THE INTERSECTION of sex and the Catholic priesthood has long been fraught, and recent scandals involving priests and choirboys have revealed to the modern public that there’s considerable overlap between the two. But clerical celibacy and its effects have been long debated. That vows of celibacy do not automatically extinguish thoughts about sex (or actions on its behalf) has been an open secret of the Church and an occasional but recurring topic of public discussion since the Middle Ages, as witness this example: the image reproduced here was drawn in the 1330s by an Italian priest named Opicinus de Canistris. Originally from Pavia, a small university town south of Milan, Opicinus lived at the papal court in Avignon, where he worked in the scriptorium by day and created drawings by night.
The drawing before you is likely to be one of the strangest you’ve ever laid eyes on; it will take a moment just to explain what you are seeing.
Karl Whittington is assistant professor of history of art at Ohio State University. His first book, Opicinus de Canistris and the Medieval Cartographic Imagination, was published in 2014.