Thursday, 27 December 2018

The genitals of old statues suggest that Michelangelo's David was an athlete

This post will be for you, if you ever stood in front of old statues, like I stood in front of David, perplexed by questions like the following: Why should Michelangelo have taken a model that had not only a glaringly non-Jewish manhood but also featured a prepuce (foreskin) that seems to be constricted enough to still prompt modern surgeons to consider the option of circumcision for non-religious reasons? Why do old statues sometimes seem to suffer from phimosis or apparently even grosser disfigurements of their genitals? Why did the artists depict them thus and not in a more natural and healthy way?  
     One look at the athletic bodies of old statues can tell most people that they were—well—athletic. The following musings about some odd genital features of some old statues, however, suggest (to me) that Michelangelo's model for David was an athlete in the sense of a professional sportsman. Anticipating the key point, athletes used to perform naked; therefore, they had to lace up their prepuce in a peculiar way for reasons of decency. Surprisingly, the effects that lacing up the prepuce with these strings, called Kynodesmes, had on the foreskin are visible in old statues. Current but ignorant onlookers, like me, can easily associate these features with a phimosis rather than a common feature of athletes.

The long way round to the key point
The Liebighaus in Frankfurt currently hosts a fabulous exhibition about Iason, the Argonauts and most importantly Medea (until 10 Feb. 2019). It's worth it, especially if you manage to get guidance (our guide was captivating). However, I will not retell the vast epic of Medea and its prequel about the Golden Fleece and, instead, focus on a rather peculiar detail: the genitals of some of the exhibits, of which I have taken pictures.
     Taking an Etruscan mirror as his point of departure, the curator of the Liebighaus advances a controversial thesis about two famous bronze statues otherwise known as Ruler and Boxer at Rest of Quirinal (or Thermae Ruler and Boxer). The mirror shows a standing Polydeukes (or Pollux, one of the Argonauts) to the left and a sitting Amykos (son of Poseidon and king of Bebryces) to the right, whom Polydeukes defeated in boxing. The woman behind Amykos is a goddess and the egg on the column indicates that Polydeukes had hatched from an egg.
Etruscan mirror with Polydeukes (Poloces, standing left) and Amycos (sitting right).

The curator arranged replicas of the Ruler and Boxer of Quirinal in positions resembling those of Polydeukes and Amykos on the mirror. Again, I will not go into the details of the controversy about whether or not these bronze statues were really meant to depict Polydeukes and Amykos and instead focus on a still more peculiar detail.
Quirinal Ruler and Boxer at rest or, maybe, Polydeukes and Amykos?

This detail is the penis of the Ruler.
Genitals of the Quirinal Ruler
On seeing it I immediately thought, "Damn this man had a phimosis!"  and I remembered that I had thought the same about Michelangelo's David, when in Florence many years ago. Again, I know that it is highly popular to wonder about the size of the genitals of antique statues and ask oneself, why they were depicted so small. And, again, I will not go into that direction.

At the end of the guided tour, I had a chance to ask our fabulous guide (a female in her thirties with a long course of studies of archeology behind her, whose name I unfortunately did not register) and she taught me a lesson. It was customary among athletes to take the foreskin and wind a string around it and then bind the penis close to the body. The proper word for the string for binding the penis tight is Kynodesme and the purpose seems to have been preventing the glans from peeping out of the foreskin, which was regarded as dishonorable among the Greeks and Etruscans. (Maybe they associated an exposed glans with sexual arousal.)

And, indeed, returning to the Terme Ruler and Boxer afterwards, I could see that the Boxer has his penis bound to curl upwards, which was one customary way to wear the Kynodesme. Here's a picture of the genitals of the Boxer at Rest.
Genitals of the Quirinal Boxer at rest

What you see here is the scrotum with the testicles, the tightly bound penis above the right testicle and the foreskin with the Kynodesme string around it above the left testicle. Okay, you do not see it. I show you the penis in a white ellipse and the bound foreskin in a white rectangle:
Genitals of the Boxer with an ellipse around the penis and a rectangle around the prepuce. 

What appears to be a gross disfigurement at first sight, turns out to be due to a Kynodesme. This suggests (to me) that the Quirinial Ruler has, from long custom of binding his penis away in like fashion, a foreskin that looks as though it was constricted by a phimosis. I comply with the interpretation of my competent guide. But now I wonder whether the model that Michelangelo used for his David was a young athlete (boxing or otherwise), whose foreskin was not yet as worn out as the ones of the Quirinal Ruler or Boxer but already showed first signs of constriction from being laced up in the then customary fashion. Make up your own mind by looking at the following details from Michelangelo's David. Does his foreskin show signs from wearing a Kynodesme?
David's genitals seen from the right.
David's genitals seen from left.