As a visitor enters the nave of the Episcopal church I attend, his gaze is immediately drawn to the stark pentagonal brick wall behind the raised altar, and to the large cross on it with a life-size statue of a crucified Jesus, naked except for the loin cloth about his hips to satisfy the normal decency criteria of the Church. Although we do know that crucifixion victims were stripped of all their clothing, and that the Bible specifically describes the Roman soldiers gambling for Jesus' garments, good taste forbids us to show Jesus naked. Yet there was a time when this was not true.
This book examines the Renaissance period (14th to 16th century) when artists presented Jesus either completely naked or covered by a simple loincloth that accentuated a rigidly erect member. Three hundred beautiful plates show this state of undress of both the baby Jesus and of the dying or resurrected Christ. What caused the artists to break the normal decency codes, asks the author, and he advances various theories to answer his own question. The first half of the book was written in 1983 and is divided into two parts: the main analysis and 39 excursuses (appendices to you and me) that amplify various points made. The second half was written thirteen years later and presents the author's newer thoughts plus a detailed refutation of the arguments put forth by his critics.
The paintings examined in the book relate to three periods of Jesus' life: his infancy, his baptism, and his crucifixion. Those depicting his infancy show a progressive diminution of worn apparel with passing time: in the 12th century Jesus is shown covered completely by a long philosopher's tunic; in 13th century paintings he appears in short child's dresses; and in the next two centuries he is painted either completely nude, or wearing short, sometimes see-through shifts, that are pulled up by either the baby or his mother to reveal his genitals, while the actions of the surrounding figures direct the viewer's attention to them. Whether it is Mary's mother poking at them (in Hans Baldung Grien's "Holy Family" 1511) or a magus staring at them intently (in Monticello's "Adoration of the Magi," c. 1470), or even the baby himself holding or pointing to them, these treatments of a baby's, let alone baby Jesus' genitals seem to transcend good taste.
Steinberg explains it as an effort by the painters to bring to the viewer's attention Jesus' full humanity, and to remind us that as a true Jew he shed his first blood for us during his circumcision. It is, "I, your Creator, have come to share your humanity"; or, "See how I have not delayed to pour out for you the price of my blood." The Magus's almost indecent examination is just an effort to certify the sex or the circumcision status of the child. St Anne's poking, in Grien's woodcut, is explained away as some type of the artist's preoccupation with fecundity and miracle-working spells.
The manner in which the adult Jesus was painted relates to the beliefs regarding original sin held by the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Catholic Churches. The Orthodox Church believed that there was no sex in Paradise, and that there never would be. "God did not need marriage to fill the earth," preached St John Chrysostom. The Church maintained that Adam and Eve had been created sexless and it was only after they sinned that they were endowed with procreative organs. The author presents an 11th century Spanish drawing showing Adam acquiring a penis after he sinned. Since Jesus was not subject to the original sin, he resembled the original man having no genitalia. So this is how he was painted in Medieval times (12th and 13th centuries); during his baptism, or on the cross, he was shown naked and sexless. Since there were no sexual organs to give rise to feelings of shame these naked paintings of Jesus could be freely exhibited in and out of church.
In later years, the Catholic Church in the West was influenced by St. Augustine's theory of original sin. According to him Adam and Eve were created with all their genitalia intact, but after they sinned God punished them by removing from them conscious control of these organs. Instead of performing the procreative act in a calm and emotionless manner, they were now subject to the vicissitude of their lustful emotions; Adam could no longer control the erection status of his member. (Charitably the author did not mention St. Augustine's sexual history: as a young man in Africa he took a concubine and produced a son; then he turned to his childhood boyfriend Alypius; and finally moved to Rome where, with five other friends, he took a vow of celibacy, upon which his concubine took his son and left.) The question then became, how did this affect Jesus since he was not subject to original sin?
Michelangelo's response was "Risen Christ," a work more resembling pagan Greek and Roman works than Christian Church statues, a completely nude Christ holding onto a cross. It seems, however, that Michelangelo was not very interested in this work since he had one of his pupils finish it. Even so, at least seven copies of it were produced during this period, but in all of them Christ was suitably covered. So why did Michelangelo produce such a statue? Before they sinned Adam and Eve had walked naked in the Garden without feeling shame. It was only after they sinned that they became ashamed of their private parts and covered themselves. By this reasoning, since Jesus was without sin he did not need to feel ashamed and cover himself. Most other paintings of the period, however, do not show this much frontal nudity. Although Christ's naked body may be shown removed from the cross, one of his hands is usually placed strategically to prevent exposure. This can be explained, argues Steinberg, by the common belief that a dying man often tends to place his hand on his groin.
Perhaps more shocking to the viewer are those paintings where the dead Christ's loincloth clearly shows a massive underlying erection. In the first part of the book, the author advanced various explanations for this practice: in pagan days the phallus was equated with power; in the Egyptian Osiris myth the erection and resurrection motifs were almost combined. But by the time he wrote the second half of his book the author had come up with his Theory of Penile Erection. Since, according to St. Augustine, after the Fall man lost his ability to control this member of his body, what better way for a painter to show that Jesus is unaffected by the original sin than to depict him in control of his erections. And to dissociate it from any sexual involvement, and thus sin, these erections occur either after his death or during his infancy.
All in all this is a very interesting book that can be appreciated by even non-artistic types like me. It obviously contains much more that I have space to comment upon. The only thing that I failed to understand was another reviewer's description of breaking up with hilarity while reading it. Perhaps it is because I am neither an artist nor a trained theologian but, with the possible exception of Joos van Cleve's "Holy Family" where Joseph is portrayed reading a book with his spectacles on, I didn't see anything particularly funny in this book.
(The writer is the author of "Christianity without Fairy Tales: When Science and Religion Merge.")