Nudus Nudum Christum Sequi: On Christ’s Genitalia

Leo Steinberg concentrated upon the bumps in the upper section of the cloth.
Leo Steinberg asks you to take a good look at the bump in the upper section of the cloth. You see it? It’s there.

Ever since graduation my mornings have followed the routine of studying actively-engaged anthropology. tears, poop, and pee are my daily bread. My post-doctoral work consists of taking care of our two young girls while the eldest boy is now finally (and mercifully) off to kindergarten.

At the same time I am in the middle of writing for you and an intensive job search that might take me out of academia (do contact me if you have any leads, academic or otherwise). In between revising CVs and mailing out job applications I am inundated with the afore mentioned tears, pee, and poop.

All of this all too human material I’m working with reminds me of the words of Gregory Wolfe, editor of IMAGE Journal, a leading literary journal that deals with the arts and faith, in one of his editorials:

If God cannot become present in blood, guts, shit, piss, semen, saliva—He vanishes into the ether.

It seems to me this combines well with the prayer frequently attributed to Theresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now. (Do any of you know where this prayer is reproduced in scholarly? Is it in the Autobiography with the scandalously erotic cover?).

I can’t say I’m doing a good job with this balancing act, but at least now you understand my obsession with incarnational theology and my affection for the new Davies book Theology of Transformation.

Watch where the right hand of the Madonna is placed upon the cover of Steinberg's famous book.
Watch where the right hand of the Madonna is placed upon the cover of Steinberg’s famous book.

Now, the caption to yesterday’s featured image went as far as the feet and the loincloth of Christ. Today we’ll rip the curtain of the temple and take a peek behind it with the help of Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. His book caused quite the controversy when it first came out, but his findings have stood the test of time. Steinberg sums up his argument as follows:

“The first necessity is to admit a long-suppressed matter of fact: that Renaissance art, both north and south of the Alps, produced a large body of devotional images in which the genitalia of the Christ Child, or of the dead Christ, receive such demonstrative emphasis that one must recognize an ostentatio genitalium comparable to the canonic ostentatio vulnerum, the showing forth of the wounds.”

Remember the San Damiano cross controversy in Oklahoma over a crucifix with an abdomen penis? There was another similar prudish cross controversy in New Mexico recently. You know what? The penis was there in both instances, because it was supposed to be there!

The problem is not with the iconographers, but with us oblivious moderns who are Docetist enough to refuse to see what is in plain sight. For the first millennium of its existence the Church slightly played down the humanity of Christ for apologetic reasons, because of the shameful death, and charges from opponents that Christ was merely a human charlatan. Orthodox iconography is still reluctant to face up fully to Christ’s humanity. Many an Orthodox theologian has spilled ink writing on how blasphemous Western depictions of Christ as fully human are.

The Christian shame about Christ’s humanity was eclipsed in part thanks to St. Francis and his emphasis upon the stark naked humanity, even poverty, of Christ. One of the early Franciscan mottoes was “nudus nudum Christum sequi,” or “follow naked the naked Christ.” This emphasis drove the revolution in painting toward realism as in Giotto’s frescoes of St. Francis.

Ultimately it worked itself out in 15th and 16th century paintings where Christ’s humanity was emphasized by the following means: the Madonna gesturing toward the Child’s member, with blood flows in crucifixions that ran across the genitalia, suggestive bumps in the cloth of the dead Christ, and, yes, with penis-like shapes embedded in crucifixion abdomens.

All of this was not sensationalism, instead it served a theological purpose. Steinberg again, it’s hard not to enjoy his penchant for innuendo:

And then it is the Renaissance image of Christ which reveals divine condescension, as it were, in extremis ; God joining himself to the human condition to the point of sharing with man even that portion wherein retribution for Original Sin is most apparent, most vitiating . . . . It is orthodox thinking, implanted in Christian doctrine. But few spelled it out, since word processors, religious or otherwise, Renaissance or epigonic, studied to shun the unmentionable. Thus the Christology of Renaissance art remains largely unverbalized, coming to us only as something to see.

So there you have IT. Give The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion a read and you’ll note there’s something there to see. The countless examples Steinberg gives are enough to convert any skeptic.

I gotta go and change a diaper. I wonder how I can fully integrate that into my spiritual life.

I leave you with a few words on Steinberg’s revolutionary influence upon art criticism:

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