A brief history of scurrilously irreligious modern art.
It’s often been said, usually by anti-censorship campaigners out to prove a point, that The Bible is the world’s most pornographic book. It’s a glib phrase that has almost become a cliché these days, but like most clichés, it contains more than a glimmer of truth. For religion in general, and Christianity in particular has provided some of the most potent fetish images and fantasy scenarios for generations. With its heady mixture of divine retribution, torture, martyrdom and symbolism, The Bible is a rich picking ground for off-kilter mind trips. At their worst, these manifest themselves in the ‘God Told Me To’ delusions of a whole slew of serial killers (Peter Sutcliffe being perhaps the most notorious example) and cult leaders (Jones, Manson, Koresh); at best, it has unleashed a bevvy of delirious yearning and lusting that twist the original context of the story to fit the secret desires of the reader. It’s not surprising that Alex in A Clockwork Orange spends his prison days engrossed in The Bible, dreaming of being a Roman centurion whipping Christ as he carries the crucifix on his final journey.
If The Bible has provided a feast of sexual fantasy material, then many of those who have sought to capture moments from it in works of art have, either deliberately or subconsciously, emphasised those very images and ideas that fuel sinful thoughts. Many of the artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth century were – often under pain of arrest, torture and execution – closeted homosexuals who used these paintings as an outlet for their own sexual desires. Most paintings of Christ portray him as a vaguely effeminate figure (presumably to emphasise his great beauty); and the bulk of them feature him nailed on the cross, the crown of thorns sending rivers of blood running down his forehead. Despite this, he is shown in a serene pose. It is as if he has transcended the pain, and often has what almost appears to be the hint of a smile on his lips. While most people will see this as simply an example of his great forgiveness as he takes on our sins, others imagine it as a magnificent moment of masochism.
Similar images can be found throughout religious art; the other great martyrdom is that of Saint Sebastian, and it is his death that is most often blatantly eroticised. Usually seen near (or completely) naked, he has that Christ-like acceptance of his fate and that pure beauty, but he also has a muscular body penetrated by phallic arrows. It’s little wonder that the subject attracted Derek Jarman, whose own version of the scene thrusts the raw sexuality of the moment in your face.
This up-front sexual reinterpretation of the scene is something that few artists have dared try with Christ. Ian Kerkhof‘s slideshow/film/performance piece Stations of the Cross does so and was subsequently banned by customs from entering Britain, despite the fact that the project was inspired by Carravagio’s Doubting Thomas, which Kerkhof describes as having the same visual techniques as modern pornography (“Thomas digs his finger into a wound of Christ… the whole form of the wound is vaginal, there are even lips. Christ is looking ecstatic, he’s got that look we see in soft porno”).
There is, in fact, as strong a tradition of suppressing overtly erotic images of Christ as there is of making them. While Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was too big and important a movie to be banned – despite the howls of outrage by Christians, none of whom had actually seen the film – Nigel Wingrove‘s short film Visions of Ecstacy was banned outright and became the subject of legal argument that led all the way to the European Court. The film’s crime was to show a crucified Christ reacting favourably to the sensual caresses of St Teresa; the fact that this took place as part of her sexual fantasy didn’t matter. The film was refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification under the British blasphemy laws, which had been almost forgotten until the ever-resourceful Mary Whitehouse dug it up to bring a prosecution against Gay News for publishing the poem The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name by James Kirkup in 1977. Found guilty, Gay News was fined £1000; editor Denis Lemon received a £500 fine and – more significantly – a nine-month prison sentence.
This wasn’t the first time that Whitehouse had mobilised her religious bigots to defend the Lord’s name; the previous year, she’d triumphantly battled Danish film-maker Jens Jörgen Thorsen, who had planned to film his Sex Life of Christ in Britain, after being refused permission to do so in Denmark and Sweden. Whitehouse had obtained a copy of the screenplay, and denounced “the monstrously obscene homosexual intercourse between Jesus And St John at the Last Supper”.
Thorsen saw things differently. No cheap porno producer, he had previously made the acclaimed movie version of Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, and his film would be “a fight against authority, idolism, and things like that…blasphemy is never invented by the people who are accused of it…if movements or people feel offended then it is they who are the hypocrites.” Thorsen, who wanted to cast Richard Nixon as Pilote, and offered a part in the film to the Pope, was refused entry to Britain.
Ironically, some years before Thorsen’s plans shocked the world, there had already been a genuinely sleazy porn film shot that outrageously mixed faith and fucking. I saw Jesus Die was a Danish effort from the early 1970s, and features a portly Messiah and disciples meandering around observing assorted couplings. The film was allegedly too much even for the liberated Danes, and it vanished from sight until – if rumours are to be believed – a print was found in the private vaults of a former high-ranking Communist chief in post-Soviet Russia!
In subsequent years, a handful of artists have juxtaposed Christ with sexuality in ways that have predictably outraged Christians. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ had a statue of Christ on the cross floating in…er…piss (surprise, surprise). At a time of major debate over US government backing of contentious artists (Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, etc.), it seemed a somewhat cynical (albeit successful) publicity stunt. More serious in intent was film-maker Richard Baylor, who’s Jesus Hates You was a machine gun assault of religious iconography and porno images, attacking the greed and hypocrisy of organised religion.
Around the same time, Madonna stirred up the easily provoked with her video for Like a Prayer. While the song itself (one of the finest pieces of pop music purity ever recorded) was a devotional study of a love so intense that it became spiritual (just as her earlier Like a Virgin detailed a love so intense as to make her feel that she had been “touched for the very first time”), the video had her sharing caresses with Christ – who, to make things worse as far as fundamentalists were concerned, was played by a black actor. While such images had earned Nigel Wingrove a ban from the movie censors, TV bosses seemed more liberated in their interpretation of blasphemy laws, and the video was frequently broadcast.
The last work to leave Christians foaming at the mouth was Jerry Springer – The Opera. While the scenes involving a nappy-clad (and “a bit gay”) Christ duking it out with Satan are shown as part of a dream sequence, it nevertheless caused outrage when shown by the BBC – though most complaints were received before the broadcast, and as part of a cynically organised campaign by people who – stop me if you’ve heard this before – hadn’t actually seen the show. But these protests were far more virulent and aggressive than had been seen before – clearly, Christians had been learning from the violent protests employed by extremists Muslims and Sikhs against art that they considered blasphemous (The Satanic Verses; Behzti; the Charlie Hebdo cartoons). And while they failed to stop Jerry Springer – The Opera from being broadcast, religious campaigners did succeed in having the satirical cartoon Popetown pulled from the BBC’s schedules. Curious blasphemers can find it on DVD.
Other artists have chosen to play with the sexuality of religion in a safer way. If they couldn’t use the figureheads (God and Christ), they were happy to use their servants. Nuns, in particular, have long been the subject of sexual interest. De Sade, a voluble atheist, enjoyed featuring debauched nuns, clerics and monks (Justine is littered with them), while Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse set the tone for a slew of naughty nun tales that continue to be churned out even now. The movie world is full of them: The Devils might be the best known, but connoisseurs can also check out Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun, The Devils of Monza, Diary of a Cloistered Nun, Killer Nun, and others. Polish director Walerian Borowczyk had plenty of fun Behind Convent Walls (and had previously featured the randy Borgias getting up to mischief in the papal chambers, and a young girl masturbating to religious images in Immoral Tales). Italian porn star and one time MP Cicciolina took the genre to its extreme in Racconti Sensuali (aka Cicciolina in Action), which not only featured nuns being gang-banged by stockinged-masked rapists but also sought to answer the vexing question of just what lies beneath the habit: in this case, it turns out to be fishnet stockings and labial piercings! In fact, nun-porn is a small but popular niche market in Europe, even if it has yet to really take off in America – though 1972’s An Act of Confession remains a cult classic.
Monks have avoided this kind of attention, usually portrayed as victims of lustful succubi, rather than as the perpetrators of desire, and perhaps reached their peak in Matthew Lewis’ classic novel The Monk. However, priests and vicars have been the source of much pornographic and exploitative material, although most books and films have treated them simply as comical figures of authority, rather than of religion.
Of course, Christianity is replete with images that are as at home in the realm of sexuality as they are in religion. It’s not surprising that the most rampant sex maniacs often turn out to be lapsed Catholics. And why not? We’ll take those who have abandoned religion by still enjoy playing with its symbolism over the supposedly pious who are secretly abusing children any day, thank you very much. It’s a touch ironic – to say the least – that many religious leaders are apparently more upset by adults enjoying consensual pornography and kinky sex than they are about the child-rapists in their own midst. Talk about warped priorities.
It’s no surprise that BDSM, in particular, has frequently taken on the symbolism of the church. After all, the symbols are so potent: the altar, the candles, the holy communion…all are ripe for sexual subversion. And other religious ideas are also subverted. Euro disco act Enigma hit gold with their combination of Gregorian chants and heavy female panting, and fetish club Torture Garden used to greet patrons with authentic chants, long before they hit the charts. And it’s worth remembering that in its most extreme forms, Christianity demands astonishing acts of devotional masochism from its followers. Across Italy, small villages would have their own rituals: the faithful literally licking the church steps clean with their tongues (this ‘cleansing’ would inevitably leave the steps streaked with blood), re-enacting the crucifixion with fanatical detail, or self-flagellating. This latter display of faith was also the favourite of the Penitentes, an extreme South American cult who certainly believed in the adage No Pain, No Gain. It’s not such a large step from the Penitentes to kinky whipping in a fetish club.
Just why so many sexual fetishes and erotic rituals reflect Christian iconography is not clearly known, but one obvious reason is the forbidden aspect of it: if you want to rebel against authority, then what better way to do so? But another, less psychological reason is simply that it looks so good! For anyone with a taste for the symbolism and ceremony of BDSM, the religion is a constant temptation. So swing your cassocks, and join the mad monks, nympho nuns and frisky fathers in a truly heavenly experience…salvation may be nearer than you think.