The Roman Catholic Church’s two-thousand-years-long marketing campaign runs under the basic tenet of advertising: People will flock to pretty stuff. Hence the gilded, towering architecture, expensive commissioned frescoes, and stylish clerical wardrobe. We’re told this pricey splendor was created to honor the Almighty, but the beauty of Christian art and architecture undeniably contributed to the Church’s success with the mortal world, especially in the Renaissance when the Catholic Church stepped up its game to combat the Protestant Reformation.
The other rule the Church’s PR team followed (though they would never admit to it) is “sex sells.” And thus we have pretty-boy Jesus Christ, distinct from the historical Jesus of Nazareth who was not the rosy-cheeked, thin-nosed whitey with whom we’re most familiar. Although they could’ve seriously benefited from a diversified definition of male beauty, the image-makers of the Catholic Church in its prime created some pretty sexy Saviors, the aesthetic of which has more recently been perpetuated by Mel Gibson and the lumbersexual look of modern man-crushes. I paid a visit to several of these divine beef cakes at the Walters Art Museum.
This side of a two-panel altarpiece depicts Jesus about as naked as he gets at the Walters, though his tiny, tiny hand still masks his glory (the water he’s getting baptized in is probably pretty cold, anyway.) With nearly nonexistent shoulders and hips, he’s got that slender nymph thing going. The cherub in the corner holding out a robe clearly wants to cover Jesus from our gaze, but the artist (of the early Netherlandish school) generously allows us to look on as the Holy Spirit launches itself into nudie Christ’s delicate skull.
Created by an unknown artist in Venice in the 16th century, this plaque depicting the crucifixion teases the Adonis belt of Christ with a perilously draped cloth. His soft, shapely legs are almost feminine, and his anatomically questionable chest muscles seem as pinchable as bubble wrap. The two hunky thieves flanking the central cross are about to steal our hearts, too.
This late-medieval English Jesus has a bad-boy attitude that we just can’t resist. This alabaster relief endows our guy with zero-bordering-on-negative muscle mass, but that won’t stop him from busting up anyone who gets in his way—in this case, the sleeping soldiers ineffectively guarding Christ’s tomb, who he has apparently decided to walk over, tipping his head to say, “see ya, suckers.”
This altarpiece, painted by Neri de Bicci in late 15th century Florence, is particularly swoon-worthy—the allure here is not his bod, nor his sweet gilded threads, but what Jesus is doing. This is a Coronation image, wherein Christ crowns the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven: He loves his mom. And he brought his friends to watch. So cute.
Holy serratus muscles! This ‘Dead Christ Supported by Angels’ was carved from marble by Italian sculptor Martino Benzoni in the 15th century to titillate the patrons of the church of Santa Agata in Martinengo. Jesus looks like Zeus in this one (not to mix up theologies). And damn, check out that brow bone and those glam-rocker locks, not to mention his Ken doll-esque nipplelessness. Here at his swolest, this is the kind of Jesus that slays the devil with the power of God—and the power of brawn. Though, in this case, that battle didn’t work out so well for JC.