Flavin’s Corner
4-13-01
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Uncomfortable
 

t'irkm.yd.'il.kym
wyd.'il. kmdb
'ark.yd.'il kym
w.yd.'il.kmdb
’El’s power is great like Sea’s.
’El’s power is like that of flood;
Long is ’El’s member like Sea’s,
’El’s member like that of flood.
From a Ugaritic cultic drama, c. 1550-1175 BCE, describing ‘El, his two wives, and the birth of his sons, Šahar and Šalim (Dawn and Dusk).  Ugaritic from Corpus des tablettes en cunéiformes alphabétiques découvertes à Ras Shamra - Ugarit de 1929 à 1939 (Mission de Ras Shamra, 10), by A. Herdner, Paris: ImprimerieNationale, 1963; see: 23.31-53, Gordon 52.  English translation from Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, by Frank Moore Cross, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973, p. 23.  In footnote No. 56, Cross allows an alternative reading of ’ark.yd.’il as “‘El’s penis is long.”

Many are uncomfortable when discussing genitals and their functions.  It’s usually a taboo topic around children, seniors, the easily offended, and the quickly aroused.  Such discussion is often regarded as vulgar, from the Latin vulgus (meaning “just like the common people”).  Our usage of “vulgar” would seem to indicate only “common" people discuss genitals and their functions, and uncommon people do not.  I’m uncomfortable with this arrangement and suggest it’s akin to imagining all homosexuals are gay (from the French gai, meaning "joyous" and "light-hearted," through the Gothic gaheis, “rapid” or “quick,” perhaps from the Latin name Caius, transformed into Gaius).   A discussion about God's penis could, by some, be termed gay and vulgar.  Let's see...

The major religious holidays of the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter contain no explicit mention or remark upon the presence or absence of a penis on God or Jesus.  Yet, mentions exist elsewhere, as for instance the Ugaritic quote heading this column which describes ‘El’s penis as great and powerful.  It is claimed in Exodus that the Jews fled Egypt under Ramesses II (ruled 1279-1213 BCE), a time when the Canaanite kingdom of Ugarit was prosperous (though it would be destroyed shortly thereafter) and the cultic drama quote above could easily date from this period.  As ‘El, or God, continues to echo in such common names as Michael, or “who (is) like God?,” and Daniel, “my judge (is) God,” it may be advanced that Moses called upon God’s penis to splash upon and split the Red Sea to enable the escape of the Israelites.  Just a thought.

The Christian holiday of Easter commemorates the physical resurrection of Jesus.  An artist might choose to depict the resurrected Jesus with an erection as the flowing of blood (here, specifically, into a penis) is a demonstrative sign of life and proof of virility and vitality.  When this was suggested in the first edition of The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, by Leo Steinberg (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1983, second edition, revised and expanded, 1996), many critics ridiculed and attempted to dismiss Prof. Steinberg (History of Art, Univ. of Pennsylvania) as just another vulgar crackpot.  I just finished reading the second edition of Steinberg’s book and am equally impressed with how the author politely reacts to criticism as I was with the daring intuitiveness of his initial thesis.  The second edition is basically the first edition with 175 new pages tacked on in response to the critics, as well as many more examples of Renaissance art which support his thesis.  I don’t believe Steinberg’s thesis is vulgar, rather, I find it uncommon and exceptional.  Gay?  Well, perhaps we’ll get to that... 


M. van Heemskerck, Man of Sorrows, c. 1550, and closeup 
of J. de Gheyn, Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John,
c. 1590-1593.

That certain artists purposely directed attention to the penis of Jesus seems a given.  The evidence presented by Steinberg attests to such, despite accusations aimed at the professor and his audience of being holy voyeurs.  Jesus, either as a baby soon to be wounded with circumcision or as an adult with the wounds of the cross, was depicted (or documented) by some Renaissance artists as being fully human.  Sure, being Christ allowed Jesus to be potent, but He was always in control.  Some of Steinberg’s critics attempt to obfuscate the earnest, hard work of the Renaissance artists, deny their daring symbolism, and seem to be uncomfortable even addressing the topic of Jesus having a functioning penis.  This attitude (or reaction) is recognized by the “Modern Oblivion” portion of the title of Steinberg’s book.  That’s not a penis, they claim.  It’s just the way the cloth folds and shadows form.  Sure.


Perugino, Madonna and Child, 1500, and U.S. Christmas stamp, 1986.

A tragic portion of both editions of Steinberg’s book is devoted to examples of censorial decency, as many works of art were painted over or altered to hide the original design of the artists.  Such coy editing continues, as Steinberg shows with a recent stamp issue by the U. S. Post Office, which drastically trimmed a famous painting (currently in the Samuel H. Kress Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) to remove the penis of Baby Jesus.  I personally thank our government for not releasing an image of Baby Jesus’ penis which millions of Americans would have licked.  We’re a better, stronger nation for it.


 Pioneer 10 plaque showing a woman without a vaginal cleft.  Click here for more.

In 1985 (shortly after, I believe, the paperback release of the first edition of The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion), I attended a lecture at The Art Institute of Chicago by Prof. Steinberg.  The lecture and the accompanying slide-show presented his thesis, as well as pointed up other related examples of our prudishness (both ancient and modern) when it comes to genitals.  That Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls have only smooth plastic in their corresponding pubic regions is well known, but that NASA sent out a graphic specifically designed to communicate with extraterrestrials which displayed a man with a penis and scrotum, yet showed a woman without a vaginal cleft, came as a shock.  The science-folks at NASA let us down with that one.

One of Steinberg’s critics, Prof. Caroline W. Bynum (Medieval European History, Columbia University) argues the attention shown to Jesus’ penis is inconsequential, and that true mystic appreciation considers the spear wound of Jesus on the cross, when “...one of the soldiers jabbed him in the side with his spear and right away blood and water came pouring out”(John 19:34, Scholars Version).  The issuance of “blood and water” has inspired some to claim that Jesus exercised the womanly power of creation and gave birth to Ecclesia, the Church (Greek, from ek, “out of,” and kaleo, “to call”).  That some have seen a vagina (a “wound that never heals”) in illustrations depicting Jesus’ spear wound is ...kind of cute, clever, and resourceful.  Steinberg answered Bynum’s criticism, but didn’t delve into the mystery of Ecclesia that much.  That’s probably for the best, as the Jesus-as-a-woman theme should require more than just a chapter to adequately address.

I regard religion as vulgar and suspect most agnostics are gay.  But, who am I to question smearing blood on doorways or bunnies handing out eggs?  If only such matters belonged solely to academics and theologians, and were not possessed and abused by thugs with guns, preachers with their hands out, or those abortion protesters with bad attitudes.  I guess I’ll always be uncomfortable around those who are arrogant (and powerful) enough to tell me what to believe in.

trying to relax,
Rick

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