Art & Church History: The Uncut Version

If I were to ask you to name the preeminent Christian artist of all time, Michelangelo would probably come to mind. After all, he did paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, creating some of the most archetypal and iconic imagery in Christian art. He also seems to be the guy who first depicted God as a large old man with white hair and beard, (not that this was necessarily progress.)

But his work is as ironic as it is iconic.

Art is human communication. As such it reflects the worldview of the artist. Art, literature, and manmade artifacts play an invaluable role in helping us to flesh out the true story of human history. Historians create labels such as Dark Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and New World based on their biases. However, historic art and artifacts may serve to either confirm or call into question our interpretations of what was really going on. It’s just one more reason why art is so cool.

People much more qualified than me have written much about the ingenious art of Michelangelo, but I want to share a few thoughts about the particular Christian worldview reflected in his work. As a person who has an avid interest the historic relationship between Christianity and Judaism, I contend that in Michelangelo’s work, one can see the epitome of the Roman Church’s arrogance toward Judaism. If one is inclined to be charitable toward the artist and call it ignorance, it is still an ignorance born of arrogance – an arrogance that the Church is now, happily, beginning to put away.

First up, let’s look at Michelangelo’s beautiful sculpture, David, commissioned by the wealthy Florence City Council in 1501. It is widely agreed that this statue was commissioned as a political statement by the Florence Republic that was asserting its newly found independence from Medici rule. The young David, who famously slew the giant Goliath, would’ve been a fitting symbol of liberty. Still, the meaning of David as a symbol is unavoidably drawn from the figure in the Hebrew Scriptures – a boyhood figure who would one day become Israel’s most famous and beloved king. David was the man who penned the Psalms of Israel. He is Israel’s most famous worshipper, described as “a man after God’s own heart.” He was the father of Solomon, who built the first temple in Jerusalem. He was a self-proclaimed lover of the Torah (Law) of YHWH.

In light of this, if I could ever so delicately point out one small detail here, please notice that Michelangelo’s David is not circumcised.


The artist actually forces the issue by depicting David in a Hellenistic (buck naked) style. What’s the deal? Why didn’t Michelangelo circumcise David? This would be like depicting Martin Luther King as a white guy. Or depicting the prophet Mohammad drinking a beer and eating a ham sandwich.

I’m not exaggerating. Circumcision is not negotiable for a Jew.  When God established the nation of Israel with Abraham, He instituted something called the “covenant of circumcision” (Acts 7:8):

“…So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen 17:13,14)

Later, with Moses and the giving of the Law, the covenant of circumcision was folded into the Mosaic covenant. Circumcision was considered the “sign” of God’s covenant with the Jewish people (Gen 17:11-14; Lev 12:3.) It was not optional. David was exceptionally zealous in his pursuit of obedience to God. This can be seen in the statement David made while still a shepherd; he is indignant upon learning that the Philistine champion, Goliath, has been taunting the Israelite army for days, and that no one is willing to meet him alone in battle. He famously says:

“…Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
(1Sam 17:26)

Of all the descriptors David could’ve used, he chooses to highlight the Mosaic covenant sign of circumcision. Then he insults Goliath by going out to meet him alone, not as warrior but as a shepherd boy, with no armor and no weapon except for some stones and a sling; as if the Philistine champion were merely an annoyance. Then he informs the 9 foot tall Goliath that he is going to give his flesh to the birds and the beasts. The rest is history.

Later, David, now a warrior, presents a trophy of 200 Philistine foreskins to King Saul as a marriage gift, (even though the king had only asked for 100.) A casual observer could be excused for thinking that, if anything, David was a bit obsessed with circumcision.

How could Michelangelo have missed this? We know he was literate and highly intelligent. Ascanio Condivi, his biographer, claims that Michelangelo often read the Old Testament scriptures during his work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. While it’s true that he sculpted David before he painted the Chapel ceiling, he made similar decisions when composing the chapel ceiling. For example, there is nothing Hebrew at all about the Hebrew prophets he paints. They look more like Greek philosophers and the  pagan sibyls (seers) to which he gives equal importance in the composition.


Left: Michelangelo’s blond-haired, hellenized prophet Daniel from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Right: One day while studying church history I became quite frustrated & went out to my studio and repainted Michelangelo’s beautiful composition of Daniel, making him Jewish. Mine isn’t historically accurate either, but I feel better now.

If I were Dan Brown, I would be tempted to make up some fictional, secret, tantalizing history as to why Michelangelo did what he did. But unfortunately, we need look no further than the Roman Church’s anti-Judaistic theology for an answer. It’s a matter of public record, and Michelangelo was the rule, not the exception. For example there are many Renaissance era depictions, by many artists, of the infant Jesus, uncircumcised well into his babyhood, even though the gospels tell us that he was circumcised on his eighth day, in accordance with the Torah of Moses.

Historian James Parkes documents how the Roman Church developed a gentilized theology that essentially took everything good away from Jews and Judaism, leaving it only with the curses of disobedience found in the Torah. Even the Hebrew patriarchs, and the Mosaic covenant kings and prophets, such as David, were re-interpreted and re-imagined as Christians. The gentile Church came to view itself as having replaced Israel in God’s sight, even though the Bible does not teach this. Centuries of intentional anti-Judaistic theology and Church-sponsored denigration of Jewish people caused the Hebrew roots of “Christianity” to be first rejected, and eventually forgotten. Little wonder, then, that a Jewish person today would look at the gentile church’s legacy and utterly reject it.

“Little by little the Church was read back into the whole of Old Testament history, and Christian history was shown to be older than Jewish history in that it dated from creation, and not from Sinai, or even Abraham.” (The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue – James Parkes)

Imagine how a Florentine Jewish Person would’ve felt looking up at the statue of David. Michelangelo, an artist commissioned by the Pope himself, and referred to by the people as Il divino – the divine one, had created a popular masterpiece essentially depicting their historic king from their scriptures as a non-Jew.

We can’t know for certain what Michelangelo was thinking as he was sculpting David’s penis. Whether his statement was intentionally anti-Judaistic, or whether he was simply oblivious to David’s Jewishness, the fact remains that an intentional, official separation between gentile Christianity and Judaism was erected early on. This separation has been reflected in Christian art for virtually all of the Church’s 2000 year history. (See my previous post on Jewish-Christian history.)

A final note on the weird rite of circumcision.

Could this possibly have any relevance for us, especially for women, today? It could indeed! The sometimes strange, sometimes violent record in the Hebrew scriptures is part of a deep, incontrovertible picture of foreshadowing and fulfillment that is applicable to all of us. In short, our loving, relational Creator has fulfilled promises of salvation that were laid out centuries before the coming of Jesus. With that salvation has come a host of good things for everyone who chooses to enter into the New Covenant of Jesus. So what about circumcision?

The terms and promises of the Mosaic Covenant were physical in nature, having to do with possession of the land, abundance of children, livestock, physical health, peace, and safety (Lev 26.) There was no explicit mention of an afterlife or a resurrection. Israel was given laws written on physical tablets of stone, they fought physical enemies with material weapons, offered physical sacrifices to God, and entered into the physical nation of Israel by physical birth. This was all accompanied by a physical covenant entry sign – circumcision.

But everything I have just mentioned prefigured and foreshadowed something better that was to come. With regard to circumcision, God prophesied way back with Moses that He would circumcise Israel’s hearts (Deut 30:6,) but we only see the fulfillment after Jesus establishes His New Covenant. (Ro 2:28,29; Col 2:9-11.) In this new covenant, which is spiritual in nature, there is “no Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:27-29.) Accordingly, this New Covenant is entered into through Spiritual rebirth (Jn 3:3-7.) With that rebirth comes a new relationship to our Creator as sons and daughters, and circumcised (exposed) hearts that are spiritually responsive to God.

Physical circumcision might seem like a strange sign to seal a formal agreement, but you have to admit, if you were God and you wanted to pick a profound, anatomical yet symbolic sign that would keep people’s attention, physical circumcision would be it.

Fundamentalist Tales of Working with Nude Models

Before I went to art school, on a typical day I did not see any naked people. Or even in a typical year, for that matter. That all changed when I went to art college. Naked people were just part of the deal, and everyone was supposed to be all cool and mature about it, so I’m kind of breaking protocol here.

But honestly, it was probably inevitable that awkward moments would arise whenever you have rooms full of young students spending 3 to 6 hours a day studying adult nude models. To add to the fun, all the rules around nude-model-social-etiquette were pretty much unspoken. We were just supposed to sort of pick it up. I contend that there were unspoken rules for the models, and there were unspoken rules for the students and professors as well, all in an Art Institute environment that didn’t readily acknowledge rules or authority, which is probably why they remained unspoken.

This worked pretty well almost all of the time. No one cared or made a big deal about it. Except from time to time someone would violate the unspoken code, and awkwardness would ensue. As if Loki had snuck into the room with your grandmother and loudly pointed out that everybody was wearing clothes except for one person.

Here’s my attempt to write down the unwritten code:

RULES FOR MODELSthe idea is for the model to become like an inanimate still life object for study, so it’s bad form to break character and unnecessarily reveal any blatantly human qualities. Therefore:

1)     Do not talk to the students while you are naked.
2)     Do not suddenly smile or giggle for no apparent reason while you are naked. Do not turn red.
3)     Do not break down and weep while you are naked.
4)     Do not fart while you are naked.
5)     Do not suppress a fart while you are naked, (because everyone can see what you’re doing.)
6)     Do not become sexually aroused while you are naked, especially if you are male.
7)     Do not date the students or professors.

As you can see, this business of nude modeling is not as easy as it might seem at first glance.

RULES FOR STUDENTS & PROFESSORS – for classroom purposes, the idea is to approach the model as an inanimate still life object, yet without minimizing the model’s dignity or comfort. Therefore:

1)     Do not touch or hug the model while he/she is naked.
2)     Do not smile or giggle for no apparent reason while studying the naked model.
3)     Do not remove your clothing when the model removes his/hers.
4)     Do not be chatty with the model while he/she is naked. Never raise your voice at a naked model.
5)     Do not stare at the model while he/she is naked. (There is studying, and there is staring.)
6)     Do not walk up to the model for a closer look while he/she is naked. Do not take photographs. Do not hang your mouth open.
7)     Do not ask the model on a date while he/she is naked. Do not date the model.

For those readers who attended Art School, I ask you, am I making these up? Have I missed anything?

Following are a few of my small adventures from hanging out with naked people:

The outspoken model: My first remembrance of nude-model-code-violation was during a painting elective class during my sophomore year. This was the day it dawned on me that if a person was very clever, and was willing to sit naked for hours in front of people, she could actually get paid to get a very expensive art education. That is apparently exactly what this particular model was doing. I remember during her breaks she would walk around the room and talk with the students about their paintings. (She did this while in her robe, so as not to violate code – RFM#1.)

One morning, while in character as the inanimate naked focal point, she did the unthinkable. I should mention that this particular cavernous studio had high brick walls, and a concrete floor, making the room an echo chamber. In the hushed environment of a painting class you could hear dredlocks growing. The instructor, Michael Walling, was quietly directing a student when a high, feminine voice echoed through the studio, contradicting him. At first no one was sure from where the voice had come. But then it became apparent that not only had the model spoken while naked, she had actually taken issue with the art professor, starkly exhibiting the full-blown human qualities of intelligence, free will, and independent thought. No one moved. Would the professor actually engage in verbal intercourse with the model while she was naked? Would the earth stop and begin rotating backwards? But this was Michael Walling. After a moment of dreadful silence, he diffused the situation with his famous tongue-in-cheek grin, saying, “Carol, (pausing for effect)…models should be seen and not heard.”


Carol – blatant violator of the unspoken code.
(from an old student sketchbook, by the author.)

The no-show model: One day I showed up at class, late as usual, and was surprised to see a female upperclassman naked on the modeling stand. She nervously made eye contact with me when I came in. The situation seemed a bit strange since she always wore clothes around campus. After a few minutes another female upperclassman passed by the doorway, froze mid-stride, and slowly backed up, looking in at the model, who apparently was a friend of hers. She poked her head in and said, in a concerned, hushed voice, (as if none of us could hear,) “What are you doing?” The model whispered back, “Heather didn’t show up, so I thought I should sit in for her.” Even more quietly the friend said, “You don’t have to do that!” I gathered that the woman modeling was the newbie student work-study model coordinator. When the model didn’t show, she felt obliged to “cover” for her. Kind of like when a waitress doesn’t show and the manager waits a few tables, only naked. This episode suggested the possibility that even cool, artsy, upperclassmen were way cooler with studying nude models than with actually being one.

The no-show instructor: If the above episode blew the cover on enlightened nonchalance, this next episode pretty much obliterated any pretense of enlightenment. This situation gave rise to possibly the most awkward and conflicted 3 hours of my art school experience. On this particular day there was some confusion about the calendar – it must’ve been right before the holidays, or something. Nobody seemed sure whether or not class was “on”, so I went, just in case.

Only 3 of us showed up, along with the model. No instructor. The female student then left, leaving me and one other guy, plus the model, (whom I hadn’t seen before.) Just to connect the dots for you here, we were 2 young male students, and one young female model. She offered to proceed with class and we agreed. She self-consciously gets naked and the other guy takes over, posing her in an incredibly stupid pose – he has her face the wall with her back directly to us, with one leg up on a chair. So she can’t see us at all while we’re drawing her naked. Later, at break time, she leaves the room and he turns to me and says, (in a tacit admission that it was a stupid pose,) “I just wanted to pose her so I could get a really good look at her ass.” (Guys sometimes say things like this to each other under the assumption that we’re all one big fraternity of assholes.) I said nothing.

When the model returned, the situation was so awkward that I couldn’t figure out how to act. There was no longer any pretense of art-making going on. But she didn’t know that. I didn’t want to blow his cover in front of her because I thought it might embarrass her. At the same time I felt like he was making me a party to his assholiness. But I didn’t feel like I could leave because that would leave her alone with him, which would possibly be even more awkward for her. So I stayed and finished the class. In the comment section below, I would like to hear what you would have done in my situation.

The male model who shaved: Everything. Leaving not so much as a happy trail. We can only guess why. Perhaps he didn’t want anyone to miss anything.

The small world: One day at church, the wife of…let’s say…”a prominent leader” in the church started asking me about art school. Eventually she asked me if I ever worked with a model named Cassandra. I answered that, yes, she was probably my favorite model. The woman then revealed that Cassandra was her husband’s sister, but that he was kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. (She asked me not to tell anyone, which is why I’m speaking in generalities.) Thereafter, it was always pretty distracting for me in church because every time he’d get up front I couldn’t stop thinking, “Wow, I can really see the resemblance!” This just goes to show that if you’re ever speaking in front of a group of people, and they’re smiling at you and nodding their heads, you don’t necessarily know what they’re thinking.

The formerly unembarrassed model: Most of the models were female. There were so few male models that we could conveniently refer to them as the old guy, the black guy, and the scrawny guy.  As in, “I hope it’s not the old guy today.” (For a time the old guy was also known as the orange guy, but that’s not part of this story.) This story is about the scrawny guy. I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I have to admit that I was generally suspicious of the male models. This is because I’m a guy, and thus I’m well aware of the natural male tendency toward narcissism and exhibitionism even when no money is involved. The scrawny guy was my age, and his scrawny body was not fun or interesting to draw. Eventually, I stopped seeing him around. Models came and went, after all.

Here I must stop and explain one of my weird hobbies. During High School I had become interested in comparative cult theology. It helped me in working out my own beliefs. I actually used to drive to the St. Louis airport and hang out there, hoping to engage the donation-seeking Hare Krishna devotees in conversation. In an ironic twist they eventually started avoiding me, even as the airport commuters were avoiding them. When I got to Kansas City, I found the uptown neighborhood of the Art Institute to be cult heaven! Just across the street there was a Unitarian Church and an RLDS headquarters. Two blocks away on Main was a Scientology Church, and Unity on the Plaza was just down the street (where I once picketed.) Back toward downtown on Main there was a big New Age bookstore, and a Christian Science Church. Also, in the early 80s there were still “Moonies” out and about, with whom I had some interesting interaction. But my favorite cult was the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They actually came close to sucking me in when I was in High School, and I had done a fair amount of study around their theology.

As an art student I lived in a big old 3 story house on Warwick blvd with 6 other art students. One day the doorbell rang. I answered and was delighted to see 2 Jehovah’s Witnesses, so of course I invited them in to talk. One of them looked familiar. Suddenly it dawned on me that it was the scrawny guy! (I was unaccustomed to seeing him in a suit and tie.) When he saw that I recognized him there was that brief micro-expression of embarrassment. The lead guy began to introduce us, but I shook the scrawny guy’s hand (touching him for the first time – RFS&P #1,) and said, “Yes, we’ve met…Richard, right?” The lead guy seemed surprised that we’d met.

Apparently Richard hadn’t told his mentor that he’d previously spent hours sitting around as a buck-naked focal point in front of clothed, co-ed pagans. Only a supernatural feat of willpower and compassion prevented me from grabbing one of my sketchbooks and saying, “Here’s what Richard looks like naked, in case you were wondering!” But I didn’t blow his cover, as the JWs can be a pretty legalistic bunch. It’s interesting that the ensuing conversation was the only time I’ve ever had two JWs openly disagree with each other. For my theologically bent readers, my question was, “Does the Bible teach that good works are a condition in order to be saved, or a response to having been saved? It was the scrawny guy who insisted on the former.


From left to right: 1) The Old Guy/Orange Guy
2) Cassandra (not her real name)
3) The Scrawny Guy (not his real name)

It’s funny how perspectives can change. Despite my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, growing up I had my suspicions that naked people existed. When I reached puberty, this suspicion became a hope. Then, my Art Institute experience confirmed beyond all doubt the existence of naked people, and yet I have since come to believe that clothing is generally a good idea, making life less complicated for the most part. In fact, there are many people out there who probably ought to wear even more clothes, as a small kindness to the rest of us. I notice that many of these people shop at Walmart.  But regardless of your opinion, or where you shop, this peculiar, uniquely human convention of wearing (or not wearing) clothing helps to keep life fascinating for us all.

(For more Art Institute adventures, click HERE.)

Beggars’ Gate Painting #2

A couple of weeks ago I posted a painting that I recently completed for a Loveland, Colorado church that goes by the name of Beggars’ Gate. I titled the painting Water to the Thirsty. Pictured below is the second painting, titled Clothing to the Naked. I alluded to the theme of “nakedness” in the first Beggar’s Gate post, but this second painting provides an excuse to elaborate a bit on the theme.

Clothing to the Naked - painted by the author4x5 ft, recycled housepaint on birch panel

“Clothing to the Naked” – painted by the author
4×5 ft, recycled housepaint on birch panel – photography by Alanna Brake

The first and most obvious meaning of the painting has to do with helping those who are in need of literal, physical clothing. This is a part of what the church of Jesus does. But more importantly, there is another, more profound clothing spoken of throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures. It is this clothing that really interests me, and this is what the painting is really about.

In the Bible, virtually every common aspect of our physical existence has a more primary, spiritual counterpart: birth, food, water, nakedness & clothing, home & shelter, marriage, family & inheritance, warfare & peace, slavery & freedom, seedtime & harvest, and even life & death, all are spoken of in spiritual terms with the coming of Jesus and His new covenant. These physical realities are real, but the spiritual realities are just as real. In fact they are eternal. The apostle Paul states, “…for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18).

Consider the puzzling subject of clothing. Clothing is a fascinating aspect of our common experience that is unique to humans. Even if you’re sitting all alone in your house right now with your computer, there is an extremely high probability that you’re wearing clothes. By contrast, if your lovable household pet is nearby, there is an equally high probability that it is blissfully buck-naked. Only humans bother with clothing. You may respond that this is all merely a result of social conditioning, and I would agree to some extent. But maybe there is something deeper going on with this business of nakedness and clothing.

Let’s look in the Torah where the subject of nakedness first comes up. It says YHWH produced a creation that He pronounced “very good” (Gen 1:31). He placed the first couple in charge of tending the garden, and commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). This sounds like a very nice gig. Then, of all the things that could’ve been pointed out about the situation, the text somewhat weirdly says “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (2:25). The situation described is that of perfect community – communion and unity between the couple and YHWH, as well as communion and unity between the man and the woman.

It is interesting that when communion/trust is broken between YHWH and the couple, the first thing it says is “the eyes of both were opened, and they realized that they were naked” (3:7), so they hid themselves among the trees from the presence of YHWH (3:8). Also interesting is that they make coverings out of leaves to cover themselves. Why? Strange.

What happens later is more interesting still: YHWH makes coverings for them out of animal skins, implying that their leaf coverings were insufficient (3:21). So the first blood shed in YHWH’s creation was shed by YHWH Himself, in order to provide sufficient covering for the man and the woman. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this can be seen as a prefiguring of the sacrificial death of the Messiah.

Some thousands of years later, when the Messiah does arrive, he teaches His followers to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. Not that the physical is negated or unimportant, but that the spiritual is foremost in importance: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?…but seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Jesus – Matt 6:25-33)

After the bodily resurrection of the Messiah, the apostle Paul writes, “…For in this tent (physical body) we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened – not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Cor 5:2-5).

So, to clarify, according to the Bible, this business of nakedness, clothing, and shame does not seem to be about sex. We know this because sex was a gift from YHWH, and part of His “very good”, unified creation. Furthermore, at the fall it says the couple hid from the presence of God, not from each other. Rather, nakedness seems to be about vulnerability. In Genesis 2 the root of the Hebrew word “naked” means “exposed”, and I believe this is the heart of the matter. Before the fall, humanity was vulnerable, but protected by virtue of being in loving relationship with God. When that communion was broken, humanity was left exposed (naked) to the consequences of disobedience – to all of the imperfection and suffering that we now live with, ultimately ending in physical death. In willfully “unplugging” from the Source of life, humanity was left in a state of mortality.

If that is true, then one might ask why God didn’t do something about it. The short answer is, He did – in sending a Savior. It is the role of His church to let people know about that. The question of why He took so long is the subject of another post.

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27,28).