Painting Sappho by Angela Yarber


“Someone, I say, will remember us in the future,” she once wrote.  To my knowledge, she was never dubbed a prophet.  A muse, yes.  A romantic, perhaps.  But never a prophet, rarely holy, and nary an icon.  Until now.   Hailed as one of the best Greek lyric poets, many have tried to forget her, or at least the more provocative elements of her life.  The passionate poet Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BCE (sometime between 630-612 BCE).  The word lesbian stems from the place of her birth and her name is the origin of the word sapphic, though most scholars assert that little is known of her actual life and that the majority of her poetry is not autobiographical.  Yet her lyric poetry speaks of love for both sexes and myriad people.

What is more, the idea of homo and heterosexuality are not transhistorical essences, but instead are relatively recent socio-historical constructs. To say that there were strict sexual binaries in the ancient world in which Sappho lived would be an anachronism. Sexuality was much more fluid.  Not surprisingly, many scholars have tried to name and claim male lovers for Sappho, a heteronormative attempt to erase her fluid sexuality, her hope to be remembered in the future dashed, demeaned, forgotten.  In fact, during the Victorian Era, many asserted that Sappho was the headmistress of a girls’ school, another attempt to straighten out her memory, her poetry, her love.

In an interview with Kittredge Cherry, she asked how it was that I chose to include this seemingly un-saintly woman with the rest of my Holy Woman Icons.  Sappho may not appear to fit in with Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, and Dorothy Day at first glance.  I responded simply: “It is long overdue for LGBT persons to be affirmed and told their lives, bodies, and beings are holy and beloved. Painting Sappho, in all her beautiful and bodily wisdom, was my way of affirming and redeeming the love and life she represents. There are many ways to be holy. Her life and poetry is an example of this.”  Sappho, like all these Holy Women, deserves to be canonized in canvas.

In Saved From Silence: Finding Women’s Voice in Preaching, Mary Donovan Turner and Mary Lin Hudson propose that “When a person who has been oppressed and silenced stands and speaks, that person experiences redemption.” By painting these women—many of whom are queer—and calling them “holy,” it is my hope that I am contributing to their redemption and to the redemption of the LGBTQ community.

So, when I began my Holy Woman Icons project, I knew that Sappho was among them.  Her canvas is the largest of them all, filled with the lavender and purples that have described her.  She lounges, longing, leaning, reaching.  But it is not her seductive pose or disheveled hair that is central, but her heart.  And her heart cries out to us, making us remember:

Sapphic love and infatuated
Pulsed for honey lips
Sultry hips
She was a lover divine…

Sappho’s most famous poems, Prayer to Aphrodite:

We remember, Sappho.  We remember.

While it is my sincere hope that my canvas and her sultry iconography evoke our memory, I find it important to highlight her own words.  It is the best way to remember her, after all.  Hear now, one of Sappho’s most famous poems, Prayer to Aphrodite:

Eternal Aphrodite, Zeus’s daughter, throne
Of inlay, deviser of nets, I entreat you:
Do not let a yoke of grief and anguish weigh
Down my soul, Lady,

But come to me now, as you did before
When, hearing my cries even at the distance
You slammed the door of your father’s house—
Golden! and hastened 

To harness your chariot.  Then pretty sparrows
Drew you forthwith over the dark lands,
Beating their crisp wings.  From the outer spheres,
Down through the inner, 

Steeply they descended.  At last you, Divine Lady,
Beaming your unearthly smile at me,
Asked was I in distress once again—for,
Why had I called you? 

And what did my unruly heart demand
Of you now?  “And whom do I urge this time
To return your generous friendship?  Who,
Sappho, has been stubborn?  

For if she avoids you, soon she will come
Knocking; if refuses presents, will shower them
On you; if she loves not, she shall love, and
Learn to be kinder.” 

I beg you, come.  Free me from this oppression.
All that my heart longs to see accomplished,
Goddess, do it.  No one could resist if you were
Fighting beside me.

(Sappho, “Prayer to Aphrodite,” translated by Alfred Corn in World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, edited by Katharine Washburn, John Major, and Clifton Fadiman.)

Her legend, her poetry, evokes the memory—and present reality—of queer women’s lives.  Therefore, we can revel in the beauty of Sappho’s words, poetic justice providing respite in an otherwise homophobic and patriarchal world.  Here, in Sappho’s stanzas, immersed in her poetic lines, we find beauty, affirmation, perhaps even redemption:

I beg you, come.  Free me from this oppression.
All that my heart longs to see accomplished,
Goddess, do it.  No one could resist if you were
Fighting beside me.

Come, Sappho, come, Aphrodite, so that we may free ourselves from all that binds and fight for love.  Bold, prophetic, unabashed, never-ending, all-inclusive, sapphic love.

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today.  She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999.  For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit:

14 thoughts on “Painting Sappho by Angela Yarber”

  1. I don’t know what Kittridge Cherry meant: I view Sappho a one of the few voices that gives us women’s experience of ancient Greek religion. Her view of Aphrodite is quite different from Hesiod’s. She may not be a nun or an ascetic, but to me she is clearly a voice in women’s spirituality.


  2. Most are probably aware of this, but a new parchment of Fragment 58 with a Sappho poem was discovered in 2005. We had part of it already, so we could piece it together, and that’s huge really, to have nearly the whole poem intact. It’s being referred to as the “new Sappho.” And its really very important and interesting, because it’s her poem about her old age and how she was struggling to manage it. Sappho, so human, so real, so faithful as always to the truth. She was just as openly old and fragile, as she was openly gay and all the rest.

    For you the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
    be zealous girls, [of the ] clear melodious lyre.

    [But my once tender] body, old age now
    [has seized] my hair has turned [white] instead of dark.

    My heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
    that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

    This state I bemoan, but what can we do?
    Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

    Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn
    love smitten, carried him off to the world’s end

    handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
    o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.


  3. A beautiful post. It reminds me of one of my favorite fragments, translated by Mary Barnard:

    Although they are
    only breath, words
    which I command
    are immortal

    And thank you, Sarah. I hadn’t known about that newly found poem!


  4. Sarah, thanks so much for sharing this! Beautiful!
    Carol, I certainly can’t speak for Kittredge, but I’m pretty sure she’d agree with you (as do I). Since the whole focus of her work is to redeem LGBTQ figures from a heteronormative history, my assumption was that she asked the question in order to provide me space to give a response for those who don’t know, who wouldn’t otherwise understand how holy Sappho truly is.


  5. I enjoy Sappho’s poetry best when she sneaks in some of that sly, slightly self-depreciating, always witty, humor of hers.

    “And whom do I urge this time
    To return your generous friendship? Who,
    Sappho has been stubborn?”


  6. Angela, what a lovely tribute to Sappho! I became so entranced with her in writing my own site about lesbian poets. Sappho truly set the bar. It is hard to believe that most of her poetry were simply wedding songs, commissioned by the wedding party. It is so exquisite. I think my favorite is:
    Like the sweet apple that reddens
    At end of the bough–
    Far end of the bough–
    Left by the gatherer’s swaying,
    Forgotten, so thou.
    Nay, not forgotten, ungotten,
    Ungathered (till now).

    And not only has she been bitterly misunderstood through the centuries, but there have been genuine hoaxes relating to her — “poets” who claimed to have known her and worked with her. One of the most devastating was the Bilitis hoax, who even turned out to be a man.

    I wish we had a lot more of her poetry. Sadly, so little has survived. I am glad, though, that now she will live in the artistic talents of you and others like you. It truly does her justice … finally.


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