My question to myself (and to any who might answer in a comment): 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 held in Leuven on August 7-13, 2017. People were looking up at the front side of this statue the backside of which greeted people entering the nave. Here’s the front side.
The Belgian artist Ad Wouters (1944- ) 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. Of course, Michael has traditionally been portrayed as a very masculine warrior in Roman-style military garb. Perhaps Ad Wouters retained the masculine character of Michael in the Apocalypse as the leader of the heavenly host by portraying him not as a heroic general but as a heroic boy (a kind of David figure). Angels are often 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. But portraying them as human-like complete with genitalia presents a conundrum for artists.
The larger question, of course, is about the shock of having totally nude figures in a Christian worship space, especially one as unavoidable as this when you enter the church. I’ve been thinking about the symbolism of nakedness/clothing in recent years as I’ve returned to an interest in the body in personal life and in liturgy. Chapter 3 in my book, Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual (Fortress Press 2016), is entitled “Naked Bodies, Clothed Bodies.” In this chapter I explore the concepts and practices of being naked before the Lord (for example, in rites of initiation like baptism) and being clothed by the Lord (for example, 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 has received the honor of being created in God’s image. In God’s mission of redeeming sinful humanity the divine Word bestowed further 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 the role of festive garments is also prominent in the biblical stories. In the parable of the prodigal son the father covers the shame of the son’s naked body with the robe of sonship.
I should interject that I’m no authority on art. I know the history of art only at the most basic level. I cannot explain why artists want to paint nude bodies. But I have a great interest in the meaning of the human body from a philosophical and theological perspective. I am a liturgist and I know how art has been used in worship spaces. I know that Christianity has an ambiguous attitude toward nudity. The church has always promoted modesty in dress. Too much flesh showing can be a temptation to lust and lust can lead to sin. At the same time the body is created in the image of God. The divine Word became flesh in the historical body of Jesus of Nazareth. The most important things Jesus did for us and for our salvation he did in a state of nakedness: his birth, baptism, suffering under Pontius Pilate, crucifixion, and resurrection. We expect the resurrection of the body when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We will probably not rise up from our graves or the dust wearing our Sunday best.
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. Culturally we prefer to dress down even for social and professional events. 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 liturgically enacted today—both the naked baptism and the splendidly vested ministers.
Stripping and then being dressed is a powerful religious symbol and ritual that suggests and enacts a change of status. St. Francis of Assisi famously demonstrated his resolve to follow Christ according to the gospel precepts by his dramatic act of removing the clothing he was wearing because of his father’s wealth, standing naked before his father and his associates to renounce wealth, and then donning a simple peasant’s tunic to live a life of poverty.
Picking up on this dramatic action a later Franciscan credo became nudus nudum Christum sequi (“follow naked the naked Christ”). It was a radical call to cast aside worldly wealth and belongings in order to identify with and serve the poor. Influenced by this Franciscan spirituality, late medieval painters portrayed a Christ who was naked at his birth, death, and resurrection. In scenes of the Madonna and Christ child painted in the late Middle Ages Mary’s breast is typically exposed and the Christ child is naked (sometimes even with an infant erection to show his true manhood!).
Paintings of the Virgin Mother Mary breast feeding the infant Jesus were ubiquitous in the churches of the late Middle Ages. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), the court painter to the electors of Saxony, sometime burgomeister of Wittenberg, and godfather to Martin Luther’s first child, painted many nude figures, including Adam and Eve in his famous Allegory of Law and Grace, which expresses Luther’s doctrine in pictorial form. This is his rendition of the Virgin nursing the infant Christ from ca. 1515, just before the beginning of the Reformation. He captures Mary as a young mother pondering the meaning of what had taken place.
In this time of plague and warfare artists also portrayed a suffering Christ who could identify with suffering humanity. The epitome of this portrayal of the suffering Christ is Matthias Grünewald’s largest work, the altarpiece for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. The monastery had a hospital and the Antonine monks of the monastery were noted for their care of plague sufferers.
Portrayals of the “man of sorrows” included even Jesus in his ascension, fully displaying his wounds, as in this painting by the Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck (1498-1574) from 1532. This altarpiece from the Saint Cornelius Church in Mechelen shows Christ on a cloud attended by two angels, which suggests a reference to his ascension. The Latin text above Christ reads “ECCE REX VESTER'” – Behold your king’. Art critics have debated about whether the thin veil over Christ’s groin conceals an erection, which would be a sign of renewed life.
On the cusp of the Renaissance with its interest in the nude body the Italian painter Luca Signorelli (c. 1450—1523) painted massive frescoes of the Last Judgment (1499–1503) in the Orvieto Cathedral. Below are the adjacent panels of the resurrection of the dead and the consignment of the damned to hell. Of course, the bodies resurrected from the dead are mostly naked.
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 on the body 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.
Artists assumed that they had license to paint the figures of Adam and Eve nude since that’s how they were created. When they disobeyed God’s commandment they were ashamed and hid from God. But they focused their shame in the genital area by making aprons of fig leaves to cover themselves when they appeared before God. This was a giveaway that they had eaten of the tree they were commanded not to eat. When God expelled them from the Garden of Eden he made clothes of animal skins for them. But some artists continued to paint the primal couple naked.
“The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden” by Masaccio (ca. 1426) is a fresco in the Brancacci Chapel. Three centuries later, Cosimo de’Medici ordered fig leaves to be added to conceal the genitals of the figures. These were removed in the 1980s when the painting was fully restored and cleaned. It would seem that the painting is not in line with Genesis since Adam and Eve leave the Garden naked rather than clothed in animal skins (the fig leaves would also have been erroneous). But what is the chronology, theologically considered, between God providing clothing for Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden? Certainly the drama of the event is increased by having the figures leave paradise naked. But consider that clothing wasn’t needed in paradise; it was needed in the world outside the Garden. And animals would not be sacrificed for their skins within paradise. Masaccio’s portrayal of Eve’s howling pain and Adam’s inability to face the situation is psychologically profound and artistically unprecedented
Michelangelo’s painting of the Genesis story on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel also shows the pair leaving paradise still nude, perhaps suggesting in his eyes a residual honor for the body in the fallen world.
The naked Christ, the new Adam, 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 also as acts of honor. Should we avert our gaze upon Christ on the cross because he is in a state of total nakedness? Must his manhood be covered so we can look upon him?
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.
Actually, Leo Steinberg, in his magisterial work on The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (University of Chicago Press, 1983) describes other carved crucifix figures that included the male genitals, but were covered with linen soaked in plaster and wrapped around the figure as a loin cloth. When in time the loin cloth disintegrated Christ’s genitals were exposed.
Concern for modesty in church art has resisted full nudity. But Michelangelo (1475-1564) pushed the envelop 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.
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, including Christ’s genitals. 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 by the Vatican to paint braghe (draperies) on the offending nudes, including Christ. He was lampooned ever thereafter with the nickname Il Braghettone – Big Pants.
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”). For Michelangelo the shape and proportions of the human body are integral to God’s organic creation. But because the ignudi did not seem relevant to the themes of the piece, Michelangelo’s ignudi outraged several popes. Most of the figures are surrounded by huge garlands 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 the ignudi 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.
I should note that Pope John Paul II oversaw the cleaning and artistic restoration of the Sistine Chapel between 1984 and 1994 and directly asked that added on veils and fig leaves be removed in order to reveal human bodies in full nudity. In a homily given on April 8, 1994, when the cleansed and “restored” chapel was reopened, the pope said that
The Sistine Chapel is—if one may say so—the sanctuary of the theology of the body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way, the hope of a world transfigured, inaugurated by the Risen Christ, and even before by Christ on Mt. Tabor.”
Michelangelo also sculpted a risen Christ rising 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. It was originally supposed to be placed in a large niche so that it would represent the risen Christ emerging from the tomb. A 17th century pope required the genitals to be covered to protect the modesty of trhe worshipers. So a bronze cloth which improbably defies gravity has been affixed over the figure’s genitals. The bronze drape set against the white marble calls attention to itself and to that which it covers. 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.
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.
Christ must be portrayed nude in his crucifixion, but usually with a loin cloth wrapped around his pelvic region covering his genitals. The following painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder 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 with penis exposed, as was the custom in Roman crucifixions. Among them are crucifixion scenes by the 19th century German painter Max Klinger and the 20th century Italian painter Vittorio Carvelli. But those paintings are in museums and my interest in this article is nude art in places 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 that serves as an object of devotion. Lutheran pulpits in Europe also feature a crucifix as a visual reminder that “we proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:23).
In the twentieth century artists have been bolder at representing the naked Christ in art and it has been accepted in some congregations/parishes. 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 expressionistic Crucifixion.
A prominent German artist who is attracted to religious and church art is Michael Triegel (1968- ). His style reflects the old Renaissance masters. He was commissioned to paint a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI by the Diocese of Regensberg. But his painting of the resurrection of Christ was ordered removed from the Museum of the Wurzburg Cathedral because it portrayed a naked Christ rising from the tomb and leaving his grave clothes behind, as the Gospels record.
A more permanent display in a worship space 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.
Worshipers might encounter nude art not only in the worship space but as they enter it. Beginning with Romanesque churches and continuing into Gothic, the tympanum above the west doors of cathedrals and churches became sculptured scenes, especially of the Last Judgment. This scene of the Last Judgment is on the tympanum above the main west door of the Amiens Cathedral. It shows Christ the judge on his throne as the angels blow trumpets and wake the naked dead who are divided into the saved and the damned. The damned go naked into hell. The saved are clothed in white robes and crowned for their entrance into heaven. The first saint to enter into heaven in this scene is Francis of Assisi, who was canonized only a few years earlier in 1228 (he died in 1224).
Scenes of creation were also common on medieval churches. Figures of Adam and Eve were usually nude. Frederick Hart (1944-1999) created the sculptures portraying creation on the Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal). This sculpture in the tympanum above the west entrance, entitled “Ex Nihilo,” portrays the creation of humankind with semi-nude figures.
The following bronze sculpture is not inside the worship space but 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
This sculpture of a naked boy or young man begging is placed in front of St. Matthew Catholic Cathedral in Washington, DC. It undoubtedly brings to mind Jesus’s sayings in Matthew 25, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…” Unfortunately a naked boy in front of a Catholic Cathedral might also bring to mind the scandal of sexual abuses of youth Catholic priests.
A view of this small sidewalk figure from the other side raises questions about whether it is a boy or a young man since the face has a beard. Also, the figure suggests nakedness but its total nudity is actually concealed with what seems like the representation of a piece of cardboard.
An issue that relates particularly to many of the Renaissance artists is the suggestion of homoeroticism in their their work. The Renaissance was interested in returning to the classical style of Greek and Roman art and architecture. The artists were aware of the more relaxed attitude toward male same-sex intimacy and relationships in these cultures, which contributed to the desire to portray beautiful and sensuous male bodies. A prominent Tuscan artist, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (known by his self-given knickname “Il Sodoma,” the Sodomite), painted a curvaceous “Christ Bound to the Column” for his flaggellation (c. 1511/1514) for the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in Tuscany. It is located in a corner of the central cloister before the inside entrance door to the Abbey church.
El Sodoma’s sexuality was clearly ambiguous. He had been married but separated from his wife and was the father of two daughters. But he usually surrounded himself with beardless young men (some of whom may have served as his models and apprentices). Among his most famous paintings is a banner of St. Sebastian commissioned by the saint’s confraternity in May 1525, which clearly evokes a homoerotic sensibility. It is now housed in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
St. Sebastian in his martyrdom is one of the most frequently portrayed semi-nude figures after Jesus. As a military man who had criticized the Emperor Diocletian, he was sentenced to be executed by a firing squad of archers. Numerous other great Renaissance artists painted St. Sebastian, including Botticelli, Perugino, Titian, Guido Reni (seven times), and Mantegna (three times) and usually in a homoerotic pose. Some contemporary gay artists have portrayed the saint as a completely nude young man. Sebastian has become a gay patronal saint. The likelihood of Sebastian being homosexual is slight since he was a Christian. But the homoerotic representations of Renaissance artists has undoubtedly appealed to gay men, as well as the story of his suffering for a cause. There are also icons representing St. Sebastian as a gay saint. Regan O’Callaghan designed this icon icon of St Sebastian “that is contemporary in style but conveying an apt message. I wanted to talk about the erotic and sexuality in faith and spirituality.” I have no doubt that this icon has been reproduced and is used in their devotions by many gay Catholic Christians.
There are many paintings of St. Sebastian (always semi-nude) in frescoes or hanging in churches, including in the Chapel of St. Sebastian in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, right above the tomb of Pope John Paul II. I think El Greco’s portrayal provides a striking figure who looks like a military captain and whose loin cloth is barely functional. (Sebastian actually survived the arrows, was nursed back to health by St. Irene of Rome, and was later clubbed to death by order of the Diocletian for again insulted the emperor. But the arrows stuck as his symbol.)
St. Sebastian’s genitals are barely covered in El Greco’s painting. This was obviously a requirement of the ecclesiastical authorities for a work of art displayed in a church building. In his work, “The Vision of St. John,” which was part of an altar piece depicting the opening of the fifth seal, the revealing of the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God under the heavenly altar, the souls of the martyrs are nude.
The question of the appropriateness of nude or semi-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, especially art that displays the genitalia, and also to be informed of any other examples of nude art in churches, which I will be happy to add to this collection. I can be contacted by means of the question or comment features in this blog.
Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS