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6 June 2007
The Holy Penis
by Paul Aitken

A couple of months ago during the Easter holy week a chocolate sculpture of a crucified Jesus was due to go on display at the Lab Gallery in Manhattan. The exhibit "Sweet Jesus" ignited a storm of protest from conservative Christians, including Cardinal Edward Egan and Catholic spokesman Bill Donahue, who described the exhibit as the; "worst assault on Catholic sensibilities ever!"

While Bill Donahue is notorious for frequent venomous overstatement, there was no doubt that many religious folks were offended by the display. What upset them was not the glibness of the material used, or the subject matter itself. What fried their bacon was the fact that Jesus was depicted without his customary loincloth.

The exhibit's creator, Cosimo Cavallaro, insisted his piece was; "a celebration of Christ." And who knows, maybe it was. But it wouldn't take a cynic to see the whole thing as a deliberate provocation designed to maximize publicity. Indeed, Cavallaro has admitted nay, bragged that he has since received hundreds of offers to display the exhibit.

The sculpture itself is actually an almost perfect rendition of the human form. It is almost Franciscan in its depiction of Christ's frail humanity. Cavallaro was careful to sculpt a penis that was neither too large nor too small (perhaps a first in the depiction of the holy dick). As might be expected for a man who represented human perfection, the size of the penis is "just right." Well... average anyway. The only apparent flaw is that the penis is fully circumcised. At the time, the Jewish tradition of circumcision was limited to snipping off the section of foreskin that extended beyond the tip of the penis.

While conservative Christians may have fulminated over the "indecent exposure" of their Lord, it's worth noting that this is not the first time Jesus has been depicted in the buff. There are in fact almost 200 extant pieces of art in which the holy penis is prominently on display, so many in fact that a phrase ostentatio genitalium (a play on ostentatio vulnerum) has been coined to describe them. Admittedly, most of these are variations on the theme of "Madonna and Child," with Jesus being depicted as a cherub-like toddler sporting a shockingly small pee-pee. In a couple of paintings the penis of the naked child is not even discernible. The intent it would seem was to portray the innocence of the infant Jesus while eliminating any possible hint of potential sexuality.

Depictions of the adult penis of Jesus are comparatively rare, though they do exist. The earliest, a Byzantium mosaic depicting the baptism of Christ, dates from the sixth century. (Apparently in ancient times the ritual of baptism was conducted in the nude.) The holy penis is veiled behind a scrim of some kind but is nevertheless clearly discernible.

The only other bare naked adult Christ that still exists is Michelangelo's "Risen Christ." The marble statue depicts a fully naked Jesus standing beside a cross with a small penis (about the size of David's). For most of history the statue stood as it was intended. But periodically, depending on the temperament of the times, a loincloth was applied. Such is the case at present.

But there are several paintings that depict the holy penis in a disguised, and it could be argued, subversive, perhaps even blasphemous manner. The most famous of these is the "Man of Sorrows" trilogy painted by Maerten van Heemskerck between 1525 and 1530.

All three paintings show a Christ sporting a crown of thorns and wearing a loincloth that appears to be very clearly folded around a sizeable erection. The scholarly assumption is that Heemskerck intended the resurrection erection to symbolize Christ's renewed vigor. Musing on the implied erection in Heemskerck's painting, art historian Leo Steinberg said;

"If the truth of the incarnation was proved in the mortification of the penis would not the truth of the Anastasis, the resurrection, be proved by it's erection? Would this not be the body's best show of power?"

Maybe, maybe not. It could also just be the guy wanted to get his freak on. Heemskerck never left any indication of intent so we'll never know.

While these 200 hundred depictions of Christ's dick do exist, they must be viewed in the context of the thousands of paintings that show him covered. The exposed loins of Christ are by orders of magnitude, the exception to a generalized rule. This is striking when one considers that Jesus in all likelihood was naked when they nailed him to the cross. There is no mention in the bible of a loincloth being applied although two verses in the book of John are dedicated to what Roman soldiers did with his clothes. Far from being a sacrilege, Cosimo Cavallaro's sculpture may be the only accurate depiction of Christ's suffering that has ever existed. Even Mel Gibson slapped a cloth on His loins in the blood drenched Passion of Christ.

But if Jesus did die in the nude, then why the cover-up? Part of the answer lies in the sexophobic nature of Christianity, which is in itself an outgrowth of the sexophobic nature of Judaism. Besides personal enrichment, the reason the Romans stripped a crucifyee of his clothes was to humiliate him in his death. The Romans may have brought civilization to Europe but they were right bastards in pretty much every other respect.

There was also the problem of how to depict the sexual organ of... well... Our Lord. This is, after all, Christ's dink we're talking about. It should be perfect. But it should also be sexless. That's a pretty tough line to negotiate. The whole loincloth thing seems to be an invention of the late middle ages. Prior to this, one extant depiction of Christ on the cross, "Master of St. Mark," shows him naked AND dickless (although pubic hair is evident), as if he simply tucked it between his legs. The loincloth may have been a consensual lie, but it was a welcome solution for jittery renaissance painters.

From the sixteenth century to the present, Jesus seems to have been invariably depicted with some form of covering, hence all the fuss when Cosimo Cavallaro decided to drop the pretense of a loincloth. Will his exhibit inaugurate a new age of realism in religious imagery? Probably not, because "Sweet Jesus" is little more than shock-art. But down the line, who knows? A Jesus that lets it all hang out may be just the thing to get people back in church.

Related articles:
In Search Of The Holy Foreskin
The Castrati: Giving Up Your Balls For St Paul
Rasputin's Knob The Greatest Penis Of Them All?

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