Why are penises so tiny in ancient religious art?

God and Adam depicted in Michelangelo’s fresco of the biblical story of creation. (Flickr)

What is going on these days with pious Christian men (and even their wives, I’ve learned) and their obsession with penis size?

It’s not just lustful click bait for kicks and giggles (well, maybe a little). Historical and contemporary evidence points to the idea that penis length and weight matter a good deal to contemporary evangelical men – and have greatly influenced the art and dynamics of social power through the ages in Christian societies.

These changes in attitude have at times resulted in bizarre results, such as the ridiculously tiny penises of men depicted in ancient (and, less often, gargantuan) religious art, notably the minnow-sized limb on the l ‘Herculean Adam in the famous fresco in the Chapel of the Sixths by Michelangelo. of Genesis, in which God wears what appears to be a nightgown, apparently though His the organ (if it has one) is discreetly hidden.

Two things made me think about it this week. First of all, I came across a surprising article in Barry Duke’s The free thinker blog, titled “Evangelicals Emphasis on Masculinity Creates Penis Size Anxiety” (one could say giant “penis size anxiety”). Second, while looking for illustrations to illustrate one of my own blog posts (“Do you think creationism in science classes in America is a dead horse? If only.), I encountered painting. Genesis by Michelangelo and I noticed Adams’ decidedly disappointing protuberance.

I wondered why the great artist would have thus bypassed the First Man of the world, and why he would also deign to insult the all-powerful Supreme Being like a seemingly soft transvestite among naked cherubs.

It turns out there are compelling reasons, besides the fact that the Renaissance monolithic Catholic Church was obsessed with controlling nudity in art and its desexualization. The church has even managed to hide genitals in Michelangelo’s paintings – after he left – by commissioning other artists to add opaque veils over the “naughty pieces,” to quote Monty Python.

Duke’s post references a fascinating new study published in March in the Journal for the scientific study of religion, titled “Linking Evangelical Subculture and Phallically Precarious Masculinity Using Google Searches for the Betterment of Men.”

The summary of the study, conducted by Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead, explains:

“Building on a framework of moral communities, in this research note [that] we analyze data from Google Trends and focus on the prevalence of explicit searches for “male enhancement” terms and phrases [e.g., ‘penis pump’ and ‘penis enlargement’), simultaneously indicating (1) the internalization of a subculture that prioritizes essentialist, phallocentric standards of masculinity and (2) a privately felt failure to meet those standard. … We theorize that the largely patriarchal―and increasingly embattled and radicalized―evangelical subculture explicitly or implicitly promotes equating masculinity with physical strength and size, leaving men influenced by that subculture (whether evangelical or not) to seek solutions for their privately felt failure to measure up.”

This is a very conflicted message considering evangelicals also embrace so-called “purity culture,” where male and female sexual chastity (but, let’s be honest, mostly female) is glorified, and transgressors shamed and punished. I mean, what’s the point of having superior equipment for transgressing if you’re prohibited from using it until you’re married?

The study authors write in their introduction that,

“Among the majority of American evangelical Protestants who subscribe to some form of complementarianism (the belief that God has made men and women essentially and functionally distinct with complementary roles, and men always in the leadership role), whether or not a person has a penis is expected to orient social arrangements and hierarchies. … within complementarian evangelical statements and among many lay individuals, the most fundamental determinant of social status is neither character nor devotion, but the physical marker of God‐given masculine authority (the penis) and, nearly as important, the concomitant embodied performance of that masculine authority.”

The authors assert that even evangelical women who buy into the male-dominance social model do “male enhancement” searches themselves on the internet because they “feel the need to remedy their male partner’s or spouse’s perceived physical shortcomings.”

The study found that evangelical men living mostly in Bible Belt states reflect the most anxiety about phallus size compared to American men in general and hunt more online for ways to ease that angst.

The study also revealed they watch more porn online than marginal Christians and heretics (and just about everyone else).

Michelangelo’s Genesis painting and those of many other medieval masters who pursued religious themes illustrated the opposite effectpurposeful shrinkage. Male genitalia not only were not enhanced by artists in those times, they were generally created far tinier than life-size. Sometimes vanishingly so (as in Michelangelo’s fresco).

Some random commenters online have suggested that the reason for undersized “junk” in male Renaissance statues is because they were based on live models posing in studios, which were invariably cold and drafty. As all guys know, penile size is inversely proportional to room temperature.

But there’s also a historical explanation. A 2016 Cosmopolitan magazine article — “This is why the men in ancient statues all have small penises” — quoted art historian Ellen Oredsson, who “spent a large chunk of her professional time explaining exactly what’s caused this small-endowment epidemic,” particularly in ancient Greece:

“It’s all to do with the cultural values, apparently, so just as in today’s world, ‘big penises are seen as valuable and manly,’ things were completely different back then. ‘Most evidence points to the fact that small penises were considered better than big ones,’” writes Oredsson.

Oredsson added that other historians have concluded that in ancient Greece the reason small penises were more culturally valued is that “large penises were associated with very specific characteristics: foolishness, lust and ugliness.”

“The ideal Greek man was rational, intellectual and authoritative,” she explained. “He may still have had a lot of sex, but this was unrelated to his penis size, and his small penis allowed him to remain coolly logical.”

In the U.S. today among evangelical men, apparently, “foolishness, lust and ugliness” are all the rage, not controlled rationality.

In a 2016 Esquire magazine article, writer Sarah Rense referenced Richard Leppert, a professor at University of Minnesota and author of The Nude: The Cultural Rhetoric of the Body in the Art of Western Modernity.

“I think there’s always been by male artists both a fascination and discomfort with what you do about the representation of the ‘naughty bits,’ to quote the Monty Python line,” Rense wrote, quoting Leppert. This push and pull gives us the tangled history of male nudity in art, the paradox being that artists, painting reality as they interpreted it, often neglected to paint reality as it was. But that’s society.

But among evangelical men in the U.S. today (and quite a few others), apparently, “foolishness, lust and ugliness” are all the rage.

The irony is that supposedly biblically encouraged Christian squeamishness about nudity and sex is at the root of it. The Greeks, on the other hand, seemed to have no such carnal shyness.

“[P]Enis size hasn’t always been a marker of virility, at least in art, and art is generally a good indicator of people’s state of mind, ”Rense wrote. “Give it a few centuries, and maybe the little penises will rise again.” “

Not much to look forward to.


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