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Torture, Blood & Baroque Desire

While you’ve likely never heard of him, Nicholò Regnieri was a Flemish painter who flourished in late Renaissance and Baroque Italy. Deeply beholden to several popes and their likely children, his beguiling portraits of saints and Biblical heroes are arguably the most seductive in Western art.

You can get to know Nicholò this winter in Nantes, equally one of the most seductive small cities in Europe, where a team of talented women curators has brought him back into modern light under the title, Nicholas Regnier—A Free Man.

Free indeed. Few northern artists triumphed in Renaissance Rome so grandly as Regnieri who of course cast aside his Dutch name, Nicholas Regnier and quickly found a wealthy Roman benefactor named Marchese Vincenzo Giustiani who brought him into the imperial courts across the Mediterranean and Spain.

His royal and religious subjects were the same ones celebrated by all the greatest painters of the epoch—David and Goliath, Mary Magdalene, St. John the Baptist—though he treated none so intimately as the tender boy-saint St. Sebastian whose wounded thighs are caressingly tended by equally saintly lissome ladies as he lies back, eyes glazed, lips lost somewhere between agony and ecstasy.

These images of succulent yet tortured flesh hover on the edge of Protestant R ratings as they lead us into divine temptation. But then real temptation is surely divine. In an age that celebrates the grotesque and willingly selects psychopaths and boastful pedophiles as leaders, we are wise to remember that divinity and vengeance, underwritten by temptation, are as ancient as the stones. Stones, too, contain the sublime both as historic instruments of torture and as records of our primordial past.

Like Caravaggio, who died several years before he arrived in Rome, Rognieri was profoundly fascinated by the story of St. Sebastian, the secret Christian in the Roman guard whose body was penetrated throughout with imperial arrows. Something of a patron saint to today’s gay movement, Sebastian has regularly been portrayed as a young, muscled athlete, usually bound to a post or a tree. But Regniei’s Sebastian goes several steps farther portraying the saint’s ecstatic and transcendent passage as a young Roman woman, known as St. Irene, and her servant extract the arrows from his pale flesh.

Further on, another Roman imperial daughter, Christine, also bound by ropes has her own flesh pierced by archers’ arrows for having sought to distribute bread to the poor. As in the penetration of Sebastian, Christine’s suffering gives way to the voluptuousness of her transcendent gaze and the vigor of her plump nipples. Both paintings as well as many others of Regnieri’s mythic studies represent near textbook examples of what Emile Durkheim famously labeled the unity of the sacred and the profane, which courses through the Christian story and many other religions. Suffering is both agony and ecstasy. Corruption establishes the terrain upon which the dream of the sacred rises. Neither one without the other.

Far more distressing than saintly seduction is Regnieri’s portrayal of a band of sailors playing cards (technically forbidden by the Popes) and rolling dice on Jesus’s burial shroud draped over a small table.

As with most of the late Renaissance/Baroque painters, vanity and its consequences are never far away from the dance of seduction. Rognieri made multiple versions of John the Baptist, which while not nearly so come-hither as the Sebastians, are models of magnetic physical allure. John, said to have baptized Jesus, was the sole apostle believed to have been born pure of sin thanks to Mary’s intervention in utero, which of course represents another sort of seduction, the seduction of purity. One might even suggest (these days) a sort of transsexual virgin Mary. His penetrating eyes, the purity of the alabaster skin, his bristling fur loin cloth: make no mistake, these are the idealized attributes of a purely perfect preacher whom wilderness sinners cannot resist (or would want to).

By contrast this winter, a few hours south in Bordeaux that city’s contemporary art museum (CAPC) hosts another painter’s approach to the sacred and the profane in Europe’s first major presentation of the Colombian painter Beatrice Gonzáles. Sixty-five paintings, tissue designs and furniture pieces take us into a far more contemporary exploration of suffering throughout the last century of relentless violence in Colombia.

Her victims also hover between horror and ecstasy, especially the women who’ve been raped and had their throats slashed, blood trickling into floating gardens of release, they and their children stuffed into parades of wooden caskets. While González’s contemporary flat technique bares little resemblance to Regnieri’s baroque rendering of Goliath’s decapitated head, the spiritual and existential unity of the two artists divided by time and place is inescapable, especially for those of us who witness America’s 30,000 home slaughters each year. Compared to the Trumpian profile of psycho-sexual excess, Rognieri’s Bacchean excesses are air kisses to civilized delight.

Frank Browning © 2017

Frank Browning was an editor at Ramparts Magazine and later a science reporter for NPR. He has lived in Paris since 2000. He is the author of eight books including The Fate of Gender (published June 2016), The Monk & The Skeptic, An Apple Harvest: Recipes & Orchard Lore (with Sharon Silva), Apples: Story of the Fruit of Temptation, A Queer Geography, The Culture of Desire, The American Way of Crime (with John Gerassi) and The Vanishing Land. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post.


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