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…

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