Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mis-interpreting the Saints

The Caesar clothing store in the Karel Doormanstraat is modern, luxurious and surprisingly expensive. It is not unusual to see sneakers priced at 300 euros and t-shirts priced at 100 euros. Like the store says:
Caesar Donna is one of the leading stores in luxury fashion. A visit to Caesar Donna can be compared with a treat in superior service and a qualified shopping experience in a luxurious atmosphere.
Looking in their store window is a heady mix of curiosity, amiration, envy, and disgust. Some designs are sleek and elegant, others are pompous and overdone. All are expensive and all are optimized for conspicuous consumption.
Last April I looked in the store and saw this elegant combination. An interesting mix of cultural memes. Especially the t-shirt with black lace and the 19th-century engraving of some saint. A remix of modern club-culture with bourgeois religiosity. How had the designer arrived at this result? Possibly influenced by Latino gang-culture with their Roman Catholic symbolism? Or an echo of the modern popularity of the rosary? Would the owner of this t-shirt ever realize this cultural incongruity?

At that moment I was only thinking about the iconography. I never realized that the story was even more complex. But somehow the name of the saint stuck in my memory.
Later that month I was in Prague for private business. I also visited the bell-tower of the St. Nicholas church in Mala Strana. And there I met Saint Agatha again. But in a very different context.
Saint Agatha (+225 in Sicily). Patron saint of bell-founders. She was cruelly tortured for her Christian faith. Among the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts. The shape of her amputated breasts gave rise to her attribution as the patron-saint of bell-founders.
Now this is weird!
  • The picture of a martyr is put on a t-shirt designed for partying.
  • The picture of a saint whose breasts were cut off, is placed on top of the breasts of the wearer.
But it gets even weirder!
  • The saint on the t-shirt is not carrying breasts on a platter, like St. Agatha most often does. The saint on the t-shirt is carrying pliers and a palm branch.
  • St. Agatha is rarely depicted with pliers, as an indication of an even more gruesome torture (and even less suitable for a woman's t-shirt).
  • The saint most often depicted with pliers is St. Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists (obviously).
It is possible that the designer simply mixed up the saints. Or he didn't dare to put breasts on a platter on the t-shirt. Or he knew what he (she?) was doing and made a conscious ironic joke. We will never know.

This says something interesting about our culture. But I'm not able to put it into words yet.

References: - Martyrdom of St. Agatha - Martyrdom of St. Agatha

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the fascinating post! I think people today will wear anything though, without caring about what's on top of it, and my first thought when i saw this was that the designer must be just copying it directly from somewhere.

    I went to google both saints and you're absolutely right about the different "typical" iconography for the two. However, when I did a google image search for it "saint agatha", a few pages down into the result i found this tiny picture of what seemed to be a scanned card:

    So I think there was no complex decision on the part of the designer/illustrator - I suspect they just got this card from somewhere and did a direct copy of the image! I'll even bet they scanned it............