Fig leaves, popes, and genitalia

Before 1500, one seldom finds the fig leaf at all. In the few cases that it appears, it is to denote modesty, but it is not used with the first “man” or “woman” except in rare instances to mark the fall of mortals from divine grace.

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden

…in the light of the Bible, there is no sin in nudity itself; but if a person uses the nudity for lustful or immoral purposes he has misused it, and this constitutes a sin. The Bible does not speak against nudity nor does it teach that the body is shameful. There is reference to shame in nudity, but this shame was produced in the mind of man, not by divine ordination. Carpocrates, in the second century A.D., advocated that the glories of God should not be hidden. He urged Christians, both male and female, to look upon the natural body with gratitude for the creative force of God-love. His disciples suffered ridicule and sometimes severe persecution but continued their practices into the fourth century A.D. Records indicate that nude statues and a museum were created to honor this sect. It was the Carpocrations who first portrayed Christ’s body in the exposed form commonly seen to this day. The Adamianis existed in the second and third centuries A.D. They were a group that hoped to regain the innocence mankind lost in the Garden of Eden and worshiped in a state of nakedness and lived as a nudist community. Encratites were vegetarians and many, if not all, practiced nudism. Marcosians were well established in the Rhone Valley by the third century. The Adamites (no connection with the Adamianis) were an active sect in Bohemia during the fifteenth century A.D. They were part of the Hussite Reformation. This group set up numerous religious nude communities.

Temptation of Adam and Eve by Masolino


Michelangelo followed this custom and was known for his nude portrayals, with few objecting until the Vatican was overcome by those who feared exposure of their own personal vices (such as Pope Alexander VI who openly lived with his mistress and their children Lucretia Borgia and Cesar Borgia). It was the exuberance for the arts the Michelangelo brought down upon his head and the heads of other masters the hatred of the church for their depiction of the human body. (The leaves [though very rarely fig leaves] are sometimes seen in Northern Renaissance art, but most of such paintings date after 1500. Curiously, in quite a few paintings made between 1500 and 1530, Adam has a leaf, but Eve does not (e.g.,

Michelangelo was a sculptor of nudes, a painter of nudes, and a poet who praised all forms of reality. While pontiffs saw the Great Master as an artist, Michelangelo saw himself first as a man and then as a sculptor, but the popes differed, and the blood-stained warrior pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to decorate the decaying Sistine Chapel. While Michelangelo’s ceiling caused consternation, the heaviest condemnation came for his great wall fresco The Last Judgment. It was Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment that became a cause célèbre and an object of a heavy dispute between Cardinal Carafa and Michelangelo. The wily and venal cardinal accused Michelangelo of gross immorality and intolerable obscenity. He denounced the artist for having depicted naked figures, with genitals in evidence, inside the most important church of Christianity (a church that was falling apart, in a world wrecked with division), so a censorship campaign (known as the “Fig-Leaf Campaign”) was organized by Carlo cardinal Carafa (Pope Paul IV’s “nephew”) and Monsignor Sernini (Mantua’s ambassador) to remove the frescoes.

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo


Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, spat out (in recorded history) “it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully,” and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather “for the public baths and taverns,” and demanded it be removed. Michelangelo found the comments, and the Master of Ceremonies to be a great buffoon, and worked Cesena’s face into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld (far bottom-right corner of the painting) with Donkey ears (a common pictograph for foolishness and vanity) while Biagio da Cesena’s nudity is covered by a coiled snake (symbolic of the sovereign of the underworld: Lucifer).  While da Cesena complained to the pontiff of the “outrage”, to the surprise of many in the curia of cardinals, the pope allowed the image to be retained, along with the genitalia in the fresco until they were covered 24 years later when the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art while most of the bishops and cardinals maintained pornography in their personal collections.

What the church missed was the hidden message in The Last Judgment. Michelangelo was making a statement that few would discover. He was denouncing the antiquated Ptolemaic system plotted for the sun to move around the earth, but changed it in keeping with the innovative and iconoclastic heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus for the setting is one of a universe where the sun (Jesus) is at the center and the rest of the orbs personages revolve around it. Even the figure of Christ himself is a breakaway from the staid and ossified definition of theology current in both the Roman Catholic and emerging Protestant confessions. Jesus is no longer wearing a beard (quite out-of-place for a carpenter) and without the customary dress and tenderness usually depicted only of women, as Michelangelo paints a beardless and muscular warrior (in keeping with the definition of the original meaning of “Messiah”), surrounded by light. Scholars, later, have aptly compared this Christ to the Christ-like (anointed) Greek sun-god Apollo. The full splendor of The Last Judgment by Michelangelo was not recovered and uncovered until the end of the twentieth century (Fabrizio Mancinelli, “The Painting of the Last Judgment: History, Technique and Restoration”, In Loren Partridge, Michelangelo : The Last Judgment – A Glorious Restoration. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000) in part because of the constant stranglehold of the Council of Trent upon the Roman church.

The Council of Trent condemned nudity in art, Jews, and Protestants. In 1555, Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) issued a papal canon (law), Cum nimis absurdum, by which the Roman church created the first official ghetto for Jews. Jews were then forced to live in seclusion in a specified area of the rione Sant’Angelo, locked in at night, and the pope decreed, all Jews were required to wear a distinctive sign, yellow hat for men and veils or shawls for women. Jewish ghettos existed in Europe for the next 315 years and would not be mandated until the rise of Nazi Germany, when Pius XII would issue no objection.

While the Jews were considered as bad as the Protestants (branded heretics; Paul IV codified the Catholic Law excluding heretics and non-Catholics from receiving or legitimately becoming Pope, in the bull Cum ex apostolatus officio), Paul IV was more concerned with nudity. He was totally ignorant that nudity, in the bible he claimed to preach from, noted it as being a part of the initial quality of creation: for “Adam” and “Eve” were “created in the image of god”(s)/goddesses [the original word is elohim, which is a plural noun]. Using the rules laid down by the Council of Trent, Pope Paul IV mandated the use of concealing fig leaves, promulgating the church’s attack on nudity in art in a papal bull dated 1557.

 Most of the fig leaves that we see were put in place on the personal initiative of Pope Innocent X (1644-1655).  Pope Clement XIII (1693 –1769), Pope from 16 July 1758 to 2 February 1769, he had the classical sculptures in the Vatican provided with mass-produced fig leaves).

Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) were especially diligent at defacing and destroying works of art. Marble nudes of classical antiquity had their phalluses whacked off because of Pius IX’s fear that the sight of a penis would arouse passion and lust among those housed in the Vatican (allegedly all males), and demanded that thong-size fig leaves of plaster and marble attached to their gaping wounds.

Pope Pius IX



Filed under Alexander VI (Pope), Church history, Jesus Christ, Leo X (Pope), Nazis, Pope Pius XII

5 responses to “Fig leaves, popes, and genitalia

  1. Art, you are doing great with your blog. One thing in this entry I would like to have seen mentioned is the notice given in the book and movie “Angels and Demons” about Vatican statues that were given figs by an unusually pious pope.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Susan

    some of my favorite paintings with your insight

  3. Ivan Delgado

    Nice to be in contact with deep cultural knowledge

  4. Ivan Delgado

    Nice to be in touch with culture again. This first article I read was a real impoact on me Thanks, Art.

  5. Pingback: Teaching Realities, a Study of English Education in Perú « Arthur Frederick Ide's Blog

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