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Throughout the history of art, nudity has been used to represent beauty, shame, power and frailty apart from sex and sensuality. Many works done by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgione, Titian and other renaissance artists have contained an aspect of nudity of the human body, both men and female.
Major paintings during the medieval and renaissance period represented religious icons like the cherubim, as semi naked beings. These depictions provide strong indications that nudity and nakedness of the human body was used not only in eroticism and sex but also to represent particular symbolic phenomena in relation to various aspects of humanity.
In Christianity, some aspects of nudity of the female body could be depicted on artworks illustrating a bare chest Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus Christ. Some artwork on Adam and Eve depicted their nudity which illustrated their fall from the Garden of Eden.
One of the most famous female nudes in the history of art was the Spanish painting called ‘The Nude Maja’ done by Francisco Goya. Although the medieval period was also punctuated with such levels of nudity in artwork, it was not as profound as during the renaissance. Thus, the artists of the Renaissance brought about the rise of the Nude Female in their masterpieces.
The nude has become a resistant illustration by enduring various challenges throughout history. For instance, after the roman period, nudity faced the challenge of extinction when some members of the Roman Empire wanted it banned. However, the church has since reviewed the matter and restored paintings of the popular renaissance artists. It is worth noting that nude figures are more acceptable when still, than the nude human figures that are moving. Artistic figures which are nude were also unlikely to spark public protests than real nude or naked people, during the renaissance.
Nudity in art during the middle ages was considered a normative act especially during social activities like dancing and also when a person was working (Goodson, Not Dated). This is quite evidenced by the unearthing of vases depicting nude illustrations of people performing in festivals and in fields by archaeologists especially among the Greeks. Nudity was often regarded among the Greeks, as a form of honesty to their gods.
From the Greek to Indian culture, people would pose naked in religious activities and cultural festivals. It was not uncommon to find artistic illustrations of semi naked or completely naked human statues and paintings. Thus, throughout this period, nudity in art and in real life was quite acceptable to the society.
During the middle ages, most paintings of women were mainly religious related. The Virgin Mary was often illustrated in paintings with much modesty. Nude female paintings, during this time would often be considered a representation of erotic and lustful impression (Hill, 200). It should also be noted that the paintings done during this period have sparked some debate on the difference between nude figures and naked figures. The argument is however not profound since it is considered as outdated by some scholars.
The Greco Roman Influence
During the renaissance, a new interest in Greek and Roman culture lead to an explosion in the knowledge about the human body, accompanied with major early innovations in scientific world. In this period, the artists were accorded respect because they were viewed as people who had climbed up the social ladder. Their artworks were viewed as miraculous creations inspired by divinity, and not just mere artistic creations.
The Greco Roman system influenced artistic works like the painting of Leda and the Swan. Sculptures of the nude human anatomy were also created by renaissance artists through the Greco Roman influence. Paintings like that of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ were also done under this influence.
This is because it was during this time that the Christian religion was rapidly growing. Thus, mythological and religious paintings depicting nude human figures, done by Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael contributed the most in the Italian renaissance artwork which was the foundation on which concepts of modern artwork were founded.
The Greek influenced the artwork mainly through their mythical stories like the story of Zeus who appeared in form of a Swan that raped Leda who gave birth to set of twins. The Greek were mainly involved in religious beliefs which were perceived as pagan by the emerging Christian religion.
Thus, the painting of Leda and the Swan was mainly inspired by such pagan beliefs. On the other hand, the Roman system which was swiftly embracing Christian religion influenced artistic works which did paintings like the bare breast Virgin Mary breast feeding the Baby Jesus Christ and the crucifixion of Jesus. These are just some of the reasons why the Roman and the Greek are viewed to have influenced major nude masterpieces done by reconnaissance artists through their religious and mythological practices.
The birth of Venus
‘The birth of Venus’ was the first nude female painting done by Botticelli in 1484 which was in no way related to religion. The artistic work illustrates the goddess Venus, as an adult woman coming from the sea and moving towards the shore. In the painting, there are breezes and winds in action that bring Venus on land.
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This mythical painting depicts the nudity of a woman who was considered a goddess of love by the Greek during the renaissance period. The painting is considered by a section of scholars as one of the most sublime representation of the female form ever painted.
Leda and the Swan
‘Leda and the Swan’ was a masterpiece done by Leonardo da Vinci in 1508. The painting depicts a young nude female embracing a swan while looking at four nude infants hatching from two huge eggs on her right. This painting also illustrates several things on the female body outline which are symbolic. Leda shows a shy attraction towards the swan, while her head is slightly lowered giving the illustration of some virgin aspects. The figure of Leda is quite mature and shows some curved lines which emphasize fertility (Artworks, Not Dated).
However, it should be noted that ‘Leda and the Swan’ is a painting that has been done by many artists thereby coming in different versions. In an attempt to crystallize the real picture, Leonardo did three paintings. The first painting basically outlined his second painting which were however, a little bit different. In the first painting there were the four babies and the Swine.
The Swine is absent in the second painting while the third painting differs in the background from the other two. This painting illustrates mythological representations of stories which were common during the reconnaissance. The female nudity is expressed here as the young girl Leda is raped by Zeus, a man represented by the Swan (Shmoop, 2010).
‘Sleeping Venus’ was done by Giorgione da Castelfranco, in the year 1510. The masterpiece illustrates the first lying female nude in the art history. Giorgione demonstrates a sensual mythological allegory in a nude woman who is reclining with her left hand appearing to be pleasuring her genitals (Paoletti & Radke, 2005).
According to gynecological treaties of those times, female masturbation was considered to make a woman more fertile. The entire width of the painting is covered by the nude goddess of love. The gentle curves on the body outline symbolically connect with the natural aspects depicted in the surrounding.
Renaissance artists like Titian, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione are known to have done the continuation of artistic nudity from the medieval period. After the renaissance the female nude became the most used subject in art history producing at least one masterpiece per year.
The artistic creations were mainly inspired by mythological and religious ideologies. That is why the artists were considered by the people to have been divinely inspired to do the paintings. Nude paintings of the female anatomy were created by these artists not only to depict sex and sensuality but also to represent shame, beauty and power.
The sleeping Venus, Leda and the Swan and the birth of Venus are good examples of artworks of nudity done on the basis of mythological ideologies. It is thus imperative to say that the Roman and Greek mythical and religious ideologies offered enough influence on the dimensions of renaissance art in terms of nudity.
Artworks. Leda and the Swan. Web.
Goodson, A. Nudity in Ancient to Modern Cultures. Web.
Hill, S. (2007). Meaning in “The Birth of Venus”, Botticelli Shows Venus in a Pose Traditionally Held by Virgin Mary. Web.
Paoletti, T.J., & Radke, M.G. (2005). Art in Renaissance Italy, Ed. 3, London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
Shmoop (2010). Leda and the Swan: Shmoop Poetry Guide. Sunnyvale: Shmoop University, Inc.