The first path analyses the representation of the heroic soldier and the boundaries between masculine prowess and bisexuality.
The ideal soldier has often been associated with the image of the heterosexual male. However, this is a contemporary cliché that has little to do with the representation of the greatest traditional heroes of Antiquity.
In antiquity, bisexuality and heroism went hand in hand. These sexual practices were encouraged in the army as a way to establish close bonds of affection among soldiers, and keep morale high among the troops. As such, the most important military heroes of Greek and Roman mythology displayed this sexual orientation. This also explains why, at that time, the bisexuality of certain male Greco-Roman gods was discussed openly. For instance, Mars, god of war, was considered the epitome of masculinity in antiquity. He was often represented nude (as a symbol of fearlessness), muscular, standing resolute and holding or wearing items related to war – such as a spear, helmet and shield. However, the fact that he was married to Venus, the most beautiful of all goddesses, did not stop Mars from having several affairs with mortal men.
Although not openly sexual, medieval society also glorified intense emotional bonds, especially between men, which represented powerful secular and sacred ideals. Representations of Christian soldiers provided a scenario in which physical intimacy and affection among men could be reflected, even if open depictions of homosexuality remained taboo. The Byzantine collection of the Bode-Museum holds one of the most famous representations of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. According to legend, because they professed their Christian faith, the soldiers were condemned to spend a night, naked on a frozen lake near the city of Sebaste. Usually depicted just before death, the scenario offered an unusual opportunity to represent a group of men embracing each other, providing one another with warmth and consolation.
The subject matter depicted in no way determines the artistic quality of a work of art. Neither does the interpretation – objective or subjective – of its sexual content. Nevertheless, we have to take account of gender roles when making interpretations of works of art which go beyond their mere technical perfection, and read them as a reflection of their society and as a means of accessing a historical context. After all, for a long time, bisexuality was no impediment to recognising a soldier as a hero. And sexual ambiguity was fundamental for the iconographic evolution of many religious compositions that you can find in the Bode-Museum.