Sex and spirituality in 1500s Rome: Sebastiano del Piombo's martyrdom of Saint Agatha.

Author:Burke, Jill
Position:Essay - Critical essay

Sebastiano del Piombo's Martyrdom of Saint Agatha (Fig. 1) is an unsettling image. A woman, naked apart from a cloth loosely knotted at her hips, stands in the center of the composition. Swarthy men at either side of her brandish pincers that clasp her nipples. She looks not at her tormentors but at a bearded man leaning on an elbow that juts toward the picture plane. At the other side of the painting a knife rests on a stone ledge, its blade pointing toward the beholder.

Images of the tortured body are central to Christian iconography--the Crucifixion being the symbolic referent for all these images--but this painting tends to produce a much stronger reaction in the viewer than other scenes of saintly mutilation; "repellent" is one art historian's description of the subject matter, and "porno-violent" another's. (1) It seems to be the sexual implications of this violent attack that make the painting uneasy viewing for us, and in particular the mixture of prurience and piety. Notably, as is being increasingly recognized, this painting is only one from a group of early-sixteenth-century images that to many modern eyes uncomfortably give Christian iconography an erotic charge; other examples might include Rosso Fiorentino's Dead Christ (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Titian's Mary Magdalene (Pitti Palace, Florence), and Parmigianino's Madonna of the Rose. (2)

Are these images meant to be regarded as erotic, or is such a conclusion a post-Freudian misreading of the visual evidence? Is seeing them as erotic just an individual reaction on the part of the scholar, or does it have relevance to how the images were viewed in the sixteenth century? Scholarship over the last few decades has taught us that our understandings of our bodies is subject to historical change. Leo Stein-berg, Caroline Walker Bynum, and others have argued that late medieval religious discourse frequently used metaphors of bodily penetration and ecstasy that seem unmistakably sexual to a modern audience, and these fit uncomfortably with our ideas of an antisexual Christian spirituality. (3) Similarly, parts of the body that to a modern audience are recognized primarily as sexual did not necessarily carry those connotations for a premodern onlooker. The genitals of Christ serve as a reminder of his incarnation and the physicality of his sacrifice for the sinners beholding his image; the bared breast of the Virgin Mary was more likely to evoke the idea of nourishment to the medieval viewer than an erotic charge. (4) There was, therefore, a tradition of imagery concentrating on representations of the naked body that laid its emphasis on pain and renunciation of the flesh.

However, some scholars have argued that the early sixteenth century saw an "eroticization of vision," with an exponential growth in imagery that was explicitly created to arouse the viewer sexually, alongside a new erotic literature that drew on classical sources. (5) The fact that religious paintings also had the potential to arouse viewers sexually became a mounting anxiety for Catholic reformers, who in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries increasingly sought separate spheres of operation for the sacred and profane. Thus, it has sometimes been implied that the repeated use of the naked body in religious imagery in the early sixteenth century was effectively a by-product of an evolutionary process of religious thought, a mixture of genres that, given the artistic progression of Renaissance into Counter-Reformation, was near inevitable. (6)

Sebastiano del Piombo's Martyrdom of Saint Agatha here stands as a case study to interrogate some of these ideas. This involves examining the iconographic expectations of the viewers of the painting, the circumstances of its commission, and the social and sexual identities of its first owner. I consider what visual cues would lead contemporary viewers to understand an image as sexual; the relation between this image and the sexual culture of the Roman curia; and the problem, a very pressing one in this period, of incorporating pagan classical source material into a Christian framework.

Agatha the Virgin

Saint Agatha was martyred in the town of Catania in Sicily in the mid-third century. She died because the provost of Sicily, Quintianus--the man at left in the painting--looked upon her lecherously and insisted that she give up her Christian faith and make a sacrifice to pagan gods. Because she refused both his advances and paganism, he put her in a brothel presided over by the procuress Aphrodisia. When, after thirty days, Agatha remained uncorrupted, Quintianus decided to have her breasts cut off. Her breasts were later restored to her by Saint Peter. Undeterred, Quintianus hauled her over burning brands, and she subsequently died in prison. It is perhaps the preparation of these brands that is seen in the fire in the upper right background of Sebastiano's work. The mountain in the distant landscape at center left perhaps refers to the legend that Etna erupted on Agatha's death; the city below it is most likely Catania, where the action took place. (7)

Painted versions of Agatha's legend are not common in Italy in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The episode that Sebastiano depicts is a central part of her legend, invariably represented in cycles of her life, and gives the saint her most common attributes--her severed breasts displayed on a plate. (8) Martha Easton's study of illustrations of Agatha's legend in medieval manuscripts suggests that the iconography of this scene is similar throughout Europe: she is generally naked to the waist, with her hands bound behind her back or over her head, flanked by two men, who grab her breasts with pincerlike instruments. (9) Despite this well-established convention for Agatha's story, Sebastiano had few direct visual precedents for producing this image as an independent panel painting. I have not been able to locate any previous examples of this subject without accompanying text or as part of an iconographic cycle. To my knowledge, there are no extant altarpieces or domestic religious paintings showing Agatha's breast mutilation before Sebastiano's version, indicating that the subject was very rarely treated independently from a broader narrative. (10)


In fact, this painting seems to have been novel in several ways. There were many images of saintly martyrdoms made in the early sixteenth century that could have provided Sebastiano with his compositional model. His choice, therefore, to orient the composition horizontally, coupled with the truncation of the figures at the knee, is unusual. (11) A more conventional composition would have been oriented vertically, with the martyred saint in the center, as in Sebastiano's Flagellation altarpiece for the Borgherini Chapel, executed around the same time (Fig. 2). (12) It may have been that the image was commissioned for a particular location within a palace, and that this determined its form, but its precise original location is not known. At any rate, its format and its later provenance make it highly unlikely that it was ever intended to be an altarpiece. (13)

A vertical orientation of the painting, like many earlier images of Saint Agatha, would have made it visually clear that her bodily trials echo Christ's. In previous treatments of the subject, she is variously shown with her arms outstretched, in an echo of the Crucifixion, or tied to a column as Christ was. (14) In Sebastiano's version, however, it is hard to read how Saint Agatha is tied to the column behind her, as it is swathed in a green cloth, seemingly the continuation of a curtain that reveals the landscape beyond. Thus, viewers of this painting were not overtly prodded into associating Agatha's sufferings with those of Christ's, as was normal in iconographic precedents.

Most fourteenth-century examples depict a moment after Agatha's breasts have been first cut, with the saint's endurance of pain brought out through an abundance of blood. According to Easton, in the fifteenth century the composition changed to emphasize the beauty of Agatha's body, and in these later works the breasts are often shown whole and relatively undistorted. (15) Sebastiano's novel representation of the method of martyrdom highlights the beauty of the saint's torso still further. Most fifteenth-century images show scissor-like instruments surrounding the breasts, alongside other instruments of torture such as rakes. (16) Sebastiano, instead, has made his tormentors bear pincers that touch Agatha's nipples, presumably about to clamp them. This is supported by the text of the Golden Legend, where Quintianus orders that Agatha's breasts be twisted before they are cut off, a scene never previously represented visually to my knowledge. (17) It rationalizes the prominent depiction of the knife, which, ready to complete Agatha's mutilation, juts out into the viewer's space--and, as I argue below, is crucial to this painting's interpretation.


Sebastiano's Martyrdom of Saint Agatha, therefore, was an unusual painting when it was made. It seems reasonable to expect that this novelty of composition, format, and interaction with the onlooker was intentional. David Rosand, discussing the visual precedents for Titian's Venus of Urbino, pointed out, "Generic expectation conditions vision and interpretation." (18) How, then, would the early-sixteenth-century viewer have experienced the "genre" of Sebastiano's Saint Agatha?

One possibility is a visual connection with a tradition of religious paintings that would have been familiar to Sebastiano from his artistic beginnings in Venice: horizontal-format domestic images typically showing the half-length Virgin and Child, the Pieta, or the resurrected Christ, such as Giovanni Bellini's Pieta of about 1460 (Fig. 3). (19) The basic composition, of a half-length naked saint at the center flanked by two clothed...

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