Look at “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin,” a fifteenth-century portrait by Rogier van der Weyden, and you’ll notice two figures in the middle distance, lingering at the crenellations in the courtyard. One gestures in faint surprise; somebody has captured their attention. It’s not Luke the Evangelist, the Virgin Mother, or even the infant Christ. It’s a faraway man who has stopped to piss on a high wall.
This isn’t an isolated incident. The fact is, a river of piss runs through art history. For centuries, painters and sculptors have depicted the act of urination. Men piss. Women piss. Most of all, young boys piss, so much so that scholars assigned a Latin term, puer mingens, to their ubiquitous appearances. Now Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, a French critic, has written “Pissing Figures, 1280–2014,” a genealogy of the pisseurs and pisseuses who haunt our canvases, fountains, and frescoes. The book, in a rangy, fluent translation from Jeff Nagy, is a record of what Lebensztejn calls our “diuretic fantasies”—of the lore and lust surrounding urine, sacred and profane.
In the beginning was the pissing boy, the putto. He appeared first in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, peeing discreetly as if in fear of detection: the gentle plash, the flaxen strands as wispy as a maiden’s hair. By the fifteenth century, he’d grown brazen and begun to multiply—“processions of urinating children set about inundating paintings and sculptures in villas and public squares,” Lebensztejn writes. They pissed into vases and basins and shells and conchs, onto snowdrifts and poppy husks and flocks of cupids. They pissed in the mouths and anuses of other boys, who themselves pissed in more mouths still. These were no ordinary boys. Spritely and seraphic, often winged and laurelled, they charmed their way into old churches, where they patrolled the transepts and friezes, pure of heart and full of bladder. In Padua’s Ovetari Chapel, for example, Andrea Mantegna painted a cycle of frescoes that included a pissing putto suspended from a garland, where, according to Lebensztejn, he “lets loose a long jet of urine, as if it were a bemused, symbolic paraphrase of the baptismal water.” Read more