Image of the Body Slide Show 7.4 MB

The Image of the Body: Art and the Sacred

The Mind is a Maker of Images

In 1940, as Europe was going to war for the second time in less than a generation, four teenage boys in Southwest France  accidentally made one of the most important discoveries in the history of the human mind—the Lascaux cave  and the16,000 year-old wall paintings that it contained. This discovery proved conclusively—if any more proof were needed—that we human beings are—and have always been—makers of images. And since Lascaux, among the most important of the images that we have made are those of our own bodies.

Sexual Attraction

Sexual attraction is an emotional reaction to the image of the body. The picture of a nude person can provoke as powerful a response in the brain and the body as the reality of a nude person standing right in front of you.  A painting or sculpture of a person and a real flesh and blood person standing in a room are both images transmitted from eye to brain. Intellectually, the mind knows the difference between a painting or a photograph and a flesh and blood person, but the emotional response to the two can be exactly the same. It’s this sameness in the reality of the inner emotional response that gives the image in the picture its power.

But while the image of the body is central to the emotion that we call sexual attraction, it is also central to the history of religion and to art. A purpose of this page is to explore the relationships between these three broad aspects of the image of the body: the sexual, the religious, and the artistic.

To use this page:

Each of the images has a thumbnail in the text.  The text talks about the meaning of the image and why it was chosen for this page. As you read the text, you can click on each thumbnail (or its underlined title) in order to go to the image; you can then click on the “back” button next to the image in order to return to the text, and go on to the next image.

All but five of the images on this page were seen and photographed by me in real time.  Because the power of an image is in the subjective reaction it evokes in the viewer, I wanted to gauge  my own reaction to an image in this way before including it on this page.  I also wanted to photograph it myself.  In some cases, the photograph is a straightforward documentation of the image; in other cases, my subjective reaction to it influenced factors such as angle and lighting. In a very few cases, my desire to photograph the image in real time myself meant that its quality is not all that it could be.

The Image of the Body in the Ancient World

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art there are two sarcophagi—repositories for human remains—that illustrate a seismic shift in how the image of the body and sexuality came to be regarded in the ancient world. The first sarcophagus dates from the 3rd century.

3rd Century Sarcophagus. On it, the god Dionysus is shown seated on a panther, while naked youths on either side of him represent the four seasons. Dionysus was the god who introduced wine to mankind. He was also the god of drama and poetry, whose altar stood at the center of the theaters of ancient Greece. He was the god of instinct, as well as the arts.  His worship could be marked by revelry, sometimes of an orgiastic nature. Among the beliefs associated with Dionysus was that winter coincided with his descent into the underworld in a  metaphorical  death, while spring marked his re-emergence into the world of the living. His image on this sarcophagus, together with the allegorical figures of the four seasons are not, then, images of mourning, but rather of the affirmation of the cycle of life, its continuity, and its connection to the sacred.

The next image is that of a sarcophagus from the fourth century. In 312 A.D. Christianity attained the status of a legal religion within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. This sarcophagus held the remains of a Christian. 4th Century Sarcophagus. In place of Dionysus on a panther, we see Christ on a donkey, a reference to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The image of Christ too is a positive image, a reminder of the Christian belief in resurrection and eternal life. In this, it strikes a similar note of positive affirmation in the face of death as does the presence of Dionysus on the earlier sarcophagus. However, the image carved on one of the ends of the Christian sarcophagus stands in stark contrast to its 3rd century predecessor.  Adam and Eve, 4th Century Sarcophagus.  Instead of the idealized figures of naked youths representing the four seasons, we have Adam and Eve covering their nakedness in shame. The presence of this image, carved in primitive style, is an early signal of the monumental change that was to overtake the world of Classical civilization. The religion that was once illegal  and suppressed, Christianity, would in turn suppress and eventually make illegal the religion that had first nourished Greek culture and then the greatest empire the world had ever known.  In the process, there was a gradual—but ultimately radical—restructuring of the experience of the human body, of sexuality, and their relation to the sacred. 

The “Culture Wars”

A millennium and a half later, this restructuring was a key component in this country’s  “culture wars”—in which the split between sexuality and the sense of the sacred was emphasized anew in a marriage of convenience between the political and religious right. But in the religious world view  of classical  Greek and Roman civilization, sexual desire was part of the sacred order—not opposed to it. Our word “erotic” comes from “Eros,” the Greek name for the God of Love.  Hesiod, the Greek poet who was roughly contemporary with Homer, told of the origins of the universe in these terms:

“Chaos was first of all, but next appeared
Broad-bosomed earth, sure standing-place for all
The gods who live on Snowy Olympus' peak,
And misty Tartarus, in a recess
Of broad-pathed earth, and Love, most beautiful
Of all the deathless gods.  He makes men weak,
He overpowers the clever mind and tames
The spirit in the breasts of men and gods.”

The Greeks and Romans understood that the gods and goddesses themselves  fell in love and made love, and that the power of love ruled even the gods. Here are two images of Eros. The first image, a sculpture at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is dated 197 A.D. and is identified as Cupid, the Roman name for this god. For consistency, I refer tothis sculpture by its Greek name. Eros I.  The second image is also Roman, and dates from the 1st to the 2nd century.  Only the torso remains, but its identity as the god of love is confirmed by the evidence on the back of the sculpture that it once had wings that were broken off. Eros II. In fact, older Greek images of Eros do not necessarily have wings, which seem to be something of a Roman accretion. However, the fact that evidence is needed to confirm that this sculpture represents the god and not a mortal youth highlights a fact that is so taken for granted that it is rarely discussed—that for the Greeks and Romans the images of the gods and goddesses resemble mortal human beings and vice-versa. 

Man and God

This fact struck me in a new way at the Rutgers University art museum, where I had gone to photograph several Roman sculptures—copies of Greek originals—that were in its collection. A friend came along with me and, on impulse, I asked him to pose next to the sculpture identified as an image of the god Apollo. Scott, Image of Apollo. In this photograph, there are two images: one in marble, almost two thousand years old (1st-2nd Century A.D.) and the other a warm, living human being. Obviously, my friend was clothed while the image of Apollo is nude. Yet, if the image of the god were somehow changed to a flesh and blood man and miraculously transported to the locker room of my friend’s gym, he would fit right in.

Not only did the Greeks and Romans represent their gods with human forms, they usually depicted them as beautiful or endowed with attributes of physical perfection. (There are exceptions: Hephaestus, the god of fire and the divine smith, was lame.) However,  this beauty and perfection rarely surpass the bounds of what can be found in actual living persons. In fact, one can imagine an actual man or woman serving as the sculptor’s model for the image of the deity. How then are the gods different from mortals? Clearly, they have powers that mortals can never approach. In addition, although age and decay are facts of human life that even the most beautiful or perfect human being will eventually  undergo, the gods will not. They are ageless and deathless. In the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” Homer refers to them as “the deathless gods.” Hesiod, calls Eros “the most beautiful of all the deathless gods.” Hence, the image of mortal beauty and perfection can symbolize immortality.  By no means have all cultures depicted their gods as beautiful—but the fact that the Greeks and Romans did must mean that the emotional reaction to beauty and perfection that is part of  sexual attraction  and the perception of what is conceived of as  “divine,” “sacred” or “transcendent” share something in common.

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where I live,  renovated its Greek and Roman galleries. The placement of some of the sculptures made for some interesting  juxtapositions that touch on this discussion. This remarkably intact 1st-2nd century sculpture of Hermes is a Roman copy of a Greek original. Hermes I. In the same gallery, there is an image of a youth from the same period. Roman Youth. This image, like so many Roman sculptures is  derived from a Greek original, in this case one commemorating the victory of a young athlete. In the next slide, the image of this same youth is in the foreground while that of the god is in the background.  Roman Youth and Hermes I. Adjacent to the image of the mortal youth there is another image of Hermes, this one also a Roman copy of a Greek original of the 4th or 5th century B.C. Hermes II.  The folds of the cloak around the neck of this image identifies it as a representation of Hermes. (The full signature cloak of the god is seen in Hermes I.) The next slide shows the figure of Hermes in the foreground with the image of the young mortal in the background. Hermes II and Roman Youth. Without the evidence of the cloak as a guide, the image of the god and that of the young athlete are virtually interchangeable.  Like most of the gods, Hermes had multiple sacred functions. He is best known as the messenger to the gods, but he was also an ancient fertility deity, and as Hermes Psychopomp,  he  led the souls of the dead to Hades.  This is what he is doing on this section of a column from the temple of Artemis that is in the British Museum. Hermes is the figure on your right as you look at this slide. As he performs this function,  his signature cloak is draped over his left arm while, in his right hand, he holds what appears to be a wand or scepter.  The god himself, deathless and ever  young, is shown here in a youthful, athletic body. Hermes Psychopomp, 4th Century B.C.

Male to Male Sexual Feeling in Classical Civilization

The early Christian Fathers held that men's erotic response to the beauty of another male was so sinful that it paved the road to hell, and they referred to the Olympian gods as “boy molesters.” In striking contrast is a painting at Palmyra that I saw during my travels to Syria a number of years ago.  In the 3rd century A.D. Palmyra, situated at an oasis in the desert, became rich from its position at the crossroads of the major trade routes of the ancient world. Its wealthy citizens, who believed in an afterlife, built mausoleums for themselves and their families. A few have survived with some of their sculpture and painting intact. In one of these mausoleums, a picture on the ceiling is almost as vivid  as when it was completed almost two thousand years ago. In Greek myth  Ganymede was  the young man whose beauty caused the god Zeus to fall in love with him. Zeus descended to earth in the form of an eagle and carried him away. As the visitor looks up, he sees the naked figure of a young man enfolded by the wings of the eagle whose form Zeus has taken. Ganymede and Zeus, Palmyra. This image seems very appropriate in this setting. His love for the young man causes the god to lift him up to the heavens, there to grant him eternal life and eternal youth. But the love of Zeus is definitely an erotic love.  And so, in this image, the consummation  of an erotic love on the part of the god becomes the symbol of the hope for resurrection and eternal life.

I saw another image of Ganymede at the archaeological museum in Tunis, when on a trip to Tunisia recently. After the conquest of Carthage, North Africa became another outpost of Roman culture. This 3rd century A.D.  Roman period sculpture emphasizes the extraordinary masculine perfection of the youth with whom Zeus fell in love. Ganymede, Tunisia.  As the story of Zeus and Ganymede shows, in the pre-Christian world male as well as female perfection could arouse  desire in both sexes. The painting on this 5th century B.C. plate shows another immortal  being,  Zephyros embracing Hyakinthos, a mortal youth. Zephyros was the West Wind and Hyakinthos was the beautiful youth that the god Apollo also fell in love with.

Other works of art show male to male erotic love, sometimes in quite explicit terms, between ordinary mortals. The painted scene on  Greek 5th Century B.C. Vase I shows two young men about to have an erotic encounter. The identical headdresses they are wearing suggests that they might have been to some kind of celebration. I took this picture myself at the British Museum under not very good circumstances because I think it’s interesting to see the actual vase itself as it existed and still exists inactuality. The image in Greek 5th Century B.C. Vase II is a photograph of the same vase that shows the details more clearly.  Interestingly,  there is a similar painting on another vase made in the same century, Greek 5th Century B.C. Vase III , that shows a very similar scene, only with  a young man and a young woman, instead of two young men. The two paintings are not thought to be by the same artist and it’s not clear which was made first.

The Romans worshiped the same Gods as the Greeks (though usually under different names) and, like the Greeks,  the Romans understood male to male attraction to be one of the ways in which erotic feeling was experienced and expressed. In the 3rd century A.D. the most powerful man in the world, Hadrian, Emperor of Rome, fell in love with Antinuous, a young man of eighteen.  Not only did he make no secret of his love, when Antinuous was found, tragically and mysteriously drowned in the Nile, Hadrian declared him to be a god and erected temples to him throughout theempire. The sexual love between older and younger was the preferred pattern of male to male love among the ancient Greeks and, as the relationship between Hadrian and his young lover shows, was also widely prevalent in the Roman world. The scene on this 4th century Roman cup shows a man and his younger lover in a moment of sexual intimacy (the figure spying on the couple from behind the door adds an intriguing voyeuristic touch to the scene.)

The Image of the Body in Hindu Religious Thought

Hinduism is a complex philosophical and religious system with roots as ancient as Judaism and Christianity. As in pre-Christian Greek and Roman civilization, the images of the gods and goddesses are important in Hindu religious thought and worship. However, the relation of these images to each other and to ultimate reality is more complex. At the highest levels of Hindu philosophical thought, all the different aspects of the world, animate and inanimate, human and animal, mortal and divine are parts of a single universal reality. Nevertheless,  as in  classical civilization,  the human form and the sacred body are reflected in each other, although the reflection is not always literal. Very often the image of the deity appears with four or more arms, signifying the transcendent power of the god. Also, across a span of a thousand years and a broad swath of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, there are wide stylistic variations. Finally, many of the deities have multiple avatars or incarnations,  assumed when they intervened to fend off evil or preserve the balance of the universe.

Together, Brahma. Vishnu, and Shiva are the three great gods of the Hindu pantheon. However, it is important to realize that there is no single body of belief that must be accepted in its entirety in Hindu thought, although there is a general consensus that underlies the Hindu world view. Some believers attribute supreme power to one deity, others to another.  By some, the supreme source of all is conceived of as a god, by others a goddess, while for some the supreme reality exists outside of any concept of gender. Although he is venerated as the Creator, there are few temples devoted to Brahma and hence relatively few images of him. In contrast, there are many temples dedicated to Vishnu, whose title of Preserver or Protector tells us that this deity has intervened  in the form of various avatars to fend off evil—often in the form of  powerful demons—who  threatened the balance of the  universe.  Vishnu I is an image (8th-10th) century that alludes to the multiple incarnations of this god. To the right of the deity’s face, we see the head of a boar  and to the left, the head of a lion, two avatars he assumed in order to protect the universe from harm.  The small figure on his left is the personification of his war discus. Between his lower legs we see the upper part of the body of the earth goddess. In contrast to the previous image which,  though splendid, is also damaged, the 10th century sculpture in Vishnu II  preserves intact the four arms of the god. Vishnu’s upper right hand holds his war discus, while his upper left hand holds his conch battle trumpet.  His lower right hand is held in the open-palm gesture that  allays fear. The third image of Vishnu is from the 7th century, pre-Angkor period. Its smooth, simple style is very different from the more complex, ornate style of the Indian sculptures. Again, the god’s upper left hand appears to be holding the conch trumpet while the upper right hand appears to be holding the war discus, and the palm of the lower right hand is turned up in the gesture of benevolence.  Vishnu III.

Shiva is one of the most complex deities in Hindu religious thought as well as iconography. One of his aspects is that of the ascetic yogi, while at the same time his symbol is the linga—the phallus. While the linga  represents a sexual aspect of this deity it is, even more, a profound symbol of his cosmic generative power.  When in Kathmandu some years ago,  we went to see the temple of Shiva in his aspect as Pashupati, “Lord of the Animals.” The temple, called Pashupatinath, was at the edge of the river, and our view of it was from the opposite bank. Temple of Shiva, Kathmandu. It was morning and the cremation fires from two funerals burned on platforms (ghats) on the riverbank . Just at the river’s edge was a linga,  a low, polished black column—itself a symbol of the larger linga within the temple’s sanctuary. People approached the linga at the water’s edge, and anointed it with water from the river, which was holy, and strewed flowers around it. In this picture, the bright flowers are visible at its base. Linga, Temple of Shiva. Within the sanctuary of the temple there is a linga with four faces of Shiva on it. Unfortunately, non-Hindus were asked not to enter the sanctuary,  but this 19th century image from Nepal can give us an idea of what it might look like. Linga with Four Faces of Shiva. Some Western scholars have said that the linga is not a sexual symbol, but I think that their denial reflects the difficulty we have in accepting the association of the sexual with the sacred. The next slide suggests that such a distinction is irrelevant in the Hindu conception of this god. Shiva, 7th Century.

The sexuality of Shiva is also emphasized in his relationship with the goddess Parvati (sometimes also called Uma.) Shiva and Parvati are often depicted together. In this 11th sculpture, they are shown with Skanda, their son, Shiva, Uma, Skanda. The poet Kalidasa, who lived in the 4th or 5th century, explains the reason for the birth of Skanda in his epic poem, the Kumarasambhava, “The Origin of the Young God.” The demon Taraka was so powerful that he was threatening the dominion of the gods themselves. When the gods asked the help of Brahma, the Creator, he told them that only a hero born of the marriage between Shiva and Parvati  could defeat this powerful demon. Kama, the god of love, is commissioned to approach Shiva, who is deep in ascetic meditation and, while Parvati is near, shoot one of his flower arrows at him,  so that Shiva will fall in love with her when he sees her. However,  before Kama can let fly his arrow, Shiva sees him and, in a rage, destroys the god of love with  fire from his third eye. In Kalidasa’s poem, Kama’s wife mourns him sadly, remembering him with these words:  "Your body, shining so beautifully, all women would compare their lovers to you.....” Here is an 8th century image of  the god of love. Kama, God of Love.  The arrows that he carries over his left shoulder are those referred to in the poem. As with Eros, Kama is both the name of the god of love as well as the word for love.

Eventually, Parvati  wins Shiva’s love by other means and, at their wedding, Shiva restores Kama to life. After their wedding, Shiva and Parvati make passionate love,  from which the future hero is born. He is called, variously, Skanda, Kumara, or Kartikeya. Here is an image of him, from the 4th-5th century, in which he is portrayed—seemingly as an adolescent—with  tender realism. Kartikeya.  

The relationship between the Hindu gods and the goddesses who are identified as their consorts is complex. It is not in any sense a relationship in which one is subordinated to the other.  Rather their powers tend to be viewed as complementary.  Shakti is the name of the cosmic female principle as well as one of the names of the primordial female goddess. In some schools of thought, Shakti  also refers to the energy that  enables the god to put his power into effective action in the universe. In this conception, it is his relationship with the goddess who is his consort that makes this energy available to him. Here is a10th century image of Parvati,  consort, wife, lover, and Shakti of Shiva. Parvati, 10th Century.

The next image is likely to be, to Western eyes, both esoteric and paradoxical.  It is the incarnation of Shiva as Ardhanarishvara, “The Lord Whose Half is Woman.”  In this incarnation, the single form of the deity is divided down the middle, a female breast on the left side, a masculine chest on the right. In Kalidasa’s poem, because of the intense love of Parvati for Shiva and of Shiva for her, she enters into and becomes one-half of his body. Thus,  in this 9th-12th century image, the god whose principle symbol is the phallic linga is venerated as “the lord whose half is woman.” (In this image, the right hand of the god rests on the head of his celestial mount, the bull Nandi.) Shiva Ardhanarishvara I. An even older image of this incarnation, and in a very different style comes from 7th-8th century Cambodia. Shiva Ardhanarishvara II. In a manner that is deeply characteristic of Hindu thought, the image of Shiva as “The Lord Whose Half is woman” reconciles two apparent opposites. On the one hand, the distinction between male and female is maintained while, at the same time and in a profound sense, each is understood to be only an aspect of an underlying unity.

The Lord of the Dance

There is one more aspect of this most complex of deities to consider. Where Brahma is the “Creator" and Vishnu the “Preserver,” Shiva bears the title of “Destroyer.” In Hindu religious thought, after countless eons, the universe will be destroyed and created anew. It falls to Shiva to be the agent of this cycle of destruction and regeneration. The image from the 12th-13th  century of Shiva as Nataraja—“Lord of the Dance”—is the dramatic visualization of his role in this cataclysmic cycle. (The figure on which the foot of the god rests represents ignorance. ) Shiva Nataraja. Stella Kramrisch, the late—and great—scholar of Indian art and Hindu religious thought, said  about this image,  "Nataraja dances the cosmos into existence, upholds its existence, and dances it out of existence. The raised leg of the dancer shows the liberating freedom of his dance, the drum raised by the right hand sounds the note of creation, the flame in the left hand flickers in the change brought about by destruction, the right hand grants freedom from fear, the fear of repeated births and deaths, and assures the maintenance of life....In order to save the world,   Shiva in his perverse power dances the world out of existence wildly laughing, scattering ashes from his body. This is the Tandava dance of Shiva as Kala-Mahakala, the Destroyer, Destroyer of Destruction.  But from his flowing hair the rivers will flow again into existence and the rays of the sun and moon will be seen again for what they are, the hair of Shiva." 


In Hindu tradition, the goal of life is moksha,  the end of the cycle of reincarnation and the merging of the soul of the individual with the great universal reality of the cosmos. In the Tantric tradition of Hinduism, sexual intercourse was practiced ritually because it was felt that the sense of oneness with one’s partner that could be achieved through sex was the closest that one could come, in earthly life, to the loss of the illusory sense of individuality and to the sense of merging with the great, ineffable reality of which the individual life is only a part. At about the 11th century, the Chandella dynasty, who ruled a kingdom in northern India, built a series of monumental temples that reflected their devotion  to Tantric belief and  practice. The exteriors of these temples are covered with a profusion of erotic carvings of the highest quality. Humans make love in an extraordinary variety of ways—groups as well as couples—while gods and goddesses look on and testify to their sacred meaning. These temples are found at Khajuraho, once the capital of the Chandellas, now only a quiet village. The images entitled Khajuraho, Tantric Group IKhajuraho, Tantric Group II, and Khajuraho, Lovers are from photographs taken by me on a trip to India in 1988. Khajuraho, Temple provides a sense of the size and grandeur of the edifices on which these and other images appear.  It’s a striking contrast to the way Christian civilization conceives of the relation between  the sacred and the erotic, that every man, woman, and child who came to worship at these temples saw this profusion of erotic images on their walls.

Buddhism’s Transcendent Beings

Buddhism has no concept of a god who presides over the universe. The primary penalty for the failure to live a good life is, as in Hinduism, the necessity to be re-born and to repeat the whole thing again. The Tibetan Book of the Dead consists of instructions to be read to the dying person—or to the soul of one who has just died. He is warned that he will see images—gods and demons—that are both beautiful and frightening. He is warned that these are projections of his own mind. If the person can recognize this and reject all temptations that might lead to entering a womb and being born again, “he will dissolve into rainbow light…” A Bodhisattva is a transcendent being who has attained enlightenment but has stayed in the world as a guide to help others to reach the same goal. The images of Bodhisattvas are idealized images of human beauty, where bodily perfection is symbolic of spiritual perfection.

The first of the trio of images below is a 13th Century Tibetan image of Avalokiteshvara, the “Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion.” Avalokiteshvara, 13th Century. The second image has sustained considerable damage, including bullet holes, but it still radiates the beauty and the aura of spirituality that identifies it as a Bodhisattva. Bodhisattva, Tibet, 12th Century. The next slide is an image of the Buddha himself, from the pre-Angkor period in Cambodia.  Buddha, 7th Century. None of these three images represents a god. Rather, each is the image of a transcendent being who has gotten past the illusions and desires that are the sources of human suffering. Contemplating their images is a form of meditation that can assist the onlooker to move along the path towards his own enlightenment.

Tibetan (Tantric) Buddhism

The next image symbolizes, through the body, what Enlightenment means in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the central religious symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. The image is called Yab-Yum, which literally means “father-mother.” Tibetan Buddhism is also known as “Tantric Buddhism.” Therefore, the similarity to the Tantric images on the temples of  Kajuraho is not accidental. However,   actual sexual intercourse is not part of Tibetan Buddhist practice. Rather the image of sexual union is presented as an object for meditation. The female figure in the Yab-Yum image symbolizes Wisdom while the male figure is symbolic of Compassion. Wisdom and Compassion I. (The figures underfoot represent forces of ignorance and opposition to enlightenment. )  Wisdom and compassion are abstract concepts. Meditating on and identifying with the psychologically compelling image of bodies of transcendent beings in sexual union provides an intensity and depth of emotional understanding that thinking about these concepts in the abstract cannot match. The next Yab-Yum image is from a photograph that I took at the British Museum. Although it’s not a perfect photograph I’m including it because it represents two  of the principle Bodhisattvas in the Buddhist canon, Avalokiteshvara and Tara,  who is the most important female Bodhisattva in various schools of Buddhism, in symbolic sexual union. Wisdom and Compassion II.

The Image of the Body in Christianity

The most important image in Christianity is that of the body of Christ. Of the thousands of images of Christ available, I only include two on this page. The first is an image of the crucifixion by the 20th century artist, Salvador Dali. Crucifixion, Salvador Dali. Reactions to artistic images are, of course, subjective. I’ve chosen this image because, in my eyes, it is stripped of the centuries of tradition that have tended to distance the human aspect of Christ from our own experience of the body. The figure of Christ is absolutely contemporary and photographic. The body of a young man floats before a cross that is also floating. As I write these words, the war in Iraq is in its fifth year. The young man on the cross and his mother looking up at him could be any one of the young men who have been sacrificed in this or any other war, and the grieving mother, any one of their mothers. The other image is on a stained glass window in the chapel of Saint Saviour in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Christ, Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In this image, Christ appears in Majesty in an artistic tradition that stretches back a millennium and a half. Yet,  for Christians, the words above the head of Christ that read, “…My Beloved Son….” are a link between this  triumphant image of Christ and the tender body of the nearly naked young man in Dali’s painting. 

Symbolism of the Sacred Image

The sacred or transcendent image is, I believe, a symbol  that makes a connection between our finite, mortal—embodied—existence and the infinite, the eternal beyond that existence. In addition, because the immortal bodies of Hermes, Shiva, Parvati, Avalokiteshvara  or Christ reflect our own mortal bodies,  they endow them with value and worth. Of the four religious traditions whose images I’ve shown on this page, only Christianity has tried to omit the overtly erotic as an aspect of the sacred body. Yet, the erotic is one of the most important ways in which the emotion of love is expressed and sexuality is the means for the creation of new life. Individual humans must die, but sexuality ensures that humanity will be “immortal.” Only Christianity has paired aspects of human sexuality and erotic feeling with a sense of sin. When Shiva desires to make love with Parvati,  the poet Kalidasa asks, “…and how can others who are under the power of the senses stay unmoved when these emotions touch even the lord?" By leaving eroticism and sexuality outside the circle of the sacred, or at its perimeter, Christian civilization has paid a price in centuries of inner conflict and anguish.

The Image of the Body in Art

The Renaissance represented a return, in Western art, to the naturalistic and idealized way of depicting the human form. At the same time,  it represented a revival  of interest in all aspects of Classical civilization, including its religious beliefs and symbols. In Rome, bishops, cardinals, and even popes collected works of art that depicted the gods, goddesses, myths, and legends of the Classical world. The only prohibition observed was that a Christian and a pagan image could not be represented in the same work of art. Although we now see Western artists depicting the body in ways that deliberately diverge from the natural,  until the beginning of the 20th century,  the model for the depiction of the body in Western art remained  the naturalistic style of Greek and Roman art. In Europe,  as the Renaissance was followed by the Enlightenment,  art became less and less focused on religious subjects. Rodin, arguably the greatest sculptor of the late 19th century said, “The sculpture of antiquity sought the logic of the human body, I seek it’s psychology.” I think Rodin’s statement reflects the degree to which  the image of the body in art, whether sacred or secular,  can be a vehicle for touching deep levels of emotion and meaning in the  human psyche. The title of Rodin’s Eternal Spring tells us the psychological meaning of this work. The bodies of the young lovers and their sexual embrace symbolize, like spring itself, the human  hope for fertility, renewal , and the triumph of life over death.  The meaning of  Rodin’s “The Age of Bronze” is more ambiguous. Rodin completed the work in 1877, a few years after the end of the Franco-Prussian war, which had been a disaster for France. We see the body of a young man.  Here interpretation is subjective—his tense and maybe even anguished pose hints at the pain and suffering that wars inflicts on the young men who are made to fight them.
The Age of Bronze I.   The Age of Bronze II.   The Age of Bronze III.

In contrast is another image of the nude body of a young man by photographer Jack Pierson, simply called “Untitled.” The image you see here is my own photograph of the artist’s photograph, which was part of the 1993 Biennial of the Whitney Museum in New York City. Untitled, byJack Pierson. It’s a photographic counterpart of the sculptures of antiquity that, like the sculpture of Ganymede in the Tunisian museum, emphasize the perfection of the youthful male body. The red light that bathes the image might be seen as having associations to eroticism. I don’t think those associations would be troubling to the Greeks or Romans, since it was understood that images of human beauty could touch the erotic sensibilities of anyone. However,  when I showed this picture in a class whose subject was the image of the body,  one of my students said that he noticed that a couple of men had looked away from the screen and a religious student said he found it offensive.

The Archetype of the “Double”

An “archetype” is a powerful theme –often represented by an image—that arises out of the structure of the human mind and experience.  There is a reference to the “archetype of the double” in the “Chapters” page of this website (see:  Chapter 11: “The Color Green.”) In men the archetype of the “double” is an image of the masculine in its broadest sense. This image can be experienced in the self or in others—father, brother, friend, lover. It can be also be experienced in iconic images such as those of political leaders, athletes, and movie stars—or in the images of gods. It is present when men feel erotically drawn to each other,  even when they experience inner conflict about this feeling. George Gray Bernard is an American sculptor who had spent some time in Paris in the early part of his career.  One of his sculptures has two titles, one English and one French. The English title is, “The Struggle of the Two Natures of Man.” The French title is “Je Sens Deux Hommes en Moi,” which means, “I feel two men within me.” It makes no reference to “higher” and “lower” but rather to an inner sense of duality and conflict. Two Natures…Je Sens Deux Hommes en Moi I and Two Natures…Je Sens Deux Hommes en Moi II.

The English title refers to the Christian concept of the struggle between the earthly and the spiritual side of man—the body as the battleground for the conflict between sexuality and spirituality.  However, the French title and the sculpture itself suggest another interpretation—a visual interpretation of the archetype of the “double.” It’s a convention to say that “opposites attract” to explain the attraction between male and female. However,  a major component in male to male feeling is that sameness or identity attracts. The attraction is to another person who is like oneself, who is both a reflection of the self and completion for the self. In the Bernard sculpture,  this “doubling” or “twinning” is seen in the fact that the two figures are identical. The “struggle” that the English title of the sculpture refers to has itself a double meaning: the first is  the conflict between  the “earthly,” sexual self and the “spiritual” self; the second, in my view, is the conflict between the two sides of the sexual self, one of which—the part attracted to the same sex—has been held to be “lower” than the part attracted to the opposite sex, which is “higher.” I very recently came across another sculpture by George Gray Bernard that demonstrates the importance of the archetype of the “double” and love between men for this artist. It is called, “Brotherly Love,” but has none of the tension or ambivalence of the “Two Natures.” In this realization of the theme,  twin male figures are reaching toward each other as if to embrace. Brotherly Love.

The cover of of Male to Male also represents an image of the “double” in its two identical figures, each of whom is seeing his reflection in the other, with a mixture of attraction and apprehension. A similar sense of apprehension is seen in a painting by Jared French. Simply entitled “The Double,” it shows a nude young man under the watchful  gaze of two other young men, neither of whom resembles this figure, yet who seem drawn to him. (The figure of the woman with the parasol is ambiguous.) The Double, by Jared French The last aspect of the “double” that I want to mention is found in the cross-generational relationship between  older and younger men. This relationship can take an erotic form but it need not. It is seen in many situations where an older man serves as mentor or guide to his younger counterpart and it is prototypical in father and son relationships. It’s also seen in this 1964 painting by John Koch. The Sculptor, by John Koch. The relationship between the older sculptor and his younger model seems easy and relaxed, as the younger man casually lights the older man’s cigarette. The nudity of the younger man adds an element of eroticism to the image, but it is not clear if their relationship involves anything more than a professional appreciation by the artist for his model’s body.

The last images on this page are two views  of a sculpture called “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” by Cyrus Edwin Dallin. Completed in 1909, it stands in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We see an Indian “brave” mounted on a horse, lifting his arms while looking up toward the sky. Appeal to the Great Spirit I. The body of the Indian is a symbol that gathers together a number of ideas: in its near nudity and perfection of form, it refers back to the Greek and Roman roots of our civilization; it also symbolizes the pristine state of the American continent before the frontier was closed by encroaching European settlements. Well before the time the sculpture was made, the American Indians had effectively been confined to reservations,  often after being driven from their ancestral lands. At the same time, a longing for and an idealization of a past that had been lost had come to be symbolized by the nobility of the very Indians who had been suppressed.  “Appeal to the Great Spirit” evokes an expansive and primeval spirituality that was as open as the plains and as limitless as the sky beneath which the Indian depicted in the sculpture was once free to ride—a time before churches and the civilization of the Old World had confined the natural freedom that is man’s birthright. Appeal to the Great Spirit II.

If you would like to see each of the images again, in sequence, click on:

Image of the Body Slide Show 7.4 MB