One of the perpetual debates on the Internet among Catholics is whether it is possible to portray the naked body in art without offending its dignity. I’ve observed the controversy with interest, and it has only increased my commitment to share the gloriously liberating teaching of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the body.
In the restoration project of the Sistine Chapel (1981-94), John Paul II insisted on removing several of the loincloths that other clerics had had painted over Michelangelo’s original nudes. In turn, when he dedicated the restored Sistine Chapel, he described it as “the sanctuary of the theology of the human body.” It seems Michelangelo, he said, had been guided by the evocative words in Genesis 2:25, which enabled him, “in his own way,” the Pope said, to see the human body naked without shame (see John Paul II, homily April 13, 1994).
In his theology of the body, John Paul II wrote that some works of art (such as the Sistine Chapel) portray the naked body in a manner that “allows one to concentrate in some way on the whole truth of man, on the dignity and beauty — even ‘suprasensual’ beauty — of his masculinity and femininity” (TOB 63:5). In contrast to this kind of authentic art, pornographic portrayals of the body raise objection, the pope insists, not because they expose the human body per se. The human body in itself always retains its inalienable dignity. Rather, pornography raises objections because of the way in which the human body is portrayed (see TOB 63:5). Pornographers portray the body with the explicit intention of arousing lust — or, as theologians would say, “concupiscence” — in the viewer. This was not the intention of Michelangelo.
Those who believe it’s always improper to portray the naked body in art — and think it holy or “Catholic” to do so — simply cannot justify their position after touring the Vatican. It would be extremely difficult to count the number of depictions of nakedness in St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museum. If you’ve ever been to Rome, you may have noticed the juxtaposition of the nude art within the Vatican and the nudity on the billboards just outside the Vatican. The difference vividly illustrates the distinction between pornography and a respectful portrayal of the body in art.
In response to a debate several years ago among some Catholics on the Internet, Dr. Michael Waldstein, a renowned scholar on John Paul II’s teachings, put it this way: “Some images [of the naked body] push us to concupiscence, others do not. . . . Going to the Sistine Chapel and looking at the naked women on the ceiling is for this reason a very different experience than watching a pornographic movie. It is not presumption, but the experience of many men, that one can look with purity at Michelangelo’s nudes and take delight in their beauty. Michelangelo himself must have looked at his naked models in a pure way in order to be able to paint nudes in that pure way. . . . Of course, if one does feel a slide into concupiscence when looking at Michelangelo’s nudes, it is a good idea to look away. That need to look away should also be a trumpet blast for recognizing . . . that one is in need of a serious transformation.”
Admittedly, living in a “pornified” culture makes it difficult to see the human body as anything other than an opportunity for lust. But this is a notion we must counter as Catholics. As St. Paul said, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the impure, nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15). The human body is not inherently pornographic. The human body is inherently “theo-graphic.” It is meant to reveal and proclaim the mystery of God. This is precisely why John Paul II speaks of the body as a “theology.”
Those who see Michelangelo’s nudes as an occasion of lust are, as Dr. Waldstein observed, in need of a serious transformation. Catholic artists should respond to our pornographic culture not by refusing to portray the human body in its nakedness, but, by portraying it rightly so that we can reclaim the glorious theological truth of our creation as male and female.
Here’s a video reflection I did at Benedictine College on “Naked Without Shame vs. Shameless Nakedness.”
For such a time as this have we been given Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. By taking us beyond the alternatives of prudish repression and damaging indulgence, the Theology of the Body opens the path to the redemption of sexuality and the real healing of our wounds. Learn more by watching my short film, The Cry of the Heart. Watch the trailer below.