7 Insane R-Rated Trends You Never Noticed in Famous Art
We tend to think of random wacky trends as a product of the Internet, even though memes have actually been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Humanity has always possessed a knack for mindlessly repeating weird themes in all aspects of life, up to and very much including classic art. The only difference is that their themes were somehow even stranger ...
Demons Were Depicted With Faces in Their Genitals
Ah, the question that is almost as old as religion itself: What does the devil have dangling between his legs? Is it ... like that knife dick in Se7en? A regular human dong, but with tiny horns and hooves? Artists during the Renaissance devoted a surprising amount of time to this question, and they all came up with the same, creepy solution: Obviously, Satan and his minions have faces on their genitals and butts.
This guy's dong-face is actually classier than his regular one.
If for some ridiculous reason you've never thought to check out all the demonic packages so blatantly visible in Renaissance-era art, you probably never knew this was a thing. But a thing it was, and to an insane degree: "Demon faces where orifices should go" was a massively popular trend in early Renaissance Italy, and variations of the theme have been recorded up to the 20th century. As a result, religious art of the period is full of shit like this:
"I don't care what that says. You're still talking out of your ass."
Not vagina dentata. Vagina facata.
Body hack: Attain a groin face, use it as a pouch.
The whole faces-for-dongs thing can be pinned on one guy -- namely, the massively influential painter Giotto, and his Last Judgment fresco for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto's inspired spin on hell is largely gluttony-based, with dragons swallowing sinners whole while demons gobble up their genitals. At the center of all this is Satan himself, chomping on one sinner while simultaneously ... evacuating another:
So that's what a shit-eating grin is supposed to look like.
Giotto borrowed the Hungry Lucifer theme from a previous work, but the genital flourish was all his own. Since he was a total rock star, this bout of lunacy wound up inspiring entire generations of copycat artists.
This is what "giving head" means in hell.
There's actually a method to this particular madness: The creepy oral-genitals deliberately bring a birthing element in addition to the obvious pooping one, thus giving Satan a fluidity of gender meant to unsettle the viewers (and joking around a popular wordplay about the similarities of giving birth and farting). However, other artists didn't always catch on to the finer nuances of Giotto's invention, and the religious art of the era wound up using the crotch face as handy visual shorthand for "demon," much like halos represent angels.
Don't think that demons were the only horror monsters running around old artwork, though ...
Christian Martyrs Were Terrifying Horror Movie Characters
It might be a bit difficult to see when shrunken down to Internet size, but this is a painting of a robed man strolling along, carrying his own severed head:
Arm outstretched, so the head doesn't bump his hip.
That's a 17th-century print by the French artist Nicolas Poussin. The depicted murder ghost is actually St. Denis, a holy man who was beheaded, after which legend insists he picked his head up and carried it for miles, preaching the whole way via his disembodied mouth.
See, that's the thing about saints: They're all about weird miracles and horrible deaths, so when artists paint them, that's what ends up on the canvas. These gruesome pieces took the public's mind out of their own grim lives by reminding them someone had trudged through an even bigger river of shit, which is why they were all the rage in the old days. Here's St. Erasmus enjoying his death by disembowelment:
He waxed and oiled himself for the occasion.
Yes, that painting with the Saw vibe was painted two centuries ago and occupies a cozy top spot in a Spanish cathedral. Here's St. Peter Martyr, patron saint of crappy Halloween costumes (probably). You'll never guess how he died:
That's right. The crowd lynched him because of that horrible hat.
Moral of the story: If you ever need inspiration for that B-movie torture porn you've been working on, just head to the nearest old church.
Jesus Kept Turning into a Unicorn
Few mythological animals have as many religious undertones as unicorns, Aslan the lion notwithstanding. The trend reached its apex during the Middle Ages, when Jesus himself was commonly depicted as, well, whatever happened to pass for a unicorn in the artist's opinion:
Hold on, guys, that's clearly just a dog with a carrot strapped to its head.
This is due to a series of wacky translation errors in the Bible itself (in other news, there are unicorns in the Bible). A major problem with the holy book has always been that its texts have been translated into a multitude of languages, and the translators have often been forced to take liberties that sometimes turn the translated text into a weird Hollywood adaptation of the original. That's how a simple mistranslation gave Moses a pair of horns, and that's how Jesus wound up spending a few hundred years as every preteen girl's favorite fictional animal.
Here's how it happened: The Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible were having a hard time identifying an animal the original text called a "reem." They knew that the animal had horns but couldn't be a goat. So, possibly because the workday was almost over and the happy hour was just about to start, they just translated it into "monoceros," one-horn. Sadly, the world would never experience the awesomeness of Rhino Jesus, as the Greek monoceros was further translated to the Latin "unicornis." The artists took one look at that shit and, because babies and bearded dudes get really boring to paint after a while, declared: "Yep, Jesus is now a unicorn, too."
The implications for the whole Nativity story are best left unexplored.
In the 20th century, paleontologists discovered that a reem was, in fact, an ox, and had jack shit to do with Jesus -- the writers mostly used the animal as a symbol of God's strength, stuff like that. However, by that point the unicorn already boasted a hefty CV as the savior of humanity in religious art. Usually, it is pictured lounging around with Virgin Mary, sometimes with an entourage ...
"And lo did he fart out fortune cookie fortunes for those that would believe."
... and sometimes inside Mary's enclosed yard, which of course is meant to represent her sealed-off vagina. To underline the unicorn's holiness, it's usually the only thing that can enter this yard.
The rest of them get to watch, though.
Jesus Also Kept Ending Up in a Winepress
In the Christian Bible, there is a symbolic connection between blood and wine that would probably require several books to fully explain. It's part of the Holy Communion ritual, and the symbolism rears its head again and again, in some ways more horrific than others. Here, for instance, is Christ about to be crushed in a machine intended to pulverize grapes:
"Merlot, Merlot, why have you forsaken me?"
We see a dying, brutalized Lamb of God, using his last strength to bleed out in a cup for people to drink and enjoy. That's ... pretty gross, but at least it's sort of consistent with the Christian notion about Jesus' blood being a big deal. Not so much with this congregation of worshippers, who are flat-out having a pool party in poor J.C.'s body juice:
"Get ready for the wet no-shirt contest, y'all!"
These pictures are part of an entire genre called "Christ in the Winepress," which is based on a concept known as mystic winepress, a particularly graphic representation of God's wrath. Over time, this evolved into something straight out of Hannibal Lecter's recipe book: Take one Christ, take one winepress, squeeze Christ into wine.
The mystic winepress eventually fell out of fashion for whatever reason, and the church started playing the whole blood-wine thing as more of a mystical/metaphorical thing. We're on the fence about whether this is a good thing or not -- religion would certainly be more interesting if every church prominently featured a giant winepress with suspicious, red stains.
Though many wrongly assume that Jesus wine was white.
Artists Conflate Female Genitalia, Jesus' Spear Wound
You know that old, old visual pun where a kid leafs through a nudie magazine in class by hiding it in a history textbook? Because we should burn the very concept of that joke to the ground and replace it with an even older one, straight from the Middle Ages:
You know what that is, and yes, it's in a prayer book.
Images like this are plentiful in manuscripts and devotional books of the era, when objects associated with the crucifixion were popular subjects. Somehow, the artists behind these precious works convinced their patrons that the disembodied labia you see in the picture above (and below) represent the spear wound Christ received in his side during crucifixion, and started drawing it all over the place.
Yeah, Medieval artist dude, that's totally a spear wound.
On the opposite page they'd draw a mighty column. Then, they'd open and shut the book and giggle profusely.
Historians are pretty sure the people who drew these things were well aware of the resemblance. In fact, some argue that it was the point: Because the side wound was seen as a way into Christ's heart, it was a very important aspect in Christianity and believers were actually encouraged to visualize themselves communing with the wound (presumably they added a spear of their own to this visual image). No matter how pious and chaste you are, there's only so much innuendo the world can pile in front of you before you take the obvious route.
If you still don't quite buy the whole vagina theory, consider the fact that the wound was also seen as the "birth canal" that unleashed Christianity into the world:
Still not as painful as giving birth normally.
It also often prominently surrounds Jesus in pictures of his resurrection:
He's his own father and mother.
Yeah, we're calling it: All religious art is legally required to carry creepy undertones.
Unless you have some other reason for that bullet-riddled potato in your vagina.
Medieval Bunnies Were Just Plain Fucking Evil
Here's the thing about bunnies: They're adorable. Being cute and fluffy is their entire schtick, which is why it works so well when Bugs Bunny starts wrecking shit or the Beast of Caerbannog in Monty Python and the Holy Grail turns out to be a fluffy rabbit that just happens to be made out of murder. Medieval artists knew this too:
"It's better this way. You don't want to be alive for what I'm going to do after."
Rather than overpopulate the pages of children's storybooks, Medieval rabbits wreaked all sorts of sociopathic havoc on the margins of various writings. For instance, a manuscript known as The Smithfield Decretals boasts two rabbit-themed stories that unfold like gruesome flip books at the bottom of several pages. In one, a gang of no-good hares capture a hapless human. In the other one, far more convoluted than any episode of Law & Order, they shoot a hound, tie him up, take him to animal court, and condemn him to hang. The hares finish their power trip by thumbing their nose at the dead dog.
What, you thought we were kidding?
These images were often added in commissioned written works, in a manner not unlike cartoons in a newspaper. Only, their adorable cartoon rabbits do shit like mauling people to death:
Nabbing a lucky human's foot in the process
And go Eddard Stark on their necks:
"The Leporidae always pay their debts."
And just generally hunt them down, presumably for sport:
Because it's rabbit hunting season.
As the old Medieval saying goes: Ya don't mess with the rabbit, y'all.
Syphilitic Codpiece Boners Were Everywhere
Let's say you're the ruler of a small dukedom in a time when all your neighbors want to overtake your land. What better way to show that you are a strong, masculine warrior than by commissioning a portrait of yourself with a big ol' erection?
"My enemies are pests, and I will spray them off my land with my mighty hose. Penis."
Thanks in part to Henry VIII -- king, lover, and innovator in the field of ornate cock-coverings -- powerful leaders in the 15th and 16th centuries were all about the codpiece. It had a humble start as a triangular piece of cloth connecting the top and bottom parts of a man's outfit, but the unfortunate tides of fashion soon turned it into a very specific tool in dick-measuring contests that especially manifested itself in the ridiculously bulging portraits of the era.
However, plenty of historians believe the length and girth of codpieces grew not just because leaders wanted to advertise but because the giant, erect cloth-sack was the only way these powerful men could deal with the first great syphilis epidemic.
"If that thing gets any fucking closer to my face you won't have to worry about STDs anymore."
The only way to treat the symptoms of syphilis back then was to apply soothing ointments and pack soft bandages around those genitals. This left an enormous bulge that the sick person couldn't exactly conceal. Which proved problematic, as it was extremely important for a man of power to be seen out and about, lest his enemies start conspiring. If only there was some way to pack up your swollen, festering junk, all wrapped up in bandages and lathered in staining, red ointment, in a way that is socially acceptable ...
Yeah, that's right. Now, take a look at all those wacky codpiece pictures again, and see how horrifying they've suddenly become.
Carmen Burana would like to thank Carl S. Pyrdum, III at @gotmedieval for his invaluable research into murderous bunnies.
For more art history lessons, check out 19 Mind-Blowing Details You Missed in Famous Works of Art and 24 Famous Paintings (With The Dialogue Included).