Nailed it for the cameras

I read in Fortean Times (“so it must be true”) that a few years back a group of those Philippine Christian worshippers who have themselves nailed to crosses at Easter time were pleased, at first, to see that they’d been joined by a young Japanese man.

Crucifixion season in the Phillippines. More painful than Civil War re-enactments?

Crucifixion season in the Phillippines. As painful as Civil War re-enactments?

He, like them, was dressed in a loincloth, and he had real nine-inch  nails driven through his hands and feet to keep him up there. So they thought he was a Japanese Christian, and he, like them, was there to share an experience with the late Jesus, and thereby acquire some of his holiness.

They wondered a bit, though, about the make-up and the film crew. And they weren’t pleased at all when they discovered that he was a Japanese bondage film star, and he was shooting a porno.

Every action that they took, he took too. The only difference between them was the narrative inside their heads about the meaning of they were doing.

It’s a parable.  

Happily whipping Jesus 2: Mary Magdalene as submissive

This is a sequel to the post Happily whipping Jesus, which was about how some Medieval and later art presented the flagellation of Jesus as a sort of bdsm event, with sexually excited floggers and spectators. For the earlier post, go here.

Mary Magdalene, penitent

Anyway, I was in the Irish National Gallery in Dublin a while ago, staring at a piece of bdsm porn. It was painted towards the end of the of the 19th century. It showed a pretty blonde woman with her eyes turned up.

She’d ripped her own shift so she was bare above the waist, pointing a pair of very nice breasts at the painter, and the ladies and the gentlemen in the gallery where she hung. Unlike a lot of 19th century breasts, hers had nipples, lovingly detailed. She had a multi-thonged whip in her hand, and she’d paused after whipping herself. There were whip marks, red furrows against the plump, creamy white skin of her shoulders.  

She had the soulful expression of a submissive who’s just been soundly punished. She looked thoughtful, grateful and satisfied.

I wasn’t expecting her. She was sexy, and she’d been painted by someone who knew what whip-marks looked like, but more importantly, had seen the facial expressions of someone who’d been whipped, who thought they deserved it, but also found it brought them close to orgasm. She was porn, with the impact of a punch in the solar plexus.

She was Mary Magdalene, the frame said, the companion of Jesus. 

I couldn’t take a photo, and I can’t find a reproduction on the net. But there are plenty of similar images, though that’s the most overtly sexual one I’ve seen.

Christian art has always included a lot of bdsm imagery. If an artist wanted to paint a naked woman in bondage, for example, he or she used to paint Angelica from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, chained naked to a rock. It’s the same image, of course, as Andromeda chained naked to a rock, but by using the Ariosto story you make it a Christian rather than a pagan scenario.

But if you want to paint a naked woman in pain, or in sexual ecstasy, then you painted Mary Magdalene. That’s because Magdalene was imagined as a prostitute in a lot of Christian art. After the death of Jesus, she supposedly spend the rest of her life repenting, including by scourging herself. 

mariaSo if you want to paint a naked woman, especially one in submissive pose, then Magdalene was your subject. Your painting could be as sexy as you could make it, while apparently being a holy religious work. Here’s one by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1876), of her repenting, beautifully, outside a cave in France. 

But if you want to go a little further into bdsm, Magdalene will still oblige you.

Francisco Masnera y ManovensHere she is in a 19th century painting by Francisco Masnera y Manovens. She’s stretched out naked on the floor, looking up at someone who isn’t in the picture, seeking whatever will bring her forgiveness. The cross digs into her bare breast. 

siraniThis 18th century painting (I don’t know the artist) shows her with her whip pressed against her right breast. There aren’t any whip marks painted on Magdalena’s shoulders, but you can tell from the ecstatic, satisfied expression and her blissed-out eyes that the whipping is over.  

By the way, it’s common in paintings of the Penitent Magdalene to have the whip merge with her hair. In some paintings (eg Tintorreto’s) the whip isn’t actually painted, but she holds a swatch of her hair, touching her breast and going over her shoulder as a stand-in for the whip. 

My favourite, though, is the sculpture of Magdalene by Canova. She kneels submissively, with her eyes cast down, and she is holding out a cross (made of bronze, and detachable; many photos are taken without it). The cross is narrower and rounder than a real crucifix would be: it’s a rod. She has a rope round her waist, to hurt her skin, which was also used in auto-flagellation.

The front view, with the cross: 


But it’s clearer, in some ways, if you detach the cross, and have her just holding out her hands. 


The rear view: Back View of Penitent Magdalen by Antonio CanovaIt’s a sexual image, it’s an image of submission, and it’s very beautiful.

Happily whipping Jesus

scourging of ChristThis is a marble relief of the scourging of Jesus, made in the 17th century. It’s a photo I took in the Vienna Schatzkammer, or Imperial Treasury, in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. 

What’s interesting about it is the erotic depiction of Jesus, lying on his back, with his hands tied, and a slightly floaty, dreamy expression on his face while the man on the right whips him. 

The spectator on the left is clearly enjoying the show. That seems to be an erection poking his robes up, and his hand hovers near his cock.

All four men in this image have happy expressions. The face of the man with the whip shows slightly ludicrous glee. I guess I’ve looked a bit like that too, when the flogging is proceeding well and the girl is in sub-space and all’s right with the world.

It’s interesting because it shows awareness of bdsm on the part of the anonymous artist. I’d have thought it was an anti-bdsm image, showing that men who respond sexually to causing pain are wicked, if it wasn’t that the face of the Jesus suggests that he’s in a blissful state himself.

There are medieval images of the scourging of Jesus that show that the men doing the whipping have erections, but those are less ambiguous in their condemnation of the minority sexual taste. In those images the guys with whips are depicted as barely human, almost demonic, while the Jesus figure is depicted with flecks of blood on his body and his face contorted in agony. In this one, they all seem to be happy participants, like the guys in the Spanner Case.

It’s also interesting, like some of the descriptions of religious flagellation in classical Greek and Latin texts, for showing the ways in which religion and bdsm can, er, bleed into each other. Both approve of extreme states of consciousness, and valorise willing subjection to physical pain, but religion provides a non-sexual framework that people can use to explain what they, or their saintly martyrs, are experiencing. Without talking about sexual pleasure.

Finally, it’s interesting that this image is far more “blasphemous” than anything like Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ, and yet it was accepted in its time as a sacred image. 

An note on Piss Christ

Piss_Christ_by_Serrano_Andres_(1987)I think Piss Christ is a beautiful image, which is different from it being a great work of art. A photo of Amanda Seyfried naked is likely to be beautiful too, but that doesn’t mean the photographer is a great artist.

However, it seems to me to be strongly pro-Christ in its message: that Christ, immersed in the human, is still radiant.

It isn’t blasphemous. As a non-believer with some active dislike for Christianity and Islam, in particular (also communism and fascism, for similar reasons), I like blasphemous art and wish there was more of it. And Piss Christ isn’t it.

But Christian art can be very moving as art even though the “message” doesn’t move me. I don’t let my dislike of Christianity as a worldview get in the way of admiring and responding to the St Matthew Passion, or the altarpieces of Tilman Riemanschneider.