My question: Is it appropriate to display nude art in places of Christian worship?
The above scene greeted me when I entered the Jesuit St. Michael’s Church adjacent to the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium for worship services during the Congress of Societas Liturgica Liturgica held in Leuven on August 7-13. People were looking up at the front side of this statue with a nude backside. Here’s the front side.
The Belgian artist Ad Wouters sculpted a bronze youthful St. Michael who has slain the ancient dragon, the Satan that had been cast out of heaven and had the world in its grip. The sculpture was placed in the back of the church in 2009. The young Michael has broken his sword. “Killing is not the answer,” said the artist, putting this thought into the mind of the young Michael. There will be no more killing. In God’s peaceable kingdom swords will be beaten into plowshares.
I’m sure, however, that the eyes of viewers were drawn more to the male appendage on St. Michael the archangel than to the broken sword. As I passed this sculpture throughout the week, various thoughts came into my mind. For one, I thought that angels were sexless, and therefore non-binary, although Michael has traditionally been portrayed as a very masculine warrior in Roman-style military garb. Other angels are portrayed in white robes. But if the angels are sinless they have no shame that needs to be covered. So there’s no reason not to have naked angels, and not just the little baroque era pink cherubs.
The larger question, of course, is about the shock of having totally nude figures in a Christian worship space. I’ve been thinking a lot about nakedness is recent years because I’ve been reflecting on the body, especially as it is employed in worship and impacted by the sacraments. In my book, Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual (Fortress Press 2016), chapter 3 is entitled “Naked Bodies, Clothed Bodies.” In this chapter I explore the concepts of being naked before the Lord (e.g. in rites of initiation like baptism) and being clothed by the Lord (e.g. in the bestowal of ministerial vestments).
The juxtaposition of nakedness and clothing is a powerful religious symbol, including in the Bible. From God’s perspective the human body is a thing of honor. It is created in God’s image. In God’s mission of redeeming sinful humanity the divine Word bestowed honor on the human body by becoming human flesh. In the end God will redeem his human creatures in the resurrection of their bodies. But from the human perspective the naked body is a thing of shame. Adam hid from God because he was naked. God wanted to know who told Adam he was naked. Then the figure-pointing and blaming began, which was a clear indication that sin had come into the world as humans became alienated from one another, from the natural world, and even from God. Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves. God dealt with their perceived shame by covering their bodies. In an act of grace He fashioned clothes of animal skins for Adam and Eve to provide for modesty as well as warmth. But God also restores honor to the body by dressing our bodies in festive apparel for the divine liturgy, as he did when he fashioned vestments for the high priest and other priests of Israel. The shameful nakedness of the prodigal son in Jesus’s parable is covered by being dressed in the robe of sonship. So both honor and dishonor accrues to nakedness. But clothing also is a sign of both shame and honor.
Honoring of the body was enacted in ancient Christian baptismal practice in which candidates went naked into the font and were dressed in a white garment (alba) when they emerged from the water and were led into the eucharistic assembly. Ancient icons of the baptism of Jesus show him naked in the water, which was probably a reflection of Christian baptismal practice.
The Leuven Congress dealt with the theme of sacramentality as it is impacted by social, cultural, and religious issues in the modern world. In sacraments God impacts the body. Missing from the major presentations, in my view, was the issue of what it means for sacramental theory and practice today that we live in a body-obsessed culture that has difficulties, ironically, both with nakedness and with dressing up. Imagine, for example, this scene of the baptism of Clovis, King of the Franks, in Reims in 411 (the site of the Societas Liturgica Congress in 2011) being played out today—the naked baptism and the splendidly vested ministers.
Painted by the Master of St. Giles, Franco-Flemish ca. 1500
The function of church art, especially in the West, is to teach by evoking and sometimes provoking theological affirmations. The issue of nude art in church, as I see it, comes down to the question of whether the theological affirmations should reflect God’s perspective or the human perspective. Should church art reinforce the divine view of the human body as a thing of honor created, redeemed, and sanctified by God or the human view of the human body as a thing of shame that needs to be covered? Being saints and sinners at the same time (simul justus et peccator) also affects our perception of and response to the nude body.
The naked Christ is the focal point of Christian devotion. His crucifixion, like all torturous executions, was meant to be an event of humiliation and shame. In the Roman practice crucified men were hoisted onto the cross completely naked. But Christ as the new Adam, obedient to the Father even unto death, went to the throne of the cross without shame. What men intended as an act of shame Christ embraced as an act of honor. Christian martyrs followed Christ’s example and went naked to their deaths as an act of honor. Should we therefore gaze upon Christ on the cross in a state of total nakedness? Or, in the image liturgical renewal has promoted, should we behold him in his role as our high priest dressed in priestly robes—the risen Christ against the cross but not on it? Perhaps it depends on what image of Christ we have most need of?
Concern for modesty in church art has resisted full nudity. Famously, Michelangelo pushed the envelop on this by festooning the walls and ceilings of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (a place of worship, not a museum) with nude bodies, from the creation of Adam on the ceiling…
…to the resurrection of the dead and Christ coming in judgment on the wall above the altar.
Pushing the envelop even further, when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512, he incorporated 10 pairs of male nudes (called ignudi, from the Italian for “naked”) seemingly as pure decoration. Because they did not seem relevant to the themes of the piece, Michelangelo’s ignudi outraged several popes. Most of the figures are surrounded by a huge garland of oak leaves, and clustered about them are thousands of acorns resembling the penis, or “prickhead”, in Tuscan slang (testa di cazzo). The most likely reason for their abundance is that they are an allusion to Michelangelo’s patron, Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, and was of the della Rovere family. There have been several theories about what they represent. Certainly they represent the ideal male form that was perhaps present in the mind of God who floats in an outline of the human brain in the creation of Adam scene. Here is one pair of ignudi.
It is evident in the close up of Christ the Judge that there was an attempt to provide covering for some of the male figures after Michelangelo’s time. In 1564 (after the Council of Trent) the more “prominent” nudes in The Last Judgment mural above the altar were made more decent by the artist Daniele da Volterra, who was commissioned to paint braghe (draperies) on the offending nudes, including Christ. He was lampooned ever thereafter with the nickname Il Braghettone – Big Pants.
As an 18-year old in 1492, Michelangelo carved a wooden crucifix with a nude corpus and gave it to the Basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence as a thank-you gift for their willingness to let him study human anatomy by dissecting deceased bodies. The monks apparently thought it would scandalize the faithful if it were hung in a public place, so it was placed in the sacristy. Over the years it went to other locations and was heavily painted. Only in recent decades has it been rediscovered, attested as Michelangelo’s authentic handiwork, and restored. It has now been returned to hang over the sacristy door in the basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence to which it was originally given.
Michelangelo also sculpted a risen Christ arising from the tomb naked. The biblical account says that when Peter and John entered the empty tomb they saw the grave clothes rolled up in a corner. The sculpture was erected in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. A 17th century pope required the genitals to be covered. So a bronze cloth which improbably defies gravity has been affixed over the figure’s genitals. Michelangelo’s intention was to show the resurrection in a perfect body, so none of the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion are showing. The added bronze cloth diminishes the glory and honor of the resurrection body. Ironically, it also draws attention to that which it covers.
A subject for a nude Christ that has been mostly without controversy has been the infant Jesus. This painting is in a side chapel of St. Peter’s Church in Leuven. It shows the Christ child in the Temple being held by the aged Simeon.
Among other paintings in St. Peter’s Church is Christ’s crucifixion. This one follows the convention of draping Christ’s genitals in some sort of loin cloth. (Since St. Peter’s Church was undergoing renovation when I visited, this painting had probably been removed from its original location in the closed-off apse and was displayed in a side chapel.)
Paintings of the nude Christ child and the mostly nude crucified Christ were popular devotional items in Lutheran as well as Catholic churches. They represent the incarnation from beginning to end. Lucas Cranach the Elder in Wittenberg, the court painter to the electors of Saxony and godfather to Martin Luther’s children, who painted many nude figures, including Adam and Eve in the “Allegory of Law and Grace,” which expresses Luther’s doctrine in pictorial form, also provided many altar pieces, including several crucifixion scenes. This one is the central panel of the altar piece in St. Wolfgang’s Church in Schneeberg, Erzgebirge. It is interesting that Cranach’s crucifixion scenes always include people at the base of the cross expressing various reactions to what was taking place.
There have been paintings of the crucifixion of Christ that portray Christ and the two thieves crucified with him completely nude, like those of the 19th century German painter Max Klinger and the 20th century Italian painter Vittorio Carvelli. These paintings are in museums. However, my interest here is nude art in the place of worship. Perhaps a crucifix or a crucifixion scene that worshipers might gaze upon in devotion requires some degree of modesty for the sake of the human beholder. Catholic and many Lutheran altars have a crucifix on, behind, or above the altar.
Edward Knippers is a contemporary American artist whose major work has been painting Biblical scenes with all nude figures. Raised in a fundamentalist family, he became an Episcopalian and strove to glorify the human body in art as God’s good creation, which the Son of God assumed, and that is promised resurrection. As far as I know, his work is not on permanent display in any church. But his paintings have been exhibited in churches and church schools, including the Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, Virginia in the summer of 2010 (Knippers’ home parish), the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg March 15- May 15, 2010, the Marxhausen Gallery of Art of Concordia University, Seward, Nebraska in 2009, and St. Andrew’s Church, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, in September 2009, as well as in many art museums. Here is his rather expressionistic Crucifixion.
A more permanent display with a nude Jesus are the paintings for the Stations of the Cross in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. The paintings have provoked controversy because of their setting in a war context. They were commissioned by St. Paul’s in March 2004, from New York City artist Gwyneth Leech. The artist comments, “I was asked to combine the traditional stations iconography with elements of the world we live in. This brief eventually led to my vision of Christ as a prisoner of war, and as a hostage tortured by insurgents. The crowds are refugees. The people weeping at the foot of the cross are grieving Iraqis and Americans who have lost family members to bombs and to violence.” This scene of Jesus stripped of his clothes before being crucified suggests the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
The following bronze sculpture is not inside the worship space but it is outside the main entrance to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. The sculptor, Paul Granlund, says it draws its inspiration from Hebrews 12:1: “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” Worships cannot avoid seeing it as they enter and leave the church.
The question of the appropriateness of nude figures in the worship space is as ambiguous as nudity itself in our experience of it. I would be interested to know what readers think about the appropriateness of nude art in the worship space, and also to be informed of any examples of nude art in churches.
Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS
From the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: the event that changed nakedness from a matter of honor to a matter of shame. Yet Adam and Eve are not clothed when they are expelled from Eden. Is Michelangelo suggesting a residual honor for the human body created in the image of God?