|detail of Saint Eligius, 1449. The Met.|
Petrus Christus, Northern Renaissance painter extraordinaire, can help us out here. His painting of Saint Eligius in his Workshop from 1449 (of which you see a detail above), has become, thanks to the incredible work of Diane Wolfthal, a critical image in medieval art history's quest for understanding the visual representation of gay culture. Her essay "Picturing Same-Sex Desire: The Falconer and His Lover in Images by Petrus Christus and the Housebook Master" (in Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality and Sight in Medieval Text and Image. ed. Emma Campbell and Robert Mills. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004: 17-46) remains one of the few to analyze an image of a gay couple. Medieval literary criticism has here far outstripped art history: "queer theory" (a set of ideas that extrapolates from a marginal sexual position to decenter, destabilize, denaturalize any and all normative discourses) has informed fantastic scholarship on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, troubadour lyrics, Catherine of Siena (oh my, yes), the Roman de la Rose, the entire Arthurian Round Table, and much more. Chaucer himself has a queer nation. Art historians have operated within the confines of the visible, I think to our detriment. It seems absurd that art history should deal with invisibilities, with non-images, but it depends on what the goal of art history is: the history of sight, or the history of images. I'm not going to tackle that here, I'm just trying to think around the limits of the field and why on the issue of gay culture, the two fields are so far apart. Here's what else I'm not going to do: I'm not going to agonize over the historical parameters of gay identity (the debate goes: there have always been and will always be gay people; vs. gay identity, like every other identity, is constructed in historically specific periods. For the former see John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality from 1980, for the latter, see Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality from ). I'm also not going to rehearse Diane's fantastic argument (it is far too cool and too complex to be dubbed here), but I will be influenced by it in everything that follows.
|Petrus Christus. Saint Eligius, 1449. The Met.|
|detail of Arnolfini Portrait. 1434. Nat'l Gallery, London|
We can also ask after other mirrored couples - the Man in Red and the Man in Blue who face the Arnolfinis in van Eyck's 1434 painting. Why, we can start to question a lot things.
|Carthusian. 1446. The Met|
For now, I can thank Petrus Christus for his portrait of a Carthusian monk - not for any reasons of historical identity (although it's nice to think of him as saint Bruno, and it's nice to think of him as a man from 1446) - but because with him, we can look directly into the eyes of an individual who is himself central. No mirrors or occlusions - no easy explanations of the self either. There is an inscription that has the painting speaking again ("Petrus Christus made me" - "me fecit") - another (a greater?) voice in representation. And it being medieval art, there is that fly on the ledge. There is much to ask, and much to tell.