Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover-Up In History

Thursday 10 February 2011, 09:59

Stephen Smith Stephen Smith

When I was approached to make a documentary about the fig leaf in sculpture, I sensed a cloud no bigger than a man's hand - or other prominent feature.

Was the subject too slight?

But it turned out that hidden within the roomy folds of this humble frond was an eye-popping story of sex, religion, censorship. Oh, and of art too, of course.

Stephen Smith holding a fig leaf

I've been looking at statues in the great cathedrals and galleries of Europe, in a bid to uncover what's behind the fig leaf, so to speak.

And I learnt that it first appeared on Adam and Eve, as the early church emphasised the link between sex and sin.

But I also discovered that the fig leaf has flourished - and wilted - according to the prevailing morality of the day.

In Florence, I was astonished to find that Michelangelo's David was pelted with rocks when it was first unveiled.

The most famous statue in the world shocked Florentines with its nakedness and it was covered by not one fig leaf but an entire shrub of them.

The sculptors of ancient Greece and Rome, whom Michelangelo adored, were entirely relaxed about public nudity. Not so the Vatican of the Renaissance.

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The only time the Church encouraged bare flesh was to reinforce the eternal message that the wages of sin are death.

On the carved façade of Orvieto Cathedral, for example, the lost and the damned writhe in hell, without so much as a stitch on.

You might imagine that Queen Victoria took a similar line on the naked form. In fact, historians now think she was much more amused in that department than we give her credit for. But only in private.

In a little-visited vault under the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I gazed agog at an outsize fig leaf made especially for the monarch.

Not for the royal person herself, you understand, but to shield her eyes from the full glory of a replica of Michelangelo's David, which she used to inspect in the galleries above.

In a square elsewhere in the capital, a statue of Priapus, the god of fertility, is complete in every detail - apart from the all-important one of his defining feature.

That lies 350 miles away, in a drawer in Paisley, where it was reluctantly stashed by its creator, the sculptor Sandy Stoddart.

As Sandy showed me around his studio, the manhood of Priapus was the elephant in the room, if that's the phrase I want.

Yes, contemporary artists can - and do - present sculptures of naked figures in exhibitions now if they wish.

But, as Sandy told me, he could face prosecution if he left Priapus as he'd intended, fully endowed and ready for action.

If only he'd clothed him in a fig leaf instead, I couldn't help thinking.

Nature's jockstrap remains an impressively elastic device, two millennia after it was first twanged into place. And it's not stretching things too far to say that it can still be a snug fit for 21st century sculpture.

Stephen Smith is the presenter of Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover-Up In History.

Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover-Up In History is on BBC Four at 9pm on Thursday, 10 February, and is part of Focus On Sculpture, a season of programmes on BBC Four.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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    Comment number 1.

    I am not usually galvanized to complain about the arts output of the BBC but the banality and vulgarity of this program and its presenter beggars belief.Further a previous program advertised as a study of Anglo Saxon art consisted of views of a young presenter tottering around the Suffolk marshes on six inch heels and little art. Where do they get the directors and editors for these programs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Debrant, if you go to see a movie called Snakes on a 'Plane, there's a good chance you'll see some snakes and a fair chance they'll be on a 'plane.

    It was fairly clear what the programme here was going to be about. I can only assume it was the subject matter to which you refer as being banal or vulgar so perhaps you shouldn't have watched it. Maybe the presentation was a little too light-hearted at times for your taste, but it was neither too earnest nor too 'carry on'.

    I studied Classics at college, and yet I didn't know the reasons for the representation of the phallus on ancient statues was to reflect the virtuosity of reasonable restraint (a value reflected in the laws, aimed at protecting the solidity of the household unit). So as well as being entertaining, it was certainly educational. (My one and only nit-pick was the equation of 'priapic' with 'phallic' - the former expressing an innate enthusiasm not necessarily carried in the latter.)

    And I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion of Bernini, and it was a pleasure to hear the curator of the Galleria Borghese. (I've had as my pc and phone wallpaper for some time now - and was feeling rather smug about my taste in statuary.) There's absolutely nothing - repeat nothing vulgar or banal about it. The entire discussion about society and allowing representation of the male (and female) genitalia was amusing, educational and enjoyable.

    I didn't see the Anglo-Saxon programme to which you refer, so I can't comment. I have noticed that there is, sometimes, occasional dumbing-down, but this programme wasn't guilty of it.

    One question, though - whether it's from my early visits to the British Museum, or whether it dates from the days I had Greek art history lessons there, i can't recall - but I've always believed there was a room in the British Museum which contains the willies (privy members, to you, debrant) of ancient figures, placed there during the Victorian era to spare the blushes of the lady visitors. True?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    (Oh, maybe one other point - you could have explained the statue of Priapus in the context of ancient Greek herms.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I thought this programme struck precisely the right tone for the subject matter. It was neither po-faced or salacious. As the right honourable ChilledBunny says, the show was always going to be about depictions of 'rude' parts, so being offended by this is rather silly. It was on BBC Four, which is code for 'hidden' so making the decision to allow it into your home was entirely your own doing, debrant.

    Hopefully the BBC ask Stephen Smith to make more documentaries as I also very much enjoyed his one on Lolita.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Thanks for a wonderful programme.
    When I was in the gardens of Versailles quite a few years ago, I could not help but notice the penises on the statues. I would like to know what happened. I can only assume that at some point they were castrated, and then restored. But the restoration looks like a child has rolled some Play-Doh into a sausage and slapped it on.
    If anyone is aware of why they were castrated in the first place (it could not have been purely accidental, as there were many in this condition) and did the French have a similar phase of lopping off for puritanical reasons? And who commissioned or did the unintentionally amusing restoration work?


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