A Different Kind of Fire: Nudity and the Fig Leaf

Guest post by Suanne Schafer

Wikimedia Commons: Rico Heil

When I started writing A Different Kind of Fire, set in the late Victorian era, I found it somewhat difficult to recreate a time before E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey appeared in popular culture.

My protagonist, Ruby Schmidt, was a young Texas girl. Raised on a ranch, she had seen copulation between animals, if not humans. Her first sexual experience was so brief, she remarked that the act between horses lasted longer. In 1891, she left Texas to study art at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In life-drawing classes, she encountered reproductions of Michaelangelo’s David and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, both with a fig leaf—that doesn’t appear in the originals—hiding their genitalia. Ruby knew what lay beneath those tacky leaves and longed to rip them away.

PAFA boasted that its anatomy classes were most comprehensive of any modern art academy and equal to those of medical schools. In fact, students’ anatomy studies were supervised by taught by William Keen, M.D., Professor of Clinical Surgery at Jefferson Medical College. Despite this seemingly enlightened attitude, men and women were segregated during classes to avoid offending women’s delicate sensibilities.

This cultural reluctance to viewing human genitalia dates from the Renaissance when artists rediscovered classical statues. Soon classically-inspired statues of the human body became acceptable. Like Michelangelo’s David, these were modeled on well-toned bodies of athletes. However, their genitalia was portrayed under-sized, as artistic depictions of penises of normal size, even flaccid, detracted from the statue’s spiritual inspiration.

Credit: Luc Viatour / https://Lucnix.be

Two events, both also tied to the Catholic Church, led to the use of fig leaves. First, in 1563, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent ruled that “all lasciviousness be avoided” in religious images “in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.” The use of fig leaves—borrowed from the Adam and Eve story—became acceptable coverings. Second, in 1857, Pope Pius IX decided that the hundreds of the male statues in the Vatican were too licentious, even the undersized genitalia of classically-inspired Renaissance statues. In an event known as “the Great Castration,” he ordered workers to “castrate” hundreds of statues with hammers and chisels. His successor, Pope Leo VIII, added plaster fig leaves. Currently, research is going on in the Vatican matching penises to statues. I don’t know if someone saved all these cast-off penises (if seeing penises is sinful, wouldn’t saving them be as well?) and stashed them somewhere to be rediscovered centuries later.

thumbnailThe idea that visualizing sexual organs inspired lust continued into the Victorian era. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany gifted a copy of Michelangelo’s David to Queen Victoria, she had a leaf sculpted to “spare the blushes of visiting female dignitaries.”

Despite current fascination with readily-available pornography and advertising depictions of the human body clothed in garb that barely covers the genitalia, many people have an underlying distaste for human sexuality. One would think we could reach some kind of emotional and intellectual consensus about nudity and sexuality, but it seems beyond our reach at this point.

SSSuanne Schafer was born in West Texas. Now a retired family-practice physician, her pioneer ancestors and world travels fuel her imagination. She planned to write romances, but either as a consequence of a series of failed relationships or a genetic distrust of happily-ever-after, her heroines are strong women who battle tough environments and intersect with men who might—or might not—love them. Suanne’s debut women’s fiction novel, A Different Kind of Fire due out November 1, 2018, explores the life of a nineteenth century artist who escapes, then returns to West Texas. Her next book, Hunting the Devil, due out in September 15, 2019, explores the heartbreak and healing of an American physician caught up in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. You can visit her website at http://suanneschaferauthor.com/

If you like historical fiction, check out The Greenest Branch, my novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited, and available in ebook and paperback format on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.

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