Poor old David.
There he stands, stark naked, right in the centre of Florence, where he’s been gawked at by tourists ever since he was unveiled in 1504. They’re always there, a gaggle of spectators, all staring up at his groin. Some are sniggering, others smirking, and those who can’t help themselves just laugh out loud. Because that’s where something really strange is going on. Well, two things, actually.
From the time of the Ancient Greeks right up to the twentieth century, naked men in art have always provoked the same two surprises.
Firstly, there’s an obsession with penis size. Just why on earth did Michelangelo give his celebrated statue, a penis that’s, well, let’s just say it’s nothing much to write home about? Not by today’s standards, anyway. As millions of men are lining up on the Internet to show you any time you care to look.
Secondly, why did Michelangelo leave David’s foreskin intact? Everyone knows that, as King of the Jews, he must have been circumcised.
But let’s start at the beginning. For all those males who haven’t had one — and for anyone else who might be interested — what, exactly, is male circumcision?.
If you’re a man or a boy, and you don’t have a foreskin, it’s been sliced off and thrown away, leaving the end of your penis permanently exposed. Just like one third of the world’s males who have also been cut. This means you have been circumcised.
On the other hand, if you’re a male, and you do have a foreskin, you’ll know that it’s the sheath of skin that covers the tip of your relaxed penis. This makes it look the same as approximately two thirds of the world’s males who are intact. And it means you are uncircumcised.
Now on to the issue of what we today, in art, see as smallish penises.
Blame it on the Ancient Greeks if you like, because, in the fifth century BC, the sculptor Polykleitos became besotted with the theory of idealised human proportions. He saw the body as being composed of clearly definable parts, all of which are mathematically related to one another. And, even penis proportions were codified for artists.
It was a powerful idea that immediately caught on. And, once established, the code was inherited by the Romans, developed during the Renaissance, and then went on to last for almost two and a half thousand years. But what was once seen as the in thing, certainly doesn’t align with our contemporary ideas of heroic penis dimensions. Which is one of the points that everyone immediately notices about David.
The second, and, far more important question is this: How did David — and a host of other male Jews in Medieval and Renaissance art — avoid a meeting with the mohel?
This answer is a little more complicated — and it has sinister overtones.
So it’s back to Ancient Greece. Polykleitos and his pals saw the intact penis as a perfectly harmonious organ, and, in those days, circumcision was considered revolting. Surgical fiddling with foreskins was eventually seen as synonymous with castration, and cutting them off was ultimately banned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. In artworks, a flaccid, uncut penis of moderate proportions was established as the order of the day — as is obvious with David.
Throughout the Middle Ages, artworks were commissioned by the Church to convey complicated religious concepts to the faithful. The Biblical narrative in Matthew effectively pins the Crucifixion of Christ on the Jews. But Jesus being executed by His own people was a delicate matter for artists to illustrate. The problem was how to differentiate the good guys from the baddies in their art.
An analogy with silent, black-and-white Western movies may help. Any cowboy wearing a white Stetson was a signal to the cinema audience that he was one of the good guys. And in art, the solution was to use the foreskin to help the viewer identify the goodies. Any Jew sporting one effectively distanced himself from his mother religion — and from those who were widely seen as having been involved with the Crucifixion of Christ.
All of which made things much easier for artists like Michelangelo, who simply wanted his David to be seen as an uncut goy — rather than a circumcised Jew.
Glorious artworks are a mark of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — but the seeds of religious hatred were flourishing in the shadows. Just when Michelangelo was finishing turning that great chunk of Carrera marble into David, Jews were being forced to live in the world’s first ghetto in Venice.
Which raises the key issue: If an artwork is produced to illustrate an ostensibly historical event — like the circumcision of Christ — why does it ignore or eliminate a visual component as obvious as foreskin removal?
The only reasonably plausible answer is that the action must have been calculated. The artist simply did not want his Jesus to be circumcised. So let’s just call a spade a spade: Deliberately changing the fact of Christ’s circumcision to “intactness” must be recognised for what it is: Embryonic racial prejudice — and incipient antisemitism. And Christ with an intact penis and a foreskin was a signal that an insidious event — although then still a long way into the future — was inevitable. The road to the Holocaust was well and truly open.
Last, but by no means least, the question in the title is still waiting for an answer: “Is God circumcised?”
According to various texts, here’s what the Biblical narrative tells us:
* God created man in His own image.
* Jesus is the Son of God.
* He was born a Jew, and in the image of His Father.
* He had His foreskin removed when He was circumcised, eight days after He was born.
* There is no record of God having His foreskin chopped off.
Based on the Biblical inerrancy of the above points, the logical conclusion and definitive answer must therefore be that: GOD IS NOT CIRCUMCISED.
Quod erat demonstrandum.
So put that in your pipe and smoke it, y’all!
“The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion.” Leo Steinberg
© Ray Johnstone