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Within one-tenth of a second, people form a variety of opinions about each other based on what they see, and these opinions are not necessarily favorable to us.

Yesterday, while browsing my Google+ feed, I came across a link to my post “Is it a good idea to share your nude photographs, if you are a nudist?”  kindly reblogged and shared on Google+ by Paul K., author of the wonderful blog about nudism Zjuzdme.org. Someone on Google+ left a comment under my photo saying, let me quote, “so small dick u have”. First of all, I felt like I let down Paul, because it was unclear to whom the comment was addressed. Secondly, I thought that it was not a good idea to share my nude photograph taken on a chilly day.

With a feeling of a little disappointment, I turned to the history of visual art.

When it comes to art, there are two popular questions: “Why does Michelangelo’s Adam have such a ridiculously small penis” and why does “the most famous of Greek statues, Michelangelo’s David”, depict “big muscles, but a tiny penis”?

Michelangelo Buonarroti - Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo Buonarroti – Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo learned the philosophy and art of ancient Greece and admired the Greeks’ attempt to capture ideal beauty in their statues. According to Larissa Bonfantethere were “two concurrent strains of nudity in Greek art: one reflecting a magical or apotropaic function (herms, satyrs, etc.), characterized by the erect phallus; another, developing from athletic nudity, a more empirical interest in the naked, athletic male body (kouroi, athletes and male figures in black- and red-figure vase painting), where the sex organs themselves are less obtrusive”.

Statue of kouros - Wikimedia Commons

Statue of kouros – Wikimedia Commons

“Satyrs, animal-like human figures with horses’ tails, were represented full of vitality, naked, with exaggerated huge phalli (or phalluses)”. Actors who represented satyrs in the theater in the 5th century B.C. “wore animal-skin loincloths with a large phallus sewn on”. The herms the Athenians encountered daily in the streets of their city, from ca. 540 B.C. on, “consisted of a male head sculptured on a pillar, on which was carved an erect phallus, serving as a reminder of the powerful magic residing in the alerted male member”.

On the kouros, Greek sculpture representing a nude young man, “the sex was simply uncovered; while the phallus was emphasized on satyrs and herms, and on the stage”. “The kouros type fits the concept of the sacred quality of nudity: its nakedness represented a feature of initiation ritual. It referred to those religious dances and rituals that called for the candidate’s nakedness as a special costume or habit”. The ideal of youthful male beauty “included the small penis of a younger man”. “Youth was an essential aspect of the nudity of the kouros. Old men and ugly slaves have longer penises”.

“In contrast to the large, erect phallus of the magic, apotropaic figure, a beautiful young man was characterized by a small penis. For women, too, whether they were represented naked or dressed, in art, literature, and life, depilation and small breasts were part of the ideal of youthful beauty”.

Of course, each time has its own aesthetic values. I’ll bear it in mind when choosing the images for my blog.

Self-portrait 08/09/13 by t-maker on DeviantArt

According to the art historian Michael Camille, the traces of direct physical attacks can be seen “in hundreds if not thousands” of “medieval illuminated manuscripts” [1] (see also [2]). Specific texts, images, or parts of images were found offensive and destroyed by “the owners, guardians, or users of these books”.

It is believed that images acted more powerfully upon the viewers in the Middle Ages than today. It can be explained by some aspects of “medieval theories of vision itself, which gave an active role to the eye in the process of perception. Vision entailed the eye’s actually taking an imprint of the thing seen” [1]. Medieval scholars have thought that either the eye is sending out rays to see the object or the object is sending rays to the eye. Vision was active, dangerous and “prone to sin”. Pregnant women were not allowed to look at “very disgusting animals” (like apes or monkeys) in the face, because they could give birth to children “similar in appearance”.

It seems interesting that “thirteenth- and fourteenth-century illuminators were not worried about” depicting human genitals. The earlier medieval period, “certainly up to the fourteenth century”, might be described as a time when images of naked human bodies were rife, and “when no danger was seen to exist in explicit representations of bodies” [1].

It all began to change at the very end of the Middle Ages, “not before the fifteenth century” [1] (compare [3]) . The medieval church established a control over public decency. In 1402 Jean Gerson, bishop of Paris, wrote a treatise on the corruption of youth, “which urged the secular and ecclesiastical authorities to introduce laws against the exhibition and sale of obscene pictures”. As a result, “postclassical” pornography was invented “at around the same time”.

Starting from the later Middle Ages, the numerous images of male and female genitals were erased from manuscripts. It continued up to Victorian times, when some collectors of manuscripts took a hand in the process in order “to prevent the penis being seen by wife and children” [1].

Scenes showing naked female characters were often erased from books. “The majority of excised female figures in medieval manuscripts suggests the work of later male clerics” [1]. There was a solid theoretical background for it. In Gemma Ecclesiastica by Gerald of Wales [4] one can find a chapter entitled ‘On not staring at women’. A medieval clergyman wrote: “Just as one should avoid the company of women, so too should one avoid staring at them or being stared at by them” [5]. He quoted St. Augustine: “Even if your eyes should fall upon a woman, you must never fix your gaze”.

Michael Camille wrote at the end of his essay [1]: “The fact that male and female genitals are still blocked in television representations of the body makes us heirs to a tradition that began in the later Middle Ages, when those heirs scratching out offensive and dangerous things from the beautifully illuminated books they inherited, or making representation itself the veil that covers rather than reveals, saw the obscene for the first time”.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

Image: Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) (From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository)

References
1. Michael Camille, Obscenity Under Erasure, in Obscenity: Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages / ed. by Jan M. Ziolkowski, Leiden, Brill, 1998.
2. Art Historian Michael Camille, 1958-2002
3. Vadimage Blog: History of one delusion
4. Gerald of Wales – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
5. Suzannah Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002

In 1870 the English painter John Everett Millais, the future 1st Baronet and President of the Royal Academy, presented a large painting ‘with the almost life size figures‘ at the Royal Academy. The painting The Knight Errant shows a medieval knight ‘freeing a woman who has been stripped and tied to a tree’.

The Knight Errant (1870) by John Everett Millais

The Knight Errant (1870) by John Everett Millais

The tree, a Silver Birch, was commonly identified with the female gender in the nineteenth century and was sometimes referred to as ‘Lady Birch’. Birch twigs were also traditionally used in flagellation. The woman’s clothes lie on the ground to the left and her molesters, assumed to be robbers by one critic, are seen fleeing the scene in the top right corner of the canvas. There is blood on the Knight’s sword and the torso of a dead man is visible behind him. (Rebecca Virag at Tate Collection)

But this painting with such a naive classical content stirred up feelings of dissatisfaction among the public and critics. The artist’s naturalistic approach was recognized as unacceptable. The critics thought the woman was ‘too life-like’, especially in comparison ‘with the continental practice of idealising the nude’. In June 1870, the Art Journal claimed that ‘the manner is almost too real for the treatment of the nude‘.

Sharp criticism made Millais ‘cut out the head and chest of the female figure from his canvas and re-work these parts to show the woman turning modestly away‘. Through X-ray examination of the picture, it is seen that woman’s ‘head and torso were originally turned towards the Knight, establishing eye contact’. The painter didn’t painted nude female figures anymore in his career.

It is remarkable that the original section with woman’s head may be seen on another Millais’ canvas called The Martyr of The Solway.

The Martyr of the Solway (c.1871) by John Everett Millais

The Martyr of the Solway (c.1871) by John Everett Millais

Using these two pictures Martin Beek made the wonderful probable reconstruction of the initial painting.

Knight Errant 1870 by Millais and the Victorian Nude by Martin Beek | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Knight Errant 1870 by Millais and the Victorian Nude by Martin Beek | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Links
1. Tate Collection | The Knight Errant by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt
2. Tate Collection | Sir John Everett Millais, Bt
3. File:The Knight Errant 1870.jpg – Wikimedia Commons
4. File:John Everett Millais – The Martyr of the Solway.jpg – Wikimedia Commons
5. John Everett Millais – Wikimedia Commons
6. John Everett Millais – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
7. Knight Errant 1870 by Millais and the Victorian Nude. Millais and Manet. | Flickr – Photo Sharing!

Traditionally it was believed that the Ghent Altarpiece was begun by Hubert van Eyck, who died in 1426 whilst work was underway, and completed by his younger brother Jan van Eyck, but some modern researchers distinguished the hand of only one artist, namely Jan van Eyck, in this painting.

This altarpiece is one of the few large fifteenth-century polyptychs that can be seen today in its original location at Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium (The Visual Arts: A History, Revised Edition by Hugh Honour, John F. Fleming). It was a fundamentally innovative work in its depiction of naturalism. (Blurring the boundaries between art and life: Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece (1425-32) by Diane G. Scillia)

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve) by Jan van Eyck

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve) by Jan van Eyck

Karel van Mander (1548 – 1606) wrote that the Ghent Altarpiece could serve as proof of Jan van Eyck’s  scholarship, because of

the fig that Eve holds in her hand; for St Augustine prefers to believe that it was a fig that Adam ate rather than an apple; the reason is that literally the text speaks of a fruit, and does not distinguish which fruit; but they clothed themselves with fig-leaves <…> and not with the leaves of apple. (The Lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters by Karel van Mander)

It was, of course, a great discovery by Augustine of Hippo and a sigh of real scholarship. So I thought I should make a note of it, to remember in the future. Concerning the altarpiece, one may say that its naturalism didn’t stand it in good stead. In the 19th century, the naked representations of Adam and Eve were considered unacceptable in a church and the panels were replaced by dressed reproductions.

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve dressed)

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve dressed)

Only in the 20th century Jan’s Adam and Eve returned to their original positions. (see Adam and Eve: Shameless First Couple of the Ghent Altarpiece by Linda Seidel).

Today I’ll write a few words about Jean-Léon Gérôme. His painting “The Slave Market in Rome (Slave Auction)” was used as an illustration in my previous post. Jean-Léon Gérôme (Vésoul, Haute-Saône, May 11, 1824 – Paris, January 10, 1904) was a French painter and sculptor in the style now known as Academism. The range of his works included historical painting, Greek mythology, Orientalism, portraits and other subjects. Academic art is the art and artists influenced by the standards of the French Académie des beaux-arts.

The following painting is described as complex self-portrait being a summation of Gérôme’s remarkable career as both painter and sculptor. It is also a commemoration of his famous sculpture Tanagra (1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), a stately nude personification of the ancient Greek city.

Working in Marble, or The Artist Sculpting Tanagra by Jean-Léon  Gérôme (1890)

Working in Marble, or The Artist Sculpting Tanagra by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1890)

Below there’s a small selection of paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Painting studio (a “splendid room, with its great sculptures and paintings, some still unfinished, and a famous collection of barbaric arms and costumesaccording to a contemporary), oriental motives, imaginative representations of slave market seem constant subjects of his art.

The End of the Sitting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

The End of the Sitting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1886)

Bethsabée by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1889 or ca 1895 ?)

Bethsabée by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1889 or ca 1895 ?)

Selling Slaves in Rome by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1886)

Selling Slaves in Rome by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1886)

On this photo one can see the painter and sculptor with his model photographed on the occasion of Salon 1887.

Omphale statue presented at the Salon in 1887: Jean-Léon Gérôme  with his model

Omphale statue presented at the Salon in 1887: Jean-Léon Gérôme with his model

Links
1. Jean-Léon Gérôme – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
2. Jean-Leon Gerome Online
3. Jean-Léon Gérôme – The complete works
4. History of Art: Neoclassicism and Romanticism – Jean-Leon Gerome
5. Historia del Arte Erótico: Jean-Léon Gérôme
6. Orientalist Art: Jean-Leon Gerome Paintings