Processions with phallic figurines, images of apotropaic phalluses on the facades of most homes, fascinating objects (Fascinus) … It is these phalluses, signs of sexuality, paganism and perfection, current as never before in the Middle Ages, that iconography, like medieval theology, it had to subtract. In any case, only the body of God will have corresponded the privilege and responsibility of a possession, of a phallus. The difficult question that theology and iconography had to solve was how to make visible what should remain the most invisible: how to make the symbol present. How to present the most problematic testimonies of the body, in a world in which the body itself was most present. How to hide the evidence; or rather, how to demonstrate a concealment, capable of suggesting, of inciting beyond simple evidence. How to manage eroticism (how to carry out eroticism as administration of the signs of enjoyment).
It is in this context that we can begin to understand the systems of isomorphism, ambivalence, substitution, and transfer typical of any complex iconographic system. It is in this context that an interpretation that is already evident from a perceptual point of view may be plausible: the ability of the medieval painter to solve that Gordian knot is expressed in the construction of a body that presents anatomical signs sufficient to show itself as a personification, and at the same time, he plays perceptive games of ambivalence and transposition that allow an iconographic “double articulation”. In many crucifixes between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, it is possible to appreciate the staging of this body typology. In an immediate reading, the body of the crucified is shown as serenely close to death: it is a functionally open body, scattered, offered or donated to the viewer, through hands that are no longer hands because they cannot catch, arms that have ceased to be arms because they cannot be closed, etc … A body whose life is diluted, leaves like water between the fingers, so that the flow of blood shows the spectacle of death, of lack of containment, of the absence of closure (of the rupture of the skin closure), of incontinence.
The vexation of the crucifixion is also vexation for nudity, for the breach of the limit of privacy. Only the piece of cloth that covers his genitals preserves an area of privacy, a part of the body that eludes the martyrdom of visibility. The penis of Jesus Christ seems to be free of at least part of the punishment; their concealment, their invisibility does not refer so much to the Judeo-Roman modesty, but to the Christian modesty, since the Fathers of the Church will not have been willing to exceed that limit: They will be able to stage, with exemplary character, martyrdom, but not to the point of make visible the total vexation of the privacy of a body that, despite everything, will be considered at all times as divine, mystical – even in its least worthy moments. This “loincloth” cloth is not just censorship, but rather a cessation, theological interval, the objective announcement of his resurrection.
But by withdrawing from the immediate reading of the body as a whole, it is possible to approach the parts of that body as figurative protagonists. In doing so, it is appreciable that these anatomical parts do not faithfully reproduce their supposed body referents. For symbolic reasons, the torso of these crucified ones is not shown to us according to a naturalistic criterion; quite the contrary, the lines that come to represent the belly, the navel, the breasts, the nipples, seem to respond to an internal formal logic. This is even more evident in the ways in which the veiled shapes of the ribs are represented: A minimal observation will allow us to appreciate the evidence of open and explicitly phallic figures in these torsos of the crucified. Supported by a forced isomophism (a creative aesthetic accounting), the painters wanted to suggest a phantasmal presence of the phallus, an erect figure par excellence, in the belly given to the viewer in that semi-naked body.
The modesty with which the genitals of Jesus Christ are wrapped, all the more since popular wisdom refers to the illustrious erection typical of the death rattles, is offset by the subtle obscenity of a gigantic phallus that occupies the geometric and symbolic center of the figure. It is therefore not surprising that the loincloth closure often contains ribbons, motley folds, and knots that plastically virtually reflect the phantasmal phallus of his belly. They re-enunciate a phallic epiphany made this time of folds and knots, as pure tissue (text); and in many cases, concealment is an instrument of an emphasis directed to the package, so that the “loincloth” emphatically directs attention towards what it is supposed to avoid, as in the case of the Christ of Mantegna … Symbolic repetition of the lack. The theological mystery is encrypted by the gap between concealment (loincloth) and unveiling (epiphany of the phallus); between censorship as a limit to the representation of the (divine) body, and the symbol, as representation of the lack.
Is it a whim of our perverse contemporary gaze? Is it the whim of some painters who surreptitiously introduced a heretical counter-discourse into the very core of the greatest symbol of Christianity? And if this were so, how is it possible that the ecclesiastical institution, so subtle in its discussions and so generous in its inquiries, could ignore these evidences, these crimes? Would it be traced, in any case, from vestiges of paganism inevitably infiltrated into the ins and outs of Christianity?
Undoubtedly, a historical interpretation can hardly hope to be considered definitive. From the perspective of contemporary epistemology, you can, at most, hope to be consistent with the data available at any given time, awaiting future and forgery falsification. The increasingly abundant data on medieval times confirm the lack of ingenuity of the producers and consumers of images. Quite the contrary, medieval societies are highly sophisticated, highly specialized societies with a disposition for the complex that has only recently begun to be recognized.
The presence of the real body in its gaps with an imaginary body, and with the tonsure of a symbolic body, is confirmed by documentary and monumental evidence of all kinds. It is difficult to avoid the omnipresence of that everyday body, simultaneously sublimated by grace and alienated by pain, a dark, problematic body, traveled by ailments and whose ideality is one more drive, its need is another of its contingencies … Nothing in culture medieval will subtract itself from that dance of a simultaneously imaginary, real and symbolic body; at the same time possible, impossible and necessary.
The cult of the phallus (Hermes, Apollo, Priapus, Fascinus, god of fertility, etc.) was absorbed by the Christianized populations. Phallus amulets are found everywhere in all museums in Europe. But it is not only a popular art, linked to the “ignorant crowd”. Until the French revolution, above the portal of the Toulouse cathedral and above the portals of most of the churches in Bordeaux, there was a huge phallus like the one that still exists in Trasacco24 and like the one that once existed in Città di Castello25. We know that these customs inherited from paganism had an apotropaic value and it is not strange that they are preserved in the Christian era, according to the typical Christian strategies of acculturation.
This is evident in the Benedictine church of Ciudad Rodrigo, in whose richly worked lignary choir, absolutely lascivious scenes can be observed, the armrests of the chairs are shaped like a phallus, like the fascistol on which the gospel rests … A typical example of the permanence among the Christians of the cult of Priapus is provided by the feast that until 1780 was celebrated in the church of San Cosme and San Damián in Isernia; Every September 27, under the portal, the canons gathered selling male wax organs of various dimensions26, some of almost a span – there are price lists according to their length – that were later offered to “San Cosme” by the faithful.
But there is a properly Christian tradition that would definitively confirm the plausibility of the interpretation of the representation of the torsos of the crucified according to a phallic symbolism. It is the risus paschalis, or Easter laugh, a custom known since the 9th century and whose testimonies can still be found in the 19th:… on Easter morning, during the Resurrection Mass, the preacher caused the laughter of the faithful, by whatever procedure, especially with gestures and words in which the obscene component predominated. The religious, was the homily, the officiant, was a priest, preacher or parish priest, or even a “guest artist”, as a preacher from outside for the occasion – began to tell jokes and stories or jokes and “make jokes borrowed from kitchens and patios, “to joke in obscene words, to acting like a cheeky jester in church,” offering up the sight of things that spouses often do in secret in their rooms and should be done without witnesses ” , showing, in effect, the genitals, mimicking onanists, masturbating, imitating the homo or heterosexual act, disguising any parishioner as a monk and inviting him to officiate, etc … The testimonies are also modest in their descriptions, and suggest that the reality was even more obscene. Thus, Ecolampio affirms that he does not dare to describe everything that he used to do in the churches “so as not to stain pages with those things” and says “omit the most obscene things” 27. News of the custom of enriching sermons with obscene and entertaining stimulants appears before the tenth century (Hincmarus, Bishop of Reims in 852). The cultural level of the clergy in the 9th century was not too high28, so the habit of provoking laughter and entertaining the clientele would have been a natural rhetorical device of a popular and populist nature. No matter how low or high his cultural level, the preacher had to be able to structure a preaching, with a minimum knowledge of the scriptures. However, this custom can be found among the cults and refined clergymen of the Florence of the XIV29.
It is possible to affirm that pleasure, in various forms, but above all pleasure related to the sexual sphere, is a constant presence in the sphere of the sacred, almost always condemned, but that it resists all prohibitions30. In any case, in cases like this, prohibition was not the only ecclesiastical attitude towards the phenomenon. In order for this custom to last for at least twelve centuries, a certain agreement had to be given by the priests. It is easy to think that the obscenities of the Romanesque capitals are related to certain performative rites such as that of risus paschalis. In this sense, the ornamental should be considered as a clear instrument of hearing, infiltration, and legitimation.
According to the logic of acculturation, the authority will have simultaneously condemned and encouraged these practices. Under the stimulus of prohibition, the prohibited will constitute an element of social infiltration, a recruitment strategy, since it appeals precisely to everything important to people31.
However, in this context, the evolutions of a prohibitive rhetoric32 will be observed, which will finally condemn the risus paschalis, eliminating all attacks on modesty by the priest and the faithful even on the morning of the resurrection.
The phallus, linked to the re-enunciation of apotropaic meanings and attributions, will have emerged as a figure for resolving a crisis, as if the mere showing of the genitals were a sign of confidence, non-aggression, commitment, and jocularity: Thus it is shown in numerous mythological episodes, from Pharaonic Egypt33 to Christendom, including the “phalophoria”, sacrifices in honor of Isis. Even in the Christian sphere, the mythology of death and resurrection show the presence of phallic signifiers everywhere.
In this context, it is not very risky to conclude by stating that the phallic epiphanies on the torsos of the crucified Jesus Christ are not Gestalt fantasies, but complex iconographic projects by many medieval painters, intended to offer visibility of the symbol par excellence, on the occasion of the extreme situation. of the mystical body, at the moment of extreme cessation. It is a solemn iconographic version of the risus paschalis, in this case referring to the body of God.
Upright smile against death, the paschal laugh refers, in effect, to the graceful erection of the resurrection, to a phallus paschalis, a paschal phallus. From that absurd, purposeless erection, nonsense, the absurd, will have arisen, conjured by the transcendent sense of the resurrection: the resurrection is formally announced by the erection, testifying a resistance, a death rattle that, in the case of Christ, and always from the perspective of this Christian mythology, it is just the wink of a life that has not ceased: the divine testimony that resists death: the phallus of Christ did not die; the part survives the whole. Thus, the phallic spell of Easter would refer to that presence of the symbol of Lack. God as Lack becomes more present than ever at the instant of Christ’s death. The sky darkens as the phallus trembles. The figure of the crucified will then be the presence of castration, and castration spell: The real lack of a symbolic object. The phallic vertical laugh as an image of castration, and emergence, erection (diabolos) and resurrection (symbolos), separation and religation. Crisis and imaginary resolution, farmakòs.