'"Distraction" is really the key to the question of appropriateness.'
Nudity has long been a staple of fine art, but many people feel it is inappropriate for an artist who is also a faithful Christian to portray nudity in their work.
Is it? The answer, as is so often the case in matters of faith and morals, is - it depends.
To modern sensibilities art is decoration. Usually, we are not called upon to look past the surface of what is presented. And so we focus on the external, that which we can see.
But creation consists of what we can see and what we cannot see, the visible and the invisible. It is the role of the artist to create work that draws us past the surface, what we can see, to contemplate the transcendent truth that is presented to us, that which we cannot see.
The image here is of "Christ the Redeemer," by Michelangelo. It is currently in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. When Michelangelo created this work he did so with the understanding that it would be placed in a niche in a wall. This would not only bathe the piece in perpetual shadow but also limit the point of view from which it was seen. In its original context a viewer would have seen Christ emerging from the shadows, his hands gesturing towards the cross and His index finger pointing Heavenward. He also holds in His hands the instruments of His Passion, the rope, the sponge, and the reed, symbols of His suffering here on earth. The statue was originally entirely, and appropriately, nude. The nudity in this case was intended to cause the viewer to reflect upon the fact that Christ's human sexuality was uncorrupted by lust and completely under His control. The statue as a whole invites us to meditate on the Lord who conquers sin and death.
All of this would have been completely understood by the artist's contemporaries. But times and tastes and understanding change and within a hundred years of its completion the statue was adorned with a bronze strip of cloth, presumably so as to prevent the nudity from becoming a source of distraction to the faithful gathered to pray. Whether this says more about the artist, the art, or the viewer I will leave for the reader to decide.
"Distraction" is really the key to the question of appropriateness. Does nudity detract from the intent of the work? If a work of art is intended for a liturgical environment, a church, chapel, cathedral, etc., then it is important that the work not distract from the liturgy. For centuries artists have used various methods to achieve this. And what may not have caused a distraction in one century may be a source of distraction in the next.
There is a dynamic between the artist and his patron. A commissioned piece must balance several things. Who will see the work, where will it be placed, what is the intent or the Truth that is conveyed to the viewer?
Then there is work that an artist does from pure inspiration, guided only by how well he is grounded in his faith. An artist who is also a Christian, who understands and is formed by his faith, will produce faithful Christian work; whether or not the work contains nudity is (or should be) a minor point.
To the artist struggling with this issue my advice would be to study the faith, conform your conscience to the teachings of the Church and be thoroughly comfortable with the Christian worldview. If you do this then your conscience will guide you in what is appropriate. And, by the way, what you feel is inappropriate for you, may be entirely acceptable and correct for another. We are all guided by our properly formed conscience.
That is not to say that the nude figure will not provoke controversy. Even in Michelangelo's day there were people who objected to the nudity in his work. There is a wonderful line in the movie "The Agony and the Ecstasy" given by Michelangelo to his detractors.
"I will paint man as God made him, in the glory of his nakedness."
It is a reminder that we only felt shame in nakedness after we fell from grace.
I give the final word to Our Lord.
"Nothing that finds its way into a man from outside can make him unclean; what makes a man unclean is what comes out of a man. Listen, you who have ears to hear with." Mark 7:15-16
this article originally appeared at www.DeaconLawrence.org
Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at www.pontifex.university
Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at www.DeaconLawrence.org