The pope comes out for nudity!
Well, not exactly. Benedict XVI did praise Michelangelo's art for its luminous nudes, saying they showed the human spirit within. Still, the comments did raise eyebrows around the media.
This all started last month, when the pope praised The Last Judgment, part of Michelangelo's sweeping scenes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Many of the figures, including Adam and Eve, are shown naked; Christ himself is shown mostly unclothed.
Benedict, however, saw something more than skin.
“As modern people … the body appears to us as inert matter, as something heavy and opposed to knowledge and freedom inherent to the spirit,” he said, quoted by the DPA press agency.
"But the bodies painted by Michelangelo are filled with light, life and splendor," Benedict added. "He wanted to show that our bodies contain a mystery: within them the spirit is manifest."
Pretty insightful for an 84-year-old celibate guy, who is one of the top Catholic theologians, don’t you think?
Still, most Christians -- indeed, most religious people -- are ambivalent over such things. In a searching article in the Salt Lake Tribune, writer Peggy Fletcher Stack adds nuance to the matter.
For most Christians, she says, "the line between celebrating and eschewing artistic nudity is neither easy nor clear-cut. It depends, they say, on whether the artist intends to enlighten a biblical narrative or trigger a sexual response, whether the nudity is theologically important or just there to shock.
"It's also crucial to ask about a work's intended audience, setting and spirit," Stack adds.
The Roman Catholic Church has long seemed more at ease with this issue than many religious groups. The Capitoline Venus, a nude statue from Rome, is visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. this summer. The statue was a gift to the Capitoline Museum from the 18th century Pope Benedict XIV.
Popes, of course, aren't the only ones to reference nudity. When Holy Land Experience opened in Orlando in 2001, it included a movie showing the Garden of Eden -- with a daringly bare Adam and Eve, though mostly concealed by foliage. And the Ringling Museum in Sarasota has a fullsize statue of David, no more draped than Michelangelo's original.
Isn't it ironic that we should be having these discussions decades after the so-called sexual revolution? The social tide of the 1960s and '70s was supposed to free us from the "hangups" of past generations. Instead, we fixate on sexuality and its issues more than ever.
The problem, of course, is pornography. As a "dark side" of art, porn can dehumanize and objectify people in the exact opposite way that Benedict describes. So we treat sexuality with suspicion.
A reader in CathNews supplies an interesting viewpoint.
"Michelangelo's nude figures were painted for the express purpose of depicting humans in all their unclothed vulnerability as they faced the ultimate judgement from their Creator," Gerry McIvor writes. "There was no obvious titillation or sensationalism behind it."
McIvor contrasts this with modern artists, who she says want to "impress their audiences by shock tactics rather like comedians who have to use foul language."
Some church people speak not just of morality but "propriety." You don't discuss topics around children or strangers that you would with close adult friends. You don't show things in a church that you would in a museum.
Then again, the Sistine Chapel is a church -- one at the heart of the Catholic world.
The "last judgment," of course, belongs to you, the reader. What are your thoughts on all this?