Perhaps no single painting has generated as much controversy concerning its subject matter as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s San Giovanni Battista, currently in the painting gallery of Rome’s Capitoline Museums.[i] The late Creighton E. Gilbert in fact dedicated a substantial portion of his book on Caravaggio’s patrons the Cardinals Mattei and Del Monte to arguing that the figure represented is not St. John the Baptist but rather that sometime shepherd and abductor of Helen of Troy, Paris.[ii] One area of the figure’s body that has not received sufficient attention, however, at least in the English language commentary, is his penis.
Why does the representation of the penis matter? The immediate answer that comes to mind is that presumably Jewish male figures would be portrayed by Caravaggio as circumcised.[iii] Clearly, the figure in the Capitoline painting is not. At least two other paintings of Caravaggio’s depict prepubescent male genitalia: the Amor Vincin Omnia, currently in Berlin, and the figure of the Christ child in the Madonna and Child with St. Anne, also called, due to the circumstances of its commission, the Madonna Dei Palafraneri (Papal grooms), currently in Rome’s Galleria Borghese. In neither case, however, is the figure’s penis circumcised. Given the similarity with which their genitals are represented, these two latter figures, one pagan and one Jewish, do not, then, help us to identify the Capitoline painting’s subject. Leo Steinberg has noted that, despite artists’ familiarity with the scripture passages dealing with the Christ child’s circumcision, the convention was to portray the baby Jesus as. St Paul.
However, the depiction of an uncircumcised Christ child may, however, have some bearing on another set of heated debates around Caravaggio’s works: the question of the degree to which his paintings did or did not conform to Counter-reformation theology and its accompanying prescriptions concerning painted images.[iv] While it is well known that the dictates of Trent concerning religious images were remarkably reticent, scholars generally agree that figures such as Carlo and Federico Borromeo and Gabriele Paleotti played a significant role in transmuting the Catholic response to the Reformation into advice for painters.[v] In the case of Caravaggio specifically, attempts are made to link religious imagery in his paintings to the fact that he and Borromeo were both from Lombardy and that his patrons included not only Cardinals Del Monte and Mattei but also Scipione Borghese.[vi] Several writers have even implied that Caravaggio’s paintings are informed by a detailed knowledge of scripture gained from his Cardinal patrons, including Del Monte, in whose household the painter lived.[vii] It is hard to believe that anyone with a detailed knowledge of scripture would not be aware of the fact that, by the age he is depicted in the Madonna with St. Anne, the Christ child was circumcised. This in turn raises the issue of whether or not the painter was literate, and to what degree.
Caravaggio’s failure to depict the penis of Christ (or St. John the Baptist, if he is the Capitoline painting’s actual subject matter), might also reconfirm a commonplace: that Caravaggio painted from life, and that his models were recognizable as real people. Perhaps Caravaggio could not find an uncircumcised boy to paint (or a mother willing to have her son painted in the nude). This, too, suggests something noteworthy about Rome’s Jewish community, interactions between Christians and Jews, and where physically in Rome Caravaggio may or may not have spent time: Rome’s Jews were confined to the ghetto in the year 1555, fourteen or so years before Caravaggio’s birth, by Pope Paul IV’s bull Cum nimis absurdum.
Noteworthy representations of the circumscision include. Leo Steinberg has noted, however, that, despite that they would be well acquainted with the story of Jesus’s circumcision, Renaissance artists portrayed the Christ child as uncircumcised. (need reference)
The refusal to take a good look at Caravaggio’s penises has resulted in some very strange lacunae in work on the painter. For example, an entire volume has been written on the attempt to determine conclusively, via technologies such as radiography, whether at least one of the two “alternative” versions of the Capitoline San Giovanni currently in Rome’s Doria Pamphilj is actually Caravaggio’s original, or a copy made by the artist himself, or a “replica” made by another artist.[viii] In the course of the argument, the author mentions three elements which in the Capitoline and Doria paintings differ: the face of the young man; the plant in the left bottom corner; the red cloak on which the figure sits. Because they are clearly visible, these differences require no in-depth investigation.[ix]
What this list of obvious differences fails to mention is the variance in the representation of the penises of the two figures. For one thing, the Doria painting’s penis is obscured by shadow to a significantly greater degree than the Capitoline figure’s. In fact, the difference to the naked eye is substantial, though this might account in part for the poor lighting of the Pamphilj in general and the height at which the two copies are hung in particular. Photographs of the Doria copies reveal that the shadow covering the boy, while still significantly darker than the one covering the Capitoline version, is not as dark as it appears in the context of the Galleria Pamphilj. But it is significant nonetheless, particularly given the degree to which the authenticity of both paintings has been debated historically.[x]
Such a difference is significant in that it suggests that at least some viewers found the explicitness of the Capitoline figure disconcerting. Given the ways in which virtually every single book and essay on the painter written since Donald Posner’s 1971 claim concerning, as the title of his essay suggested, “Caravaggio’s Homoerotic Early Works,” has weighed in on the question of Caravaggio’s sexuality, the erotic valence of his male bodies, or both – including Gilbert, who suggests that there is no basis to the claim that Caravaggio or Del Monte were homosexual or that the Capitoline boy should be subject to what he terms a homosexual reading.[xi] Interestingly, Gilbert specifically claims that, in Caravaggio’s day, nudity was far more mundane and less potentially disturbing (and erotic) to spectators than it is today.[xii] Unless we are to believe that the Doria copies were painted significantly later than Caravaggio’s original, clearly, when we feel ourselves disturbed by the hairless penis of the figure, his embrace of the ram, and the way he stares out at us, we are not simply projecting back into history 19th century concerns around the sexuality of the child, ideas about nudity, or Freudian conceptions of sexuality.
Additionally, even the shape of the two penises bear little relationship to one another, the Doria being more evenly cylindrical than its Capitoline cousin, which tapers at the glans. Their foreskins are also different.[xiii] This failure to attend to the depiction of the penis in the two boys with rams – as well as to compare the depiction of the penis of the Capitoline painting with the penis as it is depicted in the toddler Christ of the Borghese’s Madonna with St. Anne – is striking, given not only the years of debate concerning which of these paintings is the original, but also the amount of critical effort that has been spent, period, in trying to identify Caravaggio’s surviving works.
That even something as apparently banal and obvious as describing the perceivable differences between two paintings should be thrown into crisis by images of a boy’s penis speaks volumes. Not only about the way in which the project of connoisseurship can never be either value neutral or bracketed off from the historical context in which even a simple description of a painting is proffered, but also in terms of the continuing value of critical concepts like the phallus. For what a naked penis threatens to reveal is the ways in which the penis can never measure up to the claims of the phallus. Whatever Caravaggio the man may have done with his own penis, and with whom, is a far less interesting question than what the continuing fascination his paintings
For a detailed history of the various attempts to identify the subject matter of the painting, see M. E. Tottoni, “Il ‘San Giovanni Battista’ nelle collezioni Capitoline,” in G. Correale, ed: Identificaione di un Caravaggio, Venezia (Marsilio) 1990, pp. 11-14, and C. Gilbert: Caravaggio and his Two Cardinals University Park (The Pennsylvania State University Press) 1995, pp. 1-78.
[ii] Gilbert, op. cit. (note 1).
[iii] On the importance in painting of the trope of the circumcised Christ child, see L. Steinberg, “The Sexuality of Christ in Reanisaance Art and in Modern Oblivion, October 25 (summer 1983), pp. Iv+1-198+204-222.
[iv] Those critics who argue that Caravaggio’s paintings did in fact reflect Counter-Reformation theology include V. Pacelli, “San Giovanni Battista,” C Strinati, ed.: Caravaggio, Milano (Skira) 2010, pp. 158-67; A. Coliva, “Ragazzo con canestra di frutta,” op. cit. 68-75; J. F. Chorpennng, “Another Look at Caravaggio and Religion,” Artibus et Historiae 8.16 (1987), pp. 149-58; Gilbert, op. cit. (note 1), Those who argue the opposite include the painter’s early biographers Giovanni Baglione, G. Mancini, G. Baglione, and G. Bellori, The Lives of Caravaggio London (Pallas Athene) 2005, p. 48, and Giovanni Bellori op. cit. p. 64, both of whom suggested that Caravaggio’s works lacked decorum. See also C. Puglisi “Caravaggio’s Life and Lives Over Four Centuries,” in G. Warwick, ed., Caravaggio: Realism, Rebellion, Reception Newark (University of Delaware Press) 2006, pp. 23-35; V. Sgarbi, Caravaggio Milan (Skira) 2007.
[v] S. Richards, Sandra. “Caravaggio’s Roman Collectors,” Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, D. Franklin and S. Schütze, eds. New Haven (Yale U Press) 2011, pp. 48- 71.
[vi] A Graham-Dixon: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, New York (W. W. Norton) 2011.
[vii] Gilbert, op. cit. (note 1).
[viii] G. Correale, ed: Identificaione di un Caravaggio, Venezia (Marsilio) 1990, p. 40.
[ix] Correale, op. cit. (note 6), p. 39.
[x] On this history, see Correale, op. cit. (note 6).
[xi] D. Posner, “Caravaggio’s Homoerotic Early Works,” Art Quarterly 34 (1971), pp. 301-24.
[xii] Gilbert, op. cit. (note 1), p. 237.
[xiii] To compare the two, see Correale, op. cit. (note 6), 23 and 29.