Fig leaf  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

A fig leaf is the covering up of an act or an object that is embarrassing or disagreeable. The term is a metaphorical reference to the Biblical Book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover "their nakedness" after eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Contents

History

In Ancient Greek art, male nakedness, including the genitals, was common, although the female vulval area was generally covered in art for public display. This tradition continued in Ancient Roman art until the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, when heroic nudity vanished. During the Middle Ages, the nude was replaced by the naked and only the unfortunate (most often the damned) were usually shown naked, although the depictions were then often rather explicit. Adam and Eve were often shown wearing fig or other leaves, following the Biblical description. This was especially a feature of Northern Renaissance art.

From about 1530, the developing reaction to Renaissance freedoms and excesses that led to the Council of Trent also led to a number of artworks, especially in churches or public places, being altered to reduce the amount of nudity on display. Often, as in the famous case of Michelangelo's The Last Judgement, drapery or extra branches from any nearby bush was used. For free-standing statues this did not work well, and carved or cast fig leaves were sometimes added, such as with the plaster copy of Michelangelo's David displayed in Victorian era London. The Adam and Eve panels on the Ghent Altarpiece, already equipped with fig leaves by Jan van Eyck, were simply replaced with 19th century panels copying the figures but clothed. Many of these alterations have since been reversed, damaging some of the statues.

Fig-Leaf campaign of the The Last Judgment

Michelangelo's The Last Judgement was an object of a heavy dispute between Cardinal Carafa and Michelangelo: the artist was accused of immorality and intolerable obscenity, having depicted naked figures, with genitals in evidence, inside the most important church of Christianity, so a censorship campaign (known as the "Fig-Leaf Campaign") was organized by Carafa and [Monsignor Sernini (Mantua's ambassador) to remove the frescoes. When the Pope's own Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, said "it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully," and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather "for the public baths and taverns," Michelangelo worked the Cesena's semblance into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld (far bottom-right corner of the painting). It is said that when Cesena complained to the Pope, the pontiff responded that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain.

Cover up and restoration of Massacio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Three centuries after the fresco Expulsion from the Garden of Eden was painted, Cosimo III de' Medici, in line with contemporary ideas of decorum, ordered that fig leaves be added to conceal the genitals of the figures. These were eventually removed in the 1980s when the painting was fully restored and cleaned.

Modern day

Eugen Sandow, often considered the first modern-day bodybuilder, was an admirer of the human physique, and in addition to strongman sideshows, he performed "muscle displays" by posing in the nude — save for a fig leaf that he would don in imitation of statues he had seen in Italy as a boy.

Metaphorical use

The expression fig leaf has a pejorative metaphorical sense meaning a cover for any thing or behaviour that might be considered shameful, with the implication that the cover is only a token gesture and the truth is obvious to all who choose to see it.

In the context of negotiation, an offer might be characterized as a "fig leaf" if that offer is actually a ploy to conceal a sinister plan.

Additionally, a recent play, Behold! the Fig Leaf Apron by Steven Cole Hughes was written and performed at the Fieldston School. The fig leaf in this sense is used to convey technology and discovery, an ongoing theme of the show.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Fig leaf" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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