Sandro Botticelli. The Birth of Venus, mid 1480s.
Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, informally called Venus on the Half-Shell, marks the first significant appearance of the nude in Renaissance painting. That period in history is called the Renaissance, or Re-Birth, because Europe was emerging from the chaotic and unproductive Dark Ages. During the Dark Ages the Church had preserved human knowledge in its scriptoria and libraries. With the Renaissance, mankind picked itself up, dusted itself off, and began learning and practicing all the arts and sciences that had been remembered only in pages of books for several centuries. In Europe, humanity rebooted itself with the Renaissance, and the starting point lay with the classical traditions of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Though the Romans were amazing conquerors, administrators, and legalists, they too owed their tradition of humanities to Greek classical culture.
Throughout history, authoritarians have used organized religion to assert control over culture and particularly over the arts. Artists, writers, sculptors, musicians and performers have traditionally and subversively served as conscience and canary in a coalmine when rulers led their subjects deep into repressive times and wars costly in gold and blood. Paradoxically, Sandro Botticelli was a follower of the authoritarian of his time and place: the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who was leading Florence in an extremist religious revival that led to the burning of thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books. This fire was called the Bonfire of the Vanities, and Botticelli contributed many of his own works to the flames. So it is doubly paradoxical how a nude female should appear in a painting at such a prudish and puritanical time. This bonfire was but one episode in the eternal struggle between Philistines and Literati.
The short explanation of how nudity in art became accepted despite the strict and repressive atmosphere of 15th-century Florence is that nudity was Greek, and the Renaissance embraced Classical culture as a way back from Medieval terrors and chaos. Besides, the Greek tradition of nudity in art was anything but gratuitous. Unlike their neighbors—Egypt, Persia, Assyria—who equated nudity with shame, the Greeks found in it an expression of Olympian and Platonic ideals. The Greeks generally considered nudity as inappropriate as anyone else, but in an appropriate context like the perfection of human form as seen in a wrestling arena, or in the portrayal of the perfection of the bodies of the Gods, they considered nudity quite appropriate and not in the least obscene. Plato suggested that any given thing on earth is but an imperfect expression of the perfect model of that same thing in a kind of heaven for things. So, for example, each chair on earth was an imperfect attempt to express the perfect idea of a chair in the heaven of things. So too, the inevitably flawed bodies of human beings on earth are imperfect expressions of the bodies of the Olympian gods. The nude in art gives vision of this perfection of beauty.
When the Greeks and Romans wanted to imply that some person was so great that he was divine—the Emperor Julius Caesar achieved this accolade—he would be depicted with the perfect physique of an athlete. This heroic nudity didn't mean he was a great wrestler: it meant that he was, after crossing the Rubicon, a demigod. Now, after crossing the chasm of the Dark Ages and seeking to resume where it left off, humankind would no longer be portrayed as gods because Christianity was now the dominant paradigm of Control, and divinity was limited to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Yet heroic nudity would survive as a way of indicating Classical pagan gods in paintings, and those gods continued to play roles in allegorical figurative art that illustrated otherwise abstract concepts like Venus as the ideal of love. Even as Botticelli painted Venus, philosophers were busy reconciling Christianity with Greek and Roman thought, which humanity was using to rebuild knowledge, and which was inextricably bound to the pagan ideas within them.
Much to the delight of viewers of paintings, the philosophers saved the day, and the Church put its imprimatur on the nude in art. Yet the common viewer of paintings could care less about how the Church saw the nude. The common viewer sees the nude female, whether goddess or human, as the erotically charged form of beauty that she is. All beauty has its origin in the feminine form. This is why the intricate geometric decorations of the great mosques amaze but ultimately fail to quench the thirst for beauty; this is why sidewalks ruled by sharia, where women walk, if at all, shrouded in burkas as corpses, leave one feeling dry as ancient parchment. The Church for the wrong reason did the right thing: it assented to allow the portrayal and glorification of beauty in art, without which life would be far less humane.