Michelangelo’s David, His Foreskin, Bono’s Question, and Jewish, Hellenistic, and Renaissance Conceptions of Embodiment
Posted by NT Wrong on September 14, 2008
In his introduction to the Book of Psalms, Bono wonders why Michelangelo’s statue of David includes a foreskin:
“David was a star, the Elvis of the Bible, if we can believe the chiselling of Michelangelo (check the face – but I still can’t figure out this most famous Jew’s foreskin).”
– Bono, ‘The Book of Psalms’
There is a Rabbinic distinction between circumcision of ‘the overhang’ (Milah circumcision) and circumcision of the entire prepuce that covers the corona (Periah circumcision). Some argue that the full Periah circumcision was not instituted until Hellenistic times, and therefore David would have only had a Bris Milah. But, I can’t find any evidence for such a historical development, let alone evidence that Michelangelo would have been aware of historical developments in Jewish circumcision practice. Moreover, it looks to me like Michelangelo’s David has a fully intact foreskin.
In any case, given the Platonic, Hellenizing features of the body of David (and also of Christ) in Michelagelo’s statues, it is more likely that Michelangelo was reproducing a Classical conception of the perfect representative of humanity — whether of Christ or his prototype, David. Graham Ward explains:
“Perhaps more striking are the sculptures of Michelangelo, especially his Risen Christ and his famous David. These bodies are not Jewish bodies and neither of them shows a circumcised penis. Now why, in a culture that found great significance in the circumcision and the humanity of Christ, is the circumcision itself not physically portrayed, even when the genitals of Jesus are carefully delineated?… In the Renaissance period circumcision was mainly associated with Muslims (who were slaves) or with Jews, who were associated with the greedy and covetous sides of nascent capitalism… [T]he circumcized body is a socially and aesthetically (and therefore also cosmically) inferior body… a mutilated and wounded body; not the kind of body that could function as a microcosm of cosmic and political harmony… As classical statues were being excavated, rediscovered and collected, so, in what might be termed a historicist move, Michelangelo returns to figurations of the body evident in the time of Jesus himself. In this inflection the Jewish body is rendered socially, politically, aesthetically, and finally theologically invisible.”
– Graham Ward, ‘On the Politics of Embodiment and the Mystery of All Flesh.’ Pages 71-85 in The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God and Politics by Marcella Althaus-Reid, Lisa Isherwood, eds. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004: 81-82.
That sounds like a reasonable explanation to me. I hope that answers your question, Bono.