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Painting The Nude: The Theology Of The Body and Representation Of Man in Christian Art

Reprinted with permission.

 Via David Clayton:
Pontifex University Press is publishing my book on the place of the nude in Christian art. With a foreword written by Dr Christopher Blum (of the Augustine Institute), Painting the Nude: The Theology of the Body and Representation of Man in Christian Art will be of interest to artists and non-artists alike. It contains a discussion on the place of the nude in the Christian tradition historically and what its place ought to be today.

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In his writing on the human person and art, St John Paul II created a renewed interest among Catholics in the nude in art generally, and particularly in sacred art. His call for artists to represent the human form ‘naked without shame’ has given many artists the inspiration to paint nude figures in service of the Church, with varied results and, frankly, not all of them good.

The 10,000-word essay contained in this booklet compares his writings on the representation of the human form with the traditions of the Church in order to assess how artists and patrons ought to respond. I conclude that far from representing a new Catholic permissiveness (as some have interpreted), John Paul II is reaffirming a very traditional line.

The book is broken down into three sections:

REMOVING THE FIG LEAVES uses the case of the recent renovations of the Sistine Chapel, completed in 1994, as a starting point to examine how Christian art should portray nudity so as to avoid licentiousness on the one hand and to reveal the full beauty of a creature made by God on the other.

THE THREE TRADITIONS OF FIGURATIVE LITURGICAL ART looks at the ways in which the authentic liturgical traditions in Christian art, the iconographic style, the Gothic and the Baroque, have dealt with the dilemma in the past. These traditions each deviate from perfect realism and stylistically depict essential truths that are not always visible to the naked eye. It is the invisible truths that the artist chooses to reveal that distinguish one style from another. Given this, as I demonstrate, they are not all equally appropriate for portraying the nude.

THE PROBLEM OF THE NUDE MODEL guides Christian artists towards an understanding of their responsibility to avoid the occasion of sin while producing the art and learning to draw and paint in the studio.

Some people that Pope St John Paul II’s work shifted the balance from an outdated “prudishness” toward a genuine openness to the beauty of the human body. This is certainly true to some degree, but I argue this aspect has been exaggerated. His writings can not be understood apart from a deep awareness of the Christian artistic traditions of sacred art. In truth, his ideas are a fresh presentation of deeply a conservative approach — far from being radical and new, they reconnect us to centuries of authentic Christian anthropology and tradition, and breathe new life into the contemporary conversation around body, soul, and spirit.

In his foreword, Dr. Christopher Blum (Academic Dean and Professor of History and Philosophy at the Augustine Institute) writes:

In addressing the topic of the nude in sacred art, David Clayton has performed an act requiring considerable courage. The temper of our spirituality today is highly emotional, to say the least. We are quick to accuse earlier ages of Jansenism and slow to admit that the mortification of the senses has a permanent place in the Christian way of life. Moreover, our tastes have been permanently affected by more than one artistic revolution. Clayton’s reminder that Christian art has always had a much higher purpose, then, is a call that asks us to swim against a very strong tide. 

Clayton takes us on a journey of rediscovery, anchored in a careful reading of St. John Paul II. With his help, we can newly appreciate the essentially iconic nature of Christian sacred art. 

Deacon Keith Fournier, General Counsel Director of Diaconal Formation for the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, wrote the following review of this book: 

Between September 5, 1979 and November 28, 1984, Pope St. John Paul II delivered a series of 129 catechetical instructions called “Human Love in the Divine Plan”. It is popularly referred to as a “Theology of the Body”, a phrase the late Pope called a “working term.” The term has led to a minimization of the depth of the theological anthropology of the integrated human person as gift which the late Pope presented. The thought of the late Pope was not new; it is rooted in the Patristic Tradition and must be seen in a hermeneutic of continuity.

One of the problems arises from an oversimplification of this body of teaching in some popular presentations, and which presents the work as a break with the teaching of the Church on modesty, purity, chastity and the virtuous life – particularly as it relates to the depiction of the human body in art. This is incorrect and in this respect a disservice to the four years of teaching of this great Saint.

David Clayton has demonstrated a deep knowledge and understanding of Christian sacred art, and of the writings of John Paul II on both anthropology and art. In this book, Clayton provides us with a synthesis that places all within the context of the greater tradition of Catholic thinking on these topics and shows how, far from being a radical departure from it, the Theology of the Body is reinforcing a traditionally Christian and conservative approach to the nude in art.

Source: David ClaytonBlogPontifex University