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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.

14 Responses to “Michelangelo’s David, His Foreskin, Bono’s Question, and Jewish, Hellenistic, and Renaissance Conceptions of Embodiment”

  1. steph said

    It’s simple isn’t it? Michelangelo was antisemitic. I wouldn’t have thought Michelangelo knew much about Muslim practice.

  2. Quixie said

    Perhaps it’s as simple as having only gentile boys available as models.


  3. ntwrong said

    Aw – where’s the fun in that explanation, Quixie?

    Given they turned male models into female art, and the infatuation with Greeks, I’m still going with Ward’s view. You may be right, though.

  4. steph said

    I doubt it. Creative imagination is part of the package with the ilk of Michelangelo. I think he was capable of slicing it off.

  5. It is entirely possible that Michaelangelo simply didn’t have any concept of male circumcision let alone be aware that David had been victim to such a bizarre event.

    Some have however suggested that Michaelangelo was sufficiently well read to understand the difference between Milah and Periah.

    In any case we should rejoice in the aesthetic beauty of the statue rather than bemoan that it lacks the disfigurement of circumcision.

  6. ntwrong said

    It is a strikingly beautiful sculpture, especially when one confronts it in person.

    However, it’s fine to have a discussion about the smaller and perhaps insignificant details as well.

  7. steph said

    Who is bemoaning? Bizarre event? Disfigurement? How insulting. What’s so attractive about a fleshy flabby uncircumcised penis anyway? The rejoicing is in being able to celebrate art in conversation about it.

  8. Hugh7 said

    steph: “What’s so attractive about a fleshy flabby uncircumcised penis anyway?” Are you describing Michaelangelo’s David? What’s not to like? Actually, all penises are flabby and fleshy. And who could call the man who painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling an antiSemite? (He probably did have the typical christian prejudice of his day against the Jews of his day, but that’s another matter.)

  9. steph said

    Oh Hugh – you and John need to have more fun

  10. kdjlaf said

    Wat the fuck

  11. kdjlaf said

    y the hell do have a close up of a statues cock

  12. ntwrong said

    kdjlaf wrote:
    y the hell do have a close up of a statues cock

    The answer is quite obvious from the article. I don’t know how literate you are — and your writing style suggests you have only achieved a minimum level — but the article is about the statue’s ‘foreskin’ (the skin on the end of the cock).

  13. edouard said

    I know of no pre 20th century male nude that sports a circumcised penis.

    The Child in a Madonna and Child is never portraryed as a newborn, and
    often looks 1-2 years old. Every artist knew that the Christ Child had been circumcised when he was a week old. In fact, the Circumcision of Christ was a major
    holy day, celebrated on January 1! But you
    will never find a Madonna and Child with a circumcised penis. The explanation may be as simple as that no artist before the 20th
    century had ever seen one in the flesh or depicted.

    Before 1970 or so, only medical professionals and sex workers had a good working knowledge of the human private parts. In the USA, that led to a massive ignorance of how the foreskin looks and moves.

  14. Glyn Morgan said

    Two words apply here.Brit Milah.

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