Today, we live in a censored world where young minds are shielded from the harsh realities of life and people are quick to complain about things that never once crossed previous generation’s minds. The word “nudity” sets alarm bells ringing and is presumed by many to be synonymous with sexual content. Ironically, despite society trying to block nudity from the impressionable minds of under 18-year-olds, anyone can gaze upon the naked body in public in nearly all art galleries.
Once upon a time, nudity was culturally acceptable, as the Royal Academy of Arts showed in their recent exhibition The Renaissance Nude. The 15th and 16th century was a crucial moment in the history of western art with the birth of the Renaissance period and a renewed interest in the human body as represented in ancient Greek and Roman art. The exhibition explored the use of nudity in art from 1400 to the 1530s, exploring works in a variety of media and produced by some of the most famous names in the business: Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo.
Renaissance is a French word meaning “rebirth” and aptly describes the period when Europe was rediscovering the art and values of the classical world after a long, stagnant period of decline during the Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages”. Not only was the art world affected, the Renaissance saw a number of new discoveries including scientific laws, new religious and political ideas, and sightings of new lands, for instance, America. Therefore, the art shown at the Royal Academy’s exhibition was once a welcome change in a world where people’s minds were being opened to endless possibilities.
The nude flourished in Renaissance art, achieving an increasingly dominant role across Europe. Unlike today where nudity often goes hand in hand with pornography and offensive content, the study of the unclothed body was welcomed by sacred and secular communities alike and produced some of the most magnificent works in existence today. It is Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) who takes the blame for the world’s more prudish attitude to nudity after he ordered concealing draperies to be painted over some of the figures in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Last Judgement (1541) in the Sistine Chapel.
One of the first artworks in the exhibition was Jan Gossaert’s (1478-1532) Christ on the Cold Stone (1530). Christ is rarely depicted as fully naked in artwork, apart from as a young child, and in this case, a strip of cloth covers his nether regions. Looking anguished and weary, Gossaert imagines Christ’s demeanour as he awaits his physical ordeal and eventual death. His body is based on the Greek sculptures Gossaert would have seen when visiting Rome, hence the exaggerated musculature.
Religion and art had a tight relationship during the Renaissance and Biblical scenes, such as Christ’s death and resurrection, presented artists with plenty of opportunities to work with the naked figure. As a result, religious subjects became much more realistic than they had been during the Middle Ages as well as more accessible.
As well as Biblical narratives, saints and religious heroes or heroines, were also popular subjects for Renaissance artists. Saint Sebastian (d.288 AD) was one of the more prevalent being the saint of the plague-stricken at a time when outbreaks of contagious diseases were common. Saint Sebastian was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s (244-311) persecution of Christians, initially being tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows, although it was not this that eventually killed him.
Cima da Conegliano’s (1459-1517) version of Saint Sebastian (1502) referenced his martyrdom with a single arrow piercing the right thigh of a young man with glossy hair, who stands naked but for a white cloth concealing his genitals. The youth is composed and appears unaware that he had been shot; nor is there any blood spilling from the wound. Cima replicated the physical beauty of Greek gods in his composition, thus making him appear pure, fit and healthy. The artist has achieved what the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) urged: to use “the most beautiful human shape” which the ancients had used for their “false gods” when drawing the body of Christ or the saints.
The idea of representing the saints or the holy in the beautiful manner of the ancient Greek artists can be explored further in Dirk Bouts’ (1415-75) The Way to Paradise (1469). This shows one of the possible outcomes of the last judgement in which those who are saved ascend to paradise or heaven. Whilst naked, the figures in the painting have their lower bodies wrapped in pure white cloth and their stature and pure facial features emphasise their godliness. On the other hand, the opposite scenario shown in Bouts’ The Fall of the Damned (1469) shows the victims entirely naked, tumbling down into the infernal landscape. In this instance, the nudity references the shame Adam and Eve felt when they realised they were naked after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
Adam and Eve are undoubtedly the most famous characters of the Bible who allow artists to experiment with nudity. In an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Eve is about to succumb to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. At this moment, Adam and Eve are unashamed of their nudity, however, Dürer has prudently obscured their genitalia with leaves. Unlike his contemporaries, Dürer tried to avoid using live models, preferring to draw people using a compass and ruler, therefore, creating his nudes geometrically. Although the figures have similar bodies to those in classical art, Dürer was quoted warning his fellow artists, “Your ability is impotent compared with God’s creativity.”
Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) proves that Renaissance art was not limited to the painted medium. As well as paintings, the Royal Academy displayed book illuminations, sculpture and drawings amongst other media. For instance, a French copy of Book of Hours contains an illustration of Bathsheba bathing naked in the open air. In the background, King David can be seen spying on her from the palace window. It is thought that this and similar images were intended to be erotic, wrongly depicting Bathsheba as a seductress rather than a passive victim.
As described earlier, the Renaissance was a time of discovery, and people were exposed to new and old thoughts and religions. Since artists were inspired by classical sculptures, it is no surprise that their subject matter turned to the mythologies of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In a similar fashion, these stories from classical literature allowed artists to continue exploring the nude.
Piero di Cosimo’s (1462-1522) A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (1500) is fairly typical of the way classical stories are depicted. Despite the sorrowful scene, the landscape, colours and figures have a beauty about them that make them appear otherworldly. The peacefulness of the painting also relates to the scene inspired by Ovid (43BC-18AD) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) in which a nymph has been killed by a wound to her throat. The wound is not gruesome and the nymph appears to have swooned rather than crashed to the ground, almost a graceful death. Yet, nymphs were known for their singing and this nymph will sing no more, hence the peaceful quietude the painting evokes.
The nymph’s nudity links this painting to Bouts’ The Way to Paradise, in which the semi-naked people are portrayed as beautiful and pure. Despite the painful wound to her neck, the nymph’s suffering is nothing like the deaths of those in The Fall of the Damned. The other characters in the painting – a satyr and a dog – are quietly mourning her death, a stark contrast to the hideous characters in Bouts’ painting. A similar, peaceful figure can be seen in Dosso Dossi’s (1486-1542) A Myth of Pan (1524). Unfortunately, the precise meaning remains a mystery and it is not clear whether the naked lady is slumbering or condemned to eternal rest.
Typically, male nudes were based upon one of the most important Olympian deity, Apollo. The Renaissance artists had more choice for the female nude since all goddesses were beautiful, however, Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, was usually the most represented. The myth surrounding Venus’ birth is a popular subject for artists. In Pliny the Elder’s (AD 23-79) Natural History, written around AD 77, he describes a long lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles (BC 370-06), which depicts the birth of Venus. Born fully formed from the sea, the most famous version of this story can be seen in Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) painting from the 1480s. The painting displayed in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, however, was the less elaborate Venus Anadyomene or Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) by the renowned Titian (1488-1576). In an attempt to rival Botticelli, Titian focuses on the nude Venus standing in the water in a natural, human-like pose. The youthful goddess is wringing her long golden hair and glancing over her shoulder rather than at the audience. Whilst Venus’ isolation makes her seem vulnerable and innocent, Titian wanted her nudity to add to the erotic allure of the painting.
Despite their unearthly beauty, the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods often resulted in adultery, lust, drunkenness, debauchery and deception, which encouraged Renaissance artists to explore impulsive behaviours that had been condemned by the Christian Church. Once, this would have had disastrous effects for the artist’s reputation, however, humanist ideas were beginning to infiltrate society with themes of seduction, powerful women and same-sex relationships.
The woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513) by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) explored the growing interest in powerful women. Medieval texts claim the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384-22) punished his pupil, Alexander the Great (BC 356-23) for spending too much time with his lover Phyllis. The philosopher blamed Phyllis’ presence for arousing unwanted sexual feelings. Rather than taking the blame for sexually tempting Aristotle, Phyllis sought revenge on the behalf of her lover and demanded to be walked around the garden upon Artistotle’s naked back, while Alexander stood witness to the humiliating scene.
Other artists dealt with themes of temptation, especially the erotic dreams of some men, which due to their religious upbringing, were considered to be impure thoughts. The Flemish artist Hans Memling (1440-94) took these vices and vanities further in his book panels for the Loiani family from Bologna. Memling depicted beauty as vanity and vices as something to be punished for after death, hence the illustration of the devil. The final panel, Memento Mori, reminds us that regardless of our pure or irreligious behaviour, death comes to us all.
As the Royal Academy proved midway through the exhibition, nudity in art was not necessarily either religious, mythological or erotic; there were many more purposes for the naked body. Previous to the Renaissance, paintings of the human body (usually clothed) were unrealistic, often with awry proportions or strangely shaped faces. The introduction of nudity to art allowed artists to start studying the human figure with live models in their studio. It was standard for artists to produce preparatory drawings before starting a painting, therefore, there are a large number of anatomical sketches by famous artists in the possession of art galleries today.
The Three Graces by Raphael (1483-1520) are life studies of the same model in different positions captured in red chalk. By studying the way the body moves in each position, Raphael was confident enough to paint the Three Graces in The Feast of the Roman Gods at the Farnesina in Rome. Likewise, Michelangelo (1475-1564) also produced sketches before putting brush to canvas, wall, etc. The Italian artist concentrated on the musculature of the human body and surrounding his sketches are annotations that may have had instructive purposes.
Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) was one of a few artists who produced a detailed drawing of The Vitruvian Man. Based on the treatise of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (BC 80-15), which demonstrates the three central themes of architecture and engineering: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty); The Vitruvian Man is an anatomically correct drawing of the proportions of the human body. The most famous of these drawings, of course, was by the famous polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).
Of course, the Royal Academy could not display sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo without showing the detailed drawings of the anatomy fanatic himself, Leonardo. During his busy career as an artist, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, astronomist, geologist, botanist, writer, historian and cartographer, Leonardo somehow managed to find the time to dissect numerous bodies and make detailed drawings of human anatomy. The sketches displayed at the Royal Academy were those of the shoulder and neck. Unlike Raphael and Michelangelo, who were preparing for larger paintings, Leonardo was making preparations for his treatise about the human anatomy. Surrounding the illustrations of several views of the shoulders and neck are Leonardo’s tiny annotations. Known as mirror script, this can only be read when held up to a mirror and was probably an attempt by Leonardo to prevent others from stealing his ideas.
Taking the naked body into consideration allowed artists to considered the vulnerabilities of the human condition. Prior to the Renaissance, artworks of the human figure were based on ideals rather than reality. Even in death, paintings of Christ looked pure and holy, if not regal. After being able to study human anatomy, however, artists learnt to portray suffering in a more realistic manner.
Donatello’s (1386-1466) polychromed wooden sculpture of the naked Saint Jerome (1460s) is a vivid example of the vulnerable human body. Scourging himself with a rock to quell carnal desire, Saint Jerome’s body is gaunt and aged, reflecting his long-term exposure to the elements in the desert. Unlike the paintings of Saint Sebastian seen at the beginning of the exhibition, in which his body remains unaffected by the torture imposed upon him, Saint Jerome is a stark visual reminder of the hardships of religious commitment and the evidence that the body can benefit from material needs.
The final section of the Royal Academy’s exhibition about The Renaissance Nude reveals that paintings involving nudes were readily accepted by society and even commissioned by notable patrons, for instance, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchioness of Mantua. The Marchioness commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her distinguished studiolo, which she had designated for studying and contemplation. The themes of these paintings prove that secular subjects were welcome in a once predominantly strict religious country.
Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune depicts a semi-naked young man clasping a bunch of lottery tickets – apparently, Isabella d’Este’s personal emblem – which in this instance represent Chance. The nude woman opposite with her arms supporting a cornucopia represents Fortune. The latter is seated upon a bubble that could burst at any time, symbolising that fortune or luck can easily disappear. Why, however, did Isabelle D’Este request such a painting? Allegory of Fortune and similar paintings would have been a stark reminder to wealthy ruling families that they may not always be able to rely upon their good fortune.
Other paintings commissioned by Isabella d’Este had mythological connotations. Combat between Love and Chastity painted by Pietro Perugino (1445-1523) was produced from the instructions to paint an allegory representing the duelling forces of libido and restraint. The central female figures represent the Roman goddesses Venus (libido) and Diana (restraint). Diana, or Artemis as she was known in the Greek, was the goddess of chastity amongst other things. The clothed people in the painting represent her followers, whereas, those belonging to Venus are entirely naked. This suggests that nudity was associated with sexual impulses, much like it is today.
Telling people you are going to see an exhibition called The Renaissance Nude is met by mixed reactions: those who concentrate on the word “Renaissance” and those who focus in on “Nude”. The former are unfazed by the nudity aspect, believing that the Renaissance painters could not have painted anything sordid, whilst the latter question your morals and interests. Both, however, are wrong in their presumptions. Whilst Renaissance artwork cannot be considered pornography, they did tackle themes of debauchery, lust and eroticism.
If their aim was to explain how the nude became a common occurrence in Renaissance art, then the Royal Academy can congratulate themselves. Initially, nudes in the 15th and 16th centuries were produced for churches and private collections and it was only the erotic woodcut prints that circulated more widely. Ironically, the latter no longer exude sensuality and desire as they originally intended due to the changing of the times, morals and behaviours of recent generations.
Despite only focusing on artworks featuring nude figures, the exhibition taught visitors a lot about the Renaissance era. By combining artists from both north and south of the Alps, the differing attitudes towards the new ideas can clearly be seen. Whilst the Italians embraced the human body, its beauty and the opportunity for anatomical study, the northern European artists were more severe in their approach. The exhibition The Renaissance Nude included some of the most famous names from the Renaissance era as well as some of the greatest work from this period of momentous change. Most importantly, however, it shows the Renaissance nude to be far more diverse than previously imagined.