Art and The Sacred Body

This past summer I had the opportunity to take a class in medieval art and theology in Orvieto, Italy. It was a life-changing experience to be immersed in the elaborate, ancient artwork tellings stories of Christ, resurrection and judgement. I even had the opportunity to stop through Rome on my way back and see the Sistine Chapel. But what was interesting was that when I returned to the states and showed my pictures to my Christian family and friends, the number one comment I received was not how beautiful the paintings were, but how naked the subjects were. Artists such as Michelangelo embraced nakedness in their religious paintings as a form of expression. For other artists like Luca Signorelli (who painted “The Last Judgment” at the Duomo in Orvieto), paintings of the body were an answer to a popular heresy at the time that claimed the body was created by Satan.

I sometimes struggle with the meaning of Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?"

What does it look like to allow God’s spirit to be active, beautiful and fluid in our bodies?

I recently began watching the new Amazon series Transparent, which is an interesting story about a father who is transitioning into a woman, Maura. I’m only one episode in but so far the theme of the body is ever-present. Not only is Maura working to accept her body and come out to her children,  her children are working to do the same with their own bodies. In one particular scene one of the daughters, Ali comes home, strips naked and stands in front of the mirror staring at herself. In the next scene, she tells her personal trainer that she wants to change her body, and thus her act of vulnerability begins a layered transformation of her image. While I don’t think we necessarily need to go around painting or filming nudes just because we can, as an artist, I do wonder if I have given enough thought to the body within my own work.

It often seems as if Christianity has forgotten that bodies are beautiful. And while we quote “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” for some reason there is a disconnect between this reality and its connection to Adam and Eve, naked and unashamed in the garden. This could mean that we need to flex and bend our thinking as to how God’s Spirit might surprise us.

How are we, as Christians, acknowledging the physicality of our body and its connection to the Spirit that created us? Can we be Christians and be sensual? What about single Christians? How can we be sensual whether we choose celibacy or not? There is a possibility that the art we create as well as the relationships we nurture can be transformed when we not only see the body as sacred, but also allow it to become a part of how we see God.