Does God Have Nipples? Course considers questions of art, religion, and sexuality

August 13, 2008

Summer Session 08 came to an end on August 8, continuing the PSR tradition of summer courses adding creative and enlightening options to its curriculum. Offering an innovative twist on a typical art history course was “Sexuality in Sacred Art,” a weeklong course taught by artist and activist Justin Tanis. Among those registered for the course were full-time PSR students, as well as clergy and lay people continuing their education. The course was offered as part of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry’s ground breaking Certificate in Sexuality and Religion.

The course involved time-honored techniques for studying art history, including examining slides and images in books, placing them in historical context and offering ideas about the artist’s intended meaning. But for this course, Tanis added more interactive touches that included class members making creative works of their own, and sharing their own thoughts on the intersections of sexuality and spirituality.

By the middle of the week, the class had achieved the kind of camaraderie that led to open and comfortable discussion, even on very personal topics like sexuality. One particular exercise involved the class breaking into small groups and considering images of Adam and Eve by Michelangelo, Rodin, Gauguin, and Epstein.

One group looked at Michelangelo’s famous image of the Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. One member of the group asked, “How does God look physically? I mean, he’s got nipples and a navel.” Another observed, “Adam seems kind of passive. I think God’s the more erotic one in this image.”

Another group considered Gauguin’s “Eve,” a sensuous Tahitian woman picking a flower in a tropical setting. “The look on her face suggests a three year-old who’s touched what she’s not supposed to touch.” Tanis put the Gauguin image in historical context, describing the artist’s idealization of Pacific Islanders as somehow “pure” and untouched by civilization, and the sexualized colonialism the image represents.

The walls were covered with works on paper the students had completed themselves. The images were vibrant with paint and pastels, sometimes with collages of photos cut out from magazines. “We do a creative piece each day as part of the course,” Tanis explained. “Some of them are more individual and contemplative, others are group projects.”

The final class project was to design a mural that would be appropriate for display in a church setting. Tanis expressed his hope that the course could lead to using art to create more open dialogue on sexuality and spirituality in communities of faith.