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A Long-Suppressed Episode

Andre Chastel, translated from the French by David Bellos and Christopher Benfey

The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion

by Leo Steinberg
Pantheon, 222 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Professor Steinberg’s book will shock only those who stop at his title and refuse to enter into the subtle language and logic of his argument. But serious readers (and everyone interested in Renaissance art should be a serious reader of this essay) may well find themselves tossed into a pit of “christological” reflection, from which the only exit—in the absence of any toehold in standard iconographical literature—lies in total submission to the author.

The subject is the representation of Christ’s genitalia in Renaissance art. Steinberg handles it with perfect tact and without a trace of the sarcasm that the subject might have aroused (in, say, Diderot) during periods of antireligious fervor. The analyses are precise, sensitive, and so exquisitely expressed as to verge on the precious. But is this subject, almost incredibly, a terra incognita in the history of sacred art? And do the reasons for its discovery deserve our careful attention the more because, as Professor Steinberg emphasizes, there has been a “repression” of the subject in Christian awareness since the sixteenth century? Or are the many images of Virgin and Child and of the dead Christ collected here linked only by what could be called “theology-fiction,” which many will reject as flawed (in the way that hurried reviewers often get rid of a difficult book)? One can do justice to the author’s intelligence and ingenuity only by finding one’s way among these questions.

Steinberg is fully aware of the often speculative nature of his observations. “I have risked hypothetical interpretations,” he writes, “chiefly to show that, whether one looks with the eye of faith or with a mythographer’s cool, the full content of the icons discussed bears looking at without shying.” With impeccable intellectual honesty, Steinberg has placed at the end of his relatively short text a battery of about forty more or less technical “excursuses.” Learned points of very diverse and sometimes unexpected kinds demonstrate his wide-ranging erudition, incisiveness, and originality; but Steinberg remains untouched by intellectual modishness and noticeably omits any mention of Marx, Freud, or Foucault, even from the discussion of the Saviour’s virginity1 and the social authority of images. All that concerns Steinberg is the semantic relation of art to dogmatic theology, the linking of the signifier in the work he examines to the higher signified in Christian theology. This gives his work a somewhat distant dignity as well as a certain difficulty of access.

A collection of more than two hundred reproductions accompanies Steinberg’s argument. “The glut of the evidence is essential,” he comments, and one can easily believe that the number of illustrations could be increased to a thousand. The exhibits have one thing in common: a clear depiction of the penis of the infant or of the adult Christ. They are drawn from works by dozens of artists dating from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Most are Italian—Mantegna, Bellini, Verrocchio, Titian, among others—but many examples from northern artists are also included.

The central thesis of the essay is that these depictions cannot be explained by an irresistible drift on the part of Renaissance artists toward “naturalism.” Such an explanation, for Steinberg, is not merely facile but radically false. He also rejects, perhaps a little too hastily, the possibility that depicted genitalia can be explained by the imitation of classical models, where nudity is commonplace. Virtually all previous historians have held that classical imitation reinforced the naturalist tendency by giving it a prestigious stylistic antecedent.

Steinberg demurs. He believes a simple “motivation” for these representations can be reconstructed, one that derives from a conception of Christ that was influential during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but has long been neglected in considerations of the relation between Renaissance art and Catholic doctrine. The central mystery of incarnation could not be exalted, let alone represented with sincerity, Steinberg argues, without an insistence on the “humanation” (a term he prefers to the more usual “humanization”) of the divine personage. For God to redeem humanity by his death on the cross, Christ had to be fully a man in all respects, and the artist’s task was to represent him as such. What could seem a profane or even irreligious insistence is, Steinberg argues, the explicit expression of a theological intuition.

Some of the more striking parts of the argument deserve to be quoted. With reference to the infant Christ Steinberg writes, “the humanation of God entails, along with mortality, his assumption of sexuality.” As for the representations of the adult Christ, who in fact is almost never seen in the completely nude state of a classical athlete, he writes that the pictures and sculptures showing genitalia make more apparent the central fact that “Jesus as exemplar and teacher prevails over concupiscence to consecrate the Christian ideal of chastity.” Finally, the resurrected Christ is portrayed so that the emphasis on his virility (as in Michelangelo’s Christ of Minerva, 1517) is an almost automatic way of signifying that the risen Christ has regained Adamic innocence.2

Some teachers no doubt continue to “explain” Renaissance art by a “loss of symbolism” and an invasion of gratuitous naturalist detail. But the wide acceptance of the work of such art historians as Erwin Panofsky and Meyer Schapiro during the last twenty or thirty years has torn down so many props of this explanation as to diminish its authority considerably. Professor Steinberg’s essay, by concentrating precisely on the “symbolic” and “mythical” significance of Christ’s displayed sexuality, brings this revision to a further stage. The sense of “humanation,” he claims, was long misunderstood for reasons of “decorum.” Such misunderstanding was “the price paid by the modern world for its massive historic retreat from the mythical grounds of Christianity.”

But it is worth lingering on this question of decorum, for its effects are evident throughout the whole history of Christian art. The perizonium, or loincloth, covering Christ’s genitalia is not an iconographic invention of the Counter-Reformation, as Steinberg seems to imply. It occurs in the earliest non-symbolic representations of the Crucifixion in the fifth century and in all subsequent phases of Christian art. In Latin Christendom the loincloth is constantly used in images of the Lord, with precisely those exceptions, dating mainly from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, which are the subject of Professor Steinberg’s book. The number and the quality of the exceptions—most of them Italian, including Verrocchio, Bellini, Mantegna, Titian, Veronese, etc.—in depicting the Madonna and Child certainly pose a problem, but the problem occurs within a general history so faithful to the use of the perizonium that the complete nudity of the newborn child went unnoticed.

This “long-suppressed matter of fact”—the Christ Child’s depicted nudity in the Renaissance—did not, however, escape Steinberg’s attention, and he found remarkable corroboration for his claims in the work of John W. O’Malley, SJ, who has written an approving afterword to Steinberg’s book. Father O’Malley had closely studied the rhetoric of Roman sermons and concluded, in his book Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome, that the preaching at the papal court from roughly 1450 to 1521 has been poorly understood.3 Exaltation of the Incarnation was one of the main preoccupations of these sermons, and “incarnational theology,” O’Malley notes in his afterword, placed as much, if not more, emphasis on “the moment of the incarnation in the Virgin’s womb as [on] the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross.”

What O’Malley finds in the words of those preachers, Steinberg finds in the images. “We may take Renaissance art to be the first and last phase of Christian art that can claim full Christian orthodoxy,” he writes, for these artists “developed the requisite stylistic means to attest the utter carnality of God’s humanation in Christ.” But Steinberg is quick to emphasize that these icons were not simply illustrations of an already articulated theology. He writes that the “incarnational theology” that O’Malley finds in the Renaissance sermons “is immanent in earlier and contemporaneous Renaissance art.”

Steinberg’s general thesis—that depictions of the nude Christ Child carry a reference to the theology of Incarnation—seems not only tenable, but perfectly valid. Thus we have a new view of christological iconography in the Renaissance—a view that needed formulating. It should fit in well with that particular branch of art history that recovers from images the attitudes characteristic of the period.

The Biblical episode where the problem first emerges is of course the circumcision, shown in precise detail in innumerable paintings. The Jewish ceremony recounted in Luke 2:21 was considered the equivalent of baptism, but it took on a Christian sense as the ritual of “the first blood spilt,” anticipating the blood of the cross. As Steinberg observes, “Christ’s submission to circumcision was understood as a voluntary gift of his blood, prefiguring and initiating the sacrifice of the Passion.” The circumcision coincided with Jesus’ name day, and Steinberg quotes, among later authorities, St. Bernard on the coincidence: “The circumcision is proof of the true humanity he has assumed, while the name given to him [Yeshua: “salvation”]…reveals…his majesty.” Christ appears, in Bernard’s rhetoric, as a “mediator…acceptable to both parties…God’s Son become man.” The scene of the circumcision was widely portrayed; it occurs on the altar of the Gesù and belongs to the stock in trade of the Counter-Reformation—which was thus not in all respects a period of “oblivion,” as Steinberg seems to suggest.

In a sermon preached before Julius II on January 1, 1508 (the text is known thanks to O’Malley’s publication of it in 1977) the male organ of the Christ Child is called amplissimum fortitudinis testimonium (in Steinberg’s translation, the “greatest testimony of fortitude”). Steinberg mentions, in a similar vein, the Oratio de circumcisione of a prelate named Cardulus, who discussed “the theological question whether or not the circumcised prepuce of Christ was reassumed in the risen body.” Steinberg offers these texts as evidence of serious and sustained theological concern with Christ’s genitalia and, more specifically, of a Renaissance tendency to regard Christ’s phallus as a symbol of power; and he speculates on a possible visual pun of erection and resurrection. I would add that the theological meditations Steinberg cites find support in a material tradition: there was a reliquary of the holy foreskin, called the Relic of the Circumcision, in the Holy of Holies at the Lateran. Stolen during the sack of Rome in 1527, it turned up later in the little village of Calcata, where the abbey was rewarded with a plenary indulgence in 1585 by Pope Sixtus V.4

We can formulate Steinberg’s historical hypothesis as follows. At a time when, in Italy as in Flanders, greater emphasis was being placed on human physicality in painting, there was also no better way of asserting the double nature of the Saviour than by displaying more or less explicitly his full humanity before those who worshiped him—on altars or in churches or oratories. As Steinberg argues, “Realism, the more penetrating the better, was consecrated a form of worship.” Such realism was a way of reasserting the orthodox position against such heretics as the Nestorians and the Monophysites, who had disputed the idea of God’s total humanity. These arguments, though seven or eight centuries old and long since refuted, had not entirely vanished from religious awareness—from the clerics’ awareness, that is, rather than that of craftsmen.

The Tuscan devotional pictures cited by Steinberg form a fairly coherent group for his purposes. The motif in which the Madonna shows the Christ Child’s genitals—the ostentatio genitalium—is a frequent one and, once it has been pointed out, it seems quite obvious. But this motif is by no means universal, and therefore one has to concede the role of fashion—artistic fashion, that is. This point may be more important than it at first appears, because once we grant that the painters could exercise choice, then we must stop short of claiming the existence of a new “iconographic rule.” (Steinberg himself does not, in fact, make such a claim.) What we have is a situation in which the artist was both free and inspired by christological considerations. This is Steinberg’s point when he writes:

I should feel defeated were these works taken as illustrations of texts, or of theological arguments. On the contrary: the pictures set forth what perhaps had never been uttered.

We should admit, then, that much can be explained by the artists’ potestas audendi, that is to say their right to innovate in matters of iconography as well as style. In such circumstances, however, we cannot avoid the problem of more or less unthinking repetitions, the tendency, one might say, toward iconographic drifting. There could be no guarantee, after the model of total nudity had been ventured and accepted, that the original christological motivation would remain present in the images produced by succeeding generations.

Commenting on the Child with exposed genitalia in Antonio Rossellino’s statue of the Virgin and the Laughing Child in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Professor Steinberg legitimately stresses the “reconcilement of sexual exposure with innocence.” It is conceivable, Steinberg suggests, that “God enjoys being man…the hilarity is projected as consonant with, better still, as indicative of the mystery.” Steinberg’s theory of the omnipresent “duplex nature” of the Child allows him to reject John Pope-Hennessy’s argument that the smile was meant to show “the age-old relationship between the prescient Virgin and the unreflecting Child”—the innocent child softening the heart of a mother who knows more than he does about his future. But the “laughing child” we see in this statue is an extreme case.5 In Renaissance art, the Child is serious as often as he is happy.

Steinberg inexplicably ignores some major works that are pertinent to his concerns. I refer to the well-known series of the Virgin and Child by Leonardo da Vinci and by Raphael, who tries to reply to the challenge of Leonardo’s brilliant and disconcerting variations on the theme in his paintings and especially in his drawings. In Raphael’s Diadem Madonna (Louvre), the theme of the Virgin’s removal of the veil from the Child’s genitalia is treated tactfully. It is developed with a more pronounced maternal emphasis in his Madonna of Loretto (of which the Chantilly version is now thought to be the original). We can observe, however, that in the several extant drawings by Leonardo for the Madonna with a cat, the nudity of the Child playing with the animal is very much part of the theme. Obviously, it is not possible to tell where the draftsman’s attention to the interrelations of forms abandoned theological reasoning in favor of play with forms or (to put it differently) in favor of artistic reasoning; but one cannot escape the idea of a drift of the imagination that could have begun a process of desacralization, and could have led to the “oblivion” of the theological motivation.

Professor Steinberg maintains that the transcendental meaning of religious images always preceded the realistic treatments of them. As a working hypothesis this view is entirely legitimate; but it is sometimes difficult to sustain, as when we read:

the impulse to depict a child’s smile was initially an impulse to ascribe it to Christ. It was an idea about the divine Child’s subjective response to humanation that posed the representational problem.

However, the motif of the frequently smiling putto, one of the most original of the Quattrocento, is entirely distinct from that of the infant Christ. The putto enlivens the ornament of which it forms a part; and putti, whether as small angels or erotes, were used by the artist to help with the arrangement of groups of figures. The putto may dance or sing or laugh. His is a noisy happiness that cannot be easily related to the figure of the divine Child, or even to a conceit allowing a connection with him.

At the same time that Antonio Rossellino was making the London Madonna sculpture Steinberg discusses, he was also working on the tomb of the cardinal of Portugal at San Miniato (after 1460). In the upper tondo of the tomb, the Child is draped and his “humanation” is asserted without sexual reference; while in the lower register, that of the reclining Christ, the two putti carrying drapery indulge in an ostentatio genitalium whose origin must surely be sought outside Christian theology. Even more striking is the Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini, where Agostino di Duccio put all sorts of laughing putti playing children’s games in the bas-reliefs. He even went so far as to introduce a boy urinating (puer mingens), a pagan motif of Roman origin, whose widespread diffusion during the Renaissance has been brilliantly analyzed by A. Campana.6 No one would deny that religious considerations apply to the infant Jesus; but the proliferation of putti in sculpture and painting corresponds to a secular trend whose attraction cannot have been without influence over the ateliers.

Professor Steinberg explores most convincingly, and in meticulous detail, the theme of the infant Christ, but his remarks on the dead Christ are equally fresh and incisive. Consistent with his interpretative law of the “priority of the transcendental,” which we saw applied to the Child’s smile, he derives the traditional “modest” position—the figures lying on tombs with hands covering the groin—from the position of Christ as seen in a fourteenth-century panel at Rimini and in a French entombment. The same groin-touching gesture appears in depictions of Adam, and it is found, finally, in the corpses sculpted on tombs with an often-remarked realism. But this hierarchical history of the motif is more the product of Steinberg’s logic than of history. It creates a certain tendency toward circular reasoning, opposite to but just as flagrant as the common-sense reaction that invokes customs or nature to explain such motifs. In any case, one has only to glance at works on funerary art, such as Panofsky’s Tomb Sculpture, to realize that the “modest” posture is not the most frequent one. The usual design was to have arms crossed either on the chest or the stomach.

Toward the end of his book, provoked by some remarks of Julius Held, Steinberg returns to the question of the gesture of modesty in images of the dead Christ.7 He claims that this gesture was inevitably associated with the evidence of true humanity, symbolized by the genitalia; and this was done to save the ostentatio from becoming sacrilegious, especially where Professor Steinberg observes, or thinks he observes, a real erection in some portrayals of the Man of Sorrows.

Few major well-known works of art better point to the interest of this book’s subject, and the problems it poses, than Michelangelo’s triumphant Christ, at the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, whose “heroic” nudity was later covered. But in that case, why should one not widen the argument to include Michelangelo’s nude figures in general? They provoked discussion and scandal before and after the Last Judgment, which later required the services of a “pants maker” (or braghettone) to cover the genitalia with cloth. “The world’s greatest fresco” was thus, as Steinberg observes, “punctuated throughout by the fuss of loinbibs and underwear.”8 If the same problem of “decorum” is at issue in both cases, then “oblivion” is not limited, as Steinberg implies, to the Lord’s “humanation”; it is a far wider phenomenon.

In the case of Michelangelo—and his is by far the most spectacular case—the artist’s personality counts more than anywhere else. The topic Professor Steinberg treats with great brilliance as an isolated example may thus be understood in a broader perspective. It can be seen as one more illustration of the power of Renaissance artists to carry out innovations when giving visual form to Christian dogma. But the relation between the artist and theological authority was ultimately somewhat risky. Hans Baldung Grien’s strange engraving of 1511, which portrays Saint Anne manipulating the Christ Child’s genitalia like some sorceress, is one proof of this. The difficulty we have in explaining it confirms the growing instability of Christian imagery.9 In such cases, innovation may tend to obscure the clarity of theological dogma.

The arguments of Counter-Reformation churchmen like Canon G.A. Gilio (1561) thus become more comprehensible: he held that artists were wrong to believe that “for the painter and the poet, anything goes.” The right to initiate in matters of sacred art did not ultimately lie with artists. Professor Steinberg’s study has mapped out an attractive scheme of interpretation that raises one of the most serious and difficult questions of art history: that of the relation between Christian art and the Church.

translated by David Bellos and Christopher Benfey

  1. 1

    Steinberg, Excursus 14.

  2. 2

    Delivered from sin and shame, the freedom of Christ’s sexual member bespeaks that aboriginal innocence which in Adam was lost.” I don’t grasp entirely the use of the term “freedom,” which seems to me to be an unjustified transfer of a current conception to a description of the situation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There are other examples of this.

  3. 3

    Duke University Press, 1979.

  4. 4

    A. Chastel, The Sack of Rome, 1527, (Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 103.

  5. 5

    Professor Steinberg was sufficiently aware of the problem to return to this “smile” at the end of his eighth excursus.

  6. 6

    Friendship’s Garland: Essays Presented to Mario Praz on his Seventieth Birthday, Vittorio Gabrieli, ed. (Rome: Editioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1966).

  7. 7

    In his Excursus 38.

  8. 8

    See Excursus 31, on “Bowdlerism.”

  9. 9

    According to Steinberg, this cannot be either a familiar gesture characteristic of affection, or a reference to popular omens of good fortune; nor was it a straightforward curse, which would have implied an open denunciation of the cult of Saint Anne (Excursuses 4 and 5: discussion of the views of C. Koch and J. Wirth).

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