Shortly after my wedding, Madeleine and I were blessed to visit St Peter’s Basilica in Rome on our honeymoon. On our guide tour, I was surprised at the amount of art depicting the naked human body. At the top of the huge columns in the Basilica are depictions on the seven virtues. The virtue of charity or love is a sculpture of a bare breasted woman, with a baby drinking from her breast. The virtue of chastity or sexual purity is a sculpture of another bar breasted woman, with a delicate flower in her right hand (representing femininity) and the horn of a unicorn in her left (representing masculinity), gently uniting the two. Lastly, The Sistine Chapel, one of Michelangelo’s most famous works of art, is literally plastered with nudity. What on earth is all this nudity, and dare I say, Pornography, doing at the Vatican? I’m glad you asked!
The Body is Inherently Good
First, let me clear up some misconceptions about sex and the body. An ancient heresy – which the Church has repeatedly condemned – known as Manichaeism, has been largely responsible for the universal struggle for Christians especially to view the body and sex as inherently good. Manichaeism essentially taught that human beings are made up of a spiritual nature and a physical nature. The spiritual aspect of a person is good and holy, and the physical and sexual aspect of the person is dirty and sinful. This is simply not true.
Christianity upholds the dignity and sacredness of the body more than any other religion. We believe that the person – and his or her body – was created in the image and likeness of God. God’s divine plan for love is stamped into our bodies, in our masculinity and femininity. St John Paul II calls this, “The spousal meaning of the body.” The spousal meaning of the body refers to the calling of the human body to love in the image of God, in its masculinity and femininity – to be a gift. The very purpose and meaning of human existence is inscribed in our bodies!
Furthermore, Scripture says, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” John 1:14. If the body were intrinsically evil, why would God have taken on a body? Not only is the body not bad, behold “it is very good” (Gen 1:31).
The Ethos of the Image
John Paul II said that, “although portraying the body in art raises a delicate problem, it does not follow that the human body in its nakedness cannot become the subject of works of art.” So, he devoted four audiences (60-63) to “The body in art and media”, to help us understand how to do it rightly. In these reflections, he spoke of “The ethos of the image” and “The ethos of the viewer”. The ethos of the image refers to ‘the inner world of values’ of the artist, and the intent in which they portray and present the human body to the viewer. A true artist will always seek to present the body, not merely as any-body, but as some-body, as a person. To reveal the body in a way that stirs up wonder and awe in the heart of the viewer. Those that view a true representation of the human body should see by its presentation, its spousal meaning and call to love.
A pornographer, on the other hand, seeks to divorce the mystery of the person from his or her body, and thus it’s calling to love. The measure by which a pornographer succeeds, is based on the level of lust he is able to arouse in the hearts and minds of his viewers. The person presented in pornography is stripped of their personhood, and presented as objects for use rather than subjects to love. To discern the ethos of an image, we could ask ourselves these two questions. “Does this image lift my heart and mind to wonder at the body in its masculinity and femininity, or does it merely incite me to lust at a body that has been divorced from a person”? “Does it allow me to recognise easily the vocation of the person to love, expressed through the body, or does it make it difficult to see the spousal meaning of this person’s body”?
The Ethos of the Viewer
It most cases, of the ethos of the image presents the body as a person that reveals the divine plan of love and communion, the viewer will see the image that way. Similarly, if the intent of the artist is to arouse lust, those seeing it are likely to view it with lust, or at least be tempted to do so. However, this is not always the case. An image is not always looked at according to it’s intent. Through a lack of redemption of sexual desire, a true image of the body could be viewed in a lustful way. Consider the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo presented the bodies in his paintings naked without shame to reveal the beauty and spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity. Sadly, clergymen ordered that loincloths be painted over the original nudes. Although they would have felt sure this was the ‘holy’ response, it actually revealed their own impurity of heart, and inability to see the goodness of the human body. St Paul writes to Titus, “To the pure all things are pure. To the impure, nothing is pure” (Tit 1:15).
The bodies in the Sistine Chapel were not at all intended to arouse lust in the viewer, but to stir up wonder. In fact, if the nude paintings in the Sistine Chapel do incite lust in your heart, this is an urgent wake up call to beg the Lord to heal your disordered sexual desire! The healing process is long and arduous. In fact, we cross the finish line only when we die. But sexual freedom is a very real possibility. Each day I taste just a little bit more of it. I’m not perfect. But I do taste the beginning of sexual freedom.
In order to help the Church and the world come to a greater appreciate and understanding of the truth and beauty of the naked body that reveals the divine plan for love, John Paul II ordered the removal of the loincloths. He wanted the bodies to be ‘restored’ to the purity of their original nakedness, just as God created them to be. When St John Paul dedicated the ‘restored’ Sistine Chapel, he described it as, “The sanctuary of the theology of the human body.”
The Christian’s life journey is the redemption of the body, which includes everything about our humanity. We must allow ‘Eros’ (sexual desire) to be so consumed by ‘Agape’ (Divine love), that to lust becomes unthinkable. We are all at various stages on this journey to sexual freedom. For many of us, the words of Sirach 9:8, “Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman” rings true. If you see a woman that tempts you to lust, absolutely you should turn away. However, this is only a negative purity. The goal of purity is to have the eyes to see the goodness and beauty of the body no matter how it is portrayed. In other words, even if the ethos of the image is skewed, we are responsible for the ethos of the viewer. Even if a woman dressed immodestly does not see her own beauty and mystery revealed through her body, we must strive to see it in her. God certainly does!
My Milestone to Sexual Freedom
Recently, a porn image popped up on my laptop screen. Only several years ago I would have rejoiced at this ‘accident’ and lusted over the poor woman in the image. However, in a moment of sheer grace, my eyes immediately filled with tears, I was moved to compassion and love for the woman. Although I quickly removed the image from my screen, my hearts initial response was love rather than lust. This experience has marked a milestone in redemption of desire in my life. What a joy that experience was, to experience an internal freedom to love, rather than an external compulsion to lust.
Always remember, no matter how a body is presented, or has been treated, it can never be stripped of its inherent dignity and sacredness given to it by God. It is our obligation, as Christians, to strive to see the spousal meaning of the body present within every-body, and refuse to reduce it to an object of pleasure. Sacred nude art is very different to pornography. Nude art seeks to lead its viewers to an integrated vision of the body as a person. Sacred nude art is far from immodest. Sacred nude art expresses the original nakedness without shame that Adam and Eve experienced. Pornography on the other hand, seeks to divorce the body from the person, and skew its spousal meaning, so that we are enticed to view it as an object for lust, rather than a subject to love.