Nude conveys 4 distinct forms of symbolism in sacred art
A door to a greater appreciation of the “personal mystery” of humanity.
The Sistine Chapel attracts thousands of tourists a year with its stunning beauty. However, many were surprised to find, was the number of naked bodies on its walls.
In fact, a large number of people depicted in the Sistine Chapel are painted in their birthday suits, without even a leaf to cover the intimate parts.
The Sistine Chapel is certainly not alone in presenting its nudity. Countless artists over the centuries have used naked men and women to fill their art, and this artwork is displayed in Catholic churches around the world.
Why do so many artists use nudity in Christian art?
The naked body has a long history in sacred arts; by Renaissance artists used four different types of nudity to symbolize the four states of humanity.
First there is the naturalist nudity, representing the natural state of humanity before Autumn, often depicted in scenes connected to Eden or Heaven.
Then there is temporalist nudity, depicting poverty, sometimes voluntary in nature, and humanity’s dependence on God for all that we receive.
Third, there is virtualist nudity, symbolizing purity and innocence. Depictions of the “repentant Magdalene,” for example, often show her naked, dressed only in her hair, as a symbol of the return of the soul of innocence after repentance.
Nudity in Art
Lastly there is criminalist nudity, representing the horror of lust and arrogance.
Saint John Paul II explains in His Body Theology how “in the great period of classical Greek art – there was a work of art whose subject was the human body in its genitals … It directed the viewer, through the body, to the whole mystery of the human person. In contact with these works. … we don’t [naturally] feel drawn to their content to ‘appear lustful.’ “
Depicting nudity in this way is clearly completely different from the use of nudity in pornography.
John Paul II shows how the production of pornography has an explicit intention of arousing lust; they present the human body as an object to be used. Porn does not respect human dignity and sexual acts are exploited for personal gratification at the expense of others.
On the other hand, nudity in Christian art is meant to reveal the beauty of humanity and the extraordinary work of the creator. It has deep symbolism and is not meant to be a stumbling block, but a door to a greater appreciation of the “personal mystery” of humanity.