Is it ok for a Christian artist to paint a nude figure?

Hi Logan,

I have a question that is very close to my heart. I’m an educated painter, and I might paint professionally someday soon. I’m facing a quandary with Christian morals when it comes to painting and displaying nude figure work. I attended a college where I would have been expelled had my paintings been shown on campus. Even for study, no model was allowed to be fully nude. I was wondering if you could help me understand how Christianity might view either the clothed painted portrait or the nude portrait.

Respectfully,
Bethany

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Dear Bethany,

Thank you again for this question – I can tell it’s close to your heart. I must say, I am not an artist, but in preparing this answer I spoke with a friend involved in a wonderful organization called Imago. They actually select the art that rotates through the RZIM Canada office!

It was helpful speaking to him – and he said he would glad to personally connect you with artists who are mature believers who have given much thought to this (more than I have!). Nevertheless, here are some thoughts I’ve gathered:

It’s first important for us first to have a good “biblical theology of nakedness.” I think there should be at least two components:

  1. The goodness of the created order. God in Genesis 1:31 calls the human He has just created “very good.” And part of that goodness is the physical body. We are not just disembodied spirits that will eventually drift to heaven to float forever – we are embodied, and our eternal state will be embodied like Christ (the firstfruit, 1 Corinthians 15:23). We are not gnostics – our bodies are part of God’s “very good” creation of humanity.

  2. The Fall. After Adam and Eve take the fruit from the tree, they begin to feel shame about their bodies (Genesis 3:7). God gives them garments to wear (3:21). Throughout the Bible we see verses about modesty (1 Timothy 2:9, 1 Corinthians 12:23, etc.). Our bodies are good, but also can be a source of shame. In our fallenness, we are also prone to lust.

How do these two aspects of our theology fit together on this question – is it appropriate to depict nudity in art? I want to appreciate that Christians have different views on this, all the while I lay out where I think I stand.

It’s interesting to consider the book of the Bible Song of Songs. There you have an artistic depiction (in poetry) of nakedness. One might object, that’s depicting intimacy within the covenant of marriage, in private. I certainly agree – but I’d note the depiction itself is public. Anyone can open the Bible to those pages and them. Now, I suppose those passages could be abused and lusted over, yet God has them in the Bible anyway. They are texts I think we should handle carefully – it’s probably not wise to do an expository study on the whole book for Sunday school kids. Yet, there they are, publicly part of God’s word. They glorify God.

What I think Song of Songs models for us, is that there is a positive way for Christians to artistically depict nakedness to convey a certain meaning. Song of Songs lays out the joys of married love. Other depictions of nakedness, I believe, can glorify God as a masterful Creator (think of Michaelangelo’s David) or can capture the dynamics of innocence/shame like in a depiction of Adam and Eve in the Fall. I think the abundance of Christian art across the centuries should give us pause before making a blanket declaration that all nakedness in art is sinful. A key question then is what is the meaning behind this piece of art, and does that meaning glorify God?

It also might be appropriate to give thought to how the artwork will be displayed – especially in light of our cultural diversity, with different standards of modesty. We should consider whether this would be a stumbling block. All things can be twisted for sin, but a billboard depicting nudity in Times Square might invite that more than a sculpture in a museum. While training in painting the human figure, I think Christians should always recall that the person they’re sketching is an individual person, made in God’s image – not merely a physical form.

It’s wonderful to see your heart to honour God in the way you go about your vocation. I’m so thankful you’re engaged in the arts. Part of the challenge discussing these sorts of questions among Christians is that we (Christians who aren’t artists) often don’t have a biblical, thought-through appreciation of art, and we’re wary of meaning that isn’t propositional. We need voices like yours to help us as believers have a healthier biblical view on some of these topics – and the arts world needs artists like you to make beautiful art that invite people to glorify God!

I hope that’s helpful as a start – let me know if you’d like to be in touch with some Christian artists who work with Imago and would be glad to speak further to you on this.

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Hi Logan,

Thank you so much for your supportive words. I think it would really help me to discuss the topic further with other Christian artists. I would really appreciate your friend connecting me with other artists. Thank you for help.

-Bethany

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