The bell tower in the blonde

You’ve heard of the blonde in the tower – think Rapunzel. This is a story about the bell tower in the blonde.

[A]n oversized portrait of German model Claudia Schiffer, promoting lipstick and shampoo from the French cosmetics company L’Oréal, wrapped the scaffolding around the 167-ft. bell tower of Germany’s best-known church.

Left intentionally in ruins after World War II, Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stands as a testimony against war and destruction. But in 1999, cracks appeared in the bell tower of a modern church built next to the ruins. The church was on the brink of bankruptcy – so when an advertising firm offered to rent the scaffolding around the tower for the L’Oréal poster, pastor Sylvia von Kekulé agreed. Six months of the Schiffer poster financed the $298,000 bell tower restoration.

Curiously, this commercial expropriation of sacred space was necessary despite the federal government’s support of religion. And it’s becoming a trend.

Throughout Germany, churches are renting their facades for commercial messages. Supporters hail the development as an ingenious fundraising tactic. But critics argue the move dilutes the sacredness of churches.

I’m not sure “dilute” would be the word I’d use. Rather, some more fundamental paradigm shift seems to be at work here. For a parallel, I think we need look no farther than France where, five years ago, another supermodel was chosen as the new, semi-divine symbol of her country.

Laetitia Casta, of Victoria’s Secret and Guess Jeans (1994) fame, was named the symbolic representation of France’s Republic in the 21st century in a vote of the country’s more than 35,000 mayors in October 1999.

The French model became the first official Marianne, an embodiment of liberty, equality, and fraternity and other values of the Republic. The image of Marianne is everywhere in France, in patriotic artwork, and on all official documents.

The representation of Marianne most famous in other countries is that of the bare-breasted woman brandishing a flag and a bayonet in Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.”

Originally, the emphasis was on this mythical figure’s virgin peasant girl status – a Joan of Arc leading her people to victory. But attention gradually shifted to her breasts, and the people hungered after a goddess of more earthly powers.

“The Republic prefers an opulent, more maternal breast, with its promise of generosity and abundance,” explains writer/historian Maurice Agulhon, who adds that a pair of identically sized and shaped breasts are “an additional symbol of the egalitarian spirit.”

But can a living person really function as a symbol? From an anthropological perspective, I think it would be more accurate to view Casta in part as a sacred power object: an icon, fetish, or idol. At one level, her image does have deep symbolic value, satisfying Victor Turner’s definition of a symbol, in which “norms and values . . . become saturated with emotion, while the gross and basic emotions become ennobled through contact with social values” (The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Cornell U.P., 1967). But at another level, Casta conveys an undeniable power to her devotees: the power of limited self-transcendence through masturbation.

This may seem like a trivialization of religion, and I suppose it is. But the worship of the human body is nothing new, unfamiliar as it may seem to those with mainstream Christian or Jewish backgrounds. Body and icon can become almost interchangeable in many traditions – including in Christianity, where, at least since St. Francis, mystics male and female have attempted to realize the imitatio Christi within their own bodies, through the reception of the stigmata and other miraculous transformations.

Body can become icon, but icon can also become a supramundane body, an axis mundi, a habitation for the divine. I think that’s what’s happening, in a very rudimentary way, with the bell tower in the blonde. Imagine the parishioners being called to service through the tolling of bells appearing to emanate from the throat or chest of an idealized female image, provocatively cloaking a structure with at least subconscious phallic associations. At this moment, the icon transcends its role as symbol and focus of desire – transcends desire itself, perhaps. As the psycholinguist Walter Ong (Orality and Literacy, Routledge, 1982) reminds us, sound possesses temporality and conveys power beyond what any image can achieve.

Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. . . . By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense.

Since the practice of religion is largely a communal affair, the production of organized sound is invaluable for its harmonizing and unifying effects. Gods do not write letters; they speak. And what Ong calls the interiority of sound suggests another characteristic of divinity: the ability to animate the inanimate and to inhabit the already living. In the sacred dramas that are at the center of so many religious services and festivals, human beings may lend their bodies to the gods to communicate power or messages to their worshippers. The human beings so inhabited may also then receive a form of homage bordering on worship, no less than more permanent images made from stone or wood.

Music without words can be an especially potent catalyst of polysemic meanings. The divinely animated female icon beside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church mediated material/commercial and social/national messages. War and sex, peace and commerce were merged into a greater, synergistic whole.

The run-away popularity of the novel The Da Vinci Code, baseless as its claims to historical authenticity may be, suggests that contemporary, post-Christian Europeans and Euro-Americans may be ready for an even more radical return to pagan roots. The public celebration of a hieros gamos or sacred wedding was once a widespread annual event, considered essential to the earth’s continuing fertility and hospitality. Today, with anxieties about global change phenomena reaching an all-time high, especially in Europe, a reinvention of this ritual could go a long way toward calming public anxieties. Modern mass media could turn a sacred wedding into a cathartic and transformative event for millions.

One could well argue that the very public wedding ceremony of Prince Charles and Lady Diana did serve this function. However, traditional, nationalistic themes still shaped the ideological framework. A new, more unified Europe could benefit from a sacred wedding celebration with international, even cosmic connotations within a framework of planetary healing and reconciliation. For example, Laetitia Casta as the avatar of France could unite with a male – or possibly even female – hypostasis of Germany. The very thought fills me with a strange tingly sensation akin to awe.

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