Christian art in Rome for centuries included many characters with halos but few nudes, with Adam and Eve being the chief exceptions. But Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are packed with nudes, but have no halos at all. What happened, and why does it matter?

Show Notes

There is a mostly nude and faintly haloed painting of Saint Sebastian in the Galleria Borghese, an excellent copy of a painting by Perugino, but generally the people given halos by Roman artists are also given clothes.

If you check the dates for sculpture and painting of nudes in Rome, you will find that their numbers grow sharply in the Renaissance. “Renaissance” means rebirth, and it was especially the admiration and serious study of classical civilization that was then reborn. Earlier ages had largely cancelled Greek and Roman art, literature, philosophy, and political thinking, partly by neglect and partly by the choice of some zealous Christians who found it immoral. After a thousand years and thanks in part to Muslim philosophers, all things classical made a big comeback during the Italian Renaissance. When ancient sculptures were dug up out of the layers of the mud that had filled in Medieval Rome, it turned out that they were often nude. The premier examples are the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön, which you can see on display in the Vatican Museums. The reborn admiration of classical antiquity led to attempts to represent beautiful nudes, which was so striking a feature of ancient art.

A second look at Renaissance art will also show an increase in the variety of subjects represented. Art is no longer located so exclusively in churches and no longer focused so exclusively on religious subjects. In the Galleria Borghese, for example, a high fraction of the nudes on hand are drawn from themes of classical mythology. Venus often shows up unclothed, as do Persephone, Jupiter, Leda, Diana, Daphne, Pluto, and Lucretia. And from this time and after, still in the Borghese, we find a profusion of studies of actual people, sometimes unclothed, including Napoleon’s sister.

Nudity also makes a few dramatic appearances also in churches, thanks especially to Michelangelo: he crammed the Sistine Chapel full of unclothed bodies, both on its vast ceiling and on its altar wall, a total of over 7,000 square feet.

Charlie Wheeler’s photo of the Last Judgment captures Michelangelo’s preference for nudes, even if some later received draperies

The Ceiling has its famous ignudi, twenty seated males, along with several appearances of Adam and Eve in the buff. Noah and his sons are also naked, as are the many figures escaping the flood. God remains clothed in his several appearances, but he is the exception, not the rule. If we then look to the Last Judgment painted on the altar wall, the ratio of flesh to clothes remains extremely high, even though some strategically placed draperies were added later.

Still, Michelangelo managed to avoid mixing halos with nakedness. The closest thing to a halo, at least as far as I have observed, is the glow behind his Apollo-like Christ in the Last Judgment.

Contrast the frescos on the side walls of the Sistine Chapel. They too are masterpieces worthy of careful attention, and they were painted only a few decades before Michelangelo got started on the Ceiling. They are the work of Botticelli, Perugino, and other greats; but all of their characters are clothed, and some have halos as well.

The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Matthew, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, on a side wall of the Sistine Chapel: Halos abound. (Charlie Wheeler photo)

“So what?” Why does it matter to say, “Here a nude, there a halo”? First, it’s a good way to start thinking about when, how, and how much the ideas of Romans changed. Sex and natural human beauty are important subjects, and the art on display in Rome gives visitors a great chance to see how opinions have changed. I don’t mean to limit all observation to nudes and halos, but I do want to start simply and clearly, so you can make observations of your own. These important, frequent, and easily remembered subjects make this possible.

The halo is a sign of saintliness: it is supernatural and cannot be understood except through divine revelation. In natural human life, we never see a halo. The halo turns our attention to the world the Bible revealed. Nudity, on the other hand, shows us as we are by nature, and representing it requires the artist to develop his own powers of careful observation.

Let me conclude with a question: Is the pivot in the Renaissance on halos and nudes connected to a renewed interest in nature and all things natural? Does the Bible, which means “the book,” now become accompanied and perhaps rivaled by a second book, the book of nature? This is how Galileo put it when writing of science: it explores the book of nature, not the Book of the Christian tradition. But what then is the relationship between these books, between nature and the supernatural, between halos and nudes?

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