Sexuality in Sistene Chapel Ceiling and Venus of Urbizo

In my AP Art History class, the revered, respected, and well enjoyed intructor is currently leading us on a process of academic discovery through the High Renessaince.

He’s also a dirty old man.

Consequently, two sexual interpretation of two works recently presented are leaving me doubtful:

The first: The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Michelangelo. Our art history teacher clamis that Eve is clearly sitting up from a position of fellating Adam, representing the lack of sin and shame before the expulsion. It’s all fun and games.

That was not my initial impression.

Second: The Venus of Urbino by Titian. My instructor claims that the Venus is clearly in a masurbatory pose. This serves as an instruction manual for marriage; the little dog’s fidelity, the children and servants in the background, and most controverislally, the message: Women, if ya’ want a kid, masturbate before sex to increase your receptiveness to your husbands seed.

Again: not my initial impression.

So, what’s the generalart histroy community’s take on these two works? Obvious sexual refferences, or is my art history, of dubious motivations, trying to corrupt the impressionable young minds of his class?

[Dan Akroyd]
This is clearly a nice picture of a broad on a couch.
[/Dan Akroyd]

Off to Cafe Society.

DrMatrix - General Questions Moderator

Huh. Maybe I’m just a dirty old lady but I can see his, er, positions.

Not that I had thought of them that way before, but I can see it now.

Point A: Huh? He just might be a dirty old man. Haven’t heard that one.
Point B: Completely possible. In Italy paintings went inside the lids of dowry chests (cassoni)-- often naughty art (you know, fecundity, or um. … fertility, lets say-- sex as procreative)-- in order to get people in the mood (mentally) to make babies (this piece was not made for one but would have reminded one of them at least-- a suggestive format. This work sort of refers back to an older type in a sort of modernized setting). There are several articles on this piece and a Giorgione, I think, where a woman does a similar thing laying around in the landscape (and a Campagnolo print, but her back is to us in that one).
There was indeed a medical belief at the time that a woman could not conceive unless she had an orgasm. Strange but true.

Actually, looking at the Sistine fresco. . . this makes sense. It’s not uncommon for Fall of Man images to have very . . suggestive. . . elements. I can think of a number of examples, especially in prints, where trees look disturbingly like penises and vulvas and their various relationships, and Adam and Eve are often in suggestive poses-- Adam grabs Eve’s tit, her hand is brushing at his thigh close to his weenie, et al. I mean. . look at it? What do you think? The fact that it’s before your eyes and so apparent suggests that while Mike might not have stated “she’s been giving him a hummer” he has clearly chosen to put them in a position which makes one have the impression of naughtiness, which is totally the moral of the story here. These things don’t happen by accident, and by adjusting these otherwise normal poses he has, without changing the story, loaded the scene with sexual tension visually.
This is the same Michelangelo who wrote a very. . . affectionate sounding poem to a younger friend with a hand drawing of Zeus with Ganymede on the reverse and it is one racy picture. Very sexy.

(and I have to add, I’m absolutely delighted at finally being invoked (as a member of the establishment) on this board, as I always feel so. . . useless, usually. I feel NEEDED! Yay!)

If I remember correctly, Venus is posed like that so you don’t see her pubic hair or genitalia. You see the same thing in Manet’s Olympia, Thomas Hart Benton’s *Persephone, Boticelli’s Birth of Venus, and most 50s and 60s Playboy Playmate photographs.

Even paintings like Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Venus and Cupid, in which Venus is naked and facing the viewer, no pubic area is on display.

It was something to do with societal decency laws or artistic convention or something. There was a turn of the 20th-century painting called Judith which did show pubic hair. I forget the name of the artist.

For a better answer, you’d have to ask an expert on art history. I grew up looking at the naked pictures in books about fine art instead of pornography, which I didn’t get access to until I got my first internet capable computer.

Courbet showed pubic hair in several of his paintings (Origin of the World, anyone?), as did a few other artists of the time, I think.

For the The Venus of Urbino, the positioning of the hand could be there just to cover the, um, furrow. Doesn’t really look like a masturbation pose to me, but what do I know?

For Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, I think your intructor’s case is stronger. To rebut him, you’d have to explain why her head is right there. Michelangelo didn’t have to paint it with them positioned like that.

I have to go with the Prof. on this. Particularly for the Expulsion. As Zen said, there’s no other obvious reason why Eve is in that position. And, if Michelangelo was pushed by the prudes, he could always say she was in a “position of subservience,” but it’s awfully easy to see her as having just finished…lunch.

Remember, your Prof. may be a dirty old man, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily wrong.

Doesn’t the Titian reference back to some other painting, or some other painting reference back to the Titian, or something like that?

Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde would have caused a hell of a sensation, a scandal, at the time it was painted (1866), if the public had been allowed to see it. It was the first painting ever to show full-on, not only pubic hair, but labia and everything.

It was kept inside a chest, and the only ones who got to see it were, um, gentlemen of discreet taste, by invitation only. It was brought to light only a few years ago, when it was found in the collection of the late Jacques Lacan, and placed in the permanent Courbet exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay.

Now that you mention it, the Venus of Urbino does have a certain come-hither expression and tilt of the head… I can’t help but read it that way now.

And as for L’Origine du monde… WHOA!

Well, a couple of things are happening in Fall and Expulsion. Eve’s position enforces the general arc of the composition – there is a narrative arc, and a literal arc, that goes from A&E on the left, up with their arms reaching toward the serpant, over with the angel, and then down with his sword and the second figures of A&E on the right.

Also, I’ve heard the theory that Eve’s position relative to Adam underscores the notion that she was created from Adam’s rib.

And then we have your professor’s vote for the sexual act.

The thing that makes great artists like Michaelangelo great (one of the things, at least) is that all this stuff is going on at the same time. I’m not sure how exactly your prof presented his idea, but I think it would be a mistake to say that the sexual act was driving this composition, as if all the other elements were simply introduced to enable him to show a sexy scene, as if it were a subliminal advertisment. I think that would be a serious underestimating of Michaelangelo. It fits thematically, it fits the composition, so it’s a valid part of an interpretation but certainly not the whole story.

your prof has his head in his ass, as usual. or is it a woman? if it is then I can see why.

michelangelo was gay and had no interest in prortraying m/f sexuality. in none of his works does he show anything vaguely sexual, except admiration for the nude (male) human body. this was not a cassoni to inspire sexual fecundity in a newly-married couple.

eve is where she is to show symbolically that woman is below man. is this un-PC? yeah it is. but that was the time. this is a pose of subserviance, not sexuality.

michelangelo also posed many of his figures reclining because that was the prime positon to shoe conttrapasto, the human body twisted and bent to show its musculature and curves. look at his sculpture, escpecially the four personifications on the Medici tombs and you will see this element of his style.

I find it so fucking nauseating and typical that small modern minds choose to analyse these masterworks with their contemporary ignorance and styles. Im sure some feminist douchebag had already got a hold of this to show the timeless oppression of woman by The Man.

as for Venus, she has her hand there to out of timidity. almost no high-ren females have pubic hair or even a completely exposed pubic area. there is always a hand or a robe or something to block. when the church is your patron, or at the very least an omniscient force of censure, an artist had to cover these things up.

The Venus is sexual of course, but there is no hint of masturbation. It is a portrayl of ideal female beauty, not sexuallity. Sensuality yes.

Having had many profs like yours, my sympathies.

In the first one, there is the undeniable fact that Eve’s head is right next to Adam’s crotch. Say whatever you like about Michaelangelo’s sexuality, but the penis and the head are two particularly noticeable body parts (in nudes, at least), and he couldn’t have failed to realize the impression that putting them that close together would give.

As for the second, it doesn’t look to me like she’s masturbating, either, but I think it’s a bit silly to expect a painting of the Goddess of Sex to not be about sex. Off-topic a bit, I’ll also comment that it reminds me a lot of the famous painting of Cupid and Psyche (who did that one?).

I am irritated. I try to be historically accurate and analyse artworks based on the mindset and beliefs of the period dealt with.
Now, this may surprise you, but Renaissance Italy was not as prudish as you might believe. In fact, people in past eras and foreign lands sometimes talked about and depicted issues dealing with, brace yourself, sexuality and sensuality.

Dude, the picture is of the Fall of Man. What do you think the subject is ABOUT?! You don’t think it might be about. . . hmm. . . sexuality? Sensuality, whatever semantic nuance you feel is necessary here? No one said this was a cassone panel. No one said a thing about oppression by the Man. Who said anything about “PC”? No one was trying to put an ahistorical spin on this. It was clear from the OP that the teacher is male-- hairtrigger reaction much?

Now. . . it’s, um, Venus (or at least, as the guy who commissioned it called it, “my nude lady”). In a bedroom. On a bed. Entirely naked. Staring directly at you. Nope, no sensuality to be expected there. Oh, did he paint her with any drapery or anything else that would be discreet and unsuggestive? Nope, just a hand stuffed in her crotch. Nothing odd there. No, she’s not overtly masturbating, but the sense of sensuality is there. ) This is the same Titian who painted portraits of men’s mistresses with breasts bared. Is Titian’s picture of Danae laying back receiving Zeus’ impregnating “shower of gold” also lacking in any sexual content? (For some historical context, Farnese writes to a friend about this picture, noting that in comparision to this one the nude in Pesaro (the Venus in question) looked like a nun, and “even a friendly Bishop who saw her would have the devil to contend with.” (Huse and Wolters, 260) To oblige, Titian seems to have made her into a portrait of a famous pro whom Farnese was known to have had an affair with. Hmm. Seems these pictures struck their contemporaries as sexualized, somehow.)

Jeez. Play nice, ok? This isn’t the Pit.

– a small minded feminist (or female, at least) douchebag with my head up my ass, like many people you’ve taken classes from. You have my sympathies.

I doubt the suggestion about the Michelangelo is original to your professor. Back in 1995 George Bull’s comment (in Michelangelo: A Biography, Viking, p101) was:

(Emphasis added.)
The Titian seems a bit more of a stretch, though it’s clearly a possible interpretation and, again, it really would surprise me if it hadn’t been suggested many times before, either for this painting or others. Because I don’t think the pose can be judged in isolation - this sort of crotch-covering in females is commonplace in the tradition. Which raises the issue of intent. Even if the pose is suggestive, is it a concious decision to be so or merely what everybody else has innocently done? One would have to check in detail, but, for a start, doesn’t Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, which has the hand in almost an identical position, predate the Venus of Urbino. (Of course, the counter argument is surely that she’s not sleeping, she’s in an erotic reverie.) Michael Ellis raises the issue of Manet’s Olympia; whatever the much argued about significance of that picture, she’s not masturbating - the hand is splayed across her thigh. The dissonance in regarding the traditional pose as explicitly a sexual act is that Olympia, while always recognised as within that tradition, is also always regarded as the shockingly direct variation. Which is a bit odd if she’s the only one who’s not masturbating.

I was taught the fellatio interpretation of the “Fall of Man” panel as well (what school does the OP go to by the way?). This interpretation comes from critic Leo Steinberg who is by no means a “small modern mind” whatever that means. He’s one of the most influential contemporary art critics. Instead of jumping to conclusions about his theories, maybe you should check out one of his books where he gives a pretty convincing case for a sexualized interpretation of Michelangelo. I think the fellatio thing is in either THE SEXUALITY OF CHRIST IN RENAISSANCE ART or OTHER CRITERIA.