Hundreds of Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child represent the Christ Child with his genitals blatantly displayed or emphasized by filmy bits of drapery, and yet modern scholars long have failed to recognize or identify the motif. They admired the beauty of Renaissance art and attributed its naturalistic figures to the nascent secularism we think characteristic of that age. Startling the art world, the critic Leo Steinberg, who died early this year at the age of ninety, insisted otherwise: The representation of Christ’s genitals is central to the intended theological meaning of these paintings.
He was not, perhaps, the scholar many would have expected to perceive this when so many critics had not. Born in 1920 in Moscow—his father briefly served as Lenin’s commissar of justice before opposing the Bolsheviks and fleeing with his family to Germany in 1923—and raised in an observant Jewish family, Steinberg studied drawing and sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art after his family fled to England in 1933. Influenced by his studio training, his scholarship rests upon sustained examination of the work of art and a practice of drawing after the work to immerse himself in its intricacies and reimagine the artistic process.
After moving to New York at the close of the Second World War, the multilingual Steinberg worked as a translator. Among the books he translated from Yiddish was the final volume of Sholem Asch’s “Christian trilogy,” Mary, published in 1949. Although he did not mention it, Asch’s sensitive novelization of Mary’s experience as the mother of Jesus, and his interweaving of scriptural references and biblical imagery, must have contributed to Steinberg’s receptivity to theological ideas as a crucial context for the creation of religious art. He later wrote his doctoral dissertation on Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, teasing out the elusive symbolism of its complex plan and decoration.
In his most famous book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, published in 1983 (a revised and expanded edition appeared in 1996), Steinberg rejected the standard art-historical approaches to explaining the discomfiting detail. Traditional views of Renaissance art claimed that the portrayal of Christ’s genitals was symptomatic of the dual development of an increasingly naturalistic style and interest in the classical nude and, consistent with the growing secularism of the age, would have been perceived by the urban Italian Renaissance public as a genre detail of merely human interest. Refusing such a trivialization of the motif, Steinberg proposed instead that the intent was theological: The genital display by the infant Christ was especially apt to demonstrate the truth of the Incarnation, for it is by means of the sexual organs that human life is conceived and born to die.
Steinberg also recognized a curious detail common to many representations of the Adoration of the Magi: that the gaze of the foremost magus kneeling in adoration before Christ often focuses on the infant’s exposed genitals, further testimony to their role as proof of the Incarnation. Alert to the soteriological significance of the circumcision, he noticed that the body of Christ crucified on the cross and lamented by his followers often bears a trickle of blood that traces an arc descending from the lance wound in Christ’s side to the loin cloth, a “blood hyphen” linking the final wounding to the first. This motif, like the sorrowful expression of the Madonna as she embraces her child and the varied Passion symbols that the infant often grasps or plays with, is consistent with the proleptic habits characteristic of Christian thought and art.
To explain this, Steinberg drew heavily on Augustine’s teaching on original sin, and the idea that the unruliness and shamefulness of Adam’s sexual member after the Fall is a divine punishment for his disobedience and that its procreative activity is the means of transmission of original sin. For the Renaissance artist charged with representing in a naturalistic mode both the full humanity of Christ and his sinless nature, the inspired solution was to depict the infant Christ with the ostentatio genitalium. As the Son of God condescending to our mortal condition, the baby Jesus possessed male genitalia but, because he was free from sin and absolved of sexual shame, his required no concealment. As Steinberg asserts, “The longer one dwells on the theological grounds for genital shame, the more imperative that Christ be exempted.”
Observing the progressive uncovering of Christ’s lower torso in art beginning from about the mid-thirteenth-century, Steinberg postulated that Franciscan spirituality was a key impetus for the artists’ interest in depicting the naked Christ: Jerome’s “nudus nudum Christum sequi” expressed St. Francis’s urgent desire to emulate the radical humility and poverty assumed by God in becoming human. Hilary of Poitiers employed a vivid image similar to the painters in speaking of the paradox of the Incarnation: “A virgin gives birth, but the birth is of God. The baby whimpers and the angels sing their praises, the cloths [diapers] are soiled and God is adored. So the dignity of power is not lost as the humbleness of the flesh is made manifest.”
Anticipating protests, Steinberg made clear that neither he nor the paintings’ intended audience would have thought the representation of Christ’s genitals to suggest that Christ was sexually active. The orthodox Christian teaching held that Jesus was sinless and chaste, potent yet in complete control of his sexuality in the manner of Adam before the Fall, and the paintings merely expressed this teaching in a graphic manner that modern critics failed to see.
Many of the works were commissioned by prominent patrons from major artists and created for display in church settings, indicating that the ostentatio genitalium, while innovative, was not widely perceived as shocking or transgressive. Moreover, there are internal checks on salacious interpretations within the pictures themselves. The genital display is restricted to images of the naked infant or of the dying or dead Christ in crucifixions or in scenes of the lamentation in which his loincloth either slips so low that the coverage suggests as much as it conceals or is elaborately knotted or billows out in order to draw attention to the groin. It is never a feature of representations of the active adult Christ, not even in scenes of the baptism of Christ in which it could be justified. The employment of the motif in moments of Christ’s vulnerability and suffering precludes a reading of it as an assertion of Dionysiac virility and insists that the viewer contemplate the beauty of Christ’s human figure as a body that suffers and dies to redeem human sin.
Looking at it lasciviously would only compound the debt to be redeemed. Even the natural delight evoked by gazing upon the adorable naked baby Jesus would be tinctured with sorrow at the knowledge of his destiny, telegraphed by the Virgin Mary’s pensive air.
The Incarnation was represented in other ways as well. The depiction of the child nursing at the Virgin’s breast, popular in late medieval and Renaissance art, demonstrated both his need for sustenance as a human child and the Virgin Mary’s exalted role as guarantor of his humanity precisely in her humility as nursing mother—this in an age when infants were routinely sent out to wet nurses. The Madonna lactans pictures circumscribe the sexual connotations of the Virgin’s bared bosom by typically exposing only one breast and suppressing the other.
Similarly, Renaissance artists assimilated the nuptial imagery from the Song of Songs in representations of the Madonna and Child in envisioning the relationship between Christ as bridegroom and the Virgin Mary as bride and ecclesia. A love poem whose erotic imagery was interpreted by Christian exegetes as an allegory of the soul’s union with God, the Song of Songs had long been mined by medieval spiritual writers and artists for its sensual appeal. Renaissance artists extended that tradition but, because of the naturalistic style in which they rendered gestures such as the infant Christ gingerly cupping his mother’s chin or playfully tugging on her veil, the theological significance of those spousal motifs has eluded modern viewers who have seen them only as simple displays of affection characteristic of any mother and child.
Both artists and clerics were alert to the potential for the imagery Steinberg explored, especially when rendered in a naturalistic style and unaccompanied by explanatory texts, to overwhelm its theological grounding and be excoriated as incitements to concupiscence. As the heroic male nude all’antica became the epitome of beauty in the sixteenth century, moralizing condemnations increased, spurred by the Reformers’ indictments of Catholic idolatry. In the wake of the Council of Trent, offending anatomical details were sometimes painted over or concealed, famously in the case of Michelangelo’s nude sculpture of the risen Christ in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
Steinberg himself alludes to the point at which the genital theology exceeds the comprehension of most viewers in his analysis of Renaissance representations of the dead Christ in paintings of the Lamentation and the Man of Sorrows in which an erection is apparent. Although rare, its occurrence in the first half of the sixteenth century coincides with the fashion of the codpiece. Again, Steinberg turns to the Augustinian doctrine of original sin to interpret this awkward pictorial detail. He argued that it was meant as a demonstration that, unlike postlapsarian men, Christ’s sexuality is uncorrupted by lust and completely controlled by his will, so that in his body, tumescence represents triumph over sin and death.
The Sexuality of Christ received enthusiastic praise and strong criticism. Among art historians, the realization that the “genital display” had gone virtually unnoticed in the modern era, even eluding scholars unburdened by pious scruples, highlighted the limitations of the hitherto-dominant methods for studying the history of art, which emphasized formal values and marginalized theological meaning. The formation of art history as a scholarly discipline during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries aimed to attain a kind of scientific objectivity in order to overcome the subjective nature of seeing and comprehending images, and focused on the formal analysis necessary to connoisseurship. His peers accused him of “over-interpretation,” but Steinberg was convinced that form and meaning are mutually constitutive in great works of art. “Even non-objective art continues to pursue art’s social role of fixating thought in esthetic form,” he wrote in one of his most famous essays, “The Eye is a Part of the Mind,” published in the early fifties.
Further, since the major collectors in nineteenth-century America came from the Protestant elite, they were further inclined to distance the religious paintings they had purchased while abroad from the sensual or morbid Catholic imagery they associated with the primitive religiosity of the flood of European immigrants. (During the period, the recitation of the Ten Commandments from the King James Bible in American public schools sparked conflict when Catholics refused to repeat the second commandment against graven images in the Protestant version.)
The fact that medieval and Renaissance religious paintings in America are almost always encountered in museum galleries rather than churches also facilitated their aestheticization and the inability or unwillingness to understand them as religious objects with a precise theological meaning. Within the museum, the dominant narrative is the development of artistic style. Religious art is displayed in the same way as modern paintings, encouraging the visitor to think of the works primarily in terms of their formal qualities and not in terms of the meaning they would have had to artist and worshipper.
While acknowledging Steinberg’s learning and his gifts as a writer, art historians who had been formed in the mid-twentieth century objected to the lack of textual evidence for the incarnational theology that he imputed to the ostentatio genitalium and they criticized his failure to produce adequate texts that explicitly linked the Incarnation to Jesus’ genitals. One charged that paintings of the Madonna and Child and the adoration of the magi were motivated simply by Marian devotion and denied that popular piety was linked in any meaningful way to theological concerns, an approach compatible with the secularization narrative typical of modern Renaissance historiography.
The criticism that Steinberg took most seriously came from Caroline Walker Bynum, an historian widely recognized for her insight into the ways in which Christ was characterized in feminine and maternal terms in medieval culture, manifest especially in the spirituality of medieval religious women. A perceptive scholar of the literature, Bynum argued that the pre-modern viewer of Christ’s ostentatio genitalium would have thought foremost of its wounding, with the bleeding eliding into feeding and thus being primarily feminine and maternal in significance. The notion of gender reversal was central to feminist theory, and her rejection of Steinberg’s analysis was readily received in the late 1980s and 1990s.
While agreeing that the awareness of pain and redemptive suffering is never wholly absent from the conceptual matrix within which Christian images function—Steinberg had attended to theological considerations of the circumcision—he rejected Bynum’s criticisms above all because they assumed that texts were prior to pictures and that the function of these images was merely illustrative. He acknowledged that he had not found a religious text that explicitly celebrates the genitals of Christ in incarnational terms. But, he insisted, Renaissance artists, unlike theologians, could not evade the task of deciding how to represent Christ’s lower torso, especially when working in a naturalistic style. Artists can create meaning that eludes language but is no less profound than the most sophisticated theological treatise.
In contrast to the way medieval images portrayed Christ, Steinberg argued, Renaissance artists dared to show Christ as a fully human male. “If, as Christianity teaches, God abased himself in becoming man, then his assumption of human genitals sounds the nadir of his self-abasement,” Steinberg wrote.
And then it is the Renaissance image of Christ which reveals divine condescension, as it were, in extremis; God joining himself to the human condition to the point of sharing with man even that portion wherein retribution for Original Sin is most apparent, most vitiating. . . . It is orthodox thinking, implanted in Christian doctrine. But few spelled it out, since word processors, religious or otherwise, Renaissance or epigonic, studied to shun the unmentionable. Thus the Christology of Renaissance art remains largely unverbalized, coming to us only as something to see.
Troubled by Bynum’s criticisms, Steinberg emphasized that the Italian Renaissance paintings he was examining provided no visual cues to support her claim. The visionary texts from medieval spiritual literature she cited, with their extravagant and transgressive metaphors, would not translate readily into coherent naturalistic images, and the works of art she adduced were exceptional, not typical.
The divergence in their interpretations owed much to the fact that Steinberg focused on Renaissance art and academic theologians, whereas Bynum focused on texts associated with women mystics and images more characteristic of late medieval northern Europe. Though Steinberg rejected the idea that Renaissance artists were inspired by specific texts, he did consider the possibility that sermons might have been a means by which theological ideas were made accessible to artists, especially if the life of Christ was the central point of reference.
Though there is but one mention of sex in it, in his later book Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, published in 2001, Steinberg resumed his refutation of the distortion imposed on Renaissance art both by the secularism of the last two centuries and the desire for scientific precision that characterized art history from the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, the distortion that blinded modern critics and viewers to the meanings the artists intended. The standard reading of the painting insists that Leonardo’s great achievement rests in his representation of the shock wave of consternation radiating out across the apostles from Christ at the announcement of his impending betrayal.
Goethe’s review of the Italian painter Giuseppe Bossi’s study, which viewed the mural as an ethical rather than religious drama conveyed in the range of human emotion captured by Leonardo, established the modern interpretation of the fresco and suited the artist-scientist persona associated with Leonardo. The sacramental significance of the meal was deemed incidental to the conception of the painting and to its reception by the Dominican friars and the patron who dined in the refectory.
From his prolonged study of the fresco and the numerous copies of it, Steinberg argues above all that it is suffused with ambiguity, being both narrative and hieratic, and that it was conceived to represent both the announcement of the betrayal and the institution of the Eucharist, for both aspects are integral to the significance of the meal and its celebration in the liturgy. Through careful analysis of the figures, their gestures, the perspectival interior, and the refectory setting, Steinberg demonstrates the multiple meanings Leonardo embedded in the work, a plenitude realized with such subtlety that it escapes the casual viewer and the viewer who anticipates a single, simple subject.
Once again we see Steinberg looking closely at the painting, recognizing its peculiarities, and pondering them in light of his awareness of the theological paradox of the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ and how that doctrine infuses all that is Christian. In defense of his acutely detailed analysis, he writes, “I am trying to track in the painting a mode of thought pervasive and all-embracing—an intellectual style that continually weds incompatibles, visualizes duration in one seeming flash, opposites in marvelous union. Again and again, whether in choice of subject or formal arrangement, whether addressed to a part or the whole, Leonardo converts either-or into both.”
In a 1985 interview he said, “I approach Catholic theology as a mythological system and respect it because I think it is probably the greatest, most coherent, most elaborate, most wildly imaginative system for the human mind, and I hope that if I had gone into, say, Indian art, I would have treated Indian theology with the same respectful interest.”
He was primarily interested in the positive theological meaning that could be conveyed by a virile Christ. In his famous essay “Objectivity and the Shrinking Self” (1967), he observed that “the progressive emasculation of Christ in the nineteenth-century imagination is the visual precondition for the post-Christian civilization of modern America.” While he was alert to the homoerotic potential of Renaissance representations of Christ and St. Sebastian and was aware that late medieval depictions of Christ often show an unsexed figure whose masculine traits are subdued, Steinberg would not agree that these were androgynous figures intended or perceived as feminine.
Leo Steinberg would be the first to assert that the power of Renaissance art rests in the fact that it employs the human figure to speak to concerns that are central to our lives, and he would count human sexuality as one of the core questions. The dangers attendant on the use of images within the Christian tradition have long been acknowledged, yet their potential to cultivate faith and devotion was once valued even more.
It has often been said that Christian conversion means falling in love with Christ. The synergy between looking and longing works for more than advertising and pornography, and Catholicism has always recognized that beautiful pictures and sculptures of Christ can be both a prompt and a magnet for the lover’s gaze. In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI writes that eros leads us toward the divine yet requires purification and healing to fully realize its telos. An unspoken assumption of the Renaissance christological imagery is that as Christ is the New Adam and we the children of Eve, our desire will be for him and fulfilled in him, a desire in which concupiscence is purified because the innocent naked baby is vulnerable and the guiltless man on the cross is dying out of love.
To abandon the representation of those subjects—or to render them so stylized that the humanity of Jesus Christ’s body becomes so attenuated as to inhibit the viewer’s capacity to identify with it—constitutes a serious loss to the Catholic artistic tradition. It is ironic that it took the keen eye and interpretive genius of a twentieth-century secular Jewish scholar to demonstrate how Christian art can illuminate the mystery of the Incarnation.
Dianne Phillips is an independent scholar and serves as a research advisor for graduate students at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts.