While appreciating the decency of Pope Francis’s recent comments on homosexuality, Jonathan Jones invites him to take a stroll through the Vatican’s art collection if he wants to further contemplate the matter:
In the Vatican museum he should contemplate Leonardo da Vinci’s St Jerome in the Desert. An ascetic sits in anguished thought in a rocky wilderness in this unfinished masterpiece. It is a great, introspectively spiritual work of religious art whose creator was well known for his love of young men. Leonardo surrounded himself with good-looking assistants and painted a subversively gay icon of male beauty, his bronzed Saint John the Baptist. When da Vinci was in his 20s, he was formally accused of sodomy.
Brooding on these facts, the Pope might walk into the Pauline Chapel, to look upon Michelangelo’s frescoes there. This chapel is in a private part of the Apostolic Palace not open to the public, but I don’t think the Pope would find entry difficult. There, looking at the suffering of the saints, he might consider how Michelangelo courageously expressed his love for men, even as he created some of the most eloquent art of the church.
Is there no escape from this issue? Remembering that some art historians deny the so-called “calumny” that Caravaggio and his clerical patrons were gay, perhaps the Pope might visit the Roman church of San Luigi dei Francesi to look on this master’s paintings of St Matthew. But the demons of desire cannot be suppressed. The naked male flesh in Caravaggio’s paintings tells its own story. By the time Caravaggio came to Rome in the 1590s, Leonardo and Michaelangelo – not to mention the aptly named Italian painter Il Sodoma – had already blazed a gay trail through the art of the Holy City. Caravaggio made art dangerous and exciting again by taking that homosexual impulse to new extremes.
(Painting: Caravaggio’s flesh-filled The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, 1599-1600, via Wikimedia Commons)