[Image: installation view, Conegliano St Sebastian (1500-2), right: Titian Venus]
One of the central parts of the Renaissance of thought and culture in Europe, starting around 1400, was acceptance of the unclothed human figure. For the previous millennium, Christianity had disapproved of depictions of the unclothed figure, decisively rejecting the heritage and practices of Mediterranean art. The engagement by philosophers, clerics, scholars and artists with the ideas of Greece and Roman opened up a willingness to use the nude as a viable and respectable part of culture. As a component of mythological and Biblical subjects in art – and anatomical study as a part of the technical training of a professional artist – the nude became a locus for both finished artistic products and the basis for artist education.
The current exhibition The Renaissance Nude currently at the Royal Academy (2 March-2 June 2019, previously at the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, 30 October 2018-27 January 2019) includes a selection of the vast range of material including the nude, all taken from European art made over the Early (1400-1495) and High Renaissance (1495-1520), with a handful of pieces from the Late Renaissance (1520-1550). (This review is from the catalogue.) In an age when feminist pressure and progressive education has made even politically uncommitted experts hesitant about presenting nude imagery, honest discussion and scholarship about nudity in art has become politicised. Has the influence of gender studies and New Criticism undone traditional art historiography?
Neoplatonist thought sought to achieve a synthesis between Christian values and classical learning, despite the obvious conflicts that this entailed. Art was the one area where the two traditions could be fused with little internal contradiction. Apollo of the Greeks could become the template for Christ. The sinners in hell are naked and unprotected from demons. Adam and Eve could appear in realistic form taken from study of live models by an artist who was not simple an artisan but a thinker. It would be inaccurate to talk of a classical thaw from the Mediterranean south travelling northward from Italy to Germany and the Low Countries. The first full-length nudes of the period came from the Low Countries and were spread Southward via engravings and woodcuts, and were in part extensions of traditions that came from native schools drawing from fragments of Roman art. (The Medieval nude can be found in the numerous decorative carvings of churches.) We could say that Northern and Southern traditions developed in parallel but both looked to incorporate nudity into Biblical art and used the legitimacy of classical art to support this. This exhibition acknowledges the contribution of German, Netherlandish and Swiss artists and includes paintings by Martin Schoengauer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Memling, Jan Gossart, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung (Grien) and others.
The exhibition comprises paintings, drawings, prints, manuscript illustration and sculpture (statues, bas reliefs, reliquaries, medals). Catalogue illustrations cover the sweep of Renaissance art featuring the nude, with the most notable works being by Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo, Signorelli, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Titian and others. The great diversity of forms and approaches to the nude remind us of the breadth of Renaissance visual and intellectual culture.
The human body was the locus of medieval and Renaissance science. Scholars, theologians, artists, mathematicians and architects attempted to correlate the physical body with the heavenly bodies, the dimensions of the perfect church, orders of architecture and other apparently ordered systems. The music of the spheres and the uncanny correlation between mathematics, science, arts and other systems including supposed scales or harmonies. The hidden order of life was seen to link various fields. The prints of ideal human figures designed by Vitruvius are included. They seem more derived from theory than observation. While observation sometimes suggested correlations, it often undermined assumptions of philosophers and scientists. We find in Dürer, Signorelli and Leonardo artists getting closer to reality than Vitruvius, doubtless due to their deference to reality over theory.
As the body was a product of order, so ugliness and illness were signs of disorder of earthly or divine origin. There are images of unideal figures – the elderly, the sick and others. The prime form of the nude that evokes horror and aversion is Death personified. Death and the Maiden is a great subject of the Northern European artists of this time, showing the healthy attractive nude with the morbid repulsive cadaver. This is something that only the Northern artists mastered. German carvings of grotesques are distinctly geographically specific subjects found during the 1480-1500 period. The Northern genius for the wild, bizarre and gothic always surpassed the Italian imagination, so attuned as it was the graceful, grand and beautiful. Even the inventions of Leonardo and Piero di Cosimo pale compared to Baldung and Grunewald.
A piquant instance of sex-war politics is Hans Baldung’s woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513). This print illustrates the anecdote of Phyllis enslaving and humiliating Aristotle by riding him nude around a garden to demonstrate to Alexander the Great her domination of the great thinker. For society of the time, free-spirited sexually assertive women were dangerous temptresses capable of humiliating men and bringing shame on themselves and others. This finds further expression in Baldung’s many pictures of witches, where naked women are objects of desire and derision.
The print of a male bathhouse scene by Dürer is an example of homo-eroticism. It is widely conjectured that the artist was homosexual and this print suggests a sympathy or attraction for the nude male in the homosocial environment. Prints by various printmakers of German lands show full-nude figures. From the Netherlandish artists we see Adam and Eve and scenes of sinners tormented in the afterlife.
[Image: Raphael, The Three Graces (c. 1517-18), red chalk on paper, 20.3 x 25.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019]
The exhibition reminds us the grace and charm of Piero di Cosimo, particularly in a sweet profile portrait of a young woman, presumed to be a friend or lover of the artist whom he took as his muse. Many great masterpieces could not be included in the exhibition but they are illustrated in the catalogue. There is new art to encounter in the exhibition. The Lucretia (c. 1510-5) of Conrad Meit displays the extreme emotionality that we associate with Northern art. Her face is a mask of tragic suffering, underlining the nobility of her self-sacrifice. Again we see the primacy of expression in German art.
Kren writes of the Limbourg Brothers illuminated manuscript Trés riches heures (1405-1408/9), suggesting that the Biblical scenes featuring sensual nudity were adapted to the erotic proclivities of the Duke of Berry, the commissioner of the book. Other favourite subjects that permitted depiction of female nudes were Bathsheba Bathing and Susannah and the Elders. Adam and Eve allowed an artist to demonstrate his command of anatomy of both sexes.
The mixed-sex public nude bathing in Basel, shocked an Italian visitor in 1461. Nudity was apparent in Northern and Central European tableaux vivants. Today we still have an impression of a medieval and Renaissance attitude of strict conservative attitudes towards nudity. This exhibition and catalogue demonstrates the diversity in attitudes.
It can be considered some instances of nudity in art were gratuitous and came about due to sheer pleasure and fascination. Pisanello’s Luxuria seems strikingly modern. The gamine woman, slender and unashamed, with her afro of vegetation, is like a glossy magazine photo-shoot or Instagram Goth. It was drawn around 1426.
Some depictions of religious scenes including nudity apparently went too far. There was the case of Fra Bartolommeo’s St Sebastian installed in a church which, female parishioners confessed caused them sinful thoughts. The clerics decided to sell the painting. There is a silver relief of around 1510 of Madonna and Child accompanied by St Sebastian, who is completely nude – effectively a classical nude.
[Image: Moderno, Virgin and Child with Saints (c. 1510), cast silver with gilding, 13.9 x 10.2 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Kunstkammer]
Sandro Botticelli is represented here as an important artist of the period using the nude, most famously in The Birth of Venus. Botticelli fell under the influence of religious zealot Savonarola and subsequently supposedly burned some of his depictions of nude figures, deciding they were impious.
In the mid-Sixteenth Century the rising Lutheranism and the responsive Counter Reformation both were critical of the use of nudes in Christian image making, which effectively ended the Late Renaissance and the proliferation of nude figures in art. Although we see the nude appearing in Mannerist and Baroque, it is no longer the centre of advances or a battle ground for art during this time.
The personalisation of painting particular subjects comes to the fore in paintings of mythological, religious and symbolic content that are of specific people. One case is Jean Fouquet’s celebrated Virgin and Child (c. 1452-5). The pale Virgin and Child are surrounded by red and blue cherubs. The subjects are as white as linen, unsullied, exquisite as porcelain. The Virgin’s nursing breast is exposed, released from her tight corset. She is apparently based upon the lover of the donor, King Charles VII, a woman named Agnès Sorel. Sorel had died in 1450, at the age of about 27, before the painting was made. Thus the painting was religious but based upon a profane love; for the donor, viewing the painting would have combined the devotion of worship and the pleasure of the erotic and would have been a pleasure of seeing a close companion to the level of the mother of God and a sensation of deep loss and grief. Inadvertently, this painting is an embodiment of the myriad functions and interpretations of art that were current in the Renaissance period.
[Image: Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) (c. 1520), oil on canvas, 75.8 x 57.6 cm. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003]
The Renaissance Nude tells of the many reasons for the existence of imagery of the nude – didactic and sensual, moral and licentious, realistic and idealised – and draws on new technical research and historical data. The catalogue essays and entries on individual exhibited items balance detail and general overview. The illustrations are large and the production quality is excellent. This catalogue makes an intelligent and comprehensive introduction to the various roles of the nude in Renaissance art.
We can be relieved that we have escaped an exhibition based on the gender politics of our age. Although the writers are aware and informed about discussions regarding gender and sexual studies (and the semiological readings of recent decades), they wisely elected to elucidate the attitudes and theories of the Renaissance rather than impose their views. Thus they give us an informed basic understanding of why a picture may have come into existence and how it was seen at the time, leaving us to interpret ourselves how we wish to understand it today. In that respect, the curators have credited us with discernment and sophistication equivalent that of the artists, writers and thinkers presented in this exhibition and catalogue.
Thomas Kren (ed.), The Renaissance Nude, Getty Publications, November 2018, cloth hardback, illus., $65/£48, 432pp, 273 col. illus., ISBN 978 1 60606 584 6
© 2019 Alexander Adams
To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art