Lord, either let me suffer or let me die …
Some notes on the things I find interesting that feed into, inform, the content of my project Delphyne: Guardian of the Oracle of Delphi. This project considers the relationship between women and belief, women and religion, women and hereticism and fanaticism, the idea of being part of a spiritual world much bigger than one’s self, the power of the need to believe (‘that narcotic that makes living easier’, according to Julia Kristeva).
The first image that comes to mind when considering the relationship between women and religion is obviously of Eve and the Serpent. The first woman in the world, a sex toy for Adam, embroiled immediately, in her sole autonomous act in the Biblical narrative, in an erotically charged scene of corruption and pleasure. Eve taking the forbidden fruit is the most sexual moment in the history of Western culture as this interpretation by William Blake clearly illustrates. This iconic interaction cements in cultural memory the bond between woman and reptile.
References to Pope Joan first appeared in medieval manuscripts in the 13th century. She was supposed to have lived in 9th century Italy; though her existence was believed widely until the 16th century, the implausibly long gap between the female pope’s lifetime and her first mention in history means she is now considered fictional. According to Martin of Opova’s chronicles, Joan was a highly learned woman who entered the church to follow her lover. She was found out when she gave birth during a procession, and died shortly after (by childbirth or murder). The story suggests that even the most educated women are slaves to lust and sin.
‘I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it …’
From the writings of St Teresa of Ávila, 1556
St Teresa of Ávila was a celebrated mystic and Catholic nun who lived in 16th century Spain. She experienced intense raptures and visions, which she described in detailed documents. The vision quoted above was the inspiration for Bernini’s famous sculpture made almost a hundred years later. Teresa feared her visions were diabolical, but she was reassured that by senior members of the church of her righteousness. Although her visions sound very sexual, which Bernini picks up on in the orgasmic expression of his sculpture, she stopped short of describing explicit imagery and claimed that though she was visited by Jesus Christ, he was always invisible. Current medical thought suggests she suffered from temporal lobe epilipsy.
In 1620’s Italy, Abbess Benedetta Carlini, famed for her spirituality and intense supernatural visitations, was discovered to be conducting a sexual relationship with Sister Bartolomea, her cell-mate. Carlini maintained that she was possessed by the angel Splenditello, fulfilling her wifely duty to Jesus Christ, transported in a heavenly vision when she seduced Bartolomea, who was conflicted by flattery that an angel loved her or fear that she was engaging in lascivious corruption. Unlike St Teresa, Carlini’s visions were found to be heretical and she had a spectacular fall from grace, imprisoned for the rest of her life. Though her story has been re-interpreted by feminist and LGBTQ+ writers, it was more likely Carlini’s egotism and popularity amongst the laypeople than her ‘immodest acts’ that led to her condemnation.
Aside from Carlini, the association of lesbianism and nuns has been prevalent for hundreds of years. From anti-Catholic propaganda to 17th century erotica to contemporary porn, film, performance and literature, there is a strong cultural link between female sexuality and a divine calling; apart from the enjoyment of taboo fantasy, religion could have historically provided an outlet for female sexuality not otherwise permitted in society. Divine ecstasy may be tolerated or even celebrated while secular ecstasy could only ever be repressed and policed.