Painful Pleasure: Saintly Torture on the Verge of Pornography

Painful Pleasure: Saintly Torture on the Verge of Pornography

By Sarah Schäfer-Althaus

Mirabilia, Vol. 18 (2014)

Saint Agatha torture scene - Illumination from the Passionary of Weissenau (Weißenauer Passionale); Fondation Bodmer, Coligny, Switzerland; Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 39v

Abstract: Within female hagiographical narratives, stimulating, pornographic and often sadistic endeavours can be detected, gendering the tortured body parts such as tongue, teeth or the breast and thus supporting the development of (negative) erotic phantasies. The paper explores the connection between pornography, torture and hagiography and investigate the ambiguity of this “painful pleasure”, which despite any assumptions is not only enjoyed by the male torturer when cutting off these symbolically significant body parts, but recurrently so it seems also by the saint herself, who more than once cheerfully exclaims that “the pains are my delight” (Saint Agatha).

Introduction: While being tortured severely, barely imaginable for readers of and listeners to the story, Saint Agatha’s reaction to the pains she must suffer is surprisingly one expressing delight. ‘The pains are my delight’, she literally exclaims, ‘it is as if I were hearing some good news’ – an announcement, which enrages her male tormentor to such an extent that he redirects his attention not only back at her already mutilated body, but especially at her breast – the utmost signifier of her femininity – and has it brutally cut off.

Once more, contemporary readers might expect a reaction denoting anguish and pain, a cry for heavenly relief for her suffering, yet instead, Agatha angrily replies in several versions of her legend: ‘Are you not ashamed to cut off that which you yourself wanted to suck?’ With this statement, the maternal implications of the female breast are set aside and the torture itself is turned into a form of male sexual aggressiveness towards women and consequently into a sexually motivated penetration.

The torture of the breast ‘informs men’s concerted efforts to control – to design and administer – gendered social arrangements that maximise male pleasure and minimise frustration’or as Gulley notes, the torture itself has ‘an association of failed sexual corruption with Agatha’s breast [which] encourages the audience during the later torture scene to view the cut off breast as a sign of successful sexual penetration, particularly when compar[ing] the torn flesh with the clearly intact flesh’ – the hymen.

medieval-mag-36-362x500Agatha’s exclamations link pain with delight, connect pain with pleasure and allow the tormentor to direct all of his rage at her breast. Furthermore, taking her utterances literally, then not only the male torturer seems to enjoy the spectacle of the penetration with the result of cutting off symbolically significant body parts, but perversely, so it seems, Agatha herself does as well. In addition to being undoubtedly a legend about a virgin suffering severe bodily tortures in order to be united with God, the narrative of Agatha in particular unfolds a sexual level of reading and interpretation. Saintly torture is here presented as being on the verge of pornography with sadistic fetishes being executed which are based on the tortured saint and which try to trigger and stimulate hidden erotic fantasies. The exemplary portrayal of the legend of Saint Agatha makes thus room for the argument that there is a connection between hagiography and pornography.

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