The Most Infamous Whipping

I’ve no wish to offend anyone (at Christmas of all times!) but I don’t mind acknowledging that the tendrils of religion, eroticism, and kink have been entwined by better folk than me, going back for centuries at least, and probably to the very dawn of religion in its most pagan forms. Is there anyone out there so bold as to claim that a painting like this one (William Bouguereau’s 1880 The Flagellation of Christ – larger uncropped version here) was, or is, utterly devoid of erotic sensibility?

flagellation of christ


I didn’t think so.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

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  1. Gary Switch commented on December 25th, 2006:

    Indeed. Note especially the placement of the birch rod being wrapped by the man in the lower right corner. Do you think its resemblance to another kind of rod is merely coincidental?

  2. John commented on December 26th, 2006:

    SB: I don’t imagine that this comment will be posted…I’ve noticed you tend to delete the ones with which you disagree…and that is certainly your right, as it is your blog. But you should know that at least one of your loyal readers finds this post to be “utterly devoid” of eroticism….and utterly devoid of taste, as well.

    If you’ve really no wish to offend, why gratuitously go out of your way to do so?

  3. SpankBoss commented on December 26th, 2006:

    John, you do me an insult when you suggest I delete posts that disagree with me. I don’t do that.

    I do, however, routinely delete posts that are rude or judgmental or which fail to meet my standards of civility.

    As for your criticism, I think it unjust. As Gary noted, others find eroticism in this art — if you don’t, fine. But that’s a statement about your taste. Don’t you think it’s pretty narrow minded to say that the post is tasteless just because it’s not to your taste?

  4. lucy commented on December 26th, 2006:

    My response was like John’s, if not stronger. A shock of revulsion and nausea might begin to describe my reaction. You surely knew that your post would be offensive to faithful Christians who saw it; and you went ahead and posted it at an especially sacred time of the year. Would you have insulted Muslims or Jews as brazenly? Do you really have any standards of taste or civility?

  5. John commented on December 26th, 2006:

    Au contraire, Boss. You suggested (and I’m paraphrasing here, but fairly, I believe) that scarcely anyone could fail to find this post at least a little bit erotic. I responded with a position which said, in effect, “Gee, Boss, there just might be some of us out here who don’t find it erotic in the least.” Without denigrating your, or Gary’s, taste, I merely sought to point out that it is not universally shared….that what is erotic to one man can be disgusting to another. I respectfully suggest that it was I who came down on the side of tolerance….and, by the way, I doubt that it ever crossed Bouguereau’s mind that he was creating a work of erotica.

  6. SpankBoss commented on December 26th, 2006:

    John, your paraphrase is deeply incorrect. The question before the house is whether there’s “erotic sensibility” in the painting — meaning, whether it is charged with erotic imagery and intent. I never intended to suggest that each viewer would find the painting erotic. Each person’s erotic wiring is unique. It’s possible to see something and say “I don’t find it erotic, but it has elements that others may find erotic.” Given the homoerotic nature of this piece, it would be surprising indeed if it appealed to everyone.

    And no, you did not “come down on the side of tolerance” — not when you claimed the post was tasteless, rather than saying it was not to your taste. When you attack the post, rather than sharing your reaction to it, you are making a decidedly intolerant claim about the tastes you think others should have. You didn’t claim it “could be disgusting to another”; rather, you (in effect) claimed it ought to be disgusting to everyone. Too late now to climb down off that hobbyhorse.

  7. SpankBoss commented on December 26th, 2006:

    Lucy, I surely did not know that this post would be offensive to “faithful Christians” — indeed, many of the faithful Christians I know are very much in touch with the deep thread of erotic imagery that runs through all the iconography of the Christian church. Trust me, it’s in there. If you doubt me, ask an art history professor.

    To be sure, I was aware that some Christians — perhaps those of the more repressed variety, the ones who give greater Christianity an only-partially-deserved reputation for narrow-mindedness and anti-sexual values — might take offense. But frankly, I don’t expect many such to be reading this blog.

  8. lucy commented on December 27th, 2006:

    “I’ve no wish to offend anyone (at Christmas of all times!)” –yet you clearly did so and your response is to add insult to injury with your references to repression, narrow-mindedness, and anti-sexual values. Of course, Christian mysticism is and always has been replete with sexual imagery–nothing else in human experience comes close to the mystical experience. And the central Christian mysteries of the Christmas season, the Annunciation and Incarnation, of the planting of the divine seed in the soil of earth, of the divine child born of earthly woman but of no earthly father, are also sexual to the core, as sex itself is the central act of human participation in divine creation. What is at issue here is not sexual repression but the degradation of sex, the mockery and humiliation of God Incarnate, in which you join with the pagan soldiers in the painting.

  9. Aunty Agony commented on December 27th, 2006:

    Of course there’s “erotic sensibility” in that painting. The whole thing smacks of 19th century homoerotic flagellation – from the beauty of the Christ-figure, to those birch rods being bound in the lower right. It would only be natural for a painter in more censorious times to mask an essentially BDSM scene with religious imagery, or for erotic energy to be mixed with religious fervour to produce a piece that is one part holy, and one part sexy . SpankBoss, this was a truly ingenious Christmas posting – there’s nothing better than coming to an essentially erotic site AND finding something that makes me think about something in a totally novel way.

  10. Graeme commented on December 27th, 2006:

    Spankboss I credit you with one of the most senior and learned blogs in our world (though I rarely comment here). I cannot believe under any circumstance, that your intellect and intuition wouldn’t have predicted the intensity of response to this post positive and negative. However Lucy, “get a grip”, your reaction is why we have wars over gods name, (and by the way its Claudia, she told me so).

    Personally I don’t find this image erotic in any way, I do however have a great fondness for erotic art generally (more so probably than photos or film). Having had a quick look at the artists body of work, one does have to wonder why he painted this scene in particular.

  11. SpankBoss commented on December 27th, 2006:

    Lucy, at the risk of pedantry, I don’t believe I did offend anyone. Clearly you and a few others took offense, but I’m not convinced that’s my fault. I published a religious image, I pointed out that it was charged with eroticism. There’s nothing offensive in that, because it’s true.

    I’m also at a complete loss to understand why you lump me in with the pagan soldiers in the painting. You’re assuming things I didn’t say, and I don’t know why. Did you not note my title? I called this the most “infamous” whipping, which is generally a term of disapproval. Sheesh. Nothing in my post mocks or degrades Christ, and it says more about you that you assume otherwise than it says about me that I posted this.

  12. SpankBoss commented on December 27th, 2006:

    Aunty, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad someone understands the point I was trying to make.

    Graeme, I figured that there would be one or two folks who did the usual “react to what they feel about what I said, instead of what I actually said” sort of offendedness, and that’s pretty much what’s happening here. There’s nothing inherently offensive to Christianity in what I actually said, but there is a body of modern Christians who are quick to take offense (note I said “a body of”, meaning a subset, a fraction, a portion, not “all” or “a majority” or even “a lot”) at anything that doesn’t conform to the cultural conservatism they’ve grafted onto the otherwise sexually neutral tenets of their religion.

    So, yes, I knew this post would offend some cultural conservatives who happen to practice Christianity. I could, and can, live with that, though I never intended such offense, just was resigned to it. And I did figure the subset of folks who are at once Christian, culturally conservative enough to be in denial of the erotic power of Christian imagery, and readers of this blog was a fairly small subset. As, indeed, it may be — so far only two people seem seriously offended.

  13. SpankBoss commented on December 27th, 2006:

    I should add that I’m honestly surprised that anyone assumed I was cheering for the “pagan soldiers” or with them in spirit. That would be offensive to many Christians, surely. But I didn’t do it.

  14. ErosBlog: The Sex Blog » Blog Archive » Eel Sex And Octupus Underwear commented on December 27th, 2006:

    […] (Funny what people do and don’t get offended by. On the same internet at roughly the same time, Spanking Blog draws fire for posting a perfectly nice bit of religious art that just drools and drips with suppressed eroticism. Somebody needs to show those tetchy folks some eel sex.) […]

  15. John commented on December 27th, 2006:

    Well, Boss, I seem to have touched off a very interesting thread. I thought it was so well understood that taste is an individual matter, that when I described the post as tasteless, it would be taken for granted that I referred only to my own taste. Not dismounting the hobby horse, just clarifying. Anyway, debate is healthy…and fun as well.

    Some of us Christians may seem “repressed”, “narrow-minded”, even “anti-sexual”….but I am glad, for your sake, that you chose an image of Christ instead of, say, Mohammed, for the post. Otherwise, you’d probably have joined Salman Rushdie as target of a Fatwa. Osama’s boys don’t mess around with debate when they get offended.

    Be assured, your fine blog is appreciated, and visited daily.

  16. Angellover commented on December 27th, 2006:

    I totally agree with the comment given by lucy!! I am a catholic in practise and I believe in the love of Our Lord, who suffered all physical and psychic pain for our redemption. There is no connection with erotic feeling – apart of the brains of those thinking like Spankboss

  17. Amber commented on December 27th, 2006:

    As yet another Catholic, I prefer not to think of Christ’s flagellation in that way (indeed, it’s one of the mysteries we are supposed to contemplate), but, looking at the picture, I see what SB means entirely. I believe he is talking about the painting and the painter here rather than about Christ’s actual scourging at the pillar and its meaning for the Christians.

    Lest I come across as a hypocrite, I will confess that I was always uncomfortably aroused by “Let him cast the first stone” scene.

  18. SpankBoss commented on December 27th, 2006:

    Amber, that’s exactly right. I’m talking about the painting, not the events depicted.

  19. SpankBoss commented on December 27th, 2006:

    John, I appreciate your help in keeping the debate civil, and thanks for the clarification. I’m not quite sure I’m buying it — usually “tasteless” is an outward-directed insult at the taste of others, and not a way of saying “not to my taste” — but given the potential for misunderstanding internet prose, I’ll take the clarification in the intended spirit.

    As for your point about the relative vigor to the debating styles of the followers of Christ versus Mohammed, I’ll shrug and say it seems much of a muchness to me. Some of “your boys” are pretty quick to violence too, and there’s not a dime’s worth of difference in the debate style if you go back a few hundred years. “Kill them all, God will know his own” was not uttered by a Muslim. It’s moot in my case, however; if fear of misguided religious fundamentalists could shut me up, I wouldn’t be writing a kinky sex blog.

    (I say “misguided” because my own understanding of the Religions of the Book leaves me feeling that none of them genuinely condone violent sanctions against unbelievers.)

  20. lucy commented on December 27th, 2006:

    A couple of points of clarification. I did not mean or say that SpankBoss condoned or supported the flagellation of Christ, only that his act of posting this painting in this context and with the comment given was, like that of the pagan soldiers, one of mockery and humiliation of the Son of God as well as of those who believe in him.

    The distinction made between offending and being offended , in my view, is not pedantic so much as false. The distinction is between active and passive, but each is necessary to the other. Like hitting and being hit.

    The discussion here is interesting in the gulf it illustrates between the religious (in the sense of those who actually believe the central doctrines of their faith) and the secularist. The latter not only don’t believe, they cannot really imagine that anyone else does–hence the disrespect of the faith of others, hence the unconsidered insults, as if calling people culturally conservative, anti-sex, proponents of religiously motivated violence, etc., needed no supporting evidence or argument and constituted a knock-down argument.

    For the record, I also am a Catholic, and I agree with Pope Benedict’s very sex-positive encyclical, “God is Love,” and also his condemnation of violence in the name of religion as incompatible with the nature of God. Finally, while few of us can claim countries, faiths, or ideologies that have no blood on their hands, let’s remember that the sum total of violence committed over two millennia in the name of Christianity pales in comparison with that committed in the last century alone by atheists and anti-Christians such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, et al. As the Soviet dissident Bukovsky put it, “Communism typically killed as many people in a day as the much-criticized Inquisition killed in all the centuries of its existence.” In a day.

  21. Jason commented on December 27th, 2006:

    I love to stumble across erotic art with this sort (bdsm) of content. For those offended by the Christian theme, check out “Cupid Chastized” in the Chicago Art Institute. Pagan and hot!

  22. sage commented on December 27th, 2006:

    A comment on the works of Bouguereau. It is very possible he meant to demonstrate sensuality in this painting. Most of his work is highly sensual, and there is a great deal of passion in this particular piece. I’m sure he didn’t mean for this to be comfortable for those who look at it, and I believe it is very possible he considered the erotic potential when he painted it — perhaps for that very reason.

  23. SpankBoss commented on December 27th, 2006:

    Lucy, I don’t believe it’s possible to mock and humiliate when one absolutely lacks any intent to do so. So, you’re simply wrong in claiming that I did those things.

    And you can’t conjure disrespect from thin air. Saying that a particular image of an object of faith is charged with eroticism — which is all I did — is simply not “disrespect of the faith” as you claim. Perhaps if that faith condemned eroticism outright you could make that argument, but as you yourself have admitted, yours doesn’t.

    Of course you’re free to be offended. But you’ll have to settle for being offended by fantasy insults that never happened, because what you’re claiming simply isn’t present in my post.

  24. lucy commented on December 28th, 2006:

    Positively my last comment, I think :).

    “Saying that a particular image of an object of faith is charged with eroticism — which is all I did — is simply not “disrespect of the faith” as you claim.”
    Well, not quite. You posted a painting of a sacred theme, a subject of meditation for centuries, on a spanking blog, pointing at its (supposed) eroticism. What might be a serious comment in an art history lecture or a discussion of sexual currents in Christian mysticism takes on a different import in the context of a (generally excellent!) spanking blog–one that produced feelings that they and their faith were being mocked and humiliated on the part of at least some of your readers.

    There seems to be a contradiction between on one hand your strong subjectivism and relativism in terms of taste–things are to my taste or not, they cannot be tasteless in themselves–and, on the other, the objective standard you seem to have discovered to assess what is and isn’t offensive. If I didn’t mean to offend or insult you, I didn’t? Even a slight acquaintance with people of different faiths and cultures should disabuse one of that position. Can one not say simply, “I am sorry if I offended you; that was not my intent”? That I can understand and accept. It is what we naturally say when we inadvertently offend someone. But you want to say something stronger: “There was objectively no offense for you to take. It’s all a fantasy and in your head.” That is truly adding insult to injury and a kind of double standard to which other cultures and faiths are not commonly subjected in the “enlightened” West.

  25. SpankBoss commented on December 28th, 2006:

    Oh, I see, Lucy. An otherwise acceptable comment about art history or art criticism becomes insulting because on most days, I talk about porn? That sounds like a sneer at porn to me, the very sort of anti-sex attitude that you disclaim and deny.

    In case you missed it, I’m proud of my little porn blog, and I think that most of my posts about images are art criticism of a sort. To me, porn IS art, and a lot of art has a bit of porn in it, too, including the piece in question. Lots of folks who hate porn are offended by every post I make. For you to come along and say, in effect, “Stick to porn, I’ll get offended if you talk about images that matter to me, no matter how polite you are” has a strong subtext of “You’re a dirty pornographer, I like what you do so long as you stay in your place, but use the service entrance and don’t you dare put your sticky fingers on the paintings in the living room.”

    I can respect your religion until I’m blue in the face, but you’ve just explained that it doesn’t matter what I say, I can’t actually discuss or analyze any image that touches on your religion because the very context of my comments makes such discussion offensive to you. Needless to say, I’m not going to worry about that very much.

    Why should I apologize for the offense you took, when you’ve explained that you took offense not to anything I said, but to my having the temerity to make my comments in the offensive context of (gasp) my own blog?

    Very entertaining to discover that you’re a patron of this establishment, but you think it’s somehow too filthy a place in which to discuss sacred art. If I were the sort of person to take offense easily, I might take offense at that.

  26. Graeme commented on December 28th, 2006:

    SpankBoss you seem to be getting a tad riled, which I think is beneath you. I can only hope to achieve your command of our language, and the restraint you have shown so far (apparent nonchalance aside). Ms Lucy you to are eloquent and clearly aggrieved by Spankboss’s post. Therefore me thinks that the best course of action is to agree to disagree.

    I thought that an image such as the one shown would cause some offence, to some people. As a devout Secularist it didn’t for one second occur to me, that at this time of heightened Christianity (I know now) that it would offend “some” more than usual.

    The positives from this debate so far, for me are: I have learned the relative scale of secular genocide through the ages, measured against religious genocide (shocked I was). I have re-learned, that to some Christmas is really about the birth of a religion. I’ve learned that lots of Christians have opinions on spanking and bondage themes in spite of their religious convictions that may or may not have once earned them a place tied to a stake. And finally I think that apparent religious eroticism is something that we as spankophiles, BDSMer’s and other interested parties should look at more closely in 2007.

    Have a happy new year one and all ;-)

  27. SpankBoss commented on December 28th, 2006:

    Graeme, I continue to appreciate your civility, but not so much your attempt to characterize my emotions. I’m the furthest thing from “riled”, as it happens. What I am is passionate about freedom of expression and about precision in that expression. Words are important to me, so when folks accuse me of positions I never articulated, I get passionate about refusing to have those positions attributed to me. I’m equally passionate about rejecting suggestions that I should have remained silent for reasons of good taste or because my forum is a sex blog.

  28. lucy commented on December 28th, 2006:

    Thank you, Graeme, for your helpful comment. Now SpankBoss and I do have common ground. He says: “Words are important to me, so when folks accuse me of positions I never articulated, I get passionate about refusing to have those positions attributed to me.”

    Exactly! SpankBoss, leaving aside your earlier mistaken attributions of positions I do not hold (social conservative, repressed, anti-sex, etc.), you now attribute whole sentences to me in direct quotes that could not be farther from my own positions or feelings. I complimented your blog. I enjoy it and am grateful for your work in maintaining it and making it available. To say that some things, say sexual jokes, may be entirely appropriate (and fun) in some contexts but not others (say, a job interview) is not to denounce those things. (And, btw, I took your posting of that painting together with the Merry Christmas greeting to be a joke.) I also support your right of freedom of expression–as also my own right to say I was offended while understanding that that was not your intent. That’s what I said and what I meant, not that you do not have the right to say whatever you like on your own blog. You invited comments and I gave some.

    I do now have a livelier appreciation of how easy it is to draw unwarranted inferences. And also a clearer understanding of the traditional Catholic position articulated by Aquinas and Dante that pride is the most serious of the deadly sins…and lust the least serious.

  29. SpankBoss commented on December 28th, 2006:

    Lucy, where did I attribute any of those things to you? My exact words: “To be sure, I was aware that some Christians — perhaps those of the more repressed variety, the ones who give greater Christianity an only-partially-deserved reputation for narrow-mindedness and anti-sexual values — might take offense. But frankly, I don’t expect many such to be reading this blog.”

    I was saying “since you’re reading here, you must not be one of the anti-sex Christians, who are the only ones I thought might take offense.” How do you get me calling you one of those anti-sex Christians from that? You have it exactly backwards. I was extremely careful not to lump you in that camp. For all the good it did me.

    Also, where did I attribute any sentences to you? Note the phrases “for you to say, in effect” and “has a strong subtext of”. These are not attributions or direct quotes.

    I’m really at a loss as to how to argue with someone who wants to argue about things I never said. And I still don’t understand how it’s offensive to say, on a kinky sex blog, at a season devoted to the birth of a religious figure, that a particular painting of that religious figure has sexual overtones. Joking or not — and I wasn’t — I still don’t understand why anybody’s knickers are in a twist. (Anybody except, of course, the folks who are uptight about sex, the folks everybody agrees probably aren’t reading this blog.)

  30. lucy commented on December 28th, 2006:

    Well, SpankBoss, I am afraid we are going round in circles and Graeme is right. It is time to agree to disagree. What we are disagreeing about may be murky, but I am afraid it is not going to get any clearer. Happy New Year!

  31. SpankBoss commented on December 28th, 2006:

    I’ll agree about the going around in circles, anyway. As for the rest, I’m not even sure we do disagree; it still feels like you took offense at things not said. But I’m certainly happy to let it drop. Last word is yours if you want it, I’m done. Happy new year yourself!

  32. Dr. Whiplash commented on September 9th, 2007:

    I believe the major problem here is merely one of semantics. I’m guessing that some of your readers think that labeling something with the term “erotic” must mean that the so-termed subject in question must give the viewer (or reader, listener, etc.) either a boner or wet panties. Not true. It must merely give the thought, however so small and fleeting, that it is of a sexual nature. I find it difficult to believe that any Spanking Blog reader would view this image without such a thought, whether approving or disapproving. They may very well not APPROVE of the depiction that they presume to be the Christ central to Christian theology, but if this were an image without the stereotypical Jesus of Nazareth imagery, and without the title, and in a more modern-day time period for instance, I think it’s fair to say it would be understood as erotic. Imagine for instance that it were the Marquis DeSade fastened to the pillar. Therefore, to me, it is unquestioningly erotic, and I believe fairly obviously painted to be so, even though it does not give me a “woody”. Bouguereau has gone out of his way to use well-known painterly devices to bring attention to the action of the man in the red turban (who is binding his firmly-gripped rod), which is being pointed to by the Christ figure’s dramatically curved lower body and toe.
    It would be more fair to call it blasphemous, which could be argued as a valid matter of personal opinion, though even that is arguable. Perhaps the painter’s intent was to show that the flaggelators were “evildoers” who beat Christ not for his acts, but because they had an opportunity to get their own sexual kicks out the circumstances, or maybe it was to show that we the viewer, in recognizing any sexuality at all in the depiction (particularly if one were to actually identify with the flaggelators), are all sinners. Either of which would be arguably in support of the Church, not in opposition to it. The painting itself does not deprive Christ of his sacred character, and therefore could be argued as quite tasteful…

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