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Does nudity belong in religious art?

Published June 2, 2011 9:37 am

Bodies and souls • Some cry yes, others shout no, and many say it depends.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Rev. France Davis doesn't want any nude Adam-and-Eve figures in his Salt Lake City church — even if they were painted by the famed Michelangelo himself.

Davis is unequivocal in his view that there is nothing inspiring or redeeming about naked figures in religious art.

"Since we sinned, as it says in the book of Genesis, the human body has certain parts that are private," says the outspoken pastor at Calvary Baptist Church. "We should keep them for more intimate settings like people's bedrooms."

Davis is hardly alone in that view.

From the prudish impulses of the Counter-Reformation, to the Vatican's use of the fig leaf as a genital cover-up a century later, to modern Christians objecting to a nude Christ sculpted out of chocolate (it was the nakedness, not the tastiness that they opposed), there have always been those who wanted to see everything clothed. In 1997, Brigham Young University excluded four nudes from a traveling exhibit of Rodin sculptures, saying they would distract viewers from appreciating the artist's dignity.

Scores of believers oppose any nakedness in art as blasphemous — even a glimpse of the Virgin Mary's breast as she feeds her baby son — or akin to pornography.

For other Christians, though, when to celebrate or eschew artistic nudity is not that easy nor clear-cut.

It depends, they say, on the whether the artist intends to enlighten a biblical narrative or trigger a sexual response, whether the nudity is theologically important or just there to shock. It's also crucial to ask about a work's intended audience, setting and spirit.

Pope Benedict XVI recently praised the use of nudity in the 16th-century masterpiece, "The Last Judgment."

"The bodies painted by Michelangelo are filled with light, life and splendor," the pope said in a news story from Deutsche Presse-Agentur. "He wanted to show that our bodies contain a mystery: within them the spirit is manifest."

The debate about whether nudity in religious art inspires or denigrates could merely be a question of time and distance.

"The world has changed around us so much; it's harder today to utilize nudity in a constructive and edifying way. The innocence of nakedness has been blasted out of the way or ratcheted up by sexual content in art," LDS artist Brian Kershisnik says. "Maybe in 200 years people will look at paintings we have trouble with and they won't have the same issues."

Unfortunately, today's Christians and artists are working now. They cannot wait that long for an answer.

The body beautiful

When the Rev. Sam Wheatley was leading a congregation in Atlanta, the group decided to engage area artists by creating a gallery in the church foyer to display their creations. They produced works that coincided with Wheatley's sermons and then a jury of their peers decided which ones to exhibit.

The question immediately arose: What about pieces with nudity?

Because it was a church space, the congregation didn't want any works that would cause problems for parents or people with more conservative sensitivities, Wheatley says. Plus, the Bible commands believers not to make a "graven image" and cautions against using the body in ungodly ways.

But the congregation also wanted to affirm the Christian teaching that "the body is something beautiful and, in Christ, God has taken on human form," says Wheatley, now pastor at Salt Lake City's New Song Presbyterian Church. "[That act] gives our lives a dignity and beauty that is blessed by God."

In the end, the Atlanta artists produced some nude figures, but none was overly graphic or stirred trouble.

Now Wheatley, whose congregation meets in the chapel at Rowland Hall near the University of Utah, uses various classic and modern religious works on the cover of the church's weekly bulletin.

Great art points to something beyond this world that touches us, he says. "When that something is invoked, I am drawn into awe and I want to explore its source."

That is what worship is all about.

Too often, Wheatley says, Christians prefer art that is more like propaganda or illustration. They opt for pieces that tell believers what to think rather than those that awaken thoughts and emotions within, letting the art "stand on its own, doing the Lord's work." They are uncomfortable with evocative art that cannot be "corralled into easily defined categories."

This is why so many Christians have not been part of the arts community in very vibrant ways, Wheatley says.

And it's why nudity has so often distracted Christians from seeing that artists share their love for grand themes.

Naked truth

Kershisnik has painted naked Adam and Eve, without benefit of fig leaves or wandering vines. He has portrayed a disrobed Christ, though his body is not completely visible. He has shown Madonna and child, sucking on her breast.

And, in a recent work, "Resurrecting," the Mormon artist depicted unclothed believers coming out of their graves.

"Although I have a firm conviction of the resurrection of the body, I have no such conviction of the resurrection of fabric," he says. "In practical terms, if your clothes survived for a couple hundred years, they wouldn't survive your standing up."

In the piece, family members, holding some kind of material, are standing by to greet the newly alive.

"I don't feel a mission in life to rub people's faces in more nudity than they are prepared to observe," he says."On the other hand, if nudity seems to be an important part of the metaphor of the painting, I hope I am not too squeamish to shy away."

There is a timeless, almost eternal quality to nude figures such as Michelangelo's David, Kershisnik says, and an idealized view.

"Nobody has ever or will ever look like David," he says. "That puts him in a metaphorical realm that separates itself from a point in time."

But would Utahns want to see the David on Temple Square?

Eye of the beholder

Many Mormons and other Christians appreciate and feel moved by the nudes in the Sistine Chapel and other cathedrals or museums, learning to respond to the spirit evoked. Other devout believers view such works, including Michelangelo's master creation, as "salacious."

The response often stems from a viewer's feeling about his or her own body, says Utah artist Lee Bennion.

Bennion, a Mormon, has enjoyed gathering in figure-drawing classes with LDS artist friends at Snow College, some of whom have served as Mormon bishops or stake presidents. Both sexes in the group draw nude models and are comfortable doing so.

But there are always a few would-be artists who come to the classes to look and stare, she says. "They don't stay long."

At BYU, the models wear full-body leotards to avoid any suggestion of impropriety.

Even many who admire nudity in classics or in museums may not want it in their sanctuaries.

"I wouldn't have a problem with a nude Adam and Eve in a Mormon meetinghouse, but I can't see it happening," Bennion says from her studio in Spring City. "Not right now anyway. Some [members] would be confused by it."

The LDS Church doesn't take a position on artistic nudity, she says, but it does oppose pornography, which is a "horrible thing" and some people have trouble telling the difference.

"If it is going to bring that kind of trouble into a worship space," Bennion says, "it's probably not worth it."

The Rev. Erik Richtsteig, pastor of St. James the Just Catholic Church in Ogden, loves works such as "The Last Judgment." Like Kershisnik, he doesn't believe the dead will rise to heaven — or fall to hell — with their clothes on.

"The flailing bodies were not done for the sake of nudity," he says, "but because it's part of the narrative."

Great religious art is supposed to be "visual scripture and present religious realities to convey truth," Richtsteig says. "It is not just to display the human form."

But he, too, would worry about the impact of nudity on young people in his Ogden church — even if the works met his religious criteria.

"Most people can tell the difference between a tasteful nude and a salacious one, but I would err on the side of caution," Richtsteig says. "In our culture, people are having sex thrown at them all the time. I don't think we would need to contribute to that."

pstack@sltrib.com

The art of faith — a yearlong series

P The Salt Lake Tribune is featuring a monthly series this year about religious art. Today: nudes in religious art.

To view previous stories in the series, go to http://www.sltrib.com

"They were both naked ... and werenot ashamed"

"And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

"And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. ...

"And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. ...

"And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

"And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. ...

"And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.

"Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them."

From Genesis