We tend to think of random wacky trends as a product of the Internet, even though memes have actually been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Humanity has always possessed a knack for mindlessly repeating weird themes in all aspects of life, up to and very much including classic art. The only difference is that their themes were somehow even stranger ...
#7. Demons Were Depicted With Faces in Their Genitals
Ah, the question that is almost as old as religion itself: What does the devil have dangling between his legs? Is it ... like that knife dick in Se7en? A regular human dong, but with tiny horns and hooves? Artists during the Renaissance devoted a surprising amount of time to this question, and they all came up with the same, creepy solution: Obviously, Satan and his minions have faces on their genitals and butts.
Horae ad usum romanum
This guy's dong-face is actually classier than his regular one.
If for some ridiculous reason you've never thought to check out all the demonic packages so blatantly visible in Renaissance-era art, you probably never knew this was a thing. But a thing it was, and to an insane degree: "Demon faces where orifices should go" was a massively popular trend in early Renaissance Italy, and variations of the theme have been recorded up to the 20th century. As a result, religious art of the period is full of shit like this:
"I don't care what that says. You're still talking out of your ass."
Not vagina dentata. Vagina facata.
Martin Van Maele
Body hack: Attain a groin face, use it as a pouch.
The whole faces-for-dongs thing can be pinned on one guy -- namely, the massively influential painter Giotto, and his Last Judgment fresco for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto's inspired spin on hell is largely gluttony-based, with dragons swallowing sinners whole while demons gobble up their genitals. At the center of all this is Satan himself, chomping on one sinner while simultaneously ... evacuating another:
So that's what a shit-eating grin is supposed to look like.
Giotto borrowed the Hungry Lucifer theme from a previous work, but the genital flourish was all his own. Since he was a total rock star, this bout of lunacy wound up inspiring entire generations of copycat artists.
Boticelli, Maestro Dell'Avicenna, Giovanni da Modena
This is what "giving head" means in hell.
There's actually a method to this particular madness: The creepy oral-genitals deliberately bring a birthing element in addition to the obvious pooping one, thus giving Satan a fluidity of gender meant to unsettle the viewers (and joking around a popular wordplay about the similarities of giving birth and farting). However, other artists didn't always catch on to the finer nuances of Giotto's invention, and the religious art of the era wound up using the crotch face as handy visual shorthand for "demon," much like halos represent angels.
Don't think that demons were the only horror monsters running around old artwork, though ...
#6. Christian Martyrs Were Terrifying Horror Movie Characters
It might be a bit difficult to see when shrunken down to Internet size, but this is a painting of a robed man strolling along, carrying his own severed head:
Arm outstretched, so the head doesn't bump his hip.
That's a 17th-century print by the French artist Nicolas Poussin. The depicted murder ghost is actually St. Denis, a holy man who was beheaded, after which legend insists he picked his head up and carried it for miles, preaching the whole way via his disembodied mouth.
See, that's the thing about saints: They're all about weird miracles and horrible deaths, so when artists paint them, that's what ends up on the canvas. These gruesome pieces took the public's mind out of their own grim lives by reminding them someone had trudged through an even bigger river of shit, which is why they were all the rage in the old days. Here's St. Erasmus enjoying his death by disembowelment:
He waxed and oiled himself for the occasion.
Yes, that painting with the Saw vibe was painted two centuries ago and occupies a cozy top spot in a Spanish cathedral. Here's St. Peter Martyr, patron saint of crappy Halloween costumes (probably). You'll never guess how he died:
That's right. The crowd lynched him because of that horrible hat.
Moral of the story: If you ever need inspiration for that B-movie torture porn you've been working on, just head to the nearest old church.
#5. Jesus Kept Turning into a Unicorn
Few mythological animals have as many religious undertones as unicorns, Aslan the lion notwithstanding. The trend reached its apex during the Middle Ages, when Jesus himself was commonly depicted as, well, whatever happened to pass for a unicorn in the artist's opinion:
Erfurt Cathedral via Peter
Hold on, guys, that's clearly just a dog with a carrot strapped to its head.
This is due to a series of wacky translation errors in the Bible itself (in other news, there are unicorns in the Bible). A major problem with the holy book has always been that its texts have been translated into a multitude of languages, and the translators have often been forced to take liberties that sometimes turn the translated text into a weird Hollywood adaptation of the original. That's how a simple mistranslation gave Moses a pair of horns, and that's how Jesus wound up spending a few hundred years as every preteen girl's favorite fictional animal.
Here's how it happened: The Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible were having a hard time identifying an animal the original text called a "reem." They knew that the animal had horns but couldn't be a goat. So, possibly because the workday was almost over and the happy hour was just about to start, they just translated it into "monoceros," one-horn. Sadly, the world would never experience the awesomeness of Rhino Jesus, as the Greek monoceros was further translated to the Latin "unicornis." The artists took one look at that shit and, because babies and bearded dudes get really boring to paint after a while, declared: "Yep, Jesus is now a unicorn, too."
St Crucis church via Peter
The implications for the whole Nativity story are best left unexplored.
In the 20th century, paleontologists discovered that a reem was, in fact, an ox, and had jack shit to do with Jesus -- the writers mostly used the animal as a symbol of God's strength, stuff like that. However, by that point the unicorn already boasted a hefty CV as the savior of humanity in religious art. Usually, it is pictured lounging around with Virgin Mary, sometimes with an entourage ...
St. Severi church via Peter
"And lo did he fart out fortune cookie fortunes for those that would believe."
... and sometimes inside Mary's enclosed yard, which of course is meant to represent her sealed-off vagina. To underline the unicorn's holiness, it's usually the only thing that can enter this yard.
Diozesan Muzeum via Peter
The rest of them get to watch, though.
#4. Jesus Also Kept Ending Up in a Winepress
In the Christian Bible, there is a symbolic connection between blood and wine that would probably require several books to fully explain. It's part of the Holy Communion ritual, and the symbolism rears its head again and again, in some ways more horrific than others. Here, for instance, is Christ about to be crushed in a machine intended to pulverize grapes:
Wiley Online Library
"Merlot, Merlot, why have you forsaken me?"
We see a dying, brutalized Lamb of God, using his last strength to bleed out in a cup for people to drink and enjoy. That's ... pretty gross, but at least it's sort of consistent with the Christian notion about Jesus' blood being a big deal. Not so much with this congregation of worshippers, who are flat-out having a pool party in poor J.C.'s body juice:
"Get ready for the wet no-shirt contest, y'all!"
These pictures are part of an entire genre called "Christ in the Winepress," which is based on a concept known as mystic winepress, a particularly graphic representation of God's wrath. Over time, this evolved into something straight out of Hannibal Lecter's recipe book: Take one Christ, take one winepress, squeeze Christ into wine.
The mystic winepress eventually fell out of fashion for whatever reason, and the church started playing the whole blood-wine thing as more of a mystical/metaphorical thing. We're on the fence about whether this is a good thing or not -- religion would certainly be more interesting if every church prominently featured a giant winepress with suspicious, red stains.
Though many wrongly assume that Jesus wine was white.