The Workshop on Late Antiquity and Byzantium invites you to join us on Tuesday, 5 February at 4:30pm in the Cochrane-Woods Art Center, Room 156. CWAC is located just north of the Regenstein Libaray at 5540 S Greenwood Ave.
“The Sexuality of Christ in Byzantine Art and in Hypermodern Oblivion”
Matthew Milliner (Ph.D., Princeton University), Assistant Professor of Art History, Wheaton College
The debate between Leo Steinberg and Caroline Walker Bynum regarding Steinberg’s 1983 book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, is by now a venerable chestnut of art historical discourse: Steinberg arguing for the full humanity of Christ as emphasized by the depiction of his genitals by Renaissance artists, and Bynum countering with sources that complicate, or even reverse, the male gender of Christ as accentuated by such depictions. Steinberg is accused of sexism, and Bynum is, in turn, accused of textism permitting words to dominate images. The Byzantine “interdiction” against Christ’s genitals, especially evident in Baptismal iconography, has functioned as a tidy foil in this debate, which concluded at an impasse. This paper argues that the Byzantine refusal to depict Christ’s genitals does not merely, as Steinberg suggests, betray a “puritanical ethos” or “centuries of denial.” Instead, it can be viewed as a principled theological decision one that also avoids Bynum’s “gender reversal” tendency that so troubled Steinberg. Without denying Christ’s obvious maleness, the concealment of Christ’s penis in Byzantine art exposes the heresy that the totus Christus is comprised only of men, and harmonizes with Kallistos Ware’s remark that “even on occasions when we might expect the Fathers or the liturgical texts to emphasize the maleness of Christ, surprisingly they often omit to do so.” The Byzantine manner of visually accenting the full humanity of the savior was not the phallus, but the foot. In the art historical long run, Steinberg’s Renaissance penises were a failed visual experiment; but contemporary visual culture shows that Byzantine visual wisdom prevailed.
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