- The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion by Leo Steinberg
Faber, 222 pp, £25.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 571 13392 4
The startling claim of Leo Steinberg’s new book is that over the past four centuries the real meaning of much of the religious art of the Renaissance has been lost. He argues that in representations of Christ, both as an infant and as an adult, the genitals had a particular theological significance to which we are now oblivious because of the modern world’s ‘massive historic retreat from the mythical grounds of Christianity’. This may sound like the wilder theories about the Holy Grail or Atlantis, but Professor Steinberg is a serious scholar, and his thesis is buttressed with dozens of visual examples and with a formidable array of learned references. Whether he is right, of course, is another matter: but at least one distinguished historian of Renaissance theology, the Jesuit John O’Malley, who contributes a postscript to the book, seems to find his conclusions broadly convincing, so they deserve to be examined closely.
In Byzantine and early Italian art the infant Christ was customarily shown either in a loose robe or in swaddling clothes, but from the 14th century he was increasingly often depicted partly or wholly naked, with his genitals either fully exposed or only partially concealed by a wisp of drapery or by his mother’s hand. Steinberg is certainly right to reject the suggestion that this change might simply be due to a growing preoccupation with realism among painters and sculptors. He quite reasonably argues that in depicting the son of God artists would have thought deeply about what they were doing, that no major innovation could have been casual or without theological justification. Why then the exposure of the genitals, which he claims amounts in many instances to emphatic display? Steinberg relates it to an increasing interest on the part of theologians in the Incarnation, a new stress on the idea that the Redemption of mankind was as much due to God’s decision to become flesh as to his sacrifice on the Cross. The genitals, he believes, were regarded as the principal attribute of Christ’s manhood, the visible proof that he had chosen to become in all respects human.
The logic of this argument is a little shaky, for while it may indeed have been the case that Renaissance theologians placed a new emphasis on the importance of the Incarnation, the fact of the Incarnation had been a central part of Christian doctrine for more than a thousand years. No believer needed to be told or even reminded that Christ was a man, and the mere telling would not have explained to the faithful why this was so significant. But even granting Steinberg’s point here, his central premise – that the possession of genitals was regarded as the distinguishing feature of Christ’s incarnate nature – simply cannot be substantiated. He certainly seems to recognise the need to find some textual evidence for his claim, since his book abounds with theological references. But nowhere does he produce a text of the period – or indeed of any other period – which assigns to Christ’s genitals the significance he proposes. The best that he can do is to point to some Renaissance sermons about the Circumcision delivered in the Sistine Chapel. Because this was an event that received some prominence in the Gospels, theologians were bound to provide an interpretation of it. Besides its obvious relevance in establishing Christ’s credentials as the Jewish Messiah, its importance in the Renaissance, to judge from the texts which Steinberg quotes (and for that matter from the much more widely read Golden Legend, which he overlooks), lay in the fact that Christ shed his own blood. The blood was proof of the Incarnation, just as it was also a premonition of the Passion. What mattered, in fact, was not the penis but the wound.
Vol. 6 No. 24 · 20 December 1984
SIR: I read with with rising disbelief Mr Charles Hope’s review of Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art (LRB, 15 November). The crux of it came in the sentence: ‘Seen in this way, there is really no problem. Catholics are devoted to the Virgin in large part because she is a much more accessible figure than Christ and throughout the period we are considering’ – the Renaissance – ‘her popularity was constantly growing.’ Mr Hope is clearly not interested in making a distinction between religion and religiosity with its undergrowth of devotion. Which is why he could also write: ‘It is most unlikely that Renaissance patrons spent large sums of money because they were interested in the Incarnation. They were moved by faith, and they acquired these pictures because they were devoted to the Virgin.’ Mr Hope’s difficulty seems to be really about conjunctions. He will not see that for his ‘countless patrons’ (who, at their weekly – at least! – Mass, genuflected at ‘et incarnatus est’) veneration of the Virgin was not joined to their belief in the Incarnation by an ‘and’ but by a ‘because’. Separation of piety from theology was not all that easy in 15th-century Florence.
The devotion to Christ in the 15th century was ‘usually to the suffering Redeemer rather than the bambino’, Mr Hope goes on (the condescending Italian word sets my teeth on edge): and of course he is quite wrong. Surely he knows the story of St Francis’s instituting the devotion to the Christmas Crib and of the miracle at Greccio; let him just look at the representation of it in the lower church at Assisi. For that matter he might also think of the great popular devotion to the Santo, St Anthony of Padua, who is usually represented with his vision of the Incarnation as the infant Jesus; or the images of the Child-Salvator Mundi, as in the London and Washington Mantegnas or the Schongauer print. When Mr Hope goes on to say that the Child usually represented with the Madonna ‘is … her attribute, just as the keys are the attribute of St Peter’ I am at a loss for comment. However, that the Virgin with a naked (as against a swaddled or draped) child is something of a novelty in 15th-century painting Mr Hope concedes. That this involved showing the Child’s genitals is part of his ‘no problem’ since it merely (how?) demonstrates the changing attitude to the cult of the Madonna. But the representation of the Circumcision is also very rare before that time, and that also does not seem in question. That light on this subject may be thrown by sermons preached before the Pope in his palace chapel is, he implies, special pleading (‘the best he can do,’ so Mr Hope dismisses this very telling evidence, ‘is to point to some … sermons’). Mr Hope might recollect that one such recent preacher, Cardinal Wojtyla, rose to some prominence, in part as a result of the sermons he preached in that chapel before Paul VI. The same Cardinal Wojtyla attached a large ‘M’ to his arms against heraldic practice to display his own Marian devotion: this device has never been taken as showing his unawareness of Mary’s place in the scheme of the Incarnation.
For all Mr Hope’s reassurances, we know that the necessary genitality of Christ has often been an embarrassment to the pious, as was His subjection to other functions which the Humanation made inevitable: several Christological heresies turned on the embarrassment. That from about the middle of the 16th century insistence on that genitality was found offensive is shown by Steinberg in a number of examples where the genital zone was overpainted with a cloth of some kind: the bronze loincloth of the marble Risen Christ in S. Maria sopra Minerva is only the most prominent and famous example of a procedure that was part of a much more general current of behaviour and feeling, which has recently been recorded by a number of historians and sociologists – Norbert Elias’s Process of Civilisation is perhaps the best-known.
Of course the relation between the Circumcision and the Incarnation was a familiar theme. Ambrose and Augustine preached famous sermons about it, as did Pope Leo the Great; all this Mr Hope may have found in Steinberg’s book; nor (pace Mr Hope) does he neglect Medieval sources such as the Golden Legend. The holy foreskin was the subject of several cults and some disputation. But the insistent nakedness of the infant Christ was a new subject in the devotional painting and sculpture of the 14th and 15th centuries: as was the near-nakedness of crucified Christ in the ninth. Changes in devotion and the appearance of new icons are problems for any true historian, who will inevitably consider ways in which they may be connected; the consistent obliteration of old icons may also present him with a real problem. The new emphasis on the Incarnation in the 15th century is familiar stuff to literary historians and the historians of ideas: even to the architectural historian. Strangely, it has not really been considered by the historians of painting. Leo Steinberg has shown a way in which it might be. Mr Hope’s review, by bringing up a host of minor problems outside the book’s scope (such as the nakedness of putti) and dismissing as unimportant the ones that have been considered (the overpainting and masking of pudenda in holy pictures), makes one suspect that he is out of sympathy not only with Steinberg but with the whole enterprise of making and worshipping holy pictures.
Department of Architecture, Cambridge
Vol. 7 No. 1 · 24 January 1985
SIR: I fear that I quite failed to make it clear to Mr Rykwert (Letters, 20 December 1984) exactly what I found so difficult to accept in Leo Steinberg’s thesis. In his book Steinberg principally does two things. He draws attention to a change that occurred in European, and particularly Italian, art from about the middle of the 14th century – namely, the increasing tendency of artists to show the infant Christ with his genitals exposed; and he suggests an explanation of this phenomenon, relating it to a new interest in the doctrine of the Incarnation. In my review I argued both that his characterisation of the phenomenon is tendentious – a point on which Mr Rykwert does not directly comment – and that his explanation is unconvincing. The reason it failed to convince me is simple. Steinberg claims that many artists and patrons in the Renaissance regarded Christ’s genitals as a uniquely significant attribute of his incarnate nature, in a way that his knees or his ears were not, because they saw the genitals as the particular mark of the human condition, of man’s fallen state. As he puts it, ‘the evidence of Christ’s sexual member serves as the pledge of God’s humanation.’ It seems entirely reasonable that Christians might have thought this. Unfortunately, Steinberg does not produce any significant evidence that they actually did so. In other words, we are being asked to believe that for well over a century Christians all over Europe subscribed to a particular idea which was illustrated in countless paintings, but which was never mentioned, to the best of my knowledge, in any theological or devotional text. This seems most unlikely, given that the surviving written evidence about Christian belief in the Renaissance is nothing if not abundant.
I am not therefore objecting to Steinberg’s thesis because I deny the importance of the Incarnation in the religious thought of the period, as Mr Rykwert seems to suppose, but because he has failed to demonstrate the existence of a specific link between the doctrine of the Incarnation and the genitals of Christ. Steinberg tries to do this in his discussion of the Circumcision, but the texts that he produces indicate instead that those ‘first oozings’ of blood ‘guarantee Christ’s humanity’. The penis is the source of the blood: but the blood, not the penis, is the sign of humanity. Likewise, the blood that Christ shed on the Cross has an immense theological significance, which is unrelated to the fact that the wounds from which it issued were in his hands, his feet and his side.
None of the points that Mr Rykwert raises, in fact, seem to establish the crucial equation of genitals and humanity – unless he is suggesting, in a passage whose significance is obscure to me, that this was a doctrine maintained by certain heretical sects. He refers, for example, to Christ’s foreskin. This particular relic (or rather the several foreskins which were candidates for the honour) was venerated, not because it happened to come from Christ’s penis, as distinct from any other part of his anatomy, but because it was the only part of his body left on earth when he ascended into Heaven (apart from his blood, samples of which were also supposedly preserved, usually in the form of stains on instruments of the Passion). Mr Rykwert dismisses the question of the nakedness of angels as a minor problem outside the book’s scope. But if angels have genitals, how can anyone have regarded these as a peculiar mark of humanity? He also takes me to task for not discussing the overpainting of religious pictures. Steinberg’s research certainly reveals that the infant Christ’s genitals were more often represented in Renaissance art than one might now suppose, and it indicates that at a later date some people found this practice objectionable. It does not explain why the practice was more widely accepted in the Renaissance. In this context, it is worth noting that the one Renaissance theologian whom Steinberg cites as discussing representations of the naked infant Christ, Johannes Molanus, asks rhetorically, in a work first published in 1570: ‘What sort of edification can there be in this nakedness?’ Molanus condemns the practice of showing the child undraped, which he says is ‘widely criticised by men of no little piety and wisdom’, on the grounds that such images are lewd and indecent; and in his condemnation there is no hint that anyone then thought it could have a theological justification. The overpainting of images of the infant Christ, in fact, like the addition of a loincloth to Michelangelo’s Risen Christ, is a manifestation of a more general condemnation of nudity in religious art after the Council of Trent.
The fact that there has always been a strong current of prudishness in Christian art merely confirms that some explanation of the appearance of images of the naked Christ is obviously required. Since the phenomenon first occurs in paintings of Christ and his mother, I suggested that the answer was to be found in changing attitudes to the Madonna. From some of Mr Rykwert’s comments I see that I did not succeed in making my argument clear. Let me therefore try again. Christians in the Renaissance were taught to have an intense personal devotion to the Virgin, just as they are encouraged to do so today by the present Pope. In any number of devotional texts, her humility and the fact that she experienced all the human feelings that a mother has for her child were constantly stressed. In showing her with a child who looks like a real baby, small, naked and vulnerable, the artists of the Renaissance were surely trying to emphasise that she is not just the Queen of Heaven, as Duccio, for example, had shown her in his Maesta, but was also a real mother. The child was represented in a new way because this enabled artists to enrich and modify the traditional image of the Madonna in accordance with new aspects of her cult.
This hypothesis obviously implies that the principal subject of these paintings is the Virgin, rather than the child. I suggested that in such images he is essentially her attribute, as the keys are the attribute of St Peter, or the Christ child himself of St Christopher. Mr Rykwert is at a loss for comment about the Peter analogy, presumably because he thinks that I equate Christ with a couple of pieces of iron. But the reference to Christopher (which he does not mention) should have reassured him. The problem is that our notion of an attribute is misleadingly restrictive, and carries associations principally with material objects, like keys. But in Renaissance art figures are identified by people as well as by things. The attribute of Venus is Cupid, or sometimes the Three Graces, the attribute of Christopher is Christ, and the attribute of the Archangel Raphael is Tobias. Mary has various attributes, relating to different aspects of her cult. Standing on a crescent moon she is Maria Immacolata, approached by Gabriel she is Maria Annunziata, carried into Heaven she is Maria Assunta or Maria Gloriosa. Most frequently, she is shown as the Madonna, with the infant Christ, because her importance resides in the fact that she is the mother of God.
The modern habit of giving devotional images narrative titles therefore obscures their real character. Thus we call Titian’s great altarpiece in Venice The Assumption of the Virgin: but it is actually a representation of the dedicatee of the Church of the Frari, Santa Maria Gloriosa. Italian usage is a better guide, since an Assumption is called l’Assunta – Our Lady carried into Heaven – and an Annunciation is l’Annunciata – the Virgin Annunciate. In the same way Italians refer to images of the Virgin and child as la Madonna col bambino – ‘the Madonna with the baby’ – or often just la Madonna. Mr Rykwert may think the term bambino ‘unbearably condescending’, but it ought to alert us to the way in which we should think about such images. And anyone who still has any doubts about the real subject of paintings of the Madonna and child need only recall a point that I made in my review – namely, that many of them contain inscriptions, which, to the best of my knowledge, are almost invariably about the Madonna, and never about Christ alone.
However, even if it is accepted that such images are a product of the cult of the Madonna, there remains the point made by Mr Rykwert in his first paragraph: that people venerated her because of the Incarnation, because she is the mother of God. This is obviously true, and I said as much in my review. But Mr Rykwert’s analysis misses out a crucial stage. Because of their awareness of Mary’s place in the scheme of the Incarnation, people believed, and still believe, that prayers addressed to her are specially efficacious. In the same way, people prayed to St Christopher because they believed that he would protect them on journeys; and they believed that he would do so because he had once carried a child across a river who turned out to be Christ. In the case of Christopher, the infant Saviour is the attribute, reminding the faithful why he will help them. Likewise, the presence of the child reminds us why Mary will heed us. Steinberg would claim that Christ’s naked genitals reinforce the message, by indicating that he is incarnate: but this argument, as I have tried to show, cannot be substantiated. In any case, no such reminder is necessary to anyone familiar with Renaissance art, because the mere fact that Christ is shown as a baby is in itself indicative of his incarnate nature: he is not shown in this way when he appears in images of the Trinity. The essential point to grasp, though, which both Mr Rykwert and Professor Steinberg seem to overlook, is that the vast majority of Renaissance images in churches and private houses were representations of saints, of whom the Virgin is the most important; and they reflect devotion to saints.
Just because I believe that the focus in most of the images discussed by Steinberg is the Madonna rather than the Child, I would not wish to deny that there was a devotion to the infant Christ in the 15th century, even though the Franciscan examples cited by Mr Rykwert date from an earlier period. Renaissance images of the infant alone, however, are relatively uncommon; and it is worth noting that of the three examples provided by Mr Rykwert, only the Schongauer print includes Christ’s genitals. The other two are by Mantegna, who was not only responsible for the earliest known large-scale depiction of the Circumcision, but also frequently showed the genitals when he painted the Christ child with his mother. I am incidentally puzzled by Mr Rykwert’s reference to the devotion to the Santo. The popularity of his shrine in Padua is surely a reflection of the cult of St Anthony, not the cult of the infant Christ. And of course Franciscan devotion to the child was accompanied by an equally fervent devotion to the Madonna: the Franciscans were the champions of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The best illustration, perhaps, of a devotional picture in the Franciscan context which shows the points that I have been trying to make is Titian’s famous altarpiece of The Madonna of the Pesaro Family. The patron, the bishop Jacopo Pesaro, is represented kneeling before the Virgin; she holds the child, who has turned away from Pesaro to direct his attention to St Francis and St Anthony. The bishop displays his devotion to the Virgin, the Franciscans to the child.
One final point. Mr Rykwert is quite right in supposing that I am out of sympathy with the whole enterprise of worshipping holy pictures. I hope that he is too, since this practice has been universally condemned by Christian theologians of all periods and all persuasions.
Warburg Institute, London WC1
Vol. 7 No. 3 · 21 February 1985
SIR: Mr Hope (Letters, 24 January) does protest a lot. His letter seems to hang on his last paragraph, so I will start with it: Mr Hope invites me to declare my antipathy to the worship of images, which ‘has been universally condemned by Christian theologians of all periods and all persuasions’. But sir, by worship I did not mean the latria, which must be given to God alone, but the dulia, worship by kissing, incense and lights that the Fathers of the Second Council of Nicea (usually counted as the Seventh General Council) maintained, pace Mr Hope, was an inalienable part of the tradition of the Universal Church. This decree has been reiterated many times by popes, councils and synods.
For the rest, Mr Hope (if I have understood him correctly this time) does now admit that artists’ interest in showing the body of Christ naked, whether as the Child with its Mother or the Crucified Saviour, is a real 14th-century innovation, and that, as he puts it, it requires explanation. However, he brushes aside the edifice of evidence which Steinberg has constructed from images and texts as in some way insubstantial, or as he says, not significant; and sets up instead his own hypothesis that the innovation shows a change in attitudes not to the incarnation but to the Blessed Virgin. He does not offer any evidence that this in turn required showing the nakedness of the Child, nor that there may be some connection between these matters and artists’ interest in circumcision. I suspect that he will not be able to do so. The reason is simple: the devotion to the Virgin of Tenderness (Panagia Glaukophilussa, Eleusa) is very old, and the iconographic type goes back – in Byzantine painting – to the 11th century if not earlier. Mr Hope need only think of the Vladimir Icon, which was the palladium of Russia. There is no reason why the child in such pictures should be naked. Let him look again at the Madonna by Nardo di Cione which Steinberg shows (his pl. 36), in which the naked Christ child stands in a hieratic pose on his mother’s knee, and contrast it with a fully-clothed Virgin and Child by the same painter (now in the National Gallery in Prague) in which the Child chucks the Virgin under the chin in the most ‘real baby’ gesture. Clearly nakedness is not related to the ‘real motherhood’ aspect of the icons of the Virgin.
All this seems to be related to Mr Hope’s insistence that the Child in these pictures is an attribute of the Virgin, which ‘serves to identify’ her much as the Child on his back identifies St Christopher (I am glad that Mr Hope now balks at his earlier comparison with St Peter’s keys). But even that will not quite do. The St Christopher images illustrate a pious legend and were not particularly common (compared with those of St Francis, or St Augustine, or St Anthony Abbot), while the Virgin and Child ‘illustrates’ the doctrinal centre of the Christian religion. I must confess, sir, that I am a little embarrassed at having to make this very elementary point in your columns. However, whether you think the Virgin an attribute of the Child, or the Child of the Virgin (either interpretation seems to me equally comfortable, given the current use of the word ‘attribute’), you are left with the bulk of Steinberg’s evidence, most of which Mr Hope seems to accept, although he will insist on his own inspired guess (for he offers no evidence to support it) that all the pictures and texts in the book he reviewed refer in spite of appearances to a shift in the cult of the Virgin. Until he has convincingly reassembled the evidence to that end I will prefer Steinberg’s interpretation of it.
Department of Architecture, Cambridge