Picturing Wartime Sexual Violence Before Modernism

The ubiquity of sexual violence at times of military conflict has been recognised in a range of geopolitical contexts. Historically, the principal targets of wartime rape have been women and girls, nevertheless, victims can include men and boys or those who reject the binary identification of sexes. The recording and visualization of these events can significantly vary across cultures. Created from the perspectives of aggressors or victims, they can glorify, deny, eroticize or condemn gender-based violence. Stereotypical understandings of sexuality can significantly determine the depictions of such acts. They can operate with different strategies of metaphorical displacements or the staging of the body. The 2020s will mark the 500th anniversary of several traumatic sieges in Renaissance Europe, such as the Sack of Rome in 1527, and the presentations may therefore inform teaching and curatorial practices. The papers examine images of wartime rape before the widespread use of photography from all geographic areas. They expose the ways the dominant forms of political propaganda and memorialization can influence the depictions of gender-based violence in the context of war; and they trace the impact of the medium and artistic tradition(s) on the imagery including the semiotics of exposure and concealment. 

Session Convener:  

Péter Bokody, Associate Professor, University of Plymouth 


Grace Wilson, Research Student, Brigham Young University  

The Cassandrian Lucretia: Depictions of Cassandra’s Rape and Military Propaganda in 6th-century Etruria

As one of the first named victims of wartime sexual violence, the Greek mythological figure Cassandra’s rape by Ajax appears frequently in ancient art. Cassandra’s brutalizing experience was co-opted by many political and military figures through the years to legitimize their actions, including the Romans’ rebellion against the Etruscan king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BC. Portrayals of Cassandra’s rape increased in popularity in Etruria particularly during this time. This popularity is likely attributed to the fact that Tarquin’s overthrow was sparked by public outrage over his son’s rape of the Roman noblewoman Lucretia. This paper examines five Athenian black-figure neck amphorae from the first half of the sixth century found in Etruria and compares their depictions of Cassandra’s rape with the political parallels of their day. This paper argues that these portrayals deliberately emphasized certain aspects of Cassandra’s rape such as her helplessness and ultimate divine retribution in order to highlight comparisons with Lucretia’s story, most likely to ignite public outrage and further support for the rebellion. Additionally, this paper analyzes the potential discrepancies between the Athenian artists’ original intentions for these works and their Etruscan and Roman interpretations. 

Péter Bokody, Associate Professor, University of Plymouth  

Metaphors of War and Violence in Italy around 1300

Broadly speaking, one can distinguish between the symbolic and naturalistic languages of sexual violence, where the former denotes the metaphorical displacement of the act in the visual realm, and the latter may amount to some sort of direct representation of the offense. The aim of this paper is to trace the complex ways these two representational systems came together in Italy around 1300. Giotto di Bondone’s Injustice in the Arena Chapel in Padua marks the emergence of pictorial naturalism, yet at the same time it remains indebted to already established symbolisms. I will examine the role of gestures, weapons and the built environment in describing and refining the meaning of wartime sexual violence. These solutions will be compared to a broader set of case studies within the period (lawbooks, chronicles and romances). The historical contextualization of the material may allow identifying the scope of the collective understanding of the imagery. 

Cristelle Baskins, Associate Professor Emerita, Tufts University  

(Not) Picturing Sexual Violence in the Spanish Maghreb

This paper will focus on the representation of heterosexual violence in the context of Spanish military action along the coast of North Africa. Only a few explicit scenes situated in the Maghreb can be found in sixteenth-century visual imagery. In vivid examples by Giovanni da Nola, from the Tomb of Ramón Folch de Cardona (Bellpuig, ca.1530), or Jan C. Vermeyen and Pieter Coecke van Aelst, from the Tunis Tapestries (Brussels, ca.1550), local Muslim women from Oran or Tunis are threatened by soldiers who made up the multinational forces of Habsburg Spain. Women from the Maghreb also appear in the Navigations and Peregrinationsby the French royal cartographer, Nicolas de Nicolay. While the illustrations seem merely descriptive, as Nicolay claims, “from life,” the accompanying text describes the vulnerability and sexualization of women in cities under constant threat of war. Readers learn that the young, enslaved laundress from Algiers will display her “secret parts” for pennies, the nursing mother of Tripoli was sold to a Spaniard for 62 ducats, and the woman of Malta recalls the large number of prostitutes found on an island populated by knights under a strict vow of chastity. By tracing later costume books and alba amicorum that recycle Nicolay’s figures, we see how a fixation on women’s costume deflected attention away from military failure in the western Mediterranean. 

Marika Takanishi Knowles, Senior Lecturer, The University of St Andrews  

Pillaging the Farm: Jacques Callot’s Representation of Rape in The Miseries of War (1633) 

This paper will consider the representation of wartime sexual violence in Jacques Callot’s The Pillaging of a Farm, from his iconic series, The Miseries of War (1633). Callot’s representation of war has two primary modes: sacking and pillaging on the one hand, and cruel forms of corporal punishment and execution on the other. In The Pillaging of a Farm Callot shows the hearth transformed into a makeshift pyre for the burning of residents of the farmhouse, while on the bed, elevated and placed at the vanishing point of the composition, two soldiers prepare to rape a woman. On the right-side of the composition, in an adjoining room, another rape is in progress. Exceptional within the series itself, which otherwise does not represent in any graphic detail the sexual violence that regularly accompanied early modern warfare, these figural groups are also exceptional within Callot’s larger oeuvre. While the representation of rape in the mythological mode has been better studied, less attention has been paid to the visual conventions for representing sexual violence in artworks, including broadsheets, which purport to depict contemporary events. I will assess Callot’s contribution to this tradition, while considering whether the depiction of rape in The Pillaging of a Farm should be regarded as consistent with, or marginal to Callot’s larger aims in The Miseries of War

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