Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Fig leaves

Would you want to wear a fig-leaf?  The other day I was talking to a friend about figs and figleaves, as you do, and the conversation brought to mind a newspaper article I had read years ago.  The article was about the relative sensitivity of different parts of the body and it was illustrated by a diagram with the various parts scaled according to their degree of sensitivity, something like this diagram.

A week later a letter was published expressing surprise that the man's genitals were omitted from the diagram, but then added, "On second thoughts, if you've ever felt the underside of a fig leaf, you shouldn't be surprised by this".

Out walking recently, I came across a number of wild fig trees and, with the conversation fresh in my mind, I inspected the leaves closely.  Sure enough, they are mildly abrasive.  They are also an odd shape.

Surely, hardly suitable to cover your dignity.  Where did this custom originate?  The edible fig was one of the first domesticated plants.  There is evidence they were first cultivated roughly 9000 years BC. It's original range was Iran, Pakistan and the Mediterranean region.

But in ancient Greek and Roman art, fig leaves weren't added to statues of the naked body.  Although Adam and Eve were said to have clad themselves in fig leaves when they realised they were naked, it wasn't until the Middle Ages that the prudery became common place.  From that time, new as well as many existing works were covered up.

When Queen Victoria saw the cast of Michaelangelo's David at the Victoria and Albert Museum, she was so shocked that a fig leaf had to be made to spare female blushes in future.  The fig leaf attached to David was half a metre high (but don't excite yourselves, David was 6 metres tall). Since then nudity has become more commonplace and the fig leaf has been removed.  It does however remain on display - in a case of its own behind the figure.

If you do ever have a chance to see the statue of David, do so.  It is  beautiful, with or without its figleaf.  But make sure it's the full size version because the smaller ones don't have the same impact.

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  1. It's definitely the fig leaf in the bottom of your photo that's used to cover up statues, isn't it? (The others would leave definite gaps.)
    David is fantastic, with or without leaf. And to be honest, at that scale, I almost prefer him with - my eyes start to water otherwise!

  2. Hi Catherine, I hadn't realised there were so many different types of fig leaf until I started looking. Yes, it must be the third because the other two would not be fit for purpose. When I first read your comment I admit I thought you said "the others would leave definite gasps". That too, of course. :)

    I saw David in Florence, and I can say this without a word of a lie, it is such an amazing sight that I couldn't have told you whether he had a fig leaf or not.

  3. I thought fig leaves were big and solid. All the pictures of Adam and Eve show them all covered. I have only seen pictures of David and they are breathtaking. He is breathtaking.

  4. Hmmm things cghange over the years and possibly in the distant past fig leaves may well have been different again. Adam & Eve also wore leaves 'sewn together,'so who knows what they looked like.
    There is a man near here grows figs in a south facing garden. I was surprised as I expected the weather to be to cold for them.

  5. @Max, they really are big, much bigger than my hand, but they are 3 - 5 lobed and the lobes vary in width and length. I didn't realise until I did my mini-study.

    @Adullamite, that's a good point. Figs from the biblical era could have been very different. I've never been entirely sure how Adam adn Eve would have achieved sewing in the Garden of Eden.

  6. Well they managed open chest surgery to remove Adam's spare rib - so presumably would have needed to learn how to sew to stich him up again )

  7. I have never seen him, the statue in person. I can only dream for now, fig leaf or not :) Great article, very informative.

  8. @j, very good point. Sewing fig leaves pales into insignificance.
    @PS, if you ever get a chance to seem him, it is very worth while.


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