27.02,2014 BY RICHTJE REINSMA
Soft, pale pink, and firm. God’s buttocks are glorious. How could they not be, this is God we’re talking about! They were revealed to me in Verborgen musea – Erotische kunst by Peter Woditsch (2008), a documentary about secret erotic art collections. In the film, professor Charles Méla speaks of the divine behind painted by Michelangelo in the fifteenth century in the Sistine Chapel. Approximately four million people view this behind every year. How did Michelangelo dare? Did the patron Pope Sixtus IV simply not notice it, did he tolerate it in the name of artistic freedom, or was he well aware and appreciated it as a gag? In all nonchalance, Michelangelo casually reveals the creator’s butt. It’s almost as though they wound up on the painting by accident, like in a snapshot taken where God, after creating the sun and the moon and the elements, spins around abruptly so that a flash of buttocks is seen through the fluttering of his robes.
It’s almost unbelievable to think that in the heart of Vatican City, Michelangelo’s God has been floating in this compromising position above the heads of robed clergymen and the tourists who are required by the pope to cover their shoulders and knees. Funnily enough, I noticed nothing when standing under Michelangelo’s fresco as a schoolgirl years ago. If a tour guide had pointed and said, ‘Look, God’s butt!’ I would probably have found this a very extraordinary view, but on my own and without the help of language, I completely overlooked it. I saw what I expected to see: pious art.
Thanks to Peter Wotisch’s documentary, I now know that the Vatican possesses one of the largest collections of pornography in the world. When the invention of the printing press spurred an influx of sinful and blasphemous texts and illustrations, the Catholic Church began the Index Librorium Prohibitorium: a list of forbidden books, in an attempt to temper these abominable publications. In order to know what to forbid, the Church carefully kept track of what arrived on the market. The Index-collection is unfortunately not open to the public, but artist and collector Jean-Jacques Lebel was once allowed a peak into it. He saw shelves full of male genitals, taken from classical sculptures bought by art-loving popes. Before being placed in the halls of the Vatican, the penises were removed, neatly labeled and stored away. The castration wounds were covered with marble fig leaves. At first, the thought of these genitals stored away made me giddy, but now that the forced castration of Henk Heithuis has been revealed, it seems there’s not that much to laugh about.
Other museums manage their pagan erotic art in a different manner. In Villa Borghese in Rome, for example, there’s a sculpture of a hermaphrodite sleeping on his or her side. The side on which both breasts and penis are visible is faced towards the wall. The unknowing visitor sees only the back, and remains impervious to its dual gender. If I think back to my youthful disinterest, I’d almost think that Villa Borghese could have saved itself the effort of rotating the sculpture.
Jean Michel Traimond, guide at the Louvre and at the Musée d’Orsay in Parijs, often notices that people seem oblivious to what they’re really looking at. If it were up to him, it would stay that way, because young women, children, and prudes should not be confronted with sex in the museum. One of his examples of such a sinful work is a centaur embracing Bacchante by the Swedish sculptor, Sergel. On one side, the centaur holds the arm of a priestess, but you’ll see that the other hand is laid on her behind with one finger stroking her anus, the other one touching her vagina. According to Jean Michel Traimond, most museum visitors never notice this, because they perceive the museum as a venerable institution with no room for primitive urges.
‘Art is for the bourgeoisie, a delight for the elite. It’s unthinkable to the greater public that something as ‘low’ as erotica could also be considered art.’
The longer you think about it, the stranger it becomes: the only ones who behave in the museum are the visitors, the sculptures themselves are stiff with sex and violence. I think I’ll go to the Rijksmuseum and the Allard Piersson soon, I’m curious what I’ll see now that my eyes are finally open.
With thanks to Lucy, roaming art platform.