Painting the Nude: Was JPII Really as Permissive as Some Have Suggested?

By DAVID CLAYTON on New Liturgical Movement


This is a summary of the essay published in the festschrift for the late Stratford Caldecott, here, “The Beauty of God’s House”.

When Pope John Paul II presented his Theology of the Body and addressed artists directly, challenging them to portray the human figure “naked without shame”, and in such a way that the beauty of the human form would be revealed in an ordered way, it caused quite a stir.

Here was a Pope, now a saint, it seemed, who was putting his intellectual weight behind the artistic tradition of painting the nude, and not only excusing it, but promoting it. Finally Catholics who fancied themselves as arty and cultured could hold their heads up high at dinner parties among their sophisticated, non-Christian friends and happily say that although there were some puritanical elements in the Church, those who were uncomfortable with nudity were just narrow minded philistines who didn’t really understand Catholic culture. It inaugurated the creation of a wave of contorted Theology-of-the-Body nudes that, the artists told us, communicated human sexuality ‘as gift’ by gesture.

Adam-Eve-Naked Cover

I didn’t get around to doing the paintings, but I did believe for a long time that JPII was a Catholic apologist for the Sixties, who could see the good at its heart and was able to distinguish, deftly, between those elements that were disordered and those that reflected an ordered view of the human person. I also believed that the study of the nude was essential in the training of the human body.

Then I read the Theology of the Body and attended an atelier in Florence in which I did figure painting or drawing every afternoon. Now I am not so sure.

I no longer believe that the study of the nude is necessary in an artist’s training. The method I studied relied on training the eye, not anatomy. In fact we were told not to think deeply about the structure of what we were observing. Moreover, my research indicates that there have been great naturalistic artists who were masters of the academic method and did not train with the nude, such as Velázquez and his contemporaries in the Spanish school of baroque naturalism. I understand that even today, the Russian school of academic art in Florence, Italy teaches today to the highest level without painting the nude (by having carefully placed draping cloth when doing figure drawing).

Also, my understanding of JPII’s writing has changed. What I see now in his writings about art and nudity, which include the ToB, is someone who understands the differing traditions in art very deeply and who is conservative by nature. In fact he was strongly against the portrayal of the nude in naturalistic styles that must, by virtue of their naturalism, portray Historical Man that is, man after the fall. This means the style of the 19th century atelier take note is not appropriate for the nude.

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22 Responses to Painting the Nude: Was JPII Really as Permissive as Some Have Suggested?

  1. johnhenrycn says:

    “I no longer believe that the study of the nude is necessary in an artist’s training.”

    How about the doctor’s training, or should all copies of Gray’s Anatomy be pulled from medical schools? The author’s suggestion that the human body be hidden “by having carefully placed draping cloth when doing figure drawing” is so risible as to hardly bear repeating. Pantalettes on piano legs anyone? There’s a big difference between pornography and nudity. Context is everything in this particular case.

    Anyway, unabashed depictions of sex organs in Christian art are far older than the “19th century atelier” referred to by Mr Clayton. The earliest (English) example I’ve come across is in the Holkham Bible, the oldest (I believe) known picture bible in England, which dates from the 14th century.


  2. johnhenrycn says:

    “What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?”


  3. toadspittle says:

    “Moreover, my research indicates that there have been great naturalistic artists who were masters of the academic method and did not train with the nude, such as Velázquez ..”


  4. johnhenrycn says:

    Toad, so good to see you’ve returned after our your well deserved respite.


  5. kathleen says:

    I’m not sure if I agree with everything the author of this article says, in particular when he suggests that an artist (without admittedly being one myself) does not need to study a body’s “anatomy” in order to paint it, but I do agree that we are living in a highly over-sexualised society nowadays. Colourful images and posters are used of scantily dressed women (and men too!) in erotic postures to advertise anything ranging from perfume to cars. Modern novels, films and shows invariably include a good dose of explicit sex scenes in the hope that they will ‘sell’ better. The beautiful virtues of modesty and chastity are unabashedly denigrated in the secular world.

    None of this is to deny that the human body is not in truth the most beautiful created being in the world, which in a state of grace is temple to the very Holy Spirit of God. This is what so much wonderful old traditional art and sculpture was trying to emphasise when depicting men and women unclothed… and yes, innocent baby boys as cuddly little cherubs too!

    Who can gaze at the magnificent statue of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and not see the masculine splendour and greatness of the perfect human body created by God? There is nothing erotic in this image. Whereas, the posture of the naked man in the link that Toad gives at 6:51 yesterday for instance, is (only in my own opinion of course) nothing but vulgar, and perhaps even lascivious.
    It is precisely this latter type of art that I believe the author condemns and wishes to avoid.


  6. toadspittle says:

    “Whereas, the posture of the naked man in the link that Toad gives at 6:51 yesterday for instance, is (only in my own opinion of course) nothing but vulgar, and perhaps even lascivious.”

    It is neither of those things, Kathleen. It may be lascivious to you, probably is, in fact – I don’t really know your tastes, and can only guess at them (scary thought!) – but it is simply a very good, and very accurate, painting of a naked man.

    Which, I believe, is all Lucian had in mind.


  7. Daniel L says:

    I would say the Freud paintings were more naturalistic (more like real people), while ‘David’ is idealised


  8. kathleen says:

    @ Toad

    If you reread my comment you will see that I used the word “perhaps”. No, personally I wouldn’t say the painting of the man flaunting his genitals is necessarily “lascivious”, but I do think it’s “vulgar”. You obviously love it! There goes the cliché, “there’s no accounting for taste”.
    And I wouldn’t argue with you about whether it was well painted or not; you are more of an expert than I am in that field. 😉

    [By the way, could you please moderate your language! Your last comment was slanderous and could not be printed.]


  9. johnhenrycn says:

    I don’t understand why Kathleen thinks that the Toad is more of an expert in the art of painting than she is. I wonder what ER II thought of Freud’s depiction of Her Majesty in this police mugshot?

    Freud belongs to the School of Brutalism and, I suppose, so does the Toad. He likes what was fashionable the day before yesterday, not what is enduring. Anyway, Bruvver Eccles said it best:
    “Dat aint nuffink like de Queen. He musta mixed up de paintin with anuvver one.” 😉


  10. toadspittle says:

    “I suppose Toad belongs to the School of Brutalism..” To paraphrase Carlyle, “By God, he’d better!” It’s a brutal old world, all right.
    And I’d have thought Catholics today would be the first to agree.
    I take it, from his quaint patois, that Bruvver Eccles is a juvenile West Indian – so we ought not really to laugh at his shafts of wit – for fear of being labelled politically incorrect.
    But it’s hard not to, isn’t it?
    I’d call Freud a subtle painter, myself. But, etc., etc. …and so on.


  11. johnhenrycn says:

    I must admit, Toad, that is a powerful (and unsettling) self-portrait by Freud. Wonder if he was related to the Kray brothers? Looks an awful lot like Ronnie Kray, don’t you think?


  12. johnhenrycn says:

    Hope that works. If not, I’ll go away.


  13. Adrian Meades says:

    Although a very talented painter who seemed to represent the human body in an honest, realistic way, I don’t believe Freud was a particularly good or moral person. But perhaps it takes such a character to paint people ‘warts n all’?


  14. toadspittle says:

    Related? Well, both came from well-known and formidable families, JH. Both more or less human beings. The Family of man … “nihil a me alienum puto” – says Terence. Although, these days, I find a great deal of human behaviour utterly alien to me.

    True, Adrian, – Freud is reputed to have sired 32 bastards.
    But then, Picasso, Carravaggio, Cellini, Modigliani, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Eric Gill, Epstein and Lucian’s chum, Francis Bacon – to name but a few, off the top of my head – were noted for their lack of conventional morality.
    Something about the plastic arts seems to go hand in hand with questionable morals.
    Perhaps Lucian’s Grandad, Sigmund, could explain why? (Perhaps he did. I don’t know.)


  15. johnhenrycn says:

    “nihil a me alienum puto”… So gay. Next, you’ll be quoting Helen Reddy’s “sum ego, mulier, audi me fremitus:


  16. johnhenrycn says:

    I invite Gertude, or any other Latin speaker here, to correct my above pig Latin, which is no worse than that of Toad, I think. God bless…since we are all on the same side. I think.


  17. johnhenrycn says:

    “I’m still an embryo, with a long, long way to go”
    …quoth Ms Reddy part way (@2:40) through her song. I wonder if she meant those words?


  18. johnhenrycn says:

    …I hope she did. In the mid-70s I used to drive home with this song of hers on the radio, thinking about our first born…


  19. johnhenrycn says:

    …well, not mine and Helen’s, obviously – but you know what I mean 🙂


  20. GC says:

    Ego femina, audi me rugire! (???)

    (Cringeworthy song, by the way)


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