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Nudes in sacred art convey 4 different types of symbolism

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A doorway to a greater appreciation of the "personal mystery" of humanity.

The Sistine Chapel enthralls thousands of tourists a year with its amazing beauty. What many are surprised to find, though, is the number of naked bodies on its walls.

In fact, a large number of the persons depicted in the Sistine Chapel were painted in their birthday suits, without even a leaf to cover the intimate parts.

The Sistine Chapel is of course not alone in its presentation of nudity. Countless artists over the centuries have used nude men and women to populate their artwork, and these pieces of art are featured in Catholic churches around the world.

Why did so many artists use nudes in Christian artwork?

Naked bodies have a long history in sacred art; by the Renaissance artists used four different types of nudity to symbolize four states of humanity.

First there is nuditas naturalis, representing the natural state of humanity before the Fall, often depicted in scenes connected to Eden or Paradise.

Then there is nuditas temporalis, depicting poverty, sometimes voluntary in nature, and the reliance of humanity on God for all that we receive.

Third there is nuditas virtualis, symbolizing purity and innocence. Depictions of “the penitent Magdalene,” for example, often show her naked, clothed only in her hair, as a symbol of the soul’s return to innocence after repentance.

Last of all there is nuditas criminalis, representing the horror of lustful passions and vanity.

St. John Paul II explained in his Theology of the Body how “in the great period of Greek classical art—there are works of art whose subject is the human body in its nakedness … This leads the viewer, through the body, to the whole personal mystery of man. In contact with these works … we do not [naturally] feel drawn by their content to ‘looking lustfully.'”

Depiction of nudity in this way is clearly completely different than the use of nudity in pornography.

John Paul II points out how pornographic productions have the explicit intention of arousing lust; they present the human body as an object to be used. Porn does not respect the dignity of the human person and the sexual act is exploited for personal satisfaction at the expense of another.

In contrast, nudity in Christian art is meant to reveal the beauty of humanity and the marvelous work of the creator. It has deep symbolism and is not meant to be a stumbling block, but a doorway to a greater appreciation of the “personal mystery” of humanity.

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