Vol. 6 No. 24 · 20 December 1984

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Ostentatio Genitalium

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.

Joseph Rykwert
Department of Architecture, Cambridge

The Diary of Beatrice Webb

SIR: We were delighted to read Barbara Wootton’s interesting and informative review of The Diary of Beatrice Webb, Volume III (LRB, 6 December), but I wanted to correct one point. This is not in fact the final volume of Beatrice Webb’s diaries, but the penultimate one. Volume IV covers the years 1924 to her death in 1943, the 19 years to which Barbara Wootton refers. It will be published in October 1985.

Ursula Owen
Virago Press, London WC2


SEÑOR: En el Volume 6, Number 19 ‘Copying the Coyote’ hay un error de apellido: Charles Sanders Pierce es Peirce.

Arturo Escobosa
Wilmington, California

Lo sentimos.

Redactor, ‘London Review of Books’

Good Bitch

SIR: Readers who enjoyed the Angela Martin cartoons from her new book A Good Bitch which were reproduced in LRB, Vol. 6, No 22/23 may like to subvert the coming festivities further with the suitably seasonal examples of her work now available on postcards. On sale at selected good bookshops throughout Britain (and at Sisterwrite, Silver Moon, Collets and many other outlets in London) with a recommended retail price of 25p each, these high-quality cards will give you a whole new view of Christmas-tree fairies and the Three Wise Men. They’re also available direct from the publishers: send s.a.e. for order form, for these and the 33 other dazzling designs, to the Women’s Press, 124 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 6JE; telephone: 01 729 2740.

Katy Nicholson
The Women’s Press, London E1

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