Lee Siegel revisits Leo Steinberg’s classic work of art history, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, which details the centuries-long effort to conceal and ignore that Jesus was a man with a penis:
The “modern oblivion” of Steinberg’s subtitle was just that: centuries during which the central fact of Christ’s phallus in hundreds of Renaissance paintings was overlooked, denied, and, sometimes, bowdlerized. Steinberg adduces several examples of Christ’s genitalia being painted over or touched up to make them look like a mere blur. In one case, probably in the mid- to late nineteenth century, the Alinari brothers, famous for their photographic reproductions of paintings, blackened out the Christ child’s penis in their photograph of a fifteenth-century “Madonna and Child” by Giovanni Bellini. Such censorship, Steinberg believes, was meant as distraction from an uncomfortable theological premise: “A disturbing connection of godhead with sexuality.”
Steinberg’s point was more than prurient – it connects to theological debates about the meaning of the Incarnation, or God becoming man:
He held that artists used the evidence of Christ’s genitals to prove that Christ submitted to becoming human before returning to the godhead. The revelation of his penis demonstrates, as Steinberg puts it, Christ’s “humanation,” that moment of incarnation which proved Christ’s love for humankind. And the many representations of the Christ child’s circumcision are important as foretellings of his crucifixion—the blood of Christ’s penis is fulfilled in the blood from Christ’s wounds.
Entering with obvious relish the realm of Christian sexual hermeneutics, Steinberg relies on St. Augustine, who emphasized his surrender to and then escape from the “fleshpots of Carthage,” to argue that Christ’s erection was a singular way to demonstrate Christ’s chastity. Without the capacity to yield to lust, Christ’s triumph over carnal desire would have no human meaning. Unlike men after the fall of Adam, who fell victim to lust, Christ willed his erection; it was not an involuntary physiological event. By both willing and resisting it, he declared his victory over the stain of sin bequeathed to humanity by Adam and Eve, and over the death that their carnal weakness brought into the world. That, after all, is the significance of the resurrection.
(Image of Madonna and Child Blessing by Giovannia Bellini, 1510, via Wikimedia Commons)