“The Bathhouse Motif in the Engravings of Medieval Artist Sebald Beham”

Marijn has written several articles on the theme of bathhouses

The Myth of the Bathhouse  (c.1827) by Kunisada contains a sequence of illustrations aptly examining various levels of communication between the public and private area. The first image (Fig.1.) shows us two spaces..

and bathing in shunga

What is Shunga? Uncover the captivating world of this ancient Japanese erotic art form at ShungaGallery.com. Explore the history, allure, and secrets of Shunga in its most intriguing form.

, one of the most recent ones was about this enticing Harunobu print

There is a genre of ukiyo-e print halfway between shunga and non-erotic subjects known as a ‘risqué picture’ ( abuna-e ), in which a woɱaп’s naked skin is revealed for contemplation, as well as..

. You’ll be right alleging that the depiction of bathhouses was spread not only among Japanese printmakers but among European

In this probably unique and distinguishing Japanese shunga   surimono (commissioned print) Shigenobu portrays his sensual participants, a European couple, as godlike figures (the female is stunningly beautiful) set..

masters too. For example, this motif often appeared in works of the Gerɱaп artist Sebald Beham (1500-1550), known as the most prominent figure of so-called “Little Masters” – the generation of printmakers after Dürer.

Leda and the Swan Sebald Beham

Fig. 1. Leda and the Swan by Sebald Beham (britishmuseum.org)


Sebald Baham was born in a family of an artist. Along with his minor brother Barthel, he was an apprentice of Dürer. He shared Lutheran beliefs and thus was prosecuted and accused of heresy and blasphemy. In 1525, Sebald and Barthel were ejected from Nuremberg, which was their birthplace, for producing “pornographic

In the two articles I added earlier ( Part 1 / Part 2 ) on the enthralling pornographic art of Senju (Stockholm, 1968) we only took a close look at some of my personal favorites from his collection. Therefore I..

” engravings. Three years later, Beham went back to the city. Being one more ᴛι̇ɱe accused of pornography distribution in 1529, he fled Nuremberg and dwelled in München as a protégé of Albrecht von Brandenburg. In later years, he moved from one place to another, until in 1532, he settled down in Frankfurt. A skilled printmaker, Beham produced hundreds of engravings on different themes, from religion to Tarot decks.

The Night Sebald Beham

Fig. 2. The Night, 1548 (britishmuseum.org)

Nessus Sebald Beham

Fig. 3. Nessus and Deianeira, ca. 1540s (britishmuseum.org)

Death and the sleeping woman Sebald Beham

Fig. 4. Death and the sleeping woɱaп. Print by Sebald Beham after Barthel Beham, 1548 (britishmuseum.org)

Sebald Beham three satyrs

Fig. 5. Ornament panel with three satyrs, ca. 1540s (britishmuseum.org)

The Art of Bathing

As writes Alison Stewart, “Representations of bathhouses used for cleansing became numerous in the second half of the fifteenth century, and they are believed to reflect the height of popularity of bathing at that ᴛι̇ɱe. Bathing was then seen as a pleasure and was always enjoyed in the presence of others. Singing and music-making had been part of the enjoyment of the bath

Japenese Women bathing While the Japanese people of the 19th Century bathed frequently, most did not have baths in their own homes and instead used public bathhouses ( sento ) , where everyone was exposed. By going..

much earlier, by around the year 800, and by the sixteenth century, eating and drinking had also become important aspects of bathing pleasure. Nuremberg had a dozen public bathhouses and ɱaпy private ones, not unusual numbers for European cities at the ᴛι̇ɱe.” It comes as no surprise that bathhouses were also centers of prostitution. Despite special edicts banning courtesans from bathhouses, the places meant for fulfilling hygiene needs often were settings for amorous scenes.

women in the bathhouse Sebald Beham

Fig. 6. Three women in the bath-house

I am always thrilled and amazed when I come across a new rare shunga gem that I have never seen before. In my experience that is one of the true pleasures of being an art dealer. Similar to the pleasure that the..

, 1548 (britishmuseum.org)

women and child in the bathhouse Sebald Beham

Fig. 7. Woɱaп with two children in the bathhouse, ca. 1540s (britishmuseum.org)

Viewer As a Voyeur

The motif of voyeur was used by Western engravers as well as by Eastern in two ways. The voyeur is either the male character in the picture or the viewer himself. In the latter case, the effect is achieved by the naked figure staring directly at the viewer, as it was depicted in one of Eisen’s designs (fig. 8). In Dürer’s Women’s Bathhouse (1496), the woɱaп in the center is looking at us with a shameless little smile as a courtesan in the design by Eisen (fig. 9). She’s not confused, on the contrary, she’s the one who makes us feel uneasy under her gaze. Another device that turns us into witnesses of bath procedures is a round frame, which imitates the window aperture, as in Women’s Bath (1543) by Beham (fig. 10).

keisai eisen courtesan

Fig. 8. Keisai Eisen

After Hokusai , undoubtedly the most striking figure among the later shunga artists is Keisai Eisen (1790-1848). Eisen was to prove one of the most prolific (together with Kunisada ) of all ukiyo-e shunga masters…

Courtesan looking at a viewer. from the book Ehon fuji no yuki (The snow on Mount Fuji), c.1824 (Source: Morra Japanese Art)

Albrecht Dürer Women's Bathhouse

Fig. 9. Albrecht Dürer Women’s Bathhouse, 1496 (researchgate.net)

Sebald Beham Women's Bath

Fig. 10. Sebald Beham Women’s Bath, ca. 1543 (researchgate.net)

Woman’s Bath, 1543, attrib. to Sebald Beham 

Fig. 11. Woɱaп’s Bath, 1543, attrib. to Sebald Beham (digitalcommons.unl.edu)

The Fountain of Youth

According to medieval legends, the fountain of youth is a mystical spring, which waters heal any disease and turn old and weak bathers into young libidinous people, whom they were a long ᴛι̇ɱe ago. This fountain was depicted by Lucas Cranach, Erhard Schön, Hans Holbein, Master of the Banderoles, but the largest and the most detailed depiction was produced by Sebald Beham. In the engraving, he combined themes of the bathhouse (right part) and fountain (left part of the image), emphasizing sensual activities of the “renewed” bathers.

Fountain of Youth-Bathhouse

Fig. 12. Fountain of Youth-Bathhouse ca. 1531 (wikimedia.org)

Fountain of Youth-Bathhouse

Fig. 13. Fountain of Youth-Bathhouse accompanied by the publisher’s text (digitalcommons.unl.edu)

Literal and Metaphorical Eroticism

Like every medieval oeuvre, Beham’s Fountain of Youth ɱaпifests itself in two levels: literal and metaphorical. Apparent sensuality is embodied by amorous couples in the foreground next to the fountain (the ɱaп touches the woɱaп’s breast, fig. 14) and in the background of the bathhouse (the ɱaп puts his hand under the skirts of his female companion, fig. 15). Metaphorical sensuality involves typical medieval symbols of lust. As Alison Stewart notes, the first detail, which indicates the sensual atmosphere, is the presence of drinks in the picture. In the left part of the bathhouse, we can see the ɱaп suggesting a drink to the woɱaп (fig. 16, 17). Stewart writes that “The offer of a drink was understood in the sixteenth century to be an erotic invitation since this gesture was seen in contemporary literature and art as leading to lust.”

Sebald Beham the lovers

Fig. 14. The lovers from fig. 12.

Sebald Beham The lovers in the bathhouse.

Fig. 15. The lovers from the background of the bathhouse.

Sebald Beham the lovers drinking

Fig. 16. The ɱaп offers a drink to the woɱaп.

Sebald Beham drinking lovers

Fig. 17. The amorous couple drinking wine.

Birds and Feathers

According to Stewart’s article, “it may be possible that the birds over the fountain combine realistic detail with the erotic connotations that Vogel (“bird” or “penis

The over-sizing of the organs is a feature of shunga , but they are not depicted as universally large. More realistically sized ones appear, mostly on younger people or on the very old. Shunga  provokes the adult..

”) had in the sixteenth century. Indeed, the verb vogeln still means “to bird” or to have sexual intercourse in Gerɱaп” (fig. 18). The motif, which can be naturally associated with the bird but has another meaning, is the box of feathers placed by Beham at the upper right part of the engraving (fig. 19). Feathers were the symbol of foolishness, which puts the desire for eternal youth connected with “earthly pleasures” into the ironic context (look also at the figure of the fool with a bauble at the left side of the gallery, fig. 20). Other blatant details of the picture are the urinating

Voyeurism within shunga was a beloved subject among ɱaпy ukiyo-e artists. A sub-theme within voyeurism is that of aroused men peeking on peeing beauties. Although rare, there are some appealing examples like the..

woɱaп in front of the bathhouse and the ɱaп shooting a clyster at the backside of the one standing at the bathhouse gallery (fig. 21, 22).

Sebald Beham The bird near the fountain.

Fig. 18. The bird near the fountain.

Sebald Beham The box of feathers

Fig. 19. The box of feathers.

Sebald Beham The fool with a bauble

Fig. 20. The fool with a bauble.

Sebald Beham The urinating woman

Fig. 21. The urinating woɱaп.

Sebald Beham The man with a clyster

Fig. 22. The ɱaп with a clyster shooting at another ɱaп’s ass. Central detail that unites the fountain and the bathhouse.

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