Do Clothes Make the Man? An Essay by Edward Knippers
Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society – Mark Twain
…apparel oft proclaims the man… – William Shakespeare
the man is his clothing – Classical Greek
There is a human compulsion to wear clothes in some amount or shape or style throughout history. Since the body is the one common denominator for all of humankind, why do we fear to uncover it? Why is public nudity a shock or even a personal affront? Why is nudity even in private, at times, shameful? Why is our persona found more in what we wear than in our body, which is the irreducible minimum for our being in this world? Is this the result of the fact that God, for his own reasons, dressed Adam and Eve before sending them out into the world? (Genesis 3:21)
Clothes not only protect us from the elements, but they are a way to extend ourselves into the society of others. Clothes are used in many ways: to project our identity, to hide our identity, to create a false identity or an idealized one of our hopes and dreams. We can use clothes as tools or weapons; to communicate something important about ourselves, to establish dominance over others or set up a false humility. Clothes can help us show outwardly how we feel within, expressing our deepest sense of being non-verbally to the world around us.
Clothes can be a protection against intimacy or an enticement to further intimacy. How we dress can even be used to deny us an intimate look at ourselves as we use them to cover the hard truth of who we are. When we are standing naked, we are exposed in the most rudimentary way. We no longer have the protection that Adam and Eve must have felt in their nudity before the Fall, or the protection of status or the protection of who we have projected or hoped ourselves to be. If we are honest, we see ourselves as a bi-pied Homo sapien. Any dream of transcendence is blunted by our earthbound nature.
The Self Before God
Even more alarming than the exposure of our animal self is that naked, we find ourselves alone in the world and vulnerable before God. No cover, no pretense, no lies about the past or about the future; just the present state of things. Even the most beautiful or the most sculpted body is not all that different from the body that is halt and lame as our true human limitations become abundantly clear when we stand stripped in the presence of our Maker. Is this the fear and condemnation that Adam and Eve felt after the Fall? Is this why they hid themselves? Being a creature of the dirt who is cognizant of his position of isolation in the world is a hard truth indeed.
God knows our weakness, and in His kindness gave garments to our ancient parents even as He banished them from the garden. I like to think that it is because He knew that as we cover ourselves our innate sense of the transcendent, our knowledge of Him and a world beyond, can be entertained more clearly and that with clothes our parents would not be entirely lost to their animal nature. In God’s mercy, clothes can become not an escape from the deficiencies of our animal body, but an instrument of balance between those deficiencies and the perfection that we will have in the New Heaven and the New Earth. This may seem like quite a leap, but I think that this is where we find ourselves in our earthly state. It is in this balancing act between earth and heaven that we recognize our full humanity. Because as Christians, we believe in the actual resurrection of the physical body, our nudity is truly part of both realms, and must be dealt with appropriately. As humans, it is right that we wear clothes. Animals are only of the earth and have no such need, even if some of them might make it through the vale with us. Clothes provide a completion to our humanity not found in our nudity alone, they “…make the man.”
The Body in Art
Since, as humans, we spend most of our lives in clothes, our awareness of the whole person is often dulled. That is why seeing a nude body can be a shock. It is here that the body in art, both nude or dressed, can be an aid as we try to own all of who we are, both the dirt from which we were made, and the Breathe of God that gave us life.
In the light of my arguments for clothing in this article, one might ask why I have chosen to use the nude in my art. Michelangelo once asked when confronted with the same question, “What is more noble a man’s foot or his shoe?” My wife has answered, “Ed is interested in painting the beauty of the body, not cloth.” Both responses get at my reasons for using the nude. But I must add, I want viewers to reconsider the Scriptures in very human terms that might shock them out of their complacency about the things of the spirit. The nude is my way of aiming at the deep and saving Truth given to us by Christ. It is an attempt to strip away our hiding places.
Art is a safe place to contemplate our beauty and power (Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel), our deformities and sin (Max Beckmann’s Departure triptych; Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) and the coming death of our physical selves (Nicolas Poussin, The Burial of Phocion; Francisco Goya, The Third of May; Theodore Gericault, Raft of the Medusa; Ferdinand Hodler’s cycle of The Dying Valentine Gode’-Darel). Art also provides a private place to consider the ramifications of how our earthbound existence is co-mingled with our heavenly aspirations (Luca Signorelli’s San Brizio Chapel, Orvieto Cathedral; Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece; Fra Andrea Pozzo’s The Glorification of St. Ignatius, Rome). Art can also teach us about our potential life with God in a physical body that is everlasting (Hubert and Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece).
The poetry of what we call art allows us to think thoughts that we might never have considered without it. In this poetry, the life of the mind and the life of the heart become enriched and our balancing act between now and eternity is made a little easier. But art won’t save our souls or necessarily make us good people. After all, the top Nazi leaders loved the refinements of art and stole the best of it from wherever it was to be found.
It is Christ who has made the true balance of the body’s place between heaven and earth possible. Through Christ’s Incarnation our flesh has been redeemed. Therefore we can now look upon the body without worship, the lustful worship demanded by pornography. And, we have no need to entertain the lie that the body as a lesser, or even despicable part of our humanity as do the Gnostics. Having a body is a prerequisite for being human and now, that we can know redemption, we are able to see our physicality in its true light as more than just a throw away container used for the better parts.
As an earthy part of creation, however, even now we are able to make our bodies a living sacrifice to God because of Christ’s real and complete sacrifice for us. In this offering of our bodies, we not only show our hope in the world to come, but we can taste the Glory of His Body and His Blood as we take on the fullness of the life for which we were made, both clothed and unclothed. But we must remember this is temporal. In the world to come we will know God in His fullness and we will no longer need the clothes given to us at our banishment from Eden. We will no longer need all of that diversity of covering that gave expression to status, vanity, anxieties, insecurities, deceptions, desire, shame, hope, and so much more. For in that world we will be seen wearing gloriously white robes, washed in the blood of the Lamb. There, we will no longer be made to perform our precarious balancing act between two worlds, for there we will be home.