This thought-provoking scholarly volume uncovers the early Christian roots of the potent, predominantly negative meanings...

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CARNAL KNOWING: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West

This thought-provoking scholarly volume uncovers the early Christian roots of the potent, predominantly negative meanings generally associated with images of female nakedness. Miles (Theology/Harvard Divinity School) brings an abundance of feminist theory to bear on art, texts, and practices of ""Western Christianity until about the 17th century."" Broadly, her aim is to explain how naked female figures took on connotations of ""sin, sex and evil,"" while naked male figures, epitomized by Michelangelo's David, conveyed ""carnal knowing"" or, simply put, ""embodied self-knowledge."" In a circuitous argument, heavily laced with critical definitions, Miles makes her strongest point's when she looks closely at centuries-old religious evidence. She contends that by allowing only men to perform baptism, where men and women were naked, the fourth-century church undermined the positive meaning of that nakedness for women. She shows how even early women martyrs reflected the pervasive view that the female body, starting with Eve's, was weak and wicked. One saint, Perpetua, symbolically rejecting her gender, had a vision of ""becoming male."" To illustrate how easily the naked female figure could personify guilt, the author looks at Tintoretto's painting Susanna and the Eiders, where the 16th-century artist has transformed the innocent Susanna into a temptress by painting her as a full-blown nude. Throughout, the argument limits its reach by including relatively few visual images (32 illustrations overall), and comes to an abrupt, disjointed end as it leaps from a historical discussion of ""the female body as grotesque"" to the contemporary feminist debate on ""collective self-representation."" Overall, the best moments here (dense prose notwithstanding) elucidate aspects of Western women's image and self-image from a distant, yet startlingly relevant past.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 1989

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Beacon

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1989