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Religious art: fig leaf or full frontal?

By PEGGY FLETCHER STACK
c. 2011 Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) The Rev. France Davis doesn’t want any nude Adam-and-Eve figures at his Calvary Baptist Church — even if they were painted by the famed Michelangelo himself.

Davis is unequivocal in his view that there is nothing inspiring or redeeming about naked figures in religious art.

“Since we sinned, as it said in the book of Genesis, the human body has certain parts that are private,” the outspoken pastor said. “We should keep them for more intimate settings like people’s bedrooms.”

Davis is hardly alone in that view.

From the prudish impulses of the Counter-Reformation, to the Vatican’s use of the fig leaf as a genital cover-up a century later, to modern Christians objecting to a nude Christ sculpted out of chocolate, there have always been those who wanted to see everything clothed.

Scores of believers oppose any nakedness in art as blasphemous — even a glimpse of the Virgin Mary’s breast as she nurses her baby son — or akin to pornography.

For other Christians, though, the line between celebrating and eschewing artistic nudity is neither easy nor clear-cut.

It depends, they say, on whether the artist intends to enlighten a biblical narrative or trigger a sexual response, whether the nudity is theologically important or just there to shock.

It’s also crucial to ask about a work’s intended audience, setting and spirit.

Pope Benedict XVI recently praised the use of nudity in the 16th-century masterpiece, “The Last Judgment,” which dominates an entire wall behind the altar in the famed Sistine Chapel.

“The bodies painted by Michelangelo are filled with light, life and splendor,” the pope said in a news story from Deutsche Presse-Agentur. “He wanted to show that our bodies contain a mystery: within them the spirit is manifest.”

The debate about whether nudity in religious art inspires or denigrates could merely be a question of time and distance.

“The world has changed around us so much; it’s harder today to utilize nudity in a constructive and edifying way. The innocence of nakedness has been blasted out of the way or ratcheted up by sexual content in art,” Mormon artist Brian Kershisnik said. “Maybe in 200 years people will look at paintings we have trouble with and they won’t have the same issues.”

When the Rev. Sam Wheatley was leading a congregation in Atlanta, the group decided to engage area artists by creating a gallery in the church foyer. The works coincided with Wheatley’s sermons, and then a jury of their peers decided which ones to exhibit.

The question immediately arose: What about pieces with nudity?

Because it was a church space, the congregation didn’t want any works that would cause problems for parents or people with more conservative sensitivities, Wheatley said. Plus, the Bible commands believers not to make a “graven image” and cautions against using the body in ungodly ways.

But the congregation also wanted to affirm the Christian teaching that “the body is something beautiful and, in Christ, God has taken on human form,” said Wheatley, now pastor at Salt Lake City’s New Song Presbyterian Church. “(That act) gives our lives a dignity and beauty that is blessed by God.”

In the end, the Atlanta artists produced some nude figures, but none was overly graphic or stirred trouble.

Great art, like great worship, points to something beyond this world that touches us, Wheatley said. “When that something is invoked, I am drawn into awe and I want to explore its source.”

Too often, Wheatley said, Christians prefer art that is more like propaganda or illustration — pieces that tell believers what to think rather than pieces with the power to awaken thoughts and emotions within.

That’s partly why so many Christians have not been part of the arts community in very vibrant ways, Wheatley said, and why nudity has so often distracted Christians from seeing the artists’ love for grand themes.

Kershisnik has painted naked portrayals of Adam and Eve, without benefit of fig leaves or wandering vines. He has portrayed a disrobed Christ, though his body is not completely visible. He has shown Madonna and child, sucking on her breast.

And, in a recent work, “Resurrecting,” the Mormon artist depicted unclothed believers coming out of their graves.

“Although I have a firm conviction of the resurrection of the body, I have no such conviction of the resurrection of fabric,” he said. “In practical terms, if your clothes survived for a couple hundred years, they wouldn’t survive your standing up.”

Kershisnik said he doesn’t “feel a mission in life to rub people’s faces in more nudity than they are prepared to observe,” but said that “if nudity seems to be an important part of the metaphor of the painting, I hope I am not too squeamish to shy away.”

(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Ahh, the Prude factor. The body “God” created is something to be ashamed of?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    If God wanted us naked we’d have been born/b> naked.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    That’s born naked.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Grumpy Old Person

    If the sight of “the Virgin Mary’s breast as she nurses her baby son … trigger[s] a sexual response” in Baptists, then they should never go to the Vatican. Or pretty much any art gallery in the WORLD.

    “Shock[ing]”??? Only for peopole who never, as an infant, suckeld at their mother’s breast.

    “Too often, Wheatley said, Christians prefer art that is more like propaganda or illustration — pieces that tell believers what to think rather than pieces with the power to awaken thoughts and emotions within.”

    Why self-described “Christians” shy away from “pieces with the power to awaken thoughts” escapes me. Oh wait, maybe it doesn’t after all. Thius ‘thinking’ stuff – it’s hard.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment HK

    it is not the nudity but the reason behind it. If it is to portray the beauty and mystery of the bodies God made, then there is true artistic value in it. If it is to provoke a sexual response, then it is inappropriate. If you see arousing sexuality in the spiritual work of a master artist, then it is your thoughts not the artist’s that are inappropriate.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment jestrfyl

    The Ark of the Covenant was hidden away in the Holy of Holies. This is but one example of how for many cultures divinity is hidden away from casual observation (Heaven is another example). From this point, the question arises, is what we hide that which we worship? In the psychology of sexuality, it is indeed the case. So if this theory is followed along, the pastor is indeed making the “naughty bits” sacred – as in the focus of veneration and worship. Though that may be his own particular orientation, I expect it is not one shared by many other people.

    Naked we are born, as God knew us then, and naked is part of God’s natural creation. Ham was cursed for covering Noah’s (his father) nakedness once the Ark landed and the critters (also naked) disembarked and Noah got totally drunk (a fitting response, I would think).

    God is so much more than gentitalia and mammaries. Hiding them makes them mysterious and therefore all the more wonder-ous. The Divine mystery is greater than that. Let’s see an artist paint that picture!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    it is not the nudity but the reason behind it. If it is to portray the beauty and mystery of the bodies God made, then there is true artistic value in it. If it is to provoke a sexual response, then it is inappropriate. If you see arousing sexuality in the spiritual work of a master artist, then it is your thoughts not the artist’s that are inappropriate.

    But, but our sexual response is part of the mysteries of our bodies. Hence we should celebrate that, too. And I understand that as we get older, we will.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Brian

    No doubt pagansister and Rep. Anthony Wiener (D-NY) believe the naked human form should be displayed as often, wherever, and to whomever possible, with no sense of discretion whatsoever. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a “prude” who is “ashamed” of God’s creation.

    If only I could live in a world where their godless inability to distinguish between the holy and the profane, or to display any sense of propriety, did not constantly dictate the kind of moral sewage the rest of us are forced to swim in. Put it another way, pagansister: Since the 1960s, any serious bars to displaying the naked human form almost anywhere you please have disappeared. During the same period, child abuse and neglect are up, sexual abuse is up, marriage dissolution up, sex crimes of all kinds up, sexual perversion (however you wish to define it) up, abortion up. Are you proud of the world you have created with all your elitist condescension toward “prudes”?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    If only I could live in a world where their godless inability to distinguish between the holy and the profane, or to display any sense of propriety, did not constantly dictate the kind of moral sewage the rest of us are forced to swim in. Put it another way, pagansister: Since the 1960s, any serious bars to displaying the naked human form almost anywhere you please have disappeared. During the same period, child abuse and neglect are up, sexual abuse is up, marriage dissolution up, sex crimes of all kinds up, sexual perversion (however you wish to define it) up, abortion up. Are you proud of the world you have created with all your elitist condescension toward “prudes”?Ah, but Brian, in that same time crime is down, polio is down, the USSR has fallen, the Arab Spring has occurred and on and on.

    Now you might be inclined to ask what the one had to do with the other, which was exactly my reaction to your post. And just as you blame pagansister for those things, I credit her with these things. So there!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    We’ll try that again.

    If only I could live in a world where their godless inability to distinguish between the holy and the profane, or to display any sense of propriety, did not constantly dictate the kind of moral sewage the rest of us are forced to swim in. Put it another way, pagansister: Since the 1960s, any serious bars to displaying the naked human form almost anywhere you please have disappeared. During the same period, child abuse and neglect are up, sexual abuse is up, marriage dissolution up, sex crimes of all kinds up, sexual perversion (however you wish to define it) up, abortion up. Are you proud of the world you have created with all your elitist condescension toward “prudes”?

    Ah, but Brian, in that same time crime is down, polio is down, the USSR has fallen, the Arab Spring has occurred and on and on.

    Now you might be inclined to ask what the one had to do with the other, which was exactly my reaction to your post. And just as you blame pagansister for those things, I credit her with these things. So there!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    ahhh the mystery of sin, well if you rea the bible there is no mystery, of course we would all probably like to just get naked and be free but there is the little or not so little problem of sin that entered the world. A mystery to some denial to others and embraced by those chaos worshippers sexual perversion and deviation has been a problem since sin entered the world even the very elect is subject to it. Fortunately there is an answer in Christ.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Brian, Just what is your problem? I’m personally responsible for all the things you mentioned in the world? WOW! Didn’t know I had such power. :o) However I hate to disappoint—I do not have that kind of power. If I had as much power as you indicate (first I’d be GOD/Goddess) I wouldn’t use it as you stated. Sorry to disappoint. (hummm-wonder why God does allow those things to happen?) But I don’t believe the human body is something to be ashamed of, and covering a statue or piece of art to not show a breast or male/femmale genitals is —prudish.

    As to the congressman from NY? He’s responsible too? You do have a problem, huh? Best let him know, I’m sure you can email him.

    Thanks for the support,nnmns. And as you mentioned, nnmns—what the heck did Brian’s statements have to do with the article?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sally Lee

    (Saw this spoof [?] on the net, for what it’s worth.)

    A TRANSGENDER SPIN-OFF

    I’m a little kid and I feel that inside of me there is a real adult.
    Yes, I have what you could say is an “adult identity.” I know I was born an adult because I never did choose to be an adult.
    Since I’m really, really an adult deep down inside, why is it I’m not allowed to go to “adult only” places and act like adults?
    I mean, kids in Palestine can carry adult guns. Kids in other Muslim places can cut off heads in videos. And kids in San Francisco can watch gays having sex in public, so why can’t “adult” kids like me act like those adults?
    If a man can be the “woman” inside of him, and if a woman can be the “man” she says is inside of her, I demand to live out the “adult identity” that I know is really, really inside of me!
    Since a cat may think he’s the “mouse” inside of him, and since our “Christian” President can be the “Muslim” inside of him, I demand the right to be the transbeing adult that was inside of me even before I was born!

    signed, Charlie (I mean – Mr. Brown)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Brian

    “Thanks for the support,nnmns. And as you mentioned, nnmns—what the heck did Brian’s statements have to do with the article?”

    Sorry pagansister — I had assumed you were intelligent and widely read enough to connect the dots without having them spelled out.

    During the 1960’s liberal humanists argued, as you do now, that it was “prudish” for Christians to suggest that lowering standards of decency on matters relating to public displays of sex/nudity would coarsen, cheapen and oversexualize society to the detriment of everyone, but especially children and families who would be exposed to a rise in sexual abuse and related crimes as society’s taboos against sexual immorality were cast aside. Christians made the same arguments during the 1980’s as the Meese Commission reported at length on the causal linkage between pornography and a rise in the kinds of sexual abuse and related crimes I referred to in my initial post (you can still pull that report up if you and nnmns wish to debate those causal connections based on evidence; I’m unaware of any similar proof for nnmns’ sarcastic assertion that public displays of nudity led to the fall of the Soviet Union or Arab Spring). Attorney General Meese and the Christians supporting his efforts were met with the same condescending derision you and nnmns offer now with your ad hominem dismissals (substitution of namecalling like “prude” and intimidation like “what’s your problem?” for logical argument on the merits based on fact are good examples of ad hominem attacks).

    To answer your question, “What’s [my] problem?” it is this: every time Christians stand up for standards of decency in areas relating to public displays of nudity, people like you immediately try to intimidate and dismiss them as “prudes,” while never acknowledging that the oversexualized, immoral society you have worked so hard to create in the name of sexual freedom is truly harmful to families and children for exactly the reasons I listed.

    Now, should you and nnmns care to carry on this debate with something other than snide ad hominems, perhaps you would care to share with us why you believe there is no correlation between increased sexual freedom/public displays of nudity and the increase in sexual abuse and related crimes, not to mention family breakdown from the marriages damaged by sexual immorality, that has occurred from the 1960s through today. I have pointed you to the documented evidence of that causal connection in Attorney General Meese’s report, so please do me the courtesy of supporting your opinions with countervailing evidence. To be clear, I am not arguing that the displays of nudity addressed in the article are responsible for our society’s current moral state. I am arguing that those, like you, who dismiss and intimidate as “prudes” anyone arguing for moral standards in areas relating to sexuality/nudity, bear ample responsibility for a society that, as Anthony Weiner proves, has no standards of moral decency and propriety left.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment jestrfyl

    Brian Equating Weiner’s foolish and juvenile choices with artistic masterpieces is simply childish. Weiner was abusing his authority (and himself) the artists are using nudity as a way to express and explain humanity’s relationship with God. My suggestion to you is simply this – don’t look down.

    ck
    Your argument is the very definition of a non sequitor. If your line of thought is fillowed – allowing for skips and twists – you seem to be proposing getting naked with jesus. Surely, that is not your intent.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Brian

    “Equating Weiner’s foolish and juvenile choices with artistic masterpieces is simply childish. Weiner was abusing his authority (and himself) the artists are using nudity as a way to express and explain humanity’s relationship with God”

    An awful lot of namecalling (“childish”) substituting for argument on this board. Maybe we could stick to the merits?

    As to your point, I cite Wiener’s disgusting, sexually oriented immoral behavior (including posting semi-nude/pornographic images of himself) as representative of what to expect in a society that has decided all things sexual are appropriate for display anywhere and all the time, and that those who suggest otherewise are “prudes.”

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Brian, does a painting of the BVM nursing Jesus cause you to cringe? Does the statue of David embarrass you? I could go on but you get the message. The article was about religious art—not about what some folks think of as “porn”. If the answer to the 2 simple questions is yes, the “prude ” factor is indeed working.
    Hey! Even Benny likes some of that nude art. Says so in the article. :o)

    I ask again–what has the congressman from NY have to do with the article above? He is just another politician who thinks he is special. I don’t think anyone could acquaint what he has done with religious art. Somehow I don’t think his viewing of any naked statues or religious art caused him to show off for strange women. He is a narcisus, IMO.

    As to your generalizations about society thinking that things sexual are appropriate anytime? That is just what it is—your generalization.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Nicely said, jestrfyl, in your comment about the intent of the artists in the paintings.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    jest you are supposed to be a scholar yet you missed the fact that Adam and Eve (oh yeah of which you don’t believe in anyway,) were naked, we were born naked and if it wasn’t for sin naked would be natural. Of course nudity in art is inappropriate in this perverse generation.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Yes, Adam and Eve! How in the world can we forget that those nude folks caused all the wrong in the world and made it so we have to wear clothes. Not to mention everyone in the whole wide world are decendents from 2 people. Please! That is so bogus on so many levels. (especially since they had 2 boys and one killed the other—so there was incest with MOM? cknuck, guess you don’t appreciate the statue of David—he doesn’t have a “fig leaf”. OMG.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    you can’t guess what I appeciate pagan anymore than you could have a clue about the orgin of man, it’s easier for you to believe in slime coming to life forming eyes, ears, legs, arms, head, brain, muscles, cordination and a intellect to survive all over a period of time with no accidents that might destroy it and to never do it again. cool. I love naked but I’ve still got a good bod, I don’t go naked except on my friend’s property in the Poconos at night in the lake. Hope I surprised ya. lol

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Seriously, cknuck, you really believe that all the people on this earth came from 1 male and 1 female AKA Adam and Eve? How in the world is that physically possible? It isn’t.
    As to swimming in the lake in the altogether? No, you really didn’t surprise me. That sounds like fun, actually. Night time in the pool without swimming suit(a long time ago when we lived in So. FL) was refreshing too. Unfortunately no pool now. :o)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    I can’t believe that you would believe an obviously one time event could have been anything else.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    cknuck—-I don’t believe A & E had anything to do with anything. (if indeed they actually were real, and that is questionable). I was asking you if you believed they did. You really didn’t answer that question.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Grumpy Old Person

    @ Brian,

    Re: “What’s [my] problem?” it is this: every time Christians stand up for standards of decency in areas relating to public displays of nudity, people like you immediately try to intimidate and dismiss them as “prudes,” while never acknowledging that the oversexualized, immoral society you have worked so hard to create in the name of sexual freedom is truly harmful to families and children for exactly the reasons I listed.”

    Oh poppycock. This article is about RELIGIOUS art in a Church.

    Get. A. Clue.

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