The nude figure and Christianity

Over the last four or five years I’ve engaged in a number of discussions online concerning the use of nude models in the art world from a Christian perspective. Commonly, a Victorian (or, as some would suggest, “prudish”) sensibility seems to drive many Protestant’s response to any kind of undraped human body, and many people of faith condemn the use of nudes in the teaching of art.

d317db_fullsize.jpg
Drawing by James Jean

A number of factors must be considered when approaching this subject, including the place of the human form in Creation, the place of the human form in artistic tradition, how the human form is viewed in present day culture and, as Christians, the human tendency to pervert all good things. I recently, perchance, ran across Gordon College’s policy and reasoning for the use of nudes in their drawing classes; Gordon is a private, faith-based institution. Some key points in their article are excerpted here:

    “We have chosen in the Art Department at Gordon College to work respectfully with the human figure attempting to bring honor and glory to God in the process. We base this, in a Christian context, on a time-honored professional practice, holding the belief that the human form is the crowning achievement of God in Creation – worthy of our expert knowledge, and analogous to the scientific knowledge of the human body in medicine and biology. In our tradition as artists it is seen as the linchpin of our practice of visual knowledge. If you can accurately and expressively draw or paint or sculpt the human form you can draw anything.”

    “In our teaching, the nude has much more in common with medical knowledge than with popular sexualization of images in advertising and movies. The context of the encounter determines the meaning of the unclothed form. An operating theater in a hospital has a drastically different meaning from that of a strip joint. An art studio with students or artists surrounding a model is akin to the operating theater. Knowledge is being gained and a professional activity is being practiced.”

My own experience drawing with the aid of nude figures at the University of Nebraska followed this same professional decorum. Never was the act of drawing with a live, undraped model sexual or erotic. It was academic and — despite not preferring the teaching style of my professor — key to furthering my own skills. I learned more in my figure drawing class than I could have imagined, and firmly believe the cause of this learning was directly related to the challenges inherent in rendering the human form. Ironically, the two models I drew most while in class went to my church (and happened to be brother and sister).

My brother, who attended a different public university in Nebraska, drew from models not entirely undraped, but in their underwear. My mother relayed to me that he was personally glad for this. I find it interesting, however, that it’s not just Christian schools that hedge against nudity.

In the last year I’ve desired to begin sketching again, in order to further my craft in all respects. Knowing the important part figure drawing played in my artistic development during college, this is where I would like to focus. However, I don’t have access to models at this point (and can’t really afford to pay them anyway) and haven’t begun sketching regularly despite my desire. Another option lies with the variety of books for artists available at major retailers. These feature numerous photographs or drawings of nude models in a variety of poses. I fear, however, this option falls short of the actual experience; the photos are small and detail will certainly be compromised.

Here in America we are a bit prudish at times (I remember when, in college, friends of mine — being female — offered room and board temporarily to a German friend — being male — who had no problems with walking around in the nude after showering, to the girl’s chagrin. All three involved were Christ-followers.). Here in the United States we are required, to a degree, to suffer through overly-sexualized, unrealistically-modified advertising on a ludicrous and unhealthy scale — a fact which distorts our perception of reality and can subsequently wreak havoc in almost all areas of our lives.

Perhaps a renaissance in figure drawing is a good antidote to the absurd culture that marketers of “beauty” and film-makers have cultivated around us. Maybe a resurgence of the nude (“nude” being different than “naked”) in American art could actually serve to refocus our perspective. Maybe if our reaction to the Divinely created human body weren’t so awkward — perhaps most often a mixture of lust and shame — women would not feel pressured into hiding while breast-feeding, a beautifully intimate but non-sexual act. Just maybe the culture would be less prone to sexualizing (read “objectifying”) women and, more and more, men. Perhaps God would be more glorified when people took the time to observe new drawings and paintings depicting the figure, as they contemplate how wonderfully and fearfully made we are.

Perhaps.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

18 Responses to The nude figure and Christianity

  1. petertchattaway says:

    Just wondering, have you ever read Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion? It looks at how artists of a certain era emphasized the incarnation by drawing attention to the genitals of Jesus; I posted an excerpt here:

    http://artsandfaith.com/index.php?showtopic=1952

  2. TAE says:

    I’m aware of the use of symbolism in Renaissance art but not of this particular method. Thanks for the link; great stuff! (I’ll get around to reading all of the excerpt a little later.)

  3. Marissa says:

    I went to a secular college (two actually) and drawing from the nude was never sexualized at all. The teachers were far too professional to go there.

    Except for the time one of the models hit on me after class. Now that was just creepy.

  4. TAE says:

    Marissa,

    I’ve heard stories (online) of instances where certain improprieties occurred, but this doesn’t at all seem to be the norm. I think more often than not the models are the ones that are violated in these more or less rare circumstances. There will always be a few bad apples to spoil it for the rest of us per our parent’s platitude, right?

  5. Jesse Wolfe says:

    (I found your blog while googling for a life drawing session to attend)

    bravo! I often say that I think it is often underestimated is the social power in portraying human beings as they really are– the world has been filled with images of models that have been modified with plastic surgery, makeup, and digital retouching tools. Even the poses of figures in modern advertising is carefully exaggerated to convey certain messages.
    I think that Americans have forgotten the grace and beauty of the natural human body, and that the process of art — amateur art, especially! — can be a powerful good, by revealing truths about ourselves.

  6. David Taylor says:

    Hey this is really funny. I’m in the middle–as in right now, at this very minute–working on my application to St. Andrews University. The dissertation I’m proposing is an investigation of Evangelical Christianity and Nudity in Art, whether visual, dramatic, dance or otherwise. I was cruising through the internet to see what choice material I might find and you came up! That’s really great. I love it. Well done. That cracks me up.

    And hello once again.

  7. TAE says:

    Hello again indeed!

    One of the books I mentioned on the blog in December that I received for Christmas — It Was Good: Making art to the glory of God — has en essay by Edward Knippers. Knippers, whom you probably know of, uses the nude regularly in his paintings. I was told earlier in the week by a friend that this particular essay discusses use of nudes in Christian work. I haven’t gotten to that book yet though, so can’t add anything more than this referral.

    Can you do a degree with St. Andrews long distance or are you moving?

  8. David Taylor says:

    I have the book, haven’t read the chapter, but thank you. I am familiar with Ed; not personally, just through CIVA. No long distance study for me. I’m leaving the mainland and headed to the land of William Wallace and golf and the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts.

    I marry in ten days, throw the Transforming Culture symposium together in April, resign from my job at Hope Chapel in May, and head to St. Andy’s in September. Today I get to plow through a stack of articles and essays on Christianity and the nude — with a pure intent: to get a green light from the admissions committee.

    FWIW, one of the articles I did for CT Movies was on profanity, violence and nudity:

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/commentaries/violenceprofanitynudity.html

    We also ran a seminar on art and nudity for our arts festival back in 2003. Well attended, a lively discussion. Have the notes.

    Just for fun, IMAGE journal published an essay back in 1989 by James J. Thompson with the title, “Does John Updike Write Dirty Books?”

    And if you go onto Christianity Today you’ll find an essay by Frederica Matthews-Greene, “What to Say at a Naked Party.”

    We’re all interested, we’re all listening. And there’s plenty of room for growth in this area, intellectual, biblical, theological as well as personal and social. Good times.

  9. TAE says:

    Just read CT’s “What to say at a naked party” (added link in post above). Very interesting, particularly the second half and towards the end. I read something very similar to this sentiment

    “It may even turn out, in a supreme irony, that the current phenomenon of transitory student lesbianism was just a strategy of desperation, the only way society currently allows young women to tell boys, ‘Go away, I’m not ready.'”

    last year in a book called Branded: The buying and selling of teenagers, where the author suggested jr. high girls performing of oral sex for boys was a way of protecting their own virginity.

  10. As one of the best figurenude photographers in history, I know for certain that the female figure is God’s masterpiece and can be presented completely devoid of the erotic and sexual or it can be completely sinful. After 6-weeks unresponsive and in a coma, I was removed from a RESPIRATOR with a DNR to die.
    ——————————————————–
    I am paralyzed mid-back and had a stroke that removed my ability to fully move my left arm. I also have a severe traumatic brain injury and had 99% of my past memories erased. I was in a coma for 6 weeks. My spouse and I had once talked of living via machine. She chose to have them remove my respirator or ‘let-go-and-let-God’. My parents did not wish her to do so, but they accepted her at her word. After they turned off my respirator, my brother sat encouraging me to breathe. I did but only enough to die more slowly. He said I squeezed his hand and was told by a doctor that it was a normal occurrence for bodies expiring to randomly contract. He asked a neurologist to re-examine me and said it wasn’t random. The doctor did and asked me that if I was there to give him a thumbs up. The doctors were completely amazed when I gave them a thumbs up. One doctor said that he had to acknowledge that he had just seen a miracle. They went to the hospital chapel and advised my wife who was there already morning her loss of a husband. He also advised her that I still was not breathing. She agreed about them returning the respirator. Over the next few weeks I was weaned from the respirator.

    I had broken my fibulas, tibias, left femur, left humerus, left scapula, all my left ribs, and five vertebras along with my pelvis in six places. None of the broken back bones were the cause of my paralysis. I had broken most of the bones in my body and my broken ribs had penetrated my organs and torn my descending aorta from my heart. The surgery to repair the aorta left me paralyzed. The rib that broke and attacked my heart caused it. My brain injury was due to my head being jerked to a stop by the seatbelt and my brain impacting the skull that also stopped.

    Over the next few years, due to pressure sore infections, I elected to have both legs removed above the knee. Most around me thought this was strange, but I could not remember ever using my legs. I do not miss them a bit and it was a good way to lose useless weight without a diet.
    ———————————————–
    I would not still be here able to create images that qualify to be called figurenude if He had not chosen to grant a miracle.
    90% of the nudes you see at the site linked were done by me from a wheelchair.

  11. The Bird says:

    It’s one of the biggest challenges in the world, to study, draw or sculpt the nude figure or animals. It’s awesome but it makes me sad to think that many, many people only think of it in a sexual context or in a fearful context (media and peer pressure to conform to impossible cosmetic standards).

    I love studying anatomy and biology and while my actual skills lie in images and music, I still have complete awe when studying the figure. I feel sorry for people who’s minds stay so small as they will never feel the wonder of God’s creation, in fact i’d also say, Gods pinnacle of creation as ALL of creation to the infinite universe is balanced to allow US to live.

    …I love life drawing and am actually starting a photographic project of confident nude portraits and it’s going well so far:) People ARE changing thier perception of the figure and it’s good news.

  12. Romans 14:16
    Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.

    A figurenude is NOT evil.

    Most nudes are evil.

    Nude art can be done that is a manner of praise.
    There are people who refuse to consider Christianity and Jesus because of the hypocrisy that surrounds this issue.

    Ansel Adams did some VERY well known nudes.
    Yosemite is always nude.

    A nude human may have been too difficult for Ansel to photograph as purely art. It may have filled him with lust.

    Did God make humans nude on accident?
    My God doesn’t make mistakes.

    God covered humans with clothes made from the skins of animals after humans sinned. The animals God ripped the skins off did not sin. Removal of skin usually results in death?

    Did the same God who created everything prefer to kill animals to create the first set of clothes instead of just having humans grow fur and not need clothes? Was this also the first time humans had steak? *humor*

    God was demonstrating his first example that sin could only be covered by blood being spilled. It foreshadowed Jesus’ sacrifice. God could have as easily made clothes from cotton.

    He made clothes instead of giving humans fur so that they could be removed and his masterpiece appreciated without obstruction.

    Out of the entire Bible there is no mention of nudity in art. In Rome at the time there were common examples of nudity in art. Members of the church addressed the consuming of meat that had been offered to idols.
    (Romans 14:21) Most misinterpret this to mean to do nothing that your brother believes is sinful. Does this mean to be a vegetarian? NO Did they mention such a trivial detail that relates to idols of the time and overlook mentioning nudity in art?

    I was in a coma for 6+ earth weeks. I have stood at the entrance to Heaven. Today heaven is filled with people who are happy and UN-happy people. If you are in heaven watching the results of your sins cause someone you love not accept Christ, you will feel sorrow. This is the plain truth. It is not mentioned in the Bible for good reason. Jesus deals with sorrow every day. Sorrow is not beyond Jesus. In the end times, there will be no more tears. NOT till then will that be true anywhere.
    Revelations 21:4
    He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

    I do figurenude photographs from a wheelchair with one fully functional arm/hand. I am paralyzed mid back and will never have sex. I do figurenude photography better than most others in my condition, if not ALL in my condition. I am in a fairly unique set of physical circumstances.

    I praise God that I can. He uses me every day.

    Romans 14:16
    Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.

    A figurenude is NOT evil.

    Most nudes are evil.

    A figurenude is NOT evil.

    A figurenude is NOT evil.

    A figurenude is NOT evil.

    Romans 14:16
    Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.

  13. edo deweert says:

    the act of getting naked is erotic…the act of being naked is eritic….the act of rendering the human body naked is erotic
    aestetically, there is nothing beautiful about the human body: a formless blob, from which a number of appendages protrudes.
    as a species we have assigned qualities of “beauty” to all elements of the human body: eyes, chin, breasts, legs, lips etc. etc.
    the reason? come on, you surely must know this: beauty equeates with desirability, which in turn equates with sexuality and sexuality is required in order to procreate…..which, after all, is what “the church” wants? go to my blog to read further : http://www.themodelundraped.blogspot.com

    • zee says:

      dear edo
      from what you have said it seems all you think we are are animals with one aim: to reproduce. And that’s it? Not to mention other aspects that are distinctive to us, humans; have you never come across any form of beauty, anything that made you think, hmm, this is nice – with no reason to be nice, it’s just purely beautiful because it is beautiful?
      And for the church, if it does what it says, the aim is not having numbers in people – but to proclaim the need for and way of salvation and minister to people both outside and inside his courts.

  14. Michael Scott says:

    To begin with, I don’t think God would discribe himself as a christian or anything else except himself. I’m sure he is proud of his creation. The human form is both erotic and beautiful and any artist will tell you those are two different things. A tree is beautiful but, I don’t want have sex with it. Just because a model is beautiful does not mean I want to have sex with her. Erotic or beautiful depends on time and place. Life drawing class is not an erotic experience for me, it’s work. Anyone that is thinking erotic thoughts while trying to draw or paint is going to come up short.

  15. edo deweert says:

    to zee:
    i am an atheist, but i have been among enough people who believe in a god to have learned that the ultimate “plan” for all species on this earth is to procreate.
    god, in all her splendid wisdom, has given us humans a brain to that end…an organ that actually is the largest sex organ in our bodies.
    but, let us for the moment leave us aside and explore the totally mechanical way all species seem to have gotten “the message” that god wants them to procreate.
    zee, my friend, ever had a male dog ride up your leg? and why do you think that was?
    ok, now back to us, mortal humans.
    jewelry, make-up, attire…….all designed by god to make her creation – WOMAN – to attract the male so as to mate for the sole purpose of procreation.
    i find it actually hilarius that an atheist has to clarify this to someone who – i assume – has a faith

  16. curtisneeley says:

    I appreciate the appreciation of the figurenude.com mission to show the naked figure as pure art. I must now update my comments in this thread as the original creator and owner of the website figurenude.com. I lost the first case and every possible appeal short of the Supreme Court and will not continue to the Supreme Court on the state outrage or federal copyrite claims.

    Google Inc alleged spending HUNDREDS-of-THOUSANDS already in Neeley v NameMedia Inc, (5:09-cv-05151) in their recent filing opposing Neeley v NameMedia Inc, (5:12-cv-05074) being allowed to proceed. There is no valid legal rational in the Google Inc opposition but the US Courts are overworked and have now been considering dismissal since 4/30/2012 along with the multitude of other cases before the same courts.

    I just checked with the court and there was no decision today. When there is a decision allowing me to proceed or prohibiting it, the beginning of the END to ALL display of nudity to the anonymous will officially start.

    United States television and radio were both always censored by the FCC and the conversion to cable generally bypassed this censorship except for the remaining “broadcast” stations. The remaining censorship of these “broadcast” stations is now pending before the Supreme Court in FCC v Fox, (10-1293).

    Many feel the old rational for censorship of “broadcast” was justified by FCC v Pacifica Foundation back in 1978 and now believe the Supreme Court will end all censorship of mass communications and let the “free market” dictate decency standards entirely.

    All the amici for FCC v Fox,(10-1293) misinterpreted the law remaining on the books when citing Pacifica. Not just one or two amici supporting the FCC or opposing the FCC but EVERY SINGLE ONE on either side!
    curtisneeley.com/Google/Booklet-Complaint.htm#page14 is now visible to the Supreme Court with paragraph VI with footnote 8 that follows.

    VI.Federal Communications Commission Malfeasance

    1. The display of nudity to minors and the anonymous by Defendant Google Inc and Microsoft Corporation is supported by the FCC refusing to perform the statutory mission for protecting the safety of the public on world-wide wire communications. The Pacifica[8] ruling from 1978 was substituted wholly for the 47 USC §151 statutory rational in error of law.
    ————————————
    (8) FCC v Pacifica The “landmark” First amendment holding from 1978 with the “pervasiveness theory,” held that broadcast speech was “uniquely pervasive” and an “intruder” in the home, and therefore demanded special, artificial content restrictions relying on the pervasiveness of radio waves and failed entirely to address the pervasiveness of wire communications when simultaneously available by radio as internet wire communications are though nonexistent in 1978.
    ————————————

    Nudity can be viewed without lust and can be photographed without lust. Creating and presenting the nude form as art, regardless of how carefully done, creates the potential that these naked figures may be looked upon with lust. Creating art with nude figures and presenting the nude human creates potential “stumbling blocks” and should be avoided by Christians.

    This obvious fact took me roughly twenty-one years to realize.

  17. Pingback: The nude figure and Christianity | Ex Church of Christ

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