Veils, Nudes and Walls
Near the Church of San Domenico in Naples, a stone’s throw away from the house where Giambattista Vico was born and passed his childhood, stands a remarkable chapel. The Cappella San Severo served as the votive church for the di Sangro family for several generations and owes its present character to the significant transformations begun in the early 1740s by Raimondo di Sangro (1710–71), the seventh prince of San Severo. Under his watchful eye and following his precise iconographic program, many artists labored to make the chapel into a temple dedicated to several virtues, such as Divine Love, Decorousness, Sincerity, Education, Liberality, Self-Control and Religious Zeal. Many of the allegorical figures of the virtues were strongly influenced by Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593), whose massive five volumes were republished under the patronage of R. di Sangro.
Two of the sculptural masterpieces in the chapel are the Cristo velato (Veiled Christ), completed in 1753 by the Neapolitan Giuseppe Sammartino, and Pudicizia (Modesty), completed one year earlier by the Venetian Antonio Corradini. Both statues are figural essays in veiling and revealing. The marble figure of the Veiled Christ, which lays in the central bay directly facing the high altar, is sculpted as an expression of a transparent shroud covering a tortured body. The veil adheres to the sweating and bleeding body, entering the wounds made by the nails. A vein in the forehead appears so swollen so as almost to palpitate, as the tormented body reveals the agony of the Passion, the visible and the invisible wounds. At Christ’s feet, the implements of the Passion lay passive and inert, their gruesome task completed.
The female figure of Modesty, ostensibly commissioned by di Sangro in memory of his mother, who died before he reached his first year, is also veiled, and the veil adheres to the elegant body, revealing the voluptuous rotundities. Barely beneath modesty and perhaps chastity, there is also voluptuousness. Her face carries a distant look, her left elbow rests on a broken and inscribed marble stela, a belt of roses adorns her waist, while at her foot an oak tree takes root. Many have aptly identified her as an allegory of veiled wisdom, veiled truth—Isis the veiled. According to a local legend, Modesty and the chapel itself are erected in the same location where a statue of Isis existed in the Greek Neapolis. The veil of Isis, Queen of Heaven, we need to recall, is the same as the veil of Our Lady, the Celestial Virgin. Both wear the heavenly firmament, the veil that contains the stars. Both represent the creative power as exemplified in motherhood. Both are mothers of the world.
The Veiled Christ and Modesty are, as we said, figural essays in veiling and revealing. The veil conceals the body, the body conceals a virtue, and a virtue conceals the soul. Put differently and in an opposite direction, the soul wears a virtue, virtue wears a body, and the body wears a veil. The soul wears three veils: virtue, body and clothing, each of which is capable of expressing different qualities, differently. But conveying or expressing is not a complete revealing. It still requires some form of veiling. Sammartino’s Veiled Christ expresses virtues in the transparencies of the nude that are not evident in the nakedness, say, of Rembrandt’s Deposition.
Today, in our desire to see everything revealed, we neglect to notice the difference between the nude and the naked. But this neglect derives from a far more important loss: we have lost the value of veiling and revealing. Try as it may, the nude does not reveal all that the body can reveal. The nude also veils. The nude depends on veiling, as in Antonio Canova’s Venus Italia (1804–12), which is at once nude from the front and naked from the back. Mediating the naked and the nude are the inclination of her back, her neck and her turned face.
In our desire to see raw reality in the image, we usually assume that the naked reveals reality the way it is. But the naked does not necessarily reveal all that we think it does, because, even in its most explicit expressions, the naked still hides many unexpected or unnoticed aspects. The nude and the naked reveal much, but they can hide intention. Naked thoughts can be veils for undeclared intentions, while declared intentions sometimes veil secret thoughts.
France and Belgium, with other countries possibly following, have introduced legislation that forbids le voile intégral, the full veil, in public places. It is estimated that the number of women who wear the full veil in France ranges between 367, according to Le Monde, and 2,000, according to Le Figaro. Even assuming the larger of the two numbers, one wonders why members of the French parliament spent so much effort to pass a law that pertains to only 2,000 people? Notwithstanding the exaggerated attention of the media, the full veil has been gradually disappearing from public use among Muslim women. French Muslim women, as well as Muslim women elsewhere, have in their overwhelming majority rejected the veil. The political implications of the French law are obvious, but what is rarely voiced (also for political reasons) is that the full veil raises a confrontation between two aesthetic sensibilities. The sensibility that heralds the complete freedom to clothe oneself as one wishes is confronted with a difficult problem: women ought not to be forced to wear a full veil, but what if they so choose by their own free will and accord? The sensibility that accepts the full veil is also confronted with a difficult problem: are there not other ways to accept and convey bodily modesty than wearing the full veil? The veil, after all, pre-dates Islam and is not a requirement of Qur’anic law.
But it is not only the burqa (or hijab, or niqab or chador, depending on national and linguistic variations) that veils a woman’s body. It is also her thoughts and the thoughts of the culture around her. Her own thoughts and the thoughts directed at her envelop her body and thus veil it again. The burqa calls attention to the single body more than is usually assumed; only when one observes many veiled women at once does the single body recede in attention. But the wind and the burqa can reveal the veiled body in more detail than many nude statues. The wind-blown burqa reveals much more of the veiled body than the most conservative believer wishes to hide, or allow. Both the burqa and the body under it can hide the best or the worst intentions. Both the décolleté signed by Yves St. Laurent and the body under the décolleté can hide the best or the worst intentions. What is worse, therefore, veiling the body or veiling the mind?
There is a curious aesthetic reversal presented by the full veil and sunglasses. The full veil hides the body but allows the naked eyes their full expressive possibilities. Sunglasses, by contrast, present an integral veiling of the eyes and consequently the intentions behind the eyes. Wearing the full veil as well as sunglasses is probably the ultimate envelopment of the body’s expressive qualities.
There are good ways of veiling, where one must discover that which is not necessarily evident at first glance, or at a second glance. Two planets that are aligned veil each other with respect to a third. Peeking though the rents in the veil of history are mythical forces waiting to be manifest. The veiled woman on a pilgrimage to Benares will soon be veiled by the waters of the Ganges. As she undertakes her purificatory ablutions, she will come to wear two veils at once: the veil of her sari and that of the waters of the Ganges. There are also good ways of revealing. In lifting the veil of Isis, one discovers some of the laws of Nature behind some of the products of nature.
Walls, too, veil and reveal in good and bad ways. A wall retains a hill, presents a face to the street, encloses a hall and frames a window. A window cannot be a window without a wall; otherwise, it would be a frame. The wall and the window need each other in order to veil and reveal. But there are other kinds of walls, such as those between nations. These walls are meant to separate two identities, where the other is implicitly understood as lesser. Those on the stronger side stand guard over the ramparts of their egocentric city. Such walls are physical expressions of even more formidable mental walls, dividing the world into “us” against “them.” Mental and physical walls instill separateness, just as the woman who is forced to wear a veil is thereby forced to consider her identity as separate from that of others. From Akkad, to Troy, to Rome, to the Great Wall of China, to Iron Curtains, to electrified fences and concrete walls, we have built too many walls, and we have subsequently dismantled or abandoned most of them.