Beautiful Agony: The Taboo Nature of Religious Art

Icons have often served as outlets for desires and emotions, especially within the Catholic Church. The Virgin Mary represents a form of goddess worship, which helped promote the participation of queer women within the church. However, there are many forms of religious iconography that allow people outside of Catholicism to satisfy their homoerotic and BDSM desires as an appreciation for art. Images of saints and other religious figures undergoing some form of violence present an aesthetically pleasing vision of agony as ecstasy.

John Gray’s poem “A Crucifix: To Ernest Dowson” portrays the image of Jesus on the cross in a highly sensual manner. “Long fluted golden tongues of sombre green, like four flames joined in one, around the head, and by the outstretched arms, their glory spread” (Gray 6-8). He also goes into detail to describe the convulsions of Christ and the throbbing of his Sacred Heart, but it is peculiar that his verses are written to a specific person. Ernest Downson, to whom this poem is addressed, was fellow poet and member of the Decadent movement (as was Oscar Wilde). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [1]notes that some of his letters and works contained themes of pedophilia (and while this is still very much a terrible thing we can look at it in context with homosexual desires as two things that were considered taboo and often unfortunately joined together). Gray served as a priest to many prominent queer writers like Wilde and Michael Field aka Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, so perhaps his letters served as a means of showing Dowson how to write about unsavory desires[2] by using art and iconography as a mask.

Michael Field also delves into this, although it is an interesting perspective. Now we have two women with their own mindsets who occupy a space reserved typically for men. However, they are queer women and offer that insight into homoeroticism that society would try to deny existed in art. Their poem “Saint Sebastian” (in reference to the Antonello Da Messina painting) describes the body of the martyr as a playground for sexual appetite “He, with body fresh for use, for pleasure fit, with its energies and needs together knit in an able exigence” (Field 79-81). It is a type of BDSM art, the mix of both pleasure and pain hidden as piety and what it means to be a devout Christian saint.

This poem is not written as a letter, but it still addresses a specific piece of art so in some ways Michael Field is addressing not only the museum which houses this work, but the art historians who deny the homoerotic nature of these paintings. Michael Field is also two women who have gained access to an area of art and culture that was reserved for men, and as queer women they have a rare insight into this world as well as the bravery and wit to address it. Like John Gray they look at the art as a vessel to hold and fulfill desires. Being a mix of both pleasure and pain these works represent the culmination of aestheticism: experiencing everything, leaving no sense without nourishment and oversaturation. The pain comes with the pleasure, just as enacting these taboo desires unfortunately goes hand in hand with the backlash from society. Thus these pieces pose a question: Is the experience worth the price?


[2] Again, not condoning pedophilia. They just happen to be unfortunately coupled together as two taboo subjects of the 19th century.

Below is a link to the Wikipedia page for a film based on the cult following and homoeroticism surrounding the iconography of Saint Sebastian. The film is available online but it is also very graphic and might not be appropriate for an academic blog.

Sebastiane (1976)


The Exception of Beauty: How Appearances Absolve the Beautiful of Sin

One of the overarching themes of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is beauty, not only as an aesthetic sense but also as a social position still present in today’s society. Dorian Gray transforms into an embodiment of debauchery and corruption throughout the years, casting his guilt and crimes upon the portrait that contains his soul. However, I feel that one of the reasons the portrait takes on the appearance of the sins committed is not only because it contains part of Dorian, but of the artist Basil Hallward himself. He even claimed that he put too much of himself into the painting, and in with his death marked the turning of the tides. However, Dorian gets away with all of these horrific acts, including the death of Sybil Vane, because of his beauty.

Dorian Gray’s story, and by that I mean his actual life and not the timeline of the book, even begins with beauty. His mother was remembered as a beautiful young aristocrat who became the victim of unsavory attitudes and manipulation after marrying a man of a lower class, a “Belgian brute” (Wilde 35). Lord Henry talks with Lord Fermor of Dorian’s life, and when the latter asks what kind of boy he is Lord Henry simply replied “He is very good-looking” (Wilde 35). This implies that one should not have to question his character and morals, for beautiful people must be inherently good (an unfortunate assumption that has dominated our culture for millennia). There is also a divide in beauty, for while his mother, Margaret Devereux, was an exceptionally beautiful woman, she is met with pity and disdain for her choice to marry below her class. Dorian’s actions are excused because he is a man belonging to an upper class, and the deeds are even forgotten quickly because of his beauty and charm.

The culmination and exoneration of Dorian Gray primarily happens at the end of the novel. With the death of Sybil Vane and her misfortunes it is unfortunately cast aside as a sort of foolish act due to the influence of Lord Henry. However it is resurrected in chapter XVI when Dorian encounters her brother James Vane. Determined to kill Dorian and take his revenge (Which is an interesting mix of rightful vengeance and the incredibly masculine stereotype of the over protective brother driven to violence in order to preserve the virtue of his sister) James recounts the wrongs of his sister’s doomed love. In this Dorian finds his means of escape, which is the third time he seeks to be absolved of crime (the first two being the news of Sybil’s suicide and his murdering of Basil Hallward), explaining that he couldn’t possibly be the culprit because her death was eighteen years ago and he is but a young man in his early twenties. James sees him in a brighter light and realizes this (for how could a beautiful young man have been responsible?). However he soon learns that Dorian has tricked him and sets out for revenge.

Dorian is not completely free of Sybill’s death until James is accidentally shot and killed during a shooting party with Sir Geoffrey. However, he later confronts Lord Henry about his crimes, asking what would happen if he were to have committed them. Henry tells him that he would be trying to pose as a character that does not suit him. “All crime is vulgar…crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders” (Wilde 203). Thus Dorian is trapped. He is absolved of the actions of the crimes but left with the guilt (which some would argue is a much more terrible fate). His beauty is the curse through which our society still operates. We even have an obsession with “sexy” criminals and fell better for them, painting an image of wrong doers as people as grotesque as the portrait of Dorian Gray. However we are starting to recognize this and can hopefully move towards a time where character and class are not tied to our physical appear

Here is a link to the latest “sexy criminal” taking the internet by storm:

Sexy Criminal Mugshot

Lover or Enemy: The Problematic Variations of Romance and Assault Between Mina and Dracula

Dracula’s assault on Mina Harker, as well as her reactions afterwards, represent a highly tangible moment of terror, anxiety, and the paranoia of reverse invasion. As the only surviving woman of the entire novel she alone possesses the promise of the continuation of the English bloodline. Her response and self-loathing after realizing what has happened came as a shock to me, primarily because none of the movies portray her in this manner. Especially in the Dracula adaptations of the last few decades there is the notion of the Count and Mina belonging together. In some productions and films (most notably Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 movie) the two of them are actually an eternal couple, with Mina being the reincarnated wife of Dracula, who has lived through the centuries to find her again. However, this presents a dilemma of sorts. Does the new plotline give Mina more agency in choosing to let Dracula turn her into a vampire, or does it sweep her assault under the rug?

Christopher Craft delves into the ideas of sexual and societal upheaval in his essay “’Kiss Me with Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, focusing on the antagonist as a trigger of sexual perversion and a confusion of gender roles. He notes that Mina’s drinking of the blood possesses a double meaning, a “symbolic act of enforced fellation and a lurid nursing. That this is a scene of enforces fellation is made even clearer by Mina’s own description of the scene a few pages later; she adds the graphic detail of the ‘spurt’.” (Craft 457-458) There is also her sorrow and feelings of self-hatred and impurity following the assault “Unclean, unclean! I must touch him or kiss him no more. Oh that it should be that it is I who am now his worst enemy, and whom he may have most cause to fear.” (Stoker 302)

The Coppola film shows none of this, and even has Mina try to stop the men from attacking Dracula as he flees the room. Later on in the film she also tries to seduce Van Helsing and kill him, and tries to thwart the men’s efforts to kill the count. Whether this is due to the vampire’s influence or her own nature as his apparent soul mate (or both) no one can say. In any case there is still a clear ignoring of Mina being raped. This primarily has to do with the male gaze and turning sexual assault into a horrid display of “passion.”

Another distinction between the film and the novel is that Mina ends up killing Dracula and setting his soul free. Through her true (pure?) love the Count is freed from his curse of demonic immortality and allowed to pass onto heaven. This creates an interesting shift of agency from a band of men (Crew of Light as Craft calls them) to a single woman taking power from her rapist and using it to ultimately end the threat to England herself. There is a fine line here, but it also makes Mina more than just an observer and victim. To me it would have been a better decision to actually keep the assault the way it was in Stoker’s novel, but then have Mina use the newfound powers herself to bring Dracula down rather than be passive and constantly hypnotized by Van Helsing. In any case there is bound to be another Dracula adaptation in the next twenty years, and perhaps the soul mate part will be omitted. However I would like to see Mina be given more agency, especially if she is the true protagonist.

Below is the scene from the Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula when the Count assaults Mina. (It’s not violent but can be very uncomfortable for some people)

Dracula’s Unholy Power: British Fears of the Supernatural and Reverse Invasion

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of the more prominent horror novels of the 19th century (while it was initially dismissed as a cheap thriller), plays not only on this fear of the supernatural, but the paranoia and fascination with “reverse invasion.” In Ledger and Luckhurst’s Fin de Siècle they describe a particular fascination with “fantasies of reverse invasion by the French or Germans.” (xvi) While Transylvania is neither of those areas it still falls within the mystery and almost primal realm of Eastern Europe.

Count Dracula himself plays on multiple fears and anxieties of this time period: supernatural, educated and powerful Transylvanian noble, and in combination he present the third fear of the foreigner both as something not human and not English. Aside from the dubious transaction of real estate close to the capital city of England there is also the intention to assimilate into British society. As the Count is showing Jonathan around the castle he insists that the young man stays so that he can learn to speak proper English. When Jonathan remains confused, as Dracula speaks perfect English, he is offered this explanation, “ True, I know the grammar and the words, but yet I know not how to speak them…I am content if I am like the rest, so that no man stops if he sees me, or pause in his speaking if he hears my words, to say, ‘Ha, ha! A stranger!’ I have been so long master that I would be master still.” (25) By assimilation into British culture and sounding like an Englishman Dracula can dominate the nation from the inside, and no one will suspect a thing until it is too late.

This ties into The Island of Doctor Moreau as well, relating to Prendick’s fear of every human he encounters possessing an inner beast that could break free at any moment. Dracula would become one walking among many, unsuspected and able to be a “master” in England as well as Transylvania. Jonathan is correct in stating that Dracula speaks perfect English, but he does not possess the accent necessary to maintain his high-class position[1]. In learning the “Queen’s English” dialect spoken by a majority of the upper class there is already a leap forward in Dracula’s social standing. He has the vast estate outside of London and soon will have the opportunity to become the new master of England (we all know he’s a vampire). There is also this interesting need to give the foreigner a supernatural or animalistic quality. In order for the paranoia and fear of the unknown to have any validity the foreigner must be distinguished as an “other.”

In his desire to learn the “proper” way to speak English the antagonist is bypassing the labels placed upon him as a foreigner. This is what makes him even more dangerous. While he still maintains the supernatural qualities, Dracula becomes an everyday English nobleman[2]. Of course there are still the ties to Translyvania, but the perfect pronunciation of the language gives comfort to the British, assuring them that he is not a wild and dangerous foreigner who has come to destroy their society.

[1] The play/film Pygmalion (also adapted as the musical My Fair Lady) demonstrates this need to have perfect language. “An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him.”

[2] In some versions of the film adaptations Dracula keeps his Transylvanian accent (most notably in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version). By some supernatural power he possesses the ability to go unnoticed by others.

Below is a scene from My Fair Lady in which the Professor Henry Higgins discusses with his colleague the importance of speaking English in a proper manner. Keep in mind at Higgins is incredibly misogynistic and a bit racist especially when it comes to people from Eastern Europe (mostly Hungary). It doesn’t have the horror of Dracula, but perhaps it provides a bit of cheer to act as a counterpart.

Prendick’s Fear Realized: Britain as the Second Island of Doctor Moreau

The ruling of a nation, with the possibility of tyranny, exists as a symbiotic relationship (especially if the ruler possesses no heir). H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau presents the reality of an isolated kingdom, or perhaps twisted theocracy is a better term, that ultimately reverts to a primal state with the death of its leader Dr. Moreau. While Montgomery dies shortly after, but not before exposing the Beast People to alcohol, the remaining man Edward Prendick is not capable of assuming the “throne” of the island. However, he does offer up a new doctrine that temporarily restores a false humanity that eventually fades as the animals revert to their true natures. In chapter XXI during an exchange with the Dog-man Prendick there appears an interesting association of the narrator with the native inhabitants. “That Other who walked in the Sea is as we are.” (126) [1]The question then is: Is Pendrick a beast, are we all beasts, and if so is that why he is not able to maintain the humanity of the island? Thus the death of Moreau signals the end of a world, similar to how Queen Victoria’s death triggered the beginnings of the decline of the British Empire.

In The Longman Anthology of British Literature by David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar comes a passage focusing on the relationship of a ruler and their country, analyzing the power and restraints of Queen Victoria. In the passage entitled “Victoria and the Victorians” a newspaper clipping published at the time of her death in 1901 writes that “Few of us, perhaps, have realized till now how large a part she had in the life of everyone of us; how the thread of her life [bound] the warp of the nation’s progress.” (1050) If we as readers think of the island as the British Empire, then what other similarities can we find? Prendick returns to England and lives out his days with the constant fear of every human around him regressing to a bestial form, and while he would not approve of this, we must connect the two “empires” as much as possible for they are eerily similar.

The treatment of women in particular links the island and Britain, especially on the grounds of equal rights and reproductive abilities. Despite facing many hardships throughout her life due to her gender, Victoria was not a fan of “this mad, wicked folly of Woman’s Rights.” (1051) Women were also subjected to the duty to “soothe the savage beast her husband might become as he fought in the jungle of free trade.” (1061) The pink sloth, which I believe to be female, enacts this role by occasionally jolting Prendick awake, causing him to be hyper aware and remember his situation. It tests his humanity and patience, eventually slinking back to the trees. The women are also given a wild repulsiveness (for example the escaped puma, which can be seen as the “New Woman” in an abusive society, constantly in conflict with the queen and sexism).

Doctor Moreau also has problems with reproduction and the role of “females” as was the case, like the queen. Despite having nine children Victoria was also not fond of pregnancy, childbirth, and babies. (1051) Montgomery relates this to Prendick in Chapter XV, “they actually bore offspring, but that these generally died. When they lived, Moreau took them and stamped the human form upon them.” (84) Not only does this speak to the low mortality rates of the lower class, but to the contradictory nature of both the British and Moreau. It is the idea of improving by dehumanizing. As with the missions to spread Christianity into areas like “Darkest Africa” Moreau attempts to create humanity by performing actions that we (and his fellow Victorians) deem inhumane. The narrative of both the British Empire and Dr. Moreau is one of subjugation all in the name of a greater good, the effects of which are still in existence and as a curse prompt us to see the beast in everyone.

[1] I foolishly purchased a different edition by mistake (the only difference is that the font is bigger), and while the pages are only off by a small amount I decided to include the chapter numbers as well.