I remember the Nativity scene in our church every Christmas Eve: Some poor young family, trundling up to the altar with a newborn, usually trying to appease their other child (who might be dressed as a sheep) while pretending for all the world that they'd never had sex. Christ almighty.
The truth is, history is littered with naughty Nativities—and not just ones in which the Virgin or the onlookers are simply hot (for this, start with Botticelli). Jesus, there are some shockers! We'll start slowly.
"The first one I could think of that introduces any tawdriness into that holy spectacle is Hieronymus Bosch's Adoration of the Magi," said Chiyo Ishikawa, Seattle Art Museum's curator of European painting.
Bosch's Adoration dates from about 1495. It's a triptych. In the center panel, the Virgin, all dressed in black and sitting outside a ramshackle hut, holds the tiny Christ on her lap. (He has, for the record, extraordinary posture.) The three kings soberly pay their respects, and a peasant reclining on the unsteady roof of the hut looks smitten. Tiny heads peer around from the back of the hut. But there's a weird, prominent figure standing in the doorway. He's wearing a red robe, showing off his bare leg and chest, and leering toward the mother and child. In one interpretation, Ishikawa said, he symbolizes the Antichrist.
The Antichrist sure does show a lot of skin.
There are two potential targets for corruption in every Christmas painting: the sexless Virgin and the sexless Christ. Winning the prize for Sluttiest Virgin is French painter Jean Fouquet's Madonna from around 1450. No wonder: She's rumored to have been based on the mistress of the king, Charles VII. Ostensibly she is presenting Jesus, but who'd look at Him with her round breast popped all the way out of its laced corset? Breasts feed babies, but this one barely has a nipple, and its partner is outlined in the tight dress. These aren't breasts; they're tits.
The Virgin takes another hit in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Adoration of the Magi from 1564. Something isn't quite right from the start—the baby is recoiling from His admirers. But it's what's going on behind the Virgin that art historians call the real scandal: one man whispering into another man's ear. What's he saying? Theory has it he's questioning the virginity of the Virgin. The man listening casts his eyes toward the Virgin as if looking for traces of sex on her.
This is all 101 level. Things become infinitely more strange when one turns to a 1983 book by the American art historian Leo Steinberg, called The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion.
"In many hundreds of pious, religious works, from before 1400 to past the mid-16th century, the ostensive unveiling of the Child's sex, or the touching, protecting, or presentation of it, is the main action," Steinberg writes. The sex of Christ in art history is a "long-suppressed matter of fact."
Sections of the book include "Chapter IV. Of the practice of fondling a man-child's genitalia," "Chapter XXIX. Images of self-touch and of Infant erection," and "Chapter XXXVI. The Un-dead hand on the groin."
Then there are the images: St. Anne gives Christ a little grandmotherly how's-your-father in Hans Baldung Grien's Holy Family woodcut. On the cover of the book, Giovanni Bellini's circa 1470 Madonna and Child are spending a private moment together—a moment in which the Madonna has her hand down there, while the eyes of the beefy little Christ glaze over.
Steinberg even has some disturbing news about that sweet little affectionate chin chuck the baby gives his mother in paintings such as Jan van Hemessen's Madonna and Child from 1543: It's an old erotic gesture dating back to early Egyptian and Greek art. "The chin-chuck, then, betokens the Infant Spouse," Steinberg writes.
To Steinberg, this all is evidence of the divinity of Christ through His humanity. Christ isn't like other babies. He doesn't crawl. He gets fondled by family members.