Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On Medieval Nudity and the Art of the Sensual

I'm back! I wanted to address a couple of questions that were brought up by one of my readers before I continue forward in art history.

My friend Matt, a fellow Hillsdale grad, had a two-fold question as follows: "Firstly, if Medieval artists wished to point to genuinely divine things and ultimately to God, using human symbols - Mary, Jesus, the saints, animals, etc., why did they avoid nudity? On the contrary, by and large they piled clothing on their characters. Were all the artists simply prudes? Perhaps the iconographic nude can't and won't open directly up to the contemplation of God. Why is this? Is it something to do with purity? Has it something to do with Him being an infinite person?

Secondly, Titian carries this sort-of Platonic Christian humanism, that you describe, to a high erotic pitch that barely remains appropriate. By precisely that balancing act his paintings have a sensuality that has never in my opinion been matched. But what exactly is the relation between the intellectual experience of sensuality, perfected in the art of the nude, and the knowledge of beauty? Is the sensual aspect of the nude really the best way to get at beauty? Are there others? Did Titian indulge so much in the human side of Venus that he missed the divine?"
To answer Matt's first question, there is some nudity depicted in Medieval art, but it was a culure dominated by the Christian faith. From the fall of the Roman Empire and the split of the Greek and Latin churches onward, there were still oppositional forces in play: pre-Christian culture versus a new Christian worldview. Early on, the Christian faith stressed the value of chastity and celibacy. Nudity had negative associations with pagan religions, and unlike the Greeks and Romans, whose focus was on a fleshly ideal, the Church had no need (or desire) to display nude deities in their art. There were also new attitudes against nude athletics, public bathing, and even the value of the human body. Adam and Eve were still depicted nude, but most of the time, nudity was meant to be a representation of the shame, helplessness and depravity of man. I don't believe the artists were prudes (that comes later, with the Victorian era!), but they were creating their art within the standards and worldview of their time. There are a few nude icons painted in a positive light; they are usually depictions of martyrs, saints, or the resurrected Christ. Iconography was initially designed to be symbolic and unrealistic in an effort to avoid idolatry (again, a reaction to the pagan religions). It is ironic that many Christians went on to worship and pray to those icons anyway...

Matt's second question--"What is the relationship between the intellectual experience of sensuality, perfected in the art of the nude, and the knowledge of beauty?" --is one which has been addressed by the philosopher Etienne Gilson in his book, "The Arts of the Beautiful," which I recommend to every artist and non-artis alike! Gilson explores the meaning of beauty in his introduction to the philosophy of art. He says, "We are not saying that the beautiful itself consists in the pleasure it gives, but rather that the presence of the beautiful is known by the pleasure that attends its apprehension" (p. 23). He goes on to explain that beauty can be caused by nature, truth, or by a work of art "expressly willed for its very beauty". Thus, according to Gilson, the artist can't go wrong in their work as long as they are pursuing "as their proximate end the creation of beauty" (p. 45). The intellectual side of sensuality in art depends largely on the original intent of the artist. We may never know what Titian's thoughts were as he painted his Venus, but as Gilson points out, there is a specific distinction btween the artist's point of view and that of the spectator or the reader. True beauty does not cater to our baser instincts, except when put in the appropriate context - for example, sex within the context of marriage. But a work of art may still be "sensual" and "good," depending on its context and the dignity with which the artist portrays the subject.

Obviously there are many great works of art (landscapes, still lives, portraits, etc.) which display beauty without using the nude form as their subject matter. Nudity, in its proper artistic context, is just one of the many avenues by which we can somehow catch a glimpse of the true and the beautiful. (Hopefully, Matt, I've answered your questions, at least in part).


  1. very interesting question followed by a thoughtful answer. I have not read the book you mentioned, but put it on hold at the library.

  2. Anna, thanks so much for going out of your way to helpfully answer my questions! I know and love Gilson. I have tried several times to work through his treatise, the Unity of Philosophical Experience, which proved daunting, and I may not for some time be able to get to the book you mention, but I won't forget it.

    I'd be interested to know the precise terminology Gilson uses, which you paraphrased as 'beauty can be caused by nature, truth' etc. 'Caused' is a potent philosophical word, and I wonder whether the translation of Gilson used the same word.

    Your second comment didn't quite strike at my question, which admittedly was rather obscure, but it gave me the vocabulary I need to rephrase the question adequately.

    It seems to me that the painter, when she decides in what light to paint a nude, chooses between virtues or vices susceptible of expression in the body, such as sensuality, glory, innocence, strength, and corruption.

    The intellectual pleasure felt upon the apprehension of sensual beauty in the nude is different from the pleasure associated with glory in the nude, or innocence, or strength, and each virtue has something unique to teach us. At the same time, each virtue, in order to function well, must be subordinated to the higher principle, beauty itself.

    When I ask, "Did Titian indulge so much in the human side of Venus that he missed the divine?", I am asking whether Titian developed to such a degree the sensual aspect of the nude, that in his paintings, sensuality has usurped the throne of beauty, and no longer points to anything but itself.

    It's helpful to me to compare Titian's Venus of Urbino with Giorgione's Sleeping Venus. Though Titian has created the more sensual image, I think Giorgione has created the symbol which better reveals beauty.


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