Conception (Sexual and Mental)

The poet’s pen is in some sense a penis, wrote a literary critic. “[T]he patriarchal notion that the writer fathers his text just as God fathered the world is and has been pervasive in Western literary civilization.” That is how she expressed the common link between male writers and the female body in early modern Europe. The English poet Philip Sydney (1554-86) wrote in a sonnet that he was “great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes (child labour).” John Milton (1608-74), described as a “phallic poet extraordinaire”,  also made analogies between the “issue of the brain” and “the issue of the womb.”1 

It is difficult for us to imagine this but in the Renaissance ordinary people assumed that the process of human thought mirrored on a smaller scale God’s creative acts in Genesis. Our minds were a microcosm of the macrocosm. That is how and why Michelangelo turned the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling panels on God’s creation of the world into the self-referential thought processes of his own imagination.2 Even Renaissance medical terminology made use of this link, naming the cavities of the brain ventricles, thus little bellies or little wombs.3

Nowhere, though, is the link between human sexuality and the mind’s activity more clearly nor more repeatedly stressed than in Shakespeare. Again and again the Bard makes bawdy jokes as entertainment for the groundlings that on another level indicate the generation of ideas within his own mind and those of his characters. “Shakespeare revelled in the knowledge of his creative powers", wrote Elizabeth Sacks. "I would further contend that he transferred this creativity to almost all his characters, in that they also can generate and give birth to thoughts as well as to children.”4 Most significantly, imagination in the Renaissance was said to be “bred in the eyes.”5 In fact, in the fifteenth century it was common to refer to an artist's initial sketches as a concepto, an esempio or a modello. Art historians have noted how these terms and their cognates seem to have implied the mental image of the artist, the scene in their mind, and by the middle of the sixteenth century the idea that drawing was a record of mental activity was beyond question.6

Sexual intercourse, conception and pregnancy have been long-running metaphors in both literature and art as ways to describe the mind’s processes. Yet vision is such a powerful illusion – and painting sometimes so similar to what we see through our own eyes – that we often fail to differentiate in art between the object described and its underlying metaphor. That is what has happened with Titian’s Venuses and Manet’s Olympia, scenes taken for a description of reality but which, in their poetic meaning, are metaphors for the artist’s own conceptions.  


1. Katharine Eisaman Maus, “A womb of his own: male Renaissance poets in the female body” in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed. J. G. Turner (Cambridge University Press) 1993, pp. 266-7

2. See Abrahams, "Michelangelo's Art Through Michelangelo's Eyes" (in 3 parts).

3. Elizabeth Sacks, Shakespeare’s Images of Pregnancy (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 1980, p. 4

4. Sacks, op. cit., p. 21

5. Sacks, op. cit., p. 25

6. Michael Cole and Mary Pardo, "The Origins of the Studio" in Cole and Pardo (eds.) Inventions of the Studio: Renaissance to Romanticism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press) 2005, p. 7

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