Leo Steinberg's Artistic Vision: It Took a Jewish Scholar, Observes Dianne Phillips, to Restore Theology to Christian Art History
Phillips, Dianne, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
Hundreds of Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child represent the Christ Child with his genitals blatantly displayed or emphasized by filmy bits of drapery, and yet modern scholars long have failed to recognize or identify the motif. They admired the beauty of Renaissance art and attributed its naturalistic figures to the nascent secularism we think characteristic of that age. Startling the art world, the critic Leo Steinberg, who died early this year at the age of ninety, insisted otherwise: The representation of Christ's genitals is central to the intended theological meaning of these paintings.
He was not, perhaps, the scholar many would have expected to perceive this when so many critics had not. Born in 1920 in Moscow--his father briefly served as Lenin's commissar of justice before opposing the Bolsheviks and fleeing with his family to Germany in 1923--and raised in an observant Jewish family, Steinberg studied drawing and sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art after his family fled to England in 1933. Influenced by his studio training, his scholarship rests upon sustained examination of the work of art and a practice of drawing after the work to immerse himself in its intricacies and reimagine the artistic process.
After moving to New York at the close of the Second World War, the multilingual Steinberg worked as a translator. Among the books he translated from Yiddish was the final volume of Sholem Asch's "Christian trilogy," Mary, published in 1949. Although he did not mention it, Asch's sensitive novelization of Mary's experience as the mother of Jesus, and his interweaving of scriptural references and biblical imagery, must have contributed to Steinberg's receptivity to theological ideas as a crucial context for the creation of religious art. He later wrote his doctoral dissertation on Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, teasing out the elusive symbolism of its complex plan and decoration.
In his most famous book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, published in 1983 (a revised and expanded edition appeared in 1996), Steinberg rejected the standard art-historical approaches to explaining the discomfiting detail. Traditional views of Renaissance art claimed that the portrayal of Christ's genitals was symptomatic of the dual development of an increasingly naturalistic style and interest in the classical nude and, consistent with the growing secularism of the age, would have been perceived by the urban Italian Renaissance public as a genre detail of merely human interest. Refusing such a trivialization of the motif, Steinberg proposed instead that the intent was theological: The genital display by the infant Christ was especially apt to demonstrate the truth of the Incarnation, for it is by means of the sexual organs that human life is conceived and born to die.
Steinberg also recognized a curious detail common to many representations of the Adoration of the Magi: that the gaze of the foremost magus kneeling in adoration before Christ often focuses on the infant's exposed genitals, further testimony to their role as proof of the Incarnation. Alert to the soteriological significance of the circumcision, he noticed that the body of …
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Publication information: Article title: Leo Steinberg's Artistic Vision: It Took a Jewish Scholar, Observes Dianne Phillips, to Restore Theology to Christian Art History. Contributors: Phillips, Dianne - Author. Magazine title: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Issue: 218 Publication date: December 2011. Page number: 35+. © 2009 Institute on Religion and Public Life. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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