This is how David’s penis was hidden from Queen Victoria.

London, UK

In 1857, when British queen Victoria first saw the six-meter-tall replica of Michelangelo’s statue David in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, she was shocked by the sight of his genitals. A detachable fig leaf was immediately commissioned and kept handy for future royal visits. The proportionately accurate, half-meter-long plaster cast – rumored to be the largest fig leaf in the history of sculpture – made the Queen another participant in the 450-year-long “fig-leaf campaign.”

A detachable fig leaf was immediately commissioned and kept handy for future royal visits.

It began as a reaction to Michelangelo’s work: at the unveiling of David in Florence in 1504, the gathered audience was so shocked that it began to pelt the statue with stones. When another Michelangelo masterpiece, The Last Judgment, was even more scandalous – featuring anatomically correct figures in the inner sanctum of the Sistine Chapel – members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy decided that something had to be done. Church officials looked to the Bible for a solution, and found it in the story of Adam and Eve, who wore fig leaves when they became aware of their nakedness. In 1563, Church authorities decreed that no work of art should possess “a beauty exciting to lust” so their subordinates got busy painting drapery over the genitalia in The Last Judgment. In the 1600s, Pope Innocent X had the penises chipped off nude sculptures in the Vatican and replaced with metal fig leaves. Ever since, the fig leaf has acted as the art world’s censor, protecting the modest sensibilities of town councils, museumgoers, and garden statue buyers with its generous spread.

The penis in contemporary sculpture

[1] Princess X (1915)

This sculpture looks so phallic that French police had it removed from the 1920 Salon des Indépendants in Paris. According to its sculptor, Romanian-born Constantin Brancusi, the bronze shaft curving out of two polished balls actually depicts French princess Marie Bonaparte.

[2] Presse-papier à Priape (1920)

The original 1920s sculpture by American expatriate artist Man Ray featured a hollow metal cylinder and three identical balls. It has since been destroyed, but Man Ray’s tribute to Priapus, Greek god of fertility, lives on through 1,000 signed marble replicas.

[3] Dart Object (1962)

A fragment broken from French-born artist Marcel Duchamp’s mold for the erotic installation Etant Donné inspired the 75-year-old to create Dart Object: a cock from a woman’s rib, inverting the biblical story of Genesis.

[4] Fillette (1968)

The 58cm Fillette created controversy when the Museum of Modern Art in New York, USA, had it photographed for a catalog in the arms of its sculptor, French- American Louise Bourgeois, then later cropped it out.


[5] Crocheted Penises (1975)

US artist Jack Davis has crocheted penises for 40 years, inspired by 1970sera feminists who knitted vaginas. When Davis sought hospital help after accidentally stabbing himself with a crochet hook, doctors reasoned that a woman had attacked him.

[6] Errotin, le vrai lapin (1995)

In 1995, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan persuaded his dealer Emmanuel Perrotin to wear this pink penis costume during an exhibition. The resulting artwork was titled Errotin, le vrai lapin (Errotin, the Real Rabbit).

[7] Priapus (2007)

The erection intended to jut from a statue of the Greek god Priapus in Vincent Square, London, UK, never left creator Alexander Stoddart’s studio. Stoddart claims to fear public disapproval.

[8] Obod Daddy 2 (2010)

Obod Daddy 2 is a 1.1-meter-long penis created from bubblegum-pink plaster, rubber and fiberglass by British artist Sarah Lucas. On display, it is flanked by two other identical sculptures to create a “trinity of penises.”


From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.