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The History of Virgins in Art

As the world prepares to celebrate one famous virgin birth this week, we look at how chastity has been depicted through the ages.
December 23, 2015, 2:00pm
Photo by Flickr user Jorge Gonzalez

Back in 2002, the Telegraph described Britney Spears as "the supposedly chaste queen of teen pop." The early 2000s were pretty much dominated by speculation over whether the singer was a virgin or in fact, as she hinted, "not that innocent." In a delightfully ironic twist, Spears just appeared in a November episode of the CW's Jane the Virgin, dancing to "Toxic" with the virginal and comically pregnant protagonist Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez).

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The way that the arts have historically portrayed female virginity, however, hasn't always been so frank or knowing. In the Western world, through the modes of literature, painting, sculpture, and film, virginal women have been both lauded and chastised—often as a direct reflection of societal thought. As Hanne Blank, author of Virgin: The Untouched History, writes: "We live in a culture that doesn't appreciate ambiguity when it comes to either sexuality or morality, after all, and virginity is inexplicably twined with both."

From Mythology to Mother Mary

In Ancient Greek culture, virginity was considered the highest virtue. Three Olympian virgin goddesses appear in Greek mythology—Artemis, Athena, and Hestia. Artemis was said to have sworn off bearing children after helping her mother give birth to her twin brother Apollo, while Athena birthed children 'from her thoughts.' To Athena, the meeting of minds was seen as a purer form of love than the physical enactment of it, so she bestowed demigod children to the mortal men she loved through mental conception.

Hestia served as the object of affection for both Apollo and Poseidon, but to avoid conflict, she rejected them both and swore herself to a virginal life. All three appear in the work of the epic poet Homer, and their Roman equivalents (Diana, Minerva, and Vesta) also figure in the literature of Ovid. From hunting to wisdom, their status as virginal women conferred on them great power.

Hestia Polyolvos from sixth century AD. Image via Wikimedia

Later civilizations continued to revere the fictional goddesses through various art forms. In Egypt during the sixth century AD, the Hestia Polyolvos or "Hestia full of Blessings" tapestry was made. Statues were also erected in the image of Athena—the Athena Mattei stands in the Louvre in Paris, a Roman replica of the original Greek statue, the Piraeus Athena, which dates back to fourth century BC.

Of course, there's another virginal icon whose image is seen in the halls of the Louvre: the Virgin Mary. Known as "Saint Mary," "Mother of Jesus," and "Blessed Virgin Mary" (to name a few), she was the single most frequently depicted female figure in art until the 18th century. From Medieval Byzantine art to Leonardo da Vinci's 1486 painting The Virgin of the Rocks, her image still bears great influence to this day. Mary is a hallmark of the Christian religion and has served as an unwavering role model for girls and mothers alike—which explains the Western world's pre-occupation with depicting her throughout the ages.

"The Virgin of the Rocks," by Leonardo da Vinci. Image via Wikimedia

Shakespeare's submissives and bawdy dames

In the 1600s, William Shakespeare scrutinized the idea of virginity as a sanctified quality. His female characters played out what it meant to be a virgin within the patriarchal English society in which he lived. In Hamlet, Ophelia is very much the archetypal sub; she obeys the requests of her lover and father even though she finds herself in the middle of their quarrel. Her brother Laertes tells her to "fear" premarital sex, warning her that "canker galls the infants of the spring / Too oft before their buttons be disclosed." (Read: a non-virginal woman is of no interest to dudes.)

Contrarily, Shakespeare also depicted his virgins as highly assertive. Although 14-year-old Juliet later ends up in bed with her paramour in Romeo and Juliet, she first rebuffs his advances with the outright question: "What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?"

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The playwright also portrayed Queen Elizabeth I in a similar vein. After her death, he eulogized the queen in King Henry VIII: "She must, the saints must have her, — yet a virgin; / A most unspotted lily shall she pass / To the ground, and all the world shall mourn her." As the Virgin Queen, her purity and dominance were interlinked.

A 16th century portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Image via Wikimedia

Conquests in cult film

Virginity and the notion of 'losing it' has cropped up in cult teen films since the 80s. "What inspires directors is that virginity is a central tension in teenage life, and thus makes for both good drama and comedy," American film scholar Tim Shary tells Broadly. From Larry Clark's hard-hitting Kids, which sees the amoral Telly sleeping with virgins because they're 'clean,' to the unsettling and provocative relationship between 48-year-old Lester and high school student Angela in American Beauty, female virgins are still largely seen as prey.

This is in direct contrast to how male virginity is depicted (think American Pie and Superbad). As Shary explains, "There is a general difference that is influenced by patriarchy, i.e., boys can be more horny and girls must be more chaste. Most often, girls are not shown expressing sexual desires, even when they want boyfriends.

"Because their interests are in romance, virginal girls are assumed to be morally righteous, even if that comes with accusations of being prudish; virginal boys are viewed as unlucky or desperate after a certain age."

There are of course, exceptions to the rules. Sophia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (based on the book of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides), features a set of siblings called the Lisbon sisters. Repressed by their devoutly religious parents, the girls enthrall a group of high school boys. One of the sisters, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), successfully loses her virginity by seducing her school crush, Trip (Josh Hartnett), in between suggestive winks and playing footsie under the family dinner table. Later on in the film, she gasses herself in the car. The protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in In Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac is even more outrageous. After losing her virginity in a disappointing encounter to Shia LaBeouf's Jerôme, she leads a life full of unrestrained, carnal trysts.

Horror's sole survivors

As the cliche goes in horror films, "the virgin always lives." From Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in the first instalment of Halloween in 1978, the tradition holds that if a character is sexually moral they won't be murdered, whilst their promiscuous friends are slaughtered by the dozen. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol J. Clover describes this trope as the "final girl." She argued that the chaste woman is morally sound and is therefore unpunishable, leaving her alone with the power to bring down the oft male killer.

When Wes Craven's Scream came out in 1996 however, the practice was turned on its head. Neve Campbell played Sidney Prescott, a high school virgin tormented by the masked killer. She loses her virginity to her boyfriend halfway through the film, who ironically turns out to be one of the murderers—but she also survives the entirety of the franchise.

In the 2007 film Teeth, the virginal protagonist becomes the character to be feared. Dawn (Jess Weixler) is a chaste Christian teenager who is is raped by her school crush. During the attack, she discovers that her vagina has teeth, and bites off his penis—a fate that she inflicts on any man who tries to cross her. As Shary puts it, she is "able to enjoy sexual pleasure for herself and permanently punish the men who cause her sexual pain."

Comically independent

Outside of horror, virginity is often played for laughs. In the 1995 flick Clueless, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is mocked for being a virgin who can't drive—a line that expertly pokes fun at virginity as a construct through the supposed shallowness of teenage girls.

In another 90s favorite, Cruel Intentions, Selma Blair appears as the ultra-naive virgin Cecile. Stepbrother and sister duo Sebastian (Ryan Phillipe) and Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) take it in turns to seduce Cecile, leading to raunchy—but also plain ridiculous—scenes like the infamous lesbian makeout scene and Sebastian kissing Cecile "there."

More recently, Emma Stone stars as Olive Penderghast in the 2010 teen comedy, Easy A. In order to evade a camping trip with her best friend and her hippie parents, Stone's character lies about losing her virginity. A pious Christian girl at their high school overhears Olive's story and it quickly spreads across campus. In an unexpected turn, Olive embraces her new found status as the school "skank." For a brief period, she even capitalizes on it—guys offer her gift cards to pretend she's slept with them, in order to boost their popularity. With humor as its backdrop, the film inverts the traditional trope of the meek virgin—Olive is feisty, loud and falsely proud.

These films, and TV shows such as Jane the Virgin, signal a shift in how chastity is artistically presented in contemporary culture. These days, virginity is discussed within the context of comedy, encouraging a more relaxed approach to a subject which, historically, has often been treated with reverence. As James Poniewozik wrote in his Time review of Jane the Virgin: " The show foregrounds her virginity—it's in the title, after all—but it doesn't portray it as either a burden or a crusade." Which is more than you can say about the other virgin birth that we celebrate every year.