The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion

The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion

by Leo Steinberg

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Originally published in 1983, Leo Steinberg's classic work has changed the viewing habits of a generation. After centuries of repression and censorship, the sexual component in thousands of revered icons of Christ is restored to visibility. Steinberg's evidence resides in the imagery of the overtly sexed Christ, in Infancy and again after death. Steinberg argues that the artists regarded the deliberate exposure of Christ's genitalia as an affirmation of kinship with the human condition. Christ's lifelong virginity, understood as potency under check, and the first offer of blood in the circumcision, both required acknowledgment of the genital organ. More than exercises in realism, these unabashed images underscore the crucial theological import of the Incarnation. 

This revised and greatly expanded edition not only adduces new visual evidence, but deepens the theological argument and engages the controversy aroused by the book's first publication.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226226316
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/10/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 426
File size: 103 MB
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About the Author

Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) was the Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

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The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion

By Leo Steinberg

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1996 Leo Steinberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-77187-8



I. Whether the subject exists

The terms "Christ" and "sexuality" are normally felt to be irreconcilable, and rightly so; sin, absent in one, but incriminating the other, keeps them apart. Therefore, the claim that they do come together in Renaissance painting arouses vigorous disbelief. And if the proof is said to reside in the pictures, the hearer assumes that those pictures must be exceptional. Such initial resistance gives way—as I have found repeatedly in private sessions with skeptics—only to the cumulative impact of number. This is why no less than 124 pictures are reproduced in the text of this essay and as many again in the back pages, with many more cited in reference. How such superfluity is received depends less on the person than on the progress of persuasion. Readers in their skeptical phase will think half a hundred instances still too few. And once conviction has taken hold, more than six is too much.

But the glut of the evidence is essential. It helps establish the subject as one concerned not with idiosyncrasies, but with a major phenomenon in historic Christianity. The present archive of Renaissance images wherein the emphasis on the genitalia of Christ is assertive and central runs past a thousand; it keeps expanding, because the material abounds.

II. Whether the subject ought to be publicized

More surprising than the forthright treatment of the ostentatio motif in the works reproduced is the fact that they escaped subsequent censorship. Normally, such passages in Renaissance pictures would have been suppressed sooner or later: a loincloth insinuated under the mother's hand sufficed to convert a demonstrative act into a posture of common modesty. Down to the 1930s, dealers, collectors, and public museums felt bound to expurgate paintings that would otherwise have seemed unfit to exhibit (see Excursus XXX below). Apparently, the offending features were viewed either as symptoms of irreligion on the part of the artist, unacceptable where the subject was sacred; or else, as if the characters represented had been caught off-guard in awkward moments of privacy. Either way, it was wrong to look—which explains why anyone giving the matter his full attention falls under instant suspicion. Can his motives be sound? "Why are you interested in this?" is often the first question asked, prompted by fear of that "impious curiosity" which the Doctors of the Church roundly condemned. As the Archangel puts it to Milton's Adam—"Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid" (Paradise Lost, VIII, 167).

But that warning seems inappropriate, since the matter solicited in this book is not hid but aglare; and no good angel wants eyes averted from public devotional art. More to the purpose is St. Bonaventure addressing a fellow religious: "Imprudent investigations," he writes, "are displeasing to good brothers, and to God, and to his angels. But I would wish that you and I may ... detest no more than we should, nor things that should not be detested" (Letter to an Unknown Master, VIII, 335; quoted in Bougerol, Bonaventure, p. 8).

III. Regarding the reached-for chin

Hard to believe that a gesture passing between two people, one which nowadays seems merely condescending or comical, was once held in such high esteem that it could symbolize nothing less than the soul's union with God. The present Excursus tries to acknowledge the historic fortunes of what I have summarily called the chin-chuck, by which I mean any reaching for, any touching, fingering, cupping, or clasping, so long as another's chin is the target (Figs. 7–12, 125–29).

About the origins and meanings of the gesture in ancient art, little more need be said. In an Egyptian painting of the 18th Dynasty, chin-chucking by two small daughters of Akhen-Aten (K. Michalowski, The Art of Ancient Egypt, London, 1969, pl. 102) suggests mutual affection; it could be pure genre. But on a royal relief of the 19th Dynasty (Fig. 125), the same gesture, addressed by a seated king to a concubine, appears ceremonial. It remains a formal sign of entreaty or of erotic solicitation in Archaic Greece (Figs. 126, 127). In its classical phases, Greek art abandons the chin-chuck motif, but the gesture returns in late Hellenistic allegory to signify the soul receiving her divine lover's caress (Fig. 7; cf. the first acquisition made by New York's just-founded Metropolitan Museum, a 3rd-century C.E. sarcophagus with a Cupid and chin-chucked Psyche on one of its sides). It is this symbolism—now referred to Christ and the Virgin—that persists in Western art for a millennium. Thereafter, for reasons difficult to assess, the gesture forfeits its status and comes to be seen as ridiculous; perhaps because medieval art bestowed it on secular lovers as freely as real lovers did on each other.

At the expiring end of this ancient tradition stands Robert Herrick, who still had serious love play in mind when he wrote: "Love makes the cheek and chin a sphere to dance and play in." The lines were composed before the mid-17th century. By the 18th, the chin-oriented gesture, now wholly secularized, has fallen from grace.

For some years past, I have kept note of every chin-chuck encountered in scattered reading (my own plus that of some watchful friends): fromGuzman de Alfarache (1599–1604) and Pepys' Diary (1664), through Swift and Fielding, George Eliot, Tolstoy, and Dreiser, to Thomas Mann, Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov (Lolita, chap. 21); not excluding Marlene Dietrich's assault on the professor (Emil Jannings) at the wedding feast inThe Blue Angel (1930). The chin-chuck brought down to its nadir—not one in this haul but carries some tang of nastiness, coarseness, or condescension.

To unpack the collection here would be wasteful. Let it suffice that chin-chucking as a symbolic form has suffered a catastrophic debasement since the Baroque. It may still befit children, giving or getting it; the reciprocal chin-chuck may still be observed on French children's playgrounds ("Je te tiens,/ Tu me tiens/par la barbichette;/ Le premier/ qui rira/ aura une tapette"). But between adults, a chinchuck administered by man to woman is patronizing, faintly demeaning—and implies something of mockery when the receiver is male. Modern lovers, it seems, do not localize erotic play at the chin; and what had been a mature lovers' gambit in medieval and Renaissance wooing has become unacceptable. Therefore, any bid to sublimate or to sacralize the chin-chuck motif in the iconography of devotional Christian art must appear misdirected.

Yet there is no mistaking its former seriousness. In an early 16th-century engraving, the woman touching the chin of a man may be the disconsolate Virgin squatting by the corpse of her son (Veit Stosz, Lehrs 3; cf. the mid-14th-century Bohemian Pietà by the Hohenfurt Master, Schiller, Iconography II, fig. 605). In medieval art, mutual chin-chucking may stand even for the summum bonum: at the Virgin's death, her soul's nuptial union with Christ finds expression in a reciprocal touching of chins (Fig. 130).

The gravity of the gesture in such adult moments has gone unnoticed, perhaps because its frequent allocation to the Christ Child had conceptualized it as cute infant behavior. Émile Mâle (1949) had seen only "winsome childishness" in the young Christ's "caress of his mother's chin" (aimables enfantillages; see Excursus XVI); and a major 1972 exhibition catalogue of medieval art still reads the gesture as "illustrating an evolution toward humanization and tenderness" (Rhin-Meuse: Art et Civilisation 800–1400, Cologne and Brussels, 1972, p. 331, no. L6).

On the other hand, some recent observers have begun to see the chin-chuck as a functioning part of Christian symbolism (see Steinberg, "Metaphors," pp. 280–83). Hans Wentzel's discussion of the Sponsa-Sponsus image in a 12th-century illustration of Canticles interprets "das Umfangen des Kinns"—the clasping of a woman's chin—as Christ's tender of love to the human soul ("Die ikonographischen Voraussetzungen der Christus-JohannesGruppe und das Sponsa-Sponsus-Bild des Hohen Liedes," in Heilige Kunst: Jahrbuch des Kunstvereins der Diözese Rottenburg, Stuttgart, 1952, p. 11). And the author of the "Maria-Sponsus" entry in Kirschbaum's Lexikon (1970) remarks that, in small French Bibles since the mid-13th century, Song of Songs illustrations depicting the Virgin and Child show the infant embracing the mother, "or united with her in a gesture of tenderness perhaps interpretable in a bridal sense (e.g., the Child touching the mother's chin)"; see Dorothee von Burgsdorff in Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, II, col. 309.

It is the context of Song of Songs illustrations that provides the clue. One verse in the poem had long been interpreted as expressing the soul's nuptial union with Christ. For this interpretation, artists needed a graphic formula—and found it in the old lovers' ploy of the chin-chuck. They enlisted the gesture in response to the words "his left hand is under my head and his right hand shall embrace me" (Laeva eius sub capite meo,/Et dextera illius amplexabitur me; Canticles 2:6, repeated in 8:3). The chin-chuck, I suggest, was the artists' sign for the "hand under the head."

To these words, the Middle Ages assigned the sublimest role. In the apse mosaic of Sta. Maria in Trastevere, Rome (before 1143), where Christ and the Madonna throne side by side as consorts in heaven, Mary, embraced by Christ, displays a scroll inscribed with this verse. For St. Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167), these same words point the climax of the unitive mystic experience, when soul and God meet face to face: "All earthly affections being put to slumber, and all worldly desires and thoughts silenced, [the soul] takes its joy only in the kiss of Christ and rests in his embrace, exulting and saying: 'His left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me'" (quoted from Pat. lat., 195, col. 673, in Perella, The Kiss Sacred and Profane, p. 61).

What did the exegetes make of the text's primary sense? Here we need not be of two minds, for the reading of the verse, then as now, was unequivocal ("This verse needs little explication"—it applies "to sexual embrace," we read in Pope, Anchor Bible, p. 384). The words were understood to refer to the consummation of physical love as a figure for the spiritual. Origen (d. c. 254), setting the course for all subsequent Christian interpretations of Canticles, weaves back and forth between the literal sense and the mystic:

His left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me. The picture before us in this drama of love is that of the Bride hastening to consummate her union with the Bridegroom. But turn with all speed to the life-giving Spirit and, eschewing physical terms, consider carefully what is the left hand of the Word of God, what the right; also what His Bride's head is—the head, that is to say, of the perfect soul or of the Church; and do not suffer an interpretation that has to do with the flesh and the passions to carry you away. (Origen, Song of Songs, p. 200; Pat gr., 13, cols. 162–63)

Further on, Origen writes: "Here the Church that is the Bride begs her Bridegroom who is the Word of God to support her head with His left hand, but with His right hand to embrace the whole of her, and hold her body fast."

Explicit testimony that the words "left hand under my head" signify sexual union comes from St. Jerome. Expounding a verse in Daniel (2:34), which speaks mysteriously of a "stone cut out of a mountain without hands," Jerome sees in it a prophecy of Christ "born a virgin of a virgin," and adds: "'Hands' is, of course, to be understood of the marital act, as in the verse His left hand is under my head and his right hand shall embrace me" (Epistle XXII, 19; Jerome, Letters, p. 151). This literal reading holds in the Expositio in cantica canticorum of the Venerable Bede, who would have the lovers in a lectulus, a small bed (Pat. lat., 91, col. 1105). Likewise in the famous Canticles commentary of Honorius of Autun (early 12th century), the first reading of the verse has the "true King" redining on the Bride's couch; which is no sooner said than explained: the nuptial act, says Honorius, here refers to the Word's espousal of human nature in the Incarnation, and also to Christ's marriage with the Church (Expositio in cantica canticorum, Pat. lat., 172, col. 585).

St. Bernard, in the fifty-first of his eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs, is more forthcoming. (His reading of the ambiguous Latin laeva eius ["his left"] as "arm," rather than "hand," enables him to envisage the action as a marital embrace in reclining position.)

"His left arm under my head, his right arm will embrace me".... It is clear that the bridegroom has returned for the purpose of comforting the distressed bride by his presence.... And because he found that during his absence she had been faithful in good works ... he returns this time with an even richer reward of grace. As she lies back he cushions her head on one of his arms, embracing her with the other, to cherish her at his bosom. Happy the soul who reclines on the breast of Christ, and rests between the arms of the Word! "His left arm under my head, his right arm will embrace me." (Sermon LI, 5; Bernard, Song of Songs, III, p. 44)

Bernard returns to the theme in his next sermon (p. 49): "her tender bridegroom supports her head on his left arm, as has already been said, that she may relax and sleep on his breast." But at once Bernard subtilizes what he had just made concrete:

What more are we to think the left hand and the right are for the bridegroom, the Word? Does that which is called the word of man have within it separate bodily parts ...? All the more does he who is God and the Word of God not admit diversity of any kind.... For he is the wisdom of God, of whom it is written: his wisdom is beyond numbering. But ... we speak as well as we can of that which we do our best to understand, ... taught by the authority of the Fathers and the usage of the scriptures that it is lawful to appropriate suitable analogies from the things we know.... (Sermon LI, 7, pp. 45–46)

Now the question before us is whether such "analogies from the things we know" were equally suitable to the visual arts. Preachers and exegetes dealing with words had an easier time of it. They could state that the verse under discussion—at the first of its four levels of meaning—denoted a couple embraced in reclining position; then swiftly unsex the image into abstraction. They could affirm that "hand" in the present context meant carnal union—and cry shame if it was carnally visualized. [For such games of incite-and-forbid, see now Kendrick, Chaucerian Play, esp. p. 25: "The more stubbornly carnal the text, the greater pleasure the preacher took in reversing its meaning with his gloss."] But what dodge was available to an artist who had to present that amorous symbol in a code grounded in physicality; whose Bride had to be formed as a woman, yet without the umbrage of Jerome's nuptial act, or the Bernardine "lying back with the head cushioned on one of his arms"? In the mosaic at Sta. Maria in Trastevere, the seated Sponsa receives Christ's right-armed embrace, but despite the full verse spelled out on her scroll, the left-hand action of Christ is omitted: clearly unfit for representation.

Fortunately, art has other resources. In a 12th-century illumination from Salzburg, the female figure, identified by the laeva eius inscription, wafts toward the enthroned Bridegroom, whose left hand gropes chinward along her cheek (frontispiece to an Honorius of Autun manuscript volume, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4450, fol. Iv; for description and citation of literature, see Reiner Haussherr, Die Zeit der Staufer, exh. cat., Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart, 1977, 1, no. 740).

In the celebrated colored Dutch blockbook of Song of Songs illustrations (1465; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek), the Bride and Bridegroom, canopied by a banderole bearing the laeva eius verse, act out the same scriptural moment, not however bedded down in accord with the literal exegesis, but after an alternative model: the crowned Sponsa rests head and arms on the knees of the seated Sponsus; his right hand embraces her shoulders, his left hand is under her head—at the chin.

In my hypothesis the artists resort to the ancient formula of the touched chin—already allegorized via Cupid and Psyche—to evoke the lovers' tryst without the consummation prescribed by the literal reading of Canticles. In other words, they use the chin-chuck as a visual text with both carnal and mystical connotation. Passing between Christ and the Virgin, the gesture becomes an all-purpose sign for the love bond between Christ and Mary-Ecclesia, between Christ and the soul, the Logos and human nature. Needless to say, not every artist pondered the textual background or the theological implications of the chin-chuck; some assigned it to the wrong hand. But all must have known that they were wielding a symbol, no matter how naturalized in appearance.


Excerpted from The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion by Leo Steinberg. Copyright © 1996 Leo Steinberg. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

I. Whether the subject exists
II. Whether the subject ought to be publicized
III. Regarding the reached-for chin
IV. Of the practice of fondling a man-child's genitalia
V. The Baldung Grien woodcut: irreligious or orthodox'?
VI. Who needs God's divinity proved?
VII. Dogma as pictorial subject, including the precociousness and the smile of the Child
VIII. God's greater deed
IX. The signal at the breast
X. "Complete in all the parts of a man"
XI. The necessary nudity of the suffering Christ
XII. Baptism and required dress
XIII. The virginity of Christ
XIV. Potency under check
XV. Concerning Michelangelo's Risen Christ
XVI. Of the nudity of the Christ Child
XVII. The body as hierarchy
XVIII. 14th-century nudity
XIX. Gossamer at the hips
XX. Exposure as revelation
XXI. A digression on the "Stone of Unction"
XXII. The eighth day
XXIII. Resisting the physical evidence of circumcision
XXIV. Of sermons and homilophobia
XXV. The blood hyphen
XXVI. The calendrical style of the Circumcision
XXVII. The showing in Bethlehem
XXVIII. The protection motif
XXIX. Images of self-touch and of Infant erection
XXX. Bowdlerism
XXXI. "A peculiar notion"
XXXII. On the afterlife of Boccaccio's jest
XXXIII. Sesostris' hieroglyph
XXXIV. Wings of excess
XXXV. Not other than willed
XXXVI. The un-dead hand on the groin
XXXVII. In imitation of Christ
XXXVIII. The Throne of Grace
XXXIX. Postscript by John W. O'Malley, S.J.
1. The Second Coming of Adam
2. New Arrivals
3. Explaining Away
4. The Pendulum of Christ's Human Nature: A Theological Interlude
5. The Ibiquity of the Erection Motif
6. Please Delete Sexuality
7. A Trial of Texts
8. Further Lines of Resistance
9. Ad Bynum
Epilogue: Lines of Convergence
List of Illustrations

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