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. 

38 thoughts on “Happily whipping Jesus

  1. Certainly the best titled post I’ve seen for a long while; I’m a secularist atheist but some of the Christian inspired art can be moving. Dante’s Divine Comedy?

  2. I’m not a fan of the Divine Comedy, for various reasons. But probably the main one are that it focusses on the creepiest, nastiest aspect of Christianity, the idea that their god runs a sort of North Korea for the dead. (I’m including the Purgatorio and Paradiso in this, as well as the Inferno.) It’s the very worst of Christianity, and Dante’s celebration of it is a little hard to stomach, in the same way that a novel that was dedicated to the greatness and perfection of Mao Zedong would be.

    The other reason is simply that I don’t think Dante is much of a poet. He frequentl;y compares himself with Ovid, Virgil and Homer, and assumes that he’s their equal and that they would celebrate him. But as a story teller, as a creator of metaphors, as a manipulator of language and idea, and so on, he’s not remotely in their company.

    I prefer Ariosto by far, and he’s just as Christian as Dante, but without being a creep.

    I think the Christian art I like most tends to be the music, and I suspect that’s partly because you can by-pass the doctrinal meaning and admire the emotion and the awe. It’s interesting, come to that, how much Christian music was written by composers who were actually atheists, like Verdi, Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Holst and so on.

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