How the Church Tolerated Nudity in Renaissance Art

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Ulysses and Penelope, c. 1545. Francesco Primaticcio (1505–1570). Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art.

Through the dark ages the Church preserved the art, books, and ideas of the ancients as the essence of Western civilization. As the Renaissance brought these materials to light for the first time in centuries, the ancient gods and myths weren’t viewed as divinities and scripture, which would have been a heresy in strangely monotheistic, triune Christianity, but as allegories imbued with the wisdom of the ancients.

Another element of the Classics, especially the Greeks, was their comfort with nudity. In Greek athletics the physically perfect human bodies were considered evidence of the transcendence of humans toward divinity. So, for example, a Roman bust of Julius Caesar places Caesar’s head atop a torso with six-pack abs: the idea isn’t so much that Caesar had a great body but that he was a demigod.

When the Renaissance happened, the Church scriptoria’s vast collections of texts and art, nipples and all, paved the bridge to the ancients. The idea was to pick up civilization where the Classical civilizations had left off.

Consequently, a Church and society that were patriarchal, authoritarian, and prone to aversion to nudity tolerated it, beginning with Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1486). Shortly thereafter, in 1510, Giorgione painted a sleeping Venus, an allusion to the myth of Cupid, Psyche, and Venus. Giorgione died before he finished his painting, so his student, Titian, finished it. Thus began a long history of reclining or sleeping Venus images that culminated with Manet’s Olympia (1863).

Everything about Olympia, beginning with her name, mocks the Neoplatonic tradition from which artists had derived their license to paint the world’s beauty. The picture openly defied the respect to Classical arts that had provided a rationale for nudity in art. For most artists, the Neoplatonic movement with its allegories and adoration of ideas and ideals, had been a kind of hypocrisy, a false conversion, or a marriage of convenience all along. Olympia’s physical build looks normal to us now, but in the mid-nineteenth century she looked shockingly anorexic though perhaps typical of women in the Red Light district. She looks out of the canvas directly and shamelessly at the viewer as if to say, “Yes, I, Olympia, am not a goddess but a whore!” Indeed, her maidservant is handing her a bouquet of flowers from a newly arrived gentleman caller.

Francesco Primaticcio’s painting of a nude man and woman in bed together, under the guise of Ulysses and Penelope (c. 1563), is no exception to that history. And that history depicts a long conflict between an authoritarian patriarchal ruling class, which equates the feminine with shame, and a matriarchal, life-giving force, which equates femininity with beauty.

— International Women’s Day, 2017

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