Art historian Erwin Panofsky’s notion of “disguised symbolism” (1934) points to how meanings are often embedded and masked in art, and to get to what the artist was probably talking about, we have to swipe past the first, obvious, “necessary but not sufficient” meanings to arrive at deeper, better ones. This might take some time, but it’s worth it because, as director David Lynch likes to put it, the deeper the dive, the bigger the fish.
The supreme charm of the picture… is essentially based on the fact that the spectator is not irritated by a mass of complicated hieroglyphs, but is allowed to abandon himself to the quiet fascination of what I might call a transfigured reality.
The main reasons artists conceal or “disguise” symbols, according to Panofsky, are to facilitate a revelation, which is fun and feels good, and as a way to reconcile 2D symbols with 3D naturalism. It’s not ‘intentional concealment from the viewer.’ Nothing is ‘hidden.’ Everything you need is staring you right in the face.
Art historian Leo Steinberg in his seminal book The Sexuality Of Christ (1983) uncovers disguised symbols most people miss in Renaissance paintings of Jesus. Steinberg focuses on Madonna and Child Theotokos images that include a chin-chuck, where the baby reaches out and touches the Virgin’s chin. The gesture looks innocent enough, but what we must understand, according to Steinberg, is that in 15th-century Europe, touching someone’s chin was how a man chose a lover. Whaaat? Moreover, in a different context, it’s what a father does to his daughter. Uh oh. The baby’s innocent hand gesture signals that he is the Lover, the Father, and the Child all at once.
It’s mystical, and personal. (Let’s float the notion or “breakthrough” that 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart famously proposed, that the “Virgin birth” is a symbol of our own soul born directly from God each moment, and that we should take John 3:1 seriously, which says that we are all God’s children. Christmas is thus, according to Eckhart, a story about our own ongoing, unceasingly eternal births.)
Because Renaissance peasants couldn’t read or understand Latin, they often received the ‘Mind of Christ’ through contemplating pictures. Artists relied on what’s called Christian sexual hermeneutics to tell a layered story. Paintings had to function as a distilled summation of the book and as graphic supports for mind-blowing revelations.
These paradoxical stories served as visual koans to transmit important messages/experiences from one end of history to another, or from one end of our souls/minds/brains to another.
Steinberg points out another “psychologically troubling” yet popular Renaissance motif: the divine Father touching his Son’s penis:
A conciliation which stands for the atonement, the being-at-one, of man and God. For this atonement, on which hinges the Christian hope of salvation, Northern Renaissance art found the painfully intimate metaphor of the Father’s hand on the groin of the Son, breaching a universal taboo as the fittest symbol of reconcilement.
Sometimes Christ is painted touching his own dead penis, and there are paintings that depict the blood from his vaginal “final wound” taking a sharp left turn to connect to his “first wound,” his circumcision. Likewise, there are paintings of Jesus’s circumcision that foreshadow his crucifixion. In a single image, the circle is completed.
The most striking chapter in Steinberg’s book is on Christ’s erection, sometimes depicted in Man of Sorrows, Crucifixions, and in paintings of The Resurrection. Always veiled, His bulge was a great way to engage the viewer, sustain attention, turn people on, and to further communicate the mysteries of the Hypostasis — that God is fully human. Steinberg: “The humanation of God entails, along with mortality, his assumption of sexuality.”
In the story, Jesus is supposed to mirror God, and so when the erection appears on the cross, it means God is full of life even in death. To drive this point home, in the late Middle Ages the word “resurrection” was evidently used as a double entendre. Maybe we’re meant to chuckle as well as meditate on Christ’s erection centered in Peter Paul Rubens’s Resurrected Christ Triumphant (1616).