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Ancient Greek pottery

Visions of love: Erotic art throughout the ages

Image: Art by ancient Greek potter Euphronios | Public Domain

SEX: A Bonkers History explores how sexual behaviour through the ages has shaped civilisation in ways we are only now beginning to discover. Host Amanda Holden shines a light on history's most unknown and risqué sex stories. The show premieres on Sky HISTORY on Monday, 18 September at 9pm.

Even today, ideas about sex and its place within art vary greatly across generations and the world. Is it a necessary inclusion as part of human life, nothing more than pornography, or is the male member really as lucky as the Anatolians and Romans believed?

Whatever the conclusion, most countries have had their own approach to sexual depictions throughout the ages. The Ain Sakhi Lovers are the oldest surviving example; the calcite figurine was discovered near Bethlehem in 1933. Even after 11,000 years, it is unmistakably a sculpture of two people engaged in intercourse. Brits did it, Greeks did it, and Edo period Japanese did it.

Japanese Shunga

Also known as ‘pillow books’ the Japanese erotic art form Shunga was enjoyed by all social groups throughout the Edo period (1603-1867), despite repeated attempts at government suppression. In Japanese Shunga means ‘picture of Spring’ with the season being a common euphemism for sex.

Although there are examples of painted handscrolls, Shunga increased in quality and availability with the invention of woodblock printing. Heavily influenced by the Chinese medical manuals of the Muromachi era, they generally featured over-emphasised genitals. The subjects varied widely, some followed the aesthetics of everyday life, while others depicted mythological characters or scandals from the Imperial Court. While the explicit nature of these pictures shocked Westerners at the time, modern Hentai, Manga and Anime were inspired by Shunga.

Babylonian plaques

The Babylonians held an exalted view of sex, believing it induced an altered state of wonder. Little surprise then that, at around 2000 BCE, there was a 300-year window where erotic terracotta plaques were mass-produced. They’ve been found in temples, graves, and high-traffic areas of private homes. It’s hard to know their exact purpose but they were incredibly popular.

In sharp contrast to the modesty associated with the modern Middle East, these plaques are intimate and detailed with some using visual puns to represent oral sex. Graphic texts from this time were also heavy on sexual innuendo with works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh encouraging men to, ‘Let your wife delight in your lap’.

Erotica of Victorian London

Oh, the Paradox of Victorian England! Simultaneously rigid in their morality and anti-sensualism, but absolutely obsessed with sex. The main areas of eroticism at this time were literature, erotic prints and French photographs. The latter, while scandalous then, have a beautiful elegance and innocence to them today.

Acceptable sex was limited to that of the marital bedchamber, anything else was deemed deviant and sinful. With so much sexual repression it's hardly surprising that it features so heavily across artistic expression. In literature, Oscar Wilde, and Michael Field (a pseudonym for lesbian couple Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley) alluded to sexual desires and activity while other works were far more explicit.

While society enforced ideals of purity, women were increasingly sexually objectified in art. The Fallen Woman became a key stereotype of the sexually lapsed women who invariably required ‘rescuing’. Men, the primary consumers of these erotic portrayals, were frequently positioned as victims of female seductresses, who were marked through clothing, hairstyles, and the use of veiling and silhouettes in theatre which became popular means of titillation.

Scrolls of Ancient Egypt

While the occasional image can be found on pottery fragments or graffiti, erotica was not a part of the general repertory of Ancient Egyptian art. However, in the 1820s, archaeologists uncovered the Turin Erotic Papyrus, so named because it spent 150 years hidden in the Turin museum over fears of a public reaction to its explicit content.

Made in 1150 BCE, the 2.6 metre scroll predates the Kama Sutra by around 1000 years. Although only fragments survived, it was enough to recreate most of its images, showing 12 couples enjoying various acrobatic sexual positions. The high quality of the surviving papyrus suggests that this was created for wealthy audiences.

Peruvian ceramics

Over 500 erotic earthenware items belonging to the Moche people of Peru have been unearthed over the years. Dated from 1 to 800 CE, the items are thought to be funeral offerings, meaning those that survived are in excellent condition.

The Moche believed that the world of the dead worked in opposition to the world of the living. Therefore, the sexual acts on these vessels were all those that would not produce offspring, with the hope that in the land of the dead, they would guarantee fertility.

The pretty much everything of Ancient Greece

What didn’t the Ancient Greeks put sexual images on? In their defence so much Greek mythology is based on sex, it would be more surprising if these sometimes explicit tales didn’t make their way into both painted and moulded artistic works. Female nudity and the earliest depictions of same-sex courtship were commonly found on Greek amphorae and wine cups with no shame being associated with either.

Sexual scenes appeared on votive offerings to Aphrodite, the Goddess of love, and drinking vessels dedicated to Dionysus, the God of wine, theatre and transformation. The latter showed female maenads being pursued by male satyrs, their oversized penises being seen as grotesque not arousing, as the Greek standard for male beauty in the trouser department was quality not quantity.