2019 Spring Madi Pfaff Temple Rome Temple Semester

Seeing Myself Represented in the Past: Transgender, Genderfluid, and Intersex Themes in Ancient Art

Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the Musei Capitolini to draw and take photos. Planned out to perfection by Michelangelo, it is one of three gorgeous museums in the Piazza del Campidoglio at the top of Capitoline Hill and houses many archeological finds and artworks ranging from ancient to Victorian times. I walked through one of the galleries filled with bust portraits and statues of figures from mythology and history. Large windows flooded the rooms and halls with the warm natural light of the sun, touching on and illuminating all the cold white faces with sunkissed life. I took my time looking around and was about to leave when I noticed a bust whose face turned profile. I thought this was very strange on the curator’s part and got closer to take a look at the work. Much to my surprise I found that this bust was of a person bearing two faces, one at the front and one at the back of their head. Overwhelmed with emotion I wondered to myself, was this a representation of a third gendered person? I did some research and found that these busts are the embodiment of the god Janus who rules over beginnings and endings, past and future, gateways, journeys, duality, transitions, and time. Something I find particularly interesting about them is that they were invoked at the beginnings of many ceremonies despite whether or not the ceremony was celebrating or paying homage to another deity.

In addition to this, I have visited several museums of ancient art that showcase statues of figures appearing to be intersex. For months now I have asked myself, is this a stylistic choice on the artist’s part, a difference in ancient cultural values or a reference to mythology? The answer is all of the above. In mythology there is a character named Hermaphroditus who was born to Aphrodite and Hermes. He fell in love with a water nymph, Salmacis, and wished to be united forever– literally. A deity answered this wish and the two became one being, expressed in ambiguous androgyny. Consequently there are many sculptures of masculine and feminine body types bearing genitalia of a deviation in the norm. In some ways this feels strange, and voyeuristic, because socially people of deviating gender are and have been treated with scorn and violence for centuries. On the other hand, it’s pretty cool to see artifacts from a culture and time when deviation was celebrated spiritually.

When Europe colonized the Americas it wiped out cultures that have, for centuries, practiced the idea of the “two-spirit,” which is a term used by indigenous peoples, typically of North America, to refer to an individual who identifies as nonbinary or intersex. Two-spirit is the realization of the concept of Janus and Hermaphroditus put into practice. It is the idea that a person can embody multiple ideas of gender at once. Before now I thought these concepts only existed within the cultures of indigenous peoples, but I am happy and inspired to find that there is evidence of them existing in cultures from all around the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: