Andrea del Sarto, Madonna and Child, 1525

We have dragged our children to art museums most of their lives, and perhaps only because they didn’t know any better they have been remarkably tolerant.  We would, of course, try to help them to stay engaged through tours, audio guides, bribes of candy forthcoming, and, of course, the many wonderful activities that museums create for families.  These activities often include counting – how many paintings with sphinxes can you find?  That kind of thing.

My children need fewer incentives these days (although a well-timed bribe still works wonders), but lost deep within the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, recalling these museum activities, I asked them to count all the paintings that contain the Madonna and Child.  It was, of course, a joke – it would have been far easier to count the paintings that didn’t.  For students of the Madonna and Child, we had found the mother lode.

Room after room of such paintings bear powerful witness to the common assertion that during the Italian Renaissance painters increasingly turned to realism, or at least to realistic portrayals of idealized beauty.  We can watch the Madonna evolve from a wooden-looking stock figure to, well, a pretty attractive young woman.

This, though, raises a provocative question.  Most of this art was commissioned for religious settings.  What would it have meant to have had a portrait of a beautiful Madonna nursing her child above the altar?  And this in an environment that at least artistically and fashionably seems to have been well on its way to eroticizing the female breast.  That is, was the display of such art meant actually to produce sexual desire?

I am currently teaching an undergraduate class on “Religion and Sexuality,” and the intersection of religion and desire happens to be much on my mind.  There are strong notions in many religions that “desire” is a human force that produced without regard for its eventual target.  First, we “desire” – only then do we figure out what it is that we desire.  Hence, in these religions, sexual desire and desire for God exist in a very uneasy tension; they are two sides of the same coin.  Some religious thinkers deal with this tension by carefully separating human sexual desire from desire for God, as, for example, the book of Leviticus does by decreeing that contact with sexual fluids renders a person ritually impure.  Other thinkers, though, work to channel desire toward God, as, for example, the Jews and Christians who read the Song of Songs as an allegory of love between God and God’s people.  Many medieval mystical texts flirt productively with this tension.

So back to our sexy Madonna.  (This is not to exclude the possibility, by the way, that the same applies to a newly sexualized adult Jesus.)  It is possible that the inclusion of such erotic imagery in a sacred space was an aberration, an unintended byproduct of when changing artistic sensibilities outpace modes of art procurement and display.  I do not know if more conservative religious thinkers ever explicitly noticed this change in fashion and attempted to dial it back, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.  It is also possible, though, that there was some intentionality behind it.  Such art would help to produce more desire, which in turn could now be channeled to enhance religious experience.

If this was an experiment, it appears to have failed.  Much of this art was removed from its original religious context and sequestered to museums.  Sex, once again, is safely insulated from the sacred.