Nestled on a spectacular rock formation high above fields streaked with vines and olives, the Umbrian city of Orvieto offers a stunning sight that fascinates from afar. Once inside the city, history tangibly hangs over the narrow and cobbled streets, but it is not exactly the type of history that one expects to find in a place that seems to be frozen in time. Even more unexpected is its location. Orvieto’s great Cathedral, originally erected to house the relic of the Corporal of Bolsena, is nowadays most of all known for the bold nudes that Luca Signorelli painted in one of its chapels. In his own time, his depiction of the Resurrection of the Death and the Last Judgment were the most daring nude compositions in the history of Christian art and not only remained being so for a long time, but changed our way of thinking about nudity and art forever.
Even a short glance at the art that Greek and Roman society has produced makes abundantly clear that the human body was one of the most popular themes in antiquity. The only difference with our current time is that where we nowadays tend to place the female body on a pedestal, the artists in antiquity did the exact opposite. For the Greeks, their athletes that competed in the nude were the embodiment of all that was best in mankind, an admiration that was further enhanced by the strongly entrenched homo-eroticism in their society. It was perfectly natural for ancient Greeks to associate the male nude with triumph, glory and moral excellence. It took some time for the women to follow the male example, but they eventually, although reluctantly did.
The only exceptions that Christianity allowed for nudity to appear in art were Adam and Eve before the Fall, when there was nothing wrong with nudity yet, the Last Judgment and the Madonna del Latte, a popular devotion in Italy that shows Mary breastfeeding her Son. With the rediscovery of antiquity the Christian limitations posed some problems for which the Renaissance artists found inventive solutions. Without having an opportunity to freely express their growing interest in the human body, it all came down to finding stories that allowed one to show as much from the body as possible. Hence Saint Sebastian, the penitent Saint Jerome and forgotten desert fathers like Saint Onuphrius became very popular. Sometimes of course out of sincere piety, but most of the time as an excuse for showcasing artistic virtuosity.
The Council Fathers of Trent had decided that “art should avoid lasciviousness, in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust”. It was clear that painting nudes from then on was out of the question, but what to do with the nudes that could already be found scattered over many churches in Europe? To set an example, the Council Fathers went so far as to hire the painter Daniele da Volterra, a close friend of Michelangelo, to paint over the genitals and backs of the nudes in the Sistine Chapel with vestments and loincloths. Luckily for him, Michelangelo didn’t live to see that day and one could only wonder what his reaction would have been. As far as Volterra is concerned, accepting the commission might have brought some cash in on the short term, but has ruined his legacy forever. Despite being a celebrated painter during his lifetime, there is nowadays only one thing for which he is remembered: the cover-up operation of his friend’s nudes that owned him the nickname Il Braghettone, the breeches maker.
The work to cover nudes in many a church has continued up until the 19th century when pope Pius IX and Leo XIII were still fanatically dismembering statues in the Vatican Collections while covering their remains with fig leaves. Being a bit further removed from the epicenter of the Counter Reformation, it was a fate from which Signorelli’s work in Orvieto was fortunately spared. Signorelli’s nudes can still be admired in the way that he has conceived them and although they can hardly shock or arouse any person living in the 21st century, their intention has remained unaltered. They are a homage to the duality of man, who is not only body nor only soul, but both.