In the autumn of 1541, a scandal erupted in Rome.
“It was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully.”
Those were the words of Biagio de Cesena, the Papal Master of Ceremonies. Cesena was reacting to a new fresco on the wall of a chapel within the Apostolic Palace containing stark depictions of nudity.
Nudity in religious art was not new, but it was always used to convey shame or guilt. But this fresco was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.
Covering the wall behind the chapel’s altar, the fresco depicts a grand story of the second coming of Jesus Christ on judgment day. Its characters which included everyone from men, women, saints, angels and demons, weren’t just naked, they appeared to bask in their nakedness, unashamed and unapologetic. Complaining to Pope Paul III, Cesena tried to have the fresco torn down, with the artist branded a scoundrel and made to repent. And despite the Vatican later hiring someone to paint clothing barely covering everyone’s genitalia, both the artwork and the reputation of its artist would endure. An estimated five million people now visit the Sistine Chapel each year to witness the genius of Michelangelo’s fresco, The Last Judgment”.
I thought about The Last Judgement” this week as controversy brewed surrounding the Holy Trinity Cathedral’s decision to allow a fashion show within its walls. The show, complete with cat-walking models, was part of fundraising efforts for repairs to the church building. As a former churchgoer myself, this doesn’t strike me as a bad idea. It’s certainly far more entertaining than a bake sale. And in fact, I’m pretty sure if while growing up Sunday Mass had included a reading from the gospel by a model wearing a bikini and Victoria Secret angel wings, I wouldn’t have quit believing in God.
Unfortunately many of my fellow Trinidadians have taken umbrage at the church’s actions with some deeming it sinful. As Jesus once told an angry mob who were about to stone to death an adulteress: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.
So naturally the good sinless religious folk of T&T eagerly formed a massive angry social media mob to figuratively pelt stones at church officials and the fashion show organisers. And perhaps they are right. After all, in T&T when you need to raise funds, you don’t try imaginative and entertaining ways to do it, you just beg upon the mercy of those self-described lords and saviours, the Government. Or better yet, get into government and then rent your buildings to yourself.
Naturally the media have taken up this story faster than you can say 30 pieces of click bait. There has been week-long coverage of church officials practically flagellating themselves in remorse and self-righteous letters casting blame from readers, demands for apology from the fashion show organisers, and of course big colour images of the scantily clad models in question so the public knows how truly sinful the whole affair looked.
And who could blame them? This wasn’t a trifling matter, like, say, the Government being caught in a lie and cover-up of a report into one of his ministers. The good Lord, ruler of all that is seen and unseen, may not care much about ending cancer or poverty or child molestation. No, what he really can’t stand is the sight of a woman who’s dressed like she’s going to the beach in his holy house.
And believe me the fact that this story revolves around the supposed indiscretions of women is what has really got good religious folk angry. After all, as any true God-fearing person will tell you it is women who are the root of all evil. They do things like get snakes to trick us and get us kicked out the Garden of Eden. They cut our hair and drain our strength. They ignore our warnings and look back, turning into salt in the process. The list in endless.. If this story involved what a man was wearing, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi would hold a press conference insinuating said man was a victim of an angel looking for money.
I wonder if Michelangelo could time travel to present-day Trinidad what he would make of the Holy Trinity Cathedral controversy? Perhaps he would side with those who have taken offence. Or perhaps he might wonder why a world where people can now look at galaxies across the universe still can’t come to terms with the sight of the human body. Either way, I’m sure he would say that 14th century Rome had a more reliable water supply that 2019 Chaguanas.
—Darryn Boodan is
a freelance writer