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Nakedness and the Nude

Michelangelo - The Fall and Expulsion - 1509 - Fresco - Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome (click photo for larger image)The nude is classic, timeless, elemental, primal, and universal. Although our physical being eventually ends—in the hands of an artist, that fleeting, imperfect, and fragile “package” gains a noble immortality and perfection that transcends its mere physicality. While the nude suggests beauty in its purest form—nakedness implies vulnerability, fear, and shame.

Although there we certainly nude figures created by non-Western cultures dating back many thousands of years (particularly fertility figures and figures associated with religious practices) the tradition of the nude actually begins with the heroic male of the classical period in Greece (6th-5th century BCE). Thus, historically, with a few exceptions, the nude is mainly a phenomenon of Western art. Notably, the nude male and the nude female of that tradition were treated quite differently—and remain so to this day. The male nudes of Greco-Roman antiquity portrayed gods—and idealized versions of real heroes. From around the 4th century BCE and following, sculptors did begin to depict female nudes, but there were generally of goddesses such as Aphrodite and Venus (the latter being the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite). Generally, however, it remained indecorous for female portraits to depict nudity.

During the Middle Ages—and with the development of Christianity—the nude is rarely found except in depictions of Adam and Eve. Such scenes often show lovely nude bodies of which the owners are unashamed—until their first sin is committed. The figures then become naked—riddled with shame and not nearly as attractive.

With the Renaissance revival of antiquity, nudity began once again to become not only respectable, but indeed a major theme in the visual arts. The distinction between nudity and nakedness, however, also remained quite compelling—as seen in Michelangelo’s Fall and Expulsion panels on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. In his interpretation, the beautiful, perfect youths in the Garden suddenly become older, uglier, and even somewhat misshapen as a result of their sin.

It is interesting to note that the nakedness approach to the female form emerged quite strongly during the Modern era. But…that is a tale for another time!

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