The minute period of Renaissance in the history of mankind seems like the best time to have been around in, especially for the artists. One such figure was Guido Reni, a Baroque Italian painter, who seems to have been forgotten for far too long now.
Born and died in Italy, Reni is known as an Italian painter of the Baroque architectural style. His paintings were known for their portrayal of mythological and religious figures and were full of classical idealism. In his early life, he started by painting in chapels and for patrons and friends.
Upon a close inspection of his artworks, one can easily spot the inspirations sourced from ancient Greek sculptures and paintings. Reni became one of the most famous painters during his days for his paintings of the religious personage. His catalogue consists of many paintings of various Saints and of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Family, Jesus Christ, and even of the Pope of his day and time.
However, if one were to put his paintings under the microscope of literature mind, one can find many more meanings hidden within the paintings than what the eyes perceive at first. The figures presented in his paintings are often shown in idealized proportions and of having a beauty that would be simply inexplicable. And one could spend days gazing upon his paintings and would still be able to find new meanings within them. The calmness and quietness that Reni captures in his paintings can be even deafening.
The Suicide of Lucretia perfectly captures the whole existence and life of Lucretia and of the horror that unfolded following her death. Lucretia was a noblewoman in ancient Rome, who was raped by the son of the last king of Rome, and whose suicide tipped the first domino that eventually led to the transition of Roman government from a kingdom to republic and the overthrow of the Roman monarchy. Reni beautifully captures the mental distress that is caused to a person when they are forced in a sexual encounter. He also captures the feeling a person undergoes when they have the knowledge of causing a change in the history of humankind.
To give an introduction of Hercules would be pointless. However, one thing to know is that Hercules is the Roman equivalent of the Greek divine hero Heracles. Reni here shows Hercules (Heracles) on a pyre ready to die. It is known that Heracles had chosen a voluntary death and asked for a pyre to be built so he could end his suffering. Reni perfectly captures the feeling of one suffering albeit ready to be at home with the Gods. Not only that, but Reni also captures the famous strength of Hercules (Heracles) by painting him with a body that could not be anything but full of strength and power.
However, one thing to really notice in Reni’s paintings is the way he has subtly sexualised these religious and mythological figures. He has painted these people with so many filters of seductive elements and of immense beauty that one cannot hold back from admiring their body. A similar idea was put forth by the Japanese author Yukio Mishima as he wrote the following prose about Reni’s painting of St. Sebastian:
“The black and slightly oblique trunk of the tree of execution was seen against a Titian-like background of gloomy forest and evening sky, somber and distant. A remarkably handsome youth was bound naked to the trunk of the tree. His crossed hands were raised high, and the thongs binding his wrists were tied to the tree. No other bonds were visible, and the only covering for the youth’s nakedness was a coarse white cloth knotted loosely about his loins. I guessed it must be a depiction of a Christian martyrdom. But, as it was painted by an esthetic painter of the eclectic school that derived from the Renaissance, even this painting of the death of a Christian saint has about it a strong flavor of paganism. The youth’s body —it might even be likened to that of Antinous, beloved of Hadrian, whose beauty has been so often immortalized in sculpture—shows none of the traces of missionary hardship or decrepitude that are to be found in depictions of other saints; instead, there is only the springtime of youth, only light and beauty and pleasure. His white and matchless nudity gleams against a background of dusk. His muscular arms, the arms of a praetorian guard accustomed to bending of bow and wielding of sword, are raised at a graceful angle, and his bound wrists are crossed directly over his head. His face is turned slightly upward and his eyes are open wide, gazing with profound tranquillity upon the glory of heaven. It is not pain that hovers about his straining chest, his tense abdomen, his slightly contorted hips, but some flicker of melancholy pleasure like music. Were it not for the arrows with their shafts deeply sunk into his left armpit and right side, he would seem more a Roman athlete resting from fatigue, leaning against a dusky tree in a garden. The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy. But there is no flowing blood, nor yet the host of arrows seen in other pictures of Sebastian’s martyrdom. Instead, two lone arrows cast their tranquil and graceful shadows upon the smoothness of his skin, like the shadows of a bough falling upon a marble stairway.”
These underlying tones of sexuality in Reni’s paintings can be seen easily if one has the eye for it. Guido Reni is therefore not just a painter who should be known for his depictions of religious and mythological figures but is also someone who should be known for romanticising pain as well as pleasure in his paintings and for breaking the taboo of not sexualising the bodies of religious figures simply because they are what the name suggests.
Yusuf Aziz is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Varda Ahmad
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.