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The innies and outies of navel history.

Byline: Sid McKeen


There's a heck of a lot more to the subject of bellybuttons than you may think. We may not pay much attention to them, but we all have them. Well, almost all of us anyway. As I mentioned in this space a few weeks back, cinema genius Alfred Hitchcock claimed to have no navel. It turned out that he'd had so many abdominal operations over the years that what he'd been born with disappeared under all the stitches.

That mention triggered this fascinating response from reader Guy Turcotte, a retired college English teacher from Gardner:

"The factoid about Alfred Hitchcock's absent navel you repeated in your column put me in mind (now isn't that a quaint phrase) of one of art history's most vexing unanswered questions.

"A few years ago I happened to be in Ghent, Belgium. Let me start over. I didn't happen to be there; I booked a flight on a plane which flew me to Brussels where I boarded a bus which took me to Ghent. I did it on purpose because I wanted to see one of the greatest monuments of western art, The Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It's truly a magnificent thing, but as I gazed at the images of chastened Adam and Eve, I said to my companion, `They're not anatomically correct.'

"`What do you mean?' she said. `They look perfectly naturalistic.'

"`They have bellybuttons,' I replied, and stepped away.

"I'd noticed it before - first, in Masaccio's fresco of Adam and Eve in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence (are you impressed yet by my shameless name-dropping?) and then in Durer's etching of them and in paintings by Lucas Cranach. These painters clearly wanted to impress upon the viewer that Adam and Eve were just like us. Either that or they just didn't think about what it says in Genesis. In fact, I know of not a single representation of Adam and Eve where they are presented navel-less. It is a great mystery as to why not a single artist cleaved to the Biblical story. Even Michelangelo dimpled Adam's abdomen with a bellybutton on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

``However, there is a delightfully literal interpretation of the creation of Eve on the ceiling of a church in San Gimignano, in Tuscany, where she is depicted stepping out of a neat slice in a sleeping Adam's chest. But if I remember correctly, she, too, has a bellybutton.

``I think it is safe to say that Adam and Eve were created in the image of the artist."

I AM impressed by the learned professor's shameless name-dropping, even more by his relentless quest to get to the bottom of the bellybutton mystery, of which art historians seem to be largely oblivious. I'd never given that aspect of everyman's anatomy that much thought.

I confess that my own thinking on the matter was pretty much limited to a reference by humorist H. Allen Smith to an aging couple in Iowa who sent their son to college with money they made from collecting the lint in their bellybuttons all their married life and sold for filling pillows.

But I have no plans to submit that one to to see how it stands up. Some stories are too good to lose just because they aren't based on fact. And I'm going to leave the Adam and Eve stuff alone for the same reason.

Meantime, I just want to say, "Thanks, Guy." Now where have I heard that one before?

Reach Sid McKeen at
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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