Richard B. Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford

It's hard to walk past so many beautiful naked bodies in a dark room without thinking a bit about sex and love; and in an exhibition like Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, there's always the tendency to play the mental game of trying to decide who you fancy most out of all the represented people. The display of male beauty in Greek art has had a huge impact on European culture, and sometimes on very intimate levels, even though the exact role of same-sex desire in ancient Greek society remains controversial. Ancient Greek art has been one of the ways in which LGBT people have recognised their presence in world history, and this capacity of art to help awareness of sexual identity has produced a wonderful continuing dialogue between ancient and modern works.

This struck me particularly when I was in front of the Belvedere Torso, on loan from the Vatican Museums, because it's displayed next to some of the Museum's own Michelangelo drawings. This stunning juxtaposition gives a vivid – almost physical sense – of Michelangelo's deep engagement with classical art. In a culture where sodomites were consigned to hell, Michelangelo's own attraction to male beauty found a passionate, if uneasy, resolution with his spirituality through classical philosophy and thought. He expressed this not only in his images of muscular male figures but also in poems such as this one of around 1549, which merges his desire for earthly beauty with his love for God:

My eyes, seeking beauty,
and my soul, seeking salvation,
have no other way
to rise to heaven except by looking at beautiful things.
From the highest stars,
a splendour come down
which draws desire to them,
and which here is called 'Love'.
The noble heart has nothing to make it burn or love, or to guide it,
except a face as fair as those stars.

Belvedere                                                        Torso, 1st century                                                        BC. Marble copy                                                        after a Greek                                                        bronze, probably                                                        of the early 2nd                                                        century BC. H                                                        (including base)                                                        156.5 cm, W 87.5                                                        cm. Vatican                                                        Museums, Vatican                                                        City

Above: The Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm; W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Below: Michelangelo's study of a reclining male nude inspired by the sculpture. Dark red chalk over some stylus underdrawing. Florentine, around 1511. 19.3 x 25.9 cm. British Museum, London 1926,1009.1

26-06-2015                                                        17.40.07

Later, Michelangelo's own 'beautiful things' became works through which gay identity was expressed, with the very 20th-century Benjamin Britten composing a song-cycle of the Renaissance artist's sonnets. This was dedicated to his life-partner, the singer Peter Pears, and was first performed publicly by the two of them together in the early 1940s, when 'homosexuality' was illegal in Britain.

Among the first audiences for the song-cycle was the novelist E.M. Forster (1879–1970), for whom classical culture had also offered a sense of personal (humanist) salvation. In his novel Maurice, young men try to understand their desires for each other through images of Michelangelo's works and reading Plato's dialogues, eventually realising that 'I have always been like the Greeks and didn't know' (chap. 11). The novel was written in 1914 and was dedicated 'to a happier year' when same-sex love would be regarded as equal. Significantly, a crucial scene of Maurice is set in the British Museum's classical galleries and the adjacent Assyrian rooms, as Maurice and the gamekeeper Alec finally realise that they are in love, surrounded by ancient art. The novel was magnificently filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987, on location and in the right galleries. The film concentrates on the Assyrian rooms, but the Greek sculpture of the Parthenon gallery had already featured in Merchant Ivory's earlier film of Henry James' Bostonians, also with a same-sex couple, Olive Chancellor and her beloved Verena Tarrant.

Maurice was filmed in the 1980s, the period of the now infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 that prohibited local authorities in England and Wales from 'promoting' homosexuality. Attitudes in Britain are thankfully now very different, but I remember the 80s well as a time when it was easy for young people coming out to feel alone: history was almost unremittingly heterosexual, gay stereotypes were often mocking, and there was a general invisibility in culture. Michelangelo and Maurice were hugely reassuring. Memories of these feelings of cultural isolation helped shape a recent British Museum project on LGBT history, which I hoped would help LGBT people find themselves in world history. A long line of very different, interconnected works of art stretches back to those Greek statues, explaining and legitimising the diversity of human desire to modern generations.

Ideas of beauty and desire are culturally constructed in many different ways, but this particularly Greek vision of beauty can still have a personal impact. Standing in front of the hunky Belvedere Torso, I wonder how many people have come to understand their own hearts and identities through looking at these statues carved millennia earlier. The statues don't even have to be male or naked. Defining beauty also includes one which was much loved by Forster – the (clothed) goddess Demeter from Knidos. The statue features as a symbolic motif in his novel The Longest Journey, and she is in many ways a mythic archetype for his famous mature female characters, such as Mrs Wilcox and Mrs Moore, who embody an instinctive wisdom that sees beyond social conventions and recognises (in the words of the second Mrs Wilcox) 'that people are far more different than is pretended' (Howards End, chap. 44).

Marble cult                                                        statue of Demeter,                                                        goddess of nature.                                                        Greek, carved                                                        around 360 BC. H.                                                        152 cm. British                                                        Museum, London                                                        1859,1226.26

Marble cult statue of Demeter, goddess of nature. Greek, carved around 360 BC. H. 152 cm. British Museum, London 1859,1226.26

Looking at ancient beauty can perhaps encourage our world to adopt a more inclusive attitude towards human diversity – which is still urgently needed now when militant groups are not only overturning ancient statues but also executing gay men by throwing them from buildings. While they are destroying, and more men are dying, Forster's Demeter sits in the British Museum as a benign and inspiring presence, waiting patiently for that 'happier year'. It's much closer than it was, but not quite with us yet.

Further reading:

B. Parkinson, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World (British Museum Press 2013).

M. Forster, Maurice (Penguin Classics 2005)

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display from 26 March to 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE