Under the Loincloth

Frank Kermode

  • 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.

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