I am sure we all remember vividly the first sex scene we saw in a movie that really struck our imagination. In my case the film in question was Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman, and more precisely the carnal congress which happens about fifteen minutes into the film. A sequence that deeply troubled me, leaving me in a mixture of attraction and repulsion, without my being able to understand why.
Here Uther Pendragon, who thanks to Merlin’s spell has assumed the appearance of Duke Gorlois, violently possesses the duke’s wife, Igraine (from this fleeting relationship extorted with deception King Arthur will be born). The montage sequence shows this intercourse obtained by deception alernated with the simultaneous death of the true duke on the battlefield: Eros and Thanatos.
The element that struck me most was a detail with a very powerful visual impact: in the scene Uther, falling prey to erotic fury, does not bother to take off his armor and rushes on the woman who, believing him to be her husband, gives in to his impetus. Leaving aside the dubious realism of the scene (would it really be possible to do certain things while wearing an armor?), it was the contrast – the contact – between the shiny steel and the white female skin that was indelibly engraved in my imagination. I doubt it is a coincidence that, many years later, my graduation thesis ended up focusing on Crash by Cronenberg, another film in which flesh and metal clash and merge, thanks to the car accident, in a perverse erotic dimension.
When I saw Excalibur for the first time I could not know, but the iconography of a knight in armor facing a naked woman is a recurring theme in the history of art – “too frequent, too varied, too insistent to be judged random”, as noted by Roger Caillois in Au cœur du fantastique (1965).
The motif is connected to the broader topos of the clothed male figure vs. an undressed female figure: many nineteenth-century paintings are based on this one-sided nudity, in particular the representations of harems or slave markets which were very fashionable among Orientalist painters, but also famous paintings like Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
But, as we shall see, in the case of the fully-armored knight a much more interesting level of ambiguity can be identified.
Giuseppe Ferrauto states that there are “a whole kind of depictions of beautiful, naked and chained female prisoners, destined for the more or less openly morbid tastes of gentlemen of the past. […] Ariosto described Angelica chained to the rock of Ebuda, about to be the victim of a sea monster. Many took possession of this scene, from Ingres to Doré, who used it for his illustrations for Orlando furioso, up to Polish artist Chodowiecki, who also made a series of engravings, again for Orlando furioso , in 1772, to end up in the folklore scenes of Sicilian carts’ painted sides.” (Arcana, vol. II, Sugar 1969)
Painters looking for contexts that lend themselves to this type of representation obviously found a perfect anecdote in the episode of Angelica and Ruggero (or in the similar classic myth of Andromeda freed by Perseus). One of the most famous examples is the aforementioned Ruggero Freeing Angelica by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1819), an oil painting that at the time caused a scandal for its representation of female nudity.
But there were illustrious and varied precedents. In 1530 Lucas Cranach had chosen the Judgment of Paris in order to show the three naked goddesses in front of the Trojan prince, while Tintoretto associated the theme with the liberation of Arsinoe, where the rescue set at the Lighthouse of Alexandria becomes the occasion for showing the armor in contact with bare skin; also worth noting is the sensual detail of the chain which slides sinuously over the queen’s private parts. As Mario Praz summarized well, “the contact of naked limbs with the chains and the steel of the armor seems to have the precise purpose of exciting special senses” (Erotismo in arte e letteratura, in I problemi di Ulisse, 1970).
“All this – wrote Caillois – undoubtedly gives rise to an emotion which is in a certain sense natural, inevitable, and does not owe its effectiveness to the illustrated anecdote. André Pieyre de Mandiargues, describing Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara […], reports that licentious tournaments were held in the hall on the first floor in which naked girls contended with knights in arms. If the rumor is true, the strange game convinces me only of the fact that the power of suggestion of that image is even greater than I imagined. If it is unfounded, the fact that it was taken up by Mandiargues convinces me almost as much of the secret and persistent virulence of that fantasy.”
In time the motif no longer needed much historical anecdotes to lean on. Millais’s Knight Errant does not refer to any precise mythological or literary episode – if not, perhaps, to John Keats’ ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819) – as it will happen with other variations on the theme by the Pre-Raphaelites.
One of the most interesting declinations is undoubtedly the one chosen by Delacroix in 1852, in which the knight-errant is actually a woman: it is Marfisa, once again a character drawn from Ariosto.
It is worth summing up the background story of this scene: the warrior-woman on her steed is giving a passage across the river to the witch Gabrina, when they meet the knight Pinabello and her beautiful but insolent lover, who laughs at the old woman. Determined to avenge this offense, Marfisa defeats the knight in a duel and forces Pinabello’s mistress to strip off her rich garments and give them to her old woman.
In stripping the knight’s cheeky lover, Marfisa seems to parody the very artistic motif we are talking about. In fact unlike all the other armored knights we’ve seen so far, who fall at the feet of the girl in déshabillé, here the intrepid warrior, being a woman, does not let herself be duped: to the pretty girl (to paint which, according to Armando Sodano, Delacroix had rediscovered “the lyricism of odalisques of his youth”) Marfisa prefers the old hag she carries on her steed. Who certainly isn’t beautiful, but intelligent.
An ironic punishment for female vanity that comes from a female in armor, one that I find amusing to read in a metanarrative sense: “if you are a woman who cannot go beyond appearances”, Marfisa seems to warn, “then you deserve to be naked , as happens to all the other maidens in this very type of paintings!”
Finally, let me go back to Excalibur. Over the years I have often found myself wondering what was special about that scene, and why did it end up being engraved so strongly in my imagination.
Uther’s passion is cruel, compelling, violent. He encompasses all the arrogance of the well-known masculinity centered on possession: a vision made of fury, of rights arrogated and obtained even by deception, a vision in which the longed-for woman must be taken by force. It could be said that the character of Uther, who even recurs to a magic spell in order to satisfy his desires, is “blinded by passion”: a phrase that is sometimes used even today as an extenuating circumstance for rapes and femicides. This is why it is a dark, disturbing sex scene; it is no coincidence that it is interpolated by Boorman with the images of the massacre on the battlefield and with the shots of the innocent child (Morgana) who witnesses this furious embrace, while the soundtrack by Trevor Jones, through pulsating strings and choirs of wavering voices, creates a surreal and deadly atmosphere.
Yet Igraine does not shy away from aggression: perhaps because she truly believes that he is her husband – or perhaps because there is a subtle complacency in causing such a fury in any lover. Which of the two is dominant, the knight who attacks, or the female who has the power to make him fall prey to passion?
The scene is therefore suspended, as its power relationship is ambiguous. This ambiguity is also intrinsic to the artistic theme we have talked about. On the one hand, the artists tend to highlight the contrast between feminine weakness and fragility, as symbolized by the tempting softness of naked flesh, and strong masculinity as signified by the hard appearance of metal. On the other hand, however, the very armor that should be a symbol of might and virility almost seems like a shell that encloses and constrains all impulses.
Such a representation inevitably raises questions: is the knight’s “macho” allure amplified by this encounter with a beautiful lady in Evitic costume, or does he on the contrary appear to be mocked? After being victorious in countless battles, isn’t the warrior conquered by the irresistible seduction of women? Is his armor a symbol of power or rather impotence (as it prevents intercourse)? Is the naked woman, in all her soft and helpless charm, really a compliant prey or is she the one who bewitches and leads the game?
The opposition between these two extremes (manhood enclosed in war vestments, and naked seductive femininity) is the embodiment of a dialectic between the sexes that has been handed down for a very long time as if it were an immutable truth. Yet the dynamics of the relations of power, domination and submission, are never as univocal as they might seem; the mechanism is delicate, and the opposing components at its core are in constant tension towards overturning one another.
The strength of the image of the knight and the naked woman lies precisely in the fact that, at a deep level, its balance remains undecidable.