by Doctor Science
I was pleased to see Lee Siegal's article in the New Yorker, Pope Francis and the Naked Christ, because it's about one of my favorite books: Leo Steinberg's The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. Coincidentally, one of my holiday presents the year was a copy of the second edition -- my copy of the first seems to have gone walkabout, and I've wanted to read Steinberg's expansion for many years.
I read the first edition (published in 1983) some time in the late 80s, IIRC, and was an instant fan. In a nutshell, Steinberg's thesis is that Renaissance artists created images of Christ's Infancy, Baptism, and Crucifixion that focused attention on his penis. They did this to demonstrate the completeness of Christ's Incarnation: that He became a human man in every respect, even those that to us fallen mortals seem shameful.
I gather that many art historians and other readers were shocked and resistant to Steinberg's argument, but my reaction was a relieved, "Aha! Explained at last! It wasn't just me!" Steinberg was discussing something that had been bothering me for decades -- since I was 8 years old, in fact.
Cut for images of Great Art of the Western World that may not be safe for your work and/or eyeballs, and for anatomical terminology.
You see, my family lived in France the year I was 8 (the 1964-65 academic year), while my father had a Fulbright Fellowship. My parents dragged me and my brother (age 6) around a *lot* of cultural institutions, and I was more tolerant than he was of the great art museums of Europe.
I don't know if it was in the Louvre, one museum or the other in Rome, or somewhere else, that my 8-year-old mind uncomfortably noticed, "gosh, they're really paying a lot of attention to baby Jesus' penis in these paintings." This is the sort of thing we (Steinberg & I) mean:
Though this Bellini is in the Louvre, I have the vague sense that I had my revelation in Rome -- which would make sense, because Paris was an early stop on our trip and Rome a late one, and I could only notice the actual contents of the paintings after I'd gotten over the OMG SO MUCH NAKED reaction of an 8-year-old American confronted with the great works of Western Art.
I *do* remember it being after I'd gone past a *lot* of pictures of Saint Sebastian:
I remember that my reaction to the Saint Sebastian paintings was, "Grown-ups are *weird* and disturbing. This isn't what [Catholic, pre-Vatican II] Sunday School gives us as saints' pictures!" The pictures of baby Jesus' penis were even more disturbing and not-Sunday-School-like, but I just filed it away under "Grown-ups are weird, maybe some day I'll understand, for right now I'm really embarrassed and won't say anything." Life is like that a lot of the time when you're eight, after all.
So I know for a fact that people -- doubtless many thousands of people over the centuries, I'm not that special -- had noticed what Steinberg calls the ostentatio genitalium, but he was the first to really write about it. At the start of his "Retrospect" on The Sexuality of Christ .. (SC), he notes that
critics from the side of religion, regardless of denomination, seemed to find the book orthodox and to the point. To put it another way: the religious admitted the images reproduced in SC as valid, primary evidence; the right to dismiss such evidence was claimed only by art historical colleagues.In particular, it was some art historians who seemed to be devotees (or victims) of what Steinberg calls textism:
an interdictory stance, hostile to any interpretation that seems to come out of nowhere because it comes out of pictures, as if pictures alone did not constitute a respectable provenance. ... To my mind, the deference to far-fetched texts in mistrust of pictures is one of art history's inhibiting follies. It surely contributed to the obnubilation, the Cloud of Unseeing, that caused Christ's sexual nature as depicted in Renaissance art to be overlooked.It's surely not coincidence that Steinberg (who died in 2011) was Jewish, so for him the Cloud of Unseeing wasn't faith-based. Like the 8-year-old me, he could look at the pictures without a lifetime of not-seeing to get in the way. But Steinberg had the advantage of a scholarly lifetime's knowledge of Renaissance Christian thought; as Siegal says,
For a certain type of Jewish thinker, Catholicism's beautiful sublimations and dark repressions offered infinite possibilities for dissection and analysis.I would say that, in the 20th century it became possible for Jewish thinkers to "read" Christianity as *fiction*, giving it pretty close to what JRR Tolkien called Secondary Belief. So only an outside-insider, a fan if you will, can write of Christ's penis compared to mortal man's:
But the organ of the God-man does better. By dint of continence, through the willed chastity of the Ever-virgin, it obviates the necessity for procreation since, in the victory over sin, death, the wages of sin, is abolished. In such orthodox formulation, the penis of Christ, puissant in abstinence, would surpass in power the phallus of Dionysus. And it is perhaps in this sense that the old connotation of the phallus as an anti-death weapon is both adapted to the Christ context and radically converted.