The Emasculation of God

by Mary and Leon J. Podles


THE PANTS CONTROVERSY has returned to the Vatican. In 1561, Daniele da Volterra earned himself the derisive nickname "the Pants Maker" by painting discreet clothing on the male nude figures of Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The fresco is soon to be cleaned, and Vatican officials have, with minimal publicity, apparently decided not to strip off the venerable pants.


Michelangelo's Risen Christ
Michelangelo's Risen Christ

What has happened to Christians since 1540 that they are offended by the glorified bodies of their Lord and of the redeemed? Why is Michelangelo's nude Risen Christ still swaddled by a 17th-century bronze diaper? What makes Christians so uncomfortable with the physical signs of Christ's masculinity? The unexplained shift in sensibility that occurred in the 1550's has been gathering momentum ever since. Even the infant Christ has not been permitted to romp in innocent nudity: The determined drive to cover his nakedness has relentlessly swathed his genitals in plaster garlands and cautious bits of overpaint.


Gradually, too, the image of the adult Christ in art has come unsexed, resulting in the soft, effeminate Jesus of a million Catholic holy cards and the pious eye-rolling of the too-well-known Agony in the Garden. The androgynous God has lately been taken up by the feminists, and New York City's (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine is graced by Christa, a crucifix with a feminine corpus. Why are Christians so intent on emasculating God?


The problem is not simply a matter of decorum. Byzantine and early medieval art rarely showed nudity: Naturalism was not a concern to an art in which the body was an abstract sign of its symbolic content and intent. Nevertheless, Christ's masculinity was unquestioned. His face was invariably shown as angular and bearded, his pose forceful and assertive. Christ Pantocrator was a true icon of the Fatherhood of God. In any case, questions of decorum hardly explain why our age has eliminated it from the Western calendar. And more recently, the controversy over "The Last Temptation of Christ" seemed to have been fueled less by its indecorousness than by a discomfort that Christ had a sexual nature at all.


Recently, Leo Steinberg has demonstrated in his book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Pantheon, 1984) that artists of the Renaissance paid emphatic and (to us) disquieting attention to Christ's genitals as a locus of philosophical and theological meaning. Christ's body came under intense scrutiny not through a revival of antique form or a newfound commitment to naturalism, but as an embodiment of the incarnational theology central to Western Christian thought. Artists displayed the infant Christ's nakedness as the definitive mark of His humanization: He came into the world not just as Mankind but as a man.



The mark of Christ's sex is intimately connected with the mark of His death. The image of the Madonna and naked child is usually joined to some symbol of the Passion: a lamb, a cross, a goldfinch (which builds its nest among thorns), a pomegranate—the list is endless. Christ's nakedness is directly linked to His vulnerability.

Indeed, the Circumcision, the first wounding of the infant Christ, has been linked since the Fathers with His Passion and death, His ultimate acceptance of the human condition. In Renaissance painting the linkage is explicit and visual. After the 14th century, in most Crucifixions and Depositions, Christ's blood defied gravity to flow down His side from his spear wound to His groin, which is either uncovered, or covered by a loin-cloth knotted in such a way as to emphasize the genitalia. The reference is direct and unmistakable. The first shedding of the divine blood and the last are conflated in a single devotional image.


IN RENAISSANCE IMAGERY of the Resurrection, Christ is almost invariably shown naked or wearing only a cloak (contrary to the evidence in the Gospels) and triumphantly masculine. Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" is a case in point. There, the naked and undeniably male Christ hurls the despairing damned from him with a gesture of terrifying power and judgment.


In her The Altar and the Altarpiece (Harper & Row, 1984), Barbara Lane reminds us that many if not most of these paintings that show the naked Christ (Madonnas, Epiphanies, Crucifixions, Depositions and Resurrections) were intended as altarpieces, and, therefore, were meant to reflect the meaning of the altar and to focus, teach and enlighten the eyes of faith regarding the central mystery of the Eucharist. The Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection and the Coming of Christ at the end of all things are all linked to the central meaning of the altar. Christ's presence in the world, His humanization, His sacrifice in complete nakedness are all made manifest in the single image that combines altar, altarpiece and Eucharist. This explains the emphasis on Christ's maleness. Christ came into the world to manifest the real presence and nature of the Father.


WHY IS GOD THE FATHER a father and not a mother? Maleness is a symbol of transcendence because the fundamental male experience, that of fatherhood, of reproduction through ejaculation, is one of separation, while the fundamental female experience is one of prolonged and intimate union with the offspring through the long months of gestation and nursing. The male experience of the world is one of "either/or," "this, and not that," one of separation. As Manfred Hauke points out, transcendent deities are always characterized as male, while immanent deities are androgynous or female.


The transcendent God of the Bible is above all a God of judgment and distinction. He divides the waters, the light from the darkness, Eve from Adam, Abraham from his homeland, the Israelites from Egypt, one people from all the peoples of the world through a law that  specified they must do this and not that, even in the very food they eat. At last this God chooses one human nature out of all possible ones to take to Himself.


Because God is transcendent, He is a judge, and referred to by the masculine "He." The Christ of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" shows forth the terribilitá of God, the awesome majesty of the totally other, who divides the universe into the saved and lost. But the maleness of Christ refers even more profoundly to the nature of the transcendent God as Self-Gift, in that it is the locus of the sacrifice.


The Circumcision was the first blood of the sacrifice and refers to the covenant with Abraham. Circumcision, whatever its origin in tribal custom, became for the Hebrews a sign of the woundedness of human nature. Sex and death were somehow inextricably linked. The Hebrews, unlike the Canaanites, did not worship male sexual energy, Baal, under the form of a bull. Rather, they emphasized the quasi-miraculous origin of the Hebrew nation, which was created by the direct intervention of God. Eve got her man child with the help of the Lord (Adam's role being temporarily overlooked). Abraham's sterility is stressed. The prophet Samuel was conceived only in answer to prayer. The Old Testament book of Tobit emphasizes the dangers of lust and the importance of God's procreative plan. All these are fulfilled in Luke's stories of Elizabeth and Zechariah, and even more so in Christ's virginal conception and birth. It was not of the will of the flesh or of the will of man that Christ was born, although He was of the seed of Abraham.


The maleness of Christ is therefore at the center of His sacrifice. He came to bring the Resurrection, the irruption of the transcendent fullness of God's world into a world characterized by sin, reproduction and death. Therefore His virginity is a sacrifice of the reproduction of the life of the flesh. Both theology and art emphasize the connection of the Circumcision with the final sacrifice, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.


WHAT THEN are we to make of the centuries-long de-emphasis on Christ's maleness? Our unease with the image of Christ is a discomfort with the transcendence of God, with the religion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and with the sacrifice of the cross that best manifests that transcendence in a fallen world. The maleness of the Creator, before whom all else is female, has receded from the consciousness of Christians. We reject the divine energy that pierces the creation, bringing unimaginable joy and life: The divine bridegroom leaping upon the hills, desirous of his beloved, is gone. We would escape the finality of "this, and not that." We flee the image of the terrible judge.


It is no wonder then that we keep the pants on the Sis-tine Chapel's "Last Judgment." The discomfort with Christ's sexual nature reveals a streak in human nature that resents the God who demands, judges and loves passionately. We would rather have a less energetic deity who would interfere less with our own plans, a comforting, motherly cosmic womb, an indulgent, beardless friend, any of a number of modern quasi-pantheistic imaginings. Someone, in short, more like ourselves, would be easier to deal with. In its doctrinal pronouncements, the Vatican has always stood firm against refashioning the God of the Bible into one more appealing to modern tastes, but the decision to keep the pants on the Sistine Chapel shows that even Rome is not immune to a distaste for images of God's potency.


Published by America, November, 25, 1989.