By Dan Piepenbring

The New Yorker: Look at “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin,” a fifteenth-century portrait by Rogier van der Weyden, and you’ll notice two figures in the middle distance, lingering at the crenellations in the courtyard. One gestures in faint surprise; somebody has captured their attention. It’s not Luke the Evangelist, the Virgin Mother, or even the infant Christ. It’s a faraway man who has stopped to piss on a high wall.

This isn’t an isolated incident. The fact is, a river of piss runs through art history. For centuries, painters and sculptors have depicted the act of urination. Men piss. Women piss. Most of all, young boys piss, so much so that scholars assigned a Latin term, puer mingens, to their ubiquitous appearances. Now Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, a French critic, has written “Pissing Figures, 1280–2014,” a genealogy of the pisseurs and pisseuses who haunt our canvases, fountains, and frescoes. The book, in a rangy, fluent translation from Jeff Nagy, is a record of what Lebensztejn calls our “diuretic fantasies”—of the lore and lust surrounding urine, sacred and profane.

In the beginning was the pissing boy, the putto. He appeared first in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, peeing discreetly as if in fear of detection: the gentle plash, the flaxen strands as wispy as a maiden’s hair. By the fifteenth century, he’d grown brazen and begun to multiply—“processions of urinating children set about inundating paintings and sculptures in villas and public squares,” Lebensztejn writes. They pissed into vases and basins and shells and conchs, onto snowdrifts and poppy husks and flocks of cupids. They pissed in the mouths and anuses of other boys, who themselves pissed in more mouths still. These were no ordinary boys. Spritely and seraphic, often winged and laurelled, they charmed their way into old churches, where they patrolled the transepts and friezes, pure of heart and full of bladder. In Padua’s Ovetari Chapel, for example, Andrea Mantegna painted a cycle of frescoes that included a pissing putto suspended from a garland, where, according to Lebensztejn, he “lets loose a long jet of urine, as if it were a bemused, symbolic paraphrase of the baptismal water.”

Indeed, a boy’s piss seems at some point to have crossed streams with holy water, becoming blessed with ablutionary powers. In Italy, Lebensztejn notes, “it is still customary, even today, to call an infant’s intemperate pee acqua santa.” Sometimes the gift of pure piss transferred to adulthood, though it helped if you were aiming heavenward. A thirteenth-century fresco in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi shows three angels, grown men, holding their penises over Christ on the cross, as if they might relieve his suffering by relieving themselves.

Of course, the angels, being angels, feel no relief as they piss. They get their celestial jollies by raining a little holy water on us, but they know nothing of urination as a physical urge. If you want to enjoy some real salt-of-the-earth pissing, Lebensztejn reports, you have to skip ahead to 1600. It was then that, with the advent of genre painting, and its attendant embrace of everyday experience over iconography, more and more adults began to piss in images. In Rembrandt’s “Pissing Man” and “Pissing Woman,” both from 1631, we’ve at last found a couple urinating without ceremony, the peasant woman “turning around to reassure herself that no one is watching.” >>>