Medieval art was full of various obscene motifs, especially in the margins of illuminated manuscripts and in the decorations of gothic cathedrals (for further reading I invite you to check out my previous posts on medieval Phallic Tree, or on some sculptures of the cathedral in Bourges). Many of those obscene motifs actually focus on buttocks area; these images were supposed to be grotesque, and they involved male characters.
So, at first we may be surprised seeing a young lady in a compromising position, sculpted in the upper part of a 14th century ivory tablet (in Walters Art Museum, Baltimore). Well, that surely has a different meaning than traditional irreverent medieval images.
In this case actually we deal with rather straight-forward illustration of a particular medieval legend. The story is about a Roman poet Virgil, who – according to the tales developed since the 13th century – was supposed to have been not only a writer, but also a sorcerer. One day he fell in love with the daughter of the Emperor (various versions of the legend give different Emperors in this case). Her name was either Ysifile or Febilla. She promised Virgil to give herself to him in her room at the top of the tower, and he was supposed to get there being pulled up in the basket in the middle of the night. However, when the basket was half-way, the Princess stopped pulling the rope and Virgil got stuck in the basket in the middle of the tower’s wall! When the morning came people saw the poet still sitting in the basket and of course they made fun of him. The tale about Virgil in the basket was often juxtaposed in medieval art with another legend, telling about how an ancient philosopher Aristotle was humiliated by beautiful Phyllis (I wrote about that earlier, the post is available HERE).
Anyway, Virgil decided to get a revenge. At first he had to flee from Rome, as the Emperor decided to imprison him. Apparently, the mean Princess not only humiliated the poet, but she also told her father that Virgil wanted to rape her. Being out of Rome, Virgil decided to use his magical power and threw a curse on the entire city. He magically put all the fire out and it was impossible to light any flame in the whole Rome. The Romans very much wanted to get the fire back, so they agreed to do whatever the sorcerer told them to do. So Virgil ordered them to get the Princess and strip her naked; then they were supposed to put their candles close to the Princess’ intimate areas. Magically, the candles inflamed… and that is the explanation for the bizarre images of the medieval ivory tablets. The sticks put into the lady’s bottom are actually the candles that are about to be lighted with the magic flame.
Some of the versions of this tale suggest that the source of that fire was actually placed not in the Princess’ womb, but rather at the end of her digestive system. That is how it was depicted in the medieval art, and also in some cases of the Renaissance images.
Interestingly, the Early-Modern illustrations of this legend evolved towards less obscene images: apparently in the Renaissance art it was more popular to show the fire coming out from the Princess’ front, not from her behind. The example of that may be an engraving by Daniel Hopfer (before 1536).
And suddenly it turns out that there is nothing new in contemporary art, that basically everything already happened in the Middle Ages. That is because now we may look differently at a famous artwork by Marcel Duchamp (1919), depicting Mona Lisa with beard and mustache, and entitled “L.H.O.O.Q.”. Those letters, spelled in French, sound much like “Elle a chaud au cul”, which means “She has heat in her ass” (“She is hot in her ass”).
The meaning of that is most likely “she has a hot ass” or “she is a hot piece of ass”, but now we should remember that a “hot ass” may not only be understood figuratively. The literal meaning of this phrase apparently has some good medieval sources in both European literature and art. And so, it turns out that “the ass on fire” is a serious cultural motif worth researching – I assume you do not doubt that now, as the blog you are now reading is actually written by an academic-medievalist.