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26 January 2009

Jerusalem/Athens Mash-Up

To me, this is one of the coolest sculptures in the history of Western art, and also one of the weirdest:

Michelangelo's Cristo della Minerva -- so called because the 14th-century church that houses it is situated on the former grounds of a temple consecrated to the Roman goddess of wisdom -- is a work that I'd never been aware of until a couple years ago, when it flashed onscreen in some PBS or History Channel special about artistic representations of Jesus through the ages.

Seeing it for the first time was one of those spit-take moments for me -- I could hardly believe that Michelangelo had gotten away with something so jaw-droppingly pagan in its aesthetics.

I mean, a Vulcan anthropology undergrad who'd studied a little about Earth's history and cultures, but who hadn't gotten to the chapter on Christianity yet, would probably look at the marble figure of a bearded human male carrying an odd -shaped object, and think: "Aha, this must be another Ancient Greek statue honoring one of their many deities -- perhaps Taumikron, god of lower-case t's? Or Hypotenos, god of 90° angles?"

Of course, we know that it represents Jesus Christ, and yet... Michelangelo portrayed his Lord and Savior as a heroic, muscular, nearly-nude male beefcake -- the way that classical Greek sculptors were wont to depict Apollo or Dionysus. "Goddamn, that Jesus was a hot fucking sonofabitch!" or the Italian equivalent thereof, must've been in Michelangelo's thoughts as he worked on this statue. And it's remarkable, to me, that except for the fluttering strip of cloth covering up "the bikini area," Michelangelo totally ignored Christian standards of bodily modesty.

It was one thing to present J.C. as a near-naked corpse held by Mary in the Pietà -- there, the nakedness served to emphasize the Son's voluntary self-degradation in being incarnated as a human in all our biological squishy grossness and suffering physical death. But here, the post-Resurrection Jesus is very much alive, chipper, and looks not the slightest bit embarrassed to be strolling around like an International Male catalog model. One must wonder: in Michelangelo's homosexual imagination, was Jesus circumcised under that loincloth, or -- like the David -- "un-kosher"? [It was pointed out to me after I originally posted this that the cloth over Jesus's genitals was a later bowdlerization not intended by Michelangelo. -- ed.]

I can't think of a work that more concisely embodies the Renaissance and subsequent Enlightenment, in which Christian Europe rediscovered the intellectual heritage of pagan Greece -- producing a cultural fusion without which America, and the modern Western world, could not exist.

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posted by Throbert | 1/26/2009 04:17:00 PM |
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