Besides the Internet, Renaissance art represents one of the world’s best collections of NSFW material. Raunchy poems, nude paintings, sculptures of naked David, naked Cupid, naked Venus: it’s almost enough to make you forget about less scintillating features of the period, like bubonic plague and Breast Rippers.
But we’ve all seen naked Greeks and Romans. For all their lovely contours, those heavenly bodies are old news. For something a bit more outlandish, let’s turn to the most controversial subject in Renaissance art, the one that critics, curators and aesthetes have tried their best to ignore: The Penis of Jesus.
In literature, Margarey Kempe was filling her autobiography with fantastic visions of “the manhood of Christ,” “whose manhood she loved so much,” and whom she imagines marrying her and “lying with her” in The Book of Margarey Kempe (ca. 1438)
In painting, Christ was sexualized in two ways. If the painting was of baby Christ, the trend was to show other people pointing at and/or touching his penis.
Look at all that pointing! It’s enough to give a baby performance anxiety. And in this one, St. Anna fondles him while Joseph looks on approvingly:
If the painting was of adult Christ, alive or dead, the trend was to give him a loincloth and put a huge bulge under it.
Feast your eyes:
Why would Christian artists do this? It’s hard to know. Nowhere have I found a manifesto or a statement from any medieval artist explaining how the penis of Jesus caught on.
But I can understand why, if you were going to portray Christ’s dick, you’d want it to be impressive. If it’s out in the open, it needs people to point at it, as if to say this, the penis of Jesus, is the dick that saved your soul. And if it’s under a sheet, you’d better be able to see that bulge. Because it’s Christ’s dick, for Christ’s sake: it can’t afford to be small.
So for Margarey Kempe, who quite vividly imagined the penis of Jesus, and for Bellini and the rest who brought it before our eyes, I say this: Christ is risen. And we should give thanks.
Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors (9th Ed.). Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. pp. 296-296
His research interests include Temporality and Identity in Anglo-Irish Modernism, the crossroads of religion, art, and sexuality, and the influence of Shakespeare on the New World.