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.

The purpose of these displays, it is conjectured, was to celebrate the Incarnation – though Steinberg prefers the obsolete term ‘humanation’. God became an entire man, and therefore a sexual being; his sex, like his dependence on his mother’s breast, is a pledge of that full humanity the doctrine asserts. And it will not do to offer naturalistic explanations of his infant behaviour; Jesus is entirely unlike other painted babies in his behaviour and the behaviour he elicits from others. There is no need to stress the humanity of ordinary babies or marvel at it.

In a woodcut by Hans Baldung Grien, dated 1511, St Anne is fondling the infant’s genitalia, while he chucks the Virgin under the chin, an amorous gesture with a tradition going back to the Song of Songs (and here signifying their mystical marriage), while Joseph looks understandingly on. Steinberg (who throws in a catalogue of what he calls ‘chin-chucks’ stretching from antiquity to Proust and Nabokov) will have nothing to do with the notion that these images simply reflect the sort of thing that went on in the average household. They are first an affirmation of full humanity, with the reservation that the sexuality of Jesus was not like ours but like that of Adam and Eve before the Fall. He was ‘like us in all things except sin’. His genitalia could therefore only with much impropriety be called pudenda. These pictures dwell on that paradox or oxymoron, the sinless generative organ.

Despite much bowdlerising by overpainting there remain many hundreds of images which support this interpretation, some as striking as the Hans Baldung Grien. The practice of celebrating humanation eventually came to a halt as the taboo began to assert itself, in painting as elsewhere. But for a long stretch of time the sexual member had been an image of God’s condescension, an image not of virility but of a voluntary divine abasement to humanity.

The member yielded not seed but, at the Circumcision, blood. The Circumcision was described by St Thomas Aquinas as ‘a remedy for original sin, which is transmitted through the act of generation’. God further condescended when consenting to enact this sacramental admission of guilt, though of course free of it himself. Steinberg again and again illustrates the conjunction, or, as he calls it, the ‘hyphen’, formed by the blood from the spear wound in Christ’s side and the blood of the Circumcision. The blood from the greater wound, it would seem by established convention, flows directly into the groin of the dead Christ. One bleeding is the type of the other: ‘those first oozings guarantee Christ’s humanity’ and may be thought to foretell or even inaugurate the redemptive Passion.

Steinberg regards the insistent display of the penis, its potentially generative function and its wounds, as a silent counter to heresy, notably to Arianism but also to various forms of Docetism, which denied the humanity of Christ. In the first edition he was glad to find confirmation of this motive in Circumcision sermons of the relevant period, but in the new version he tends to disparage or even reject this extra-pictorial documentary support, perhaps because he wants to cast doubt on what he regards as the deplorable art-historical practice of depending more on documents than on pictures. He has to answer the objections of Charles Hope (LRB, 15 November 1984), whom he characterises as a historian of that persuasion, and who is indeed sceptical of Steinberg’s thesis precisely because it lacks documentary support. Hope believes that one needs to find out what Renaissance art meant to people at the time ‘by reading what they said about paintings and about their faith’. Steinberg’s rejoinder is that he would prefer to look at the paintings, and ask why the artists, of all people, felt it necessary to introduce these theological innovations and deal with the resulting representational problems.

In the course of a lengthy response to Hope’s criticisms, Steinberg considers his rival interpretation of the Adoration theme: the Magi, it is claimed, are primarily concerned not with Christ but with the Virgin; Renaissance babies are usually nude; the mage may seem to be staring reverently at the Child’s genital area but is probably just checking its sex; the infant is at this moment only an adjunct to the Madonna; and so on. Hope particularly objected to the claim that in such pictures as Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi the mage is humbly contemplating the infant penis, unveiled by the Virgin, as proof of total humanation – as evidence that Jesus was born ‘complete in all the parts of a man’. Yet similarly intent postures and gazes occur not only in a whole batch of Adorations, but in other Quattrocento pictures, here reproduced, of the Holy Child with reverent donors. And it certainly looks as if the presence of the infant member was considered a particular miracle.

Since conversion or surrender tends to be rare in such disputes, Dr Hope will probably have his answers. But in certain matters of detail, such as the argument concerning what St Anne is really doing in the Hans Baldung Grien woodcut, I think Steinberg is the victor. In a sense this is the argument he needs to win, if his thesis is to survive, so it is well that he wins it. We have the paintings, he says, and if we consent to look at them rather than adopt the unimaginative, unseeing habits of art historians unhappy without the support of the written word, we shall better understand the motives of the artists.

I suppose this contest with Hope was crucial because it really does turn on what opponents might judge the most vulnerable point of the book – that the author deduces entirely from wordless pictorial imagery a complex religious mystery on which many thousands of words were written, though never, it seems, with reference to the unarticulated theology of painters. But the deduction turns out, I think, to be plausible as well as interesting.

The display of the sex of Jesus (ostentatio genitalium, Steinberg names it, on the analogy of ostentatio vulnerum, the showing forth of the wounds) is emphasised in all manner of ways. The ostentatio is sometimes made by the Virgin, holding aside the child’s covering, sometimes by the infant himself, pictured with a hand on his penis, as in Veronese’s Holy Family with St Barbara and the Infant St John in the Uffizi, and in at least twenty other paintings of the Cinquecento – ‘a gesture unknown to devotional art before or since’, and later deplored.

Steinberg has a long and brilliant excursus on bowdlerism, the practice of eliminating or toning down such gestures for the sake of decency (and for other reasons no less reprehensible), citing Ruskin’s destruction of Turner’s erotic drawings as akin to the overpainting of the loins of naked Christs, or to the painting of a cache-sexe on Mantegna’s Madonna and Child with the Magdalen and St John the Baptist, still on view in the National Gallery with the genitals cursorily covered, despite the cleaning of 1957.

A curious, recherché instance of bowdlerisation was communicated to Steinberg by William Ravenhill, a geography professor of Exeter University, who read the first edition. In the course of his own unrelated researches, Ravenhill had examined by beta radiography a watermark in an atlas by Christopher Saxton, printed about 1590. This watermark apparently shows the risen Christ bearing a cross above an eminently visible erect penis, emblem, doubtless, of Resurrection; but even quite recent reproductions of it contrive to erase or conceal that member. Another English instance is an alabaster sculpture of the 14th century which had been buried under the chancel floor of a church at Long Melford in Suffolk, where it lay until it was discovered in the 1700s. A reason for its concealment may be that it shows the infant’s phallus protruding from a knee-length robe – it was hidden, that is, out of modesty rather than to thwart 16th or 17th-century iconoclasts. It is impossible to conjecture how many objects of this sort were destroyed or defaced, though the number is probably very large; but abundant evidence has nevertheless survived and is still being investigated, as Steinberg’s second edition testifies.

He reproaches himself with having paid too little attention to what he calls the ‘reactive modesty factor’, a force which he thinks began, around 1500, to combat the representation of the genitals, whether intended as evidence of humanation or for any other reason. The idea may have been that the pudency of Virgin and Child had been insulted and needed defence. This new trend eventually ended the fashion, if one may so call it, of the ostentatio genitalium. Perhaps it just went out of date; as Yeats observed, ‘the painter’s brush consumes his dreams.’ But it may, for a long time, have seemed less a painterly fashion than a devotional necessity.

When the Apostle declares that God ‘sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh’ (Romans 8:3), and when Augustine speaks of the Word assuming ‘the flesh of our sin but without sin’, we do not, we need not, suppose that they had the penis in mind. But Renaissance image-makers? Those among them who were rethinking the God-man’s physique had no choice but to mind it ... The question before them was how to visualise sinlessness in the ‘likeness of sinful flesh’; and this is no writer’s problem.

No doubt more and more recondite and relevant evidence will be accumulated on either side of the question. In an interesting disquisition on what he calls ‘remote symbolism’ – echoing the advice of Dionysius the Areopagite that symbols should not cleave too close to their referents – Steinberg cites the 13th-century sage Durandus, who said that one can represent the Church as a harlot ‘because she is called out of many nations, and because she closeth not her bosom against any that return to her’. He can find no other instance of this symbolism, and supposes that Durandus must himself have invented this illustration of this thesis of the Pseudo-Dionysius, and ‘judged it too good to drop’. Perhaps so, and there may be no earlier instances, but there is a familiar example of the church-as-harlot in Donne’s sonnet ‘Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse’, which ends

Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee, then
When she is embraced and open to most men.

It may be worth noting that Counter-Reformation Catholicism, part of the tradition in which Donne was writing, believed not only in ‘dissimilar symbols’, as is evident from emblem books, but in the efficacy of a kind of sexual imagery which, though different from that which Steinberg attributes to Renaissance painters, is sometimes amazingly explicit; a famous instance is the orgasmic St Teresa of Bernini. In another religious sonnet Donne asks God to make him chaste by ravishing him.

Perhaps sex cannot be perpetually kept out of religion, if only by way of analogy; as in the old saw about nature, you may try to get rid of it but it always recurs. There is a modern manifestation of this recurrence in Steinberg’s dispute with feminist theologians who found sexist reasons to quarrel with his original book.

What Steinberg does admirably is to relate technical practice in the painting of the period – the arrangement of figures, body parts, hands, drapery – to a theological and devotional position. He is very thorough; yet there is probably more work to be done. For example, some critics allege that typical patrons wouldn’t be interested in enigmatic pictorial allusions to humanation. Is there anything to be said on that topic? How do we know, how can we be sure they wouldn’t? Steinberg could argue that while they might not experience, as the artists did, a pressing need to give visual expression to that doctrine, there seems to be little evidence that donors disliked or complained about the representations, which could have been explained to them as in perfect conformity with a doctrine to which the pious should assent. As for us, we can dissent all we like, but the religious art of the Renaissance will never look quite the same again.