Ever since Giorgio Vasari used the fresco scene 19 of St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots, 1505-08 to illustrate a licentious and bestial image of Bazzi, compatible with his nickname Il Sodoma, a whirlwind of controversy arose on the prolific painter. It is indeed very interesting how the scene of St. Benedict and the prostitutes epitomizes several crucial elements in Sodoma’s creativity and the Olivetan order — the gap between the human and the saint; the contrast between the ascetic ideals and the hedonistic pleasures; the imagery of animal – all of which contributes a great deal to our understanding of Sodoma and his art, not as a departure from the idealistic religious values, but rather, as a humanist approach symbiotic with the core values of the monastery.
Teeming with obvious visual appeal, St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots tells the story of the evil Florentius attempting to corrupt the monks by bringing them nude prostitutes, where St. Benedict was able to resist the temptation and protect the purity of the monks by sending the women away (Sodoma – Oxford Reference, 2016). Vasari presents Sodoma as a person both dangerous and shameful (Ladis, 2008) by stating that he privately painted the women stark naked, and that when the leader
Olivetan monastery saw the completed work, he was so enraged that he demanded the fresco be torn down (Vasari, Barolsky, De Vere et al., 1998). If this account were the fact, it would tell the audience nothing but Sodoma’s loyalty to the original legend. The documented biography of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great in about 593-94 depicts the harlots as completely naked women, coming in an enticing manner (Forness, 2011), which is not only how Sodoma initially conceived this scene, given that Vasari told the truth, but also completely appropriate for the monastery – how could the monks internalize the Benedictine ideal if they were so easily distracted by mere paintings of nudes? How much hypocrisy would it be, if Sodoma must depicted the harlots conservatively and without sexual appeal, while at the same time the Olivetan commissioner tried to advocate the willpower of abstinence amongst his monks?
As one delves into this fascinating painting, one secret after another uncovers itself. The fresco, beautifully balanced in its composition with two sets of people, captures the pivotal moment of conflict between the humanistic side and the idealistic side of men. On the one hand, the women in the right side whose postures highlight the curved body, dancing feet, and flippant eyes represent lust, and therefore their extended meaning encompasses the human spectrum of desire
On the other hand, the men on the left side, mostly withdrawing but not without a hint of hesitation, embody asceticism, the teaching of St. Benedict, whose face and body show the most stoic refusal to temptation. The scholar Ruth Karras aptly analyzes the symbol of prostitutes lasting from medieval cultural values as an exemplar of humanness. In late fifteenth century, prostitution even stood for the whole spectrum of humanly sins because prostitution symbolizes not only sexual promiscuity but also a greed for money, both of which were considered the severest of sins by Christian standards (2016, p. 6). With his artistic prowess, Sodoma epitomized very well the two conflicting forces of humanity in the hagiographical paining by the two sets of people between whom one can almost feel a gravitational pulling force and a repulsive pushing force at the same time.
A careful “reader” of this fresco may note the donkey amidst the monks, and a little dog running from the harlots toward the men, and refer to Sodoma’s usual tendency to include animals in his artworks. The most plausible explanation is that this donkey represents stubbornness (Boswell & Ellen, 2012, p. 39), and the dog, lust.
As the detail picture shows below, despite the damage to the fresco, the texture of the little dog’s coat was painted with fine vividness. St. Benedict holds one hand straight in front of his chest, as if he were gesturing refusal, and his other hand holds some ambivalent entity in a fist, possibly a roll
book, symbolizing that the power of knowledge can help one resist temptation. While Boswell and Ellen touch on the donkey’s symbolic meaning, I’d extend this allusion further in regard to the positioning of the donkey. If the donkey stood with the men, who represent the moral force as discussed above, then the animal serves as a direct symbol of St. Benedict’s obstinacy to hold true to his ascetic ideals; if the donkey were placed on the women’s side, it shows the perseverance of human lust and desire in people’s spirits. Sodoma chose to place the donkey on the men’s side, and he placed a dog that represents lust in the middle, revealing much about his deep understanding of what Monte Oliveto Maggiore needed his Life of St. Benedict to embody.
The scene St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots was the first scene Sodoma painted on the walls of Monte Oliveto. From the life-like poses of the people to the contrasting facial expressions, he treated the fresco with great excellence. Although many modern scholars spare no effort in vindicating Bazzi of that the nickname Sodoma, some art historians argue that Bazzi was indeed homosexual (Freedberg, 1993, p. 171). The point of this study is not his nickname, but if he were actually homosexual it would have been more remarkable of him to have captured human lust through women and set it in a symbiosis of manlike desire and saint-like asceticism through symbols of prostitution, compositional balance, and animals.
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Cust, Robert Henry Hobart. Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, Hitherto Usually Styled “Sodoma,” the Man and the Painter, 1477-1549; a Study. London: J. Murray, 1906.
Barolsky, Paul, Giorgio Vasari, Gaston Du C. De Vere, David Ekserdjian, Patricia Rubin, Leon Satkowski, and Ralph Lieberman. “Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” The Art Bulletin 80, no. 2 (1998): 380. doi:10.2307/3051239.
Boswell Schiefer, Ellen W. Miracle at Monte Oliveto Renaissance Benedictine Ideals and Humanist Pictorial Ideals in Perspective. University of Cincinnati, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012. 1515012.
Forness, Philip Michael. “The Life of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great: Translation and Commentary – By Terrence G. Kardong.” Religious Studies Review 37, no. 1 (2011): 67. doi:10.1111/j.1748-0922.2011.01490_5.x.
Freedberg, Sidney J. (1993). Painting in Italy 1500-1600. Penguin Books. pp. 117–119 et passim.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Holy Harlots: Prostitute Saints in Medieval Legend.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1, no. 1 (April 17, 2016): 3-32.
Mladenovic, Ivana. “Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives by Andrew Ladis.” Comitatus Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 39, no. 1 (2008): 295-96. doi:10.1353/cjm.2008.0049.
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