The Edmondson Blog

Fig Leaves

The introduction of the giant fig leaf is one of the great oddities of western art. Contrary to popular belief, the covering of private parts on statues was unknown to ancient Greeks and Romans; the foliage found on them today was added by their prudish descendants.

The reason the fig leaf was chosen for this task is traceable to the book of Genesis. Following the Fall, when Eve persuades Adam to eat an apple from the tree of knowledge, Genesis 3:7 tells us: And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

Of course, if you read closely, this suggests a skirt or apron, rather than the oversized single leaf of dubious botanical provenance we find in Renaissance art.

Fig leaves do appear in medieval art, but not to disguise modesty. Explicit nudes abounded during this period, particularly in depictions of sinners and the damned entering hell. Representations of fig leaves were common, but they were simply narrative devices referring to the Fall.

The same applies to early Renaissance art. Before 1500, one seldom finds the fig leaf or covering at all, except when it is appropriate as part of the story. The creation story shown in the cupola of St Mark's Basilica in Venice is a good example.

Leaves and branches were first used by Northern European Renaissance artists, after 1500. This was a response to Protestant preachers such as Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, who spoke of the sinfulness of human flesh. This belief was ignored in the early Renaissance and the Middle Ages, whose artists regarded the Fall as the corruption of the spirit rather than of the body. Curiously, in several paintings of the early 1500s, Adam has a leaf, but Eve does not, as in Jan Gossaert's Hercules and Deianeira c. 1517.

We cannot ignore the Italian connection to the fig leaf explosion of the mid-16th century. The use of fig leaves (which are plentiful in that country) abound in the work of the great Renaissance artists Raphael, Rubens, Titian, da Vinci and Michelangelo.

This was largely a function of Counter-Reformation fanaticism — the Catholic Church trying to outdo its Protestant enemy in piousness — which was cemented by an edict of the Council of Trent that explicitly forbade the depiction of genitals, buttocks and breasts in sacred art.

In 1557, fig leaves were instituted by the bull of Pope Paul IV to reduce the amount of nudity on display. Sometimes, as in the famous case of Michelangelo's The Last Judgment, drapery or extra branches from any nearby bush were used; at other times, a giant fig leaf was modelled and slapped on the offending article, such as on the statue of Mercury in the Vatican.

Hat tip to Mary Wells, St Ives, Cornwall.

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