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Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve
Van Der Goes

The Nude in Art

 ( Part Three )

• The Renaissance

After the Dark Ages came the Middle Ages, the period we call medieval. It wasn’t until the mid-thirteenth century, when Giotto (1267 - 1337) burst into the world. More or less single handedly he ignited the flame of Western Art, by showing the human figure in solid plastic form for the first time, as an image to be shared with the viewer. Those first images were of course paid for by the church and so the subject matter was dictated by them as propaganda, as indeed it was, in essence, for the next five hundred years. Images were used by the church to manipulate their flock, few of whom could read or write, and those who could were strictly controlled as to what they were allowed to read or to write. For me, it has always been the artists who managed to rise above this restriction who show most clearly the greatness of their genius. In spite of the control, and even the sad purpose that Art was put to, once it was activated by Giotto, the light in the Souls of the great Masters burnt so brightly that the Renaissance was born.

The Renaissance in the North, mostly in Belgium then known as Flanders, was very different from its counterpart taking place simultaneously in the South, in Italy and later in Spain. However silly it might sound, I have always put this down at least in part to the weather, due to the very different climates that prevailed in these two different areas of Europe. In the North, where it was almost always cold, the Art clings to medieval principles and doctrines to a much larger degree than in Italy. Northerners would have simply wished to keep their clothes on to keep warm! And so not only were they forbidden to look at any naked bodies because of the surrounding sinfulness implied by such an act, they were somewhat encouraged to adhere to those distorted principles by the fact that they never really wanted to take their clothes of in the first place! Acts of passion - of which there must at least have been some! - which would have caused exceptions to this rule and led to the throwing of clothes to the winds (literally) would have been very secret, on pain of death and anyway were never reflected in the art of the times.

In Italy, the contrary was the case, in spite of Italy being the very heart of the doctrines that were causing all these inhibitions. The wonderful weather, the hot sunshine, was more powerful than the dogma to the point where the temptation to throw off ones clothes was stronger than the fear of reprisals for doing so, and that was reflected in art! In 1480 Botticelli gave us his wonderful Primavera, in which his adorable and sensual nymphs are clothed in diaphanous gossamer robes, and two years later finally came his Venus, in which even those fripperies are dispensed with, and the glorious path of the Female Nude was launched.

After Giotto, when the slow birth of the Renaissance both Northern and Southern was taking place, the first great nudes ever to appear were van Eyck’s (1390 - 1441) Adam and Eve, side panels in the extraordinarily brilliant work, The Adoration of the Lamb, known as the Ghent Altarpiece. That was painted around 1432, and made van Eyck, as well as being the innovator who evolved the technique of oil painting, also the first to paint a serious, monumental nude. It was nearly 40 years before the next one, another Adam and Eve, this time by van Eyck’s Northern compatriot Van Der Goes, (1440 - 1482) painted in 1475, (actually the year of Michelangelo’s birth.) In this version, the lovely Eve is portrayed in a sinuous pose that accentuates her little round breasts and swollen belly, the essential ingredients of the ideal Northern nude. Personally I always believed that the swollen belly gave a vague hint to the viewer of pregnancy, planting the concept of pregnancy and thus penetration in his mind and so subtly added a transparent glaze of eroticism over the painting, albeit a psychological one.

Adoration of the Lamb

The Adoration of the Lamb
van Eyck

Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden

In order to pacify the church and pass religious censorship, Northern artists especially would make their works appear moralistic. Anything, so long as they could paint the nude, as essential an impulse for artists as it was for an athlete to run a four minute mile, or a mountain climber to reach the summit of Everest. But while a good example of this is Hans Baldung’s (1485-1545) Death and the Maiden, still there would always be the artists who could paint delightfully sensual nudes whilst giving them just enough chastity to pass the ecclesiastic censor by calling them Adam and Eve.

However, it was the great Italian Renaissance that finally began to shatter the bonds that caused the Medieval association of the naked with the dead. In spite of the church, and even a few fig-leaves added at a later date when the Master was well out of the way, it was Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) nudes that blasted the monumental nude out into the world and the word Beauty was once again associated with the Nude. Could the Male Nude ever be painted more - or even as - greatly as those wonderful “ignudi” in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512) But whilst Michelangelo’s works were mainly of the monumental male nude, artists such as Giorgione, Titian and Correggio were quick to follow on his heels and balance the scales in favour of Venus over Mars.

It was actually 52 years after van Eyck’s magnificent Adam and Eve that Botticelli finally painted his even more famous Birth of Venus (1484). This painting became one of the two or three most famous icons in Art, and part of the reason for that was that it was the first time in history that an almost life sized standing nude had been seen in paint and with no pretended connection to religion, just the much more loose and mild one to mythology. Interestingly enough, it was still 24 years later before another nude, now lost, was seen of similar proportions, in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Leda and the Swan, and a further 30 years before the floodgates were finally blown open with Giorgione’s (1477-1510) Sleeping Venus, painted in 1508. From then on there was no stopping the female nude’s magnificent and steady progress throughout history with the creation of many of the world’s greatest (nude) masterpieces - one painted almost annually!



Enough of the morbid associations with the nude of medieval times clung to Northern art however, for Holbein (1497-1543) to paint his Dead Christ, in 1521, in the early years of the Northern Renaissance. This was the year after Titian (1487-1576) in the South, had painted his famous Bacchanal, and just look at the difference. It is hard to believe that the two works were painted in the same century. The Northern nude clung to medieval concepts of sin and decay while the Italians loudly smashed the chains, and were constantly at loggerheads with the church for doing so.

Dead Christ

Dead Christ

The primitives, as the pre-Renaissance artists are known, were not even allowed to see the nude, especially the Female Nude, and husband and wife would sleep together for years, even managing to perpetrate the human race without as much as a glance at each other’s bodies. And so the reason for a certain stiffness in the early nudes, as in the works of Lucas Cranach for example, has to be viewed with that in mind. They would have been created at least mostly from the artist’s imagination, hard to believe but it was indeed the case. The church would not condone a man’s even looking at his wife naked, without condemning it as licentious and anti-godly - in spite of having created the myth that we were created for the pleasure of that very god, which surely would have included looking at us and letting us enjoy the same privilege. But in the case of Cranach, particularly if one understands that history surrounding him, then one is more free to enjoy his exquisite and loving manner of rendering the female nude, as something obviously beautiful and most desirable to him at least. His colouring, soft pinks and creams, gives a glow to the skin that brings them alive in spite of their often quite doll-like forms.

Dead Christ

The Three Graces

A final note on Baldung, who was of all painters the one to realise to the fullest the horrifying potential of the nude as a vehicle to evoke the horrors of Hell, as commissioned by the church with the intention of using such images to frighten and keep subservient its mostly illiterate flock. But while Baldung managed this perfectly well in his Death and the Maiden, or even his Vanitas of 1529, still the Botticelli Birth of Venus finally gave even him the courage to break from his bonds and create a great work of true eroticism, a veritable forerunner to the sexiest of our strippers even today, in his Three Graces of 1544, which I don’t believe for an instant that he ever would have done if not for Botticelli.

I also wish to add a footnote to the Botticelli story, before continuing on my passage through time. Giorgio Vassari was the name of the first ever connoisseur/critic, who actually lived at the time of the Italian Rennaisance. Well, he found the vaguely implied landscape in the background of the Birth of Venus so crude and cursory that he wrote that Botticelli had “probably simply thrown a sponge at his canvas to produce such a background.” Just look at those beautifully rendered leaves, that make you feel the presence of the trees and Nature herself and then think of the artist who had painted them as a forerunner to Jackson Pollock. No, I can’t either.

However, a little to redeem poor Vassari, let me tell you what he said of Michelangelo:

“Oh, truly happy age of ours! Oh, blessed artists! For you must call yourselves fortunate, since in your own lifetime you have been able to rekindle the dim lights of your eyes from a source of such clarity, and to see everything that was difficult made simple by such a marvellous and singular artist!”

Yes, I think we could go along with that, Giorgio. We definitely love Michelangelo too.

The Nude in Art, Part Four

Anthony Christian

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