The scourge of the Hapsburgs

scourgeHere’s the collection of the whips that Katherine Anna of Austria used on herself. She was a minor member of Austria’s royal family who lived in the 1600’s. Presumably she sat around someone’s palace doing needlework and whipping herself until she was married off to a minor prince somewhere. I haven’t been able to find out much about her: she didn’t trouble history, much.

Her collection of scourges, for whipping herself when she felt she was a bad girl, is kept in the Schatzkammer, or Imperial Treasury, in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.

It’s not a very good photo, because the whips were behind glass in a darkened room, but I hope you can see enough to note that her whips were quite lovingly made. They have decorations, but they also have metal tips. Any of them would have hurt, and you’d have to be careful not to draw blood. I doubt if she was careful. 

This is, I guess, one of the benefits of religion: it licences extreme states of consciousness and sensuality, while providing spiritual rhetoric as a framework. Katherine Anna is likely to have been “protected” from knowledge about sexual feelings in women, and at the same time told that women are the most licentious of all creatures, who have to keep their sexual urges firmly curbed.

Being a good and faithful believer, she’d reach for the scourges when her thoughts   became troubled. Perhaps she thought about a servant in tight breeches, and the curve of his buttock and upper thigh. In any case, the scourge hurt for the first few lashes, as she swung it over her own shoulder to cut into her bare back. Then endorphins kicked in to cover the pain.

She can feel her mind ease, as the pain starts to recede and pleasurable feelings replace the pain. She is presumably staring up at a three-quarter likeness of a near-naked man, bound with nails to a post with a cross-bar. She looks into his wooden or marble eyes, and sometimes at the muscles of his belly and thighs. He seems to stare back at her, sharing her pain. She has partially bared her body for him, so that she can reach her bare back to apply the whip. She hardly dares wonder if he likes what he sees.

And then she feels a racking moment of great joy: her troubled thoughts, her pain, everything, recedes for a few seconds while her body shakes. Oddly, after that moment of sweet, spiritual reward, she feels no further sexual desire, for a while.

She puts the scourges away. She’ll need them again, soon enough.

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.