If you’ve ever been to the Vatican, or even looked through books of sacred art, you’ll notice that there is quite a bit of nudity. Whether it’s a nude depiction of the Christ child and his cousin John the Baptist or the numerous nude statues in the Vatican Museums, the Catholic Church does not shy away from showing all of the human body. But that hasn’t always been the case.
During the Renaissance, sacred and secular art alike harkened back to the rediscovered masterpieces of the Greeks. Renaissance artists imitated and improved upon studies of the human form, particularly in sculpture, but also in paintings. This emphasis of the human figure complemented the emerging understanding at the time of the beauty and dignity of the human person.
Not least among these masterpieces was the striking floor to ceiling depiction of The Last Judgement, painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (now part of the Vatican Museums). The painting strikingly portrays the Second Coming of Christ and God’s judgment of all mankind. Accordingly, there are a number of figures in the painting, including the saints and the damned. Whether the figures were rich or poor in life, they were all made equal in this painting by a common factor: they were all painted nude.
The Last Judgment was completed in 1541 and was immediately a cause of great debate. Was it a work of beauty or a disgraceful display of the naked body that was more appropriate to a bathing house than a church? The Vatican seemed to decide on the latter and to proclaim that nudity was unacceptable in sacred art. Twenty years after the painting was completed, the Council of Trent stated,
“Every superstition shall be removed … all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust… there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God. And that these things may be the more faithfully observed, the holy Synod ordains, that no one be allowed to place, or cause to be placed, any unusual image, in any place, or church, howsoever exempted, except that image have been approved of by the bishop.”
This statement was interpreted as a ban on nudity and, therefore, it was decided that the nudity in The Last Judgement (and many other places!) had to go. An artist was hired specifically to paint drapes over the genitalia of all of the figure in the immense painting. Suddenly, this masterpiece was adorned with quite a few carefully placed drapes!
What is now jokingly called the “Fig-Leaf Campaign” didn’t last for long by Church standards–only a couple hundred years. From 1980-1984, the Vatican Museums commissioned a restoration of the Sistine Chapel–this included the removal of about half of the modesty drapes. In the uncovering a lot of lost details were revealed, including a figure that was being bitten in the genitalia by a snake and a presumed male who turned out to be female.
The original painting and the restoration much more accurately reflects the Catholic Church’s teaching about the human bod. As Pope John Paul II taught in his Theology of the Body discourses, the body is not something to be ashamed of, but rather a gift from God meant to glorify Him in its beauty and through self-gift to a spouse.
You’ll still find some sacred art where the modesty drapes remain but, for the most part, nudity is once again understood in its proper context in the sacred art of the Vatican.