The image of crucified Christ hanging on a cross tortured and bleeding was a spectacle of death that did not merely evoke horror, disgust, compassion, or spiritual contemplation. It also encapsulated a moment of intense visual power that could evoke feelings of desire and pleasure. Pleasure can be embedded in the visual displays themselves; as the pleasure of the torturers of Christ, for example. Or pleasure can be cultic, embedded in the way the spectators look at the image of crucifixion. The paper seeks to explore the ways pain and pleasure can be interwoven in visual and devotional manifestations.
This presentation will examine images of the suffering Christ as illustrated in select manuscripts and murals produced in the 15th century. In accordance with the Congress’ assigned thematic focus, pleasure, the argument will be offered that the visualization of the Son of God as a man tortured both physically and emotionally provided the viewer with a unique opportunity to derive (spiritual) satisfaction from a shared experience – the intervention of uncertainty and pain into one’s tenure on earth. Ultimately such imagery encouraged empathy as well as ecstasy, in one’s subsequent expectation of eternal peace in heaven.
The English mystic Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – c. 1440) focused her affective devotion on bodily suffering and what she called ‘the gift of tears’. Her loud weeping and cries of sorrow as she beheld the Eucharist, meditated on her sins, or observed any baby boy with his mother, often disturbed the public order. Her mystical suffering was charged with an erotic pleasure focused on the act of desiring as an immediate end within itself. Consequently, Margery offers a unique example for the reformulation of Foucault’s theory of ‘bodies and pleasures’ within the Middle Ages.