He likens the sRa to obscene medieval pilgrim badges that depict both male and female genitalia that are also apotropaic.  (Jones, 2004, p. 250).  The Sheela-na-gigs are distinct from the majority of the continental exhibitionists in several ways:  the Sheela-na-gigs are more monstrous in appearance and often are pulling apart the huge labia of an exaggerated vulva, while the Spanish exhibitionists are not hideous, and are not pulling apart their vulvas.  Also, the Sheela-na-gigs are generally lone females, while the Spanish exhibitionists are often in male / female pairs (Delgado Buenaga 2016).  There is only one vulva puller in Spain similar to the Sheela-na-gigs, but not monstrous in appearance, and its existence in the town of Foz is virtually unknown.  The woman is indeed opening her vulva with her hands. “This motif is quite common in France, however.” (Weir, 2017)

 We were told by Juan Ruiz that the LBA is understood according to the reception of the reader, which depends upon their wisdom.  So also there is a language of the image in stone of the sRa, which “irrevocably fixes a language that is to be understood according to the state of consciousness of the perceiver.”[4] (Olmo García, 2015, p. 77).  And the case can be made that both the LBA and the sRa have “a purpose that is not merely decorative, but mainly didactic.”[5] (Olmo García, 2015, p. 80).

[1] The English translations of the LBA I use are those of Raymond Willis and the English translations I use of Ángel del Olmo García are mine.  In this English version of my paper, the original Spanish stanzas are from Steven Kirby and are placed in footnotes, such as here: “El propio lenguaje románico es ambiguo y polisémico, por lo que las lecturas iconográficas que se puede hacer son múltiples.”

[2] Please refer to the video interviews of Maria Paz Delgado Buenaga, Jaime Nuño González, and César del Valle Barreda, along with links to articles by Buenaga and Nuño available on the web page - this page is also available in Spanish by clicking the Spanish flag at the top of the page.

[3] “puede que no implique exactamente la pervivencia del mismo significado.”

[4] “fija irrevocablemente un lenguaje que va a ser comprendido segun el estado de consciencia del que lo percibe.”

[5] “una finalidad que no es meramente decorativa, sino sobre todo didáctica.”

2. The Sacred Versus The Profane, Religion And Sex, Medieval Views

What does it mean when we say that we cannot approach the study of medieval art or literature with a contemporary mentality?  We not only have to examine what medieval people might consider obscene or grotesque, and what might promote salvation or sin.  I believe we must start with the realization that the medieval mind did not exclude the presence of the profane together with the sacred, and that the two coexisted and “were not conceived as seeking to eliminate one another.  Rather, the struggle was a ritualistic encounter…which implied either a stasis…or a temporary concession by one to the other according to some cyclical pattern.” (Burke, 1998, p. 10). Burke argues “that medieval writers and artists subscribed to the classical belief that one must introduce the contrary of a concept in order to explain it fully.” (Burke, 1998, p. f flap).  The reader’s or viewer’s perception is partially based on their knowledge and experience, as well as their culture.  But we also have to avoid the modern temptation “where the interpretation frames “sinfulness and sanctity” as mutually exclusive, opposed binary terms.” (Burrus, 2010, p. 130).

Sheila Delany notes that “Chaucer [and Juan Ruiz-author] were a different kind of Christian than anyone can be today: a medieval Catholic.”  [Medieval] “Catholicism makes a point of containing what look to us like impossible contradictions.” (Delany, 2003, p. 150).  Delany also says this Middle Ages Catholic culture not only generated verbal paradoxes but paradoxes of images on the sacred architecture of churches as well. (Delany, 2003, p. 151).  All this applies to our comparisons of both the LBA and sRa.  Jaime Nuño observes that “We judge medievals by our mental systems and you can’t do that: the historian must free himself of his own moral framework of the functionality of his society if he wants to correctly analyze others because not all values are universal nor are they eternal.”[1] (Nuño González, 2016).

 “Medieval people enjoyed the obscene and must have often felt a thrill when presented with salacious material.  Yet evidently they could at the same time see and appreciate moral or doctrinal messages encoded in the outrageous.” (Burke, 1998, p. 5) This duality again applies to both the literature of the LBA and the sculpture of the sRa. Burke offers that the writer “inscribed the negative example in order to reprove it…in didactic passages: the writer exposed the reader to both sides of an issue or concept in order to condition the will and reach the intellect to make correct choices.” (Burke, 1998, p. 20) The LBA presents both the good love of God and the Madonna and the mad carnal, worldly love.  The Romanesque churches have sculpture depicting the virtues as well as the vices.  It is up to the reader or the viewer as to how they are interpreted and what benefit or guidance may be obtained.

 Without the realization that the medieval mindset was to presents both good and bad evil side by side, there is a Manichean tendency for us to accept either the profane or the sacred as the overall general meaning.  The LBA thus could be a didactic work intending to show Everyman how to attain salvation for his soul, or a tongue-in-cheek parody of the sacred. In this author’s opinion, it is a serious religious work that includes the humorous and profane to provide the duality of good and bad evil, which today we find hard to accept when presented together.  Concerning the obscene church sculptures and the obscene manuscript illuminations, Burke states that “The important point is that medievals surely did not comprehend such visual phenomena as obscene and disrespectful in an absolute sense.” (Burke, 1998, p. 70)  This author believes that the sRa is shocking to us today because it presents the profane along with the sacred. [cf Carmina Burana]  However, the two together produced a serious message that with proper interpretation would provide instruction on Christian morality.

 There is an example of the sacred opposed to the profane that spanned the time of both the LBA and the sexual Romanesque sculpture: the Risus Paschalis. [trans. Easter Joke] Maria Caterina Jacobelli (Jacobelli, 1991) has studied this phenomenon, where the priest during Easter mass would tell obscene jokes and make obscene gestures.  These gestures included simulated sex acts, both masturbation, and coitus for example.  (Delgado Buenaga, 2016; Nuño González, 2016; Olmo García, 2015, pp. 16, 148-150), There is even some evidence the priest masturbated in actuality. (Jacobelli, 1991, pp. 28, 29, 49).  Her research starts with documents from 1518 (when some bishops thought that the Risus Paschalis should be permitted), but other documents go from the years 852 to 1802, a whole millennium!  Many documents are from Germany, but she has located evidence of this event taking place all over Europe, including Spain.

 The lively celebration was to honor the resurrection of Christ, a joyous occasion for conquering death and being the evidence of a provision for the salvation of our souls.  Also, there was joy that the sacrifices of Lent were now over.  As discussed below on humor, one of the objectives of the Risus Paschalis was to provoke laughter.  The Risus Paschalis is the most profane example in a sacred contraposition I have seen, and the LBA and sRa seem tame in comparison.

[1] “…los juzgamos por nuestros sistemas mentales y no se puede hacer eso; el historiador lo que tiene que hacer es salirse un poco de sus planteamientos de lo que son los esquemas morales o de funcionamientos de su sociedad si quiere analizar correctamente otras, porque ni todos los valores son universales ni son eternos.”


Walker observes that “The most puzzling feature of the LBA is its apparent dualism of attitude.” He goes on to say that equal weight is given to the joys of love and the dangers of sin, leading to “many different and conflicting interpretations.”  What’s more, “many of these interpretations have been arrived at by virtually ignoring one side or the other.  We must consider the profane with the sacred.” (Gybbon-Monypenny, 1970, p. 231) and (Haywood, Vasvari and Ruiz, 2004, p. 6).

The LBA is very visual.  Louise Haywood believes “that the visual is such a strong element in Juan Ruiz's work that it must have been informed by the art and iconography to which he was exposed.” (email March 2017). Surely Juan Ruiz was familiar with the sexual Romanesque sculptures.  And Haywood had an interesting observation on the young miller in the LBA who cannot stop the millstone with his foot after his marriage, although before marriage he could. 

This youth wanted to marry three women at the same time.  But his father, mother, and older brother convinced him to marry just one, and take a second a month later.  The father had a mill with a big millstone that the young man could stop with his foot while it was turning fast.  After a month of marriage he decided to test his strength and went to try to stop the millstone with his foot.  But the result was that he was thrown head over heels.  The young man decided that he loved his first wife so much that he never took the second woman.  And he never tried to stop the millstone again.

Haywood says that the phallic connotations of being thrown down are supported by the possibility that this “evokes an image of the fallen Young Miller with his legs raised to his ears, and his buttocks exposed, reminiscent of the Romanesque architectural grotesque of the feet-to-ears acrobat or buttocks-exposer, one of a number of sculptural figures involved in genital display, and connotative of the sin of luxuria and concupiscentia.” (Haywood, 2008, p. 54). It should be noted that luxuria was not lust, but the degenerate and immoral behavior of the rich. (Weir, 2017)

Gerli comments that the LBA as a whole “is a work charged with discursive and rhetorical ambiguity as it stages a struggle of interpretation between secular and sacred meaning.” (Gerli, 2002, p. 411).  But I have chosen the LBA episode of the canonical hours (st 372-87) to examine further from the viewpoint of the sacred and profane.  Burke likens this episode, with the Latin references to female genitalia, to the obscenities in the margins of a medieval manuscript or the Romanesque obscene sculptures.

 Otis Green comments that the obscene religious parody of the canonical hours episode is the most shocking episode of a LBA that is full of medieval laughter. (Green, 1963, p. 53).  “Juan Ruiz uses suggestive-sounding phrases from the Catholic liturgy to parody the canonical hours and to imply sexual activity” (Ruiz and Kirby, 2007, pp. 87, n86).  Deyermond agrees with Green that this episode is obscene, and feels that the lovers are a lecherous priest and his compliant parishioner. (Gybbon-Monypenny, 1970, p. 62).  But Corominas believed that it was not obscene and was instead a misa de amor, although it was “burlesco y paródico muchísimo más que satirico” (Ruiz and Coromines, 1967, pp. 162-4, n374, ss).

 This episode is a parody of portions of the liturgy which the Archpriest directed against Don Amor.  It is intended to be funny by profaning religious material with erotic intentions.  It is also satirical in ridiculing and rejecting practitioners of worldly love.  The Archpriest imitates how a priest-lover seduces a woman in church, by quoting words from the religious service and using them to imply an offer of seduction.  Lets examine three of the stanzas of this episode in more detail:

  1. Where your beloved dwells, you commence to rise up and

                                    to sing aloud: ‘Lord, thou wilt open up my lips’; on the first hour

                                    of all the days you begin to play musical instruments, so that our

                                    pleas may be heard; you rouse her from her sleep.

Here the word “play” in Spanish, tocar, can also mean to touch.  There is a suggestion of waking up, perhaps not just to the playing of instruments, but other sensations as well.  “Commence to rise up” can have an obvious sexual meaning, as can “open up my lips.”

  1. And if the girl is one of those who do not dare to walk

                                    about in the narrow streets, have your panderess lead her out into

                                    fields to gather red roses; if the silly girl believes her words and

                                    her advice, she will garner what sorrowful Eve did from

                                    whomsoever hath desire: blighted fruits.

Here a tryst in the garden is being discussed.  Gathering roses refers to the defloration of a woman.

  1. I never saw a sexton who could ring for vespers better; you

                                    play all instruments easily; any lady who comes to your vespers,

                                    no matter how smartly she rolls up her sleeves to resist, with the

                                    staff of thy power you compel her to remain.

This is the climax of the seduction, and again the playing of musical instruments can have generative connotations.  “Easily” implies a mere token resistance.  “Staff of thy power” most probably has generative connotations as well.

 As an archpriest, Juan Ruiz was caught in the “middle of the battle between two irreconcilable yet equally compelling judgements about sex – the condemnatory one of his superiors and the vindicatory one of his inferiors.”  (Rutherford, 2012, p. 127).

So while this episode is blasphemous and risqué, we have seen that the presentation of the contrary with the sacred was viewed as necessary to the medieval mind.  And “There is no difficulty of a priest telling risqué stories because what matters is the subtlety of these stories, i.e., their “hidden,” “higher” meaning.”(Zahareas, 1965, p. 45)

The choice of which path to take, sacred or profane,  is up to the reader.  The common thread is that both the sacred and the profane are presented in the LBA, as in the sRa.  And “the object of teaching and preaching, whether based upon exempla or visual imagery such as carvings or sculptures, was to convey to the faithful the essence of an immanent reality beyond the shadows of this world.”  (Burke, 1998, p. 71).  The medieval Christian expected the profane concept to be presented along with the sacred concept.


The general theme of placing sexual carvings on, and in, Romanesque churches is of itself a good example of mixing the sacred with the profane.  But I’d like to examine a capital in the church of San Juan Bautista in Villanueva de la Nía.  On the right side of the triumphal arch, there is a column capital with three primary figures.  The central figure is a clothed male raising his hands, palms out, at chest level.  Over him are three items.  To his left, facing the congregation is a nude female exhibitionist, and on his right is a male ithyphallic exhibitionist whose phallus has been mutilated.  The male exhibitionist holds a horn to his mouth, the end of which is at the ear of the figure in the center. There is an interesting assortment of Romanesque horn blowers on Anthony Weir’s web site. (Weir, 2017b)

Photo 1: a capital of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Villanueva de Nia

Photo 1: a capital of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Villanueva de Nia

Maria Paz Delgado Buenaga believes that the figure in the center could be Christ and that he could be blessing the two exhibitionists (Delgado emails 3-4/17).  Anthony Weir has shared several possibilities of the representations on this capital.  He believes that the central figure cannot be Christ because there is no nimbus.  He could be the antichrist or a local ecclesiastical who fancies himself a Christ.  Those three items above his head could be hares’ ears or cock’s feathers, both a symbol of concupiscence (Weir emails 3-4/17).

Apart from the intended significance of the central figure, it is highly unusual for what we would call a sexually obscene sculpture to be placed not only inside a church but in the most sacred location, on transept capitals near the altar.  With the interior of the church representing the sacred and the outside world being profane, here we have the obscene in the holiest location of the sacred. 

3. Humor

Humor, whether in literature or ecclesiastical sculpture, is a way of enjoying that art. But Rutherford observes that enjoying something is not the same as studying it. Although having to explain or study art to understand its humor tends to diminish that same mood, I have found that my appreciation for art increases with a better understanding. And with medieval art, even research does not allow us to "shed our modern sensibility and acquire a medieval one". No matter how much we study, "we can not experience a medieval reading or perspective." (Rutherford, 2012, p.5) However, sexual jokes have been frequent from the earliest times and even with a modern reading or perspective, we can appreciate the humor in the LBA and in sRa.

"If people do not give up sinful or criminal behavior because they are evil, they may give it up because it is ridiculous" (Rutherford, 2012, p.23) as it is portrayed with humor. Rutherford points out that the misericordias of the Cathedral of Zamora, with explicit representations of lust, as well as the sRa of the churches of northern Spain and western France, are not the revenge of a swindled sculptor, nor are they pornography. "Those sculptures do not incite their viewers to commit sin, but warns them not to commit it, by emphasizing their grotesqueness and stupidity" (Rutherford, 2012, p.24).


Rutherford offers that “There are touches of humour and comicality, included for didactic purposes, in thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century works…; but the first funny book written in Spanish was the remarkable LBA…” (Rutherford, 2012, p. 106).  At the same time, some ecclesiasticals dismissed laughter as a sign of a failure to properly dread the Last Judgement.  Also, they believed neither Christ nor the saints ever laughed. (Resnick, 1987, p. 99).  Giles notes that the amorous adventures of the Archpriest “create humor through antithesis by recasting sanctity as a counter-example.” (Giles, 2016, p. 11).

The LBA is full of humor, with extensive examples.  Zahareas says that “The humorous element is everywhere present in the LBA; it produces laughter without malice or cynicism, laughter for the sake of amusement and entertainment…” (Zahareas, 1965, p. 121).  But allow me to return to the debate between the Greeks and the Romans.  We start with the advice of Cato that we “should intersperse pleasures and merry words, for much sadness brings much sin.”[1] (st 44cd) Not only is Cato quoted on the need for alegria, but Juan Ruiz states that he will provide us with some jokes to allow us to laugh. (st 45)

And we end the story of the debate with the proverb that “No word is bad if you don’t take it badly.”[2]  (st 64c) As I discussed above when talking about the sacred opposed with the profane, I believe Juan Ruiz showed us the bad with the good because medieval people believed that the contrary needed to be present to fully explain the correct path to avoid sin and ensure salvation. After the debate, Juan Ruiz makes the statement that the book is subtle and we should not despise any of the jokes. (st 65).  The humor was indeed for us to enjoy and laugh at.

The obvious humor is that the Roman ruffian and the Greek scholar both misinterpret each other’s gestures in their sign-language debate (Francomano, 2016, p. 324).  The Roman never understands his victory just as the Greek never understands his defeat (Zahareas, 1965, p. 54).  But humor is an important part of the canonical hours episode as well.  There we had an imitation of how a priest-lover seduces a woman in church.  The episode “is meant to be funny in that the distortion of liturgy stresses, in the manner of the goliards’ profanation of religious material, erotic intentions.” (Zahareas, 1965, p. 94)

Green notes that when looking at the LBA as a whole, “burlesque and parody are at the very heart of our poem.” (Green, 1963, p. 70). Haywood notes from Green’s study that “An important, though frequently overlooked, dimension of Juan Ruiz’s art is his use of humor, and related devices such as verbal play, parody, irony, and satire. Its use, excluding obscenity, was a recognized sermon technique and it was used, even in a sacrilegious or obscene way, in religious contexts as a release from the awe inspired by the sacred.” (Haywood, Vasvari and Ruiz, 2004, p. 29).  The “release from the awe inspired by the sacred” is similar to the description of the logic for the obscenity of the Risus Paschalis we examined earlier.

[1] Entreponga plazeres e alegre la rrazón; que la mucha tristeza mucho pecado pon’.

[2] Non ha mala palabra ‘si non es a mal entendida


Continuing with the Risus Paschalis, its purpose was to indeed provoke laughter among the parishioners.  In fact, there were three objectives: to get people to come to the Easter mass, to liven and cheer up the listeners – make them laugh, and to keep them awake during the sermon (Jacobelli, 1991, p. 28).  These obscenities during the Easter Mass took place in Spain, and much of the rest of Europe, during a period that included the time of both the LBA and the sRa.  But not everyone approved, of course.  Giacobelli notes that there are accounts of parishioners getting up and leaving during the Risus Paschalis.  And Ryan Giles notes that López de Ayala in his Rimado de Palacio  (c. 1385-1403) has accusations against “religious hypocrites of turning true devotion to God and His saints into a travesty…” and “even worse are priests who cynically lead their flocks astray by eroticizing the celebration of mass…” (Giles, 2016, pp. 3, 4).

Nurith Kenaan-Kedar notes that the sculptures displaying their bare buttocks are part of a series that includes jongleurs, fools, and other heroes of the town and square, and they combine both the frightening and the comic to arouse both tears and laughter. (Kenaan-Kedar, 1995, p. 62)  The representation of the various entertainers may have had a religious purpose as did the Romanesque art in general (Weir and Jerman, 1986, p. 42).  But because the entertainers’ performances were to provide merriment, satire, and bawdry, these were probably viewed with satiric or sardonic humor rather than viewed as obscene. (Haywood, 2008, p. 54)

Olsen (discussing the church at Cervatos, but it applies to sRa in general) states that it may be possible some “12th-century abbot with a straight face justified all the sRa as simply didactic.”  But he thinks that it is simpler to place it into context with the surrounding sculpture with musicians, drinkers, pipers, and acrobats – that “much of it is just playful, crude, or salacious.”  “The explicitly lewd sexual themes…seem more in the spirit of the drinking mugs one can still buy at fairs in rural Portugal [and tourist locations in Spain-author], mugs that slowly reveal a phallus pointing up from the bottom as one drinks.” (Olsen, 1999, p. 95). In other words – much of the intention of sRa had to be to produce hearty laughs.

4. Censorship Of The Lba And Sexual Romanesque Art

Some have made the case that the prose preamble in the LBA was added later to present a more spiritually oriented work, contrasting crazy worldly love and good love of God, perhaps in response to criticism of the earlier version (Ruiz and Willis, 1972, p. xxxii)  While this would not be censorship in the sense of the removal of material, it would indicate changes to make the work more palatable, perhaps to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. 

Many believe that the missing folios from the Doña Endrina episode in the LBA were removed by a later censor who felt that the seduction, or rape, was too risqué.  However, it has also been suggested that it is more likely that hoarders of pornography removed them (Rutherford, 2012, p. 118) and (Haywood, Vasvari and Ruiz, 2004, p. 147).

 As for the sRa, an unknown number have vanished over time due to the churches themselves disintegrating and disappearing.  But an unknown number have also been removed or destroyed, because of their perceived obscenity.  Of those that remain, that we can see today, some have been censoriously vandalized.  This suppression usually consists of the phalluses being knocked off, or faces destroyed.

A good example of bowdlerization of the sRa is that of the Kilpeck Sheela-na-gig in England, which is the most well-known Sheela.  This Sheela depicts a woman reaching under her legs to part an enormous vulva with her hands.  The Victorian lithographer G.R. Lewis described the Kilpeck Sheela as a ‘Fool cutting his way through to his heart’ (Weir and Jerman, 1986, pp. 16, 22, 70).  Likewise, the Victorian drawing of the Kilpeck Sheela depicts the opening in the chest and the hands on the outsides of the body. “Similar apparently deliberate misreadings of French figures have been offered” in France, which is still stricken with prudery, even in academic circles.” (Weir, 2017b)

As Vincent Leitch’s maintains, “All reading is necessarily misreading,” whether we are interpreting the LBA or the language of Romanesque iconography.  “There can never be ‘correct’ or ‘objective’ readings, only less or more energetic, interesting, careful, or pleasurable misreadings” (Leitch and Recorded Books, 2010, p. 59). 

I’d like to close by once again paraphrasing Olsen:  The aim of a first sketch is not comprehensiveness, (Olsen, 2011, p. 328) a work like this never implies only one conclusion, I simply confined myself to outlining some of the possible similarities between the LBA and sRa.

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