Art and Allegories of Lust

Many societal opinions on sex were influenced by allegories of lust in Christian art. Lust is, of course, associated with sex, as it is typically seen as the cause of sexual acts. It has also been identified by philosophers and Christian religious authorities as one of the seven deadly sins (Tucker). Over the course of this presentation and the following discussion, keep this question in mind: How do these depictions of the sin of lust influence and reflect society’s perceptions of lust and sex, as related to what talked about last week?

Personifications of lust in art history have taken many forms over time. In the middle ages, symbolic depictions of the sin of lust were the most common. These mostly took the form of a nude woman with a snake or toad biting her. They mostly were found as reliefs on churches and tombs, often accompanied by images of damnation or a religious figure “saving” others (Thomas, et. al 93). The snake and toad are symbols associated with evil or the devil; thus, these symbols sent the message that lust is a sin which infects humans (women), leading to closeness with the devil.

Lust is most commonly personified as a woman. She is often scantily clad or completely nude/naked. In the engraving Lust by Leon Davent, the personification of lust seen in the imagery of a woman and child who are believed to be based off depictions of Venus and Cupid. The torch the woman carries in her left hand symbolizes hellfire, and is common in depictions of the seven deadly sins (Tucker). It equates the seven deadly sins with hell and damnation. In the engraving, chains and the specter of death accompany lust. The chains connect to the people surrounding her chariot, including a holy man. In this piece, the message becomes clear: lust, in the guise of a pagan woman and her child captures you and forces you on the path to death and hell.

Allegorie auf das Mönchtum by Hans Sebald Beham depicts three of the seven deadly sins (lust, pride and greed) holding back a monk by his cape, preventing him from reaching the oath of poverty he should take and the bible, as held out by a farmer. All three sins are depicted as women. Lust herself, at center, is scantily clad (for the time period), wearing a low cut dress which is rucked up to her knees and no shoes. Yet again, this depiction of lust, as a woman, keeping a holy man from the bible and his vows is particularly damning, as it equated femininity with lust and sin. This equating of the two is furthered in depictions of lust as a woman where she is nude.

Yet perhaps the most well known and impactful piece denouncing the dangers of lust is Lust by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In this painting, the female allegory for lust sits at center, in the lap of the enthroned devil (Tucker). All around, various beasts, devils and even some humans are caught in scenes of chaotic ecstasy, creating a wild scene of sexual depravity. In the background, flames can be seen, thus equating lust with hell. According to Tucker, “the print’s inscription reinforces how sexual excess destroys human reason and power, or how sexual excess, to use its language, “unmans the man”” (Tucker).
These depictions of lust as a woman equates femininity with lust and sin. This is not a new practice; throughout art history, allegories of principles such as lust were depicted as women so that men could feel like they had control over them. Machiavelli, in The Prince, said “Fortune is a woman and it is necessary, in order to keep her under, to cuff and maul her” (Melion and Ramakers 633). Pertaining to the personification of lust, Justus Lipsius, a German philosopher, stated that lust is a ‘womanish vice’ (634).

Yet lust has not only been personified as a woman. Other allegories of lust include animals and mythological creatures. In Allegory by Piero di Cosimo, “a winged woman, largely nude despite her two layers of mantles secured by knots, extends a sprig of juniper and daintily holds a rearing stallion by a string. She has been…identified as Chastity, who effortlessly contains the forces of Lust embodied by her virile steed… The double-tailed mermaid who energetically parts the seas before them may be understood as a siren symbolizing the dangers of carnal passion” (Allegory). Horses, goats, roosters and reptiles are most commonly associated with allegories for lust. This is one of the few times in art history where a woman triumphs over lust without the assistance of an outside force.

In Triumph of Virtue over Lust by Johannes Wierix, a satyr is the personification of lust. An angel who symbolizes virtue saves a woman from lust. This trend is common as well; when men and mythological creatures are depicted as lust there is often a woman who must be “saved” from them by another man or angelic figure (Tucker). In this way, depictions of women in allegories of lust and sex are often the sinful ones or the victims to be saved. What does this tell us about the way that beliefs about lust and sex have been communicated? How does this relate to the way that sex and sexuality is taught to us?

Work Cited

“Allegory.” The National Gallery of Art, The National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.301.html#overview.

Melion, Walter S., and B. A. M. Ramakers. Personification : Embodying Meaning and Emotion. Brill, 2016. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=nlebk&AN=1179887&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=asc1.

Thomas, Joe, et al. 1000 Erotic Works of Genius. Parkstone International, 2014.

Tucker, Shawn R. The Virtues and Vices in the Arts : A Sourcebook. Cascade Books, 2015.

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