Religious art - Mark Vernon on contested images of nudity in the Church

In "The Genius of Rome 1592-1623", the current exhibition at London's Royal Academy, Caravaggio steals the show. His fellow artists, shown alongside, simply cannot compete with the relentless power in his depictions of the moods, moments and marvels of human life. His use of nudity is particularly arresting. It may not be shocking, but it is still startling to see an adolescent boy playing the lute and apparently coming on to you, as his blousy shirt hangs from his shoulders. Or to see a carelessly exposed St John the Baptist contemplating his heavenly message and simultaneously looking, well, knackered.

Little surprise, then, that in the hothouse of Counter- Reformation Rome, popes were wary of all this flesh. The trouble was not just that the faithful might be disturbed in their worship, but that certain individuals might actually recognise a beautiful angel in a fresco as that young model who lived around the corner. They could leave Mass not just distracted, but sorely tempted. Caravaggio himself had a Madonna for St Peter's refused. Not only was it thought "indecent", but rumour had it that the model was a courtesan.

Such tales are entertaining, but they are certainly not dated. Nudity in religious art still raises the temperature. The same week I went to the Royal Academy, a friend put into my hand an article from the Catholic Herald. It concerned a Madonna and Child by the contemporary sculptor Guy Reid, recently installed in the Anglican church of St Matthew, Westminster. Not that the author of the article, Brian Brindley, broadcast that detail. He didn't want to encourage people to flock to see it.

The cause of his bluster is that the Madonna and Child are naked. The sculpture, carved in lime wood, has Mary sitting and leaning forward, with the baby on her knee. Her face is strong, but her nudity is an ambiguous mix of vulnerability and challenge as she presents her child to the world. Jesus is caught in that infantile moment of surprise when a baby is not sure whether it will smile or cry.

Brindley accused the Madonna of being not only offensive and profane, but blasphemous and fascist. Reid's sculpture should be locked up, rather than placed centre stage in a church, and examined only by scholars if they must, given that - unlike the populace - they are protected by their learning. He argued that Mary should be covered up (in blue), for she would never have posed unclothed. Even the master of nudity in religious art, Michelangelo, did as much in the Sistine Chapel.

Reid's work clearly touches a nerve, and, I suspect, not only in the mind of one vehemently traditionalist critic. For nudity, theology and representation are a heady mix, powerful but dangerous. Mary, for example, may not often have been depicted naked, but she has certainly been exposed. Renaissance artists developed a whole tradition of showing the Virgin's breast as she fed her child. The power was that it expressed a theological truth, the full reality of God become man. But the nudity was dangerous, too, because it said something more intimate, as the religious historian Margaret Miles explains: "Paintings of the Virgin with one bare breast constitute a remarkably explicit objectification of what was most certainly the most pressing personal and collective anxiety of 14th-century Tuscan people - the uncertainty of food supply."

Unlike Mary, Jesus is frequently naked. Not only as a child, when even his genitalia are uncovered to impress on us once more that he has been incarnated "complete in all parts", but as a man on the cross - broken, bare and desolate. There is even a strand in the tradition of the crucifix that has Jesus aroused, to show the potency of the new creation that is to be found in the Christ. Another dimension to the ambivalence of nudity is its ability to carry not only the extremes of human vulnerability, but also that of human perfection when nakedness takes on classical form. Adam in Eden is naked, notwithstanding the odd fig leaf to save fallen eyes. And the enigmatic figure of St Sebastian, the Roman soldier who was martyred by being shot with arrows, is depicted without clothes to show his perfection in death - even at the risk of his image appearing homoerotic.

As such, nudity in religious art is important for what it communicates, a point at which human drama and spiritual truth connect. But with its power comes hazard. Physical undressing concedes doctrinal control. Personal intimacy undermines divine station. Ecclesiastical authority is always going to be uneasy with such a compromise. So, naked saints are, in a sense, reclothed in articles of theology, as if to contain any devotional excesses, heterodox leanings or merely the blatant eroticism that the sight of flesh provokes. And it is perhaps Brindley's concern that Reid's naked Madonna and Child are not adequately "covered up" which causes him such alarm.

The anxiety is compounded because Reid is working on theological themes at the end of a century that has seen the body usurp the place of much religious imagery. Instead of the body being the canvas on which spiritual truths are drawn, it seems to have become the only reality, pointing not beyond but only at itself. This is part of the so-called death of God, the collapse of metaphysical meaning in the western imagination. It has, for many, rendered Christian motifs irrelevant or incomprehensible, even when shown with the brilliance of an artist such as Caravaggio. The response of the religious conservative is to deny the body because it shows not the beauty of life, but the ugliness of death.

This is a reactionary - even Aryan - position. But if you can't live with it, you also can't live without it. And, from the opposite camp, those who would celebrate the body and deny spirituality with a militant materialism might realise that, ultimately, the body's fragile form cannot bear all the longings of humanity.

In contemporary art, there is much evidence that religious idioms with theological references are emerging again. The genius of the television series Seeing Salvation, presented by the National Gallery's director, Neil MacGregor, was in great measure due to his realisation that the Christian allusions in many of the greatest works of western art could be unveiled with an inspiring freshness to a post-Christian audience. And this is where the naked Madonna and Child fits in. Its embodiment is modern, sexual, accessible. But its meaning and success as a piece of art are unashamedly theological.

Mark Vernon is a freelance writer and journalist

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Laughing all the way to No 10?