Painted with pride

From Greece and Rome to the sculptures in Khajuraho, here’s a look at the various forms of love that is celebrated in myriad art works
Painted with pride

CHENNAI: There is a way out of every dark mist, over a rainbow trail.

Pride month is a celebration of this rainbow trail. The month of June commemorates years of struggle by the LGBTQIA+ community to have access to equal rights. For those who think that the universe has always been in black and white and the occasional greys do not matter, it may come as a surprise that every hue has been celebrated ever since the human race originated. Art history is replete with innumerable depictions of the existence of a multitude of sexual identities in most cultures.

What The Caves Tell

Line drawings of hunting scenes and galloping animals are the images that come to our mind at the mention of prehistoric cave paintings. However, along with these regular scenes of the just beginning to evolve human species, there are several drawings of homosexual activities. The cave paintings in Addaura, Sicily are believed to have the earliest depictions of homosexual relationships between two males and the San Cave paintings in Zimbabwe show many male figures engaging in it. Artefacts from the Upper Paleolithic period like phallic rods have been interpreted as same-sex eroticism.

San Cave paintings
San Cave paintings

Victorious Bonds

The Renaissance era’s poster boy, Michelangelo lived in a period when same-sex relationships were extremely common and with his clout in the Vatican, he had no reason to hide his gay relationships. His sculpture, Victory, was modelled after his lover. The era saw many more artists incorporating homosexuality into their creations too.

Victory by Michelangelo
Victory by Michelangelo

Ancient Asian Romance

Same sex relationships have thrived in Japan for millennia. There are several visual representations that document such bonds but the process of Westernisation dealt a huge blow to the openness of such revelations. The Indian civilisation was clearly receptive to varied sexual identities with several homosexual references found in the Vedas, the Kama Sutra and the epics. Deities such as Ardhanareeswara were worshipped in an androgynous form. The Khajuraho temple complex of the 10th century, famed for its erotic sculptures, has numerous carvings of lesbian women. Gay couples however, barely feature in them. Clearly, homosexuality in India was not seen as something deviant before British rule.

History loudly proclaims an inclusive world in our past. Art stands testimony to the fact that gender and sexual preferences were personal choices and was never imposed. But today, many countries still criminalise homosexuality. India does not recognise same-sex marriages. The LGBTQIA+ community is harassed under various public order laws. Is it not time to ask ourselves if we have allowed the rigidities of narrow thinking to take over our perceptions, while we pride ourselves on our technological developments? When queerness has always been a notable part of our sexuality, as our visual documentations in art history go to prove, why are we so unyielding to acceptance of what does not fit our definitions of ‘normal’? Why do we hide our closed minds behind the veil of societal restrictions? These artworks have stood the test of time, bearing their multi-hued stories, to remind us that all forms of love exist within us. Let us celebrate it with arms wide open.

Sculptures at Khajuraho temple complex
Sculptures at Khajuraho temple complex

Ancient Tales From Greece

The Greek civilisation was an ideal society for men. Gender did not figure in the choice of a sexual partner. In fact, homosexuality played an integral part in Ancient Greece. The rulers believed that when men were lovers, they would fight with stronger courage. The Sacred Host army unit from 378 BC, was made up of only homosexual couples, and 150 of them! It is true that this unit proved to be the most brutally capable too. The concept of homosexuality and all the other contemporary terminologies did not exist then, and the gender to which someone was physically attracted to was not considered to be a defining characteristic. Sexual identity was unheard of.

Ancient Greek women did not have it this easy though. The poet Sappho of Lesbos who was well acclaimed for her poems dedicated to female beauty and was clearly a lesbian, was however ridiculed for behaving like a ‘masculine woman’.

Sappho of Lesbos
Sappho of Lesbos

Mummified Love

The gods of Ancient Egypt were unbound by mortal rules and same sex relationships did not strip them of their divinity. The human population too had its fair share of gay couples. Niankhkhnum and Chnumhotep, two male royal servants, were thought to have been a homosexual couple, because of their unusual depiction in recorded history. The hieroglyphs in their tomb where they were buried together, show them in a nose to nose kissing position which, at that period, was a kiss strictly reserved for straight couples.Their joint tomb further depicts them in intimate embraces or holding hands. What then of the women? There seems to have been very few examples of women leading queer lives. The sculpture of two Egyptian women, Idit and Ruiu is one of the rare depictions of a lesbian couple.

Hadrian & Antinous
Hadrian & Antinous

Latin Intimacy

If you thought Greece was cool, then check out Ancient Rome. The Roman Emperor Nero officially married a man and he even dressed as a bride! Julius Caesar of the ‘Et tu Brute’ fame, had a relationship with King Nicomedes IV, which was even turned into a song by his marching troops — “ Caesar subdued the Gauls but Nicomedes subdued him”. But it was Emperor Hadrian’s homosexual relationship with his hunting companion that would pass the test of being the most romantic one. His love for the young lad was so intense that he built monuments and declared him a deity after his untimely death. Strangely, female love was almost unheard of in Ancient Rome, or perhaps they were more discreet.

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