The startling claim of Leo Steinberg’s new book is that over the past four centuries the real meaning of much of the religious art of the Renaissance has been lost. He argues that in representations of Christ, both as an infant and as an adult, the genitals had a particular theological significance to which we are now oblivious because of the modern world’s ‘massive historic retreat from the mythical grounds of Christianity’. This may sound like the wilder theories about the Holy Grail or Atlantis, but Professor Steinberg is a serious scholar, and his thesis is buttressed with dozens of visual examples and with a formidable array of learned references. Whether he is right, of course, is another matter: but at least one distinguished historian of Renaissance theology, the Jesuit John O’Malley, who contributes a postscript to the book, seems to find his conclusions broadly convincing, so they deserve to be examined closely.
In Byzantine and early Italian art the infant Christ was customarily shown either in a loose robe or in swaddling clothes, but from the 14th century he was increasingly often depicted partly or wholly naked, with his genitals either fully exposed or only partially concealed by a wisp of drapery or by his mother’s hand. Steinberg is certainly right to reject the suggestion that this change might simply be due to a growing preoccupation with realism among painters and sculptors. He quite reasonably argues that in depicting the son of God artists would have thought deeply about what they were doing, that no major innovation could have been casual or without theological justification. Why then the exposure of the genitals, which he claims amounts in many instances to emphatic display? Steinberg relates it to an increasing interest on the part of theologians in the Incarnation, a new stress on the idea that the Redemption of mankind was as much due to God’s decision to become flesh as to his sacrifice on the Cross. The genitals, he believes, were regarded as the principal attribute of Christ’s manhood, the visible proof that he had chosen to become in all respects human.
The logic of this argument is a little shaky, for while it may indeed have been the case that Renaissance theologians placed a new emphasis on the importance of the Incarnation, the fact of the Incarnation had been a central part of Christian doctrine for more than a thousand years. No believer needed to be told or even reminded that Christ was a man, and the mere telling would not have explained to the faithful why this was so significant. But even granting Steinberg’s point here, his central premise – that the possession of genitals was regarded as the distinguishing feature of Christ’s incarnate nature – simply cannot be substantiated. He certainly seems to recognise the need to find some textual evidence for his claim, since his book abounds with theological references. But nowhere does he produce a text of the period – or indeed of any other period – which assigns to Christ’s genitals the significance he proposes. The best that he can do is to point to some Renaissance sermons about the Circumcision delivered in the Sistine Chapel. Because this was an event that received some prominence in the Gospels, theologians were bound to provide an interpretation of it. Besides its obvious relevance in establishing Christ’s credentials as the Jewish Messiah, its importance in the Renaissance, to judge from the texts which Steinberg quotes (and for that matter from the much more widely read Golden Legend, which he overlooks), lay in the fact that Christ shed his own blood. The blood was proof of the Incarnation, just as it was also a premonition of the Passion. What mattered, in fact, was not the penis but the wound.
One might have expected Steinberg, when confronted by the unhelpful silence of the texts, to abandon or radically modify his thesis. Yet he does nothing of the kind. It may be that he regards his theological explanation as so self-evident that it did not need to be stated in the Renaissance. But few people who have read the religious literature of the period are likely to accept that preachers or theologians would have refrained from making a point of this kind merely because it was obvious. One of their major jobs was precisely to reiterate the most familiar Christian doctrines. The only way to save Steinberg’s theory, then, would be to argue that we are dealing here with a persistent popular belief which was embraced by the artists and their lay patrons, but which was never recorded in theological or devotional texts, or for that matter in any text whatever.
Unfortunately, it is quite evident that Renaissance artists did not believe that Christ’s genitals were the distinguishing mark of his earthly rather than his divine nature. Otherwise they would hardly have chosen to fill their paintings with countless representations of small naked angels, all of them endowed with male genitals. Steinberg himself even reproduces such a picture on page three of his book, but nowhere comments on the phenomenon. Some explanation, however, is required, since angels would seem to have no use for genitals, or indeed for navels, yet when they are shown naked in Renaissance works of art they are invariably provided with both. The answer seems to depend on the fact that God created Adam in his own image. Since in Renaissance art Adam always has these anatomical features, the implication is that God was thought to have them too, even though in his case they serve no obvious function. They are simply obligatory components of perfect bodies, and as such no less appropriate to angels than to men.
The shift from clothed to naked angels which occurs in the art of the 15th century certainly cannot be explained on the kind of theological grounds that Steinberg invokes in the case of Christ. But even if here we are dealing with a new interest on the part of the artists in depicting the human form, as seems quite possible, it does not necessarily follow that the same is true of the imagery of the infant Jesus, since he had regularly appeared naked already in the previous century. If Steinberg is right, Christ’s nakedness is also different in kind from that of the angels, for he argues that far from treating the genitals as just another part of his anatomy, many artists gave them a special prominence.
At first sight, this is a paradoxical claim, for if the genitals were indeed given such emphasis in so many paintings, it is difficult to see why no one noticed this before Professor Steinberg. His answer is that everyone has been blinded by prudishness. More relevant, however, is the fact that he has a very curious notion of what actually constitutes emphasis. If the penis is exposed, this is not unnaturally taken as supporting his thesis: but if the Virgin is covering the penis with her hand this is just as good, since she is said to be fondling it; if she is not touching it, this is ‘the calculated near-miss’; if she is concealing it with drapery, the picture is one in which ‘the Madonna unveils the Child or decks its [sic] loins with attention-gathering ceremony.’ Professor Steinberg, in fact, seems to find a genital focus in every representation of the Madonna and Child in which the child is not fully dressed. Not surprisingly, his discussion of the crucified Christ is based on very similar premises. Thus he talks of ‘a potent synecdoche that celebrates the thing covered in the magnificence bestowed on the covering: I mean the enhanced loincloth of Christ on the cross.’ The reference here is to the fluttering loincloths found in the work of Van der Weyden and his followers, a motif which also inspires the following, fairly typical example of his style: ‘Only the inherent metaphoricity of Renaissance realism could exalt this humblest of garments to such efflorence, and convert the ostentatio genitalium decently into a fanfare of cosmic triumph.’
These examples by no means exhaust Steinberg’s ingenuity in finding visual evidence for his thesis. For example, it is certainly the case that the dead Christ, lying on his mother’s lap or laid out for burial, is often shown with one of his hands resting on his loincloth. Inevitably, Steinberg sees this as a means of ‘drawing attention to well-hidden pudenda’, but other explanations are possible. For one thing, to judge from tomb effigies and from representations of other dead figures such as the Virgin, corpses in the Renaissance were commonly laid out with their arms extended and their hands joined at just the point where the loincloth would be. Equally relevant for artists, presumably, was the fact that they wanted to show Christ’s wounds, which have an immense and obvious significance for Christians: but if the arms were beside his body one of the hands would have been invisible, and if the hands were joined on his chest, the right arm would have obscured the wound in his side. Even more far-fetched are Steinberg’s comments on paintings of the Adoration of the Magi. Here the claim is made that the old Magus kneeling before the infant is not paying homage, but inspecting Christ’s genitals. Steinberg apparently believes that he is overjoyed to be a witness to ‘the humanation of a god’. But St Matthew makes it clear that the Magi had come to see the new-born King of the Jews. They had no reason to doubt that the baby was human, so if the old Magus was really doing what Steinberg supposes, it could only be to satisfy himself that the child was not a girl.
In his discussion of such paintings Professor Steinberg makes one perfectly valid point, namely that the child is commonly shown naked in the 15th century, whereas in earlier representations he is more often swaddled, as he is described by St Luke in his account of the Adoration of the Shepherds. The change that we find in paintings of the Magi therefore parallels the change that occurs in all images of the Virgin and Child, including scenes of the Nativity; and it is legitimate to ask what was the cause. Steinberg’s answer is clearly unsatisfactory, but fortunately there is a much simpler solution, which he has overlooked because he seems not to understand what, or rather who, these paintings are actually about.
Throughout the book he implies that they are about Christ, and that they are intended to remind the faithful about doctrine. In fact, it is most unlikely that countless Renaissance patrons spent large sums of money because they were interested in the Incarnation. They were moved by faith, not by theology, and they acquired these pictures because they were devoted to the Virgin. She does not figure very prominently in Steinberg’s account, but for most Christians she was a far more popular figure than Christ himself. Of course, in the Renaissance people did pray to Christ, but usually to the suffering Redeemer rather than the bambino. Much more frequently, though, their prayers were addressed to the Virgin, who is readier to intervene in day-to-day life by performing miracles, as well as being by far the most effective advocate for us sinners. This is not only because Christ himself accords her the special love and respect that a son should show his mother, but also because she is uniquely endowed with the quality of indulgent affection that all mothers should have, and which she dispenses to all who pray to her. Paintings of the Madonna and Child are just what their name implies: in the first instance they are representations of the Madonna, and this is confirmed by countless inscriptions, many of which can be seen in Steinberg’s illustrations. Such pictures show her in her most important role, as the mother of God, and the child is therefore her attribute, just as the keys are the attribute of St Peter, and just as the child is also the attribute of St Christopher. This is why we find the child shown twice in paintings which include both the Virgin and Christopher. It also explains why in many polyptychs, especially in North Italy, the Virgin is painted holding the child in the main panel, while the dead Christ is shown in another panel above. The changes that Steinberg describes in the representation of the child must therefore be understood as reflections of changing attitudes to the Madonna.
Seen in this way, there is really no problem. Catholics are devoted to the Virgin in large part because she is a much more accessible figure than Christ, and throughout the period we are considering her popularity was constantly growing. In art, her humanity was increasingly emphasised, and so, inevitably, the child acquired more of the appearance of a real baby. A clear example of this is the emergence in the 13th century of representations of the Madonna of Humility, showing Mary seated on the ground rather than on a throne, giving the child her breast. Steinberg says of such paintings: ‘the meaning of the subject was plain: Christ has to eat.’ In other words, he places the emphasis on the incarnate child. But the significance of these images, made abundantly clear in the devotional texts, lies in the emphasis on Mary’s maternal relationship to her son. This is confirmed by paintings in which the Virgin shows her breast to Christ as the Man of Sorrows, asking him to heed her intercession because she has given him milk, as he in turn displays his wounds to God the Father.
There is nothing special about the fact that Christ’s genitals are depicted in so many paintings of the Madonna. In Renaissance art virtually all babies are shown naked, or at least naked below the waist. The genitals are, in a sense, the attribute of babyhood, and for many people they are also rather cute. A few patrons obviously thought it slightly indecorous to show the genitals of the son of God, and this is why they are more often covered in representations of the infant Christ than of other babies, such as the Holy Innocents or the young Baptist. But this was a matter of personal taste, and the practice did not change with the end of the Renaissance. Steinberg at one point asserts that ‘as the content of the old holy pictures was diverted to pious folklore ... the exposure of genitalia, no matter whose, became merely impudent.’ This is just nonsense: the infant Christ’s genitalia were still often shown even in the 18th century, and Baroque churches are filled with naked putti
The cult of the Virgin is also relevant to the other types of imagery which Steinberg discusses. Like paintings of the Nativity, representations of the Adoration of the Magi are often Marian subjects, and this is why in many of them the child is given very little prominence. He is shown naked on his mother’s knee because this is his usual guise when he is painted with the Virgin, and also because the significance of the story depends on the contrast between the richly dressed kings and the tiny baby whom they have come to worship, born in a stable, whose kingdom is not of this world. Likewise paintings of the dead Christ on the Virgin’s lap are in the first instance representations of Mary, because they show her as the Virgin of Sorrows: so here again the focus is meant to be on her emotions, not on his incarnate nature. Even the Circumcision is usually associated primarily with the Virgin. It is one of her seven Sorrows, and appears much more frequently in cycles about Mary than in representations of the Life of Christ.
Steinberg seems quite unaware of this, so it is not surprising that he finds the religious art of the Renaissance so problematical. But the images which he examines can only be understood if one takes account of the tradition to which they belong. A particularly striking example is a woodcut by Hans Baldung Grien, which is one of the starting-points of his discussion. It shows St Anne seated beside the Virgin in a landscape, with Christ on the Virgin’s lap and St Joseph in the background. St Anne’s left hand grasps the child’s leg just below the knee, with two of the fingers extending along the thigh, their tips adjacent to his penis. Steinberg is not the first to suggest that she is fondling the genitals: but the gesture is at the very least ambiguous, in that the fingers could well be behind the penis, and not touching it at all. Indeed, given that her other fingers are around his knee, this is the most likely reading. Inevitably Steinberg does not consider this alternative, and he argues that the print is about the Incarnation. It is more likely to be a representation of St Anne. She was a popular saint in Germany at the period, she is in the centre of the composition and she is shown with her normal attributes, the Virgin and Child. Baldung’s contemporaries would presumably have interpreted the image on this basis. If they had initially supposed that St Anne was fondling Christ’s penis, they would surely have looked again to see if another, less wildly inappropriate reading was possible. They would then have noticed not only the position of the other fingers, but would also have observed that her right hand is under the child’s back and that she is bending forward to take him from her daughter. This is a familiar subject; and once we recognise it, we can see that the ambiguously placed left hand cannot possibly be touching the genitals. Baldung’s composition is a little awkward, but it does not represent a subject unique in European art.
It should be evident from all this that Professor Steinberg is not really interested in simple explanations. He finds Christian art dull, and he has come up with a theory to make it more interesting. Rather than trying to understand what the art of the Renaissance meant to people at the time by reading what they said about paintings and about their faith, he looks for hidden meanings and symbols to be decoded. At times he even invokes Egyptian reliefs and Bacchic mysteries. The ingenuity which he has applied to his task is formidable, but the choice of evidence is highly selective, the readings of the texts contrived, and the obvious difficulties often just disregarded. The result could hardly be less convincing.