A 1983 work by Leo Steinberg that was a bombshell in the field of Renaissance studies. Steinberg noticed that there were a large number of paintings (and even some sculptures) which prominently featured the genitals of Jesus Christ. In many of these works, the penis was held, pointed to, gestured at, in a state of erection, or similarly displayed in a noticeable manner. This fact was either suppressed or ignored during the history of Renaissance scholarship, and many of those works he discussed were newly restored in recent decades after being defaced by prudish censors or falling victim to neglect over the centuries.

In the visual arts there was a tradition of ostentatio vulnerum - the display of the wounds of Christ. Steinberg concluded that these works were evidence of a similar tradition; he called it the ostentatio genitalium.

True, parents and relatives often fawn attention on the penis of a child. (Elian Gonzalez’s grandmothers checked out his penis to the delight of late night comedians desperate for material.) But just because mortal families do something doesn’t mean that Renaissance artists would insert the Holy Family into such a scene. There are no paintings featuring Christ playing ball, eating a snack, or having his diapers changed. (There is, however, a wicked painting by surrealist Max Ernst of the Virgin Mary spanking Jesus, but that was hardly devotional, and in any case a twentieth century work.) Thus, Steinberg concluded that if there is a painting of Christ sporting a giant boner (as he is in one painting in the collection of, of all places, Bob Jones University), it must be of some theological significance, not an act of whimsy or an accident of fate.

Steinberg speculated that the ostentatio genitalium was an effort to emphasize the human nature of Christ. Christ was divine, of course, but he was also human, and this dual nature is key to his importance to the Christian faith. What better way to emphasize that Christ was incarnated as a human male then to display that manhood in all its glory? "It’s a man, baby!"

This idea, of course, instantly offended lots of people, and many more were skeptical. Initially, I was one of those skeptics. One of the flaws of Steinberg’s argument is that he has no written evidence to buttress his claims: no artist’s letters or journals, no contemporary commentary, nothing. But the evidence of the paintings themselves is powerful and irrefutable, and Steinberg’s book provides illustrations of 300 of them. (Imagine that. Three hundred pictures of Jesus’ penis.) Despite the torrents of criticism, tortured alternate explanations of the paintings, and logical contortions drawing on the writings of obscure mystics, the critics could not refute the obvious visual evidence.

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