Blasphemy Round-up

First, the good news. The film Visions of Ecstasy, banned by the BBFC on the grounds of blasphemy almost twenty years ago, may be due for a belated release. The Telegraph is reporting that the censorship classification censorship board has invited the short's director, Nigel Wingrove, to re-submit it.

The Visions of Ecstasy affair probably marked the high water-mark of the modern law of blasphemy. The film was based on the visions of St Theresa of Avila, the strongly erotic nature of which were considered suitable subject for Bernini's famous sculpture. Placed in a church. But the film's depiction of the saint fantasising sexual encounters with Christ spooked the BBFC, who had been reminded that it was less than 15 years since the Gay News trial. They misunderstood the law. At least, their interpretation of it was very different from that declared by Lord Justice Hughes while dismissing the recent attempt to prosecute Jerrry Springer the Opera, taking no account of the need to prove that the "blasphemous" material would endanger society. Worse, when the case reached the European Court of Human Rights the ban was upheld. The Strasbourg court also misunderstood the law, or rather assumed that the BBFC had correctly understood it, and concluded that the right of countries to have particular laws of blasphemy trumped the general principle of freedom of expression enshrined in the Convention.

Both the BBFC and the ECHR seem to have based themselves on Lord Scarman's remarks in the House of Lords when the Gay News case reached those hallowed precincts. Scarman's remarks were probably mistaken. More importantly, however, they were obiter dicta. They had no binding legal force at all. Nevertheless, they had a deleterious effect on artistic expression for thirty years.

"I was gobsmacked by the reaction," says Wingrove today. "I can see why some people might have been offended, but it was pretty mild stuff, really." However, having been legally declared blasphemous, there was little that could be done until the recent clarification of the law.

A new story from Austria concerns an exhibit by 80-year old artist Alfred Hrdlicka which included a controversial tableau based on da Vinci's Last Supper. Except that the gathered apostles are engaged in what has been described as "a homosexual orgy". After many protests from Catholic groups, the picture has been removed, although another, which apparently features Jesus being "fondled while on the cross", is still there. Local media have likened the row - inevitably - the the Danish cartoons protests. Although no-one so far has been killed, or even threatened with death.

What makes the incident particularly amusing is that the museum housing the works is attached to St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Which means that the man responsible for allowing the show to go ahead is none other than Cardinal Archbishop Christoph Schoenborn. He has now gone into a regrettable reverse-gear, claiming that "This has nothing to do with censorship". It was merely about "reverence for the sacred", he added. Something to do with censorship, then.

Still, at least the show hasn't been shut down completely. Imagine what would happen if someone tried to stage an exhibition of the Motoons next door to, say, Cairo Grand Mosque.


Tom Heneghan said…
Cardinal Schönborn has given a statement explaining his stand on the Hrdlicka Last Supper painting. The text is on the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld at

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