by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
Aside from some non-traditional sects and denominations such as Unitarianism, accepted Christian doctrine is – and has been for 1500 years – that Jesus Christ had a dual nature. As God made man, he was both fully human and fully divine.
Accepting the full humanity of Christ, although easily handled in a facile way, is a tough sell to modern Christians when the full implications are considered. “Fully human” means “human in every way, no exceptions.” Human in thought, human in feeling, and human in desire. He got hungry, he ate and digested food –with all that results from that. He got angry, as shown by the episode with the Temple money-changers whom he expelled in Matthew 21, knocking over their tables and chairs.
To believe Jesus Christ was a being of consistent, unchanging, and total rationality and self-control, unaffected by temptation or desire, is to deny that he was a human being and thus to deny his full humanity. Such belief is counter to Christian dogma. It is heresy, and has been for over 1300 years.
Some of the heresies of the early church that questioned Christ’s dual nature seem esoteric and arcane today (e.g., the dispute between homoousianism and homoiousianism that was settled at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325), but the fundamental question addressed by the First-Century Gnostics , Third-Century Seballianists, Fourth Century Arianists, and Fifth-Century Nestorians and Monophysites still picks at our preferred image of Jesus Christ. It is hard for many modern Christians to imagine their originator getting sick, trimming his toenails, or blowing his nose. Some years ago, a survey found that over half of Christians believe that Jesus Christ never told jokes.
How, then, do Christians confront the most uncontrollable aspect of a man, sexual desire? If Christians believe that Christ never experienced sexual desire, then they ipso facto believe that he was not a man as we know men, and that is tiptoeing over the boundareies of heresy.
The Christian religion has always been ambivalent about sex. With the exception of the occasional millennialist sect that sees no need for procreation because they believe the Second Coming will occur within the lifespan of this generation, Christians have to agree that sexuality is necessary to for the continuation of humanity.
Modern Christians have worked hard to exorcise sexual desire from sexual activity. For many, it is not something to be enjoyed (or, if one does enjoy it, one must feel bad about that), especially for women. But Jesus lived and died a Jew, and Jewish tradition holds that sex is for more than procreation (one example of this is that a man is expected to satisfy his wife sexually even after she has reached menopause). To Christians, though, sexual activity of one kind or another is involved in all sorts of sins. Concupiscence, as Paul called it (especially in Thessalonians) is identified with “lust,” a term usually associated with sexual desire.
However, it was not always thus. Christians of the late Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern periods were well aware of the sexual implications of Christ’s fully human nature, and we know this because they celebrated it in their art.
From depictions of the beginning of the life of Jesus, artists of the time left no doubt that sexuality was an inseparable part of his humanity. A common subject of religious art was The Adoration of the Magi, in which the Three Wise Men are shown visiting the newborn Jesus and marveling at the miracle of God made man. The important message sent in many of these paintings is that God has been made a man, complete in all his parts. Consider this 1718 by Gaspare Diziani (1689-1767):
Image credit: wikigallery.org
As is typical of renderings of the Adoration, Mary has drawn aside Jesus’s coverlet to expose his full body, and the Magi are peering at him with great wonder and interest. Follow their eyes to the object of their interest. They are looking directly at the infant Jesus’s genitals. Truly, they must be thinking, this is a fully human creation, with nothing absent. Here is another example, by Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575):
Image credit: wikigallery.org
This painting, Pala Strozzi, made in 1423 by Gentile da Fabriano and housed in the Uffizi Gallery Museum in Florence, is one of many that leave no doubt about what has the interest of the Magi:
Image credit Uffizi.org
Other works show the infant Jesus touching his own penis, as in Paolo Veronese’s Holy Family with Saint Barbara and Saint John the Baptist, also at the Uffizi. Certainly the artists of the time found it important to emphasize the full range of feeling and experience of which God-made-man was capable.
Artistic depictions of the sexuality of Christ are by no means limited to his infancy. A satiric cartoon , Jesus with Erection, caused an uproar when it was published at the University of Oregon in 2006, but it is merely a resurrection of a common theme of religious art of the 1400s to the 1600s.
Consider this 1550 work, Man of Sorrows, by Flemish artist Maerten van Heemskerck:
Image credit: http://www.flavinscorner.com
Jesus’s erection is clearly apparent, above the Latin proclamation “Ecce homo” (“Behold the Man”). Van Heemskerck painted at least two other versions of Man of Sorrows, and although neither of them shows the subject with an erection, neither is by any means prudish. Nor is the work an anomaly in general, but a regular theme.
The idea that Christ not only had sexual desires but also may have acted on them has given rise to a plethora of theories and possibilities. Considerable recent attention (mostly as a result of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code) has been devoted to the idea that Jesus may have been married, possibly to Mary Magdalene. Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel (and subsequent Martin Scorsese film) The Last Temptation of Christ supposes that Jesus considered the possibility of a full earthly life, complete with wife and children, but rejected it in order to fulfill his mission. One must imagine him fondly evaluating the pleasant possibility of life as a family man.
Jewish scholar Leo Steinberg (1920-2011), in a 1983 work (expanded in 1996), The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, explores the importance of these depictions of Christ’s genitalia. The book was reviewed and dissected in an article in The New Yorker in December, 2013, and linked to the expanding admission and understanding of sexuality by Pope Francis. As Steinberg points out, what better way is there to represent the full humanity of Jesus than by the appearance of reproductive organs, which means that he was capable of the full range of human feelings, including desire and suffering?