I mentioned in one of the Last Temptation threads that I had recently come across a couple references to Leo Steinberg's book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. Now that I've actually paid a visit to the Regent College library and skimmed some sections of the 1996 edition, I have to say it raises all sorts of artistic and theological issues that strike very close to the heart of my own ambivalent feelings about Western naturalism and Eastern abstraction -- as well as my ambivalence with regard to the risks of an overemphasis of divinity in the East and an underemphasis of the same in the West.
Much of this excerpt concerns a certain woodcut of the Holy Family that I tried to find online, but alas, the only people to have scanned it and posted it are people who are far more interested in zeroing in on the private-parts stuff than on capturing the woodcut AS A WHOLE. So you'll just have to imagine the wall that these characters are sitting against, and that St. Joseph is looking down on them from the top of that wall.
And now, to the excerpt -- sentences that especially leap out at me are marked in bold:
At the risk of belaboring what is obvious, I must address myself to the many who still habitually mistake pictorial symbols in Renaissance art for descriptive naturalism. To take one example: At the sight of an infant Christ touching the Virgin's chin, they will admire the charm of a gesture so childlike, playful, affectionate. They are not wrong, but I think they are satisfied with too little. For the seeming artlessness of what I shall call the chin-chuck disguises a ritual form of impressive antiquity. It is first encountered in New Kingdom Egypt as a token of affection or erotic persuasion (Fig. 125). In Archaic Greek painting the gesture is given to wooers, and it occurs more than once in the Iliad to denote supplication (Figs. 126, 127).  In Late Antique art, the caress of the chin is allegorized to express the union of Cupid and Psyche, the god of Love espousing the human soul (Fig 7.). And the gesture proliferates in medieval art into representations both of profane lovers and of the Madonna and Child (Figs. 8, 9, 128). Thus no Christian artist, medieval or Renaissance, would have taken this long-fixed convention for anything but a sign of erotic communion, either carnal or spiritual. By assigning it to the Christ Child, the artist was designating Mary's son as the Heavenly Bridegroom who, having chosen her for his mother, was choosing her for his eternal consort in heaven. The chin-chuck, then, betokens the Infant Spouse (a phrase I take from St. Augustine ) -- whether the action appears naturalized on earth, or enskied (Figs. 10-12; Excursus III).
In decoding such ostensible genre motifs as the chin-chuck, our charge is to remain undeceived by their verisimilitude. If the depicted gesture was made to look common, imputable to any mother's child, the intent was not to diminish but, on the contrary, to confirm the mystery of the Incarnation. Lifelikeness posed no threat, because these Renaissance artists regarded the godhead in the person of Jesus as too self-evident to be dimmed by his manhood. What they did not anticipate was the retroactive effect that four centuries of deepening secularism would have on the perception of Renaissance art. They did not foresee that the process of demythologizing Christianity would succeed in profaning our vision of their sacred art; so that now, most modern viewers are content to stop at the demythicized image -- a human image drawn to all appearances from the natural world, far afield from the mysteries of the Creed. Could it be that Renaissance artistry, striving for truthful representation, became too competent for its own good? Rapt in the wonder of God's assumed human nature, Renaissance artists will have produced work whose winning naturalism becomes, in retrospect, self-defeating. Wherever, in humanizing their Christ, they dared the most, we now see nothing out of the ordinary; as though the infant Christ or the adult's corpse were mere pretexts for exhibiting common humanity.
Accordingly, at the sight of a dead Christ touching his groin (Figs. 3, 110ff.), we are told not to wonder because dying men often do this -- as if the alleged frequency of the posture in male human corpses justified its allocation to Christ on sacred monuments.  Similarly, a picture such as Veronese's sacra conversazione (Fig. 81) -- four amazed saints gathered about a blithe sleeper -- elicits the explanation that "it's what baby boys do." And the outrage of Hans Baldung Grien's Holy Family woodcut (Fig. 13) is shrugged off on the grounds that "it's what grandmothers do." Perhaps; but how comes it that the only baby in Western art so entertained is the Christ?
The Baldung Grien woodcut shows the Christ Child subjected to genital manipulation. How should this curiosity be perceived? Shall we hurry past it with stifled titters, or condemn it as scandalous? No matter what the response, one feels that St. Anne's gesture, fondling or testing her grandchild's penis, is a liberty without parallel in Christian art. Yet the action is staged in solemnity, and as the central motif of a work that does not seem scurrilous in intention. One remains at a loss for alternatives, wanting an appropriate context. The thing demands explanation, or at least some explaining away.
Explaining away has been tried. Until the 1981 Baldung Grien exhibition in Washington and New Haven, it was the recourse of the foremost Baldung scholar Carl Koch. Koch interpreted St. Anne's gesture in the light of the artist's known interest in folk superstition -- witness Baldung's preoccupation with witches. But, he continued, Baldung displays "even deeper insight into arcane popular customs believed to possess magic powers. Thus, under pretext of representing the pious companionship of the Holy Family, he dares make the miracle-working spell pronounced over a child the subject of a woodcut composition."
This is all we were told. The nature of this supposed spell, whether fecundative or apotropaic, was not divulged. But Koch's purpose was unmistakable: to forestall any suspicion of impudence on Baldung's part. We were urged instead to applaud the artist's inquiry into secret peasant beliefs, his anticipation of modern anthropoligical attitudes. In his woodcut, the grandam's gesture, so far from being prurient or frivolous, was to be understood as a record of Baldung's fieldwork among the folk. Meanwhile, the woodcut's overt Christian subject was reduced to the role of a cover. Apparently, the gesture portrayed would have been too indelicate to stage in a peasant setting, visited on some nameless child; but with the Christ Child anything goes.
An alternative mode of evasion argues the case in reverse: St. Anne's conduct, we hear, is not an arcanum discovered in folk superstition, but a silly genre motif -- no further explanation required. We are asked to recall that the practice of admiring and handling a male infant's genitals was formerly common in many cultures, so that Baldung would have represented no more than a routine occasion in a typical household. Philippe Aries actually cites Baldung's woodcut to document what he calls the once "widespread tradition" of playing with a child's privy parts (Excursus IV).
What is involved here is a misunderstanding of a critical truth: that naturalistic motifs in religious Renaissance art are never adequately accounted for by their prevalence in life situations. Ordinary experience is no template for automatic transfer to art. There are many things babies do -- crawling on all fours, for instance, before they start walking -- which no artist, however deeply committed to realism, ever thought of imputing to the Christ Child.  For the infant Christ, in Renaissance as in medieval art, is like no other child, whether he sits up to give audience, or rehearses the Crucifixion; whether he hands the keys of the kingdom to Peter, or snatches a makeshift cross from his playmate St. John. He engages in actions, such as eating grapes or perusing a book, from which common babies desist. And long before normal toddlers learn to put round pegs in round holes, he deftly slips a ring on St. Catherine's finger. In short, the depicted Christ, even in babyhood, is at all times the Incarnation -- very man, very God. Therefore, when a Renaissance artist quickens an Infancy scene with naturalistic detail, he is not recording this or that observation, but revealing in the thing observed a newfound compatibility with his subject.
This rule must apply as well to the palpation of the Child's privy parts. The question is not whether such practice was common, but how, whether common or not, it serves to set Mary's son apart from the run of the sons of Eve. Thus we still have to ask what Baldung thought he was doing when he offered the Infant's penis to the grandmother's touch.
I answer, provisionally, that the presentation centers on an ostensive act, a palpable proof -- proving nothing less than what the Creed itself puts at the center: God's descent into manhood. And because grandmother Anne guarantees Christ's human lineage, it is she who is tasked with the proving. She will be performing the task again in subsequent 16th-century family groups, such as the Cavaliere d'Arpino's picture in Minneapolis (Fig. 14). In Baldung's woodcut, her gesture is remarkable not only for its intimacy, but for its integration in a close-knit symbolic system. Observe that while the Child's lower body concedes its humanity, the arms reach for the Virgin, the hand of the Infant Spouse grasping her chin. Meanwhile, a contemplative Joseph looks on. Book laid aside, he watches the revelation direct, the first man to behold it with understanding (Excursus V).
There is something here that we are expected to take for granted -- here as in all religious Renaissance art: that the divinity in the incarnate Word needs no demonstration. For an infant Christ in Renaissance images differs from the earlier Byzantine and medieval Christ Child not only in degree of naturalism, but in theological emphasis. In the imagery of earlier Christianity, the claims for Christ's absolute godhood, and for his parity with the Almighty Father, had to be constantly reaffirmed against unbelief -- first against Jewish recalcitrance and pagan skepticism, then against the Arian heresy, finally against Islam (Excursus VI). Hence the majesty of the infant Christ and the hieratic posture; and even in the Byzantine type known as the Glykophilousa, the "Madonna of Sweet Love," the Child's ceremonial robe down to the feet. In Otto Demus' words: "The Byzantine image ... always remains an 'image,' a Holy Icon, without any admixture of earthly realism."  But for a Western artist nurtured in Catholic orthodoxy -- for him the objective was not so much to proclaim the divinity of the babe as to declare the humanation of God.  And this declaration becomes the set theme of every Renaissance Nativity, Adoration, Holy Family, or Madonna and Child (Excursus VII).
Footnotes (noted above in square brackets):
1. Iliad, I, 501-02; VIII, 370-71; X, 454-55.
2. St. Augustine speaks of "His appearance as an Infant Spouse, from his bridal chamber, that is, from the womb of a virgin"; Augustine, Sermon IX, 2 (Ben. 191); Sermons, p. 109. See also Sermon X, 3, pp. 115-16, for the theme of the Infant Spouse, the Virgin's womb as bride chamber, and the Incarnation of the Word "by a marriage which it is impossible to define."
3. For the motif of the dead Christ touching his groin, and its subsequent imitation in recumbent tomb effigies, see pp. 94-102 below, and Excursuses XXXVI and XXXVII.
4. Carl Koch in Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Hans Balding Grien, exh. cat., Karlsruhe, 1959, pp. 17 and (summary) 241.
5. Cf. Paolo Lomazzo, instructing painters on how to represent children (Trattato della pittura, 1584, II, 18, englished by Richard Haydocke, Oxford, 1598, p. 79): "you may also resemble [i.e., represent] in a child kindness, but with an action of baseness and rudeness, which, if we should express in Christ, would be most absurd."
6. Otto Demus, "The Methods of the Byzantine Artist," The Mint, no. 2 (1948), p. 69.
7. The English word "humanation," obsolete since it was ousted in the 17th century by "incarnation," deserves a place in the active vocabulary; it has at least some of the force of the German Menschwerdung. Italian never let go of the word; you hear it sung at Christmastide, "Cristo e nato e humanato."
Edited by Peter T Chattaway, 17 April 2010 - 09:10 AM.