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At first glance, no two phenomena seem further away than contemporary music videos and centuries-old Christian imagery. However, religious motifs have been a significant element in music videos of different genres for several decades. A notable example is Madonna, who is known for pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable since the beginning of her career. So offensive to some was her catholic-girl-gone-bad persona that the pope himself spoke out against her performance during her 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour. Famously, her 1989 video for Like a Prayer caused widespread outrage, was banned by many platforms, and even lost her sponsors; the imagery in this video included the scantily-clad singer standing in front of a burning cross, dancing in church, kissing a saint, and receiving stigmata-like wounds. More recently Lady Gaga, who is often compared to Madonna and like the older singer was also raised Catholic, used a combination of sexual and religious imagery in her music videos for Alejandro and Judas; in the former she presents herself as a nun, whilst in the latter she is Mary Magdalen, caught in a love triangle between biker boys Judas and Jesus—complete with a crown of thorns.

In music videos and popular culture in general, Christian imagery such as the cross and the nun’s habit is often used to represent ideas of transgressive sexuality, purity, morality, and suffering for love. Such motifs are by no means new, nor is the connection between Christianity and sexuality. In the mystical tradition, for example, particularly in the Middle Ages, both male and female contemplatives wrote about intimate and even sexual encounters with Christ; such descriptions emphasised the depth of union with the divine sought by the mystics. This genre was also inspired by scripture itself, specifically the Song of Songs, a biblical love poem which came to be understood on one level to speak of the relationship between Christ and the soul.

Applicants for History of Art, especially those interested in sacred art, should familiarise themselves with the history of Christian iconography and the meaning contained within different images. They might want to consider how the use of religious imagery in contemporary music videos reflects and makes use of such traditional iconography. Applicants for Theology may wish to learn about the historical connections between sexual and religious imagery in the history of Christian thinking and spirituality and should ponder the question; does the erotic have a place in religion? For those particularly interested in the study of mysticism, Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches edited by Louise Nelstrop is a good place to start.

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