Human Body: Human Bodies, Religion, and Art

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The subject matter of this entry is the depiction, inclusion, and interpretation of the human body in works of art premised on religious principles or beliefs. Investigations of visual presentations of the human body are examinations of the meanings and roles of the various intersections of art and religion. The implicit question of the dichotomy, whether real or imagined, between sacred and secular art is implied throughout any discussion of the human body. Artistic and religious dimensions of the human form highlight cultural values and societal attitudes toward gender, figurative art, and the relationship between humanity and divinity. The fundamental issue is whether art must include the human figure in order to be religious.

General Perceptions of Human Bodies, Art, and Religion

The role and meaning of the human body incorporates a diverse range of cultural forces, including but not limited to art and religion. Different cultures and eras interpret the meaning and value of the human body in distinctive ways. The various interconnections of ideas, especially concepts related to art and religion, reflect more than aesthetic or devotional applications. As a historical and cultural category, the human body undergoes numerous transformations as prevailing social, political, and economic forces change. Race, gender, and class, as well as religious and cultural values, have been imprinted on depictions of the human body and sanctioned throughout history. Representations of the human body in art, whether identified as religious or secular, raise questions concerning structures of power, ideology, and identity. Artistic renderings and religious interpretations of the human body privilege it as a symbolic value and a political agent, especially during periods of protest against societal norms and definitions of gender as sexual identification.

The broader history of changing attitudes toward corporeality, or the bodily dimension of human existence, raises a question: Can art be identified as religious if it is nonfigural; that is, if it omits the human figure? The human body is the pivotal organizing principle for the expression and comprehension of humanity's position within society and the universe. Traditionally, artistic presentations of bodily proportions, physical motions, and facial or manual gestures were visual signifiers of the internal movements of the soul. For many cultures, including Renaissance Europe, the presentation of the human body was a visual means of classifying knowledge about the world.

The depicting of human bodies draws connections between theology and artistic styles, including presentations of asceticism, the cult of chastity, and the family. Typically, depictions of the human body are predicated on theological and cultural interpretations. For example, in religious cultures like the Christian West, in which the human body is seen as shameful, fallen, and in need of discipline against sin, representations of the human body have emphasized physical weakness through unnatural but symbolic caricatures of such specific body parts as arms, hands, and torsos. In contrast, those religious cultures in which the human was seen as a mirror of the divine, such as classical Greece or Hindu India, emphasized the beauty and balance of the human form. These cultures interpreted the human body as the locus and signifier of internal modes of religious life and thought.

Discrete systems for naming and presenting identical objects evolved naturally within world cultures. The human body was one individual object that possessed both singular and communal identities. Interwoven within the cultural fabric of each distinctive work of art was a simultaneous recognition of both the universality and the uniqueness of the human body. The implicit recognition of the human body, cultural matrix, and religious values reinforced the collective memory of artist and observer.

Western cultural attitudes toward the human body are categorized by three types: classical, medieval, and modern. Referencing philosophic and religious concepts of the human form as an expression of divinity, classical art emphasizes harmony and order as well as a culturally conditioned concept of beauty. Medieval art reflects the preoccupation of Latin-speaking Christianity with finitude and guilt as the human body becomes a visual signifier of corruption and decay. This art tends to distort or exaggerate representations of the human form. Contemporary Western attitudes are extraordinarily varied and complex, which may be as much the result of multiculturalism and globalization as advances in artistic techniques. The human body is often depicted in modern art as an active agent of political and societal protest (especially against social and sexual orthodoxies) or as a victim of aging and disease. The optic metaphor for these varied identities is presentations that depict bodily fragmentation and religious disruption, or physical idealization and theological conformity.

Given the universal nature of humanity, artistic presentations of the human body become the means of drawing viewers' attention and then enticing them into a gradual unfolding of religious narratives or events, thereby forming strong emotional and psychological connections with the underlying religious message. Interactions between human figures, or between human figures with either animals or inanimate objects, convey the psychological and spiritual dimensions of religious teachings. The religious dichotomy between the material and spiritual is symbolized by the human body in naturalistic, representational, and symbolic depictions.

Certain religious cultures, such as those of Judaism and Islam, ban the production and enjoyment of art, either completely or with specific regard to religious usage. Other religious cultures prohibit the creation of figural images for ceremonial purposes. The imaging of the human body as the reference or entry point for viewers is found in these religious cultures through the arts of poetry or music, or through the use of discrete visual symbols denoting the body through abstraction or attribute. Other religious cultures that are characterized initially as aniconic (opposed to the use of figural images) establish symbolic codes that signify the presence of the human formas in Buddhism, where the earliest images of the Buddha were not anthropomorphic but represented his swaddling clothes and his footprints.

A crucial question in analyzing the various interconnections of the human body with art and religion is the manner in which one comes to describe and understand the ways in which one sees one's own image and in which other peoples see their own images. Since the 1970s there has been an increasing emphasis among Western scholars in studying marginalized groupsrarely studied categories such as women, racial and ethnic minorities, and people of diverse sexual orientationswhose roles, positions, and influences on culture should be factored into human history. Anthropologists and artists recognize differing body types due to climatic and nutritional variations, or due to different religious or aesthetic definitions of the ideal body. Discussions of the meaning and significance of racial and ethnic types within religious art were initiated within studies of marginalized groups.

The perception and interpretation of images of the human body within one culture or across cultures has been amplified significantly since the 1970s. The process of seeing and creating images of the human body is a multilayered syntax composed of sociopolitical, economic, and cultural factors. The fundamental Western attitude of entrancement with one's own image leads to the appreciation of separate elements in the image, including muscular structure, individuality, or culturally conditioned ideas of beauty. This Western perception is derived from the classical Greek view of the human body as a reflection of divine beauty, as a disciplined physical mechanism, and as the temporal home of the human spirit. History and art scholarship has recognized this Western attitude as normative, thereby privileging the Western ideal as the appropriate model for the comprehension and production of images of the human body.

Identifying Human Bodies in Art and Religion

The "reading" of works of art, especially in terms of the presentation of the human body in religious art, depends on a series of visual cues that provide viewers with information related to the appropriate models of behavior from ceremonial and devotional purposes to religious teachings of gender and morality. The symbolic role of the human body in visual discourse conveys messages through identifiable images and imagery known through cultural memory and the common cultural matrix of religious traditions. These visual cues include the values expressed through gestures and postures, hieratic art, and body symbolism. The physicality of the human body assumes a variety of forms, from naturalistic bodily representations to geometric and linear depictions, ideographic simplifications, or exaggerations. The essence of being humanespecially with relation to divinity and cultural concepts of humanitymust be transformed into substantive and convincing shapes, whether natural or abstract.

In religious art, the question of function is paramount in discerning the message conveyed. Whether the work is intended or used for institutional, communal, or personal purposes determines more in this regard than does its size or cost. The manner and mode of depicting the human body and the interpretation placed upon the depiction are predicated on the idea, teaching, or story presented to viewers. The human body is unconsciously viewed as a model of social reality and an element in the larger structures of society, culture, community, and the world. Specific artists, patrons, or religious traditions encode particularized information within artistic renditions of the human body. More than the bearer of cultural concepts of beauty and gender or sex, the human figure embodies religious and cultural values as well as engendered and social behavior. As a result, the focus of investigation becomes the nature and types of tasks that are assigned to the human body in religious art.

Artistic representations of the human figure can be manipulated or designed in multiple ways to signify religious meaning and values. Traditionallythat is, before the advent of interest in marginal groupsart historians construed the prime connector between Eastern and Western art as cultural and religious understandings of the human body as tangible manifestation of the otherwise imagined shapes of divinity. The Greek principle of the idealization and perfection of the human form as a visible image of divine beauty privileged the Western attitude. The Eastern artistic tradition developed the parallel practice of relating the essence of transcendent ideas abstractly through the human body. Considerations of the human body as a signifier of engendered power, racial and ethnic identities, class distinctions, or sociopolitical values encoded with religious meaning and cultural constructs are issues raised by the study of marginalized people. Attention must be given to the relationship between the privileging of Western categories even to the point of asking questions about what constitutes art and what are appropriate themes for analyses of the intersection of the human body, art, and religion.

Traditional Western art incorporates figural representations, as opposed to the abstractions of the human body found in modern Western art. This difference clarifies the generalization that traditional art emphasizes the object that is portrayed, while modern art accentuates the process of seeing the object. Traditional art is the creative expression of a society, while modern art emphasizes the creative expressions of individual artists. Both artistic modes appropriate visual symbols and signs as revelatory of supernatural or transcendental powers that created and now govern earthly cultures. Whether identified as pedagogical or ceremonial in function, or mystical or aesthetic in intent, religious art includes the anthropomorphic representations of divinity as it gives material shape to that which is otherwise intangible and imperceptible.

The Human Body as an Expression

From signification of fertility and maternity to objectification of disciplined perfection, the human body becomes the visual locus of a multilayered discourse connecting humanity and divinity. Whether interpreted as culturally conditioned carriers of engendered meaning or sources of sensual pride, artistic renderings of the human figure within the framework of religious language are physical sites of fear and anxiety. The imagery of the human body communicates religious ideas and moral values in the arts through eight categories of expression.

The first expression is creativity and fertility, which are most often represented by the female body. The earliest signifiers of fecundity were primal female bodies like those of the so-called Venus of Willendorf and Cycladic statuettes of goddesses, which emphasize the hips, thighs, and abdomen while deemphasizing the head (particularly the individualized face) and the upper body. The universal recognition of the importance of female fertility figurinesall of which exaggerate those features of the female body that evoke sensuality, invite sexual attention, and signify the fecundity of both the goddess and the earth. Depictions of male fertility, typically symbolized by a tumescent phallus, appear less frequently over the course of history. Expressions of female fecundity were gradually transmuted from figurines of adult females to representations of mother and child, often in the posture of the nursing mother. Subliminally a personification of fertility, the imaging of mother and child became the universal visual purveyor of moral values, the sanctity of the family, and physical and spiritual nurture. Reaching new heights of stylization in presentation and meaning, the iconography of the mother and child was a powerful communicator of religious ideas, values, and significance. The theme of creativity is embodied in artistic depictions of the nine Greek muses and female inspiration of creative activity.

The second expression is religious devotion. The first subcategory of the human body in devotional art is that of the receiver of acts or offerings of devotion. The second subcategory is that of devotees who proffer ceremonial honor, prayer, adoration, and gifts. Bodily postures and gestures signify both the performed action and provide a model from which viewers can learn to enter into acts of religious devotion. Such activities, whether identified as sacred or secular, turn viewers into participants and are categorized as participative art. The fundamental modes of religious participationprayer, fasting, ascetic practice, and partaking of sacraments or religious ritualstransform minds and bodies. An encounter with a devotional artwork provides an alternate site for transformation or transcendence through partici-pation.

The third expression is form, particularly ideal form that connotes sacrality and spirituality through the human body, or the distortions resulting from physical suffering and frailty that denote human finitude. Culturally specific as well as universal, the imaging of physical perfection is an ocular metaphor for spiritual presence, evidenced in depictions. The aesthetics of the human body communicates such moral concepts as self-sacrifice, discipline, self-respect, and personal honor. Presentations of a suffering, injured, emaciated, or tormented body in religious art signifies asceticism, sacrifice, or martyrdom.

The fourth expression is gender, which became problematic after the field of women's studies began to influence the fields of art and religion in the late 1970s. Traditional understandings of sex as defined by biological characteristics and gender as a socialized mode of being in the world were questioned in the new fields of women's studies, men's studies, and gay studies. Gender studies became an umbrella term applicable to all these disciplinary categories. All three designations of genderan inclusive field of study; sexual identification; and a socialized mode of being in the worldare possible in presentations of the human body in art. Investigations and analyses of gender in religious art expanded exponentially throughout the 1980s and 1990s and were closely connected to the themes of power, dress, and nudity.

The fifth expression is power, whose essential characteristic is the visible interactions between individuals or groups. Power has many meanings and iconographic representations. One is the fundamental anthropological category of mana, which is a supernatural force that may be concentrated in persons or inanimate objects. Dynamis is a force released through the relationship between formspecifically the human bodyand the artistic process. The work of art is empowered through the process of embodiment. A form of sociopolitical power is communicated through the bodily figures of the hierarchy of authority, whether social, academic, governmental, military, or religious. Dress is a visual delineation of social order, economic class, and military position. Power is signified through the bodily presentations of monarchs, chiefs, ancestors, guardians, and warriors, including depictions of dress, postures, and gestures. These figures of protection are normatively identified through physical and spiritual attributes that may include physical stature, symbolically enlarged body parts, and expressions of moral or physical strength. As protective figures guarding devotees in sacred or domestic spaces, these embodiments of authority often integrate animal features to represent the primeval forces of nature.

The sixth expression is motion or movement as a medium of communication, through posture and gesture, for ideas, religious values, and moral ideals. Posture includes stance, position, and pose; gesture involves communication through facial contortions, hand signals, and the arrangement of the feet. Combining these elements, the human body conveys messages or ideas, tells stories, or articulates attitudes, emotions, and passions. There are three basic bodily postures in religious art: standing, seated, and recumbentas exemplified by the Buddha, who stands in contemplation, sits in meditation or pedagogy, and lies on his bed at the moment of his parinirvāa, or death. Hand gestures, known as mudrās in both Buddhism and Hinduism, are a repertoire of digital and manual poses that communicate such specific ideas as protection by the deity (abhaya ), signified by the raised hand, or the simple gesture of obeisance (anjali ).

The seventh expression is dress and nudity, a dichotomy greater than the simple distinction between being naked or clothed. First, there is the moral and cultural evaluation of the body as biologically either male or female, as well as the multilayered syntax of nudity. The nude as an artistic category represents a specific set of attitudes toward the depiction of the human body in a state of undress. The classical nude is rooted in the religion and philosophy of ancient Greece, in which the ideal human body is identified as a locus of sacred presence. Depictions of nudity in the Jain tradition reflect perfect yogic control, while in Hindu art such nude female figures as the Yakshī are aligned with female sensuality associated with fertility spirits. The irony here is that noted by Kenneth Clark (1956), who identified nakedness as a state of embarrassment and nudity as a state of ease and comfort with one's body.

In contrast to nudity, dress and drapery enhance the appearance of the human body and reflect the social status of the wearer. In a practical sense, dress is a form of protection, whether from difficult climatic conditions and the elements, from animals, or from the gaze of other human beings. Dress is a moral value, as appropriate garments provided for both women and men testify to the normative conditions of modesty, virginity, or motherhood. Dress is connected to costume, which is a category of dress that identifies a person's social position, military rank, or authoritative status. Drapery, as a specific category of dress, enhances the appearance of the human body because loose flowing fabric creates an illusion of delicacy and motion, or of shadow and light, from the viewer's perspective, thereby enlivening the depiction of the body.

The eighth expression is portraiture, which, as a universal genre, is divided into two categories: realistic portraits of identifiable individuals and idealized depictions of a type, such as a ruler or saint. Portraiture can be created with only one figure, several figures (as in family portraits), or a larger group representing a community. It can be achieved by both the imagining of oneself and of others. Portraits may be intended for either private use or public display. Portraiture is a testament to success in life or as a remembrance of a deceased person; it is a mode of legitimizing authority and hierarchical power.

The Human Body as a Medium of Symbolic Discourse

A myriad of early texts on aesthetics and the nature of human beings, especially from classical Greece, described the human body as a small-scale copy of the universe, as a microcosm of the macrocosm. Through this smaller but harmonious image of the divine, the human came to identify himself or herself, others, and the world. The beautiful female and handsome male statues of deities attest to the universality of this concept across the classical world, from Egypt, Greece, and Rome into Persia and India. As the idea of individuality emerged within these classical cultures, humanity interpreted itself at the center of a world of symbols in which the human body participated through a series of analogies and correspondences with the universe. In this way, bones signified the earth, blood signified water, and the head signified fire, as delineated in an almost universal pattern of ascent found in sources as different as the sages of the Upanishads and the Fathers of the early Christian Church. The human being was the only creature that connected with the three cosmic levels in such a way that the feet touched the earth, the torso dwelt in the atmosphere, and the head reached the heavens.

The classical Greek cult of physical perfection was based on these correspondences between the human body and the structure of the universe. The athlete was the model of divine perfection and demonstrated this identification by competing in the nude. Buddhism affirmed the existence of an eternal divine Buddha with the teaching of levels of being ascending from the nirmāakāya (body of manifestation) to the sabhogakāya (body of bliss) and the dharmakāya (body of law). Renderings of the human body were shaped by technical artistry and religious attitudes toward humanity either as symbols of the divine, ideals, or historical individuals.

The Human Body as Expressive Potential

Varied artistic and religious approaches to the forming and informing of images of the human body confirm that the central issue is not the specific messages that are conveyed by bodily metaphors, but the ways in which the human figure functions as the central element in art and religion. The endowment of the concept of humanity with an identifying physical form finds two normative categories of expressive potential in art and religion: anthropomorphic (fully human in shape or form) and therianthropic (partly human and partly animal in shape or form). The application of recognizable natural forms for men and women, either as a whole or a part, is found in the majority of world religious art. Whether the formations of that human body are deemed ideal, perfect, corrupted, distorted, or elegant is simultaneously culturally conditioned and theologically defined. Therianthropic bodies depend on recognition of the equality of humanity and animals beyond the symbolic exchange that is fundamental to Christian typology. This combination of human and animal forms raises questions related to the meaning and value of humanity.

Another mode for the human body as expressive potential is pars pro toto, or the part for the whole, in which the symbolic employment of body partshands, feet, or headssignifies both coded messages and individual persons. Any transformation, transmutation, or reformulation of body imaging communicates the artist's intention to express an idea or transfer a message by accentuating either the distinct body part or its function. The enlarged eyes or ears of a Byzantine Christ denotes his extraordinary senses and abilities as the creator and guardian of the universe. Exaggerated features or body parts may inspire fear or ridicule, conveying additional symbolic messages and removing the viewer from recognition of the subject's "reality" or "humanity." Alternately, exaggerations of body parts are eloquent examples of the multivalent nature of visual symbols, as in the Buddhist ushnisha, or topknotthat singular protuberance on the top of Buddha's head designating his extraordinary wisdom and intelligence.

A third mode is abstraction, in which the essence of the idea, message, or meaning is extracted from larger representational image. The visual emphasis in abstraction results in a minimized if not radical simplification of form for emotional expressiveness or organic structure. Through an economical but elegant use of lines, the essence of humanity is revealed through the separation, reduction, and rearrangement of bodily components. Transformed into decorative patterns of shapes or geometric structures, abstractions appear initially to have little relation to the traditional figure of the human body; re-presentations affect the viewer's emotions and intellect.

The Human Body as Subject of Art and Religion

Historians of sculpture from Herbert Read to Tom Flynn have argued persuasively that 90 percent of sculpture is about the human body. Sculpture's fundamental tactile nature combined with the intrinsic qualities of mass and volume attest to the one-for-one valuing of sculpture with the human body. Until the twentieth century's fascination with abstract and nonfigurative art, the majority of artworks incorporated the human figure as the main focus of aesthetic or thematic interest. The human body was the subject of art and religion even to the point of substituting the human image for the bodiless divinities and celestial personae.

The Human Body as Object of Art and Religion

Body art transforms the human body from the subject to the object of art and religion. Whether specified as permanent or temporary painting of the body or face, tattooing, or the intentional scarification (permanently marking the body by cutting, without the use of pigments) of the body, body art has multivalent purposes, ranging from an emblem of identification or sign of initiation to the impersonation of an ancestor or divinity. As an art form accessible to all social and economic classes, ethnic groups, and sexes, body art celebrates the generic beauty and prowess of the human body, and it refines the individual body aesthetically. The normative source for the designs is the religious iconography of each community. Body or face painting reconnects individuals with ancestors or ancestral spirits and presages the reappearance of that ancestor as a protector and guide. Regardless of its modality or function, body art is a universal art form that fashions the human body into a bearer of the sacred.

The Human Body as Medium of Art and Religion

Dance and the other performing arts transfer the role of the human body in art and religion from subject or object. Gerardus van der Leeuw identified the human body as the primary agent of the arts in his magisterial Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art (1963). Whether identified as primal or literate, as indigenous or imperialist, all religious traditions incorporate the human body into expressive rituals and ceremonies. The natural and rhythmic movement of the human body, whether in ecstasy, agony, trance, or prayer, is the elemental form of religious expression. Bodily movements accentuated through gestures, postures, facial expressions, costume, and music have affected religious iconography throughout history. As religious drama, music, and ritual were incorporated within cultural analyses of performance and display, the concept of the human body as medium of art and religion became an established reality.

Further Perspectives

Since the 1970s, the critical relationships between the human body, art, religion, and marginalized groups was articulated predominantly by feminist scholars, especially in the recognition of variable body types and their meanings. Regional and ethnic studies extended that critique into discussions of colonialism and the centrality accorded to body types based on the Greek ideal. Power, in terms of engendered power and male dominance, was a focus of these post-1970s studies as the Western cultural appreciation of the human body, especially of the nude in art and religion, was questioned in relation to voyeurism, pornography, and "the gaze." Caroline Walker Bynum's The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity (1995), Linda Nochlin's The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (1994), and Margaret R. Miles' Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West (1989) provide a feminist lens through which to critique the various meanings of the human body in religion and art.

The interdisciplinary motifs and methodologies for the study of the human body, art and religion have, until the late twentieth century, been treated by Western scholars within the framework, language, and motifs of Western history. Future comparative analyses of this subject may well prove the thesis that the Western preoccupation with order, clarity, and ideal types may be inappropriate or inapplicable to non-Western art and religion (Apostolos-Cappadona, 1996). Gender distinctions as religious values (and their visualizations) may prove to be discrete and defy traditional patterns of iconographic and iconological examination, thereby expanding both the borders and the methods of scholarship. Three exceptional comparative cultural analyses of human bodies, art, and religion are available for examination in the exhibition catalogue In Her Image: The Great Goddess in Indian Asia and the Madonna in Christian Culture (1980); the exhibition catalogue for The Human Image (2000); and several special issues of P+ Art and Culture Magazine.

See Also

Aesthetics, article on Visual Aesthetics; Art and Religion; Bodily Marks; Dance, article on Dance and Religion; Iconography, articles on Iconography as Visible Religion; Nudity; Symbol and Symbolism.


There is no central or universal study of the human body in art and religion. The reader may wish to consult Kenneth Clark's The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956; reprint, 1984), in which he defines the naked and the nude with a subtext that defines the body as a conveyor of cultural and religious values. This classic text has been controversial since the 1980s among feminist scholars (see especially Margaret Miles's critique [1989]), who regard it as limited by Clark's emphases on the male figure as the site of power. Clark's thesis and his text are significant for its application to non-Western art as a basis for critique and expansion of the study of the human body in art and religion. Other art-historical studies of the symbol and meaning of the human body are similarly criticized for their privileging of the Greek ideal, elitist Western values, and absence of any discussion of marginalized groups. Herbert Read's The Art of Sculpture (1956) or Tom Flynn's The Body in Sculpture (1998) move beyond chronological analyses to consider the artistic presentation of cultural attitudes toward the body, albeit within the frame of Western art history. Margaret Walters, The Male Nude (1978) and Bernard Rudofsky, The Unfashionable Human Body (1971) voice critical questions related to the concepts of "human body" and "gender" in art and religion.

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Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (2005)

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Human Body: Human Bodies, Religion, and Art

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