Featured string: Teeny Weeny Peeny: the phallus
We’re all adults here. Or at least I hope we are. So we should be able to face the following with some semblance of maturity: there a lot of dicks in art.
Especially old art. So many gentlemen’s members (very rarely are the members in question attached to ladies, although it does happen even in the realms of art), in fact, that there’s a very persistent rumour that a Bowdlerising campaign at the seat of Catholic divinity has led to a room full of severed, er, ‘serpents’ in repose in hiding somewhere at the Vatican. Of course, as a protruding body part (much like the nose, fingers, and arms in general), the shame stick is particularly prone to becoming a victim of the ravages of time without the fig-leaf squad getting involved.
But really, why are there so many dingalings (I am not going to stop plumbing the depths of English’s endless trove of euphemisms for generally-male genitalia so you might as well get comfortable) spread about the collections?
First of all, you’ll have noticed that once you get back past a certain time period, people in art, and often specifically men in the case of red-figure or black-figure ware, are just a lot more naked. Now it’s not that they didn’t have the clothes, as you’ll notice there’s plenty of those very distinctive, blankety clothes knocking around (they’re fun to make–definitely worth a try if you’re a beginner at sewing). It’s more that, outside of social situations where you might expect nudity, like communal bathing, the nudity was making a point, and one which carried over into Western art because of the admiration that later European civilisations often had for the Classical Greeks.
Heroic Nudity doesn’t mean whipping out your Johnson Thomson in a distinctly hostile environment (that is called “flashing”, and it is illegal) but a way to showing that someone was a god or god-adjacent by depicting them entirely naked except for some props, sometimes, and usually be depicting them as having what was considered the perfect body at the time. Mathematically perfect; ripped, and in the case of most of the gods, with a miniature sausage.
But why so little? Surely the perfect, godly glans is one that’s attached to an absolute battering-ram?
Well… standards don’t stay the same over time. And the Greeks of Old had a particular thing about dicks (besides the one you’re thinking of, which they very much had as well, at least in 5th Century BCE Athens): penis size in art symbolised a man’s worth character and personal worth, but rather than demonstrating that he was blessed by the gods with a truly monstrous todger, it was preferable to show a man with a seriously small schlong because big dongs were the province of animals (and animalistic outsiders). A chap whose chap was big was a chap whose animalistic urges, idiocy and uncivilised behaviour could be counted on. A fella whose fella was compact and miniscule was civilised, restrained, not given to excess, and in control of his feelings.
Did they all have infant chipolatas? We can’t know. But they wanted to be seen to have them, and the gods–the pinnacles of existence–were certainly to be depicted with a fundamental groinal shortcoming.
This didn’t entirely carry over to the Romans, in the same way that poetry, theatre, and the concept of educational bumming didn’t exactly make a one-to-one translation either. Big riches in the department of the family jewels were still a ripe source of comedy, however, with comedians of both Mediterranean traditions strapping on massive wooden or leather dildos and running around with them slapping against their legs. This crude bit of physical comedy was meant to signify the character they were playing was a fool–someone controlled by his joystick. Not to be confused with the sacred disembodied genitals of herms, as these were strictly for fun–unlike the wax effigies left as votive offerings to:
Meet Priapus, the all-man god of fertility, gardens, and having your comedically massive cock out at all times.
Priapus’s genealogy is usually given as the goddess of love, Aphrodite (Venus) and the god of the wild woods, Pan, resulting in a deity of wild lust and tame gardens. In his role as a sexual figurehead, Priapus and his unapologetically outsized purple-headed bishop beat a donkey in a contest whose details are best left up to the imagination; in his aspect as a garden fertility idol, Priapus tended to be depicted lifting up the front of his tunic to show off a plentiful harvest both above and below the fabric (see above). He was also used as a variant on a scarecrow…
…A “scare-thief”. Priapus stood guard over the garden like some sort of inappropriately engorged gnome, occasionally bearing an inscription threatening would-be vegetable pilferers with, shall we say, an abrupt and irreversible cure for constipation.
Priapus is one of those gods who captures the imagination, and has been very firmly identified as a fertility god from the get-go. Admittedly, the instinct of most archaeologists when confronted with something that looks even slightly like a cock and balls is to attribute it to fertility, but there were other uses for the phallus in Rome:
Phallic amulets and knuckle rings were a common sight, particularly on children, something which would probably cause modern columnists to have an apoplectic fit worthy of hospitalisation. But there was no sexual undercurrent, at least not of the sort we’re imagining. The cartoonish cock-and-balls, much like the ones historically drawn on everything, everywhere, by children as part of some kind of spectacular cultural memory, was used as a protective charm. And it was everywhere.
Creation and protection as fundamental properties of the pink trombone are common features: Bhutan’s dick murals, for example. The celebration of the male principle is more pronounced and less embarrassed in cultures with balance-oriented cosmologies (rather than dualist, good-vs-evil, Zoroastrian-inspired cosmologies such as the three Abrahamic faiths)–ones who appreciate that male and female are both necessary parts of a functioning universe.
In Hinduism the Lingam is contentiously described (there is a lot of debate) by some as a phallic tower. If so it’s not a very graphic or anatomical reproduction of the reproductive organs, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be–or perhaps the genitalia of a cosmic force aren’t so frilly and fleshy as the evolved counterparts attached to the crotches of various mortal individuals.
Japan, while not alone in East and South East Asia in the preponderance of penile art (Chao Mae Tupti’s shrine in Bangkok, Thailand, offers a healthy selective of votive dildos to a female fertility spirit while in Krabi Province, it’s a good plan to leave them in Phra Nang Cave and appease the eponymous spirit to give sailors safe passage; Erdene Zuu Monastery in Mongolia features the Kharkhorin Rock as a warning for celibate monks not to stray from the path of keeping it in their robes, and in Haesindang Park in Sinnam, South Korea, several stone peepers have been erected to appease the spirit of a young woman, who clearly knew what she wanted and was going to make everyone miserable until she got it. Fair play to her), features at least two festivals and one shrine which centre on the semen cannon.
Kanamara Matsuri is celebrated in Kawasaki on the first Sunday in April; Hōnen Matsuri in Komaki on the 15th of March (leading to the tempting proposition of combining this with the usual activity of the Ides of March, ‘stabbing would-be dictators’), and the Mara Kannon Fertility Shrine in Tawarayama, a popular location for couples looking to conceive, was originally erected to appease the spirit of a murdered son. Appeasement and fertility seem to be big themes in these particular, more animist cultural backgrounds.
We don’t always have information on why there’s a proliferation of phalluses, or even if they are what we think they are: the Khalid Nabi cemetery in Iran’s Golestan province (near Turkmenistan) hasn’t yielded any explanation as to whether the phallic grave markers and boob-like headstones are meant to be that or “highly-stylised human figures”. And in European cultures, often what’s ascribed to “ancient fertility” might very easily just have been a crude caricature of a hated national figure. In the case of the Cerne Abbas Giant, however it was originally intended, it has gone on to become a fertility shrine all the same.
In ancient Egypt we get some really delightful dick-oriented mythos. The most famous piece of phallic mythology is the story of the todger of Osiris: The god of the death and king of the world is briefly usurped by his brother, Set, who murders him and cuts his body into fourteen pieces, one of which is the old wedding tackle. All the pieces are hoofed into the Nile, the great waste-disposal system of the ancient world; Isis, the dead king’s wife, successfully retrieves every bit of her late husband to revive him, barring the column of love, which she has to replace with a wooden one.
Apparently this was still good enough, and she conceived Horus, her son, from a posthumous hubby. A son whom Set then went on to try to have sex with, because the Egyptian pantheon were beyond the dreams of family therapists. In some versions of the myth, Isis did eventually retrieve the all-important horn but too late, and instead embedded it into a column to prevent it from being stolen.
Wild though this undoubtedly is, the crown-bearer for Dicks In Ancient Egyptian Art almost certainly has to be Min, otherwise known as Khem or Khum. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Min precedes the dynastic period of Egyptian history and, to be honest, he looks it. While as we’ve seen “seems like a super old fertility thingy” can often be misleading, in this case the man with the massive manhood is indeed Ye Olde Fertility God. In his form as Min he was a fertility god: in his form as Khum he was “the maker of all things”, effectively Fertility Plus. The “iythphallic” (a nice cultural-sounding way of saying he’s clearly been at the viagra) pose similar to Priapus, but significantly preceding him is a bit of a giveaway. Those interested in seeing Min in action may be pleased to hear that he is prominently on display at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology a short walk from the British Museum, hurtling towards an apparently unconcerned king with his ithyphallicness intact.
But what about vaginas?
Now while the featured string is about the wang-dang-er, it’s only fair that the vulva get a look-in, or a looking-into, for anyone who has recently missed their smear test. Firstly there’s the counterpart to the lingam, the yoni, which is a kind of part-and-parcel symbol holding in the whole reproductive system from womb through to labia. The yoni and the lingam are, as you might expect, usually displayed together.
On the whole, perhaps because the art world has been publicly dominated by cisgender men and most societies have viewed the vagina is inherently far more sexual and scandalous than the penis (which is also used for public urination), vagina art is harder to find. Private studies aside, the majority in the “modern” period (after the “classical” period) has been either medical diagrams, salacious pornography, or painted very recently indeed (Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Georgia O’Keefe and others come at the end of a long, long history of humans making art).
In pre-history it’s theorised that the cave as a sacred space stood in for vaginas quite a lot, and the sheer monumentality or natural shape may have left us blind to the artistic and anatomical purpose. Or they’re just hard to find (insert your own joke here): this Bulgarian landmark was only discovered in 2001.
The female nude is everywhere in modern and classical art, but her genitalia are usually kept demurely hidden–the benefit of them being largely internal–and highly eroticised: a woman’s body considered scandalous where a man’s was not. Sometimes this made for great publicity for a daring artist, as in the case of Courbet’s portrait of a woman’s vulva.
One unabashed image of the vulva in European art history is one that, rather surprisingly, can be found on the sides of churches. Norman or Romanesque churches specifically. These odd carvings are found under the eaves, reaching between their raised legs to positively hoik open their vulvas with an eery smile, demanding that they be noticed and acknowledged. The purpose of the sheela-na-gigh is still contested, with all the usual suspects (fertility goddess surviving from antiquity, scare-spirit, warning against lust) which you might recognise from the phallic art already discussed popping up.
So who wasn’t drawing dingdongs?
It may seem as if the whole world was completely doolally about the dingus but there have been several world cultures with a nudity taboo, in which dick art was not about to appear willy-nilly (ahem) without a certain amount of censure (this did not of course stop people from drawing or sculpting porn, because no force on earth can do that, but it wasn’t quite so accepted or ubiquitous).
Historic nudity taboos cluster around the three Abrahamic faiths: Jews, Muslims, and Christians all had and have a big thing about not having your thing out, and in the case of European/American Christianity that “nope, absolutely not” became more and more prevalent the further along in history we went, with even public breastfeeding becoming a contentious matter in the UK and US for a little while during the 20th and 21st centuries.
However, while people in Christian Europe and America might have been harshly judged for their nudity, in art it was considered more acceptable because of the absolute veneration of the classical culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans as the apex of civilisation… right up until the 19th century when that veneration ran into a unhealthy dose of paternalism, and, as we’ll see in a minute, everyone went a bit fig-leaf-y.
Islam and Judaism have been rather more consistent: no dicks out in art, guys. It’s just gross and unpleasant.
Ancient Egypt, as we’ve seen, was big on the old gods having their old ithyphallic lives lived to the full, but their cultural life, however, had a very complex and structured approach to the idea of nudity. An underlying culture of modesty and the notion of nudity as an abject state which required resolution (“I clothed the naked”) rather than as a state of inherent power (like Greek deities), meant that they appealed a great deal to the buttoned-up Victorians. Well, the Victorians who were buttoned-up, anyway. There were plenty who weren’t in private.
Where did all the wangs go?
And yet unless you’re in a very specific kind of shop these days art and homewares isn’t typically covered in tumescent tintinabula: even the Tom of Finland coasters coyly present clothed fully-body shots or portraits of this prominent erotic artist. And, protrusions smashed off by the attrition of time aside, there seem to be a surprising amount of fig leaves.
Specifically a fig leaf because, well, there’s a biblical aspect: it’s supposed to be what Adam and Eve covered their bits with once they’d finally noticed they were absolutely and utterly stark bollock/buttock naked in the nudist garden of Eden, making it the “logical” choice for Christian authorities interested in censoring works of art although, interestingly, they were usually much more concerned with male frontal nudity than female (a dichotomy which continues to this day with film censorship). There’s also the overt association with paganism in classical male nudes, which rattled the Byzantine Christians somewhat.
Although an appreciation for the male nude gripped the Renaissance sculptors and artists in a frenzy of classical rediscovery, the church leaders who acted as their patrons weren’t always so enthusiastic. In 1504 Michelangelo’s magnificently endowed David gained a bronze figleaf (or rather, a whole series) for the benefit of viewers who had no doubt all seen that particular anatomical feature displayed by public urinators but would apparently be unutterably offended by the prospect of a biblical hero not being emasculated.
Monica Bowen has covered in some depth the history of what I shall not call “figging” because that is another, extremely dirty thing. She explains around 1541 that the “Fig Leaf Campaign” was begun by a fundamentalist named Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini, the Ambassador of Mantua, and that the papal opposition to classical nudity was in part a little bit of a panicked “oh, this is what people want?” response to the somewhat puritanical attitudes preached by the Reformation.
Ganymedes and the Eagle at the Vatican Museums; image from Wikimedia Commons
While a preference for fig leaf removal has prevailed in more recent times, the V&A has elected to retain the leaf created for the cast of Michelangelo’s David in its cast courts as a separate part of its collection–after all, at well over a hundred years old it too is now an antique work of art. The leaf was created for the benefit of the delicate sensibilities of Queen Victoria, whose cultural legacy was the export, often violent, of these sensibilities to other cultures on the back of colonialism.
Hugh Aldersey-Williams finds the sight of the fig-leaf inherently ridiculous, suggesting that it does more to draw attention to the hidden horn of fertility than it does to obfuscate it, and may well be right. Certainly the prudery evident in the creation of the heroic statue of Achilles still on display at Hyde Park Corner, intended to represent the victorious Duke of Wellington, drew ridicule even at the time.
All in all, given the lengthy (and potentially girthy) fixation on the old chap by old chaps immemorial, it’s unlikely the image of the phallic in art is likely to go away any time soon, even if it is often relegated to euphemism or to the engravings of school boys.