This luminous watercolour portrays a young priest involved in the Roman Catholic ritual of Benediction. In Benediction the priest elevates the Eucharistic wafer (unleavened altar bread) in a monstrance (an open and transparent vessel used to make the wafer visible to the congregation). The wafer acts as a ‘host’, which is believed by many Catholics to be transformed into Christ’s body.
Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) was born into a wealthy Jewish family in London in 1840. His artistic talent, youthful good looks and natural charisma enabled him to gain acceptance within the most fashionable artistic and literary circles of his day. He befriended fellow artist Edward Burne Jones (1833-98) — whose representations of graceful, androgynous young men he greatly admired — and the controversial poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). It is uncertain whether Swinburne and Solomon became lovers, but it is known that their close, intimate relationship was based as much around their interests in ‘deviant’ sexual practices as on their taste in art and literature. Swinburne was famously fascinated by sadomasochism, whilst Solomon lived unusually openly as a homosexual at the height of Victorian morality.
Solomon captures the intensity of the religious experience and highlights its magnificence by painting almost entirely in white and gold. In 1871 this watercolour received good reviews when it was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in London, a progressive venue that had shown works by Solomon since the 1860s. The painting may, however, have contained hidden meanings relating to Solomon’s sexuality. He developed an unconventional ‘homosensual’ style of painting that frequently drew upon the sublime sensuality of Christian, Jewish and Pagan rituals and depicted attractive and often-androgynous male deities, priests or acolytes.
The representation of androgynous males was an important device for homosexual artists as it suggested the possibility of a ‘third sex’. The concept of a ‘third sex’ was derived from the medical professions and described someone who could not be classified straightforwardly as either sex, but was seen to embody elements of both male and female identity. In the late 19th century the concept of the ‘third sex’ was put forward as a means of gaining public acceptance of homosexuality because it disconnected same-sex desire from religious notions of sin and guilt by presenting it as a consequence of inborn identity, rather than a choice or action. The priest in ‘Mystery of Faith’ is often cited as an example of Solomon’s most typically masculine portrayals of a central male figure. However, the painting still connects to this notion of the ‘third sex’ through the desire to disassociate homosexuality from sin.
By drawing on Christian symbolism and sublime beauty, Solomon attempted to connect homosexual love, desire and sexual expression to religious salvation. Writing in 2010, Art Historian Dominic Janes argued, for example, that Solomon used the Roman Catholic ritual of Benediction, represented in the painting, as a metaphor for same-sex desire. He proposed that for the male members of the congregation, what is offered in the (notably phallic) monstrance is the delayed gratification of physically consuming another man (Christ). In the Eucharist ritual the wafer is dissolved in the mouths of congregation to show their physical and spiritual acceptance of Christ. He proposed that Solomon depicted the ritual in such a sublime way in order to specifically reframe male-on-male intercourse as a form of purification.