Charles Meynier, Statue of Mercury in a Landscape. Musée de la Révolution française. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Tullio Lombardo, Adam, ca. 1490–95. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Consider the fig leaf: a little piece of foliage that’s shielded the genitals of famous biblical figures and nude sculptures for centuries. It’s a plant that’s become synonymous with sin, sex, and censorship. And in large part, we have art history—and the artists determined to portray nudity even when it was considered taboo—to thank for that.
Take Michelangelo’s famous sculpture David (1501–04), a muscular, starkly naked depiction of its namesake biblical hero. The work scandalized the artist’s fellow Florentines and the Catholic clergy when unveiled in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria in 1504. Soon after, the figure’s sculpted phallus was girdled with a garland of bronze fig leaves by authorities.
60 years later, just months before Michelangelo’s death, the Catholic Church issued an edict demanding that “figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting…lust.” The clergy began a crusade to camouflage the pensises and pubic hair visible in artworks across Italy. Their coverups of choice? Loincloths, foliage, and—most often—fig leaves. It has became known as the “Fig Leaf Campaign,” one of history’s most significant acts of art censorship.
But the fig leaf’s role in art history doesn’t begin with Michelangelo. The plant’s cultural significance can be clearly traced back to the tale of Adam and Eve. The duo, shamed by their nudity after eating from the tree of knowledge, “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons,” as chronicled in the Book of Genesis. Early artistic depictions of the purported events show the once-nude figures sheathed in leaves that obscure their genitals, subtly representing original sin and a fall from grace.
This story—which became integral to Christianity’s teachings—communicated to the religion’s flock that nudity was shameful. By the medieval era, art commissioned by the Catholic Church mostly represented nudity as a sin; it was used to depict people who’d been sent to hell.
But that began to change in the 1400s, when Italian artists—thanks to a mounting interest in antiquities and excavation—rediscovered classical Roman and Greek art. Those ancient marble sculptures were forged in a time when the chiseled nude body represented honor and virtue, as opposed to immorality and vice.
This idea inspired artists like Donatello, who started making work that honored the nude body in all its glory. This was a novel idea in his hometown of Florence, where the Catholic Church wielded vast power. His bronze rendition of David (circa 1440) has been cited by scholars as the first known sculpture depicting a completely naked figure since antiquity.
Some of his artist-successors followed suit—namely, Michelangelo. Even after receiving criticism for his own version of David (rendered at a much larger scale and with more pronounced physical attributes than Donatello’s) in the early 1500s, he continued to incorporate nudity into his work.
But as Michelangelo’s artistic career developed, the Catholic Church’s crackdown on “lasciviousness” of all kinds also intensified. This had everything to do with accusations of corruption against the church being made by the Protestant Reformation and its leader Martin Luther. Fearful of losing its flock, the Vatican began ordering reforms across the church—including censorship of nudity in art.
Even so, Michelangelo received an abundance of commissions from Popes and other powerful clergymen during his life, most notably the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But sometimes, the Vatican called him out for crossing the line of decency. In the 1540s, some 40 years after his fiasco with David, he pushed his luck yet again—this time, for a wall fresco in the Sistine Chapel depicting the Last Judgement.
Traditionally, that subject had been illustrated with figures clothed according to their social rank, as art historian Peter Russell has pointed out. But Michelangelo stripped them all of both their status and clothing, showing everyone in the buff. Certain powerful figures in the Vatican weren’t happy. Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini called for the piece to be censored, while Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s master of ceremonies, called the paintings fit “for the public baths and taverns” rather than a chapel. According to him, it was “disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully.”
These passionate criticisms effectively launched the Fig Leaf Campaign, which was formalized in the Council of Trent’s 1563 decree banning “all lasciviousness” in religious imagery. Nude sculptures across Italy, and especially in Rome, soon sported carefully placed metal fig leaves. Some scholars have suggested that many of the plaster and marble phalluses were even chiseled off. As historian Leo Steinberg pointed out in his 1983 book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, French scholar Montaigne wrote that “many beautiful and antique statues” were “castrated” in Rome during his youth by the order Pope Paul IV. (Believe it or not, some have rumored that a drawer of the castrated bits may still hide somewhere in the Vatican.)
The campaign didn’t spare paintings, either. Areas of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (1533–41) deemed unsavory were painted over twice in the 1500s, and then again in the 1700s, with little swaddles and loincloths added. As Russell points out, a Mannerist artist named Daniele da Volterra was charged with making the additions, which won him the somewhat derogatory nickname “Il Braghettone” (“The Breeches Maker”).
The trend also transformed Masaccio’s 15th-century frescoes in Florence’s Brancacci Chapel. In the 1600s, an unknown artist painted fig leaves over its nude figures—namely, a depiction of Adam and Eve being ousted from Eden. And between 1758 and 1759, Pope Clement XIII swathed even more sculptures in the Vatican’s collection with fig leaves.
The fig leaf phenomenon spread beyond Italy’s borders, too. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany gifted a cast of Michelangelo’s David to Queen Victoria in 1857, a large leaf was promptly sculpted to “spare the blushes of visiting female dignitaries,” according to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).
Luckily, the leaf was made so that it could be removed easily—and hang over the figure’s marble package without damaging it. Today, the sculpture stands completely nude in the V&A, while a small vitrine next to it houses the large leaf.
Over the last 40 years or so, Masaccio’s Adam and Eve (1427) and Michelangelo’s Last Judgement have also been restored. In order to honor the artists’ original visions (and reverse at least some of the damage inflicted by the Fig Leaf Campaign), some of the painted loincloths and leaves have been painstakingly removed from their original surfaces.
But still, censorship and the moral dilemmas nudity inspires still rage on. As late as 1995, the city of Jerusalem rejected a gift from Florence: another replica of Michelangelo’s David. After much back and forth, they finally accepted the influential sculpture—but only after shielding its loins with underwear.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory