188 Sex with God: for Leo Steinberg

This afternoon I had a query from my dear friend Anja Ševčík of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum concerning the iconography of a painting by Geldorp Gortzius of the Madonna and child with St. Anne. Rather than delving instantly into her case, I was inspired to post a salacious column on the subject that I wrote in 2003. When it appeared in the Financieele Dagblad there were incensed reactions from Christians who maintain a sanitized view of their god’s congress with a married Jewish virgin and her mother.

Everyone knows that the great Greek god had sex with humans, by some countings with more than 100 of us. The great Christian god may not have been a three-figure man, but in qualitative terms his coupling with a mortal was more significant than Zeus’s: his entire cult is based on his impregnation of Mary and its outcome.

In contrast to Zeus’s habit of pouncing, the Christian God politely informed Mary beforehand exactly what was awaiting her, sending an archangel to announce his intentions. They may not have been strictly honorable, but at least they were about babymaking, not fun. According to St. Luke (1:34-35), when the angel told Mary that she would bear a son to God, “Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Whether the Holy Ghost relished the event we do not know, but Mary certainly enjoyed being overshadowed by the power of the most High. The Annunciation by the Angel and the Incarnation (the moment God became man in the body of Mary) are listed as the first of the Seven Joys of the Virgin.

Was this the only incident of its kind? Although present-day Church dogma goes out of its way to deny it, for a good thousand years many Christians believed that their God had congress with another mortal woman as well, the mother of the Virgin Mary, St. Anne. Catholic doctrine now teaches, in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia, that the Virgin’s father “had the usual share” in her conception. (This wonderful phrase reminds me of a line in Samson and Delilah [1949]. A bleary-eyed Victor Mature climbs onto Hedy Lamarr’s balcony. When she asks him what he wants, he says, “The same old thing.”)

Many of the faithful were long unsatisfied by the thought that Mary was conceived in the same old way. Nor were they content with the belief that the Incarnation was the work of a disembodied Ghost. The Person who they believed cohabited with mortal women was not the Father, either. It was little Baby Jesus, in a form that St. Augustine called the Infant Spouse.

The author of the 15th-century Legende van Sunte Anna, a Brabant translation of a Latin life of the saint, reports a vision that St. Anne had during her pregnancy with Mary. She saw God in the form of the baby Christ kissing his mother quite intimately. When St. Anne asked what was going on, the child said, “My dear mother, do not be surprised; I am making love to your daughter.” This is not all. The baby goes on with a little speech that must have scared the wits out of the pregnant woman: “I knew you in the body of your mother and I have sanctified my tabernacle and fixed my choice on your daughter Maria.” In the form of a baby, God made love to a mother and her daughter, becoming his own father and grandfather. An exploit that might even have impressed Zeus.

Hans Baldung Grien, Madonna and child with St. Anne and Joseph, 1511
Woodcut on paper, 37.2 x 25.1 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-4114)

Coming across this vision in a fascinating study of St. Anne and her cult in the 15th and 16th century by the literary historian Ton Brandenbarg, Heilig familieleven (Holy Family life), my art-historical blood ran faster. The situation it evokes is matched hand in glove by an extraordinary, much-debated woodcut of 1511 by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545). An overgrown, naked Christ child is lying on his back on Mary’s lap, reaching up to caress the hair and chin of his dreamily smiling mother. While this is going on, St. Anne is leaning over the child’s lower body to gaze at and finger his little genitals. I hereby suggest that the theme of the print is: Jesus as the Infant Spouse of St. Anne and Mary.

I may not have felt called upon to bring this taboo-breaking interpretation of the German print to your attention had anyone else done it before. However, no connection ever seems to have been made between the vision of St. Anne and Baldung Grien’s image. Brandenbarg writes of the woodcut: “Anne’s gesture seems […] to guide the viewer’s attention to the Jewish […] ritual of circumcision, which so clearly marks his arrival on this earth.”  Brandenbarg removes the print completely from the realm of sexuality. In Baldung Grien’s time, he writes, “touching the genitals of children was socially accepted and need not be linked directly to fertility or eroticism.”

This line of thinking, first advanced by Philippe Ariès, is rejected decidedly by the most daring interpreter of these materials, Leo Steinberg, in his book The sexuality of Christ in Renaissance art and modern oblivion. “The question is not whether such practice was common, but how, whether common or not, it serves to set Mary’s son apart from the run of the sons of Eve.” With this I completely agree. His own “provisional” interpretation of the print, however, actually bypasses sex in favor of theology. He calls St. Anne’s gesture “an ostensive act, a palpable proof [of …] God’s descent into manhood.” Is that what the woman – a thrice-married woman with a reputation in Christian literature for a certain degree of carnality – was really thinking?

Steinberg’s pioneering book, as its title states, is not only about the sexuality of Christ. It also criticizes the failure of modern art history to acknowledge the existence of the phenomenon in Renaissance art. This example of an interpretation in which Steinberg himself seems to have missed a shot into his self-defined goal actually strengthens both his basic arguments. I offer the find – if that it be – to him in admiration.

© Gary Schwartz 2021 and 2003. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 19 July 2003. Published on the Schwartzlist 14 December 2021

Geldrop Gortzius, The Madonna and child with St. Anne, 1604
Oil on panel, 129 x 122.5 cm
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud (0978)

This is the painting concerning which Anja wanted my opinion. Looking at it now, with Hans Baldung Grien in mind, I cannot help wondering whether Gortzius too was suggesting that Baby Jesus was his own grandson as well as son. Could St. Anne, with her cherries and apples, not be hinting at the impregnation by Jesus of the fruit of her womb? Is that what Mary and Jesus are telling us with their sly smiles and knowing gazes? After all, Anne gave birth to Mary by Immaculate Conception. He who planted the seed can only have been a divinity, but his identification seems to be sidestepped in church teachings. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception may not have become church doctrine until 1854, but it was heavily debated around 1600 and furthered aggressively by the Spanish Habsburgs. Geldorp was at times attached to that regime.

Anja, is that a lead you can work with?

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8 thoughts on “188 Sex with God: for Leo Steinberg”

  1. Of course, some of my earlier 16th-century painters, e.g. Massys and Gossaert, show active caressing between Mary and a seemingly precocious Jesus in terms of fine motor skills (with a Steinbergian Chin Chuck in several cases, notably the–quite large so there is no evading it–Massys Berlin Virgin and Child). I sent that suggestion to Leo back in the mid 1980s after his book came out, but got no response, alas …

    1. Yes, Larry, Leo worked so much from his own books and insights that suggestions from others did not always register. I had that experience too. If you have other examples of a fondling St. Anne, let us know. Ciao, Gary

  2. Dear Gary, many thanks for your quick and intriguing response. The Immaculate Conception is indeed an important stimulus for the topic of „Anna Selbdritt“ . Geldorp applies a very sophisticated iconography as I intended to show in the draft of my article ( to be published in next year’s Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch). But still an enigma to me is the depiction of the child with Jewish sidelocks … I do not know about any other example. A panel for an enlighted catholic art lover? All best, Anja

    1. Dear Anja, Because there indeed seem to be no examples of Jews with sidelocks in art of the time, you have to ask yourself whether Jesus’s locks are a marker of Jewishness. I doubt it, but I’ll have another look tomorrow at some of the literature and visual material. My feeling is that Jews did not begin to show “payot” until Chassidic denominations began to distinguish themselves with separate styles. All good wishes, Gary

    1. Could be, dear Marilyn, though as I wrote to Anja, I can find no evidence that sidelocks were a marker of Jewishness before chassidism took off in the late 18th century. I looked today at Ruth Mellinkoff’s book Outcasts: signs of otherness in Northern European art of the late Middle Ages. She found various attributes pertaining to hair, but sidelocks were not one of them. In none of the Dutch 17th-century paintings and etchings of Jews – either portraits or tronies of living Jews or Jewish figures in history or genre representations – have I found sidelocks.

      In terms of Jewish law, this Wikipedia comment seems accurate: “Judaism prohibits shaving with a razor on the basis of a rabbinic interpretation of Leviticus 19:27, which states, “You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.” The Mishnah interprets this as a prohibition on using a razor on the beard.”

      It’s really only a razor that’s prohibited. Maimonides is quoted as saying that it is permitted to cut your sidelocks with scissors. That, as far as I know now, would have been the practice of pious Jews until the 18th century. So if you see sidelocks in the Donatello St. John or the Gortzius Baby Jesus, they must have some other meaning, if they are bearers of meaning at all.

      I just remembered something from my yeshiva training. To be an observant Jew you are not required to do anything more than obeying commandments in their literal sense. But if you want to emphasize your piety and dedication, you can embellish your practice (hiddur mitzvah). This can take visual form, as using an artfully made silver menorah for Chanukah, while a cardboard one will do. My guess is that at a given moment some rabbi decided that letting your sidelocks grow rather than clipping them was a praiseworthy way of demonstrating your obedience to the prohibition. Now every different Chassidic denomination has its own style. Including some that let the sidelocks grow but tuck them under their hats.

  3. Has anyone considered the possibility of over-painting at a later date? I was curious about the drapery over Jesus’ genitals as well as the strange hair style.

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