Martyrs in Torment: Saint Sebastian and Eroticized Death
by E. Nowicki
The repeated sensationalized portrayal of Roman martyr Saint Sebastian has created a powerful iconography. Fascination with Sebastian, spanning throughout the Renaissance to the early modern poets, is a direct result of his sexualized depiction at the scene of his execution. Mannerist painters found a fashionable erotic interest in him by utilizing portraiture as a pretext for homoerotic appeal, painting him in a conventionally effeminate style with an ecstatic expression, whereas poets found a sense of perverse righteousness at his "honorable" death. His beauty incites passion, empathy, and an overwhelming sense of pathos. This article examines the link between martyrdom and sexuality in sociological, philosophical, and artistic contexts.
Italian Renaissance
Religious Art
Iconography
European Art
Saint Sebastian
Guido Reni
Jacopo Pontormo
Pietro Perugino
Poetry
The  agonizing yet divinely ecstatic martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, shown in both pious and sensual lights, has become a hugely prevalent and recognizable pictorial event in both historical and modern society. His iconographic journey flows through the Middle Ages, the early Italian Renaissance, English aestheticism, and early modern poetry - always depicted in reference to the scene of his attempted martyrdom, in which he is pierced by multiple Roman arrows. Beyond his established stance of celebrity in European culture, Sebastian’s popularity makes him and the moment of his agony a sexual trope in visual and literary art. For many aesthetic and humanistic reasons, his depiction has grown such, but the particular instance of sensationalized martyrdom, repeated so many times in the hands of so many artists, links eroticism to death by philosophy and sociology.
Early modern morality, whether personally based upon the Old Testament or not, resolves to a general consensus that “Thou shalt not kill.” Death has been a point of fascinated horror and irresistible repulsion since the first evidence of burial ceremonies.1 Humanity sees its inevitable decay; the individual has their own downfall reflected in their eyes as fated and inescapable. An attempt is made to remove man from violence, from blood (from any bodily fluid in extremities), an impossible goal that ends in failure at each death, especially each intentional one. A taboo is created - perpetual, rooted in horror. The popular distinction between human and non-human animal, in which animals are considered (whether unfairly so or not) to be inferior in civilization and intelligence, is made. Non-human animals, in their historically biased interpretation, are carnal and freely sexual, as well as freely violent. Humans, however, stand ashamed before the supposed demands of nature or, in some sociological scenarios, God, and so the limitation and condemnation is required to ease human fear and embarrassment.
The necessities of nature are not restricted to death, but extend to specific areas of transgression when it occurs. Martyrdom, sacrifice, and even suicide constitute given categories which are, historically, avoided in public discussion. While these specifics vary contextually, the construction of taboos, whatever they surround, is universal. Still more condemnable than killing, however, is sex. While in certain situations these seem paradoxical - sexual functions can reproduce life, murder ends it - they are intertwined and intimately (in all definitions of the word) related. There is not a necessary terror to be found involving sexual conduct; it is potentially one of the most natural and vital occurrences in human existence. Because the remarkably widespread aversion to sexuality lacks a natural justification, the taboo can be established as a social product. Logical reasoning behind the proscription of sex may be non-existent save for tradition, deeply bound in religious contexts, exemplified in Abrahamic faiths specifically. Yet another commandment lends itself to said customs, having set a moral and social guideline rooted in the oldest civilizations: “Thou shalt not perform the carnal act.”
Though the classical era is, at first glance and by the common perception, brimming with sexual liberty, Greco-Roman restrictions of erotic practice and bigoted condemnation of feminization present an entirely contrary, sometimes shocking truth. Antiquity has frequently been labeled the holy grail of sexual acceptance, considering the profusion of homosexuality and the reverent light in which it was cast. It must be recognized that this assumed equality and social progress is a courtesy extended only to men, and, often, only to their romantic or ‘pure’ relationships. The Grecian ideal has erected its own taboos forbidding abasement and their idea of obscenity. John Addington Symonds describes two loves in his A Problem in Greek Ethics, a celestial Achillean love, Ouranios (the love of heroes), and a vulgar sexuality, Pandemos.2 Even the (colloquially) most carnally equitable people circumscribed sexuality and classified it as licentious.
In a heteronormative setting, sex and subsequent childbirth associated with it may have evolved to be restricted due to simply the amount of blood and death (as violence is taboo) surrounding bearing children. Misogynistic suppression of female sexuality plays its role as well, and the pleasure and autonomy of woman is stripped so she may become merely the possession, the sexual and reproductive property no less, of her husband.
Regardless of the motives for creating prohibitions on sexuality and fatality, the two subjects are inherently connected because of the embedded social attitude they share. With this knowledge, the eroticization of death is expected and no longer absurd. Taboos, though constructed to limit and prevent transgressors, only excite the urge to commit whatever apparently horrendous act these moral, social, or legal expectations disdain. They are “founded on terror,”3 and made to gloriously and publicly curse sexuality and violence, and to use fear as a tool effecting obedience.
Laws are temptations - barriers - waiting to be overturned, inviting illicit activity. To forbid an action ensures its abundant occurrence. Banning sexuality, banning violence, and villainizing suicide, and in doing so bonding the three sins as one, creates an unexpected appeal of eroticism and death, specifically allowing oneself to be slain - by one's own hand or any other force of arrows. Religious and honorary sacrifices, such as the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, are perpetually intertwined with sexual interpretations and depictions.
Saint Sebastian is one of the most massively iconographic, and hugely sexualized, mythological figures in European culture. He, a third century Christian convert and soldier of Roman emperor Diocletian, is condemned to die at the hands of archers for leading other Romans to Christianity, generally appearing tethered to a tree with only a sheer cloth around his waist and arrow shafts embedded under pale skin. Through writings of Jacobus de Voragine, Sebastian, born in Narbonne and educated in Milan, came into the clear favor of the Roman despots. When he betrayed Diocletian and Emperor Maximilian by converting their armies, they were “angry and wroth, and commanded him to be led to the field and there to be bounden to a stake for to be shot at.”4 Due to the intervention of Saint Irene, he was tenderly cured and returned to defy Diocletian. Irate that the traitor had not been killed, the emperor ordered his men to beat him and leave him for effective dead; this time, Diocletian succeeds.
From his sixth century depiction as a middle-aged, bearded man to his Renaissance and post-Renaissance portrayal as an Apollonian youth, Sebastian has been painted by artists from Mantegna and Il Sodoma to Nicolas Regnier. His most common image, the writhing boy nude in agony (and conceivably ecstasy), is an obviously sensual one. In most cases, drawing a saint - especially their martyrdom - was a legitimate excuse to safely fantasize and appreciate erotic beauty. Just as Venus became the standard subject for self-indulgent female nudes, Sebastian became an artist's resort for male appreciation and socially excusable homosexuality. This attraction and fascination, thinly veiled in erudition by the classical obsessions of humanists, could be justified in both artistic and religious social categories.
With rising humanist philosophy and newfound Grecian fascination, the late fourteenth century brought a catalyst to the Italian Renaissance and an iconographic era of Saint Sebastian as a desirable figure. Artists eagerly explored the scandalous freedom and glory of the nude, but the overzealous presence of the Catholic Church in Italy reprimanded the sacrilege of indecent portrayals of holy icons. For Pope Clement VIII in 1592, Saint Sebastian was the worst of these violations. Scarcely dressed male saints - the most terrible kind, for female sexual autonomy and homosexuality on all accounts were, and are, severely condemnable - lead to corruption of heart, unfocused worship, and a great deal of confusion for any poor sinner lead astray by the seductive charm of classical nudity. This may feasibly have occurred, as Giorgio Vasari creates an arguably truthful anecdote in which:
[Fra Bartolommeo] painted a picture of St. Sebastian, naked, very lifelike in coloring of the flesh, sweet in countenance, and likewise executed with corresponding beauty of person.... the friars found, through the confessional, women who had sinned at the sight of it, on account of the charm and melting beauty of the lifelike reality imparted to it by the genius of Fra Bartolommeo; for which reason they removed it from the church.5
In response to this heretic distraction, Clement VIII lead a campaign against nakedness and sexuality in religious art on the grounds that it was profane and did not accurately reflect the pain of these saviors. He proposed a specific taboo, circumscribed art - especially compellingly and urgently classical art - and doing so invited his blaspheming painters to disobey. As the Marquis de Sade insists, “The best way of enlarging and multiplying one's desires is to try to limit them.”6 Indeed, Fra Bartolommeo’s saint is scantily clad and his skin possesses a soft tangibility that immediately evokes the later Titian.
The most notable early Renaissance representations of Saint Sebastian are Andrea Mantegna's trio of paintings. For this purpose, the St. Sebastian of the Musée du Louvre and Kunsthistorisches Museum will be analyzed. In these two paintings, Sebastian is bound to a classical column (fig. 1).
Andrea Mantegna, Saint Sebastian (1457-1458), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, oil on panel, 68cm x 30cm. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
This deteriorating Roman construction (though Sebastian would have been killed during the age of ancient Rome) can be interpreted as a symbol of the ruins of paganism. Rising from antique religion is a new age of Christianity, heralded by the death of Sebastian.
Both of Mantegna's figures are naked except for a tied cloth around their groin. Sebastian pushes his shoulders back and displays his chest while his hips sit slanted with weight on one leg. The lack of hair on Sebastian's body gives him a youthful and conventionally effeminate look, which, with his curled hair, makes him a figure to rival the god Apollo.
Similarities between Apollo and Sebastian extend beyond their physical appearance. Sebastian is the patron saint of the plague-stricken and Apollo the deity of disease. Both are used by artists as vessels through which naked androgynous beauty is conveyed. This observation adds another layer to the symbolism of Mantegna's ancient ruins - Sebastian is an allegory for Apollo, and Christianity building off of paganism.
Saint Sebastian was frequently painted as a thinly veiled excuse to artistically dote on the male form. Because he is a holy figure whose death for God is the story depicted by these artists, they could easily defend the level of adoration paid to him. In fact, the expectation was that he would be romanticized in visual portrayals, so taking his death a step further and eroticizing it is not a great leap. Agnolo Bronzino's Sebastian in the Museo Thyssen sits with the shaft of a broken arrow penetrating his chest and his pink robe sliding off his torso onto his lap (fig. 2).
Agnolo Bronzino, Saint Sebastian (c. 1533), Museo Thyssen - Bornemisza, Madrid, 87cm x 76.5cm, oil on panel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Unlike the common trope of an agonized, arguably ecstatic expression, Bronzino's portrait turns away from the viewer, smiling as if conducting a leisurely conversation. He is completely unfazed by the weapons of his martyrdom still embedded in his flesh. This pose of indifference to his story combines with the revealing title of the work - Portrait of a Young Man as Saint Sebastian - to prove beyond doubt that Bronzino pays little care to the Christian narrative he pretends to tell, and instead employs the subterfuge of the saint to admire a beautiful youth under the dignified protection of religion. This is not Sebastian but a pederastic adolescent painted in his place. Janet Cox-Rearick theorizes that there is symbolism found in Bronzino's potentially phallic instruments of death as well:
The arrows, moreover, are not abstract symbols of his ordeal … but erotic emblems: one has penetrated his body, the other is casually, but suggestively, held against the pink drapery, the saint’s index finger curved around and almost touching the arrowhead … These characteristics …suggest that (the painting) may have been intended to have an ambiguous meaning – an image, on the one hand, religious, and on the other, homoerotic.7
Bronzino’s mannerist contemporary Jacopo Pontormo paints a very similarly undistressed Sebastian (fig. 3).
Jacopo Pontormo, Sebastian (1515), Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, Dijon, oil on panel, 65cm x 48cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
This figure is also clad in pastel red robes and holds the shaft of another arrow. Pontormo, however, drags this further into the realm of eroticism by failing to depict any arrows shot into the saint. Though this can be related to the theory that Pontormo visualized Sebastian in heaven, after his death and sainthood had already occurred, it remains a startlingly calm piece in the style of a portrait, suggesting that his Saint Sebastian is a painting of a model posing instead of the saint himself. By drawing a distinction between a true pious depiction and an indulgent portrait of a ‘fake’ Sebastian - as Bronzino obviously does in his title, Pontormo in his painting - artists could form a defense against accusations of heresy or disrespect to the religious figure.
Sensualized painting under the guise of religious or intellectual pursuits extends past Sebastian's exaggerated depictions to Titian's series of what have, until recent discourse, been considered Venuses. The soft and charming nudes, painted with renowned palpability, are claimed, in the scholarly community, to be Venus. Otto Brendel proposes they are allegories for neo-platonic love,8 but when an immediate emotional, visceral response is considered, the blatant eroticism and provocative nature of the Venus of Urbino and others presents itself readily. Titian's models  may have been prostitutes, courtesans, or ambiguously identified friends (as his mentor Giorgione is known to have utilized them, logically Titian was likely to have done so as well). Painting the sexualized goddess of love was, as previously mentioned, an excuse to celebrate human form and nudity. Titian's intent is unlikely to lie in a tribute to Venus, but simply a portrait - of a friend, lover, or acquaintance. Without her pagan title, she becomes the feminine equivalent of Bronzino's Young Man as Saint Sebastian: a naked lady,9 an ordinary human being depicted for pleasure rather than academia. Pietro Perugino's Saint Sebastian (fig. 4)
Pietro Perugino, Bust of St. Sebastian (1493-1494), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, oil and tempura on panel, 53.8cm x 39.5cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
offers a similar sense of humbling intimacy with a taste of Bronzino's portraiture. His figure, set against a black background, has luminary textures and is so close to the viewer's space in the canvas that the experience of the painting grows claustrophobic. There are no distractions: this is a pure and obvious hagiography, with strands of affection woven through it.
Even when Saint Sebastian is painted in what seem to be the throes of death or ecstasy, or more likely both simultaneously, he still exhibits erotic traits. In Baroque art, taking Guido Reni’s series as an example, he possesses only what is essentially a loincloth. The rest of his body is drastically contrasted with a dark background, typical of theatrical Baroque lighting, alluding to a divine Caravaggesque glow. He forms a striking image, and a heroic and endearing one that was conventionally attractive.
Reni displays Sebastian consistently with his head tossed back in visionary intensity, similar to depictions of Saint Theresa and even Christ, with eyes cast to the sky and to the goal he has pursued so fervently. His lips are parted in possible obscenity, and his features are hyperbolically flushed in an anonymous sketch after Reni’s painting (fig. 5).
This
Anonymous after Guido Reni, St. Sebastian (1585-1692), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, chalk on paper, 35.2cm x 24.5cm. Photo: Rijksmuseum.
clear idolatry and exposing composition caught the attention of young aesthete Oscar Wilde, who, in what is considered one of his first homoerotic writings,10 describes an 1887 viewing of the series in the Palazzo Rosso of Genoa and notes them in his essay The Tomb of Keats. Preceding a sonnet composed for John Keats, Wilde writes, “… Guido's St. Sebastian came before my eyes as I saw him at Genoa, a lovely brown boy, with crisp, clustering hair and red lips … raising his eyes with divine, impassioned gaze towards the Eternal Beauty of the opening heavens.”11 Like Reni's early Baroque example, which bridges the artistic and societal gap between the late Renaissance and the Baroque, Keats is a beautiful youth slain by consumption before a just time. For the nineteenth century medievalists and Renaissance fascinators, at least, an early death for the sake of sustained beauty - found in poetry for Keats and in his God for Sebastian - is a fashionable martyrdom, and one that deserves to be painted in a glorified light again and again.
Another poet, nearly fifty years later, found a morbid grace among the saint's depiction as well. T.S. Eliot made a visit to Mantegna's Sebastian in the Palazzo Ca d'Oro and came away with what are considered some of his darkest works, “The Love Song of St. Sebastian” and “The Death of St. Narcissus.” Much like the creators and philosophers who developed and shaped the myth before him, Eliot was drawn to the fatal sublimity and drama presented by Sebastian's execution. For Eliot, the archetypes of Saint Sebastian and Saint Narcissus represent similar ideals, and equally attractive ones. Narcissus, a second century Christian patriarch of Jerusalem, was slandered by accusations of a horrific and taboo crime, sometimes conjectured to be homosexuality.12 His work on Narcissus uses the subject as a Sebastian allegory, “dancing” for the lord until Diocletian's arrows finally pierce him. The poem describes him as young girl:
Caught in the woods by a drunken old man / Knowing at the end the taste of his own whiteness, / The horror of his own smoothness, / And he felt drunken and old.13
Sebastian, painted as beautiful and youthful again with his description as a girl, is poetically, or potentially literally, raped.14 He is objectified - perhaps the old man is emperor Diocletian - and conventionally effeminized, as almost all post-Middle Ages interpretations of him are. His loving flesh accepts the arrows, based on paintings of arching backs and pin-up style posture. Even so, Eliot defends the heterosexuality of his experiences with the Italian Sebastian paintings in a letter to Conrad Aiken:
I have studied S. Sebastians - why should anyone paint a beautiful youth and stick him full of pins (or arrows) unless he felt a little as the hero of my verse? Only there's nothing homosexual about this - rather an important difference perhaps - but no one ever painted a female Sebastian, did they?15
Innumerable Christian figures have been martyred for their passion of belief, and an equally immense amount are worshipped in paint, but none are so fundamentally attractive as Sebastian. Having morphed from a medieval soldier to an ardent and hot-blooded Adonis who writhes on the cross, Sebastian occupied an ancient ideal featured at the forefront of visual culture from the Renaissance to nineteenth-century portraiture. His “purity” and boyishness lent itself to the pederastic fantasies of humanist masters and workshop dynamics. His unjust persecution plagued the righteous minds of poets.
This youthfulness and slight pedophilia may have in actuality existed for Sebastian. If it is assumed he, in reality, was once young in the company of his emperors, pederastic conduct is very likely, implied by Voragine's thirteenth century Legenda Aurea. In fact, the soldier Sebastian “was so well beloved of Diocletian and Maximian, emperors of Rome, that they made him master and duke of their meiny and power, and always would have him in their presence.”16
Concrete causes of Sebastian's sexualization and subsequent iconography include general appeal after his physical canon was altered, his use as a pretext for indulgent non religious painting and/or sexual acts, and, once his eroticized image was established, a passion that enticed artists across the field of humanities. But more philosophical reasons exist in the phenomenon of martyrdom and glorified sacrifice. Though violent death and suicide are so often socially condemned, especially by dogmatic religious interpretations, martyrs are honored as saints. The denunciation of violence is suspended when death is a result of divine love, because sacrifice is often considered the highest measure of sanctity and anything done to ascend towards God tends to rise above mortal rules. If the action brings the actor, or humanity itself, closer to divinity, it is religiously considered pure of sin. The immense devotion to God that Sebastian possessed was considered passionate and consuming. He craved a consummation of his faith, a mode to demonstrate his absolute and prioritized love; his “flesh was in love with the burning arrows”.17 There is such an infatuation with his love, God, that a sexual quality presents itself. Sexual and divine passion have long been nearly inseparable. Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Theresa connects physical pleasure with faith to lure viewers to religion, and all encompassing love for God adopts a carnal quality. Even vows of chastity evoke this concept, in that one's only love must be God. For visionaries and saints, self-sacrifice is “an ecstatic union with God in which suffering is finally indistinguishable from love.”18
It is debatable whether poets of the past two centuries have focused on and idolized Sebastian because of this passion and “purity” or because of a morbid fascination with both death and all that is darkly sensual (evidenced by the increasing perverseness of Eliot’s early work, especially topics of strangulation in “The Love Song of Saint Sebastian”). Arthur Schopenhauer describes an artistic expression of the human spirit in displays of emotion,19 as our natural will to live is often overwhelmed by our constructed societal expectations and duties. Because this drive behind human accomplishment is so buried, it is unearthed only by passion. Intense emotion is a direct result of a fervent will and so inspires belief. This testifies to the art of poets, actors, and painters, in which the primary goal of the work is to incite such convictions of will. The inspiration of Saint Sebastian's sacrifice, including the miraculous recovery from his martyrdom which proves a desire for continuation of life, invites passionate portrayals and viewer reactions. The attempt of past poets to present the grotesque and taboo as beautiful and impassioned lends Sebastian as a perfect amalgamation of both.
An interdisciplinary obsession with the frequently eroticized Saint Sebastian, and more specifically with the moment of his execution, arises from the intense emotion his image incites. This feeling, whether sexual and potentially dangerous or pious and sympathetic, originates in the deviant and violent nature of his martyrdom. By connecting Sebastian’s sexualization to Renaissance religious restrictions and the taboo of death itself, the appeal of portraying him for the sake of painting beauty is apparent. Sebastian functions as a male Venus, whose homosexual iconography and honorable devastation is directly connected with his sacrifice.
Endnotes
1 Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality; A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo (New York: Walker, 1962), 42.
2 Sean Brady and John Addington Symonds, “A Problem In Greek Ethics,” in John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: A Critical Edition of Sources (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 12.
3 Bataille, Death and Sensuality, 48.
4 Richard Benz, “The Life Of Sebastian,” in Jacobus De Voragine: Legenda Aurea (Diederichs, 1925), 104–8.
5 Giorgio Vasari, Lives Of the Artists; Biographies of the Most Eminent Architects, Painters, and Sculptors of Italy, translated by Betty Burroughs, and Mrs. Jonathan Foster (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946), 188.
6 Sade, The Marquis De Sade: The 120 Days of Sodom, and Other Writings, comp. and trans. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver. (New York: Grove Press, 1978).
7 Janet Cox-Rearick, “A St Sebastian By Bronzino,” The Burlington Magazine 129, no. 1008 (1987): 159.
8 Otto Brendel, “The Interpretation Of the Holkham Venus,” The Art Bulletin 28, no. 2 (1946): 65.
9 Thomas Puttfarken, “Titian's Mythological Paintings: Erotic Viewing," in Titian and Tragic Painting: Aristotle's Poetics and the Rise of the Modern Artist (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 147.
10 Jonathan Jones, “Love And Hate in Baroque Rome," in The Loves Of the Artists: Art and Passion in the Renaissance (London: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 276.
11 Oscar Wilde, “The Tomb Of Keats," in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, 1923).
12 Paul Murphy,  “A Study In the Suicide of Selfhood: The Death of Saint Narcissus,” The Symptom 5 (2004). lacan.com.
13 Martin Scofield, “Early Poetic Influences And Criticism," in T.S. Eliot: The Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 44.
14 Anthony Julius, “Introduction," in T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 24.
15 T.S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, and Hugh Haughton, The Letters Of T.S. Eliot: Volume 1: 1898-1922, Revised Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Detroit Institute of Arts, 2011), 49.
16 Voragine, Legenda Aurea, 105.
17 Scofield, T.S. Eliot, 44.
18 David B. Morris, The Culture Of Pain (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), 135.
19 Arthur Schopenhauer and R. J. Hollingdale,The Horrors and Absurdities of Religion (London: Penguin, 2009), 46.
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E. Nowicki
Student, High School

E. Nowicki is a high school student and hopeful academic residing in the midwest. Her work currently focuses on contradictory feminine constructs in early Arcadian photography and nature in the Grecian ideal.

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