A few months ago I had the pleasure of an edifying correspondence with an old friend who had recommended to me a trilogy written by Anne Rice (she of the vampire books fame) in which Rice re-imagines the old fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty as an extended BDSM scenario. A very extended, quarter-million words-long scenario, as it happens. Many ErosBlog readers are doubtless familiar with this trilogy already, but for those that aren’t and who like that sort of thing, I’m happy to report that all three books appear to be still in print.

In the course of our discussion, my learned friend grumbled a bit about the fact that, as of late, Ms. Rice appears to have turned her back on such agreeably lurid and salacious content. Once a self-described atheist, she has returned to the Roman Catholicism of her childhood and sworn off writing about vampires, flagellation, etc.

Tish-tosh, I responded. It’s a free country, isn’t it?

Indeed it is, or at least ought to be, my liberty-loving comrade hastened to reply. But isn’t Rice dissing her fans a bit, when she disparages the themes those fans embraced so loyally and profitably?

I turned this thought over in my mind for a while.

What came up was something rather odd. A memory (or possibly confabulation) from childhood, of being a ten year-old faculty brat tagging along with a group of American college students on a tour of a church in Rome called Santa Maria della Vittoria. As you art lovers should be aware, this church contains a famous sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) called The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.

ecstasy of st theresa

Ten year-old me didn’t really understand why the big kids were elbowing each other and trying not to snicker. Later in life I discovered that Teresa of Avila left us a rather vivid account of her ecstasy, which makes what’s going on here a little clearer.

Beside me on the left appeared an angel in bodily form … He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest ranks of angels, who seem to be all on fire … In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one can not possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it — even a considerable share.

But it’s spiritual pain, so that’s okay, I guess.

Still I couldn’t help thinking more along these lines. I also remembered seeing a lot of renderings of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Pietro Perugino (1446-1524) is perhaps typical in his generous rendering of Sebastian’s arrow-violated flesh:

saint sebastion

And one cannot help but notice what pretty flesh it is, too.

No one is safe from suffering in this grand artistic tradition, not even — especially not even — its central figure:

the flagellation of christ

That’s by Caravaggio (1571-1610), a painter of genius who, for my money, would have extracted homoerotic interest from a still-life of a bed of gravel, had he chosen to paint one.

I’m not sure whether Albert von Keller (1844-1920) is mocking this tradition or part of it, but it’s pretty clear he was willing to take it a logical step forward in Mondschein (1894):

female crucified

These are only four works, presented here only because they happened to catch my eye on a certain day. Other works of a similar inspiration and part of the same grand religio-visual narrative could easily be found by the truckload. I have no doubt that many ErosBlog readers can add their own favorites to the list. If you’re of a certain cast of mind, you will be led to the suspicion that an anthropologist from Alpha Centauri, given the record of humanity’s visual culture and tasked with identifying its largest and longest-lived fraternity of BDSM enthusiasts, might point to a certain institution headquartered in Rome.

For my part I shall confine myself to a more modest conjecture, in response to my friend, and addressed to any fan of Anne Rice who might be feeling dismayed by the current turn in her life. Without this particular grand narrative, in which Ms. Rice was reared, and back into which she has now written herself, there might never have been her own distinctive body of work at all.

Or to put it more simply: no Holy Mother Church, no Naughty Beauty Tales.

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