Once upon a time, the Vatican decided that penises were the worst thing ever....and then realized that they were everywhere in the Vatican.
(Photo by Roi Dimor)
In the mid-1500s, the leaders of the Catholic faith met in a gathering which is known as "The Last Council Of Trent". On the off chance that you don't have a doctorate in theology, we can break it down in grossly oversimplified terms by just thinking of it as the Empire Strikes Back of the Reformation era....the Council's main focus was to consolidate the position of the Catholic church against the increasingly popular reformist movement led by one Martin Luther.
Beginning in 1545, the council convened a total of 25 times over a period of eighteen years. During that time, the council issued a total of seventeen official decrees on various disputed aspects of Catholicism and a number of unofficial ones as well, including one in particular which boiled down fairly simply: Male nudity is sinful.
It wasn't until later that they realized the problem with that rule...
A LEGION OF NUDE DUDES
Anyone who has ever spent more than three or four seconds in Vatican City (you know....the seat of the Pope and the central point of the entire Catholic faith) may have noted that they saw a statue of a naked man. Or ten. Or a hundred. Or a thousand. Vatican city is quite literally full of statues of men, most in varying states of disrobe. The Council Of Trent had, in one fell swoop, managed to demonize nearly every piece of artwork in Vatican City - a collection which had already been nearly a thousand years in the making and which had dramatically expanded during the Renaissance period.
At this point, a decision had to be made: change the rule, or change all of the statues.
THE PAPAL PENIS PURGE
The pope, apparently not one to shrink from a challenge, gave the order straightaway that the wee-wees needed to go bye-bye. The first solution was almost elegant, in its way: plaster fig leaves were cast and then attached to the immodest statues. Steel fig leaves were also tried from time to time, with varying levels of success.
This process had two major flaws: for one thing, the topography of the male genitalia doesn't particularly lend itself to supporting....well, anything; actually attaching the fig leaves was a frustrating and painstaking process which required a small team to basically hold the fig leave simulacrum over the offending bits and attempt to fill in the gaps well enough that the plaster would dry and cling to the marble statue. Compounding the problem was the sheer number of statues which required attention; the Vatican famously houses one of the largest (if not the largest) collections of art known to man.
THE LONGEST, WORST JOB IN HISTORY
The original work of covering up the indelicacies of the Vatican's art collection began in 1563 with the conclusion of the Council of Trent. The final fig leave known to have been placed was ordered by Pope Leo XIII in 1903....more than three hundred years after the directive was first issued.
While most of the emasculating was a fairly civilized fig-leaf-based affair, for a brief stretch in the late 1800s Pope Pius IX could be occasionally found with a mallet and chisel, furiously hacking away at the day's unlucky participant. Around the same time, Pius IX also issued an official order that all art still containing any naughty parts was to be summarily destroyed. The extent to which this order was actually carried out remains unknown, but if nothing else we can certainly applaud his devotion to his anti-nudity agenda.
Not every story has a moral, and (if we're being totally honest), the emasculation of statues is one of the least horrible things hiding in the closet of a church whose history notably includes the Spanish Inquisition. There are no good guys and no bad guys in this story, but it's impossible not to wonder two things specifically:
Was "hacking the beefsticks off of statues" a profession that was passed down generation to generation over the course of 300 years?
- Is there a large box in some Vatican sub-basement, filled with thousands of stone penises?
The world can only hold its breath and wonder.
Author: Adam Azra'el