The Great Fig Leaf Cover Up

Charles Meynier, Statue of Mercury in a Landscape & Apollo Belvedere in a landscape. | PC: Wikimedia

Charles Meynier, Statue of Mercury in a Landscape & Apollo Belvedere in a landscape. | PC: Wikimedia

Memento Artem


What tends to come to mind when thinking about ancient Greek art? Usually it’s beautifully crafted sculptures of humans or Greek gods. Most of these tend to be nude figures. Today, nudes are seen as inappropriate or taboo; however, in Greek culture these figures represented an idealistic form of human beauty with symmetrical proportions throughout the body. Yet, there is still one thing that the Greeks placed even further symbolic value in: the size of male genitalia.

On most sculptures and depictions of male figures, the men are not well-endowed. However, on sculptures of beastly figures like Satyrs, the endowment is obscene and completely unrealistic. This size difference had a purpose. For the Greeks, a smaller phallus meant wisdom and refinement–the ideal values of a Greek male. Rather, in the case of a larger phallus it represented the ideas of savagery and lack of self-control.

These motifs were carried throughout history as artists continued to be inspired by classical art. However, something changed–the fig leaf came  into play. The Catholic church didn’t take kindly to the idea of publicly displayed nudes. Soon after the unveiling of Michelangelo’s “David” in 1504, the authorities placed a bronze garland of fig leaves around the waist of the sculpture.

But why fig leaves specifically? Their roots are found in Genesis when Adam and Eve covered their nakedness and shame with leaves after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. From this story, the Christian church viewed nudity as synonymous with a fall from grace and shame.

Despite their opposition to the promiscuity of Michelangelo’s statue, the Catholic church didn’t crack down on artistic nudity until 60 years after the unveiling of “David”. Six decades later, the Catholic church issued an edict declaring, “figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.” Then, the clergy began a mission to cover nudes (often using fig leaves) in something called the “Fig Leaf Campaign.”

In response, statues all across Italy were covered with metal fig leaves. Some scholars even suggest, by order of Pope Paul IV, that phalli were chiseled right off the statues. Paintings with nudes were also targeted. This can be seen in Masaccio’s 15th-century frescoes found in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence where nudes of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden had fig leaves painted over them.

The “Fig Leaf Campaign” has been considered the biggest case of art censorship in history. Luckily, because of movements to uncensor artwork  many pieces that were covered have been restored to the artists’ original visions.

Cameron Cizek is a senior studying computing.