Da Vinci's Code

Professor Christopher Witcombe, Art History


St. Augustine's Penis and Original Sin
Witcombe, 1998

The story of Eve condemns women, and the question is: Why? Why do men, at least the men who wrote Genesis and the innumerable commentators on the story, and many more other men besides, hate women?

Perhaps "hate" is too simple and narrow a word to describe what is an infinitely complex response that men have to women. As the Genesis story and any number of commentaries reveal, barely concealed in their apparent loathing of women is an awareness of men's own weakness.

To a large degree, men have projected onto women, starting with Eve, many of their own faults, failings, and weaknesses. At one level, the story of Eve, and the history of misogyny, is the tacit acknowledgment of the power of women. And men recognize, correctly, that this power women have resides in their sexuality.

As the story of Eve makes clear, it is female sexuality which heterosexual men fear most because it is a power against which they have virtually no natural defenses.

The most straightforward articulation of the problem facing men is contained in the writings of St. Augustine (354-430 CE), Bishop of Hippo and one of the four Fathers of the Latin Church. It was St. Augustine who introduced into Christian thought the notion of original sin.

The sin of Adam and Eve, he argued, has been passed down intact to every member of the human race, transmitted through semen in the act of sexual intercourse. While Augustine did not condemn sex as such, he did condemn lust which was made manifest in males by an erection of the penis, a phenomenon which continues to amaze, delight, startle, and occasionally embarrass all men.

Augustine argued that erections were the physical expression of the sin of lust (libido) which came about after Adam's sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Erections, and spontaneous sexual desire associated with them, were the proof and penalty of original sin. They were contrary to man's pre-lapsarian nature, to Adam's lustless state before the Fall, and therefore were to be associated with sin.

Because erections occurred apart from the will of the owner, Augustine argued they therefore occurred against the will of the owner and thus naturally involved shame: "A man by his very nature is ashamed of sexual desire" (De Civitate Dei, 14.17). The proof of this, Augustine believed, is the practice of covering the genitals and of not performing the act of sexual intercourse in public view (Confessions, 8.5).

Of considerable concern for Augustine was the fact that he and all men could exercise no control over their own penises. Erections might come and go without the man having much to do with it. A heterosexual male, however, was more prone to get an unwilled erection when in the presence of women. Women naturally and unwittingly provoked this physical reaction in the male. The man, in effect, loses full control over himself, and whatever his mental and spiritual aspirations may be, in the presence of sexually attractive females he is reduced to baser thoughts and physical urges.

Under these circumstances, his power is effectively usurped by the woman. Herein resides the fundamental threat posed by women to all heterosexual men. Unable to control their own bodies (a result of Adam's disobedience), men seek instead to control the bodies of women.

Among the ways of controlling women and their sexuality is through their public presentation in art. The images of women and men in art can be understood as carrying within them codes of behaviour and thereby as serving a social function by contributing to assumptions and expectations relating to the role of women and men in society.

Copyright © (text only) 1998 Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

Hans Baldung Grien
Eve, Serpent, and Death
c. 1520-25
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)