Are ‘naked’ and ‘profane’ a pair, like hot and steamy? Or does ‘naked’ rhyme with ‘sacred’, suggesting an opposition, naked versus profane? Read on. All will be revealed (actually, it won’t, but I couldn’t resist writing that).

On the last Monday in January, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Rome. I noticed the reports partly because my husband and I hope to be in Rome for a few days next week — all roads lead there, it seems. But mainly what caught my eye were photographs like this.

Embedded image permalink

It’s not clear whether the cover-up of classical sculptures depicting the naked female form was requested by the visiting Iranian delegation, or initiated by the Italian hosts, sensitive to Iranian sensibilities and hoping to secure a trade agreement. Either way, I find it sullying to think of Italians boarding up their spectacular cultural heritage, their gift to the world, as if it was a source of shame. What happened to ‘When in Rome’?

On the very same day that President Rouhani avoided seeing the naked female form in marble in Rome, we watched three near-naked contemporary dancers bring classical and Renaissance sculptures to life on the main stage of the Jerusalem Theater. Yes, sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

According to the programme notes, the American dance company, Pilobolus, was inspired to create ‘On the Nature of Things’ by an unnamed book about the discovery of ancient Greek statues in medieval Rome. Buried in my mind was a review I had once read, and Google helped me excavate it: Unearthing the Past by Leonard Barkan. My friend Melissa, a Plato scholar and fellow Pilobolus fan, was able to confirm that this was indeed the book. Barkan, it turned out, is her colleague at Princeton.

Unearthing the Past opens with a remarkable eyewitness account of the moment in 1506 when excavators unearthed a sculpture they recognized as a priest called Laocoön with his two sons:

“The first time I was in Rome when I was very young, the pope was told about the discovery of some very beautiful statues in a vineyard near S. Maria Maggiore. The pope ordered one of his officers to run and tell Giuliano da Sangallo to go and see them. He set off immediately. Since Michelangelo Buonarroti was always to be found at our house, my father having summoned him and having assigned him the commission of the pope’s tomb, my father wanted him to come along, too. I joined up with my father and off we went. I climbed down to where the statues were when immediately my father said, “That is the Laocoön, which Pliny mentions.” Then they dug the hole wider so that they could pull the statue out. As soon as it was visible everyone started to draw, all the while discoursing on ancient things, chatting as well about the ones in Florence.”

The story of Laocoön is told in several ancient sources, each one slightly different, but the common thread is this: Laocoön offends the gods by acting inappropriately, and the gods take revenge by sending serpents to attack him and his sons. In one version, all three die; in another, Laocoön survives to see the serpents kill his sons.

Classical Greek and Roman sculptures might look similar in a crowded room, but they’re a world apart. Roman figures can seem heavy, crude and lifeless in comparison to their Greek counterparts. They lack the exquisite detail, the fluid lines, the ripple of skin over muscle and bone and, above all, the suggestion of movement that made marble flesh in Greek hands. That’s what the 16th century citizens of Rome saw when the Laocoön was unearthed. That’s what Michelangelo (yes, that was the Michelangelo!) saw.

Barkan describes the massive impact on Renaissance art of the discovery of the Laocoön and other Greek sculptures. Progress was not straightforwardly linear, but emerged from something hidden, biding its time. From looking back. Reading the opening chapter of Barkan’s book on the New York Times website, I thought about King Josiah.

As reported in 2 Kings 22, Josiah commissioned repairs to the Temple. During the renovations, a Sefer Torah, scroll of the law, was discovered. Josiah is devastated; he learns how far his people had departed from the instructions that God gave their ancestors.

Huldah the prophetess is consulted. She confirms that God plans to bring disaster on the people as a punishment for their waywardness. As a reward for Josiah’s own humility, however, God will spare him the pain of seeing his kingdom ravaged. He’ll die before the punishment begins.

But Josiah is not satisfied. He summons his people to the Temple and reads them the entire scroll. They agree to keep its terms and conditions, and disaster is averted. Here too, progress is not straightforwardly linear, but emerges from something hidden, biding its time. From a return. Looking back.

On the very day that Rome turned its back on its glorious heritage for the benefit of the visiting Iranians, hundreds of people — secular and religious — in Jerusalem saw Rome’s heritage honored in a breathtaking performance of human flesh turned marble. If you’re reading this in London or New York, you may think that’s not much to write home about. But here in Jerusalem it is.

Jerusalem is a city that — for good and bad — is highly sensitized to the human body, let alone nudity. For reasons of Jewish and Muslim codes of modesty, a significant percentage of the city’s population female is pretty covered up. Added to that, in deference to some Haredi groups, women aren’t prominent in public advertising, though happily, that’s changing.

Reflecting Jewish and Muslim image prohibitions, and no doubt also its complex political history, there’s no tradition of public statues in Jerusalem. What English speakers call Damascus Gate and Hebrew speakers call Sha’ar Shechem (Nablus Gate), is known to Arabic speakers as Bab al-Amud, the Gate of the Column. In the 2nd century CE, the column in question was topped by a statue of Emperor Hadrian, but that’s long gone. There must be others, but the only one that comes to mind is Mishkenot Sha’ananim’s bust of Winston Churchill (Greek he wasn’t).

All this is to say that Pilobolus’s decision to open their Jerusalem performance with a dance in which near-naked bodies conjure up pagan sculptures was, to say the least, audacious. The audience response left no room for doubt that they found it powerful. I doubt I was alone in finding it almost religious. When, paradoxically, was I last quite this conscious of the human being as b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God?

Naked; not profane.