Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Four sculpted images of the male figure loom before the viewer. These four works span a period of almost 2,500 years, are fabricated from a variety of media, and range from naturalistic to realistic to abstract presentations. Perceived through the eyes of art historians they have been described as “the classic nude,” “a prime force,” “in motion,” and “pars pro toto, or the part which stands for the whole.” However, when seen through the eyes of cultural historians, these same four sculptures are characterized with such diverse adjectives as “heroic,” “fragmented,” “ethereal,” or “earthly” and described as “ideal,” “cultic,” “tragic,” or “ambiguous,” as symbolic of cultural attitudes toward the body, the human person, and thereby of humanity. Yet all four provide sufficient visual information to be deemed male, figural, and most especially, human—not divine, animal, or object.
The classical principles of the human form as an expression of the idea of humanity, especially that of the athlete, as the “temple of the gods,” is reflected in the idealized male figure in Zeus (or Posideon) (c. 460 B.C.E.). He stands with his left leg bent slightly at the knee and his left foot planted firmly upon the earth as his right foot springs forward slightly, providing both a sense of motion and a gesture of transcendence. As his muscular right arm bends at the elbow to propel his energies through his right hand, this athlete apparently prepares to hurl a javelin. His left arm extends outward to direct his sight and the projected path of his weapon. Balanced according to the classical proportions between head and torso and then between head and legs and arms, his handsome body, through its posture and gestures, voices the cultural attitude of the perfection of the human form as a nexus of humanity and divinity, of immanence and transcendence.
The otherwise distinctive presentation of the male body with shortened extremities, diminutive hands, enlarged feet, elongated torso, protruding belly, and protracted phallus on the otherwise untitled Baluban sculpture Male Figure (probably nineteenth century), might at first glance appear as a “primitive” distortion of the human image. However, prolonged observation proffers the indigenous perspective on the human, if not simply the male, body. The widespread stance of this man is echoed in the extension of his hips and buttocks and balanced by his broad shoulders. His bare feet, which appear initially to be too large for his legs, are entrenched firmly and flatly on the earth and support his dense male body. Whether simply by weight or symbolic values, his distended belly and penis sag downward toward the earth. His undersize hands clutch the outermost perimeter of swollen belly, emphasizing simultaneously the abdominal protuberance and enhanced navel and his long genital. Gesture, posture, and bodily attributes turn the viewer’s eye not upward toward this figure’s enlarged head or dramatically incised facial features but rather downward toward the earth. The visual connectives denote the sympathetic magic with the fertility of the earth and two distinctive traits of the African ethos: its earth-centeredness and the centrality of the human body in the indistinguishable unity of art, life, and spirituality, even to the conclusion that dance is Africa’s primal and primary art.
The sinewy musculature of the life-size bronze rendering in Auguste Rodin’s St. John the Baptist (1879) evokes simultaneously a response of awe at the sculptor’s craftsmanship and marvel at the handsomeness of the human body. Captured at mid-stride, the bronze body of this male figure pulsates with the connections between muscle, sinew, skin, and respiration. Like the figure of Zeus, this St. John has one foot flat on the ground and the other slightly elevated to accentuate the internal and external motion of a walker. He gestures welcome with his right hand while his left hand turns the viewer’s attention to the earth as he signifies immanence as a direction toward transcendence. No matter how long or great the distance from which we look, it is the torso of St. John that captures the viewer’s attention. The careful detailing of his rib cage, including the intimate relationships between flesh and muscle, muscle and bone, capture our attention, enabling the viewer to recognize the artistic, medical, and technical advances that separate Zeus from St. John while also highlighting the commonalities between these two visual renditions of the male figure, especially as a representation of the idea of humanity.
The greater visual divide is the artistic move in the early twentieth century to abstractions leading to Constantin Brancusi’s Torso of a Young Man (1924). As with his three sculpted predecessors, this bronze sculpture captures the essence of being male and human despite the absence of a full representational and physical body, an individualized face, or symbolic gestures. Rather, the energies emanating from this carefully composed abstracted torso and its initial point of division into two lower limbs simultaneously references humanity and maleness. The sculptor has carefully placed his piece on an orchestrated base that affects our seeing of it as a torso, as human, as male—not simply as three interconnected brass cylinders. Nonetheless, these four variations in sculptural styles and forms enable the viewer to see the essence of the male figure and, more generically, humanity. The focus in this visual essay is the modes and means by which sculpture relays the idea(s) of humanity across historical and cultural boundaries. The methodology is comparative but not chronological, as the concerns here are the visual transmission of an idea and the visual critique of a universal ideal. This procedure will then create a recognition of this idea not by the chronological sequence of stylistic developments in sculpture but rather through the transmission of key elements in both universal and regional conceptions of being human.
Toward a Definition of the Idea of Humanity
The primary definitions of humanity in the Oxford English Dictionary include “The quality or condition of being human, manhood; the human faculties or attributes collectively; human nature; man in the abstract.” As a plural, humanities, the OED continues, “Human attributes; traits or touches of human nature or feeling; points that concern mankind, or appeal to human sensibilities.” Further, in connection with the word humane, humanity is defined as “The character or quality of being humane; behaviour or disposition towards others such as befits a human being.” This examination of the idea of humanity through the sculpted image incorporates these three characteristics of being human in representational, figural, or abstract forms; in the expression of sensibilities and sensitivities; and in depictions of modes of behavior and interactions with others. The duality within the phrase “humanity in the arts” is exemplified by the artistic recognition of the existence in nature of the human body, and further of the potential symbolic and evocative patterns of human forms, gestures, and postures.
In his 1954 Andrew W. Mellon Lecture in the Fine Arts, the art historian Herbert Read focused his attention on the problematic of The Art of Sculpture (1956). Through detailed analyses of sculptures from varied cultures and time periods, Read proposed that more than 90 percent of all sculpture is of the human body, thereby naming the close association between sculpture and humanity. More than forty years later, another art historian, Tom Flynn, pronounced that the history of the sculpture was the history of the body (1998). The close associations between sculpture and humanity are confirmed in classical myths such as the stories of Deucalion and Pyrrha and of Pygmalion. Further recognition of this affinity in Western culture is found in the Second Commandment, as biblical and art historical scholars have argued over the centuries as to the meaning of the terms graven image and idol. Clearly, early Western monotheism emphasized the negative connectives between idolatry, graven images, and sculpture even unto the almost complete absence of sculpted images in Christianity until the Middle Ages. The visual and emotive realities are obvious: the encounter with either a life-size or monumental sculpture is similar to that with another human being.
The often-missed irony is that the majority, if not all, of the world’s religions, including Christianity, incorporate within their narratives of origins a story of the creation of humanity. Western monotheistic traditions premise their univocal foundation toward human nature and, thereby, humanity, on Genesis, especially 1:26-27. The operative principles are that humanity is fashioned as both men and women and in the image of God, implying both a parity of the sexes and a scriptural anthropology. Each of the monotheistic traditions, however, reads these and ensuing passages with distinct theological eyes so that the original story becomes layered with scriptural, theological, and societal meanings.
For example, Judaism encodes the categories of men and women with cultural, societal, and scriptural definitions to affirm its distinctiveness within the larger cultures in which it existed. Christianity affirms Genesis 1:26-27 with the Incarnation of Jesus as the Christ (John 1:14) and the later theological theses including the fourth-century patristic texts of Augustine and Jerome. The early Christian understanding of humanity is, of course, complicated by the dogmatizing of Christology in the face of heresies, controversies, and debates. The fourth-century transformation of Christianity into the Imperial Church simultaneously transformed the social order toward that of the Byzantine court, thus resulting in fewer roles for women in liturgical ceremonies, sacramental rites, and church life. Analogous modifications occurred throughout the history of Christianity in its multiple public formations. Koranic teachings reaffirm and oftentimes enhance the Genesis narrative in light of the then contemporary cultural, legal, and societal situations of Islam.
Nonwestern cultures, however, do not necessarily either frame or discuss the idea of humanity within this same, or similar, structural boundaries, interpretive narratives, or visualizing processes. Nevertheless, the reality exists that there is a universal foundation that privileges the relationship between humanity and the religious as evidenced in scriptural or spiritual texts and visual evidence with regional and religious variations, that is, indigenous traditions, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, and so on.
As an example of the cross-cultural and transhistorical scope of the discussion of the idea of humanity in sculpture, consider this revisiting of one of Herbert Read’s comparisons between a Chac Mool, the Rain Spirit from Chichén Itzá (948-1697) and the twentieth-century sculpture by Henry Moore of a Reclining Woman (1929). The parallels are not one-for-one between these two images, as if Moore had seen and had been highly influenced by the Aztec work; rather, the similarities are in the potential affinities and differences in the understandings of humanity. From that perspective, we see two figures resting on the ground: the one more geometric and angular in form, the other curved and rotund even unto her “squared” right shoulder and thigh. The Chac Mool rests his lower back and buttocks on the ground, raises his legs, which are bent at the knees, but has his feet flat on the ground as did the Baluban man. His torso is elevated almost as if leaning against a series of pillows as he twists his head to acknowledge any approaching supplicants. Typically Mesoamerican art emphasizes a strong connection between fertility and death, thereby the natural order of the life cycle. The Chac Mool, as both a rain spirit and a male figure who connects so clearly to the earth, affirms the empathy between the rain that encourages the fertility of the earth and the male semen that signifies human fertility.
Moore’s female figure reposes more naturally than her geometrically compact Aztec ancestor. She is a supine configuration of intersecting curves and lines as her body rests on the ground and her shoulders twist upward with her left arm raised to support her head, which turns to face the viewer. Continuing the Western cultural and religious fascination with the affinities between the female and the earth, this twentieth-century depiction accentuates her hips and thighs and positions her legs to underscore the genital area. The commonalities between these two images encompass the universality and ahistoricity of “natural” placements in which the human body can be positioned, the representation of gender and thereby of power, and a consideration of the original function as opposed to the sanctification such works of art receive by being installed in museums.
The form, shape, posture, gesture, and costume conferred upon the human body by sculptors in different cultures, historical periods, and religious commitments allow researchers to see and critique the embedded inscriptions of gender, class, identity, and power. Body types vary not simply from geographic region to geographic region but also from cultural categories that transmute according to prevailing economic, political, religious, and social attitudes. Sculptures such as the Baluban Male Figure, the Aztec Chac Mool, and the Greek Zeus (Poseidon) invite comparisons in relation to their varying centers of gravity, which define their physical postures and their internal spiritual nexuses. Analyses of their comparative expressions of mass, weight, and volume coordinate projections of natural versus ideal body types, symbolic patterns of the human body especially with regard to divinity and the sacred, and nutritional and medical factors that reveal information about class, race, and gender.
The Task of the Sculpted Body for the Idea of Humanity
The critical question voiced by the art historian Moshe Barasch—”What tasks is the human figure made to fulfill in painting and sculpture, and how has it been employed by artists and understood by the viewer in varying periods?”—affects the interpretation(s) and valuing of the idea of humanity. Expressive of a diverse spectrum of religious values and cultural attitudes, the imaging of the human body has been instrumental in fertility rites, magical ceremonies, cult objects and rituals, idolatry, natural medicine, social advancement, intellectual achievement, and sacred correspondence. One of the significant components in the artistic renderings of humanity has been in the social and cultural constructions of gender, that is, what distinguishes the categories “feminine” and “mascu-line” in modes of behavior, demeanor, dress, and meaning. Biology determines sex, while society, from its privileged coordination of culture, economics, politics, and religion, conditions definitions of and attitudes toward gender.
Post-1960s scholarship, which introduced and incorporated the inclusion of the marginalized—that is, those previously neglected groups such as racial and ethnic minorities, the economically impoverished, and women—has prompted reevaluations of the canons and categorizations of Western history. Commensurately, this new scholarship critiqued and questioned the traditional litany of the distinctions between “East” and “West” from cultural, philosophic, and religious perspectives. Differing cultures define particularized patterns and structures for identical realities such as gender, as evidenced in the classical Mediterranean Aphrodite of Knidos (350 B.C.E.), the Indian Rukmini (tenth century), and the Chinese Kuan-yin (or Guanyin, 960-1279). Ostensibly these three images depict female bodies with some regional distinctions apparent, such as the small, almost adolescent breasts but thickened waist, wide hips, and heavy thighs on the Greco-Roman goddess of love as opposed to the narrowed waist and globular breasts on the Hindu deity of fertility or the wispy waist and prepubescent chest of the Buddhist purveyor of mercy and compassion. All three representations correspond to the principle of the human form as the vehicle through which the divine is expressed or manifested. All three interconnect in their gestural signs, which communicate the empathy between the feminine and fertility and the earth—from Aphrodite’s right hand denoting female modesty, the site of generation, and sexual pleasure, to Rukmini’s voluptuous display of her feminine attributes, to Kuan-yin’s earthbound posture and right-handed gesture pointing toward the earth.
However, there is a disconnect here despite the ostensibly feminine presence of these three deities. For upon careful examination of physical characteristics there is the question of the gender ambiguity of Kuan-yin, who appears to be more androgynous than specifically male or female. Historians of religion, especially those specializing in Eastern religions, have debated the reasons for and the historical route of the transformation of the Indian Buddhist male bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara into the androgynous Chinese Buddhist bodhisattva Kuan-yin, who becomes ultimately the Japanese Buddhist female bodhisattva Kwannon. The present issue is not an attempt to unravel this religio-historical conundrum but rather to raise the question of cultural perceptions of gender and thereby of humanity. For by whatever name this deity is identified and by whatever anthropomorphic form configured, the fundamental questions of identification relate first to the fact that this is the deity of mercy and compassion—virtues that cultural conditioning may categorize as feminine or masculine—and second to cultural disparities in attitudes toward gender, meaning that the gestures, postures, and modes of behavior one culture (say, southern Europe) names as “male” and “female” are opposite to those of the Indian subcontinent or the Far East. Both in terms of artistic creation and scholarly interpretation, it is necessary to recognize that Western culture, and thereby Western scholarship, has traditionally been preoccupied with order and clarity. Gender distinctions and their ensuant visualizations may be more subtly rendered and understood in non-Western cultures and defy normative Western iconographic patterns, thereby proffering wider horizons for defining and evaluating universalized ideas of humanity.
The human body, whether male, female, androgynous, or hermaphrodite, is a carrier of meaning and values inscribed with subjective associations and objective perceptions, stylistic variations, and institutional identifiers. One of the most significant of those “inscribers” is religion. The enigma of religious art—the question of what makes art religious beyond the labeling of an image as religious—is a consideration in the visual comparison of the idea of humanity in Gian Bernini’s seventeenth-century sculptures of Apollo and Daphne (1622-1634) and The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1645-1652). Each of these works is a “group” as opposed to an individual sculpture, that is, there is more than one person represented; in the former it is a mythological couple and in the latter an angel paired with the female mystic. So the dynamics of interaction between individuals becomes central to the ways that such sculptures project internally the idea of humanity. The Baroque characteristics of theatrical drama of the moment, of an upward swirling movement, and of theatrical lighting combine with a reaffirmed sense of the spirituality of the body to fashion an aesthetic that reflects the changing Counter-Reformation attitudes toward the human and the human body in opposition to the harmony, balance, order, and anthropocentricism of the Renaissance.
Bernini’s two works challenge the viewer to consider the importance of posture, dress, and narrative in the projection of the idea of humanity through the vehicle of the human body in sculpture. Daphne appears almost completely uncovered, a nude female in the classic sense of the term as she gracefully swivels her body away from the clutches of her pursuer, the similarly minimally clad Apollo. The upward gyrations of her escape are transformed into an elegant series of curvilinear swirls of what appears to be drapery suggestively covering her pubic area and her left leg while skimming the inner edge of her right leg. Close observation, however, reveals that this drapery is the initiation of the trunk of the laurel tree that will enclose her and thereby protect her from Apollo. Her upraised arms curve into what had been her hands, which have transmogrified into laurel tree branches. Although both the running figure of Apollo and that of the metamorphosing Daphne are clearly modeled upon classical prototypes, Bernini’s bodies lack the muscular weight and tension found in the classical Greek Zeus (Poseidon) or the classical Greco-Roman Aphrodite of Knidos. Despite the time factor—more than a century of cultural, medical, political, scientific, social, and theological advances—Bernini’s figures appear softer to the eye, as if they were almost weightless and thus able to float off from the earth as opposed to the earthbound realistic renderings of the human body as muscled and monumental, characterized by the Renaissance. Further, this characterization of Apollo is that of a soft beautiful youth who hovers between masculinity and androgyny. Although the theme is secular, the ethereal quality of the sculpted bodies of Apollo and Daphne direct the viewer to consider the spiritual implications of this “chase.”
Bernini’s rendering of the bodily presence of the Carmelite mystic Teresa of Avila is almost bodiless as she sinks backward onto the rocky ledge (or cloud?) that is poised immediately beneath her. The lassitude of her body might suggest either a weightlessness caused by faint or trance or that graceful litheness of a ballerina as she “floats through the air.” The vitality of this sculptured figure is the dramatic energy released by the swirls of drapery that envelope her while the elasticity of her protruding left hand and foot effect the pars pro toto of her swooned body. The tight whirling and spinning of the angel’s robes contrast with the looser delicate layering of cloth that swallows the mystic’s limp body. As opposed to the “in unison” posture of the two standing figures in Bernini’s earlier work, the male angel stands erect as he looks down upon the supine figure of the female saint. The interrelationships thereby shift from one of physical or gender parity to one of dominance or empowerment. The visibly insubstantial nature of the saint’s body creates an aura of spiritual apprehension.
The presence and signification of the familiar form of the angel as divine messenger directs the viewer to contemplate this work as religious art. The question becomes how an individual without a culturally trained Western eye or knowledge of Christianity would see these images. Is the attitude toward the body as corruptible, redeemed, or mystical unique to Christianity, Western culture, or even to this singular sculptor? The normative reading has been that this sculpture is a visualization of the sacramentalism of the human body in a moment of agapic love as appropriate to the Tridentine teachings of Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, criticisms of this same image identify it as a secular, almost voyeuristic, depiction of female orgasm. The lens, then, through which images are seen ordains the method and mode of interpretation, as does the receptivity of the viewer, as discussed in the relatively new category of response theory (see Freedberg). Thus revisiting Barasch’s question, it may now be paraphrased as: “What tasks is the human figure made to fulfill in painting and sculpture, and how has the viewer understood that image ?”
Comparative Studies in World Cultures
Through a series of categories—the authority of the male figure, the human as divine revelation, maternity, and abstraction of anxiety and uncertainty—comparisons of selected images from differing historical cultures are contrasted in a bifurcated effort to identify the process of the visual transmission of ideas and to encourage thinking about the meaning, function, intentionality, and reception of the body as the idea of humanity. The curious, if not ironic, fact that the human body is a product of the natural order, however one comes to understand that body, is shaped by social reality and cultural and religious values.
The authority of the male figure
The male figure, which is identified as normative in defining power and authority, or so feminist scholars in the late twentieth century would assert, can serve as a locus for consideration of the relationship between the function of images and the idea of humanity. Referencing the classical Greek statue of Zeus (Poseidon) (460 B.C.E.) as a particularly fine example of the visualization of the classical principles of harmony and order through the human figure, the handsomeness of this human form becomes quickened by muscular tensions, especially in his arms, legs, and torso, and the intimations of respiration. This sculpted rendition of male energy and movement can be read as expressive of ideal form, creation and fertility, kingship and military power, guardian and athlete, and prevalent social and cultural order. A figure of extraordinary vitality, Zeus(Poseidon) visually attests to the “Western” principle of entrancement with the beauty of the human figure, especially as the revelation of the imaged forms of the gods and goddesses. Muscular structure, movement (whether internal or external), and the ability to connote emotion through facial expression, gesture, or pose, are among the sculptor’s tools in transmitting the idea of humanity. This sculpture is called by the name of a god, but he is in the form of a human being.
By contrast, the classical Egyptian carved relief of King Men-kau-Ra between the goddess Hathor and the Goddess of the Nome of Diospolis Parvis (IV Dynasty, 2800 B.C.E.) is more formal in presentation and interrelationships among the three figures than the group interaction in either of Bernini’s works. This is a sculpture of hieratic art in which the depictions of the human body do not visualize the canon of beauty through harmony and order; rather, this is an envisioning of social structures and of the body more as a symbol than an organic composition. The conception of bodily forms, while identifiably male and female even by twenty-first-century Western standards—physical attributes such as breasts, distinctive hair-styles, and social positioning (female behind the male, the male in the leadership slot)—are evident beyond the static geometric and linear emphases. Here the “ideal body” mirrors the social constructs of authority, power, and sovereignty as much through the weightiness of forms as through individual postures.
The straight-backed, almost stiff bearing of all three personages voices their class and role in their cultural world as they affirm, not challenge, the received situation in daily life. Both the king and the goddesses display their bodies without a sense of shame or rejection. Extraordinary delicacy and dexterity was required to carve the diaphanous garments on the two goddesses and the pleated kilt of manhood on the king. The bodily proportions of both the male and female figures are realistic, neither elongated nor disjointed. However, the smooth formation of the torsos and extremities unto the visual lack of muscle-skin-bone-respiration provides us with the reverse situation of Zeus (Poseidon), for Men-kau-Ra is a human being in the form of a god.
The human as divine revelation
Perhaps the fundamental connector between Eastern and Western cultures, especially in terms of religious values and the arts, is the human figure as the signifier of the hypothetical image of divinity. The classical Greek tradition advocated the idealization of the human form as a reflection of divine beauty, a philosophic and artistic legacy operative throughout the evolution of Western culture, which affirmed the dignity of humanity. Christianity inherited this principle but was oftentimes antagonistic to it and vacillated in its attitudes toward the human as graced by the Incarnation, as matter in need of redemption, as the vehicle of innocence, and as the purveyor of sin and lust, especially in terms of women. Commensurately the Eastern attitude, despite its religious and cultural variations, affirmed an abstracted relationship between humanity and the supernatural. This is to say that the human body, either wholly or in part, signified an aspect or character of the mystical ideal so that nakedness/nudity, especially in the Indian subcontinent, connoted the sensuality of the fertility spirits, postures, and gestures, while in Chinese art, nakedness/nudity served a didactic function, especially in terms of ethical behavior. More generically, however, the distortion of a specific body part or its total abstraction signified its embodiment of spiritual ideals.
Variations in body types do not necessarily signal distinctive attitudes toward the idea of humanity but more likely than not reflect the actuality of the global assortment of climatic, meterological, agricultural, and dietary differences not simply between East and West but also North and South, intracontinental as well as intercontinental. So for example, there is an identifiable “northern European body type” which can be distinguished from a “southern European body type.” The latter is premised upon the Greek ideal of beauty and proposes that whether male or female, the torso is distinguished by two equal triangles with the base of one running the width of the hips with the intersecting side angles converging toward the waist to meet the tip of the other triangle, which expands as its inverted base crosses the span of the shoulders. This visual sensation of a mathematically balanced harmony is extended through a geometric progression of the size of the head to a grouping of four heads to the length of the torso and extremities, respectively. This “southern body,” which basks regularly in the sun and its warmth, also benefits from the regularity of fresh crops and is thereby comfortable in its skin, wearing lighter and perhaps revealing clothing not for sexual enticement but for physical ease and climatic comfort.
Conversely, the “northern body” displays less proportionate relationships between shoulder and waist, waist and hip, head and torso, and torso and limbs. Rather one sees in works of art and other visual documentation men and women with narrowed shoulders, elongated torsos, protruding abdomens, slender hips, and spindly extremities. Like the huddled masses, they cover themselves with layers of heavy clothing to protect their bodies from the almost perpetual cold and damp weather. Further, this “northern body” is not regularly sustained by the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables; rather the normal diet consisted of salted and preserved meats, pickled vegetables, dark breads, and beer. Similar variations in body types and sizes can be distinguished throughout world cultures, as can the ideal of beauty and the definition of the exotic. Thereby the recognition of the fundamental roles of nature and natural elements in the formation of the human body must not be ignored, and attitudes toward humanity extend beyond what we identify as normative but created influences: culture, economics, politics, religion, and society.
A further consideration to be discussed is posture and stance. How individuals perceive themselves and others and how they are viewed by others is dependent upon a variety of factors including physical position. So whether standing or seated, an individual figure projects differing attitudes toward herself and others, as well as reflecting societal status, class distinctions, and hierarchical values. Similarly the element of dress, or lack thereof in the instance of sculptured figures, also places an interpretive value on the human person and her identity. Gestures, whether digital, hand, or facial, communicate more than emotions, sensitivities, or feelings. Ideas including cultural, religious, and social values can be exchanged or taught through gesturing. All aspects of the human body, then, can safely be said to contribute to the idea of humanity in world cultures, as individual regional groups develop specific forms of body and gestural language and attitudes toward gender, body types, and dress within the more universal categorizations of sex and stages of physical maturation.
One of those universals is the body as a nexus for humanity and divinity. For example, consider the following four sculptures: the figure of Christ from The Pentecost (c. 1132), Standing Buddha (first century), The Maitreya of the Koryuji Temple (seventh century) and Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance (eleventh century). These are four different renderings of the divine through the human figure in standing, seated, praying, and dancing postures; clothed, draped, and partially clothed forms; and with or without halos. Each communicates simultaneously the nobility and the simplicity of being human and male and yet also configured in some way divine.
The twelfth-century Christ of The Pentecost tympanum is an elegantly rendered, seated but nonetheless kinetic figure. This particular image is identified iconographically as a Majestas (or Maiestas) Domini, or Lord’s Majesty, in which the Resurrected Christ, denoted by his cruciform nimbus, is depicted as the ruler (and judge) of the universe, surrounded by the tetramorphs (Ezekiel 1:4-28; Revelation). His bodily form is ethereal, with elongated torso and limbs and enlarged hands and feet. This is not a depiction premised upon the Greek ideal; rather this is a mystical rendering of the “Word made flesh” who is emphatically contoured against the large mandorla that encases him as a sign of his divinity. The refined drapery is highlighted by the variations between thin and thick reticulations in the folds and pleats. At certain places the drapery highlights the naturalness of his humanity, such as the almost sheer covering over his legs, particularly the protrusion of his right knee, while in other places the heavy layers of fabric, such as that over his arms, resembles wings. Throughout, the curvature of these draped layers of fabric create dynamic, musically organized circles, arcs, and curves that express extraordinary vitality. Thereby, although seated, this male form is enlivened yet hesitates between a state of vibrant motion and calm stillness. This is a Christ caught, if you will, between heaven and earth, between humanity and divinity, between materiality and spirituality. This is not a Christ who would be known or understood by early Christians who affirmed his Incarnation but envisioned him only symbolically.
By contrast the first-century C.E. Standing Buddha radiates serenity, calm, and stillness. His skillfully delineated garment swirls leisurely around his almost pillar-like form. Such an image of the Buddha was influenced by the Greco-Roman models of both sculpted figures and costume. Like the Christ figure, this Buddha is also missing a hand—the former his left hand, the latter his right hand. Ostensibly such selective destruction is the result of an act of iconoclasm that is often religiously inspired when the “images” provoke too much of an aura of reality and threaten the status quo of a religion or political group. Whereas the Christ communicated ethereality and the perceived ability to float away from the cathedral wall and upward to the heavens, this Gandharan Buddha is solidly placed on the ground, although the viewer does not see how firmly, as his feet have either been excised purposively or removed by a natural disaster. This is an image of the eternal, divine Buddha, not the moral teacher of the earliest Buddhist tradition. He is simultaneously regal and humble, human and divine, solid yet spiritual. Despite the refinement, spirituality, and disciplined strength, this Buddha image communicates the gravitas of humanity as refined aristocracy, particularly when contrasted with the Christ figure.
The Maitreya of the Koryuji Temple is a elegantly aligned figuration of the Japanese Buddhist principles of silence, calm, and compassion that lead toward enlightenment. Although a male form, this Maitreya is an asexual androgyne with soft and delicate hands and fingers that gesture teachings on wisdom and compassion. His slender body almost defies the weight of his enlarged head and thickened neck as it tilts forward in a meditation posture. His slight frame—small, gentle bones with minimal to no musculature—is revealed by his naked torso. His legs are covered by a loosely pleated drape as they intertwine into a yoga position with the soles of his feet turned outward to the sky and away from the earth. As with images of the human form in other historical time periods, cultures, and media, this Maitreya privileges the symbolic nature of the body over portraiture, emblem, or realism. The delicacy and fragility of this bodhisattva portends the ideals of spiritual wisdom and compassion, especially as expressed through love. Another commonality between Eastern and Western religious art in the utilization of the human body is that of the portrayal of love, especially divine love, in which men are characterized by a softening of their otherwise hard-edged masculinity. Thus John the Beloved Disciple (also known as John the Evangelist) is rendered as a soft, delicate, almost fragile but youthful male figure verging for some viewers on androgyny or femininity.
The ecstasy of the so-called Dancing Shiva professes the fundamental essence of rhythmic movement as both a primordial human act and a signifier of divine energies. The Hindu tradition characterizes Shiva, like the other deities, through a multiplicity of forms such as the Lord of the Dance who creates and destroys in one conflated activity. The child at his feet is the representative of the new: life, year, creation. However, for the new to emerge the old must be destroyed in the choreography of the life cycle. This is the image of an anthropomorphic deity who defies traditional categories of description as he balances the world on one foot. That foot, however, is symbolically naked and absolutely flat on the ground or the resting child. The contorted postures of his bent knees, elevated left leg, swaggered buttocks, wispy waist, dramatically stiff neck and head, and ceremoniously gesturing four arms and hands are coordinated to presuppose the appearance of a circle, particularly a flaming circle, as the symbol of eternity. Curiously, if the Christ from The Pentecost were placed next to the Shiva Nataraja one is brought to silence by the visual parallels and counterpoints. The extension of Shiva’s outer arms is identical to that of Christ, although the hand gestures differ significantly: Shiva is holding objects such as a cymbal and a lotus in his hands, while the remaining right hand of Christ is empty as it turns palm out to the viewer; presumably he held a book, Bible, or orb in his left hand. The dramatic swag of the hips is visually parallel, although Christ’s two enlarged bare feet rest flat on the edge of the mandorla while Shiva’s enlarged feet are positioned differently. The right foot rests flatly and firmly on the offered child, while his right leg is elevated high above his bent left knee. Although further visual comparisons could be made here, what becomes significant is the difference: the ethereality of Christ causes a viewer to wonder if he won’t just float away, while the gravitas of Shiva leaves him earthbound.
The universal category of maternity is something “more” than the iconographic convention of Mother and Child in either religious or secular art. This image is a confirmation initially of the limitless importance and nature of fertility and secondarily of the survival of both the species and of individual human beings. Found in all forms of religious and secular art within world cultures, the presentation of women with their children is simultaneously ahistorical and historicized. If the faces, costuming, or relationships depicted are identifiable then this pairing can be interpreted as individualized, portraiture, and historical; if unidentifiable or universalized as types, depictions of the mother and child are categorized as ahistorical, symbolic, and culturally or socially relevant. For example, consider the contrasts and commonalities between a twelfth-century Byzantine-style Virgin and Child (late eleventh to early twelfth century), a Gothic Virgin and Child (fourteenth century), an Indian Mother and Child (eleventh century), Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà (1498-1500), and Stephen De Staebler’s Pietà (1988).
The Byzantine-styled Virgin and Child projects a vision of clear demarcations as to the theological and social definitions of maternity. The rigid, almost stiff posture of this standing female figure is emphasized, if not highlighted, by the tightly draped and pleated fabric of her dress and mantle, which cover the disproportionate frame of her androgynous body. Her feminine attributes are visible only in her softened but anonymous facial features, her conveyance of a child, and in the gentle emotion expressed in their mutual hand gestures. The normative convention—in Byzantine and in Western medieval and Renaissance art—of depicting the Christ Child as a miniature adult heightens the hieratic posture and authority communicated by this ivory sculpture. The visual moment of naturalness is found solely in the forward positioning of her left leg as the mother shifts her imagined body weight to accommodate that of her child. The unnaturalness of these figures may be exacerbated by the then dominant Christian antagonism both to sculpture and to the artistic rendering of natural bodies.
The elegant form of the Gothic Virgin and Child creates the impression of quiet motion through the interconnecting linear and curvilinear relationships of the loosely pleated layers of fabric of her garments with the S-shaped curve of her body. Exhibiting a very natural swayed posture for a mother who hoists her child on either her protruding hip or twisting upper body, this depiction of the Virgin offers a visual and societal counterpoint to the Byzantine portrayal. The legal status and rights of women, albeit women of class, expanded at this time in history, as evidenced by the way in which this Gothic queen, whose elaborate crown replaces the simple mantle of her Byzantine counterpart, holds forth the symbol of her country with her right hand and the body of her son with her left hand. He offers his mother a round object, apparently an apple or an orb but in either case an object, a piece of property for her to hold and to own. The softened female form of this Virgin, despite her postural exaggeration and that of her child, approach a regularized vision of the human form.
As a contrast, or perhaps a confirmation, of the universality of maternity as an idea and a visual expression of the idea of humanity, consider an eleventh-century Indian sculpture of Mother and Child. The normative “Eastern” approach to the softened and voluptuous body of the female figure is evident even without the exaggerated turns of the neck and abdomen. The intersecting curves and arches of this woman’s body both nurture and commune with the rounded figure of her child, whom she holds before her with a firm right hand, placing the child in a position for maternal examination as her solidly balanced left hand draws the child near to her rotund breasts. This mother figure, like her Indian contemporaries, is dressed both for bodily display and for comfort. Her minimized clothing emphasizes the biologically female characteristics of full lactating breasts, an abdominal swell, and swaying hips in coordination with the soft and delicate expression of maternal love and compassion.
Although this Indian mother, like her Byzantine-styled and Gothic counterparts, is depicted standing, she communes directly with her child, from the bend of their heads to the physicality of their connections—the child’s hands on her breasts, legs akimbo across the mother’s abdomen, the mother silently extending her pelvic region forward to support her child—so that the emphasis here is on maternal kinetics as opposed to religious, societal, or ritual significance. Fertility and survival fuse in this visual metaphor for human creation as the sacred merges with the secular into a potent motif that transcends geographic borders, economic classes, and religious divisions to express fundamental human and moral values.
Michelangelo amplifies the mother and child relationship and the nature of maternity in his first presentation of the Pietà, a Christian iconographic motif signaling the singular mourning of the mother for her dead child. This is a moment of great intimacy and emotion, which Michelangelo elevates to the higher levels of spiritual significance. Here the now seated mother encompasses the limp body of her deceased son in her lap. The varying circular, linear, arched, and swirled drapery that enfolds her body and her head turns initial attention away from both the size and symbolic meaning of her form. The sculptor skillfully creates a series of internal relationships between these two figures so that our sense in seeing this Pietà is first of the beauty of the human figures and the placid presentation of emotion.
However, careful viewing results in the recognition of the circuit of visual games Michelangelo has created within this one sculpture. There is the Neoplatonic philosophic emphasis on the beauty of form and thereby of a retrieval of the classical Greek tenet of the spiritual valuing of the body. This formal beauty, in fact, is of religio-philosophical importance for Renaissance Christianity and a distraction from the more important internal visual “game.” The mother’s body is greatly out of proportion to the relationship of an adult male body to that of an adult female body. Attentive viewing moves us beyond the theological reading that Mary’s ample body signifies mater ecclesia (mother church) to a recognition that the interrelationship between mother and son is actually that of mother with her youthful child. Further, she attends not to the viewer as her Byzantine and Gothic ancestresses did but rather to the sighting of the life force within her son’s body—respiration. Given the Renaissance fascination with and knowledge of human anatomy and medicine, this sighting of Christ’s diaphragm is more than a visual centering point; it is emblematic of the merged valuation of art, life, religion, and science.
Stephen De Staebler’s late-twentieth-century Pietà provides a counterpoint to these four sculptures of the universal of maternity. Manifesting a modern recognition of the fragmentation and fragility of the human body with the eternal dynamic of spirituality, this pairing of figures is abstracted to their fundamental essences. Removing all pretense or social conventions of costume and decoration, as well as any historicized identity by “erasing” identifiable facial features on both the mother and her child, De Staebler recognizes the universal truth of maternity as a life force defiant against disaster, war, and limitations. The child is fused to the mother through her heart as well as her body, as signaled in the positioning of his head emergent from her breast. This abstraction, however, visually reaffirms the natural postural relationships between mothers and children as evidenced in the four sculptures here examined as well as in everyday situations. This mother strides forward on elevated toes as her fragmented body appears poised to levitate above the restrictions of human finitude and guilt, of life and death, despite the scientific and medical advances of the twentieth century; and yet she remains conjoined to the earth, whose contours and surface textures parallel those of this same figuration.
Among the most powerful symbolic pairs in world art and iconography, the stylization, exaggeration, postures, or body types in renderings of the mother and child relate as much to the historical and political time periods in which they are created as to the religious or secular values they signify. Whether African, Oceanic, Mesoamerican, pre-Columbian, prehistoric, or modern, this universal expression of the idea of humanity confirms visually the enduring meaning of fertility, survival, and love through maternity.
Abstraction of anxiety and uncertainty
The final universal category for the idea of humanity through sculpture is that of the abstraction of anxiety and uncertainty as recorded in Brancusi’s Torso of a Young Man (early twentieth century), Alberto Giacometti’s Figure of a Man (1947), and Stephen De Staebler’s Archangel (1987). Despite the diversity of styles and artistic movements identified as twentieth-century sculpture, the common descriptor is the term abstract, which is derived from the Latinab stracto, “to take the essence from.” These three modern, thereby abstract sculptures simplify the traditional detailing and characteristics of the human figure in calculated departures from the philosophy, spirituality, and politics of the classical ideal. Economic but elegant employment of lines and curves analyze the essence of the structure and geometry of the human form while never denigrating the native spirituality of the idea of humanity.
Beginning with Brancusi’s elemental torso, the human body is depicted as a fragment symbolic of the whole. Such a fragmenting of the body is often interpreted as a disruption, a sign of the philosophic and religious distress of the early twentieth century and a cause for anxiety. However, given the influences on Western culture and art of le primitif,especially the influence of Africa and Oceania in the late 1800s and early 1900s, of “the East” at midcentury, and of “the marginalized” from the late 1960s, the tendency toward abstracting expressed here, first through Brancusi and finally by De Staebler, signifies a retrieval of the fundamental native symbolic valuing communicated through the image of humanity. How humanity is configured—radical simplification, emotional expression, organic forms, geometric structures, or ideal beauty—is as dependent upon cultural attitudes, social mores, and religious values as on the realities of climate, nutrition, economics, and the prevailing conventions of art.
In contrast to Brancusi, Giacometti appears to return to figuration. However, it is not the classic ideal but rather an elongated and disproportionate figure that connotes the anguish and distress of World War II, existentialism, and the recognition of human finitude and frailty. Nonetheless the spindly distentions of this man’s arms create a curious mixture of identifying gesticulations in his right hand and transcendence through his left hand, almost as if he were the reincarnation in minimalist terms of the Christ figure at the Last Judgment. The distortions in Giacometti’s figure are, however, no less calculated than those in Michelangelo’s sculptures. The geometrically progressive nature of the relationships of head to torso and torso to extremities combine with the fundamental human characteristic of gestural communication to project the sense of a “real person.”
De Staebler’s Archangel may initially be perceived as disjunctive, as the angelic form merges with the human in what appears to be a visual fragment. However, just as cultural and philosophic shifts occur throughout cultural history, the viewer’s mode of “reading” images moves from that of a sequential narrative to a gradual absorption of shifting concepts of truth and fiction. Reflective of midcentury societal and religious critiques, De Staebler’s figures are a re-visioning of the idea of humanity, no longer premised on the philosophic ideals of classical Greece but rather upon the realities of human frailty, including variations in body types, illness, and the process of aging. Although Western artists have recognized that the idea of humanity, like the human form, can be deduced from the most minimized detail, it was sculptures such as De Staebler’s Archangel that challenged late-twentieth-century viewers to ponder the meaning of being human and to rejoice in the spirituality of humanity despite its imperfections.
Scholarship on Humanity through Sculpture
There is no central or classic study of the theme of the idea of humanity either in the arts or more specifically in sculpture. However, there are classic studies such as Herbert Read’s The Art of Sculpture (1956) and Tom Flynn’s The Body in Three Dimensions (1998) that consider the chronological development of sculpture in Western culture in relation to artistic presentation of and cultural attitudes toward the body. Kenneth Clark’s masterful The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form(1956) is a carefully argued art historical analysis of the cultural concepts of the naked and the nude with a subtext that the body is a conveyor of cultural and religious values. The art historian Moshe Barasch expands the boundaries of Read, Flynn, and Clark to include gestures, postures, and philosophic attitudes toward the body as transmitter of culture and values in his collected essays published as Imago Hominis: Studies in the Language of Art (1991). The now classic texts of Margaret Walters’s The Male Nude (1978) and Bernard Rudofsky’s The Unfashionable Human Body (1971) are specialized studies that initiated a series of critical questions related to the body and gender well in advance of scholarly interest in the marginalized. A variety of intriguing texts including Linda Nochlin’s The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (1994), Marcia R. Pointon’s Naked Authority: The Body in Western Painting (1990), and Margaret R. Miles’s Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West (1989) provide a feminist lens through which to analyze and critique the depiction of the human form in the visual arts. Similarly Caroline Walker Bynum’s The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity (1995) and Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (1986) provide specialized studies of theological, cultural, and philosophic depictions of specific engendered renderings of humanity in the arts. The reality of both the interdisciplinary motif and methodology for the study of the idea of humanity through sculpture has been privileged by Western scholars within the frame of Western cultural history. The three singular exceptions, simultaneously the only culturally comparative works on a closely identified theme, are the exhibition and catalog for In Her Image: The Great Goddess in Indian Asia and the Madonna in Christian Culture by Rebecca P. Gowen, Gerald J. Larson, and Pratapaditya Pal (1980); the exhibition and catalog for The Human Image edited by J. C. N. King (2000); and several special issues of P Art and Culture Magazine, which is published in Turkey.