BODIES OF RESISTANCE
By Simone Couto
A Catholic legend is the story of a martyred saint who has earned recognition for its honorable conduct, remarkable deeds, and contributions to the church and the community. Many of the female Catholic saints were young girls, mostly virgins, belonging to a wealthy, influential family. They refused to renounce among many things, religious, political, or secular beliefs and some devoted their lives to God and made promises, such as resisting the temptations of the flesh by remaining celibate. The word martyr, from the Greek, means to witness. These young martyrs were often persecuted and put to capital punishment for foreseeing alternative modes of existence.
The term “legend” was created in the Middle Ages as a deployment of the word legenda—the reading of historical facts included in the prayers at religious services. They trace back to a common oral tradition that unified them by similar supernatural events: cures, apparitions, miracles, prophecies, visions, stigmata, servitude to God and persecution. Saints were also in charge of the forces and laws of nature, controlling fire, water, air, and mountains. These readings evolved into narratives, now classified as unhistorical. Throughout the centuries, the Church has kept alive the memory of its heroes during sermons at mass by commemorating their names, recalling their deeds and their martyrdom. These stories have been appropriated, magnified, and adorned by both religious institutions and the fertile imagination of the people to promote the religious beliefs amongst the mass.
Today, legends continue to play a significant role in the Catholic Church, although the advance of science has attempted to distinguish fiction from facts. Legends and persecution of early Christians have also inspired artists such as the Italian Silvia Trappa. Le Sante is a series of portraiture works on paper and sculptures. The artist re-contextualizes in her contemporary voice the Roman Catholic martyrs, such as Saint Etheldreda, Saint Blandina, and Saint Agatha, just to mention a few of them.
Saint Etheldreda was an Anglo-Saxon princess born around c.630 and died in c.679 at Ely. She vowed perpetual virginity and unconditional love to God. She retained her chastity throughout her two royal marriages. She was given in marriage to Prince Tonbert. She received as a gift the Isle of Ely. Her first husband died after their union, and she devoted herself fully to her religious vocation. As a political move, her father remarried her to Egfrid, the heir of the King of Northumbria. Etheldreda received more land as a gift, this time at Hexham. In c.674, the new Queen generously donated the grant to her spiritual guide, Wilfrid, Bishop of York to found the Cathedral of St. Andrew Hexham. The legend says that the newest husband tried to persuade Wilfrid of York to enforce his marital rights. As a response, the bishop convinced him to send his new bride to a convent for a short period. Etheldreda was under the constant fear of being brought back to the marital residence and having her chastity vows violated. She escaped with two other nuns and fled south. The journey to the Isle of Ely was only possible because of the miraculous rising of the tide.
Saint Blandina was another Christian virgin martyr. She was born on c.162 and died on c.177. She was thrown into prison for confessing her faith. She was brought to trial and violently tortured during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Her fourteen-year-old small and frail body miraculously endured the lacerations. The legend says that her executioners reached exhaustion: There was nothing else they could do to her. However, she was constrained to a stake in an amphitheater and thrown to wild bulls during a public game. Nothing happened to her. Then, she was forced to witness the suffering of her fellow Christians. Her faith was so powerful that her body and mind resisted to such tremendous atrocities. Saint Blandina was terrorized more and placed on a red-hot grate, She was thrown to a beast that tossed her into the air with his horns. Finally, she was killed with a dagger.
The legend of Saint Agatha is perhaps one of the most barbarian accounts of female brutality. Saint Agatha was born in 231 AD in Sicily. She died twenty years later in the same place as a virgin martyr, probably tortured to death. At the age of fifteen, Agatha refused to marry Quintian, a Roman prefect because, similarly to Saint Agatha, she had offered her virginity to God. Angry, the bureaucrat had her arrested and persecuted for her Christian faith. She was condemned and sent to a brothel where she was humiliated and constantly assaulted. The legend says that she remained resolute to her promise and never trembled, proclaiming that her freedom was in Jesus. As punishment, her breasts were mutilated while she was held in prison. In “Sant'Agata”, 2013, a mixed media work on paper, Ms. Trappa gives us an updated interpretation of the legend. She places in the portraiture a velatio virginum, the red veil worn by consecrated women whose virginity has been given to God. She also undresses her heroine waist up and covers the breasts with a black censor bar. The body of Saint Agatha in the 21st century, as well as the body of the other female Catholic martyrs, is now a complex political construction of subjectivity beyond the simplified male/female and whore/saint binary approaches.
One point of entry to Trappa's current work is to think of these girls during their delicate and vulnerable transition from childhood to adulthood, a subject matter that she has explored in her preview pieces. She shares “what fascinates me especially ... is the transition period for the mind and body concentrated in a short period.” Trappa's depicted girls are somewhat placeless and on the verge of disappearance. This is the fragile state of purity before the dangers of growing up. Mary Douglas, in her book "Purity and Danger”(1), Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the concept of pollution and taboo, New York: Routledge &Kegan Paul, 1966, p.118. says that yet there is nothing morally and ethically wrong with an individual considered in a marginal state, he or she will be “treated as both vulnerable and dangerous because the status is indefinable.” Trappa's figures may sense, but they are not completely aware of the external forces that could be considered predatory. In her works, the somber facial expressions of her characters and the destabilizing vulnerability of their legs imply that they are in the pre-stage of the predatory imminence continuum (2), M.S. Fanselow and L.S. Lester, "A functional behavioristic approach to aversively motivated behavior: Predatory imminence as a determinant of the topography of defensive behavior", In: Evolution and Learning, R.C. Bolles and M.D. Beecher (Eds.), New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988, pp. 185-211 a perceptual-defensive mechanism inherent to animals that consist of sensing danger, strategizing and acting according to the severity of the threat.
In the craft of her work, Silvia Trappa proposes a speculative loss of the fresh young body and its transcendence. There is neither landscape nor a ground drawn to nest and support each one of her figures. They “float” on paper. The Bodily matter is reduced to its essentiality: the outline. Skin and support are one as if these bodies carry a sheer quality. Garments are minimal and used as symbolic references to the Catholic saints. We are left with the inevitable question if these girls will reach adulthood or not. This ambiguity activates the viewer's imagination, creating a space for inter-subjectivity. The loss does not have to take place necessarily on paper: It is suggested by the artist and can be materialized in the mind of the viewer. During this process, we face a renewed existential dilemma.
Another way to enter the work is by thinking about gender inequality. “The historical nature of gender-based violence confirms that it is not an unfortunate aberration but systematically entrenched in culture and society, reinforced and powered by patriarchy,” (3) writes the Asian and Pacific Island Institute on Domestic Violence. The system is a complex one: Based on social relations of power and interwoven with factors such as sex, gender, class, caste, ethnicity, and religion. It continues to use the concepts and strategies of colonial domination to perpetuate male dominance over women. More urgent than tracing its origin is to understand how modes of patriarchal control and exploitation impact women's emancipation in society. How does it take place and is reinforced by individuals in private and institutional forces in the public sphere?
It seems quite unbelievable, but in 2015, women still carry physical, psychological, and intellectual marks. Female genital mutilation is the most common practice in 27 countries in Africa, as well as in Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan (4). Women who commit adultery, are tortured and killed by stoning, a legal form of judicial punishment in the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, just to mention some of them. In progressive societies, women have joined the workforce and in many cases, not given up full responsibility for their household demands. Inequality remains until they are under the social expectation of heroically taking more roles than they can perform. Mediated Culture (5) targets adolescent girls. Many will become subjected to “contemporary colonialism” (6). Women are objectified under the Western consumerism promoted by commercial media while their psychological growth and self-confidence are undermined. They are increasingly expected to be beautiful, young, fit, and fashionable. Post-communist and developing countries face the recurrent terrifying news of female sexual exploitation and still have failed to take a stand to protect women who are still being treated and trafficked as merchandises.
Women, especially feminists, continue to challenge gender inequality and resist the dictatorship of the patriarchal model ideologies. Simone de Beauvoir, in her book "The Ethics of Ambiguity” (7), says that freedom only exists if there is an absolute rejection of constraints. It is not enough to be alive in this world. It is essential for a being to be able to decide how and under what conditions he or she wants to live. In this process of fulfilling the right of choice, we can speak of a contemporary social and political martyrdom, not just as a religious one. Women have fought gender nepotism. The have demanded universal human rights and freedom. They are engaged in political actions to end domestic violence and world slavery of women and girls. They have argued for changes in the legal system so they can share equal opportunities and working mothers are no longer penalized for giving birth and take time off from work to care for the infant. In confronting patriarchy, women have recognized cultural stereotypes and redefined their roles. They have faced male authority in defense of their views. Women’s emancipation through education continues to be a goal the most remarkable step towards a fair society.
The artist Silvia Trappa, in appropriating legends of female Catholic saints, rethinks the contemporary body. It is no longer fictional, but undeniable and contingent to the pressure to fulfill constructed ideas of patriarchic subordination. Le Sante instigates the viewer to reflect on the place of women in today’s society as a resilient one, bearing the heroic potential to resist.
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of concept of pollution and taboo, New York: Routledge &Kegan Paul, 1966, p.118.
M.S. Fanselow and L.S. Lester, "A functional behavioristic approach to aversively motivated behavior: Predatory imminence as a determinant of the topography of defensive behavior", In: Evolution and Learning, R.C. Bolles and M.D. Beecher (Eds.), New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988, pp. 185-211
4 Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Statistical Overview and Exploration of the Dynamics of Change, New York: United Nations Children's Fund, July 2013 (hereafter UNICEF 2013), pp. 5, 26–27.
Sociologists refer to mediated culture as the way media reflects, creates the culture, and shapes individual values. Communities and individuals are overwhelmed with information from multiple sources including the Internet, social media, TV, billboards, and magazines. This information promotes products, moods, attitudes, and a sense of community belonging. Mass media makes possible the concept of celebrity, particularly in America.
Contemporary colonialism in media is the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of recycled traditional values, ideologies, and politics from the colonial period. Neocolonialism remains embedded with racism and other oppressive relationships based on social variables like ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, New York: Citadel Press, 1948, p. 31