Leo Steinberg, one of the most brilliant and original art historians of his generation, has died aged 90. His best-known work was about the sexuality of Christ in Renaissance art, and he also wrote a book about da Vinci's Last Supper.
Steinberg was a devoted teacher, concerned about his students, whose careers he followed. From 1961 to 1975, he was professor of art history at Hunter College, in New York, and then moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was Benjamin Franklin professor until his retirement in 1991.
Though firmly identified with the New York art scene, Leo was born in Moscow, where his father, Isaac, a distinguished lawyer, was briefly Lenin's minister of justice. Isaac's radical views (he wanted to shut down all prisons) soon led to his dismissal and emigration to Berlin after threats of assassination.
In New York, he worked as a freelance writer and translator, studied philosophy and taught life drawing at Parsons school of art. He embarked on a doctoral thesis at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.
His study of the diminutive and intricate Roman baroque church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, designed by Francesco Borromini, set out the formal devices employed by the architect to engage the passerby's unsuspecting attention.
He wrote as persuasively about the great Renaissance masters as he did about Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Joseph Rykwert, emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, describes his contact with Steinberg, in his Guardian obituary on Steinberg.
He says the key to Steinberg's Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983) was the display of the genitals which often figured in devotional paintings or engravings of the Renaissance, and which had been "tactfully overlooked for half a millennium".
He argued that the prominence of Christ's genitals was a presentation of incarnational theology explicit in the sermons and pious literature of the time, in which the blood shed at the circumcision is considered the first offering of the redemptive sacrifice.
FULL OBITUARY Leo Steinberg obituary (The Guardian)
A Chat with Leo Steinberg (Artnet)
Leo Steinberg (TheArtStory.org)