A Christian Iconography of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Sadomasochistic Photography

Written by Luke Sarabia
Edited by Josephine Spalla

Robert Mapplethorpe is often listed among the most ground-breaking, if not at least the most recognizable names in queer art and photography of the past half century. He is often associated with his controversial photos which openly demonstrate scenes of sadomasochistic homosexual acts during a period in which American LBGTQ communities faced significant ostracism and discrimination. Mapplethorpe reached the height of his fame two years after his death due to a national American debate surrounding The Perfect Moment, a touring exhibition which demonstrated a number of these photographs. American Senator Jesse Helms, who vigorously opposed the public funding of such art, described the photos in question as “sickening obscenity.”[1] This sort of vigorous opposition to Mapplethorpe’s art was reflective of the homophobia which was widespread in the late 1980’s, a period when homosexual activity was widely misbelieved to be a root of the American HIV/AIDS crisis. This led not only to the vilification of homosexual activity, but to a lack of effective action on said crisis by the Reagan administration, a lapse which cost LGBTQ communities countless lives. However, Mapplethorpe’s photographs represent a type of unapologetic sexuality that counters the narrative that the LGBTQ community must be hidden or docile. Mapplethorpe’s supposedly obscene art rejects the notion of decency which public officials such as Helms sought to perpetuate. His photographs form a dialogue with dominant public morality regarding which sort of subjects are considered worthy of depiction in the realm of “high art”. This contention is one addressed in many of his own photographs, of subjects both seemingly innocuous and explicitly pornographic. Mapplethorpe uses BDSM imagery alongside Christian iconography in order to assert that homosexual as well as sadomasochistic desire and gratification is a complex expression of beauty, and thus is worthy of exploration in high art. This formal affirmation of value may be demonstrated through iconographic analyses of Mapplethorpe’s Dominick and Elliot (1979) and Self Portrait (1983).

In order to explore how Mapplethorpe uses iconography to assert the artistic validity of homosexual and sadomasochistic desire, the nature of the iconographic method in use must be elaborated upon. Iconography is an art historical method pioneered by Erwin Panofsky which examines the relationship of the formal properties of an artwork to the perceived thematic intentions of its author. Hatt and Klonk write that through iconography, Panofsky “hoped to give interpretations of works of art that would show them to be symbolic expressions of the cultures within which they were created.”[2] Panofsky’s methodology details three levels of interpretation which are fundamental to understanding said symbolic expressions in any given work. First, one must understand what Panofsky calls a work’s pre-iconographical description, or its primary subject matter or image as depicted through its form, including employment of line, colour, and composition. Following this is a work’s perceived iconographical description, meaning the way which formal objects or events work as motifs to demonstrate specific themes or concepts as they would have been understood during the period a piece was produced in. Last to be considered is a work’s iconological interpretation, understood by decoding any interacting symbols in order to arrive at a work’s intrinsic meaning relative to the culture in which it was produced. This method is especially effective in discussing both Dominick and Elliot and Self Portrait, as both photos make extensive use of symbolism in order to enter into a dialogue with the artistic and cultural age in which they were produced. This analysis will be structured upon these three levels of interpretation as such, alternating between both works.

Figure 1. Robert Mapplethorpe, Dominick and Elliot, 1979. Photograph, silver gelatin print on paper. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Pre-Iconographical Descriptions: Form and Meaning

In interpreting Mapplethorpe’s assertions of the artistic merit of BDSM and homosexuality in Dominick and Elliot (fig. 1) and Self Portrait, it is useful to begin with pre-iconographic descriptions of the photos’ main subjects and forms. Dominick and Elliot presents two men, Dominick and Elliot (left and right, respectively), posing at some point before, after, or during a sadomasochistic sex act. Dominick is shirtless and wears dark pants with one waist button undone as well as black boots, with one mounted on a raised platform and the other on the ground behind his partner. He holds a lit cigarette between two fingers in his right hand over his crotch. His other hand is between his partner’s legs, grasping at his testicles. Dominick has his hair cut in a buzz and wears a short beard, with a hairy chest to match. He engages directly with the camera with a stern, intimidating glare. The man on the right, Elliot, is suspended upside down in the air by his feet, which are chained together to a contraption at the top of the frame from which a rope descends between Elliot’s legs. He is fully nude, except for the straps which bind his ankles, thighs, and wrists together. There is a tight chain around his neck which also ascends to his penis, presumably holding it as well. Only the tip of his penis is visible under Dominick’s grasp. Elliot too has a buzz cut and a beard, and stares at the camera without expression. His body forms a white upside-down cross which is emphasized against the completely black background of the photo. The body hangs midway between two vertical black poles along the back wall of the set. Elliot hangs directly through the centre of the frame, and Dominick stands just towards its left.

Figure 2. Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1983. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper. Tate, National Galleries of Scotland.

Self Portrait (fig. 2), as the title suggests, portrays Mapplethorpe as his own subject, however unconventional a portrayal it is. Mapplethorpe stands in the middle of the frame, with his head almost perfectly at the centre of the photograph. He wears a white formal dress shirt with its collar up, and a white bowtie. He also wears a large leather jacket tied at the waist with its collar also popped, and leather gloves to match. No skin is visible below his neck; it is all covered in black and white. He stares directly at the camera with a defiant, almost challenging gaze. The most shocking formal feature of this photograph is the large black submachine gun that Mapplethorpe holds with both gloved hands. He aims it at the frame’s right, and although his finger is on its trigger, the photo’s clearly posed nature suggests its presence as more ceremonial than threatening. Hung upon the white background in front of which Mapplethorpe stands is a black inverted pentagram. It too is centered to the frame; Mapplethorpe’s head is situated in front of the pentagon at the symbol’s heart. Its top two visible points stem out from either side of the top of his head, and the bottom two point straight towards each side of the frame. The bottom point is perfectly obscured by Mapplethorpe’s position; each of his shoulders mark the corner where the line should begin. As in Dominick and Elliot, this photograph is marked with a contrast between light and dark background and foreground. However, in this photo, the background is almost completely white, and the subject in the foreground almost completely dark, thus reversing the scheme of Dominick and Elliot to the same effect. Each work’s primary subject matter and form shape the basis of Mapplethorpe’s thematic and artistic concerns.

Iconographical Descriptions: Religious and Sexual Symbolism

The formal outlines of the photos reveal several key thematic motifs which inform iconographical descriptions of each work, most notable of which are the interactions of religious and sexual symbolism. In Dominick and Elliot, the first of such motifs is the most superficially obvious aspect of the photo, its graphic depiction of a sadomasochistic sex act. As previously noted, Mapplethorpe became notorious in the 1980s for his explicit photographs of LGBTQ BDSM sex and culture in New York City, of which he himself was an avid participant.[3] The sexual aspect of this image is clear in Elliot’s nudity and Dominick’s grasp of his genitals, as well as through the extreme bondage restraining Elliot. It is also suggested in subtler ways. Mike Weaver, in describing Milton Moore, another Mapplethorpe portrait, suggests that “the forearm […] to some gay men it symbolizes stiffening erection […] the head and pumped arm produce an image of fierce allure.”[4] In the same way Mapplethorpe may have use a flexed forearm or neck to suggest sexual potency, Elliot’s long, straight body in this photograph can be read as a phallic form, meant to signal to the viewer the centrality of male arousal and sexual expression to this image. The same could be said for Dominick’s lit cigarette, held in front of his clothed crotch. In sharing form and placement with an erection, it suggests that although his penis is not visible, he is still invested sexually with the action of the image. Mapplethorpe has claimed that “in an ideal sexual relationship, there [are] three partners, himself, his lover, and the devil.”[5] The BDSM of Mapplethorpe’s vision can be understood as what Michel Foucault refers to as “a different economy of bodies and pleasures”[6] from mainstream notions of sexuality. BDSM communities are built from relationships of power and pain which are ultimately unique and specific ways of creating and expressing sexual pleasure. They exist outside of the bounds of mainstream sexual economies and thus mainstream control, and as such are powerful tools for oppressed peoples. The glimpse of sadomasochism in this photo evokes this very specific and politically potent relationship between power, pain, and sexuality that Mapplethorpe placed extreme personal importance on, and acts as the image’s central motif.

The same kind of BDSM imagery can be observed in Self Portrait, although its employment is much subtler. Just as Dominick’s cigarette and Elliot’s extended body can be understood as references to erections, the submachine gun in this photo can be seen as a phallic stand-in. Mapplethorpe brandishes it provocatively in a way comparable to the way Dominick holds his partner in the previous photo. It is a male-wielded tool of power; just as male sexual organs are presented in some Mapplethorpe’s more provocative photos. Also significant is Mapplethorpe’s outfit. Leather can be read as representative of gay BDSM culture. Not only was it a common dress code at gay clubs in the period, but it was also itself fetishized as a material, and thus often played a direct part in sadomasochistic sex. Although Self Portrait is nowhere near as explicit as Dominick and Elliot, it still contains coded references to the same sexual subculture, and thus can be understood as partially symbolizing of the aforementioned values of homosexual BDSM culture. The picture also contains a direct allusion to a violent moment in popular culture. As noted by the Tate Gallery, it bears a purposeful resemblance to a photo of American Heiress Patty Hearst posing with a submachine gun in front of the logo of the Symbionese Liberation Army after their kidnapping of her (fig. 3).[7] In using this visual reference, Mapplethorpe asserts himself as a rogue violently departing, in a metaphorical sense, from mainstream consciousness in a way that those outside of his community cannot understand or sympathize with. It forms a significant part of the intrinsic symbolic meaning of the photo.

Figure 3. Patty Hearst (Unknown).

Another motif which significantly informs the symbolic meaning of each work is the subtle use of religious imagery. A notable example is the image of the inverted cross in Dominick and Elliot formed by Elliot’s nude suspended body. This allusion can be understood as noteworthy in two ways. The act of homosexual BDSM cannot be reconciled with twentieth century mainstream Christian morality, as was clear based on the aforementioned dominant political opposition it faced. Homophobia was widespread, at least in part due to misinformation over the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis in 1980’s America. As such, ‘extreme’ images of homosexual pornography were far from being welcomed into the minds of many Americans. Thus, on one level, by inverting the cross (the central image of the factions that opposed Mapplethorpe), the artist can be read as rejecting the values of mainstream religion and culture through sacrilege. However, Mapplethorpe seems to have a more complex relationship with religion and religious imagery than this. He was raised in a Catholic family, and Catholic imagery and ritual figures prominently reappear in different ways throughout many of his works, not all of them subversive. Mapplethorpe himself stated, “The way I arrange things is very Catholic […] it’s rather important as an influence on my life.”[8] Mapplethorpe carries a high level of respect for the aesthetics of religion that suggests his use of its imagery transcends the satirical. Thus, the use of religious signifiers in his work cannot be taken lightly. The cross in Christianity is traditionally understood as a symbol of Christ’s painful death in sacrifice to his followers. In other words, it represents a moment of beauty and power within extreme turmoil and suffering, a powerful symbol to consider in a sadomasochistic image.

Just as Self Portrait contains coded visual references to BDSM culture, it also contains religious imagery in a manner comparable to Dominick and Elliot. Its most prominent religious icon is that of the inverted pentagram. The pentagram in Christianity is understood as a symbol of the five wounds Christ suffered upon his crucifixion,[9] and thus represents the same moment of holiness in the Christian faith as the cross does. The inverted pentagram, however, represents Christ’s opposite, the Devil. Mapplethorpe, by standing in front of the symbol, “signifies the Devil’s goat, but most importantly, the reversal of man’s true nature.”[10] Therefore, in a way similar to Dominick and Elliot, this photo could be read as a sacrilegious attempt to subvert what mainstream values considered to be “natural”. However, in the same way that he admired the aesthetics of Catholicism, Mapplethorpe seems to have had a fascination with the Satanic. He was described by a college roommate as having “wanted the power of Satan” and having “tried to seek out people and situations through which they could get in touch with him.”[11] Thus, the use of Satanic imagery in this photo must be read as one of reverence in the same way his use of the cross is. It can therefore be seen as a symbol not of satire, but of spiritual transcendence through communion with darkness. This metaphor is especially significant when considering its interaction with homosexual symbolism within the photograph. This interaction will be further elaborated upon through iconological description.

Iconological Descriptions: Intrinsic Symbolic Meanings and Conclusions

In order to determine the intrinsic symbolic meaning of these two photographs, the interaction of the two main types of symbols in each – those being the homosexual and the religious – must be considered. Dominick and Elliot is a graphically honest image of two men engaged in a sadomasochistic sex act. It represents the sexuality of the men as a complex experience of pain, power, and sexual gratification, which both men commit to different roles in. Its inverted cross suggests an opposition to mainstream conceptions of decency and morality, yet also Jesus’ moment of painful beauty and redemption in death. Mapplethorpe describes his own sexuality as such to his biographer: “When I have sex with someone I forget who I am. For a minute I even forget that I’m human […] I forget I exist.”[12] Sexuality, for him, appears to be a sort of transcendent experience similar to what some may experience through religious belief. By associating these two motifs in his artwork, Mapplethorpe suggests that the sense of sexual beauty present in sadomasochistic homosexuality, while seemingly incomprehensible to those outside of it, is one comparable to the experience of knowing God through religion.

A similar connection can be made in Self Portrait. Mapplethorpe’s allegiance to homosexual and BDSM culture is signified by his phallic gun as well as his leather-clad body. Rather than using a divine reference point in this photo, however, he uses a Satanic one, to the same effect of symbolizing supernatural experience as analogous to sexual transcendence. This inverted pentagram also contributes to one of Mapplethorpe’s most powerful visual metaphors in these photos. The bottom point of the pentagram is obscured by Mapplethorpe’s body, the only object in the photo’s bottom half. Thus, he can be understood as a stand-in for the missing lower appendage of the symbol, or its phallus. Mapplethorpe stands at the convergence of these two symbolic motifs; he is the representative of the sexual and the spiritual brought together as he is the artist who asserts the association between the two in these works. He can also be understood as the phallus of the “subversive” sexuality represented by the sacrilegious symbol, as through his work he brings BDSM and homosexuality to the forefront of American artistic consciousness. In this way, he acts as an almost violent rogue who cannot be reconciled with or understood by means of mainstream American social values. Thus, his visual self-comparison to the kidnapped and transformed Patty Hearst is in this context both appropriate and effective.

By connecting the motifs of sexuality and religious experience in the two works, much of their intrinsic meaning becomes clear. Mapplethorpe considers sex, in any form, to be a kind of beautiful human process as integral to our experience of life as religion may be. The conscious posing and framing of both photos, however, is essential to understanding Mapplethorpe’s ultimate assertion of the value of sadomasochism and homosexuality as artistic subjects. Dominick and Elliot “emphasizes the poses and premeditations of the photographic session over any offer of spontaneous BDSM sex.”[13] The image isn’t a document of an active sexual event, but a symbolic presentation of the beauty and power of sadomasochistic homosexuality. In the same way, Self Portrait appears as a carefully staged photograph first, and a document of sexual expression second. In both pictures, the subjects look directly at the camera, betraying the artifice of the photographic moment. By acknowledging his artistic lens before insisting on the importance of the metaphor within the photos, Mapplethorpe reminds the viewer that this metaphor of sexuality as religious experience must be understood through a lens of artistic representation. By orienting the photos around an acknowledgement of their staged artistic nature, Mapplethorpe insists that these subjects are not only worthy of critical consideration, but of depiction in high art. Panofsky suggests that artworks can be interpreted as expressions of the cultures from which they come. By using sexual and religious iconography, Mapplethorpe in Self Portrait and Dominick and Elliot insists that homosexual and sadomasochistic sexual desire and gratification can be complex and beautiful subjects. As a result, he advocates for the artistic and thus the personal validity of the identities and lives of so many individuals that in his conservative cultural moment desperately needed such advocacy, effectively acting in exactly the way Panofsky theorizes art and artists should act.




[1] Meyer, Richard, The Jesse Helms Theory of Art, (October, vol. 104, 2003), 137.

[2] Hatt, Michael, and Charlotte Klonk, “Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methods,” (Manchester: Manchester U, 2013), 96.

[3] Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. Dir. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. (2016: HBO), Documentary.

[4] Weaver, Mike. “Mapplethorpe’s Human Geometry: A Whole Other Realm.”  (ProQuest,1985), 43.

[5] Hamilton, P. “No sympathy for the devil,” (The British Journal of Photography, 1996), 32.

[6] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 159.

[7] Tate Gallery. “Self Portrait” 1983, Robert Mapplethorpe.”

[8] Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. Dir. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. (2016: HBO), Documentary.

[9] Holweck, Frederick. “The Five Sacred Wounds.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New

York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912).

[10] Grove, Jeffrey D. Robert “Mapplethorpe’s Self-Portraits,” (Western Reserve U, 1999), 198.

[11] Morrisroe, Patricia. “Mapplethorpe: A Biography,” (New York: Da Capo, 1997), 44.

[12] Ibid., 65.

[13] Meyer, Richard. “Imagining Sadomasochism: Robert Mapplethorpe and the Masquerade of Photography.” (Qui Parle, vol. 4, no. 1, 1990), 70.

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