Micro to macro: Art, Catholicism, and Prostitution


I was in Konstanz, Germany over the weekend. I end up here often because I’m working with some colleagues from the university there. I always mean to do some sort of a write up about this amazing city in southern Germany. Part of what makes it so wonderful is that it escaped a lot of Allied bombing during WW2.

Let’s start small.

This first image shows age damage on a carved wooden door that was installed in 1472 CE at the Neiderburg Cathedral. Let’s zoom out.

Now a bit more.

The part of Konstanz where this cathedral is located is quite ancient and dates to the medieval period. The lanes are paths that wind through the renovated townhouses from the 13th-16th centuries.

The church was built starting in 1052 as a pillared early Romantic structure. The sepulcrum vault in the image below is from that early phase of the church.

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Various additions occurred throughout the years with a final foreboding Gothic tower in 1856. 404 years after constructing began. The pillars in the picture above are from the later portion of the church as it was greatly expanded. In the cathedral’s plaza, archaeologists have also uncovered the remains of a 4th century Roman fort, as well. This whole area is really like a “tell” or a Southwestern “pueblo” in that there are continuing constructions on top of older, collapsed, abandoned, and filled in structures. Much of these earlier times are completely unknown and there are often surprises during construction and building remodeling in Konstanz.

Konstanz has fluctuated in “importance” through the years. It’s location at the head of the Rhine on Lake Konstanz is a powerful draw. Between 1414 – 1418 CE, Konstanz was also home to the Council of Konstanz where Catholic Clergy converged to decide a number of important church issues, including how to end the Western Schism, which was essentially the existence of multiple popes (it was a lot more complicated then that, but I’ll leave it there). The Council ended with the election of Pope Martin V. The Council is famously remembered by a statue of a prostitute at the entrance to Konstanz’s port.

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The statue, called the Imperia, is the artist’s critique of what he saw as the hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy where they would condemn individuals to death on moral issues while spending their evenings, and often discussing their political concerns, with prostitutes. The statue also highlights the intersectional nature of marginality, oppression, and power because it highlights the prostitutes’ portion of the story as well. History regularly ignores members of society that are considered “unclean” or unimportant for a variety of reasons that include being poor, being enslaved, or being a woman (or at least not being a rich woman). For those not well versed in recent feminist theory, intersectionality (briefly) comes from anarchist, queer, black feminism (a la the Combahee River Collective) and is the idea that all individuals have multiple axes of identity that differentially interact with, and are impacted by, social power structures.

So for me, people I interact with will be engaging with me as a Dutch resident, a US citizen, a cismale (i.e. my gender matches my sexual organs and chromosomes), my working class background (or lack of an upper class background), my politics, my activism, my hunting ethics, my education, my career, my parental status, my health, my exercise life, my marital status, and my “whiteness”. And all of these are relative as well. Depending on who I am interacting with, my “whiteness” will be either assumed because of my skin tone, or condemned for that same tone because of my Italian heritage. Even within Italy, racism associated with skin color exists between northern Italians and southern Italians. Intersectionality isn’t just that we’re all made of this giant quilt of identities, though. It’s main point is that these identities shift depending on our social context and that we need to better understand how power structures marginalize individuals and communities across all of these axes. And then we need to understand how those effects interact as well. This complicated mash-up of identity is one of the reasons that modern social movement theorists have decried the older view that religious and social movements are built of cohesively “identified” individuals (the oldest form of social movement theory actually argued that anyone participating in social movements was essentially insane and caught up in crowd frenzy).

In Konstanz there is an oral tradition that places the prostitutes that arrived with the Catholic clergy as central to the decisions made at the Council because the clergy would discuss the days proceedings with the women and men and often implement the prostitutes’ advice. The statue then celebrates how oppressed people can change the world while simultaneously critiquing the toxic nature of patriarchical privilege that marginalizes and destroys so many people. This is noble. I think the nature of the statue simultaneously glorifies prostitution and doesn’t fully address the fact that this was a position most of these women were likely forced into (either physically or because they had no other access to employment and familial/food security). But it’s at least an attempt to right the wrongs of History. Which is sadly quite rare.

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