Under the Loincloth
- The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion by Leo Steinberg
Chicago, 417 pp, £23.95, January 1997, ISBN 0 226 77187 3
In 1983 the magazine October devoted an entire issue to a remarkable study of genital display in some – indeed in a great many – Renaissance depictions of Christ. Publication in book form followed, and among the reviewers there were some who were embarrassed or shocked and some who were sceptical. The author, Leo Steinberg, kept watch on them and has now greatly expanded his original report. He is agreeably discursive and writes informatively and exuberantly about all manner of marginal topics, but his revision has two main purposes: to multiply the visual evidence – seeking ‘the cumulative impact of number’ – and to rebut his critics. It seems to him that English reviewers in particular were inclined to be contemptuous or dismissive, so some venerable commentators – the late Lawrence Gowing, Michael Levey, Richard Wollheim, Marina Warner and, singled out for a special treatment, Charles Hope – are, in this new edition, keenly reprehended.
It should be said that Steinberg, a lively and resourceful writer, could not with any justice be charged with irreverence or lubricity. That he greatly enjoyed researching, writing and defending his thesis is clear enough, and fair enough; his satisfaction is of a legitimate, scholarly kind. He has achieved something original, and offered unignorable explanations of a body of rather mystifying evidence that has been almost entirely repressed for centuries (hence the ‘modern oblivion’ of the title). His undertaking is so extraordinary, so adventurous, that one would expect him, at least now and again, to be wrong, and he must have foreseen opposition from professionally dissident art historians. He got it, and will doubtless expect it again on publication of this new version, though it must be a comfort that for a decade or more his arguments have also attracted much intelligent support. For my part I think he’s right about the detail of the paintings, and his explanations of why they are as they are – why they attend so insistently to the genitalia of Jesus in infancy, during crucifixion and in death – are very persuasive.
This revised edition is clumsy to use, for it simply tacks two hundred pages onto the original, occasionally qualifying as well as augmenting it, and replying to its critics. (Steinberg says he was tempted to call it Double or Nothing.) It now contains many more illustrations, but of course doesn’t repeat the ones that were already present in the first edition, although renewed discussions and refutations often make it necessary to refer to them. But the argument is so absorbing that these minor, probably inevitable irritations are easily forgotten.
There is an immemorial taboo on the topic of the sexuality of Jesus, but it has sometimes been defied. Steinberg demonstrates that from about 1260, painters (perhaps affected by the success of the Franciscans, who had a slogan nudus nudum Christum sequi) departed from the hieratically clothed, unsexed Byzantine tradition, and undressed the infant Jesus. Thereafter, for two centuries, they pictured him naked but without genital emphasis. But by the end of the 15th century they not only painted his penis but represented it as ‘pointed to, garlanded, celebrated’, stared at and venerated. In the following century it was touched and manipulated, and by the 1530s it was sometimes being shown in a state of infantile erection. This theme of erection, though under cover of a loincloth or other garment, was repeated in pictures of the Crucifixion and the dead Christ. There are some extremely fantasticated loincloths in paintings of the Man of Sorrows, as in two ‘deeply shocking’ pictures by Ludwig Krug (c. 1520) and Maerten van Heemskerck (1532), here reproduced. Some renderings of Crucifixion and Pietà are, I think one must agree, clearly intended to suggest large erections, which may have been intended to symbolise Resurrection.
Vol. 19 No. 8 · 24 April 1997
Leo Steinberg, so Frank Kermode tells us in his review of The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (LRB, 3 April), eschews literary support for his exposition. But Kermode is under no such limitation, and it is odd that he doesn’t mention the most striking 20th-century example, in D.H. Lawrence’s late novella The Escaped Cock, posthumously published under the bowdlerised title of The Man Who Died. This version of the Resurrection is constructed on the presumption of the complete, individual, mortal humanity of Jesus: it assumes that he did not die on the Cross but escaped alive, though badly injured, from the tomb, and after a time of partial recovery, which includes the symbolic episode of a captive gamecock that also escapes, journeys to Lebanon and a temple of Isis with whose priestess he eventually makes full physical love. The approach to this demythologised consummation is a piece of characteristic Lawrentian lyricism. The climax, however, appears directly to echo some of the iconographic examples cited by Steinberg, when the man identified with Jesus
felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent.
‘I am risen.’
The interest lies not so much in the (unlikely) possibility that Lawrence actually knew of earlier Christian use of such an emblem, but rather in the recognition of a persistent archetypal imagery; and in tracing what happens in the course of history when ‘humanation’ is replaced by the humanisation of our ideas of Jesus; or in taking to logical conclusions the appropriate clauses of the Nicene Creed. It may be asserted that in this story Resurrection is reduced to narrowly personal terms: an individual dying man’s fantasy of restoration to health and sexual potency. But it can also be seen more widely as part of Lawrence’s whole work, ‘an assertion of life in death’.
Vol. 19 No. 9 · 8 May 1997
Frank Kermode (LRB, 3 April) points out that many Renaissance representations of the Holy Child show adults contemplating the baby penis with awe, ‘as if the presence of the infant member was considered a particular miracle’. It would indeed be a particular miracle, supposing the story of the Virgin Birth to be literally true; for the fruit of parthenogenesis could only be a clone of the mother – and therefore female. Otherwise, whence came the human Y chromosome to provide male characteristics? Hardly from a bodyless spirit appearing in the form of a dove.
Vol. 19 No. 10 · 22 May 1997
While the Virgin Birth is certainly an extremely unlikely event, it is nonetheless not quite so genetically miraculous as Barbara Smoker thinks (Letters, 8 May). Very nearly, but not quite. She states that if the Virgin Mary had undergone parthenogenesis (a sort of spontaneous self-cloning), then the offspring would always be female, since Mary would not have possessed the Y chromosome which defines maleness. However, there is a very rare mutation which can produce individuals who are chromosomally XY, but look like completely normal females. They are usually sterile, but not necessarily so. Hence, it is not completely impossible to imagine Nature producing a mutant XY virgin with working female sex organs, who also undergoes parthenogenesis and gives birth to a male child. There are several other related possibilities, discussed in a recent article in Science and Christian Belief, but the point is that the Virgin Birth is genetically plausible without calling on the miraculous.
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Vol. 19 No. 11 · 5 June 1997
I was surprised to read in Frank Kermode’s review of Leo Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ (LRB, 3 April) that the Circumcision of Christ is discussed only in terms of the blood which issued from the wound, and that this is invoked only as a conjunction, or ‘hyphen’, with the spear-wound in Christ’s side. The point is surely that there was great interest in the holy genitalia in iconographic terms, and this goes far beyond establishing the humanity of the historical Jesus. That the child was circumcised according to the rites and practices of the Jews is beyond doubt. This being so, why are we only given images of the uncircumcised penis by Renaissance painters? I would be interested to know if Frank Kermode, Leo Steinberg or any readers can cite an example of a painting that shows the infant Jesus with-out the tell-tale gentile foreskin. It seems the Church has never come to terms with Jesus the Jew.
Vol. 19 No. 14 · 17 July 1997
Frank Kermode’s excellent review of Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (LRB, 3 April) implies that the images included in the first edition of the work are not included in this, the revised edition. The illustrations are, in fact, all there, in correct order, along with many new ones that expand the visual evidence for Professor Steinberg’s argument concerning the humanation of God.
G.B. Phillipson (Letters, 5 June) requests that Steinberg or Kermode produce for him a Renaissance image of a circumcised Christ. As Steinberg tells us, Renaissance artists ‘willingly paid the price of inaccuracy to spare the revered body the blemish of imperfection’ and mutilation associated with circumcision in the Christian 15th and 16th centuries.
University of Chicago Press