ostentatio genitalium saves world from pathological gynocentrism

Darkness covered the faces of the people and its wombs were a formless void.  Self-absorbed, virtue-signaling women and impotent, self-abasing men secretly cursed the gynocentric days of their births.

holy family with infant John the Baptist

Then among these loathing people came an extraordinary, fully masculine son. His mother and father and those closest to him embraced the human fullness of his masculine being. He was a man-child, a boy. They loved him.

the Holy Family, Andrea Mantegna

The fully masculine son was a sign that would be opposed. The inner thoughts of many were filled with hate for men. Like thousands of sons at colleges and universities today, he would suffer an agonizing trial, a mockery of justice, then scourging, spitting, and expulsion. His mother pondered all these things in her heart. She prayed over his vulnerability.

Virgin adoring baby Jesus with penis

Protected and loved, he grew up to be a man. Unknowing scholars condemned him as “hyper-masculine.” Modern-day Jezebels screeched that the man was committing symbolic violence against them, and that men they smear as misogynists must protect them from men they accuse of symbolic violence. Gynocentric thought-leaders opined that the man was a woman, or at least androgynous.

Gallino crucifix, attributed to Michelangelo

Though wholly innocent, and without any sins against women or men, the man was crucified. He was crucified for being a man who testified to the truth. He cried out in compassion for his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they know not a father’s love.” Blood from the wound at his side flowed down to his groin. When he was taken down from the cross, he was grasping agonizingly at his groin. Mothers, here are your sons.

Zebraku lamentation

It was finished. The women who loved him looked upon his dead body in despair. They knew the facts of life and love and procreation. They didn’t dare hope for resurrection.

three mourners look upon dead Christ, by Andrea Mantegna

The rising of the dead man happened. Some institutionally entrenched scholars doubted. One wrote archly of “what certain painted folds of drapery really conceal.” For those who have eyes to see and some appreciation for Renaissance painters’ painstaking representations of drapery, what the form of the drapery about the man’s groins represents cannot be doubt. He had risen from the dead.

Christ, man of sorrows, by Maerten van Heemskerck

Holy Trinity in a glory of angels, by Lucas Cranach

The father was well-pleased with his son who fulfilled his mission. The father put his hand under his son’s thigh and swore that once again fully masculine men would be loved in the fullness of their masculine being. Then he sat his son upon a throne of grace. Let all women and men boldly approach this throne of grace in their time of need.

throne of grace, medieval carving

The man’s ostentatio genitalium, reverberating across centuries, now is readily available for all to see. He was not ashamed to call other men his brothers. Men and women today are groaning under the bondage of pathological gynocentrism. But seeing the man’s love, who can separate us from the love of each other? In this hope we are saved.

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The above is based mainly on the seminal work of Leo Steinberg. He first presented this work publicly in 1981 in a Lionel Trilling Seminar at Columbia University. For a good appreciation of Steinberg’s contribution to artistic culture, Strauss (1997).

Despite survival bias against such images, ostentatio genitalium isn’t a marginal phenomenon in surviving Renaissance images. Steinberg implicitly defined ostentatio genitalium {showing of male genitals} as “images wherein the emphasis on the genitalia of Christ is assertive and central.” He initially estimated that the number of Renaissance ostentatio genitalium images “runs past a thousand.” In his 1996 edition, he observed in retrospect that “the number {of identified ostentatio genitalium Renaissance images} by now has probably doubled.” Steinberg (1996) pp. 109, 266.

An under-appreciated strand of literary history celebrates the seminal, generative work of penises. Within traditional, Greco-Roman culture, Octavian celebrated his victory at Actium with a monumental sculpture of a penis-baring ass-driver having dominion over a donkey. Octavian’s Actium monument seems to relate to literature, most importantly Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, acknowledging the appeal of donkeys’ large penises. Greco-Roman Priapea, on the other hand, ironically critiqued brutalizing and commodifying stereotypes of men’s sexuality. Most importantly, Maximianus’s fifth elegy concluded with a reference to death, impotence, and rising. Ostentatio genitalium can be understood as a Christian refiguring of the final verses of Maximianus’s fifth elegy.

Important works of medieval literature directly affirmed men’s redeemed penises. Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia celebrates penises triumphing over death. Nigellus Wireker’s Speculum stultorum metaphorically addressed penis size and the importance of generative semen. Jean de Meun’s continuation of the Romance of the Rose concluded with uniting adoration of the Virgin Mary with the lover’s genital connection to a specific, flesh-and-blood woman. In medieval Christian understanding, Jesus saved and redeemed humanity, including men and men’s sexuality. As the courtly tales of the great late-medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini indicate, God made men’s sexuality, and it became very good.

Although daring and insightful, Leo Steinberg wasn’t a meninist art historian. At crucial points he effaced masculine distinctiveness. Consider:

If, as Christianity teaches, God abased himself in becoming man, then his assumption of human genitals sounds the nadir of his self-abasement.

Steinberg (1996) p. 239. Steinberg here uses “man” for a generic human. The generic human has “human genitals” rather than masculine genitals. But Christianity doesn’t teach that God became a generic human being (“man”). Christianity teaches that God became a fully male human being with male genitals. Throughout human history, male genitals have been socially disparaged. Throughout human history, females have been privileged under dominant gynocentrism. The self-abasement of God went to the extreme by God becoming a male human being.

Steinberg didn’t recognize that men matter as a distinctive gender. Ostentatio genitalium explicitly concerns masculine genitals. Yet Steinberg explained:

In the ostentatio genitalium, the mystery of the Incarnation is reaffirmed against the drift to complacency and regains its power to startle. The Word made flesh is, after all, a difficult dogma,and routine, nominal faith easily recoils from its consequences. One assents with reservations — “made flesh,” yes, of course, but surely within decent limits. Whereas Renaissance painters, whose calling demands that they give visible witness to the enfleshment of God, must go, or choose to go, all the way. … It now appears clearer than ever that these artists, in their dealing with the totality of man’s body, brought a unique understanding to the role Western theology assigns to the genitals.

Id. p. 226. These artists weren’t dealing with a generic human’s body (“man’s body”); they were dealing with a specific male human’s body. The genitals of Christ were masculine genitals. Without knowing Latin grammatical cases, a child could look at the ostentatio genitalium images and perceive that the images show male genitals. But scholars commonly have refused to recognize men’s maleness. Understanding masculine genitals in Western theology and Western thought has hardly begun.

Scholars have been preoccupied with arguing that Jesus was not a fully male human being. Caroline Walker Bynum contributed to her rise to the pinnacle scholarly eminence with her book, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. See Bynum (1982). Addressing his scholarly critics, Steinberg explained:

This notion of a female Savior derives above all from a sense of Christ’s side wound as an organ capable of symbolic lactation and of giving birth to the Church. … these same medieval artists who imaged the Crucified as unsexed (asexué) refused to deny him his beard, rejecting the type of the smooth-cheeked Savior common until the 10th century. Their image of Christ does not seem to posit a shift of gender so much as an “asexuation,” an ideal of manhood without the blight of sex. Though the shaming part {sc. male genitals} is omitted, no late medieval artist insinuates that the Incarnate was other than male.

Steinberg (1996) p. 247. Steinberg interpreted Renaissance paintings depicting the crucified Christ having an erection to be an extraordinary symbol of resurrection. A critic brandished the banal accusation of gender bias against women. Steinberg aptly responded, with some exasperation:

Here was no Tiresian gender contest, no vying of male with female, because the subject of Heemskerck’s image was not the power to outperform the opposite sex, but the power to override death. And the victor in the picture is male for the sufficient reason that this was Christ’s sex. Had the Trinity’s Second Person incarnated a woman, she would doubtless have resurrected in a spectacular pregnancy.

Id. p. 325, n. 30.

In a chapter he added to his 1996 enlarged edition, Steinberg provided a thorough critique of medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum’s forty-page response to his book. In a section entitled “The Body of Christ as Female in Medieval Texts,” Bynum offered a textist critique of Steinberg’s collection of ostentatio genitalium Renaissance paintings. Citing Bernard of Clairvaux’s comments on Song of Songs 1.1-2, she asserted that this text:

makes clear not only the medieval tendency to associate breasts with food (rather than sex) but also the medieval tendency to assimilate Church as Christ’s spouse with Church as Christ’s body.

Bynum (1986) p. 414. Steinberg sensibly responded and coyly speculated:

since the Virgin is singular and her breast’s status unique, it is entirely inappropriate to cite images of the Maria lactans as evidence of how “medieval people” perceived female breasts. … I would guess that the view medieval men took of bared breasts varied with the observer, the party observed, and the spur of the moment. … {Jean de Roye in Paris in 1461} writes: “And there were also three very handsome girls, representing quite naked sirens, and one saw their beautiful upright, separate, round and hard breasts, which was a very pleasant sight….” Was this de Roye being insufficiently medieval in failing to recognize that very pleasant sight as essentially alimentary? … Far be it from me to belittle the nutritional value of the maternal breast, but when San Bernardino and fellow preachers rallied against low-necked dresses, it was not to keep sources of nourishment hid.

Steinberg (1996) p. 382.

Like many scholars writing about gender, Bynum is blind to the obvious. Consider:

Robert Campin’s Madonna and Child before a Firescreen {shown below} is featured full-page {in Bynum’s work} to attend this peremptory sentence: “Mary … presents her baby as if he were bread fresh from the oven.” That fresh bread is, of course, fetched from the writings of 14th-century mystics who, Bynum reminds us, thought of Christ’s human body as food. On the strength of that thought — and because, in Campin’s picture, flametips behind the firescreen indicate a live blaze — a spry 15th-century baby is transubstantiated into baked goods. Bynum does not ask how her pronouncement sorts with the picture’s general character; whether Campin’s Christ Child looks like one incubated in that recessed hearth; or whether the mother, who has been reading and is now preparing to suckle her sprightly boy, is “presenting” this Child like a loaf. And what will Bynum make of this latest finding: we have just learned that the painter, laboring over the composition, lowered Mary’s left hand to ensure that the Child’s penis shows.

Steinberg (1996) pp. 388-9, footnotes and parenthetical image citations omitted. The text Steinberg quoted is Bynum (1986) p. 425. Bynum’s next sentence explains her blindness and documents her tendentiousness: “Mary is assimilated to Christ and celebrant.” Id.

Robert Campin school, Madonna and Child before a Firescreen

Bynum’s scholarship has been far more influential than Steinberg’s. Bynum (1991), a collection of essays that includes her response to Steinberg, won a prestigious scholarly award and has been reprinted six times. Bynum’s work is canonical in college and post-graduate teaching on medieval literature and medieval society, and of course in gender / women’s studies. Bynum without substance characterized as questionable Steinberg’s seeing the dead Christ depicted with an erection:

Steinberg’s reading of a number of pictures of the adult Christ in which he sees an actual erection under the loincloth is questionable … I will leave aside here some of the legitimate questions critics have raised about Steinberg, such as the question of how much of the artistic attention to genitals is simply naturalism, or doubts about what certain painted folds of drapery really conceal.

Bynum (1986) pp. 404, 405. For thorough deconstruction of this rhetoric and the reality of what the paintings really represent, Steinberg (1996) pp. 310-25. Witnessing to the blind-Bynum school and the collapse of enlightenment, Wikipedia’s entry on Heemskerck’s Man of Sorrows declares: “The loincloth is claimed to be wrapped around an erection, visible to some art historians but not others.” Two presentations at the 2018 annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America treat Bynum’s response to Steinberg as something other than risible support for oppressive, mind-numbing gynocentric ideology. See Lamoureux (2018) and Reed (2018).

Bynum is no uncompensated, evenings-and-weekends scholar freely offering cultural learning and bold, free-thinking analysis to all on the Internet. Bynum is University Professor emerita at Columbia University. She was Dean of Columbia’s School of General Studies. She served as President of the American Historical Association in 1996 and President of the Medieval Academy of America in 1997-98. She has been awarded fourteen honorary degrees, including from University of Michigan, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvanian, and Harvard University. Bynum was awarded the Federal Republic of Germany’s Grand Merit Cross with Star and Hebrew University’s Doctor Honoris Causa. She has been elected as a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. She was instituted as Professor of Western Medieval History at the Institute for Advanced Study in the U.S. The Institute for Advanced Study was the home of Albert Einstein, a genius who clearly recognized American gynocentrism.

Steinberg was reluctant to challenge Bynum. He observed:

the idea that Christ’s male member could be neutered by tactics of interpretation — that it could be promoted to kinship with the stigmata as one more among the instruments of the Passion — has been remarkably well-received, and for good reason. The tactic removes an untimely reminder of Christ’s masculinity and, more important, supplants an unacceptable association with sex by an acceptable memento of suffering.

Steinberg (1996) p. 279. Now excising masculinity, demonized as “toxic masculinity” or “hyper-masculinity,” has become a pervasive social program. Steinberg expressed regret:

I regret, too, that her {Bynum’s} essay — widely assigned as required reading to neutralize mine — derailed me into a quarrel I would not have chosen to enter.

Id. p. 389. A good man, Steinberg preferred not to challenge men’s female adversaries. In the face of Bynum effacing masculinity and buttressing dominant gynocentrism, Steinberg offered the Christian understanding of neither woman nor man, but all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 4:28):

Bynum’s crtique of SC {Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ…} thus contrives an adversarial situation, in which my perception of Renaissance pictures is seen as waging a sexual vendetta in defense of Christ’s masculinity.

This was not my design. To me, the ostentatio genitalium in the paintings discussed did not seem posed as male versus female. I read the new genital emphasis as an imaginative reintegration of the sexual into the ideally human….

Steinberg (1996) p. 365. Steinberg was a remarkably broad-minded, kind, and generous scholar. Yet his prudential weakness is all too common. If men’s Christian or non-Christian character prevents them from confronting women when necessary, then Christianity, ethics, and civilization are doomed to oblivion.

[images] (1) The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist. Oil painting made about 1570-1573 by Flemish artist Denys Calvaert. Preserved as item P.994.3 in Hood Museum, Dartmouth College. (2) The Holy Family. Oil painting made about 1495-1500 by Italian artist Andrea Mantegna. Preserved as item AM-51-PS01 in Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister {Old Masters Picture Galley}, Dresden, Germany (via Wikimedia Commons). (3) Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Child. Oil painting made in 1483 by Italian artist Francesco Bonsignori. Preserved in Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy. (4) Crucifix. Thought to be made about 1495 and attributed to Michelangelo. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy (derived from photo by Marzocco58 via Wikipedia). Here’s a similar crucifix made in 1492 and securely attributed to Michelangelo. (5) Lamentation of Christ by Master of the Žebrák Lamentation of Christ. Lime wood relief made about 1510. Preserved in the National Gallery of Prague (via Wikimedia Commons). (6) Dead Christ. Painting made about 1470-1474 by Andrea Mantegna. Preserved as item Reg. Cron. 352 in Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy (via Wikimedia Commons). (7) Man of Sorrows. Painting made about 1532 by Maarten van Heemskerck. Preserved as item S-53 in the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium (via Wikimedia Commons). (8) Holy Trinity in a Glory of Angels. Painting made about 1515-1518 by German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. Preserved in Kunsthalle Bremen, Bremen, Germany (via WikiArt). (9) Throne of Grace (Altar of the Trinity with Saint Catherine and a bishop saint). Wood carving made about 1500 in northern Germany or Denmark. Preserved as item S30n21 in Gardner Museum, Boston, USA. On the throne of grace, Hebrews 4:16. On a pact made through a man putting his hand under another man’s thigh, Genesis 24:2. (10) Madonna and Child before a Firescreen. Oil painting, made about 1440 by the workshop of Robert Campin. Preserved as item NG2609 in the National Gallery, London, UK.

Steinberg (1996) presents and discusses all the works above, except two. One exception is the crucifix questionably attributed to Michelangelo. That crucifix has been publicly known only since 2004. Discussions of the above works and closely related works in id. are: Calvaert’s Holy Family with John the Baptist, pp. 306-9; Bonsignori’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Child, p. 45; Žebrák Lamentation of Christ, with other images of dead Christ with his hand on his groin, pp. 94-104, 203-6; Mantegna’s Dead Christ, p. 45; Heemskerck’s Man of Sorrows, pp. 81-90, 310-17, 324-5; Cranach’s Holy Trinity in a Glory of Angels, pp. 300-3; Throne of Grace, pp. 104-6, 210-2; Madonna and Child Before a Firescreen, pp. 259-61, 386-8.


Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1982. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1986. “The body of Christ in the later Middle Ages: a reply to Leo Steinberg.” Renaissance Quarterly. 39(3): 399-439.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1991. Fragmentation and redemption: essays on gender and the human body in medieval religion. New York: Zone Books. {Bynum (1986), with minor writing, is Ch. 3 in this book. This book was award the 1992 Lionel Trilling Book Award. It had at least six printings by 2012.}

Lamoureux, Johanne. 2018. “Understanding the Oblivion of Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ.” Presentation on panel “Leo Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ Revisited II.” The 64th Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, New Orleans, 22 March – 24 March 2018 (relevant call for papers).

Reed, Julia M. 2018. “True Sex and the Truth of Sex: Interpreting the Steinberg-Bynum Exchange.” Presentation on panel “Leo Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ Revisited I.” The 64th Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, New Orleans, 22 March – 24 March 2018.

Steinberg, Leo. 1996 (first edition in 1983). The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. 2nd edition, revised and expanded. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strauss, David Levi. 1997. “Rescuing Art from Modern Oblivion.” The Wilson Quarterly. 21 (3): 34-49.