Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Nude in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The development and eventual dominance of Christianity in late antiquity profoundly changed the needs of patrons and the output of artists. Unlike paganism, Christianity required no images of naked divinities, and new attitudes cast doubt and opprobrium on nude athletics, public bathing, and the very value of the human body. The early Christian emphasis on chastity and celibacy further discounted depictions of nakedness. In this climate, there was little motive to study the nude, and unclothed figures are thus rare in medieval art. Among the notable exceptions are Adam and Eve, whose story casts undress in an ominous light. In late antique works like the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (ca. 359; St. Peter’s Grottoes, Vatican City), the ideal forms of Greco-Roman nudes are transformed into the first exponents of sin. The weakness and defenselessness of the naked man and woman are stressed in medieval art, and this tradition extends into the fifteenth century in such works as Giovanni di Paolo’s Expulsion from Paradise (1975.1.31).

The rediscovery of Greco-Roman culture in the Renaissance restored the nude to the heart of creative endeavor. Nude figures based on antique models appear in Italy as early as the mid-thirteenth century, and by the mid-fifteenth century, nudes had become symbols of antiquity and its reincarnation. Donatello adapted the idealized proportions of Greek athletic figures for his celebrated statue of David (ca. 1440; Bargello, Florence) and thus presented a biblical hero in classical guise. In a widely circulated engraving, Pollaiuolo used nude figures in vigorous poses to suggest the range of human action (17.50.99). In the next generation, Michelangelo made his own colossal statue of David, again conceived as an antique nude (1501–4; Accademia, Florence), and elsewhere he devoted unique artistic energy to the male nude. His enthusiasm for the subject was such that he introduced nudes even in religious paintings, including the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, and he used studies of the male form to imbue figures of every sort with Herculean massiveness and power (24.197.2).

The female nude of classical inspiration also returned to favor in the Renaissance. Venetian painters invented a new image of Venus as a recumbent figure, lying naked in a landscape or domestic interior. Although they reflect the proportions of ancient statuary, such figures as Titian‘s Venus and the Lute Player (36.29) and Venus of Urbino (1538; Uffizi, Florence) highlight the seductive warmth of the female body rather than its ideal geometry. As interest in mythological subjects increased, artists found new approaches to nude figures, male and female. Small bronzes such as those by Antico (55.93) translated classical figures for private delectation. Titian’s Venus and Adonis depicts the naked goddess from behind (49.7.16), and Lucas Cranach’s Judgment of Paris contains three almost identical nude divinities, each in a different pose and perspective (28.221). Although the story of Cranach’s picture derives from a classical source, the slender proportions of the goddesses depend on Northern European convention. A very different, more classical approach characterizes Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of Adam and Eve (19.73.1), whose idealized bodies contrast sharply with the thin and fragile figures of late Gothic art.

In addition to adult male and female figures, Renaissance artists also developed a nude type for the Christ Child. As analyzed by Leo Steinberg, the depiction of the baby undressed in his mother’s arms, with sex prominently exposed, was meant to express the theological status of Christ as God made man. Although the child in these pictures frequently behaves with lifelike humanity, the body is based on antique forms as well as direct observation, as may be seen by comparing an ancient portrayal of the naked Eros (43.11.4) with a Renaissance rendering of the naked Christ Child (61.43).