Caravaggio’s Queer Jesus

The Italian painter gave Christianity a real messiah

When I was growing up Christian, nobody told me the religion took its key images of Jesus from queer painters.

How ironic, I’d realize later, for a religion that hated the dreaded “gays” to love Michelangelo, Leonardo, etc. The visual imagination of the faith was never far from queer references. Christians loved the movie The Passion of the Christ. The director, Mel Gibson, spoke of his inspiration:

“I think his work is beautiful. I mean it’s violent, it’s dark, it’s spiritual and it also has an odd whimsy or strangeness to it. And it’s so real looking.”

The Italian painter Caravaggio had shown Christians how to see Jesus as a physical man. It took a homosexual to do that?

Caravaggio, “Christ at the Column” (1607); Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004)

I’m learning only now about Caravaggio’s influence on Christianity.

He was born—Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio—in Milan in 1571. Not a lot is known about him. A recent biography, by Peter Robb, begins with a warning that the evidence is mostly:

“…lies to the police, reticence in court, extorted confessions, forced denunciations, revengeful memoirs, self-justifying hindsight, unquestioned hearsay, diplomatic urbanities, theocratic diktat, reported gossip, threat and propaganda, angry outburst — hardly a word untainted by fear, ignorance, malice or self-interest.”

In a world that Christianity had made, in other words, there were mostly lies and shaded truths. As Caravaggio began an art project which struck his contemporaries as astonishing, and horrifying.

He would paint actual people.

There were no halos or heavenly visions.

There were no deities hovering above the earth, with odd smiles. He painted Bible scenes as if they had occurred on earth.

“He preferred nature as his best — and only — teacher,” notes the scholar Joseph Ostenson. “It was an approach to mysticism grounded in the physical — the real—realm.”

To read Christian history about this time, one is given details about the “Counter-Reformation” and ongoing wars of Catholics and Protestants—each calling the other “sodomites” as the worst insult they knew.

Meanwhile, Caravaggio was thinking about real people.

Caravaggio, “Penitent Magdalene” (c.1595)

The subject of Caravaggio’s sexuality has been a difficult one for Christianity.

Little about him was known until the 1950s, when art historians began to assemble the pieces. Many would note, as the scholar John Champagne writes, that Caravaggio’s male figures “present eroticized male bodies.”

The women — not so much. He never painted a female nude. He never married. The Italian public has tended to reject talk of the matter. An 2012 Italian newspaper declares: “Caravaggio Was Not Gay, He Was Normal.”

But there seems to be a coherent narrative of a male partner. Caravaggio seems to have met Francesco Boneri as a 12-year-old. Born around 1588, ‘Cecco’ may have been sent to him as an apprentice.

After awhile, Caravaggio is painting him — over and over — in works that Robb notes are “most remarkable and deeply felt and radically intimate paintings,” works full of “joyeous and untrammelled sexual energy.”

Cecco becomes an angel, and John the Baptist.

Years later, an English writer met Cecco, who was working as a painter, and recorded that he’d been Caravaggio’s “owne boy or servant that laid with him.”

Cecco had by then taken the name ‘Cecco del Caravaggio’.

Caravaggio, ”Amor Vincit Omnia” (c.1602); “John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)” (1602)

This boy becomes a means of staging a discussion of predatory male sexuality.

Over and over, Cesso is cast in the most difficult dramas. He is Isaac about to be sacrificed by Abraham—with that rather phallic-looking knife.

But Cesso is also a divine force. As X-rays of the painting revealed, the angel who tells Abraham not to do it was originally Cecco as well.

In David with the Head of Goliath, Cecco re-appears as the young David — as Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of the giant.

The drama of the older and younger man replays over and over — as the younger man prevails, and brings a new consciousness into the world.

Caravaggio, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1602); “David with the Head of Goliath” (c.1610)

Scholars too can resist an effort to describe Caravaggio as ‘homosexual’.

A 2005 paper by Luiz Fernando Viotti Fernandes, “The Sexuality of Caravaggio and His Artistic Identity,” goes through some evidence, and purports to find it inconclusive—on the evidence that no one from the past can be called, by current standards, ‘homosexual’, and the “sex lives of Renaissance artists were probably often bisexual.”

John Champagne is a little more convinced. He reads many Caravaggio paintings as full of queer signs and suggestions. Look at Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, he notes. Isn’t there an odd emphasis on the muscular buttock of one of the soldiers?—lit dramatically and wearing only a contrasting red and gold fabric.

The viewer is prompted to look at—the ass of a Roman soldier?

Seemingly in control, the soldier is himself sexually vulnerable.

Caravaggio, “The Taking of Christ” (c.1602)

All of Caravaggio’s paintings seem to have a certain queer subtext.

He had done a previous painting of the Old Testament scene of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. The scholar Graham L. Hammill reads it in a 2000 study, Sexuality and Form.

The bodies of the man and the boy, he notes, are positioned to suggest sex is about to happen—“which the angel of God attempts to terminate.”

The angel and the boy seem to have the same face—one lit in divine light, one in shadow. But where Isaac is held down, an object for sexual use, the angel as a divinity forces Abraham to look at him.

The message is: you need to see me as a person.

Caravaggio, “Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1598)

I take Caravaggio to suggest that all male interactions have a whiff of homoerotic energy. It was a world, certainly, where the sexual use of boys was considered ordinary.

Even if he had done this himself, he wants it to stop. This dehumanization, the use of others, must stop, the angel says—even if done in the name of “religion.”

Caravaggio’s paintings suggest a new kind of sexuality.

In a world that saw sex as an “act” to be done—with little concern for the partner—he shows real people as illuminated, bodies that are spiritually charged.

They are penetrable, but the body being entered is divine. We see this, for example, when Jesus guides Thomas’ hands to touching his body — an intimate moment of physical exploration.

The scholar Erin Benay writes of the painting:

“Caravaggio’s depiction of the wound and Thomas’s probing finger is particularly explicit: Thomas inserts a finger deep inside the cut, unlike many earlier Italian versions of the subject in which this contact is less invasive.”

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1601)

Allow a real person to be divine, might be the suggestion?

Caravaggio’s Jesus can be curiously sexy — certainly not the weird, withered, emaciated form that many paintings had offered.

As in The Flagellation of Christ, this messiah is nearly a male stripper.

We look as well at the men in shadow who are being so mean — even as they’re just being ‘men’.

The new message: being ordinary — isn’t good.

“Madonna and Child with St. Anne” (1605); “The Flagellation of Christ” (1607)

After Caravaggio died, Cecco continued his own career as a painter.

He frequently did works on Biblical subjects—often with odd positioning of muscular male bodies.

I find myself wondering if his own Penitent Magdalene—a portrait of the fallen women—could be a self-portrait as a woman.

Cecco del Caravaggio, “Penitent Magdalen” (before 1620)

His greatest work would appear to be The Resurrection, supposedly about the Second Coming, though a critic notes the imagery “seems more concerned with muscular legs and coy glances than any action involving the return of Christ from the dead.”

It seems to me that both angels—these strange, floating, voguing, half-naked men—might also be inflected with his self-portrait.

A man, a woman, an angel—a Cecco who is a divine everything.

“Resurrection” by Cecco del Caravaggio (c.1620)

Where would Christianity have been without its queer artists?

Thinking of a religion without Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio, or Cecco del Caravaggio—I’m left musing about an alternate world that would be, really, a wasteland of ordinary people.

But thankfully, they got a little help from their friends. 🔶

religion. sex. facts.

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