When I first visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, as a young and deeply closeted queer college student, I found myself wondering if the museum possessed ancient Greek vases decorated with anything other than sex scenes. I saw acts and combinations I hadn’t thought were possible in the modern world, much less the ancient one. Discomfited but intrigued, I came a little closer to realizing what type of life it was that I wanted to lead.
In other words, I had precisely the experience that Edward Perry Warren wanted me to have. A wealthy Bostonian and early gay rights advocate, Warren purchased these spicy drinking cups, wine jugs, and perfume flasks on behalf of the museum or donated them to it between 1885-1910, endowing the museum with one of the world’s finest collections of ancient erotica.
Most of these artifacts were locked away in storage for decades or, if put on display, neutered with paint. It was not until 1965 that Warren’s donations finally went on proud, uncensored display. The classicist Emily Vermeule, writing in 1969, approvingly noted that “the delicacy of earlier generations has been replaced by a studier capacity to enjoy original works of art without intervention by extraneous ethical views.”
But it seems that delicacy has once again intervened in the museum’s galleries of the arts of ancient Greece and Rome, which reopened on Dec. 18. Five of the galleries have been “freshly imagined,” and the others have seen at least a few changes. If you visit today, you will still see plenty of ancient genitals, but, in a dramatic change to what had been true before, you will see only one depiction of genitals in use. In the round space of the bottom of a wine cup painted by the artist Douris in around 480 BCE, a man penetrates a woman from behind. As she braces herself on a stool, letters spelling out “hold still!” spill out of her partner’s mouth.
One of the collection’s most famous erotic scenes is still on view: a large bowl for mixing wine with a scene of the goat-headed god Pan chasing after a young shepherd. Before 1965, strategically applied paint erased Pan’s impressive erection. The paint was removed, but the current rearrangement of the display has positioned the vase so that the other side faces visitors. To see Pan, you must squeeze around the back.
I don’t think every single erotic object Warren collected needs to be on display; some, especially those involving always acrobatic satyrs, are fairly strange. But Warren was right that visitors should see queer desire in the galleries. Yet, other than Pan, not a trace of it now remains on display, despite the museum’s rich holdings of images of queer attraction, flirtation, and consummation.
Questions of sexual identity in antiquity are complex. I’m using the contemporary term “queer” here to indicate imagery that depicts or foreshadows sexual acts other than potentially procreative male-female penetration. Warren himself would have used the term “Uranian love,” a late 19th century term derived from the name of the Greek deity who personified the heavens, which signaled a belief that passionate but unconsummated love between men was of the highest order.
Warren never stopped advocating for his right to love men. He considered his magnum opus to be the three-volume Defence of Uranian Love he wrote (although under a pseudonym). Although it’s impossible to know for sure based on surviving evidence, David Sox, who wrote a biography of Warren, describes Warren as “homoerotic” rather than “homosexual”: feeling love for other men and appreciating their physical beauty, but not acting on this attraction.
Instead, Warren longed for an ardent community of friends, modelled on Plato’s Symposiumand other ancient Greek writings about the benefits of love between men. Thanks to the fortune his father made in paper manufacturing, Warren was a wealthy man.
Warren bought his first Greek vase at an auction he happened to attend in 1892. He then spent the next decade fanatically collecting more antiquities, even setting up an apartment in Rome to be near dealers and discoveries. And as soon as Warren started to collect, he began to donate to the MFA – although he had first to persuade the museum that Greek vases were worthwhile objects to display at all.
Warren collected many more antiquities than the MFA could use. He even also supplied most of Bryn Mawr College’s collection of Greek vases. But while those vases wouldn’t make a coed blush, his choices for the MFA were much more daring. It seems that Warren deliberately provided erotica, especially queer erotica, to the MFA. He wanted staid Boston to see what it was missing. (His gifts might also have been motivated by his dislike of his disapproving older brother, Samuel D. Warren, who was on the museum’s board of trustees.)
The MFA holds, but does not display, stunningly beautiful queer antiquities, including two drinking cups from the 5th century BCE that show a winged Eros in a mid-air tryst with a youth. In one, Eros embraces his companion around the shoulder, grasping his thigh with the other hand. On the other, the youth still holds a lyre – perhaps his singing while playing this stringed instrument had driven the god wild with desire.
In another small fragment painted by Makron, a man tenderly touches his lover’s penis. The object gives us a “glimpse of bodies overlapping” in a way that feels like a window to the ancient world instead of the prurient peepshow promised by the teasing label for the “orgy” cup.
Most of the queer desire in the MFA’s ancient Greek ceramics collection is not rendered explicitly. Instead, bearded men offer gifts to youths. Sometimes, they reach out, tentatively offering to touch the lovers they are courting. In other vases, the lovers embrace. In one case, the shorter youth leaps up to kiss his lover.
There are many possible reactions to these scenes, which record the then-accepted culture of sex between older men and adolescent youths. But hiding them away entirely is not, I think, the answer to these difficulties. Besides, the issues of force and the sexual abuse of power are already raised in the galleries by the Pan vase – raised but not answered, since the label does not address what seems to be an impending rape.
If I were visiting now, as my 19-year-old self, seeing the Pan vase as the only example of in the galleries of someone aroused by their own gender, I wouldn’t have been surprised that this was a scene of violence. My conservative church had already taught me that gay men were sexual predators. The museum has taken away visitors’ opportunity to question such stereotypes, discover new truths, and display our “sturdier capacity” by consigning Warren’s gifts back to storage.
Erin L. Thompson is a classicist and a professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and the author of the forthcoming book Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments.