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The Holy Penis

Guys, Renaissance rocks. And it doesn’t rock for the same reasons you might think it does. Sure, Renaissance is widely known as the revival of philosophy, literature and art; a time of cultural flourishing in which the greatest artists were creating those pieces that we now go on holidays to visit so we can put the pics up on our Instagram. It is known for the revival of Greek and Roman art and new artistic techniques and media but is so much more than that.

Hold on a second: STORYTIME! (people clapping, screeching hysterically, other people heading for the door). I am 80% philosopher and 20% historian, and the historian part I only acquired a couple of years ago. It might not seem like it, but the methodology of a philosophy and a historian is completely different. My field of expertise in Art History is also Contemporary Art, so I was not really big on Renaissance and when I first approached it I kind of thought that Renaissance artists were these uptight, very dignified, overly religious people from a long-time-ago-land in which the drives of human species were somewhat irrelevant. I considered them detached from the things that make humans such nowadays. Boy, was I wrong.

In a way, our admiring gaze of Renaissance prevents us to see its bad side. Post-colonial studies teach us that Humanism – the preeminent thinking trend in this period – was a deeply discriminating mindset. The Vitruvio man depicted by Leonardo da Vinci as the paramount of human perfection was simply a European, middle-aged white male. And although they might have not realised it back then, that comes with its own set of assumptions. But that is another story for another post.

Here, I just want to bring to attention Renaissance art that prompts questions that you’d never think you’d have to ask when you talk about the golden baby of Art History. You are not going to see here the Gioconda or the Sistine Chapel. This Renaissance Series expands over several posts where I will bring forth scandalous, improper pieces of Renaissance art that will make you revise all you thought you knew about the period. This list is a compilation of the twisted ways of Renaissance that were overpowered by cherubs and beautifully carved bodies.

Why are those people touching Jesus’ baby penis?

Great Art History often starts with asking the questions that others overlook. That is what the art historian Leo Steinberg did in the 1980s. He didn’t understand why in hundreds of religious imagery, baby Jesus’ genitals were so ostensibly on display as to having others touching them. Another good question would be asking why in nearly half a millennium nobody bothered to look into why.

The second question is easier to resolve: when you are studying very fine Renaissance art you do not want to see the impressive craftsmanship, the luscious colours of oil painting, the newly discovered linear perspective, etc. All of this clouded by a very handsy bystander who didn’t get that touching a baby in its parts is perhaps NOT the most proper greeting.

Figure 1 Hans Baldung Grien, Holy Family, 1511
Fig. 1. Saint Anne checking out the goods

In Baldung Grien’s Holy Family woodcut (fig. 1) we see Saint Anne, Mary’s mother, handling the baby’s penis. To be fair, this action hasn’t gone completely amiss for historians, but academics tend to attribute it to “normal” behaviour for a grandmother (for the time). I guess the “genital-chuck” has been in steep decline for the past 500 years.

Disappointed by that explanation? So was Steinberg. It was him the first who dared to give these grabby relatives a plausible out by proposing an interesting theory as to why these depictions might have a meaning beyond the customs of their time.

What Steinberg says is that art does not represent equally all facets of ordinary life. Any other baby might have been grabbed by his grandma, other babies cry, and crawl, and mumble. But the baby depicted here is the incarnation of God, and thus, no ordinary baby.

According to religion, that baby is the incarnation of God. God turns himself into flesh, he is the godly presence on Earth. When a Renaissance craftsperson decides or is commissioned to represent the holy baby they must use whatever means they have to reflect the incarnation in the piece. Is not simply drawing a baby, it is more about how they can show in their work that the baby is not just a baby, but a godly presence.

There are two ways of doing that. The first one is to project the divinity of the baby onto the canvas. That can be achieved with body language; from depicting him with open arms in a welcoming manner to represent him with the fingers of his right arm raised in blessing. Light and composition can also be used, as we probably all have seen those flying baby Jesus that seem to irradiate light (fig. 2).

(this baby has his own sun)
Fig. 2. This baby is his own sun
Fig. 3.

The second way of representing incarnation is the complete opposite. Instead of reiterating the divine and beyond-human nature of the baby, they display his plain humanity instead.

After all, God turning himself into flesh is no little task, and he has done it so well that Christ looks and feels as human as any ordinary baby. It may seem a bit twisted, but representing the holy infant as ordinary is a way to show devotion. Because God wanted to be human and when incarnation happened it was complete. That is why Renaissance artists could dare to include intimate moments in their crafts, such as showing the baby breastfeeding (fig 3).

Why among all humanly features to choose sexuality? It is perfectly justifiable to demonstrate that Christ was truly human when turned into flesh, but why using the ostentation of the penis as a means to demonstrate that? Because sexuality is a very human feature that God does not possess. The other one is mortality.

Saint Thomas can’t believe this.
Fig 4. Thomas wasn't too sure

We can understand more the handling of the penis if we look at thoughts on mortality in the Bible. Saint Thomas needed to touch the wounds of Christ after the resurrection. The touching, the verification was on that occasion needed. Caravaggio painted that moment, although after the Renaissance period (fig. 4). Touch was important to demonstrate his true mortality. And in the same way, Saint Anne needs to touch the baby’s genitals, thus confirming the sexuality of the infant.

With time, the tendency to represent the sexuality of Christ was abandoned and considered indecorous. But I will always remember that there was a period in art in which nobody as much as blinked an eye while watching a grown woman handling God’s phallus.


Steinberg, Leo “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion” October, Vol. 25 (Summer, 1983): 1-50.

Koch, Karl in Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Hans Baldung Grien, exh. Cat., Karlsruhe, (1959): 17.


Figure 1. Hans Baldung Grien, Holy Family, 1511.

Figure 2. Antonio da Correggio, Nativity, 1529.

Figure 3. Ambroglio Lorenzetti, Madonna del Latte, c. 1325.

Figure 4. Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1602.


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