18 YEARS OR SO AGO, A WELL WAS DISCOVERED IN MASSA MARITTIMA. IT FEATURED QUITE A PECULIAR FRESCO: ‘L‘ ALBERO DELLA FECONDITÀ’, IN OTHER WORDS, A PHALLUS TREE. THE WELL HAILS BACK TO 13TH-CENTURY MASSA MARITTIMA AND WAS DISCOVERED BY CHANCE ON 6 AUGUST 2000; THE FRESCO AND ITS ODD REPRESENTATION WERE FOUND ON THE BACK OF THE WELL.
The subject is strikingly peculiar: seven women are painted below an imposing tree; two of them are caught in a violent altercation, surrounded by a ring of black birds in flight. By the looks of it, the women are plucking fruits from the tree, which exudes something unnatural or otherworldly as the ‘fruits’ turn out to be 25 (!) male genital organs. What we have here isn’t just the best preserved frescoed representation of mundane wall painting in the whole of Europe (featuring a subject which at the time wasn’t as untypical as we think): it also represents a scientific contribution of considerable value; it also is the earliest finding of its type (Ferzoco narrows it down to between 1270 and the start of the 14th century). Representations of this type are incredibly rare. Until now, only two other frescoed phallus trees have been found, and one of them is only a reconstruction, namely the one found in Lichtenberg Castle, Val Venosta (around 1400), which can be seen at the Ferdinandeum Tyrolean Provincial Museum, while the other one was found in Castle Moos-Schulthaus, (ca. 1475) in Appiano, South Tyrol.
I’ve been studying this subject for over ten years and this extensive review will deliver some surprises. Pictorial representations from Medieval paintings are, as a rule of thumb, codes, and therefore follow a specific syntax. At the time, the intention wasn’t to depict reality but a symbolic content: the ‘message’ was the most important element in a world where illiteracy ruled, and education was accessible only to the clergy and royalty. Pictorial representations from the Middle Ages have to be decoded because they conceal more than what they’re showing. One can only understand the sense of these paintings by approaching them with said mindset.
Also consider how the Middle Ages approached sexuality. The representations of the time feature a dearth of details, relying on the bare essential: men are icons of power, so to speak, and women symbolise the ‘other’, and are partially dangerous, inscrutable creatures. Come to think of it, not much has changed over the course of history. This is the time of the Malleus Maleficarum and the Inquisition. The covenant with Satan and the sins of the flesh were on everyone’s lips, boosting a perverse persecution of innocent people by approval and consent of the official Church who commissioned these hunts. ‘Witches’, most likely respectable older women, were accused of all sorts of crimes: failed harvests, bad weather, famines, and especially cursing the ‚membrum virile‘, the standard Latin term for a man’s sexual organ, which manifested as a case of unexplainable impotency. The witches went on trial and hundreds of people were thrown onto a burning pyre.
The coarseness of language and traditions offer a marked contrast to a very educated and cultured Minnesang literature, where the polarity represented by the world vision people had of women is expressed and is completely different from the practical use of her genitals as a reproductive tool and as a vessel to live out ‘banned’ pleasures which resulted in prostitution. A ‘best-seller’ of the time, or at least a well-known work among the educated classes, was the ‘Roman de la rose’ from the 13th century, written around 1235 by Guillaume de Lorris. A richly illustrated text representing one of the most influential works in French literature, which expressed the desire for the unattainable purity of love towards a fictional character.
It’s worth mentioning because we find a peculiar illustration among its pages: namely, the first pictorial representation of a phallus tree, where an old nun (!) is busy plucking phalli from a tree to then hoard them in a basket. What is most noteworthy is the associated text: ‘Inutile de resistier au désir de nature! Même l’habit monastique ne vors sera d’aucun secours! Cueillez donc les Planiert de la die!’. A loose translation would sound as follows: ‘It doesn’t make sense to reject the call of nature. Even to live as a monk (or a saint) won’t save you from it. Therefore, it is better to enjoy life and its pleasures!’
On another page, we see a monk handing over a larger phallus to a nun as a present or offering. On yet another folio, a monk is dragged along by a leash as a dog would be, by a nun. The leash is wrapped around his ‘best bit’.
Bear in mind that sex in the Middle Ages was approached more openly, even within the Church, and that ‘obscene’ is a modern concept which didn’t exist in the past. The representation of nakedness in the past was just the opposite of being clothed, nothing more, nothing less: what would be considered ‘obscene’ today was just business as usual in the past. Even the Church hadn’t rallied against the then stonemasons’ divestitures, erect phalli, and even female sexual organs carved on a church’s capital. And not only because they acted as a deterrent – rather they were used to banish evil eye, which always (at least today) resides in the eye of the beholder. What’s more, a typical nuptial gift was to present the bride with a ‘minnetruhen’: one from Bael depicts a phallus tree.