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A credo of the Franciscan order was (“follow naked the naked Christ”).It was a radical call to cast aside worldly wealth and belongings and acknowledge the fragile, fallen nature of all men and women.
That, after all, is the significance of the resurrection.
To drive this point home, Steinberg had to prove that during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the word “resurrection” could be used as a double entendre, connoting both the divine event and the humble mortal fact of an erection.
“One must recognize,” wrote Steinberg, “an , the showing forth of the wounds.”“The Sexuality of Christ” has changed the way we look at certain works of art.
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.
And it is hard to believe that in, say, quattrocento Florence, an epoch so liberated in its sexual mores—Fra Filippo Lippi, for example, lived openly with a defrocked nun, whom he used as a model for his Madonnas—artists could resist being simultaneously worldly and pious.
For Steinberg, however, theological motives were preëminent.Thirty years ago, the art scholar Leo Steinberg published “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion,” a book that does much to explain the connection between Pope Francis’s passionate devotion to the poor and afflicted and his seeming openness to gay Catholics.In “The Sexuality of Christ,” Steinberg argues that as a result of the rise of the Franciscan order, around 1260, an emphasis on Christ’s nakedness, and, thus, on his humanity, joined compassion to an acceptance of the role of sexuality in human life.For a certain type of Jewish thinker, Catholicism’s beautiful sublimations and dark repressions offered infinite possibilities for dissection and analysis.“The Sexuality of Christ” takes up, to put it mildly, an ultra-sensitive subject.For that reason, Steinberg stresses that Renaissance artists’ emphasis on Christ’s penis is an esthetic choice guided by deep religious belief, though he occasionally hints that Renaissance artists could at the same time have been having sly fun with the subject.Such censorship, Steinberg believes, was meant as distraction from an uncomfortable theological premise: “A disturbing connection of godhead with sexuality.”To bring to the surface this suppressed artistic trend, Steinberg reproduced dozens of paintings and drawings in which Christ’s genitalia are indisputably a central thematic concern.There are paintings of the Christ child touching his penis, and of the Virgin handling the infant Christ’s penis.For this atonement, on which hinges the Christian hope of salvation, Northern Renaissance art found the painfully intimate metaphor of the Father’s hand on the groin of the Son, breaching a universal taboo as the fittest symbol of reconcilement.”Steinberg argued his thesis with tact, complexity and respect, likely conscious that he was far from the religious tradition he was writing about.He was a Jew, born in Moscow, in 1920—he died in 2011—the son of a man who had been the Soviet Commissar of Justice under Lenin.Disenchanted with the Bolsheviks, Steinberg’s father fled Russia with his family, settling in Berlin and then London.Leo came to the United States in his twenties, where he established himself as an art critic and then as a scholar of Renaissance art, eventually teaching at Hunter College and, later, at the University of Pennsylvania.