The destruction of nude images

Guillaume Deprez
Oct 7, 2019 · 9 min read

A history of the creation & destruction of nude artworks, including social media censorship

The iconic Venus of Willendorf, at about 30,000 years old, one of the oldest and most important artworks in the world, displayed in Vienna’s Natural History Museum and in history books, yet censored on social media.

The first images of humans, created about 35,000 years ago, were carved in the nude. We may be unable to understand why they were made, but the exaggerated features of the female body imply the statuettes are thought to have been used as “fertility goddesses”, meant to help natality, still in use in parts of the world today. From the very inception of art, the nude was one of the defining aspects of mankind’s creativity.

With the first civilisations, Egypt and Mesopotamia, the nude was rare, until the Greeks innovated with statues of nude athletes and gods.

The Greek and Roman nude

But how did the ancient Greeks depict the human body, since it was good enough for both mortals and immortals? By creating an ideal figure, not only perfect in its flesh, but its mind. Beautiful outside and virtuous inside, a balance between body and mind that the Romans would later call, as we still do, a healthy soul in a healthy body.
Athletic and intellectual achievements were related, in the gymnasium -the very word comes from ‘nude’- there were libraries for exercising both mind and body. Being in the nude was like putting on a costume, becoming a hero returning from battle or labours, a victorious athlete. Nudity in art was the expression of harmony between inner and outer excellence.

Statues, carved in bronze or marble were nude for men, but clothed for women. It would take one genius, Praxiteles, to invent the Greek female nude. His statue of Aphrodite, goddess of love, was so well executed that the goddess was said to have commented “where did Praxiteles see me naked?”. It became one of the most copied works of art of the ancient world, and more female nudes would follow, with nymphs, muses and graces.

In the Greek and Roman world, being shown in the nude meant being honoured as a prominent person. Clothing revealed the status or function in life, general, magistrate, matron. Being nude, however, elevated the person from being a mere human to the realm of myth and heroism. Clothed, he was only human, naked, he was Hercules. And in the case of Emperors, a sign of having attained divinity.

The influence of the Greek ideal vision of the human body is still with us today. It is the measure of all things : measurements like feet and inches and architectural proportions. Leonardo’s man inside a circle and square is an illustration of Vitruvius’ architecture treaty: “without symmetry and proportion no temple can have a regulated composition: it must have a precise order, just like the limbs of the human figure”. Michelangelo, both a sculptor and architect added “surely the architectural members derive from human members. Whoever has not been or is not a good master of the figure, and most of all, of anatomy, cannot understand anything of it”.
Anything that appears ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to the human eye refers to the mathematical relation between man, nature and man’s creations. Further, since ideas cannot be painted or carved, often the solution to make concepts understandable and myths visible is to personify them in human form. Clearly, the body is central to the very idea of art.

Covering up nudity

In the wake of Adam and Eve who covered themselves, having gained knowledge that nakedness was shameful, nude statuary became extremely rare in the Middle Ages. The nude ceased to be the realm of divinities, a celebration of the body of heroic men, a depiction of inner and outer beauty, but became instead a badge of shame, a depiction of vulnerability, of the sinner falling into the eternal fire. Gods and goddesses joined heroes and emperors into the kiln, recycled into construction material for the new places of worship. If nudes were painted or carved on medieval churches, there was no glory, but helplessness, fear and the horrors of hell.

Then, during the Renaissance, a rediscovery of the art and culture of the Greeks and Romans took place. Artists started to paint or carve nudes, trying to push the boundaries between their quest for artistic freedom and the moral, social and religious norms of their day. One of them, Raphael, even invited Pope Leo X to “seek to equal and better the ancients, by supporting and favouring the virtues, reawakening genius, rewarding virtuous endeavours”.

One of the geniuses was Michelangelo, who spent most of his career at the service of the Papacy. But the nudity of the figures in the Sistine Chapel meant that repeatedly the masterpiece was at risk of destruction (see article).
The issue of nudity was discussed during the 1563 Church council which ordered that “every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust”. One way to avoid “beauty exciting to lust” was to add coverings to nude statues, or cut off the offending appendage. Statues were mutilated and paintings were covered.

Burning nude images

When covering nudity wasn’t sufficient, the solution was destruction, often by burning. At the very height of the Renaissance, in Florence, in the late 15th century a monk called Savonarola fed the Florentine population’s nightmares with his apocalyptic visions. He told them they were living lives of “orgies and debauchery. Your life is the life of pigs”. Nudes were amongst the vanities “immodest figures should not be painted, lest children be corrupted by the sight. What shall I say to you, Christian painters, who expose half nude figures to the eye? But you who possess such paintings, destroy them or paint them over and you will then do work pleasing to God and the Blessed Virgin”.

As a result, a Carnival of a particular kind took place: “Now it happened that Fra Girolamo Savonarola, continuing his preaching, and crying out every day from the pulpit that lascivious pictures, music, and amorous books often lead the mind to evil, became convinced that it was not right to keep in houses where there were young girls painted figures of naked men and women. And at the next Carnival when it was the custom in the city to make little huts of faggots and other kinds of wood on the public squares, and on the Tuesday evening, according to ancient use, to burn these, with amorous dances, in which men and women, joining hands, danced round these fires, singing certain airs the people were so inflamed by Fra Girolamo, and he wrought upon them so strongly with his words, that on that day they brought to the place a vast quantity of nude figures, both in painting and in sculpture, many by the hand of excellent masters, and likewise books, lutes, and volumes of songs, which was a most grievous loss, particularly for painting” .

Artists too were taken by apocalyptic fear and burnt their own paintings : “Baccio carried all the drawings of nudes that he had made by way of studies, and he was followed by Lorenzo di Credi and by many others”. It is said that Botticelli was amongst those who burnt their own artworks, while it is not certain he actually did, clearly the artist who “painted numerous female nudes” never again painted nudity. His Venus only survived by chance, for being outside Florence at the time of the burning of vanities. As a result, this celebrated masterpiece is only one of two painted nudes of the Florentine Renaissance to survive today.

Instances of artists burning their own artworks in fear of lasciviousness do exist, like for example with Watteau. A great painter of gallantry and courtship, for whom it could be said : “no vice dominated him, he never had done any obscene work”. Yet he still felt the need, a few days before his death, to ask for his paintings whose nudity might be considered obscene “to have the satisfaction of burning them”.

The French Royal collection is known to have had two paintings of Leda, illustrating Zeus transformed into a swan to seduce the married Leda. One was by Leonardo, the other by Michelangelo, but the fog of time, confusion between originals and copies clouded what really happened to the paintings. The only certitude being that they are lost. A Royal inventory of the collection stated about the Michelangelo version that “M. des Noyers, secretary of State under Louis XIII, advised that it be burnt, the indecency of the composition being the motive and excuse of the minister”.

In Spain Kings and aristocrats eagerly collected nude Venus paintings, but they had a powerful force to reckon with, the Inquisition. It was even forbidden for a Spanish artist to create nudes, per Inquisition order, as “to avoid the grave scandal and damage caused by worldly and lascivious paintings, we order that no person dares to bring into this country paintings, prints, statues or other lascivious sculptures. It is also forbidden to paint them under pain of full excommunication”.

Such pressure means that while Velazquez had created five paintings of nudes, only one survives. Spanish Kings contemplated destroying the nude artworks in their possession, as Charles III threatened to burn the masterpieces in his collection for showing “too much nudity”, and his son Charles IV renewed the threat. Fortunately each time they were saved by being hidden.
The last time the Inquisition attempted to censor “lascivious paintings” was when Goya was called in 1815 to answer for his nude paintings.

The issue carried on to the 20th century. In 1917 Paris it only took a few hours after complaints from passerby of the indecency of Modigliani nudes for the exhibition to be closed on police orders. In 1969 Australia a bookseller put a poster of Michelangelo’s David in the storefront; he was charged for obscenity. Only when a museum curator described the situation as “incredible, utterly ridiculous” was the bookseller’s prosecution dropped.
In 2011 Gauguins’s ‘Two Tahitian Women’ was attacked by a schizophrenic woman who explained “I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. I think it should be burned”.

Detail of Rubens’ descent of the cross, a masterpiece displayed since 1614 in a cathedral, yet removed from 21st century social media for its ‘nudity’.

Virtual destruction : online censorship

The issue of nudity and censorship now takes place on social media, where this time the destruction is virtual. Examples of artworks removed from social media because of their “explicitly sexual” content : statues on public display, like the little mermaid of Copenhagen or a statue of Neptune in Italy. As well as artworks displayed in the musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre, the Metropolitan Museum, Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and more.
Historical images, such as a Pulitzer Prize-winning war photograph, removed not because of the violence depicted, because of a nine year old girl’s nudity.

Maybe museum curators are best qualified to be arbiters of artistic merit? Yet, Christian Köeberl, director of the museum holding one of the most iconic and important artworks in the world, the Willendorf Venus, had to release this statement “we think that an archaeological object, especially such an iconic one, should not be banned from Facebook because of “nudity”, as no artwork should be. Let the Venus be naked! Since 29,500 years she shows herself as prehistoric fertility symbol without any clothes. Now Facebook censors it and upsets the community. There is no reason for the Natural History Museum Vienna to cover the ‘Venus of Willendorf ’, and hide her nudity, neither in the museum nor on social media”.

It took all but fifteen minutes to remove “Liberty guiding the people”, a painting displayed in the Louvre and in countless history books. A descent of the cross by Rubens, a masterpiece depicting the body of Christ, has been censored for its nudity. Yet it is displayed in a cathedral and has been for four centuries.

Reflecting on 16th century censors, the art historian Vasari had this to say : those who see “beautiful” artworks as “corrupt” and “judge them as lustful” in fact “reveal their own infected and corrupted souls when they dig out evil and impure desires from these works”.

Today we can only imagine what society would be like if images of actual violence and extremist propaganda were as efficiently hidden from impressionable minds.

Adapted from the chapter “ Cover up that bosom which I can’t endure to look on” from the forthcoming book “Lost Treasures, the destruction of works of human genius by intolerance and greed”.

Sources : Cover up that bosom which I can’t endure to look on is an extract from Tartuffe by Molière, Act III scene II, translation Harvard Classics.

Giorgio Vasari, The Life of the Artists, on Fra Bartolommeo Di San Marco, on Fra Angelico ; Raphael and Baldassare Castiglione letter to Leo X ; the 1563 Council of Trent ; Inventaire des tableaux commandés et achetés par la direction des bâtiments du roi (1709–1792) : inventaires des collections de la couronne ; Le Tombeau de Watteau à Nogent-sur-Marne: notice historique sur la vie et la mort d’Antoine Watteau, 1865 ; 1640 Spanish Inquisition edict againt nude paintings Index Novissimus librorum prohibitorum et expurgandorum pro catholicis Hispaniarum regnis Philippi IV in Portús 2002: 37, translated in A Companion to Spanish Women’s Studies, 2011 p 135

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Guillaume Deprez

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Art Historian author of a book about the destruction of cultural heritage by intolerance and greed, Lost Treasures

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