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Strange Fruits

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.

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1954 in Wien geboren, ist Autor und Kunstkritiker. Er studierte Philosophie an der Universität Wien und promovierte 1996 in Philosophie im Hauptfach mit der 600 Seiten Dissertation „Diskontinuität und Seinserfahrung“ bei Prof. Kampits, Prof. Mader und Doz. Vetter. Daneben intensives Studium der Kunstgeschichte mit dem Schwerpunkt italienischer Renaisssance bei den Kunsthistorikern Prof. Rosenauer und Prof. Fillitz sowie Grafik bei Prof. Koschatzky. Interesse an griechischer Mythologie, sowie speziellen Bereichen der Kunstgeschichte, Renaissance- und Barockmalerei, sowie profaner Wandmalerei in Mittelmeerraum- und Süditalien, aber auch zeitgenössischer Kunst.

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