Ostentatio Genitalium

Charles Hope

  • 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.

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