After the fall of original sin, Adam and Eve wore aprons of fig leaves to cover their naughty bits. In Western art the effect of this biblical story is so pervasive that we accept the convention of fig leaf concealment without even thinking about it.
Before the 1500s, only Adam and Eve wore fig leaves in paintings or as statues. Other painted and sculpted nudes were usually left alone, though sometimes an artist would drape a bit of foliage or fabric o’er a crotch. But by 1510, fig leaves were suddenly being forced onto every art nude, attached to statues and added to paintings ad nauseam. The Catholic Church was the biggest promoter of fig leaf censorship. Pope Paul IV mandated the use of concealing fig leaves in a papal bull dated 1557. Innocent X (1644-1655) and Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) were especially diligent at defacing and destroying works of art. Marble nudes of classical antiquity had their phalluses whacked off and thong-size fig leaves of plaster and marble attached to their groins. I remember hearing about an erotologist who discovered a drawer of marble members in the back room of a world-class museum. He kindly offered to reattach them all, but the museum turned him down.
Michelangelo’s Statute of David (1504) is a prime example of a masterpiece inflicted with the botanical equivalent of a g-string. The plaster cast created for Queen Victoria was accompanied by a detachable leaf. In Australia in 1969, a poster of the statue sans leaf was seized from a shop by the vice squad. The shop owner was charged with obscenity. Even today, reproductions of this statue are often offered with fig leaves, including this disturbing “Super Size Me David” garden ornament. Or you can have a more proportionately pleasing super-size experience with the 18-foot high, non-leafed, David replica on display at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (never mind that the original statue postdated Caesar's empire by several centuries). Non-leafed reproductions of Michelangelo’s work can be found here.
But let’s get back to the mystery of the fig leaf itself. Why did Adam and Eve end up with aprons of fig leaves? Why not sarongs of fern or merkins of barley sheaves? Fig leaves seem an arbitrary choice. For one thing, even when they grow quite large, they really can’t provide that much coverage. Each leaf consists of three to five lobes, you see, which makes them about as effective as a pair of crotchless panties. Of course, fig leaves for statues are designed for greater effective concealment, hiding the genitalia in a way that real leaves could never quite manage. And as I mentioned before, crotch concealment is sometimes helped by the amputation of the marble phallus (which a sane person would then view as making the fig leaf unnecessary, but I digress).
I am intrigued by a theory proposed by Stephen Bauer, a Bay Area artist and former Catholic school attendee. (Bauer is known to many as the drummer for the Ethel Merman Experience and also happens to be the father of my children). Stephen had an epiphany while picking figs from a neighbor’s tree. His arms and hands began to hurt - a lot! You see, contact with fig trees and leaves can cause painful blisters and swelling, a condition known as phytodermatitis or plant dermatitis. Drawing on this experience as well as his background in art history, Stephen realized that the Catholic insistence on the fig leaf as a genital covering actually represents a sinister warning and punishment. A real fig leaf apron would undoubtedly cause blistering eruptions right smack dab on Adam's and Eve’s private parts. And if that’s not a clear message from sex-negative agents of a wrathful god, I don’t know what is!
The common fig (ficus carica) has been an important crop since the dawn of agriculture. Therefore, its irritating properties have been known for eons, even to medieval monks growing their crops in the monasteries. I can even imagine the monks flagellating themselves with fig twigs after harvest, enjoying plant dermatitis as a special mortification of the flesh. In the context of their religious lives, perhaps a few would have understood the fig apron’s probable effect on the naked genitals of Adam and Eve. Given the fig’s properties, it would be logical for monks and clergy to interpret this garment as something which provided further punishment for the original sin. Thus, fig leaves would be the concealment of choice when the Catholic church launched its art censorship campaign.
Of course, these last two paragraphs are speculative.
While the fig’s properties may seem like intriguing news for sado-botanists and those with biblical kinks, think twice about stuffing fig leaves into your tool bag. The toxic compounds in fig leaves and branches can cause extremely severe and unpredictable reactions. Fig tree latex contains ficin, which can easily penetrate the skin and cause bleeding. (Ficin is known for breaking down proteins.) One blogger reported “blisters the size of tea cups” after chopping up a fallen fig tree for a neighbor. Another kind of acute dermatitis, phytophotodermatitis, can also result from the reaction of fig tree toxins to sunlight.
For those who are sensitive to natural rubber latex, fig consumption and contact with the sap can also cause anaphylaxis, a life threatening allergic reaction which requires an immediate trip to the emergency room. In most cases, erotic use of any plant with toxic properties should be approached with a great deal of research and caution, or better yet, left strictly alone.
In any case, I like Stephen's idea that the pervasive fig leaf is more than a quaint cover-up. For over 400 years, religious officials attached these leaves to every nude statue and painting they could get their hands on. The name of their game was genital shame combined with painful mortification of the flesh and punishment of earthly desires. This is a woeful use of the ancient and sensuous fig.