Art historians argue, with ample documentation, that perhaps the most revolutionary assertion of the Renaissance was that Christ himself was a man.
Leo Steinberg has made a moving life’s work studying this specially frank way a picture is worth 10,000 words. I can think of no image of the adult Jesus’ genitals. (There are reasons for this, among them, apparently, that Adam had no penis until he had committed the Original Sin; therefore Jesus had no penis either, until the 15th century, at which point his fully erect member could be discerned under the usual loincloth in depictions of the Crucifixion. Or, he only had a penis after the resurrection.) But the genitals of Jesus as a child are freely depicted — with the Madonna lifting his tunic to reveal them, or the baby Jesus himself flashing his cherubic parts, with all sorts of people pointing to them, and Magi looking at them — starting in the Renaissance, as proof that Jesus was not the shape-shifting spirit of the Gnostic gospels or a magic trickster. Among the theologies asserted by the Renaissance depiction of Jesus’ genitals was that the first blood he shed for us, predicting the crucifixion, was his circumcision — which is a covenant with God. Making the baby Jesus’ genitals the cynosure of all gazes helped all the enterprises of the Renaissance claim that we are born in God’s image and likeness. He looks like us. He speaks Italian.
Tolerance for the proud Renaissance assertion that God is human, and fraternal, comes and goes, with a bronze loincloth that is applied and stripped and re-applied as, over 500 years, popes decide whether or not the public may gaze on Jesus’ genitals as depicted in marble by Michelangelo. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak noticed the loincloth on The Risen Christ — who along with the acquisition of genitals, has been healed of his stigmata — in a 2000 piece in the London Sunday Times:
The next time I visited Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, I was astonished to see that Michelangelo’s Christ had acquired a miraculous bronze loincloth that stayed up with no fastenings, baroque style. It was a ridiculous object. Michelangelo was a sculptor in marble. Cheap bronze loincloths were not his thing. His decision to display a naked Christ had been central to the intended effect of this prickly sculpture. Nowhere in the gospels does it say The Risen Christ sported a tiny loincloth. Yet this is what the priestly authorities of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva had insisted upon. By so doing, they had ruined The Risen Christ as a work of art. The papacy of John Paul II was acquiring its unmistakable flavour.
I later learnt that the ghastly loincloth was manufactured many popes ago, and that it came on or off depending on the prevailing Catholic reading of Michelangelo’s work. Today, the artist’s 500-year-old vision is again considered too progressive and shocking for the modern worshipper. The fake loincloth has been slapped back on. Michelangelo’s Christ has had ersatz sweetness thrust upon him.
It seems to me, as someone with a modicum of study of the images of children in extremity, that the photographs of dead babies, like those of the Duggars’ miscarried daughter, or the narrative of the death of Gabriel Santorum, by his mother, the wife of the former Presidential candidate, are informed by the pro-life movement’s graphic rhetorics employing images of what they claim are fetuses. The aim of the pro-life movement in using these photographs of children in extremity is the opposite, it seems to me, of the Renaissance artists’ incarnation of Jesus through his genitals. I think what is being asserted by the pro-life photographs is similarly a religious rhetoric, but going in the opposite direction. The Duggars’ photographs, the pro-life fetus photographs, Karen Santorum’s disturbingly graphic portrayal of letting her children “cuddle” the baby’s corpse, are asserting not that these unviable babies are human, but that they have immortal souls. Which should not be aborted.
There are many other tropes being asserted in the trend of photographing and telling the story of your dead baby — “remembrance photography” as the people who photographed the Duggars’ dead baby have called it (warning: that is a website full of triggering images).
It interests me that the smallness of the corpse’s hand is emphasized, both in the supposedly private photographs of the Duggars’ baby taken by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a company which specializes in baby funerary photography, and in the carefully conceived sales object which is a book cover — a book on the subject of the long struggle and death of a prematurely born baby.
What is asserted in these two images, by emphasizing the smallness of the child’s hand with the touch of the mother’s hand, is the agency of the mother not only to lead the child out of a fatal illness, but to resurrect her, to immortalize the child — by never forgetting her, by photographing her, by asserting and naming the significance of her immortal soul as someone whose life was not pointless or in vain.
The connection between the Renaissance impulse to incarnate Christ by depicting his genitals, and the 21st century impulse to incarnate unviable babies by photographing and describing their dead bodies is one I haven’t thought entirely through, except to the point that each is an acceptable theocratic political argument, whose political graphic seems to be unacceptably outrageous in its frankness about bodies. More transgressively, it is very bad voodoo in its pimping out public iconography of what almost everybody thinks of as deeply private and intimate. God’s genitals and unviable dead babies are not anything anybody wants to look at without violating serious taboos and experiencing deep shame.
I’m having two thoughts here — as you will appreciate, when bodies are politicized and trophies taken, civility is of the utmost value in determining the truth of things. The first is that my favorite pro-lifer, a six-foot Irish girl from Dundalk, MD who used to press fetus key chains on me and argue with me for hours at a time in my days as an abortion clinic escort, once summed up the entire discourse of months by saying, But Jeannette! They’re immortal souls! As if I disagreed with her. As if abortion killed immortal souls. As if either of us had any agency whatever in the lives and deaths of immortal souls.
The second is that the ghoulish sensationalistic narcissism of promulgating the images and narratives is something I can’t get over, even as I understand the deeply mythogenic pathos in the drama of a mother’s grief. Our best and deepest mysteries — the Eleusinian — come from the rape of Persephone and the grief of her mother, the earth goddess, in whose fidelity to the memory of her daughter, and non-sexual obsession, the very type of unconditional love is perceived. Mother love!
Unconditional it is not. The condition is that Mother accrues to herself the agency of God. To confer life and death. To wreak havoc on the seasons, our food supply, and the universe itself if she does not get her way. Is birthing really so important? Or has God given the power to worms? Is parenting something God forks his power over to you to do? The foremost Bible scholar of our time points to a Christian thread started by St. Paul and moving through the monastics, the Cathars and the Shakers, that a true Christian doesn’t reproduce at all. In the back of my head, I always hear, concurrently, when the ultimate power of the matriarchy is asserted, the ultimate power of the patriarchy. The threat of the sexually abusing father, the torturer of animals. I made you. God gave me dominion over you. And I will do with you as I wish.
I will snatch you, my creation, from the jaws of oblivion and make your most private body immortal by making its vulnerability a spectacle.
Let us return, as it is always instructive to do, to Persephone’s isle — the place from which she was snatched — Sicily. They know, in Sicily, who is in charge. Here is Waverly Fitzgerald describing Mary Taylor Simetti’s tale, from On Persephone’s Isle: A Sicilian Journal, of the Easter ritual in the stoniest of Demeter’s redoubts, an old, old, old agricultural town called Castelvetrano:
Simetti describes as Easter Sunday enactment of the first meeting of Mary and Jesus on Easter Sunday as performed in Castelvetrano. In a crowd of onlookers, Simetti and her husband watch as two large statues, one of Mary and the other of Jesus, are carried into the piazza from two different directions. While the two statues are still out of sight of each other, the little angel statue that accompanies Mary and is borne by a dozen young boys, dashes across the piazza to sway at the feet of Christ, then darts back to Mary, as if carrying the good news. “Three times this polychromed plaster ambassador is hurtled back and forth across the piazza, faster and faster as the delighted crowd urges the runners on to greater and greater effort,” writes Simetti.
Then the bigger statues begin moving, slowly, shuffling forward, hesitating, as if experiencing doubt and disbelief. When they come within sight of each other, the pace quickens, the bearers break into a run and the two statues fly towards each other, almost colliding. At the very moment when they come face to face, Mary’s black cloak falls away to reveal a brocade mantel beneath and releasing a number of white doves that wheel and circle in the sky above. Both Simetti and her husband are moved to tears. Simetti writes, “The emotion that was released together with the doves was so intense, the longing for just such an encounter so palpable. Mary and Jesu, Demeter and Persephone, black-veiled mother and murdered child, release from mourning.”
— Waverly Fitzgerald, Easter packet
We all want to be human. We all want to be immortal souls. We all want to be resurrected and forgiven. And so, without even being very good, or lucky, or chosen, we are. By one another, if no one else.
(c) Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.