Monstrous pedagogy

Article written by our guestblogger Dario Carere

The search for wonder is far more complex than simple entertainment or superstition, and it grows along with collective spirituality. Every era has its own monsters; but the modern use of monstrosity in the horror genre or in similar contexts, makes it hard for us to understand that the monster, in the past, was meant to educate, to establish a reference in the mind of the end-user of the bizarre. Dragons, Chimeras, demons or simply animals, even if they originated from the primordial repulsion for ugliness, have been functional to spirituality (in the sense of searching for the “right way to live”), especially in Catholicism. Teratology populated every possible space, not unlike advertising does nowadays.

We are not referring here to the figure of monsters in fairy tales, where popular tradition used the scare value to set moral standards; the image of the monster has a much older and richer history than the folk tale, as it was found in books and architecture alike, originating from the ancient fear of the unknown. The fact that today we use the expressions “fantastic!” or “wonderful!” almost exclusively in a positive sense, probably comes from the monster’s transition from an iconographic, artistic element to a simple legacy of a magical, child-like world. Those monsters devouring men and women on capitals and bas-reliefs, or vomiting water in monumental fountains, do not have a strong effect on us anymore, if not as a striking heritage of a time in which fantasy was powerful and morality pretty anxious. But the monster was much more than this.

The Middle Ages, on the account of a symbolic interpretation of reality (the collective imagination was not meant to entertain, but was a fundamental part of life), established an extremely inspired creative ground out of monstrous figures, as these magical creatures crowded not only tales and beliefs (those we find for instance in Boccaccio and his salacious short stories about gullible characters) but also the spaces, the objects, the walls. The monster had to admonish about powers, duties, responibilities and, of course, provide a picture of the torments of Hell.

Capital, Chauvigny, XII century.

Chimeras, gryphons, unicorns, sirens, they all come from the iconographic and classical literary heritage (one of the principal sources was the Physiologus, a compendium of animals and plants, both actual and fantastic, written in the first centuries AD and widespread in the Middle Ages) and start to appear in sculptures, frescos, and medieval bas-reliefs. This polychrome teratological repertoire of ancient times was then filtered and elaborated through the christian ethics, so that each monster, each wonder would coincide with an allegory of sin, a christological metaphore, or a diabolical form. The monkey, for instance, which was already considered the ugliest of all animals by the Greeks, became the most faithful depiction of evil and falsehood, being a (failed) image of the human being, an awkward caricature devised by the Devil; centaurs, on the other hand, were shown on the Partenone friezes as violent and belligerous barbarians — an antithesis of civil human beings — but later became a symbol of the double nature of Christ, both human and divine. Nature became a mirror for the biblical truth.

Unicorn in a bestiary.

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Capital, Church of Sant’Eufemia, Piacenza, XII century.

Bestiaries are maybe the most interesting example of the medieval transfiguration of reality through a christian perspective; the fact that, in the same book, real animals are examined together with imaginary beasts (even in the XVI century the great naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi included in his wonderful Monstrorum historia a catalogue of bizarre humanoid monsters) clearly shows the medieval viewpoint, according to which everything is instilled with the same absolute truth, the ultimate good to which the faithful must aim.

Fear and horror were certainly among the principal vectors used by the Church to impress the believers (doctrine was no dialogue, but rather a passive fruition of iconographic knowledge according to the intents of commissioners and artistis), but probably in the sculptors’ and architects’ educational project were also included irony, wonder, laughter. The Devil, for instance, besides being horrible, often shows hilarious and vulgar behaviors, which could come from Carnival festivities of the time. The dense decorations and monstrous incisions encapsulate all the fervid life of the Middle Ages, with its anguish, its fear of death, the mortification of the flesh through which the idea of a second life was maintained and strenghtened; but in these images we also find some giggly outbursts, some jokes, some vicious humor. It’s hard to imagine how Bosch‘s works were perceived at the time; but his thick mass of rat-demons, winged toads and insectoid buffoons was the result of an inconographic tradition that predated him by centuries. The monsters, in the work of this great painter, already show some elements of caricature, exaggeration, mannerism; they are no longer scary.

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Ulisse Aldrovandi, page form the Monstorum Historia.

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Coppo di Marcovaldo, mosaic in the San Giovanni Baptistery (Firenze), XII century.

A splendid example of the “monstrous pedagogy” which adorned not only vast and imposing interiors but even the objects themselves, are the stalls, the seats used by cardinals during official functions. In her essay Anima e forma – studi sulle rappresentazioni dell’invisibile, professor Ave Appiani examines the stalls of the collegiate Church of Sant’Orso in Aosta, work of an anonymous sculptor under the priorate of Giorgio di Chillant (end of XV century). The seatbacks, the arms, the handrests and the misericordie (little shelves one could lean against while standing up during long ceremonies) are all finely engraved in the shape of monsters, animals, grotesque faces. Demons, turtles, snails, dragons, cloaked monks and basilisks offered a great and educated bestiary to the viewer of this symbolic pedagogy, perfectly and organically fused with the human environment. Similar decorations could also be admired, some decades earlier, inside the Aosta Cathedral.

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Stalls, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.

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The dragon, “misericordia”, 1469, Aosta Cathedral.

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Handrest, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.

Who knows what kind of reaction this vast and ancient teratology could arouse in the believers — if only one of horror, or also curiosity and amusement; who knows if the approach of the cultivated man who sculpted this stalls — without doubt an expert of the symbolic traditions filtered through texts and legends — was serious or humorous, as he carved these eternal shapes in the wood. What did the people think before all the gargoyles, the insects, the animals living in faraway and almost mythical lands? The lion, king of the animals, was Christ, king of mankind; the boar, dwelling in the woods, was associated with the spiritual coarseness of pagans, and thus was often hunted down in the iconography; the mouse was a voracious inhabitant of the night, symbol of diabolical greed; the unicorn, attracted by chastity, after showing up in Oriental and European legends alike, came to be depicted by the side of the Virgin Mary.

Every human being finds himself tangled up in a multitude of symbols, because Death is lurking and before him man will end his earthly existence, and right there will he measure his past and evaluate his own actions. […] These are all metaphorical scenes, little tales, and just like Aesop’s fables, profusely illustrated between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for that matter, they always show a moral which can be transcribed in terms of human actions. 

(A. Appiani, Op. cit., pag. 226)

So, today, how do we feel about monsters? What instruments do we have to consider the “right way to live”, since we are ever more illiterate and anonymous in giving meaning to the shape of things? It may well be that, even if we consider ourselves free from the superstitious terror of committing sin, we still have something to learn from those distant, imaginative times, when the folk tale encountered the cultivated milieu in the effort to give fear a shape – and thus, at least temporarily, dominate it.

Sourtoe Cocktail Club

“PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION.
I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB
THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER”.

(Groucho Marx‘s telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills)

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Every respectable club, college fraternity, or student group has its specific initiation, a trial the aspiring members have to overcome in order to boast the title of belonging to that community. But of all the bizarre rituals necessary to enter these elites around the globe, none is more unlikely than the one at Sourtoe Cocktail Club in Dawson City, Canada.

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Dawson City is a town with a population of little more than 1.300 souls in Yukon Territory, and was once the center of the Klondike Gold Rush; so much so that wirter Jack London chose it as the environment for several short stories and novels, including The Call of the Wild (1903). Today, it’s mainly a touristic and naturalistic destination, where you can explore old mines, go trekking, visit some historical museum and, if you brought your pan, try to find some gold nuggets at Bonanza Creek.

And then, of course, you could head to the Downtown Hotel, at Second Avenue and Queen Street, and try to become a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. Actually, the club is not as exclusive as it may seem: in the course of the last decades, it earned from 60.000 to 100.000 members. The club’s admission trial has in fact become one of the most renowned city attractions.

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So, what is this ordeal all about? How do you become a member?
It’s easy:

Step 1 – Come down to the Sourdough Saloon and ask for Captain River Rat
Step 2 – Purchase a shot (most club members prefer Yukon Jack)
Step 3 – Pledge the ‘Sourtoe Oath’
Step 4 – Watch as a genuine human toe is dropped in your drink
Step 5 – Drink your Sourtoe Cocktail

You read that right, step 4 says “human toe”. But no worry, it’s mummified.

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There is only one additional rule, the most important of all:

You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow,
but your lips have gotta touch the toe!

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After carefully following the instructions, and guzzling down the cocktail with the unusual human toe garnish, you will be awarded a membership card and an official certificate that proves you are “capable of almost anything“.

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The legend behind this strange tradition begins in the 1920’s. It is said that two rum runners, Louie Linken and his brother Otto, were crossing the border with a load of liquor, when they ran into a terrible storm. Trying to direct his dog team, Louie stepped off of the sledge, and right into an icy overflow. His feet got soaked with icy water, but the pair didn’t stop as they feared police was on their trail. The prolonged exposure to the cold made the unlucky smuggler’s big toe freeze completely. To prevent gangrene, after administering his brother a good dose of rum Otto amputated the toe with a woodaxe. To commemorate the event, the borthers then preserved it in a jar of alcohol.

In 1973, while cleaning a cabin, Captain Dick Stevenson found the jar and the toe.
But what use could a dehydrated and already mummified toe have?
Captain Stevenson extensively analyzed the matter with his friends, until they agreed that there was only one solution: a Sourtoe Cocktail Club had to be established. The original rules were pretty much the same as today, with the exception of the mandatory use of champagne in a beer glass for the infamous drink.

Unfortunately, the first toe lasted only for seven years. In July 1980, a miner called Garry Younger was trying to establish the Sourtoe record. At his thirteenth shot of champagne, his chair tripped backwards, and Garry accidentally swallowed the toe.

Someone could have thought that was the end of the Club.
Instead, since then the hotel has acquired around a dozen new toes, all given by generous donors so thath the tradition wouldn’t die out. The first non-original toe had been amputated because of an inoperable corn.; the second one was give by a frostbite victim (once again the toe was accidentally gulped down).
And then: an anonymous toe, which was later stolen; a pair of toes from a Yukon veteran, donated in exchange for free drinks for his nurses; a toe wich was amputated because of diabetes; and another anonymous toe which came in a jar of alcohol with a note that read: “Never wear open-toe sandals while mowing the lawn“.

Until not long ago, the fine for those who mistakenly ingested the toe was $500.
But in August 2013 a certain Josh from New Orleans entered the bar together with a couple of friends, ordered the Sourtoe Cocktail, and guzzled it down, toe included. Then he handled over the $500, before the dismayed staff had even had a cheance to say a word. It was clearly a bet with his friend, on his last day on a summer job in Dawson.
Luckily the staff already had a replacement toe. But from that day on, the fine has been raised to $2.500.

Today, only one toe is left. The Club staff therefore published an ad on the paper, and — as reported by ABC — is seems they already received some offers.

In conclusion, if you think you don’t have the stomach to become a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, we suggest this clever workaround: you can always become a donor… and have your name immortalized in the Sourtoe Hall of Fame.

Skeletons and young girls

Come! let the burial rite be read – the funeral song be sung! –
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young –
A dirge for her, the doubly dead in that she died so young.

(E. A. Poe, Lenore, 1831)

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She will never be able to count her whitening hair, nor the lines that years and experiences impressed on her face; she shall not know the joys of marriage, she shall never be a mother: she is the dead maiden.
Whenever death strikes those who have not even had a chance to live, we are filled with a sense of injustice. “It’s not fair”, we then say, “that’s a crime, it’s not natural”, because the order of things wants the father to go before the son (or so we believe).
The innocence and sweetness of the young lady’s face, who didn’t deserve such a tragic fate, makes us think of a sacrilege.

But, in stopping the maiden’s heart, death has saved her from the ruins and aberrations of time, he has spared her from the melancholy of old age and from the weight of a decrepit body. He fixed her image in her brighter and most gracious instant: the memory she leaves behind is sublime. All vanishing beauty, is actually the highest and most excruciating beauty.

For these reasons the figure of the dead maiden has always known a certain success in the literary and visual arts; it combines sorrow with the subject’s attractiveness, and has an incomparable emotional appeal.

The virgin girl, in fact, has encountered Death in many forms since the classical era, from the abduction of goddess Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, to the self-immolation of Iphigenia. Then, right in the middle of XIV century, when plague, epidemics and wars were ravaging Europe, death became the central obsession of those dark times: and in almost all representations of the danse macabre, at least one of the skeletons invites a splendid dame or a sweet-looking maid to the disturbing ball.

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But at the end of XV century an unprecedented, stunning depiction of the encounter between these two characters begins to appear; if, until then, they had somehow unexpectedly crossed their paths, the birth of a specific iconographic theme (called “Death and the Maiden”) shows a truly epochal transition taking place in mentality.
Yes, because the rendezvous between the two, surprisingly enough, begin to show open sexual tones.

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If in the danse macabre, or in portrayals of the “three ages of life”, no sign of eroticism was present, here the female figure is indeed seduced or molested by Death. Often the decaying corpse kisses her on the mouth, sometimes he touches her breast — if his hands don’t push themselves even further. The whiteness of the maiden’s skin contrasts with the brown complexion of the mummified body, and the sense of repulsion is intensified by the obscenity of their embrace.

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Of course, the moral behind this kind of depiction clearly aims at exposing the ephemeral aspect of life, the vanity of beauty and pride. But beyond this facade, this theme evokes darker thoughts, amid visions of crawling worms and putrid blood flowing. The frailty of beauty gives way to a fascination with the macabre: as will happen in Baudelaire‘s Flowers of Evil, it seems that death and ugliness are already contained, in seed form, in the maiden’s sensual appearance.
And in fact this is the first time we see recognized, and so overtly expressed, the relationship between Eros and Thanatos – a cultural theme which will become essential, for poets and thinkers alike.

Valente Celle Tomb, 1893, The Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa - Italy

Clutched by his skinny fingers, the Maiden surrenders to Death’s seduction.
The embrace we are witnessing becomes, through allegory, one between life and death: to associate the attractive Venus to the dreadful skeleton means to redefine sexuality. Ever so distant from the shyness of courtly love, this image of a new eroticism predates the idea of sex as a return to wholeness (after the “section” occured with birth), which Freud will write about, or the annihilation of the Self into the Other, as Bataille‘s work points out, or even that mix of death and life impulses which will so much fascinate the romantics and the maudits.

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Even today, Death and the Maiden, depicted together, have lost nothing of their morbid and unsettling charm. And they still speak to the most hidden part of our souls; on one hand reminding us of the fleeting nature of the body, but suggesting on the other hand that there’s a secret complicity between beauty and repulsion, between light and shadows, between love and death.

The elephants’ graveyard

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In The Lion King (1994), the famous Disney animated film, young lion Simba is tricked by the villain, Scar, and finds himself with his friend Nala in the unsettling elephants’ graveyard: hundreds of immense pachyderm skeletons reach the horizon. In this evocative location, the little cub will endure the ambush of three ravenous hyenas.

The setting of this action-packed scene, in fact, does not come from the screenwriters’ imagination. An elephants’ graveyard had already been shown in Trader Horn (1931), and in some Tarzan flicks, featuring the iconic Johnny Weissmuller.
And the most curious fact is that the existence of a mysterious and gigantic collective cemetery, where for thousands of years the elephants have been retiring to die, had been debated since the middle of XIX Century.

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This legendary place, described as some sort of secret sanctuary, hidden in the deepest recesses of Black Africa, is one of the most enduring myths of the golden age of explorations and big-game hunting. It was a true African Eldorado, where the courageous adventurer could find an unspeakable treasure: besides the elephants’ skeletons, the cave (or the inaccessible valley) would hold such an immense quantity of ivory that anyone finding it would have become insanely rich.

But finding a similar place, as every respectable legend demands, was no easy task. Those who saw it, either never came back from it… or were not able to locate the entrance anymore. Tales were told about searchers who found the tracks of an old and sick elephant, who had departed from the herd, and followed them for days in hope that the animal would bring them to the hidden graveyard; but they then realized they had been led in a huge circle by the deceptive elephant, and found themselves right where they started.

According to other versions, the elusive ossuary was regarded as a sacred place by indigenous people. Anyone who approached it, even accidentally, would have been attacked by the dreadful guardians of the cemetery, a pack of warriors lead by a shaman who protected the entrance to the sanctuary.

The elephants’ graveyard legend, which was mentioned even by Livingstone and circulated in Europe until the first decades of the XX Century, is indeed a legend. But where does it come from? Is it possible that this myth is somewhat grounded in reality?

First of all, there really are some places where high concentrations of elephant bones can be found, as if several animals had traveled there, to a single, precise spot to let themselves die.

The most plausible explanation can be found, surprisingly enough, in dentition. Elephants actually have only two sets of teeth: molars and incisors. Tusks are nothing more than modified incisors, slowly and incessantly growing, whose length is regulated by constant wear. On the contrary, molars are cyclically replaced: during the animal’s lifespan, reaching fifty or sixty years of age in a natural environment, new teeth grow on the back of the mandible and push forward the older ones.

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An elephant can have up to a maximum of six molar cycles during its whole existence.
But if the animal lives long enough, which is to say several years after the last cycle occurred, there is no replacement and its wore-down dentition ceases to be functional. These old elephants then find it difficult to feed on shrubs and harder plants, and therefore move to areas where the presence of a water spring guarantees softer and more nutrient herbs. The weariness of old age brings them to prefer regions featuring higher vegetation density, where they need less to struggle to find food. According to some researchers, the muddy waters of a spring could bring relief to the suffering and dental decay of these aging pachyderms; the malnourished animals would then begin to drink more and more water, and this could actually lead to a worsening of their health by diluting the glucose in their blood.
Anyways, the search for water and a more suitable vegetation could draw several sick elephants towards the same spring. This hypothesis could explain the findings of bone stacks in relatively circumscribed areas.

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A second explanation for the legend, if a sadder one, could be connected to ivory commerce and smuggling. It’s not rare, still nowadays, for some “elephants’ graveyards” to be found — except they turn out to be massacre sites, where the animals were hunted and mutilated of their precious tusks by poachers. Similar findings, back in the days, could have suggested the idea that the herd had collected there on purpose, to wait for the end to come.

But the stories about a hidden cemetery could also have risen from the observation of elephants’ behavior when facing the death of a counterpart.
These animals are in fact thought to be among the most “intelligent” mammals, in that they show quite complex social relations within the group, elaborate behavioral characteristics, and often display surprising altruistic conduct even towards other species. An emblematic example is that of one domestic indian elephant, employed in following a truck which was carrying logs; at the master’s sign, the animal lifted one of the logs from the trailer and placed it in the appropriate hole, excavated earlier on. When the elephant came to a specific hole, it refused to follow the order; the master came down to investigate, and he found a dog sleeping at the bottom of the hole. Only when the dog was taken out of the hole did the elephant drive the log into it (reported by C. Holdrege in Elephantine Intelligence).

When an elephant dies — especially if it’s the matriarch — the other members of the herd remain around the carcass, standing in silence for days. They gently touch it with their trunks, as if staging an actual mourning ritual; they take turns to leave the body to find water and food, then get back to the place, always keeping guard of the body. They sometimes carry out a sort of rudimentary burial practice, hiding and covering the carcass with dry twigs and torn branches. Even when encountering the bones of an unknown deceased elephant, they can spend hours touching and scattering the remains.

Ethologists obviously debate over these behaviors: the animals could be attracted and confused by the ivory in the remains, as ivory is used as a socially fundamental communication device; according to some researches, they show sometimes the same “stupor” for birds’ remains or even simple pieces of wood. But they seem to be undoubtedly fascinated by their counterparts, wounded or dead.

Being the only animals, other than men and some primate species, who show this kind of participation in death and dying, elephants have always been associated with human emotions — particularly by those indigenous people who live in strict contact with them. There has always been an important symbolic bond between man and elephant: thus unfolds the last, and deepest level of the story.

The hidden graveyard legend, besides its undeniable charm, is also a powerful allegory of voluntary death, the path the elder takes in order to die in solitude and dignity. Releasing his community from the weight of old age, and leaving behind a courageous and strong image, he proceeds towards the sacred place where he will be in contact with his ancestors’ spirits, who are now ready to honorably welcome him as one of their own.70

Post inspired by this article.

Ecstatic bodies: hagiography and eroticism

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The body plays a fundamental role in Christian tradition.
Among the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity is indeed the only one to imply a God who became a man himself, thus granting an essential value to flesh and blood. According to Christian doctrine, it is told that resurrection will not be merely spiritual, but will also concern the physical body. Nevertheless, our flesh never got rid of its intrinsic duplicity: on the one hand, it lets the perfection of God’s work shine through – so much so that a holy body can “retain” within itself a part of the sanctity of the soul, whence the cult of relics – while on the other hand, of all human elements, it is the weakest and more susceptible to falling into temptation. The corruption of the flesh cannot be avoided except by mortifying sensuality or – in the most extreme cases – through the final sacrifice, more or less voluntary.

During the Middle Ages a distinction actually arose, ever sharper, between the carnal body and the body which will be resurrected at the end of times. As LeGoff writes, “the body of the Christian, dead or alive, lives in expectation of the body of glory it will take on, if it does not revel in the wretched physical body. The entire funeral ideology of Christianity revolves around the interplay between the wretched body and the glorious body, and is so organized as to wrest one from the other“.

That is why, in the lives of the saints, a disdainful denial of physicality and earthly life prevails. But, and that’s where things get interesting, there is a clear difference between male and female saints.
If the male saint usually accepts his martyrdom with courage and abnegation, in the vitae of female saints, female bodies are relentelssly destroyed or degraded, reaching superhuman extents in the hagiographic imagery.
As Elisabeth Roudinesco writes (in Our Dark Side: A History of Perversion, 2007):

When they were adopted by certain mystics, the great sacrificial rituals – from flagellation to the ingestion of unspeakable substances – became proof of their saintly exaltation. […] While the first duty of male saints was, following the Christian interpretation of the Book of Job, to annihilate any form of desire to fornicate, woman saints condemned themselves to a radical sterilization of their wombs, which became putrid, either by eating excrement or by exhibiting their tortured bodies.

Gilles Tétart in his Saintes coprophages: souillure et alimentation sacrée en Occident chrétien (2004, in Corps et Affects, edited by F. Héritier and M. Xanthakou) recounts several examples of this paroxysmal crusade against the flesh and its temptations.

Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun who lived in the Sevententh Century and was known for her mystic raptures, was “so sensitive that anything dirty made her heart jump“. But after Jesus had called her back to order, she could clean up the vomit of a sick woman by making it her food. She later absorbed the fecal matter of a woman with dysentery. By divine grace, what once would have disgusted her to death, now provoked in her the most intense visions of Christ, holding her with her mouth pressed against his wound: “If I had a thousand bodies, a thousand loves, a thousand lives, I would sacrifice them to be your slave“, she uttered.

According to some accounts, Catherine of Siena sucked the pus from the breasts of a woman with cancer, and stated that she had never eaten anything more delicious. Christ appeared to her, and reassuringly said: “My beloved, you have fought great battles for me and, with my help, you are still victorious. You have never been dearer or more agreeable to me […]. Not only have you scorned sensual pleasures; you have defeated nature by drinking a horrible beverage with joy and for the love of me. Well, as you have perfomed a supernatural act for me, I want to give you a supernatural liquor“.

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Before we go further, it is important to always keep in mind that hagiographies are not History. They are in fact literary works in which every element finds its place inside the narration for a specific purpose – that is not the accuracy of facts. The purpose of these tales is rather to create a bond with the reader, who at the time was supposed not only to deeply admire the saints, but to empathize with their suffering, to feel the pain in first person, even if vicariously, to identify with their tormented body.

Secondly, it should be considered that the lives of saint women were mainly written by male monks, and clearly reflect male enthusiasm and fantasies. All this has brought several authors (B. Burgwinkle e C. Howie, G. Sorgo, S. Schäfer-Athaus, R. Mills) to analyze the hidden parallelisms between hagiography and pornography, as the two genres – all obvious differences considered – share some common features: for instance, the special attention given to the body, the importance of identification, the extremely detailed descritptions, the use of stylized characters, and so on.

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Sarah Schäfer-Althaus, in her paper Painful Pleasure. Saintly Torture on the Verge of Pornography (in Woods, Ian et alii, Mirabilia 18 2014/1) focuses on three saint women: Saint Agatha, Saint Apollonia e Saint Christina.
In the case of Saint Agatha, according to some versions, during the torture a significant inversion occurs. If Saint Catherine, as we’ve seen, found the horrid pus “delicious”, for Saint Agatha the suffering turns into pleasure.

“The pains are my delight”, she literally exclaims, “it is as if I were hearing some good news” – an announcement, which enrages her male tormentor to such an extent that he redirects his attention not only back at her already mutilated body, but especially at her breast – the utmost signifier of her femininity – and has it brutally cut off. Once more, contemporary readers might expect a reaction denoting anguish and pain, a cry for heavenly relief for her suffering, yet instead, Agatha angrily replies in several versions of her legend: “Are you not ashamed to cut off that which you yourself wanted to suck?”

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Therefore the aggression reveals a sexual nuance, or at least there is some kind of erotic tension in the martyrdom, which in itself can be read as a symbolic defloration of the saint’s femininity. A real defloration or penetration – it must be stressed, cannot happen  the saint woman can’t be actually raped, because it is essential for the hagiographic tale that she preserves her virginity to her death.

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The same goes for Saint Apollonia and Saint Christina: here too, the penetration is merely symbolic, so that the protagonists can be joined with Christ while still chaste, and therefore their mouths end up being violated. Saint Apollonia endures the torment of having all of her teeth pulled out, and Christina has her tongue cut off.
At first glance the sexual allusion in these tortures might not be evident, but Schäfer-Althaus unveils its metaphorical code:

In medieval common knowledge, the mouth was on the one hand considered a “lock” with the teeth functioning as the final “barrier”, deciding what ideas and thoughts enter and leave the body. On the other hand, however, from Antiquity up to the ninteenth century, the mouth was linked to the female genitals and the tongue was often paralleled with the clitoris. The clitoris was in return often described as a “little tongue” and belonged to one of “woman’s shameful members”.

So these two torments could imply sexual violence, although it is only symbolic in order to allow the reunification with Jesus. These are, eventually, tortures which violate all of the most feminine body parts, yet preserving the purity of the soul.
So much so that Saint Christina can dare pick up her freshly cut tongue, and throw it in the face of her tormentor.

And her tongue, this instrument of speech and this symbolic clitoris, takes away his eyesight.

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If the parallel between hagiography and pornography is intersting but let’s face it a little risky, undoubtedly these hyperbolic tales compiled, as mentioned, by male authors in a monastic environment, give us a glimpse of medieval male fantasies.
There are scholars, like the already quoted Roudinesco, who have come as far as to recognize in these medieval tales an anticipation of Sade’s themes or, more precisely, a source of inspiration for the Marquis‘ work:

This is why The Golden Legend, a work of piety that relates the lives of saints, can be read as prefiguring Sade’s perverse inversion of the Law in The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. We find in both the same tortured bodies that have been stripped naked and covered in filth. There is no difference between these two types of martyrdom. The Marquis adopts the model of monastic confinement, which is full of maceration and pain, removes the presence of God, and invents a sort of sexological zoo given over to the combinatory of a boundless jouissance of bodies.

After all, the line between pleasure and pain is often blurred, and this is even more true in hagiographic literature, since in martyrdom the pain of sacrifice is inseparable from the joy of reunification with God.
And the hidden gratification for the most atrocious details, the colourful language and the vivid descriptions, had to provoke in the reader a desire: desire to emulate these fearless saints and these powerful, incorruptible virgins who were able to transform pain into ecstasy.

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Yamanaka Manabu

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Dove ci sono uomini
troverai mosche
e Buddha
(Kobayashi Issa)

Chiunque percorra un autentico cammino spirituale dovrà confrontarsi con il lato oscuro, osceno, terribile della vita. Questo è il sottinteso della parabola agiografica che vede il Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, uscire di nascosto dal suo idilliaco palazzo reale e scoprire con meraviglia e angoscia l’esistenza del dolore (dukkha), che accomuna tutti gli esseri viventi.

Il fotografo giapponese Yamanaka Manabu da 25 anni esplora territori liminali o ritenuti tabù, alla ricerca della scintilla divina. Il suo intento, nonostante la crudezza degli scatti, non è certo quello di provocare un facile shock: piuttosto, lo sforzo che si può leggere nelle sue opere è tutto incentrato sulla scoperta della trascendenza anche in ciò che normalmente, e superficialmente, potrebbe provocare ripugnanza.

Gyahtei: Yamanaka Manabu Photographs è la collezione dei suoi lavori, organizzati in sei serie di fotografie. I sei capitoli si concentrano su altrettanti soggetti “non allineati”, rimossi, reietti, ignorati: sono dedicati rispettivamente a bambini di strada, senzatetto, persone affette da malattie che provocano deformità, anziani, feti abortiti, e carcasse di animali.

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L’approccio di Manabu è ammirevolmente rigoroso e rispettoso. Le sue non sono foto sensazionalistiche, né ambigue, e ambiscono invece a catturare degli attimi in cui il Buddha risplende attraverso questi corpi sbagliati, emarginati, rifiutati. Con la tipica essenzialità della declinazione giapponese del buddhismo (zen), i soggetti sono perlopiù ritratti su sfondo bianco – e il bianco è il colore del lutto, in Giappone, e sottile riferimento all’impermanenza. Sono foto rarefatte ed essenziali, che lasciano al nostro sguardo il compito di cercare un significato, se mai riusciremo a trovarlo.

Ogni serie di fotografie ha necessitato di 4 o 5 anni di lavoro per vedere la luce. Quella intitolata “Arakan” è emblematica: “Una mattina, incontrai una persona vestita di stracci che camminando lentamente emetteva un odore pungente. Aveva lo sguardo fisso verso un posto lontano, occhi raminghi e fuori fuoco. Cominciai di mattino presto, in bicicletta, cercandoli fra strade affollate e parchi pubblici. Appena li trovavo, chiedevo loro “Per favore, lasciatemi scattare una foto”. Ma non acconsentivano a farsi ritrarre così facilmente. L’idea li disgustava, e io li inseguivo e continuavo a chiedere il permesso ancora e ancora. Ho continuato a seguirli senza curarmi dei loro sputi e dei loro pugni, finché la pazienza veniva meno. Allora finalmente mi concedevano di fotografarli“.
Dopo 4 anni di ricerche, e centinaia di foto, Manabu ha selezionato 16 scatti che a suo parere mostrano degli esseri al confine fra l’umano e la condizione di Risveglio. “Sono sicuro che queste persone meritano di essere chiamate Arakan, titolo riservato a colui il quale recide i legami della carne ed è assiduo nel praticare l’austerità“.

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Nella sua sincera indagine sul significato dell’esistenza non poteva mancare la contemplazione della morte. Il suo racconto della ricognizione su una carcassa di cane illustra perfettamente il processo che sottende il suo lavoro.

Nel mio tentativo di comprendere la “morte”, ho deciso di guardare il corpo morto di un cane regolarmente, sulla costa. 

Giorno 1
    – L’ho accarezzato sulla testa, domandandomi se la sua vita fosse stata felice.

Giorno 2
– La sua faccia sembrava triste. Ho sentito l’odore diventare più forte.

Giorno 5
– Molti corvi si sono assiepati sul posto, a beccare i suoi occhi e il suo ano.

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Giorno 7
Il suo corpo era gonfio, e sangue e pus ne uscivano. Nuvole di mosche su di lui, e l’odore divenne terribile.

Giorno 10
– La bocca era infestata di larve, e il corpo si era gonfiato del doppio. Quando ho toccato il corpo, era caldo. Pensando che il corpo avesse in qualche modo ripreso vita, mi sentii ispirato e giunsi le mani verso di esso.

Giorno 12
– La pelle dell’addome si era lacerata, e molte larve erano visibili all’interno. Mi sentii deluso quando scoprii che il calore era causato dallo sfregamento degli insetti. Pensai che la “morte” è brutta e dolorosa.

Giorno 15
– Si poteva vedere l’osso da una parte della pelle strappata della faccia. Il corpo divenne sottile come quello di una mummia. L’odore divenne meno penetrante. Il corpo morto sembrava bello come un’immagine di creta, e scattai alcune fotografie.

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Giorno 24
– Le larve erano scomparse, e la testa, gli arti e il corpo erano completamente smembrati. Sembrava che nessuna creatura avrebbe potuto mangiarne ancora. In effetti di fronte a questa scena sentii che il cane era veramente morto.

Giorno 32
– Soltanto piccoli pezzi di osso bianco sono rimasti, e sembrano sprofondare nella terra.

Giorno 49
– L’erba nuova è cresciuta sul posto, e l’esistenza del cane è scomparsa.

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Ma forse la sua serie più toccante è quella intitolata “Jyoudo” (la casa del Bodhisattva).
Qui siamo confrontati con il volto più crudele della malattia – sindromi genetiche o rare, alle quali alcuni esseri umani sono destinati fin dalla nascita. Senza mai cedere alla tentazione del dettaglio fastidioso, Manabu colleziona degli scatti al contrario pietosi e commoventi, volutamente asciutti. Qui la condizione umana e la sua insensatezza trovano un perfetto compimento: uomini e donne segnati dalla disgrazia, “forse per via di cattive azioni nelle vite passate, o soltanto perché sono pateticamente sfortunati“.

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Il confronto con queste estreme situazioni di malattia è, come sempre in Manabu, molto umano. “In una casa di riposo ho incontrato una giovane ragazza. Non era altro che pelle e ossa, a stento capace di respirare mentre stava distesa. Perché è nata così, e che insegnamento dovremmo trarre da un simile fatto? Per capire il significato della sua esistenza, non potevo fare altro che fotografarla.
Persone che gradualmente diventano più piccole mentre il loro corpo esaurisce tutta l’acqua, persone i cui corpi si putrefanno mentre la loro pelle si stacca e le loro fattezze diventano rosse e gonfie, persone le cui teste pian piano si espandono a causa dell’acqua che si raccoglie all’interno, persone con piedi e mani assurdamente grandi, e via dicendo. Ho incontrato e fotografato molti individui simili, che vivono con malattie inspiegabili, senza speranza di cura. Eppure, perfino in questo stato, quando li guardavo senza farmi vincere dalla paura, vedevo quanto le loro vite fossero veramente naturali. Cominciai a sentire la presenza di Bodhisattva all’interno dei loro corpi. Queste persone erano l’ “Incarnazione del Bodhisattva”, i figli di Dio.

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Quando un artista, un fotografo in questo caso, decide di esplorare programmaticamente tutto ciò che in questo mondo è terribile e ancora in attesa di significato, il confronto con la vecchiaia è inevitabile. D’altronde i quattro dolori riconosciuti dal Buddha, in quella famosa e improvvisata uscita da palazzo, sono proprio la nascita, la vecchiaia, la malattia e la morte. Quindi i corpi nudi di persone anziane, in attesa del sacrificio ultimo, rappresentano la naturale prosecuzione della ricerca di Manabu. Pelle avvizzita e segnata dal tempo, anime splendenti anche se piegate dal peso degli anni.

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E infine ecco la serie dedicata ai feti abortiti o nati morti. “Per una ragione imperscrutabile, non ogni vita è benvenuta in questo mondo. Eppure per uno sfuggente attimo questo piccolo embrione, a cui è stata negata l’ammissione prima ancora che lanciasse il suo primo grido, ha sollecitato in me un’immagine eterna della sua perfetta bellezza.”

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Quelle di Yamanaka Manabu sono visioni difficili, dure, sconcertanti; forse non siamo più abituati a un’arte che non si fermi alla superficie, che non si nasconda dietro il manierismo o lo sfoggio del “bello”. E qui, invece, siamo di fronte a una vera e propria meditazione sul non-bello (ovvero asubha, ne avevamo parlato in questo articolo).
Nell’apparente semplicità della composizione queste opere ci parlano di una ricerca di verità, di senso, che è senza tempo e senza confini. Fotografie che si interrogano sull’esistenza del dolore. E che cercano di catturare quell’attimo in cui, attraverso e oltre il velo della sofferenza, si può intravvedere l’infinito.

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Ecco il sito ufficiale di Yamanaka Manabu.