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“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.

incarnate (etymology): late Middle English: from ecclesiastical Latin incarnat- 'made flesh', from the verb incarnare, from in- 'into' + caro, carn- 'flesh' –Oxford English Dictionary

Since its inception, Christianity has puzzled over the foundational conundrum of the Incarnation: how did an ineffable godhead manifest itself in fleshly human form in the figure of Jesus Christ? In The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, Leo Steinberg references (quoting the Summa theologiae) various voices that have sounded in this long debate. These included “the Manichee who taught that [Christ] had a body which was merely appearance…Apollinarius who said that the body of Christ was consubstantial with his divinity…and Valentinus who taught that Christ brought his body from heaven” (56). At the First Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, Church leaders settled on the official doctrine of hypostatic union: the notion that Christ was simultaneously fully human and fully divine, neither aspect of his being detracting from the other. Steinberg notes that early Christian art placed representational and theological emphasis on stressing Christ’s divinity, reacting “first against Jewish recalcitrance and pagan skepticism, then against the Arian heresy, finally against Islam” (9).

Renaissance artists both north and south of the Alps had the opposite concern.  By plotting “every inch of Christ’s body” (16), early modern artists reaffirmed that Christ was entirely human. They sometimes privileged Christ’s Incarnation over his Passion and Ressurection—which were assumed to be already “inchoately accomplished” in the Incarnation—as the central mystery of the Christian faith (61). This preoccupation, Steinberg insists, contributed to the foregrounding of Christ’s sexuality as part of his fully embodied, incarnate existence. This led to visual strategies that may seem peculiar to a modern eye, such as the ostentatio genitalium, by which the Virgin Mary or another figure points explicitly to the Christ child’s physical sex. In these images, Steinberg posits, “The subject throughout is simply the Incarnation, the marriage of godhead with human nature” 24.

In his essay “Leonardo’s Hand: Mimesis, Sexuality, and Early Modern Political Aesthetics,” Christopher Pye suggests that the Renaissance emergence of the aesthetically autonomous work was deeply informed by the logic of the Incarnation. Pye argues that the aesthetic qua aesthetic involves the paradoxical foregrounding of both its own self-determinate immediacy and the “structural logic” that seems to both undermine this perpetual presence as well as produce it. This consubstantiation of immediacy and "systematicity" parallels the puzzle of the Incarnation. To roughly map Pye’s argument onto the concept of hypostatic unity, the material presentness of an autonomous artwork resonates with the corporeality of an embodied, fully human Jesus Christ. This immediacy, however, is predicated by its dependence on an “absolute beyond,” the structure of signification itself that makes such immediacy intelligible. This "beyond" evokes comparisons with Christ’s divine nature, God the Father, and the Lacanian concept of the Name of the Father. Pye analyzes hands that point centrifugally away from compositional “maternal loops” in Leonardo’s work. In the National Gallery cartoon, he claims the ghostly, pointing hand “underwrites the miracle of Christ’s incarnate, human and divine existence,” going on to say, “the paternal function has located itself in the space of an absolute beyond, the space of the divine Other. Indeed, read according to the classic psychoanalytic account, insofar as it breaks the closed maternal circuit, the indicating hand amounts to the paternal signifier of the division that inaugurates the very function of sign, of culture, of interpretable meaning” (6).

(See: Autochthany)

[Nathan Stobaugh]


As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, "to embody or represent a deity or spirit in human form," commonly referred to Christ as God incarnate on Earth (who "became Man" of the Virgin Mary, according to the New Testament. The term for this fundamental belief of Christianity, "God as Man" and the "word (that) became flesh" in fact comes from Latin incarnatio ("in...caro", "in...flesh"). Thus if Christ was both God and Man contained in one earthly body, this raised a theological problem. How could God become incarnate in his Son on earth? Was this a "mixing" of divine and earthly natures in Christ? Christianity has tackled this question by asserting the doctrine that Christ was both Man and God, two natures joined in one person (not at odds with one another).

Leo Steinberg addressed this issue in "The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion" (1983). The previously ignored emphasis on Christ's gender (from infant to man) in painting was in fact an assertion of the Incarnation: "...the humanation of God entails, along with mortality, his assumption of sexuality. Here, since the verity of the Incarnation is celebrated, the sex of the newborn is a demonstrative sign." (23) Furthermore, the humanation of God (into Christ) as a declaration "...becomes the set theme of every Renaissance Nativity, Adoration, Holy Family, or Madonna and Child." (9)

[Elizabeth Rivard]

Piero di Cosimo, Madonna and Child with St. Margaret and the Infant St. John, c. 1520

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