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The Fertile Christ

Published by Philip Carr-Gomm

From ‘Jesus Through Pagan Eyes’ edited and introduced by Mark Townsend

‘The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God.’

Pope John Paul II

The image of Christ as a man being tortured to death is so unsettling and frightening, that it has often been hard for me to sense the Christ who is associated, not with death but with life and unbounded love, spoken of by mystics and even by those following Pagan and magical paths, such as Dion Fortune and my Druid teacher Ross Nichols. I remember being taken, when I was a child, into cold and gloomy churches to sing the praises of a god who had allowed his son to be killed by crucifixion, and I found this sufficiently disturbing to make sure that my children never had to go through similar experiences.

When I was a teenager I went to Westminster School, which meant that every morning I had to sing in the abbey, whose magnificent stained glass windows and architecture inspired me, and despite my continued questioning of the central image of Christianity, I did have moments when I came to sense its mysterious power and even beauty[1]. One morning, as I took the underground to school, I fell into a reverie and had a vision of entering a secret ‘hidden’ church that stood in a side street near the abbey. As I entered it, there was Christ on the cross, but he was alive – and he was naked. Instead of looking tortured and as if he was dying, he somehow looked the opposite – as if he was becoming more alive. An image I had previously experienced as distressing and tragic had now appeared as one of great joy and giving to the world.

I didn’t mention this experience to anyone for thirty years. Then, while being shown round an exhibition of Dutch masters in the Hague, my guide turned to me as we gazed at a huge dark image of the crucifixion, and declared “Oh if only we could see Christ naked!” Her remark triggered my memory and I shared my vision with her, and we both talked about how we would like to experience Christ as someone who could bring us a sense of hope and renewal rather than pain and tragedy – someone who could allow us to experience the fullness of embodied experience – not denying the reality of suffering and death but expressing equally the joy of being fully alive in world as a being of flesh and blood, with the desire to love and even ‘make’ love.

The Christ that I saw was dying, but at the same time he was fully alive and not dying at all, in a way expressed so well by Salvador Dali’s ‘Christ of Saint John of the Cross’ – expressing directly the paradox of life-in-death and death-in-life that lies at the heart of Christianity. He was John Barleycorn, a Harvest god being cut down, but giving life as this happened[2]. Pared down to its basic symbolism this seems straightforward and completely in line with Christian thinking.

The idea that depicting Christ naked is unthinkable can easily be dismissed by turning to history and theology: the three most significant events in Christ’s life – his baptism, crucifixion and resurrection – occurred when he was naked.

In the time of Jesus and the Old Testament, the rite of baptism in Judaism required full immersion in the nude either into a river or a mikvah – a stone pool specially created for this purpose, and there is evidence that this had been the practice from as early as 1,000 BC[3]. For this reason, when Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist in the river Jordan he would have been naked, and was portrayed as such in paintings and mosaics. In the Greek Orthodox church this moment is celebrated in a hymn which cries: ‘O compassionate Saviour, putting on the nakedness of Adam as a garment of glory, Thou makest ready to stand naked in the flesh in the River Jordan. O marvellous wonder!’

When the Christian church created its own rite of baptism, it was based directly on the Jewish immersion rituals which required nakedness, and in c200 AD St.Hippolytus of Rome wrote of this, stating that total nudity was required and that women were also obliged to remove all jewellery.

In the final moments of Jesus’ life he was naked as he hung on the cross. The gospel of St.John recounts: ‘The soldiers, therefore, when they did crucify Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to each soldier a part, also the coat, and the coat was seamless, from the top woven throughout, they said, therefore, to one another, ‘We may not rend it, but cast a lot for it, whose it shall be;’ that the Writing might be fulfilled, that is saying, They divided my garments to themselves, and upon my raiment they did cast a lot;’ the soldiers, therefore, indeed, did these things.’[4]

Crucifixion was designed to inflict humiliation as well as intense physical anguish, so stripping a victim of their clothes was simply one more way to make them suffer. Most crucifixes for obvious reasons depict Christ wearing a loincloth but there are some notable exceptions, including the crucifix from the Convent of Santo Spirito in Florence, attributed to Michelangelo, and the work of another Renaissance artist, Benvenuto Cellini, who sculpted a naked Christ on the cross – this time in marble and life-size. It can be seen in the Escorial Monastery in Madrid, now draped with a loincloth and with a crown of thorns added to the head.

Spain is the location of another naked Christ that depicts him in his final, and arguably most significant role – as a resurrected saviour. In 1598 El Greco carved a statue, clearly relying on the biblical account of the resurrection, in which Joseph and Nicodemus were allowed by Pilate to take Jesus’ body from the cross. They had wrapped it in linen, and placed it in a sepulchre which they then sealed with a ‘great stone’. Later, four women including Mary Magdalene, on passing by the sepulchre saw that the stone had been rolled away and that there was no body in the tomb, simply the linen that had been used to wrap the body ‘as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.’[5] In other words, Christ was resurrected without clothing. Michelangelo was also inspired by this account to sculpt a naked resurrected Christ for the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, though now some linen has returned to cover his loins.

So much for religious art and history supporting the idea that Christ can, and perhaps should be, depicted naked. But what do theologians think? Michael Kowalewski in ‘Nudity and Christianity’ writes: ‘Christ’s nakedness is more than a historical fact; it is of theological significance. Christ’s nakedness is sacramental. It visibly communicates the poverty of spirit and purity of heart required for picking up our cross and following Christ. A Father of the Church, St.Jerome, often said ‘Nudus nudum Iesum Sequi’ [Naked, I follow the naked Jesus].[6] Pope John Paul II affirmed this sacramental view of the body when in his ‘Theology of the Body’ he wrote: ‘The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God.’[7] Earlier, in his book ‘Love and Responsibility’ he had written: ‘Nakedness itself is not immodest… Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment.’[8]

So theologians, historians and artists – at least some of them – are comfortable with the idea of a skyclad Christ. But in addition to the image being historically and theologically valid, the image offers a specific, and I believe highly relevant, dimension to our appreciation of Christ. In seeing him naked, we can also see that he has the ability to be fertile – that he is truly a man. Viewing him in this way we can come to an appreciation of Christ that is radically different to the one that has dominated Church and world history for so many centuries.

The idea of a god who is sacrificed for his people is as old as the story of religion, and is rooted in an experience of the inner life as well as in the life of the natural world. In the Middle East this story of the sacred wounding and death of a god is depicted in a number of variations, including that of Ishtar and Tammuz, Venus and Adonis, and perhaps most notably in the story of Isis and Osiris. In all these variations on the same theme, the god represents the moment, the finite, while the goddess represents cyclicity and eternity. And in each of these stories the god is in relationship with the goddess, and passes on his seed for the cycle to continue and rebirth to occur. When the Christian version of the story appears, a significant detail is changed: the god is no longer fertile – he is born of a virgin and dies a virgin. In this way it can be argued that he is out of relationship with the embodied Feminine and with his own body, and because he does not pass on his seed, the re-flowering of the earth cannot occur. If you believe that the account of Christ’s life is factually true, then the answer is simple: all the other stories were myths and legends, whereas this actually happened. But even those who believe the story is true hold to different versions, with some Mormons, for example, believing that Christ did not die a virgin but had children[9]. This idea lies at the heart of books such as ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ and ‘The Da Vinci Code’, and their success reveals how much the idea of a fertile, as opposed to virginal, Christ appeals to the contemporary world[10].

Amongst the Bards of old it was apparently believed that you should never change the key details of an ancient story that was being handed down in the oral tradition. You could colour it as much as you liked, changing minor details to suit the audience and the time at your disposal, but to change the basic structure of the story would be considered a fatal error that could have grave consequences.

Could it be, that by changing a key feature of an archetypal story, a chain of unfortunate consequences ensued through history? By depicting a god-figure out of relationship with the Divine Feminine, by rendering him a virgin and hence effectively infertile, did the Church unwittingly initiate an era marked by a sterile and ferocious insensitivity to womankind, the Earth and the sacred joys of embodiment? If the story of Jesus had been told as one of a man who died having passed on his seed, would events have turned out differently?

An old friend once told me that he was working on a book entitled ‘The World’s Seven Greatest Failures’. It was going to start with a chapter on Jesus Christ. “Why was he one of the world’s greatest failures?” I asked, but as I framed the question the answer came to me, and so I continued “Because he came to bring love to the world and instead so much suffering was perpetrated in his name?” My friend, a Christian, just nodded with a bitter smile.

What if we could change one detail and begin to repair the damage that has been done? The story of Christ currently requires two images: of his death and rebirth, but in practice it is the image of his crucifixion rather than his resurrection that is used as the central icon of the faith. As a result, however much Christianity wants to stress the ‘Good News’ of Christ’s resurrection, it is his agonising death that occupies the centre-stage, and it is this focus on death that seems so unattractive to non-Christians and which may arguably have influenced the course of history in such negative ways.  What if Christ could instead be sensed as fully human: as a fertile being, as well as one who suffered, so that the message that suffering and joy are inextricably entwined in the experience of being human, of being embodied, could inform our experience of the Christian faith? This, I suspect, is a vision of Christ already embraced by many, including the increasing band of Christo-Pagans who embrace a vision of life that sees sexuality as sacred, and honours the Goddess and the body as much as the God and the spirit.

 Philip Carr-Gomm     

[1] It is important to note that the crucifix was not used as a Christian symbol until the fifth century.

[2] See Matthew Fox, ‘The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine’ (New World Library 2009) and his exploration of the Green Man as a powerful male metaphor for fertility and generativity, recalling Hildegard of Bingen’s reference to Jesus as ‘a green man’.

[3] ‘The Torah indirectly alludes to Aaron’s nakedness in the ceremony of his washing and investiture (Leviticus 8:6f). This rite of initiation into the priesthood took place in about 1000 BC.’ Michael A.Kowalewski, The Naked Baptism of Christ, in Nudity & Christianity, ed Jim Cunningham (Author House 2006) p.431

[4] John 19:23-26 (Young’s Literal Translation)

[5] John 20: 7 New International Version

[6] ‘Naked on the Cross’ by Michael A.Kowalewski, in Nudity & Christianity, ed Jim Cunningham (Author House 2006) p.349 quoting St.Jerome, Epistle 58 Ad Paulinum.

[7] Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body, Pauline Books, 1997, p.76. Christopher West, writing on a website dedicated to John Paul’s Theology of the Body, states: ‘The TB calls us to look deeply into our own hearts, to look past our wounds and the scars of sin, past our disordered desires. If we’re able to do that we discover God’s original plan for creating us as male and female still “echoing” within us. By glimpsing at that “original vision,” we can almost taste the original experience of bodily integrity and freedom – of nakedness without shame. And we begin to sense a plan for our sexuality so grand, so wondrous, that we can scarcely allow our hearts to take it in.’

[8] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H.T.Willetts (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981) p.176-192

[9] See ‘Was Jesus Married?’ by Bill McKeever at

[10] See Bruce Chilton ‘Mary Magdalene: A Biography’ (Image, 2006) for an accessible but well-researched book by a biblical theologian that supports a possible relationship with Mary for Jesus.