The Intimacy of Embodiment & the Art of Portrayal

In his appendix “The Ethos of the Body in Art and Media,” John Paul II begins by saying,

in painting or sculpture, man/body always remains a model that is subjected to a specific reworking by the artist.  In film and even more in the art of photography, there is no transfiguration of the model, but the living human being is reproduced: and in this case the human body is not a model for the work of art, but the object of a reproduction achieved by appropriate technologies (TOB 60:4). [1]

Thus, it is considered that in more ‘classical’ art mediums, such as painting and sculpture, the human form is transfigured through the artist. Change occurs in these media through another ‘figura’ or person, whereas those bodies portrayed through the arts of film and photography become merely objects reproduced by such said technologies. Using John Paul II’s A Theology of the Body, I will suggest that the transfigured representation of the body in art appeals more closely to the inherent realities of the intimacy, and gift of man.

In the nakedness of the human body, we find the fundamental revelation of the meaning of a “gift.” Here, because of the dignity of our personal subject — which John Paul II describes in terms of the “ethos of the body,” or, “the ethical order of its nakedness” — we find ourselves speaking of the dynamic of a spousal system. As the human body speaks of its orientation towards an other, its revelation of “gift” to the other is decisive for the “reciprocity” of the gift, “in which giving by one party encounters the appropriate and adequate response to the gift by the other” (TOB 61:1).

The artistic objectification of the human body, however, always manifests “a certain transfer outside of this configuration,” that is to say, the configuration of the interpersonal “gift” which originally and specifically belongs to the body (TOB 61:1).  Through objectification, the portrayed human body no longer bears its own transfigurative character. Rather, it loses its deeply subjective meaning of “gift” and becomes “an object destined for the knowledge of many” through the various forms of technological reproduction, since the form of the portrayed body is not ‘given’ through another (TOB 61:1).

Here, in consideration of the ethos of the body, we can see, as John Paul says, “a very delicate problem” arise: the issue is neither merely aesthetic/artistic, nor morally indifferent (TOB 61:1). According to Jacques Maritain, the artist is abstractly cut-off from the inherent realities of man. The tension, rather, between art and morality is meant to be resolved through a discourse of ‘art as a virtue of man.’ [2] As John Paul says, the artist must be “conscious of the full truth of the object, of the whole scale of values connected with it; he must not only take them into account abstractly, but also live them rightly himself” (TOB 63:4). Such consciousness of values and virtues lived by the artist is, I suggest, central to the intentional sphere of artistic creation or reproduction, and manifests itself in the work transfigured, or de-figured.

In the ethical order of the body’s nakedness, we must examine the issue and tension of overstepping the “limit of shame” or “personal sensibility” which violates the body’s right to intimacy and ultimately violates the “deep order of the gift and of reciprocal self-giving” which is inscribed within the whole structure of being human (TOB 61:4).  It is precisely this whole weight of the human body which we must consider in the artistic order if we wish to speak of a full realism. It does not follow that the human body in its nakedness cannot be the subject of works of art. However, it is precisely the holistic reality of man’s body, and the truth of what is “particularly personal and interior” in him which “creates precise limits that one must not overstep” (TOB 63:3).  It is because of the irreducible truth of the intimacy of the body that its visual representation as either the subject or object of an artistic piece is by its nature not only aesthetic, but also ethical.

Through works of art, and in the activity of audiovisual media, the content and value of man’s bodily dignity can be formed and deepened, but can also be deformed and destroyed ‘in man’s heart’ — namely in the ‘lustful gaze’ of desire (Mt. 5:28) which originates in man’s heart (TOB 62:5). Just as we have spoken on the responsibility of the artist to the ethos of the body and in the creation of their image, so also “looking” imposes obligations on the recipient of the work. As the artist gives of himself in the form of his image, so too the viewer is given the opportunity and responsibility of reciprocating either by choosing to draw near to the truth transfigured, or remaining only a superficial ‘consumer’ of the impressions exploited.

[1] John Paul II, “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.”  Translation, Introduction, and Index by Michael Waldstein.  Pauline Books & Media.  Boston: 2006.

[2] Jacques Maritain, “The Responsibility of the Artist,” Chapter II: “Art for Art’s Sake.”  Lecture series delivered at Princeton University, 1951.  Published, 1960.  Copyright by the Jacques Maritain Center, University of Notre Dame.

Sarah Elizabeth Maple is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and holds her MTS in Marriage & Family Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC. Her dissertation will focus on the “place” of the body in consideration to the creative act. Using a theology of personhood, by way of John Paul II’s “A Theology of the Body,” she will particularly be focusing on representations of the body in the 19th and 20th Century visual arts.


  • Jim Watkins says:

    Hi Sarah! Thanks for this wonderful reflection on the body in art. I think it is so important to think carefully about the ways in which bodies are represented.

    I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. First, does John Paul II think that photography and film necessarily objectifies (or disfigures) the body? The quotation from him suggests that only media such as painting and sculpture can appropriately represent the body.

    Second, you write “Such consciousness of values and virtues lived by the artist is, I suggest, central to the intentional sphere of artistic creation or reproduction, and manifests itself in the work transfigured, or de-figured.” Does this mean that the value of the work of art is inextricably linked to (perhaps determined by?) the virtue of the artist?

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Sarah Elizabeth Maple says:

      Hi Jim! Thanks so much for your response and questions!

      In response to your first question, no where have I yet found where John Paul II explicitly says that technological/digital media necessarily “objectifies” the body, but perhaps its best to understand this in remembering what he says about man’s ability to “transfigure” the image of the human body through his (the artist’s) own body. Digital media “disfigures” insomuch as it does not “transfigure” – which is to say that we have no room for neutral ground. The discernibility comes not so much through the notion of media, but pre-eminently in the particular involvement of man’s own physical body being that through which the image is pro-created. It is only the being of man, the body of man, through which an adequate understanding of our very being (in this case, portrayed in visual arts and representation) can be transfigured. This is also to say that man’s body, and its significance, can never be replaced by a means of technology. This, however, is not to say that the body portrayed with “classical media” – painting/sculpture- is not incapable of being ‘objectified,’ or even portrayed shamefully/in a pornographic manner.

      In response to your second question, yes, I believe it does- insomuch as the “value of the work of art” educates man on “the beautiful.” I also believe that this is what John Paul means to say. This, however, is still something that I personally am trying to work out in terms of detail, and which both John Paul and Jacques Maritain go into depth with their writings “Letter to the Artist,” and “The Responsibility of the Artist” (respectively). The “intentionality of the artist” which is what most adequately answers your first question helps to explain this inextricable link of the virtue of the artist portrayed in his work. We can not separate man’s virtue and his intentions from his body.

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