This recent United Colours of Benetton advert caused considerable anger amongst the Catholic community. The photo-shopped image shows Pope Benedict XVI kissing Ahmed el Tayyeb, imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo alongside the tagline ‘Unhate’. The advert was quickly pulled after a flurry of complaints.
Some commentators have read the image as speaking to current debates about homosexuality and the church, and the growing rift between Islam and Christianity.
It is also possible however, to see it as part of a long tradition of vilifying religious opponents using a feminised language of seduction, as well as echoing the erotic tone of some devotional poetry.
Conversion narratives from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries frequently claim that those who have apostatized have been lured away from their faith by silver-tongued seducers and desirable women. In Robert Daborne’s play A Christian Turned Turk (1612) the English pirate Ward is persuaded to convert in order to win the charms of a beautiful Muslim woman, Voada: ‘Here is an orator can turn me easily. / Where beauty pleads, there needs no sophistry. / Thou hast o’ercome me, Voada.’ (Scene 7, Lines 164-166). In the conversion story/murder pamphlet A pittilesse Mother (1616) a woman who converts to Catholicism and murders her two children in a perverted attempt to ensure their entrance to heaven is described as having been subjected to ‘such charming perswasions that hardly the female kinde can escape their inticements…’ (A3v). James Wadsworth in The English Spanish Pilgrime (1629) describes both of his parents as having been ‘seduced’ by Jesuits (B1r).
In a more positive vein it is not uncommon for converts to be described as having ‘embraced’ a faith and the poetry of both John Donne and George Herbert bears witness to the frequently erotic mien of devotional poetry. A particularly strong example is Herbert’s Love (3):
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
While the Benetton advert is ultimately using shock value to sell t-shirts it is interesting to reflect that the comingling of religious and erotic imagery is far from being a modern phenomenon.
What are your thoughts? Is this just a cynical marketing ploy trying to gain air-play and column inches? If so then it certainly succeeded! Or does the advert also tap into an old tradition of people using embodied and sexualized language to express religious belief?
Daniel Vitkus, Three Turk Plays (Columbia University Press, 2000)
George Herbert, The Complete English Poems, ed. John Tobin (Penguin Books, 1991)
Anon, A pittilesse Mother (London, 1616)
James Wadsworth, The English Spanish Pilgrime (London: 1629)