Nuns with Dirty Dishes

Posted on January 29, 2012


Archaeologists seem to have a love/hate relationship with sexuality.

We are wary of the easy projection of modern sexual identification onto objects made in very different contexts in the past.  On the other hand, while sexualization is a form of exoticization, so, of course, is de-sexualization.

What got me started thinking about the balancing act required when confronted with objects evidencing sexual practices in the past was a story from the Spanish news source EFE. A version published January 7 on the Colombian news website Vanguardia features an image of a Chinese porcelain bowl, under a headline that can be translated “Look at the unusual art collection of a convent of Portuguese nuns”.

What’s unusual about this? A subtitle under a row of thumbnail illustrations clarifies:

The erotic motifs of an old and valuable Chinese vase found among the ruins of a Portuguese convent are unique in the art known from the 17th century.

Vanguardia helpfully provides illuminating closeups of details from the illustrated bowl, showing explicit moments in heterosexual encounters. The article expresses in the purplest of prose a claim that the dish represented “explicit pornographic images, more than erotic, inspired by the Kamasutra”.

Imagining the danger posed to the owner especially if this were property of a member of the Santana convent community, Vanguardia continues:

It is a daring work even for the 21st century and totally sinful for the epoch in which it arrived to the convent, when to play with the strict morality of those times could bring excommunication, exile and even prison or death for less scandalous conduct.

Here we see the tension between exoticization and desexualization on full display. It is a “daring” work for modernity, from which it is clearly understood to be disconnected. Thus, there is a shock that people in the past might have enjoyed some form of sexual culture.

Mexico’s El Universal printed a longer version of the same story. The original seems to have appeared back in August 2011. The only place I have found coverage in English is the Go Lisbon Blog. Where the news articles present the object as an unsolved puzzle Go Lisbon has no problem offering explanations:

How would such a thing end up in a convent, of all places? Well, for one thing, Lisbon’s convents weren’t always the most sacred places on Earth. Their male and female residents were actually known to live with bigger freedoms than those on the “outside world.” Inquisition documents show that love affairs and homosexuality were actually frequent. Many nuns were even lovers of the Portuguese kings. One of them even had to build a palace just for his bastard children born of those relationships (that palace is now the Spanish Embassy). These nuns were also quite rich, receiving precious gifts which may explain the origin of this well-kept treasure.

Much heat here, but little light.

To actually begin to understand this object, we might want to separate the circumstances of production of this bowl, with its sexual scenes, and of its consumption by an eighteenth-century Portuguese owner.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery, part of the Liverpool Museums, illustrates a Qing dynasty beaker, like the Lisbon bowl with blue under-glaze painted erotic designs. The caption reads:

Erotic scenes are rare in Chinese art, and mainly known from ‘pillow books’, containing series of illustrations of sexual positions, said to have been used as manuals for the young and newly-wed. On porcelain openly erotic scenes are even rarer.

So, the first step is to trace a broader history of Chinese sexual images.

The emergence of erotic art in China is identified as a phenomenon of the late Ming (1368-1644 AD) and Qing (1644-1911 AD) dynasties. Late Ming society, according to Monica Merlin, was characterized by general commercialization, rising emphasis on consumption, and development of popular culture, including a flourishing printing industry. Craig Clunas pinpoints the period between 1560 and 1640 as “some sort of high point” in the production of explicitly sexual woodblock prints, as well as for pornographic fiction. He notes that novels describe albums of erotic woodblock prints brought by men to women to stimulate desire. This is the apparent source of the Liverpool Museum’s description, which actually collapses Japanese and Chinese practices and takes fiction as a model for real practice. Clunas suggests instead that we think of the audience for these products of Late Ming society as the “empowered solitary male who would have had access both within the home and commercially to male and female partners”. Such men could take advantage of not only the products of the flourishing printing industry, but also of  “pleasure quarters” in cities like late Ming Nanjing, where Merlin describes courtesans who “achieved great esteem for their writing and painting skills as they embodied values of culture, chivalry, and nostalgia”.

It is in contexts like this that rarer media with erotic images similar to woodblock prints would likely have developed. Writing in 1908, Edward Dillon attributed the cultivation of erotic porcelain production to the Ming dynasty emperor Longqing, ruling from 1567-1572 AD.

The blue underglaze porcelain that was the medium for such images entered European circulation through the efforts of traders from Portugal, who imported it in small quantities. Naturalistic designs became prominent in the 16th and early 17th centuries. By 1602, Chinese potteries were already producing blue underglaze pottery for European exporters. After the Dutch East India company sold a large volume of material in 1603 from cargo seized from the Portuguese, demand increased.

The small bowl that excited the prurient interest of EFE falls squarely into this line of production. Objects like these were desired by European consumers taking part in the first wave of the fashion for chinoiserie. David Porter, in a study of the specific reception of such goods in Great Britain, argues that eighteenth-century Europe experienced a shock of “transformative awareness” with knowledge of the long history of Chinese civilization that gave consuming objects of Chinese style a particular power, combining “luxurious novelty” with the “cultural legitimacy” of antiquity.

While we cannot know who the Portuguese owner of the bowl recovered in Lisbon was, its presence there reflected the early and continuing role of Portugal in trade with China. The Portuguese established the first European trade relations with China, with Macao as their trading port from the 1550s on, originally promoting trade of Chinese goods to Japan.

According to a summary of earlier excavations, the Convent of Santana in Lisbon, where the bowl was found, was established in the 16th century, partly destroyed by a major earthquake in 1755, and not reconstructed until after 1778. In the 19th century it became a Royal Institute of Bacteriology and today is the location of the medical faculty of the Universidade Nova. According to another newspaper article in July 2011, the excavations (which lasted from 2002-2011) produced evidence of wealthy residents, perhaps not members of religious orders. This source cites a population of 300 persons in 1702, including 130 members of religious orders.

We can, then, place the acquisition of this bowl as a product of a commercial network operating among the wealthy of Lisbon. What would the imagery on the bowl have meant for a member of the Portuguese nobility around 1700? First and foremost, this would have been an item of luxury, product of a distant civilization understood to have its own long and quite distinct history. Rather than automatically assume it was seen as erotic, or served pornographic ends, we need to take into account this distance between the source culture and Lisbon society. As a kind of window on the values of that other civilization, it might more easily have served to emphasize the character of China, as exotic other, than for the cultivation of desire in its owner, secular or religious, male or female.

Clunas concludes that “it would be anachronistic to introduce the nineteenth-century concept of ‘pornography'” into a study of such objects, but “it would be equally wrong to ‘relativize the concept out of existence'”. This balancing act becomes doubly difficult when it involves the cross-cultural transfer of an object made for one context and deployed in another. Projecting modern sensibilities about sexuality onto such an object simply multiplies the difficulties a third time, as we mobilize ideologies about sex and privacy, separation of sex from everyday life, and absolute division of life celibate orders from the business of everyday life. None of that, though, is safe baggage to bring to understanding something as complicated as this single bowl.