Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pierre et Gilles

The French photographers Pierre et Gilles have produced numerous images of Christian saints, Hindu deities, and classical deities (Marcadé and Cameron, 1997: 197-223), and many of them are gay icons in one way or another (Vallet, 2006). The series of photographs of saints begins in 1987 with an image of Saint Sebastian, looking remarkably calm as he is transfixed with arrows, lashed to a tree-stump with garlands of roses. Sebastian has been a symbol of same-sex love at least since the Renaissance (Conner et al, 1997: 297), hence Derek Jarman’s remarkable film of the same name, and Pierre et Gilles created two more images of him in 1994 (Sébastien de la Mer) and 1996 (Le martyre de Saint Sébastien). Sebastian was also painted by numerous Renaissance painters, including Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, nicknamed ’Il Sodoma’ (Conner et al, 1997: 85). Pierre et Gilles have produced numerous other saints and deities, all depicted in an ornate and beautiful style. These include Joan of Arc, presumably chosen by the artists for her gender-bending activities and possible lesbianism (Conner et al, 1997: 190), whom they depicted in 1988 and 1997, dressed in armour and gazing into the distance. They also produced an image of Sainte Affligée, known in English as Uncumber or Wilgefortis, a legendary figure who grew a beard to avoid marriage (Becker-Huberti, undated). There are numerous other saint pictures, some of which seem to have homoerotic connotations, but mostly seem somewhat randomly selected.

Pagan deities that they have depicted include Adonis (1992), Amphytrite (1989), Bacchus (1991), Medusa (1990), Orpheus (1990), Venus (1991, 1992 and 2000), Adonis (1992 and 1999), Eros (2003), Mercury (2001), Ganymede (2001), and Diana (1997). Medusa is sometimes seen as a lesbian icon (Conner et al, 1997: 229). Orpheus chose male lovers after failing to retrieve Eurydice from the underworld, and it was for this that the Maenads tore him apart; legend has it that his friend Sappho buried his head (Conner et al, 1997: 258). Adonis was the eromenos of Dionysos (Conner et al, 1997: 43). Eros was also a symbol of same-sex love in ancient Greece (Conner et al, 1997: 132), among the Lacedaemonians and the Athenians for example. In alchemical texts, Mercury was frequently depicted as an androgyne; in Pierre et Gilles’ 2001 work, he appears as a graceful and muscular youth. Ganymede is well-known as the eromenos of Zeus, and the term Ganymede (or its Latin equivalent, ‘catamite’) was used as a term for young men who took the receptive role in homoerotic relationships in the medieval period by both pro- and anti-homosexual writers (Conner et al, 1997: 155). According to mythology, Diana shunned the company of men and preferred the company of women. It would seem from this brief survey that the association of the deity or saint with same-sex love or gender-bending may be a factor in their selection by Pierre et Gilles as a subject.

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