Tag Archives: nudity

It is 14 years after the assassination of Julius Caesar and three decades before the birth of Christ and the Greek queen of Egypt is about to die. The 39-year-old Cleopatra VII is the mother of four children by two fathers, both now dead. This much everyone seems to agree on. What happens next is romantic fairy tale, or conjecture, or cynical posturing — or all three.

The most widely believed version, used by Shakespeare in his tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, has the queen, fearing to be taken captive to Rome by the conquering Octavian, has a basket of figs delivered to her, with a smuggled asp hidden under the fruit. She takes the venomous snake and applies it to her tender bosom and expires from the poison.

The problem is that there are conflicting stories told by the ancient writers.

The best known version, and the one Shakespeare cribbed from is that of Plutarch in his essay on Mark Antony.

The two rebellious lovers, having  been conquered by the young Octavian were at odds over what to do. Cleopatra had a false message sent to Antony that she is dead. Antony ran himself into his sword, but botched his suicide and was brought to Cleopatra, where he then expired. Cleopatra mourned and locked herself in her mausoleum. And then, according to Plutarch:

“Having made these lamentations, crowning the tomb with garlands and kissing it, she gave orders to prepare her a bath, and, coming out of the bath, she lay down and made a sumptuous meal.”

An old man came with a basket. The guards Octavian had sent to keep Cleopatra in check stopped him to examine the contents.

“The fellow put the leaves which lay uppermost aside, and showed them it was full of figs; and on their admiring the largeness and beauty of the figs, he laughed, and invited them to take some, which they refused, and, suspecting nothing, bade him carry them in.”

The queen then sent a letter to Octavian describing her intent to kill herself and locked herself in the monument with her two servants, Charmion and Eras. When Octavian got the note, which asked that she be buried next to Antony, he sent messengers to stop her from killing herself. But they found her already dead, “lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments.”

Eras lay dying at her feet and Charmion, just ready to fall, barely able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress’s crown. And when the soldier that came in said angrily, “Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?”

“Extremely well,” she answered, “and as became the descendant of so many kings”; and as she said this, she fell down dead by the bedside.

“Some relate that an asp was brought in amongst those figs and covered with the leaves, and that Cleopatra had arranged that it might settle on her before she knew, but, when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said, ‘So here it is,’ and held out her bare arm to be bitten. Others say that it was kept in a vase, and that she vexed and pricked it with a golden spindle till it seized her arm. But what really took place is known to no one.

“Since it was also said that she carried poison in a hollow hairpin, about which she wound her hair; yet there was not so much as a spot found, or any symptom of poison upon her body, nor was the asp seen within the monument; only something like the trail of it was said to have been noticed on the sand by the sea, on the part towards which the building faced and where the windows were. Some relate that two faint puncture-marks were found on Cleopatra’s arm, and to this account Caesar seems to have given credit; for in his triumph there was carried a figure of Cleopatra, with an asp clinging to her.

“Such are the various accounts. But Caesar, though much disappointed by her death, yet could not but admire the greatness of her spirit, and gave order that her body should he buried by Antony with royal splendor and magnificence. Her women, also, received honorable burial by his directions.

“Cleopatra had lived nine and thirty years, during twenty-two of which she had reigned as queen, and for fourteen had been Antony’s partner in his empire. Antony, according to some authorities, was fifty-three, according to others, fifty-six years old. His statues were all thrown down, but those of Cleopatra were left untouched.”

European asp

While Plutarch’s story has been repeated many times, it must be remembered that it was written 120 years after the events. Other historians and poets also told stories of Cleopatra’s death: Strabo, Velleius, Florus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius and Galen, Virgil, Horace and Propertius.

Of the historians, the only one who was alive at the time of Cleopatra’s death was Strabo, who wrote: “(Octavian) took the city at the first onset, and compelled Antony to put himself to death, but Cleopatra to surrender herself alive. A short time afterwards, however, she also put an end to her life secretly, in prison, by the bite of an asp, or (for there are two accounts) by the application of a poisonous ointment.”

Strabo was about 34 years old when Cleopatra died, but his account was written at least 10 years after that. It is thought he might have been in Alexandria at the time of the queen’s death.

The poet Horace wrote his ode, “Nunc est bibendum,” within a year or two of the queen’s death and mentioned it near the end of the poem: “Caesar came back to put the deadly monster in chains, but she, wanting to die more nobly had no feminine dread of the sword, and finding no way out of the situation, went to her palace lying in ruins and with a tranquil face was brave enough to handle vicious serpents and drink their black venom into her body. Having chosen death, she was fiercer still, unwilling to be taken back to Rome and led in a humiliating victory parade.”

The physician Galen (AD 130-200) wrote in De Theriaca ad Pisonem that “The queen had bit her arm and then rubbed the wound with poison.”

Virgil in the Aeneid says she died of “two fatal asps.”

Modern commentators tend to suspect that all the stories of Cleopatra’s suicide may very well be spin concocted by Octavian (by then Augustus Caesar) to cover up her murder at his orders. We know he had Cleopatra’s oldest son killed. Caesarion was the natural son of Julius Caesar and was 17 when Caesar’s adopted son had him quietly eliminated. “Too many Caesars is not a good idea,” he supposedly said.

So, Cleopatra either killed herself by taking poison, or by rubbing herself with poison ointment, or by stabbing herself with a sharp comb laced with poison, or held an asp to her arm to bite her, or scratched her arm up and rubbed it with venom from the smuggled asp, or — and the list goes on — it probably wasn’t an asp, since there are no actual asps in Egypt and if there were, their venom causes a very slow and painful death, and would more likely have been an Egyptian cobra, which is the sacred snake of the Egyptian pharaohs. Or she was killed by Caesar.

As Plutarch admits: “What really took place is known to no one.”

Among other accounts, Cleopatra tested various poisons on her slaves before picking the one that would cause her the least suffering. A good deal of the gloss on Cleo comes from the Romans, who had a vested interest in presenting her in the least flattering light. She was, after all, an enemy of Rome — at least after the disputed empire fell from the likely rule of Antony into the sure hand of Octavian.

Denouement: In addition to Caesarion, born to Julius Caesar, she had three children by Mark Antony. A son named for the sun and a daughter named for the moon survived her. Ptolemy Philadelphus was the youngest. Octavius spared them but gave them to his sister, the legal wife of Antony, to raise. The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, eventually married King Juba II of Numidia in north Africa. The son, Alexander Helios, is lost to history along with his brother.

Of course, you will have noticed that in none of the ancient stories of her death does Cleopatra apply the serpent to her firm but supple breast. That version comes later, especially as painters attempted to give us the version not so much of Plutarch as of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. There is a Cecil B. DeMille quality to most of the historical paintings of Cleopatra, who ranks second only to Eve as a ripe subject for images of naked women with snakes.

Not that they are the only two: There are paintings and sculptures of the Roman goddess Hygea, goddess of health, which show her feeding a snake — the snake being the sacred animal of Asclepius, the god of medicine.

Lord Leighton, the English painter, gave us a grand tondo of the Hesperides, the home of the golden apples Hercules was to gather, which was protected by a serpent.

And there is the story of Harmonia and Cadmus. Cadmus, king of Illyria, had killed a serpent and the gods then turned Cadmus into a snake. His wife, Harmonia, stripped herself naked and begged Cadmus to come to her. As she embraced the snake the gods turned her also into a snake.

There is an obviously salacious element in these stories, especially as they are told, painted and sculpted by artists in the Victorian age, where they could be hypocritically sanctimonious about expressing the moral uplift of the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece while at the same time thinking “Look at the boobies on that one,” and, as the French say, “L.H.O.O.Q.”

But the crown of this Orientalizing prurience must be in Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbo — his followup to the scandalous Madame Bovary. It is the tale of the daughter of a Carthaginian general, set shortly after the first Punic War (264-241 BC). The plot is silly enough for an opera or a Hollywood epic. But there are scenes of sex and lasciviousness, not the least when the priestess Salammbo enters the enemy camp to retrieve the MacGuffin and encounters a prophetic snake. It is hard to avoid the Freudian undertones. They can hardly be called undertones.

“The moon rose; then the cithara and the flute began to play together.

“Salammbo unfastened her earrings, her necklace, her bracelets, and her long white simar; she unknotted the band in her hair, shaking the latter for a few minutes softly over her shoulders to cool herself by thus scattering it. The music went on outside; it consisted of three notes ever the same, hurried and frenzied; the strings grated, the flute blew; Taanach kept time by striking her hands; Salammbo, with a swaying of her whole body, chanted prayers, and her garments fell one after another around her.

“The heavy tapestry trembled, and the python’s head appeared above the cord that supported it. The serpent descended slowly like a drop of water flowing along a wall, crawled among the scattered stuffs, and then, gluing its tail to the ground, rose perfectly erect; and his eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, darted upon Salammbo.

“A horror of cold, or perhaps a feeling of shame, at first made her hesitate. But she recalled Schahabarim’s orders and advanced; the python turned downwards, and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbo rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth, and half shutting her eyes, threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon. The white light seemed to envelop her in a silver mist, the prints of her humid steps shone upon the flag-stones, stars quivered in the depth of the water; it tightened upon her its black rings that were spotted with scales of gold.

“Salammbo panted beneath the excessive weight, her loins yielded, she felt herself dying, and with the tip of its tail the serpent gently beat her thigh; then the music becoming still it fell off again.”

Yes, Flaubert; Mr. Mot Juste. More like Mot Jeaux, i.e. mojo.

We’re not done yet with naked women and snakes. More anon.

Click on any image to enlarge

Sometime around 1515, the Venetian artist Titian painted a scene usually titled “Sacred and Profane Love.” In it, two women are seated at a marble well; one is nude, the other elaborately dressed. It comes as a shock to many Americans to find out that in this allegory, sacred love is represented by the naked lady.

And in general, Americans seem to have a difficult time with the nude in art. Maybe it is America’s Puritan heritage, maybe it is the low priority given art education in our schools.

Sometimes it’s just pig ignorance.

But to many Americans, the nude is something dirty, lewd and embarrassing. At the very least, nudity is equated with sexuality and eroticism.

As they said on “Seinfeld,” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

We can laugh at the silliness of such a view, but it governs much of what Americans think about sexual morality, including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who spent $8,000 in 2002 on blue drapes to hide two giant Art Deco statues — “The Spirit of Justice” and “The Majesty of Law” — at the Great Hall of the Department of Justice in Washington.

Certainly, there is a good deal of eros in art history.

Take for instance, Francois Boucher’s “Reclining Nude” from the French 18th century.

There is not much about this luscious painting that is different from, say a photograph with a staple in the middle.

An in America, too often, this is all that a nude is.

A few years ago, a woman in Tucson demanded that art and art books be removed from a public school, calling works by established masters ”pornographic and morbid.”

She was talking about Michelangelo’s “David” and Picasso’s  “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

What is more astounding is that she managed, at least temporarily, to have 10 art books and four posters yanked from the school. The works in question were by Edouard Manet, Frida Kahlo, Paul Gauguin, Hieronymus Bosch and El Greco.

She said she considered El Greco a ”pervert.”

”We left the art teacher with about five books,” she said, with some pride. ”I took out anything with nudity in it. There’s no difference between a nude (in an art book) and a ‘Playboy’ picture.”

I’m not interested so much in the question of what is appropriate for fifth- and sixth-graders; there may be some legitimate concern for their sensibilities. Although, in this case, I doubt the kids are getting anything from Gauguin they haven’t learned long ago from Aaron Spelling.

But, I am very much interested in the widespread belief that nudes are necessarily pornographic.

Such a view ignores the evidence of centuries of art that has portrayed the human body for other, more complex purposes.

Varieties of nudity 

So what are those purposes? In other words, what does the nude mean?

All but a few cultures in the history of the world have had a place in their art for the undressed human body. Although it is probably more developed in European art than elsewhere, the nude body appears prominently in African, Persian, Hindu, Tibetan and Japanese arts.

It occurs with different meanings in them: In Chinese art, the nude is rare; the most frequent nudes are not sleek ideals of human form but fat Buddhist monks, looking like the sileni of Greek art.

But you will see that these are not different merely in style, but in purpose: These are all different meanings for the nude and the human form.

Of course, in the geography in which humans evolved, there was less need of heat-conserving hair. And in those climes, nudity has different cultural meanings.

And titillation is rarely the primary factor involved.

Like the prisoners in Abu Ghraib — Surely being made to exhibit themselves naked means more to them than it would to us, even if we feel humiliation in our nudity, how much worse is it for these Arab men?

In the temple art of India, nudity and copulation are used as a metaphor for the Cosmos. There is not one single meaning for the nude, but rather a series of layers of meaning that can overlap. Those layers run from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. There are at least four distinct layers of meaning to be addressed:

–> Appetite;

–> Intellect;

–> Power;

–> and Spirituality.

The first layer is really that of plumbing.   At the level of appetite, we have the gaze of the voyeur.

It is here we find everything from men’s room drawings to “Debbie Does Dallas” to the pillow books created by Japanese artists in the 18th century.

The faces mean little, the beauty or fitness of the physiques mean little. There is nothing going on but what Joseph Campbell has called the ”zeal of the organs for each other.”

All true pornography stops at this basement level.

And it is this level that most of the moralizing critics of the nude are stuck in, unable to see any higher.

The rippling of silk 

The second layer is that of both eroticism and idealization.

In both cases, the mind takes over from the organs and imposes standards.

Eroticism is the level at which the rippling of a silk dress is more arousing than raw flesh, with all its hair, bruises and cellulite. Pornography is stunningly literal-minded; eroticism is imaginative.

And eroticism’s flip side is the idealized nude of ancient Greece or “Playboy” centerfolds. In each case, an ideal form is held in the mind – an ideal the real world cannot actually live up to; hence the canon of Polyclitus, which defined the proportions of the perfect body, and the airbrush of Hugh Hefner.

When Sir Kenneth Clark wrote his famous book about the nude, he focused almost exclusively on this aspect of the figure in Western art: The idealization of beauty.

Here we find the pneumatic Boucher cuties and the massive Classic Zeus in bronze throwing his thunderbolt.

If pornography is often physically repulsive, no matter how fascinating, the idealized nude is  intended to be attractive. The idea of beauty enters into the equation.

The so-called Venus of Willendorf, from at least 24,000 years ago, found in what is now Austria. Is this an ideal of beauty? It is certainly an image of fertility. And fertility and beauty are often the same thing, when you live in a time and place that survival depends on fertility.

In Ancient Greece, where we generally start our narrative of Western art, the earliest statues were an expression of human perfection. And for the Greeks, human perfection meant the male human form. They worshipped male beauty. Greek vases are full of nude male bodies — athletes in the Panathanaic Games, for instance.

The early kouros was still rather stiff, by modern standards, but compared to what went before, in Egypt or Babylonia, it is a model of realism and accurate observation.

I don’t want to make this a chronological history. You have schools for that.

But you are familiar with lots of nudes in European art from the Renaissance to now.

Rather, I want to look at some thematic ideas, how the nude changes meaning.

The body still remains, however, essentially an object rather than a person.

How the world works 

We’ve seen the erotic nude, but that’s not all there is.

A third level, above the erotic and the idealized, is the level of power and the political, psychological and scientific.

What does the nakedness here tell us? It tells us these people are powerless, humiliated, tortured and suffering.

There is a famous picture by Imogen Cunningham of a young woman with her head and hair hanging off the edge of a bed. It is erotic.

But put it beside this and you see the similar pose with a completely different meaning.

No one who has seen pictures of naked Jews herded into the showers of Auschwitz can fail to recognize the political significance of nakedness. It functions to underline the powerlessness of the victims and their vulnerability.

Context makes a huge difference.

And in Manet’s famous painting, “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” the message that comes through is ostensibly erotic, but in reality is political: Two fully clothed middle-class men are having a picnic with two nude women.

The ridiculousness of the scene makes fun of the traditional power relationship between men and women. The painting pointedly comments on such earlier paintings as Georgione’s “Fete Champetre,”   in which two Renaissance courtiers talk animatedly with each other while attended by two docile and idealized nude women.

And it comments on such popular paintings of Manet’s time as Gerome’s “Slave Market,” in which clothed men paw over a nude woman, checking her teeth before purchasing her.

Gerome’s painting is merely a salacious bit of kitsch; Manet’s is biting and political. (One shouldn’t discount the tacit political message in the Gerome, probably unnoticed by the painter: Who has the power here? It isn’t the woman.)

It’s no wonder that “Dejeuner” was declared indecent while such paintings as the “Slave Market” made Gerome a wealthy man: By making his figures  bourgeois, Manet was pointing a finger at his audience. It is political commentary.

Many left-wing feminist critics of the nude get just as stuck in this level as their Christian right-wing counterparts get stuck in the first.

But the power I’m talking about at this level isn’t only political power. It is the power of  humankind over itself and the power to understand the world it lives in.

For instance: If Renaissance artists hadn’t become obsessed with drawing the nude figure, modern life expectancy would likely still be short and brutal. Modern medicine could not have developed without such artists as Leonardo and Michelangelo taking an interest in how the human body looks and how it is put together.

Before the Renaissance, Gothic artists created the figures they used to decorate the cathedrals from their imagined forms. If a figure had a torso, two legs, two arms and a head, it was enough. The bones, muscles, tendons and sinews that lay underneath the surface might as well not have existed.

”It seems rather as if you were looking at a sack of nuts than a human form, or at a bundle of radishes rather than the muscles of nudes,” wrote Leonardo of unobservant figure drawing.

But the Renaissance brought with it an interest in how the world works, how the parts of the body work.

Those artists studied the world around them intently. And to them, the most interesting thing in the universe was humankind. The human figure was to them the most perfect and beautiful form found below the level of the angels.

”Who is so barbarous as not to understand that the foot of a man is nobler than his shoe, and his skin nobler than that of the sheep with which he is clothed?” wrote Michelangelo.

In other words, clothes are trivial, the naked human body, essential.

But even at this level, so much more profound and moving, the figures still represent ideas and are not fully humanized, not fully individualized.

Empathetic encounters  

At its highest level, the nude represents spiritual virtues, unencumbered by fashion. The nude is universally true. That is why Titian’s sacred love must not wear the silks and finery of her earthly sister.

Angels are nude, and so are the putti, or cherubs, that flit around so many Baroque allegories.

Michelangelo’s designs for the Sistine Chapel are monumental nudes for that reason, and for another:

When art is most profound, it draws us out of  ourselves and forces us into an empathetic encounter with things and people who are radically different from us.

It is not possible to view the figures of the Sistine Chapel with any intensity and not feel your own body compared with them. Their sinews are your sinews; their contorted muscles are yours.

It is why the nude is used for the most profound tragedies in art: the nude Pieta and the Crucifixion, to name two very Christian uses of the nude.

Angels are often drawn as putti, or cupids, in part for their association with innocence.

We look at one of Matthias Grunewald’s tortured crucifixions and cannot help but feel the pain in our own flesh.

In all the greatest art, we are thus drawn out of ourselves and identify with the grace, power, suffering and love of others and come to escape   the isolation — and loneliness — of the ego. We recognize the similarities of all humanity and not its petty differences.

Whatever it means in religious dogma, the Christ is symbolic of our own mortality.

A lot of wind has been spent on the argument over whether there are any universal truths in the world. So many of the old Truths now seem mendacious. But there are two truths that are inescapable. We die, and people we love die. Loss is central to the human experience. It is why Michelangelo’s “Pieta” is meaningful, even for the atheist.

Our recognition of our humanity is one of the highest aims art can attempt.

It is why Rembrandt’s nude portraits of his two wives are so compelling, why Goya’s “Disasters of War” are so frightening.

And not only are the figures in the art thus humanized, but the viewers are as well.