ArtWay

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. T.S. Eliot

Depictions of Naked Truth

The Impact of Naked Truth

by Rev. David L. Hatton, RN

Botticelli’s re-creation of Calumny, a lost painting of the Greek artist Apelles, deserves careful study to appreciate how well he reproduced it from Lucian’s description of the original. Following Lucian’s narration, you see on the right King Midas, whose large ears are being stroked by Ignorance and Suspicion. Lovely Slander draws near bearing a blazing torch and dragging by his hair her innocent victim, who prays for divine help. Slander is preceded by poorly dressed Envy, whose hand extends toward the king. The two women attending Slander are Fraud and Conspiracy. Behind them follows Repentance, wearing a black garb of mourning and casting back a glance of shame at naked Truth, who is last to approach.

Sandro Botticelli: The Calumny of Apelles

Botticelli’s reproduction of Apelles’ painting illustrates the continuity in art history of compositions which included or showcased nuda veritas (“naked truth”), so named from a fable of antiquity. My concluding poem retells and expounds that fable to confirm the following thoughts on the impact of naked truth in art and life.

Both classical and modern artists have used nudity to depict Truth. Obviously, in a clothed society the unclad body draws immediate visual attention. That same element allows artists to shout their message: “Hey, I’m exposing the real thing here!” But displaying Truth unclad is also nostalgic, reminding of humanity’s state of naked innocence before our disastrous Fall away from truth.

Immersion in a culturally tutored body shame can blind us from seeing a relationship between humanity’s original nude state and the imago Dei. A heretical dualism which exalts the spiritual and discounts the material automatically overlooks the way our “naked and unashamed” first parents bodily imaged the mutual openness within the Trinity. Perhaps part of the “very good” in God’s evaluation of our original nudity was how it socially reflected the absolute frankness shared among the Eternal Society of Three. But God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” definitely shows his desire to broadcast throughout creation this divine self-portrait in his naked image-bearers.

As nakedness manifests truth, so hiding identifies falsehood. In Genesis 3, after “the eyes of both of them were open” to decide “good and evil” on their own, God implies that satanic deception led our first parents to doubt the true “good” of their unadorned bodies (i.e., “Who told you that you were naked?”). God’s rhetorical question comes after the fallen sin-nature attempted to hide the true and natural human appearance under fabricated “girdles.” This original cover-up imaged not the Creator, but humanity’s deceiver.

Using clothing to conceal our incarnational nature as body-spirit beings memorializes this primeval doubt about the body’s goodness. No theology of body shame could have developed in a culture where body acceptance overruled this doubt. But where it reigns, clothing’s usage for decoration or protection is deemed secondary to a perceived moral necessity of hiding bare skin, which was the need imagined by the first sinners.

An artistic choice to undress the body as a metaphor for Truth confronts the artificiality that such dissimulation brought into our fallen world. Employing the beauty and purity of naked truth as a “means of grace” calls us back to freedom and authenticity, from which sin’s deceit led us astray.          

(from left to right)
1. Truth by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911, French)
2. Truth by George William Joy (1844-1925, Irish)
3. Nuda Veritas by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918, Austrian)
4. Truth by Michael Triegel (b 1968, German)

In these four portrayals of Naked Truth, the first three show her holding a mirror, symbolizing a commitment to tell the truth about what those approaching her really look like. The fourth depicts her holding flames of light to dispel darkness and reveal what it hides. Also, in that last painting, the dog—symbolic of fidelity—is Truth’s natural companion.

These four female nudes preach succinct sermons on an unfettered, unpretentious way of life. Their beautiful forms need no further adornment than the outfit of the Creator’s design. Such beauty is not sexually enticing or pornographic. On the contrary, naked truth offers a holy death to self-gratifying carnal attitudes. Simple, naked truth sets us free from secret, exploitive fantasy.

No fig-leaf concealment, literal or figurative, makes us more than the person who inhabits our skin. We may hide under dress and decor, position and possessions, fame and fortune. But, beneath them all, we are naked before our Maker. The naked truth pleads for us to be nakedly open before our peers. Botticelli’s Naked Truth points the way for this genuine, realistic, honest lifestyle by pointing us toward Heaven.

Note in Botticelli’s painting that the only other naked figure is the innocent man being slandered. Neither he nor Truth has anything to hide. Everyone else is clothed—some rather finely so—except for black-garbed Repentance, standing closest to Truth but remorsefully turning away from her. The following modern painting displays even more emphatically this same symbolism, as several black-draped figures flee ashamed at the bold presence of Naked Truth:

Truth II by Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918, Swiss)

Nakedness in Scripture isn’t all about body shame and sexual sin. If it was, the church fathers would not have so clearly expounded the display of spiritual meaning in the early ritual of nude baptism, where naked immersion signified to them a return to original innocence. Learning from our ancestors in the faith, today’s Christian artists can boldly recapture this former, healthier attitude of body acceptance through a renewed symbolic use of naked truth.

Our society, and the modern church, need retraining, not only in a wholesome view of our divinely-designed, gender-distinctive anatomy, but also in a virtuous response to truth’s power over relativism. By retrieving our heritage from Christian artists in the past, we can rediscover a fruitful field of expression awaiting us in the revival of naked truth’s ancient metaphor.

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THE FABLE OF THE NAKED TRUTH

One morning, while Truth skinny-dipped,
Old Falsehood found where she had stripped.
That liar stole her royal robe
And strutted in it round the globe.

But Truth was pure and would not wear
The rags that Falsehood left her there.
From that day onward she went bare,
Clad only in the sun and air.

Exposing all to all she greets,
Who fall for falsely dressed deceits,
The Naked Truth with glory gleams,
Dispelling Falsehood’s charming schemes.

Although its wrap looks safe and sound,
Not all that seems is truly bound.
The garb of Truth can fool the wise,
When it is worn as a disguise.

But morning doesn’t fight with night.
It simply says, “So long!” with light.
Just so, deception from a lie
Must go at Naked Truth’s “Good-bye!”

— David L. Hatton, 9/11/2010
(from Poems Between Birth and Resurrection © 2013)

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David L. Hatton is an ordained Wesleyan pastor, recently retired from his hospital work in Labour & Delivery. His routine exposure to normal, nonsexual nudity in healthcare led not only to an interest in figurative art and incarnational theology, but to extensive biblical, historical, cultural and psycho-social research about the phenomenon of human nakedness. His book Meeting at the River--A Tale of Naked Truth compiled these studies in the form of a novelette. He is presently working on publishing his fifth book of poetry. David and his wife Rosemary have twelve children of their own and a growing number of grandchildren. His blog site is http://pastordavidrn.blogspot.com.