As liberal-minded as today's art connoisseurs may be, their views regarding nudity pale when compared to the broad attitudes of ancient Greece and her worship of unclothed Hellenistic gods. Modern civilization has yet to become comfortable with the bare human form to a level where it can embrace physical beauty as publicly displayed works of art or be as comfortable as the pre-Christian Greeks with naked (gymnos) Olympian sporting events .
Classical Greek art would climax after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) and last almost two centuries until the Roman conquest of the Greek peninsula (146 BCE). The idealized Greek figure was an embodiment of grace and health, beauty, and vitality. For the ancients, the ennoblement and perfection of their natural human state remained a matter of pride and self-assurance.
Subsequently, the appearance of sculpted genitalia or unclothed athletes was a celebration of human beauty, one which issued no negative response or repulsion. To the Athenian mind, clothing was simply decorative, for practical protection or a class distinction. To consider refined works of sculpted or painted figurative arts immodest would have been an uncultured, barbarian  response.
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Augustus of Prima Porta - A well-
developed and incredibly realistic
statue of emperor Augustus, 1st
century CE. Vatican Museums
After Greece came under Roman rule, its artwork, including statues of Hellenistic deities would often be confiscated and imported along with Greek artisans  to sculpt, create mosaics and paint murals of Roman variations on Hellenistic theology. This Roman period of Hellenistic art would often produce sculpture that included highly detailed figurative monuments of Rome's emperors and officials (figure to right). However, even with its high level of finish, ancient Rome would never quite eclipse the earlier Athenian golden age of the human form.
Nevertheless, adoration of the idyllic human form would eventually clash with the chaste modesty of Christian theology and supply fuel to the reverse-persecution efforts of the early Christian Church towards its longtime pagan rivals. The consequences of which was a wholesale rejection of Hellenistic imagery and the willful destruction and disfigurement of ancient masterworks.
Once Christianity spread across Western culture, rendering the unclothed human figure would slow down or cease entirely. Aside from the few surviving frescos and carved symbols found in the Roman catacombs, Christian artwork is barely present until the 4th century. By that time, the relatively new religion had become legalized (Edict of Milan, 313 CE) within the Roman Empire. Later that same century Christianity became the Empire's state religion (Edict of Thessalonica, 380 CE).
The New Religion
As the Abrahamic views of Judaism, Christianity and eventually Islam began to overwhelm and replace ancient polytheistic sensibilities, all figurative artwork would become forever challenged. With the advent of monotheism, the unveiled natural human form became sinful, wrong, even evil. Male and female gods and goddesses (lower-case g) were replaced by a singular male God (upper-case G). Consequently, no longer a partner of Zeus in the heavens, the social status of the earthly bound female, daughter of Eve, plummeted to that of a second-class citizen, subservient to the now spiritually enlightened male.
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The Good Shepherd, c. 220 - One of
the earliest instances of Christian art.
The cross would not become a
Christian symbol until the fourth
century. Catacombs of Saint Priscilla
Supporting FiguresAs gentile Christians began to dominate, their native Hellenistic, polytheistic roots would begin to emerge and govern ecclesiastical matters . Soon, God would not be alone. As the Church filled the heavens of Christendom with martyrs, saints and the Virgin mother deified, so did it begin to embrace artistic subject matter. However, still maintaining some Abrahamic traditions, the male clergy would retain exclusive leadership and the priestess role would be reduced to that of a veiled nun-servant. Consequently, the female figure would, for the most part, assume a supporting role in Christian art.
Like the Jews (and the later Muslims), not all early Christians embraced religious artwork . However, once gentiles gathered majority rule within the new religion, the Hellenistic tradition of sculpted and painted deities would slowly re-emerge, but not without ongoing resistance and setbacks.
Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE)
An early Church father and an
outspoken critic of all things related
to Hellenistic beliefs.
Even before Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan of 313 CE, which freed Christians from government persecution, the new religion had spread rapidly across the Roman Empire. Still remembering the faith's Jewish roots and the history of Hellenistic persecution, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE), one of the early Church fathers and theologians, referred to all visual arts (not just nudes) as "deadly toys" . However, bear in mind most art up until that time was Hellenistic depictions of Olympian gods, usually unclothed, or non-religious erotica.
Clement went on to criticize the pagan deities themselves for being "bad examples and warnings of what to avoid" . This emphasis on morality and puritanical behavior would become central to Christianity's developing theology. Clement and other church fathers would go to great lengths to distinguish themselves from their Hellenistic, pagan rivals. In one somewhat humorous instance of this extreme, Clement stated: "Let the head of (Christian) men be shaven unless he has curly hair..." .
This inevitable polarization was the result of centuries of persecution and mistreatment at the hands of Hellenistic officials. Consequently, in territories where Christianity became dominant, pagan artwork was often mutilated or destroyed. However "nonhuman pagan representations" (vases, animal sculpture, carvings, etc.) were often spared as being "harmless" .
Contrary to the views of some today, early gentile converts did not simply shrug off their former beliefs as being nonexistent. Instead, they had to first demonize their former deities. To better rationalize their transition from Hellenism to Christianity they embraced the concept of demonic deception. They had simply been tricked by the devil to believe in Zeus, offer sacrifices to Mars or pray to Venus for a compatible mate. Consequently, the destruction of ancient sculptures and mosaics depicting these false gods, and often times the temples that housed them, became somewhat obligatory.
In the year 399 CE, the city of Alexandria would fall to the control of Theophilus, then the Christian patriarch of that city. The historian, Socrates of Constantinople (380-439 CE) goes on to describe what then amounted to cultural genocide which followed. "Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost... he caused the Mithraeum to be cleaned out... Then he destroyed the Serapeum... and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. ...the heathen temples... were therefore razed to the ground, and the images of their gods molten into pots and other convenient utensils for the use of the Alexandrian church ".
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Mithras and the Bull, 100 CE -
Viewed damaged and restored states.
Ostia Antica, Italy 
Wrath of GodDuring the 8th century, Byzantium was dealing with the first known outbreak of the plague while beset with the rise of Islam and the Caliphate. Consequently, there were those who blamed figurative representations of Christ and the Virgin as vindication for the Moslem's accusations that Christians were idol-worshippers and the plague as well as increased threats of Muslim invasion to be God's punishment. Consequently, Christian art objects and icons were attacked and removed starting in 730 CE .
|Saint Aemilianus - The 5th Century|
saint and martyr, shown here
instigating instances of iconoclasm.
Intriguingly, still considered vital to classical education by many, nostalgic artwork of mythological Hellenistic depictions began to re-appear in the fifth century, created well after Christianity became the Empire's state religion (380 CE, Edict of Thessalonica) . This interest in the classical aspects of Hellenistic mythology would be heightened yet again during the later Italian Renaissance, a full millennium later.
Lost Arts, Growing Purpose
Patriarch Theophilus's purging of the Hellenistic libraries, temples, and agoras in 399 CE , would coincide with a far broader decline in government, standards of living and education. Historically referred to as the Migration Period, because of the migration of barbarians after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a climate of ignorance would prevail in Western Europe until the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9th century when public education would be initiated in churches and monasteries.
Moreover, the studies of philosophy, the arts and science would not resume until universities began to flourish in the 11the century (University of Bologna, 1088). Consequently, until that time, the arts would be limited to highly skilled scribes and the content limited to the Gospel, appearing in carvings and Illuminated Manuscript which began to be introduced in the 5th century. However, even these works would be subject to destruction during the Byzantine iconoclasm to come .
Byzantine IconoclasmEventually, Eastern Byzantium would rail against visual arts, though few in the Latin West would embrace iconoclasm. Subsequently, many Western manuscripts and carvings, chiefly those in Italy, would survive to provide an important foundation for future artwork.
. Unquestioned and embraced by Christians, the crucifix is today a religious gift store commodity. No Christian is sexually aroused or embarrassed by its public presences. Like the early sculptures of scantily clad gods, the crucified Christ has today emerged to become centrally dominant at many Christian religious services, as well as the foremost religious symbol within the homes of the faithful.
|Chi-Rho - Chi and|
Rho are the first two
letters (ΧΡ) of "Christ"
in Greek ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ
The earliest known carving of Jesus attached to a cross is thought to be one carved upon a casket, attrib. Rome, between 420-430 CE  (below image at left). However, the first, Church sanctioned image of the figure of Jesus on a cross is within the illuminated manuscript of the Rabulla Syriac Gospel of 586 CE (below right) more than a century later. Here, in this authorized depiction, the Christ is shown clothed in a columbium tunic. Illuminated manuscripts would not begin to display an unclothed, crucified Jesus until the 7th century.
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Adam and Eve of Bamberg - Possibly
the two most non-sensuous nude
sculptures in all of Christendom.
The Catholic Church had begun to declare its independence from the Eastern Byzantine Church when Charlemagne was anointed Emperor by Rome's Pope Leo III in 800 CE. This would be the birth of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church's initial rise above secular power.
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The Life of Saint Remy and the
Baptism of Clovis (Detail) -
Produced in Reims, late 9th Century.
Musée de Picardie, Amiens
Medieval paintings, sculpture and elaborate architectural relief work began to appear and gradually spread across Western Europe. Depictions of a scantily clad, crucified Christ were by then becoming the work of skilled tradesmen beyond the monastery walls.
The Naked Damned
11th century Italy's artists continued fostering innovations to the rendering of the human form up until its own Renaissance (14-16th centuries). Aside from crucifixions, baptisms and physical acts of passion involving the lives of Jesus and the saints, Genesis' Garden of Eden and the sensationalism of the Last Judgement would greatly contribute to figurative source material.
Once in the afterlife, there would be no need for articles of clothing, at least not for the damned. For those celestially bound, the casual silk tunics of early Christendom  would be employed by the artist to accentuate the human form.
The concept of eternal torment would introduce an element of pain to renderings of bare flesh. Used as a device to control the behavior of church members and improve the likelihood of becoming an estate beneficiary, the Church would promote the concept of hell and embrace artistic depictions of damnation .
Regarding this 11th Century depiction (to left) of Adam with the creatures of Eden, Art historian, Charles Reginald Dodwell would note a change in fundamental mannerisms: "Adam stands with particular self-assurance as he names the animals, flaunting his nudity in an unabashed and un-medieval way. ...he is endued with roundness and weight by a subtle disposition of flesh tones ".
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Cimabue's Crucifix, 1287–88 -
Would usher in a new era of stylized
figures, breaking with Byzantine
Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence
Cimabue's (1240-1302) Crucifix (1287-88) would herald a new era of stylized human form. A medieval painter who broke with stiff Byzantine tradition, his elongated figure of Christ exudes a subtle grace and passion. The transparent veil of the loincloth allows us to fully appreciate Christ's form , while the twisting anatomy foretells the stylized body movement of a Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo.
Cimabue would become the teacher of the great Giotto (1267-1337) who, with his realistically structured compositions of grouped individuals, would lay a compositional foundation for the Italian Renaissance. In addition to this, Christians of the very near future would be embracing the athletic human form of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Only this time, instead of gods and demigods, it would be Christ, the Virgin, and the holy martyrs.
|Giotto's The Ecstatic Magdalene c. 1300 - A fresco in the lower basilica of Assisi, Italy, this would become a landmark depiction of a semi-nude female form, subject matter which would not be broached again until Botticelli.|
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Giotto: Lamentation of Christ -
Unlike the flat Byzantine icons,
Giotto's works would have depth,
perspective and natural groupings
of figures, men and women.
c1350, Scrovegni Chapel
Nevertheless, his semi-nude rendering of Mary Magdalene as she ascends to heaven (The Ecstatic Magdalene c. 1300), located in the lower basilica of Assisi, would become a landmark rendering of the female form. She appears as a "...depiction of female beauty and innocent eroticization in veiled nudity" .
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Donatello, David c1440 - So lifelike
it was originally thought to be a
casting from life. Its sensuosity
would meet with protest, even during
the Italian Renaissance. Museo
Nazionale del Bargello
Aside from Giotto's Mary Magdalene (1330), the depiction of the undraped female form would not be repeated again until the late 15th century. At that time, Italy would begin to dabble in previously forbidden depictions of polytheism. This would only be a temporary reprieve from idolatry granted by the powerful Renaissance statesman/patron, Lorenzo de Medici, who managed to have it shrugged off as mere mythology.
Botticelli's Birth of Venus of 1486 would set a precedent by crossing into the pagan culture and sensual female nudity. It goes further than his own Primavera of 1482, where he depicts a variety of mythological female figures, then rendered in transparent robes. Consequently, the painting barely escaped the wrath of the Dominican fundamentalist, friar Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola and his followers regularly held Bonfires of the Vanities. Botticelli eventually became sympathetic to Savonarola's cause, painting less as time went on.
The zealous friar would continue to destroy works he deemed sinful as well as art objects he considered overly lavish possession. Sadly, some of Botticelli's works have been said to be used for kindling, though the precise number remains uncertain. Savonarola's brand of iconoclasm would claim some of Florence Italy's greatest art treasures of the day.
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Laocoön and His Sons - The
Laocoön and other Hellenistic
artwork would foretell the passion
and suffering depicted in many
Christian works. Vatican Museums
The Italian Renaissance would reach its climax with the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo. From a figurative standpoint, Michelangelo would reinvent the Greco-Roman Classical interpretation of the human figure. The sculptor/painter would take Greco-Roman mannerisms to the next level by firmly establishing a three-dimensional contrapposto.
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Michelangelo would incorporate his own variation to this classical pose in his sculpture of David (1504), which is more chiastic balance than contrapposto. However, the slave sculptures to follow were pure Michelangelesque, a robust harmony of chiastic and contrapposto, which would become his signature trademark. Not only would he incline the vertical axis to a greater tilt between the torso and hips, but also introduce a back and forth swirling motion, which would sometimes extend upwards to raised arms and/or a tilted head. His Rebellious Slave (1513) demonstrates the most extreme example possible.
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Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling - The Sistine Ceiling would mark the height of the Italian Renaissance, Its complex array of figures both nude and clothed would act as a catalog of figurative arts for generations to come.
From a standpoint of non-controversial expression, this balance proved to be yet another milestone. When Michelangelo took on the ceiling fresco in the Sistine Chapel, it not only enabled him to create one of the most profuse implementations of the human form in all of the arts, it also allowed him to express his figurative vision in one of Christendom's most elite settings, the Pope's private chapel.
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