Does nude art belong in a Christian education?

Like many Christian colleges and universities, Wheaton College greatly values the discovery and individuality in artistic expression. “The art department encourages students to make art that is culturally relevant, while seeking out beauty and significance, celebrating individual uniqueness, and participating in community,” according to the Wheaton College art department website.
However, there is also a significant gray area surrounding the creation of nude or provocative pieces of art in a Christian setting.
Wheaton College has been working on a formal policy to address art-related issues for years, according to assistant professor of art history Matthew Milliner.
There have been numerous meetings between members of the art department, the administration and other constituents of the college including associate dean of Residence Life Justin Heth to discuss the issue of nude art at Wheaton. Heth emphasized that the art department does an excellent job of encouraging students to be able to draw the body, “which is beautiful and created by God.”
One roadblock frequently encountered by art students is the college’s decision not to provide a figure drawing class. Sophomore Natalie Flemming is one of many students affected by the lack of a figure drawing class at Wheaton. “I understand Wheaton’s stance on this issue and I respect it, but as an art student who is required to take a class in nude drawing for graduate school, it makes it difficult,” she stated.
Figure drawing classes are a rare commodity among Christian colleges. But Gordon College and Baylor University both defy this trend in offering classes that study the undraped human form. In an article on the website “Art Lessons From God,” one Gordon representative stated, “If you can accurately and expressively draw or paint or sculpt the human form, you can draw anything.”
Heth said that many people tend to worry that a figure drawing class or other similar class might motivate some students to sign up for pornographic reasons. “Guys don’t need to go to the class to look at naked people, they can just turn on their phone,” stated Heth. “I don’t think it is going to cause more pornography use. People are already looking at that. They don’t need to sign up for a class or pay money for that.”

3 thoughts on “Does nude art belong in a Christian education?

  1. Dear Kelsey,
    Very interesting question. Actually, this question is as old as the Church itself. I graduated from the Wheaton Graduate School back in the “Dark Ages” (1980s). During my time there, I learned a number of things. One was that the Christian view of the human body and of love is different from the classical Greco-Roman view that is now dominant in the Western world. The classical Greco-Roman view of the human body and of love is governed by Eros (the Roman equivalent is Cupid), the god of erotic love and desire. The Christian view is governed by agape (other-directed, self-less heavenly love (See C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves). Eros/Cupid is the poster boy for nudity and raw eroticism.
    Saint Paul contrasted the Greco-Roman view of the human body with the Christian view of the body by calling it “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” You see, in classical Greece, religion and sex were inseparable. Male and female temple prostitutes performed sex acts in the name of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation (her Roman equivalent was Venus). Aphrodite was the patron goddess of prostitutes. Sex in the temple was a religious rite. The modern word “pornography” comes from the Greek word, “pornographos” (writing about prostitutes) (See Eva Keuls, “The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Greece.” See also Glazebrook and Henry (eds.) Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean”).
    Eros and Agape (Nudity and Christianity) have never been bedfellows (the pun is intended). Indeed, the Protestant reformation was triggered in part because Martin Luther and his colleagues (I can hear “A Mighty Fortress is our God” chiming from the bells of Edman Chapel in Wheaton) rejected the Catholic Church’s embrace of classical Greek art complete with its celebration of the nude human body. In a bid to counter the Reformation, the Council of Trent (1546-1563) ordered all Catholic Churches to banish images that aroused lustful feelings. The bone of contention was Michelangelo’s Last Judgment frescoes in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican. These frescoes featured nude images of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. See the images in this link:
    Even Pope Adrian IV was revolted by the images. The Church ultimately painted “draperies” over the bodies of Jesus and Mary. These frescoes are in the Sistine Chapel to this day. For details on this subject, please see my book, “The Regulation of Sex-themed Visual Imagery: From Clay Tablets to Tablet Computers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
    This rather long comment is intended to make this point: Wheaton College is at the crossroads. It can go the way of Eros/Cupid or the way of Agape. If it tries to have it both ways, it will cease being Wheaton.
    Lyombe Eko
    Wheaton Grad
    Wolfforth, Texas.

    1. Mr. Eko,
      While I agree with your sentiment, I also believe you completely misrepresented the historical motivations of the Protestant Reformers. They were not concerned with Roman art because of it’s depiction of merely the human form, but rather it’s depiction of God taking on the human form. They saw this as a second commandment violation. Wheaton has, to my knowledge, always rejected the Reformed view of art.
      Ross Brunner

      1. Dear Mr. Brunner,
        Thanks for the rejoinder. With all due respect, I fear that you are making the same mistake many Western theologians and art historians have made over the ages. The Protestant critique of images was not confined to images of God or Jesus.
        You ignore the revulsion Catholic and Protestant reformers expressed towards the pagan, Greco-Roman “cult of the body” that the Roman Catholic Church had embraced. Indeed, in In 1522, the new pope, Pope Adrian IV, was so revolted by Michelangelo’s images in the Sistine Chapel that he said they were “more suited to a bathhouse than a Christian chapel.” In order to forestall the Reformation and its critiques of Catholic Church imagery–of deity, saints and sinners–the Council of Trent, which had been launched as the main instrument of the Counter-Reformation, issued a number of dogmatic decree. One of them stated that images in Catholic Churches “should not be painted or adorned with beauty exciting to lust.” Clearly this was not a reference to images of God as you claim.
        At the end of the day, I did not get your answer to the question posed by Kelsey’s editorial, “Does nude art belong in Wheaton?”
        Lyombe Eko

Leave a Reply