This is a guest post by Dr Jack Orchard. Jack is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at Swansea University, and holds a PhD from Swansea as well as a BA and MA from University College London. His PhD was on reading practices in 18th century women’s correspondence networks and he is currently researching the parallels between historical readers and contemporary video game culture. He can be found on Twitter @Jarona7
CONTENT WARNING – controversial religious themes and practices, self-harm, violence against women.
In the 2019 Metroidvania Blasphemous, developed by Seville-based studio The Game Kitchen, there is an enemy type called the Crucificada (Crucified), a near-naked, emaciated, female figure, dragging a large statue of an angel across her shoulders like, but very clearly not exactly, a crucifix. When the player character, El Penitente [the Penitent One], approaches her, she laboriously hefts the statue, swinging its base in a wide arc to strike and leaving an indentation in the earth, temporarily throwing her off balance, and giving the player time to dash in and kill her with a few slashes or, in the game’s execution mechanic, sever her arms and disembowel her.
Despite the fact that the Crucificada represents one of the most basic enemy types in the game, occurring in the opening sections and quickly superseded by faster enemies with more difficult to dodge attacks, she is twice cited by Lead Pixel Animator Raúl Vivar, in the art book released alongside Blasphemous, as the most complex and difficult character to animate in the entire game. He described the process of animating her as ‘una labor titánica’ [a titanic work], (The Art of Blasphemous, p.184) and offers the following description of he and his team working on the rendering of her movement and attack.
Aquel trozo de piedra esculpida tendría que moverse, oscilar y rotar en todos los ejes. Supuso un largo trabajo, lleno de cambios e iteraciones, para conseguir que su ataque con la estatua tuviera la contundencia adecuada. Durante todo su proceso de creación no pude sino solidarizarme con aquella pobre alma torturada que compartía el mismo peso sobre nuestros hombros.
That piece of sculpted stone would have to move, swing and rotate on all axes. It was a long work, full of changes and iterations, to ensure that his attack with the statue had the appropriate power. throughout his <sic> creation process, I could only stand in solidarity with that poor tortured soul that shared the same weight on our shoulders.The Art of Blasphemous, p.80
The care and attention of Vivar’s team of animators, trying to capture the pain and suffering inherent in the movements of this crucified figure, whose character name in the original concept art released through Kickstarter was simply ‘Weight of her Burden’, gave them a sense of empathy with her. However ironic or light-hearted Vivar’s comment was intended to be, his words do offer a glimpse into the way in which deep contemplation of this suffering figure created an unexpected emotional response.
I’d like to argue that Vivar’s description of how he was moved by the suffering of Crucificada reflects a theme which we can see across Blasphemous as a whole, the power of sympathy to inform our understanding of emotions felt by historical figures, even when we are separated from them by hundreds of years and layer upon layer of fiction and misrepresentation. After introducing the concept of ‘affective piety’, the medieval practice of identifying with the suffering of Christ, I will outline some of the ways in which Blasphemous uses the deeply affecting imagery of religious suffering to construct its world.
I will then take the story of Our Lady of the Charred Visage, one of the key boss fights in the first half of the game, as a framework for exploring the game’s representation of real historical figures, in this case, Maria Fernandez Coronel, the inspiration for Our Lady. As Blasphemous itself highlights, historical narratives, particularly those with religious significance, are often misrepresented and skewed with bias and romanticization. However, I would like to argue that the game explicitly tackles this problem of misrepresentation, and by representing the story of Coronel through the game’s mechanics and lore, allows the readers access to the emotional heart of her tragic story, even when the game itself could not be further from a realistic account of her life.
Affective Piety and the World of Blasphemous
Now let’s cast our minds back 600 years before Blasphemous. Margery Kempe (1373-c.1438), the author of the first autobiography in English, having lost her husband and returned from a pilgrimage to the holy land, experiences a series of visions of the crucifixion, which are marked by both graphic violence, and Margery’s sympathetic attitude towards both Christ and his mourning mother:
Hys blisful modyr beheldyng and this creatur how hys precyows body schrynkyd and drow togedyr wyth alle senwys and veynys in that precyows body for peyne that it suffyrd and felt, thei sorwyd and mornyd and syhyd ful sor. Than sey sche wyth hyr gostly eye how the Jewys festenyd ropis on the other hand, for the senwys and veynys wer so schrynkyn wyth peyne that it myth not come to the hole that thei had morkyn therfor, and drowyn theron to makyn it mete wyth the hole. And so her peyne and hir sorwe evyr encresyd.
His blissful mother was watching, with this creature, how His precious body, with all its sinews and veins, shrank and stiffened out of the pain that it suffered and felt, and they sorrowed and mourned and sighed very bitterly. Then she saw with her spiritual eye how the Jews fastened ropes on His other hand, for the sinews and the veins were shrunken so with pain that they could not reach the hole that had been made for them, and so they dragged on it to make it fit with the hole. And so her pain and her sorrow continually increased.Margery Kempe, The Booke of Margery Kempe, p.172
Whilst ‘energetically’ participating in Medieval Christian anti-Semitism, the explicit bodily-spiritual affects that Kempe is describing here is a phenomenon known as ‘affective piety’ or ‘affective meditation’. This practice, which reached its peak in the writings of 13th century mystics and Franciscan theologians, focuses on reflections on Christ’s suffering as a means of achieving personal salvation. Caroline Walker Bynum, one of the leading historians of affective piety, defines it as ‘emotional identification with scenes from Christ’s life, especially his Nativity and Crucifixion’. (Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, p.112). Sympathy with the suffering of Christ’s mortal body becomes a means of experiencing a love for God. When contemplating the crucifixion, these meditations often combined an extreme language of sorrow and mourning with ghoulish descriptions of extreme violence.
Margery Kempe’s vision gives us all of these, Margery, herself a mother of 12 children, empathizing with the distraught Mary, whilst describing in visceral detail the shrinking of Christ’s sinews as he is nailed to the cross. The effect is the same as Raul Vivar and his team paying attention to every nuance of the movement of Crucificada, in the process of microscopically depicting pain, an emotional bond is formed with the sufferer.
Affective piety in the 12th and 13th centuries is particularly associated with female religious figures, nuns, anchoresses, and mystics (with whom Margery Kempe is sometimes associated). Denied access to the patriarchal structures of scholastic education and associated by commonplace misogyny with emotion over reason, these women built a religious identity founded on these exact tropes. Texts like The Life of Margery Kempe, The Interior Castle by St Teresa of Avila (an identified influence on Blasphemous) and The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich all highlight the importance of empathy in religious devotion, and combine mystical, often terrifying, visions with what emotion historian Sarah McNamer describes as ‘intimate scripts’ (Affective Meditation, p.12) instructions on how one should feel when contemplating Christ’s suffering. In the lines that follow, I would like to map the idea of ‘intimate scripts’ on to Blasphemous and explore the way in which stories of extreme religious suffering can still generate deep, visceral empathy even in a post-secular audience.
Blasphemous takes place in a world called Cvstodia which, like many fantasy video games, represents a pastiche of historical influences. It draws on art and architecture ranging from the 2nd Century A.D through 17th century paintings by artists like Diego Velasquez, to contemporary cartoons. What unifies the references which Blasphemous draws together is the fact that they are consistently Spanish in origin, primarily reflecting the history and culture of Seville specifically, and that the world represented is primarily inflected through religious art and symbolism. The game’s developers identify the primary aesthetic and thematic influence on Cvstodia as the rituals and iconography surrounding the religious festival of Semana Santa de Sevilla[Seville Holy Week] still celebrated to this day, the aesthetic of Holy Week has its origins in the processions of late medieval religious guilds, particularly the capirote, the pointed hood worn historically by flagellants, who publicly beat themselves in performance of penitence.
The game represents and explores both religiously-inflected physical suffering, and the importance of how that suffering is portrayed, through its extremely rich narrative architecture. From the Franciscan inspired Kissers of Wounds, placing themselves at constant risk of infection by their penitential practice, to Redento, the old pilgrim walking with hands tied behind his back and a weighted gourd keeping him constantly bent double, to the literal flagellants and flagellant-inspired behavior practiced by the protagonist, such as slashing himself with his sword in order to fill the Fervor gauge necessary for stronger attacks, the game’s world is replete with religious self-harm. The story which I would like to focus on is not exceptional in its violence or gore, but in the ways in which it reflects the conventions of affective piety, and uses them to develop the game’s own immersion and argument.
Our Lady of the Charred Visage: History, Hagiography, and Gameplay
The example I’d like to address is Nuestra Señora de la Faz Denegrida [Our Lady of the Charred Visage], and the convent of the same name which represents one of the ‘Three Humiliations’, the three quests which constitute the first part of the game’s narrative. El Penitente must travel up through the Graveyard of the Peaks, an icy vertical graveyard, to the convent, fight their way through the nuns which inhabit it, and defeat a monster bearing Nuestra Señora’s name in a grueling boss battle which appears as a disembodied head and hands, firing energy bolts from a pair of rosaries. So far, so Metroidvania. However a closer look at the in-world background of the character highlights the pathos and affective resonance behind her story.
The story of Our Lady is conveyed to the player through fragmentary narratives attached to in-game items, in a style familiar to Soulsborne players (another series which Blasphemous has been compared with), requiring the player to retrieve a Golden Thimble and a Piece of Golden Mask and read the item descriptions in order to uncover her background. The player is given the opportunity to read the short hagiographical (stories of the lives of saints) narratives attached to them by the in-game church of Cvstodia, turning the compilation of fragments into a complete narrative into part of the game’s world-building. The narrative designers of Blasphemous highlight the unreliability of these object descriptions by framing them through a range of genres and variant perspectives. For example, the item descriptions of the bodily remains of Tentudia, collected for the monk Ludovico, of the Order of the True Burial, reflects a perspective clearly critical of the central Cvstodian church based in the Mother of Mothers, accusing it of corruption and murder, providing the player with in an insight into the intra-institutional conflicts between different sections of the Cvstodian clergy. The ‘Key of the Inquisitor’ item description, however, appears to be a formal account of a church inquisition, and the ‘Embossed Mask of Crescente’ description is the transcript of a confession, both documents reflective of official church doctrine, like the hagiography of Our Lady.
We learn that Our Lady began life as a girl named Aurea whose beauty was such that the local community came to venerate her rather than The Miracle, replacing holy icons with images of her, and seeing her beauty as a replacement for the divine in a gesture which parallels the worship of Melibea by Callisto in La Celestina, the 1499 Spanish proto-novel in which the young lover Callisto becomes tempted by the satanic Celestina after renouncing Christianity to worship the beauty of Melibea. As the lore attached to the Golden Thimble states ‘Such was the fervour around her that she could not bear to be mistaken with the divinity, and burned her face with boiling oil to gift her pious beauty to God, and took up the habits of a convent.’
The Piece of Golden Mask continues the narrative, explaining the miraculous persistence of heat and pain from her facial wound, her wearing of a golden mask to hide her disfigurement, and the adoption of ritual facial burning and wearing of similar masks by the sisters of the Order of the Charred Visage. As this brilliant lore video by Smoughtown explains, the boss confronted by El Penitente is not in fact Nuestra Señora herself, but a corrupted manifestation of her legend, the humanity of Aurea stripped away and replaced by a monstrous avatar of self-mutilation. The true Aurea is encountered in the next room after the boss fight, a preserved corpse, with no golden mask, facial wounds clearly visible, framed like a byzantine saint’s image.
According to the Blasphemous Art Book, Aurea’s story is inspired by the story of Sevillian noblewoman Maria Fernandez Coronel (1334-1409). She was the daughter of the Sevillian noble Alfonso Fernandez Coronel (d.1353) who joined the court of king Alfonso XI of Castille (1311-1350), but fell foul of a dynastic dispute in the Potuguese royal family and was executed by Alfonso’s son, Pedro I (1320-1369), along with Maria’s husband Juan Alfonso de la Cerda (1295-1347). After a failed attempt to secure a pardon for her husband, Maria retreated into the convent of Santa Clara to escape political persecution.
Not content with destroying the men of her family, Pedro I determined to violate Maria as well. According to one version of the story, by French Romantic author Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870), Maria secured a miraculous escape from Pedro’s soldiers when, having buried herself in a mock grave to hide, grass spontaneously sprouted on the fresh earth, concealing her whereabouts. Thwarted in this attempt, Pedro stormed the convent itself, cornering Maria in the kitchen, where she resorted to the only means at her disposal, and poured a cauldron of boiling oil over her own face. Coronel remained at the convent of Santa Clara until the death of Pedro I in 1367, when the new monarch, Enrique II (1334-1379), who favoured the Coronel family, granted her funds to found a new convent, Santa Inez, of which she became the first abbess.
Following her death, Maria Coronel’s body experienced the miraculous condition known as ‘incorruptibility’, resistance to decay, and was preserved by the sisters. She remains in a glass coffin at the convent of Santa Inez to this day, and is venerated on her feast day of December 2.
If we return to the question of affective piety, and think about Our Lady of the Charred Visage as a re-imagining of the story of Maria Fernandez Coronel, how does this help us understand the emotional impact and argument of Blasphemous?
If the spiritual impact of Margery Kempe’s vision of the crucifixion is based on stripping away the layers of allegory and symbolism between her and the actual suffering of Jesus to witness a suffering fellow human, then the horror of Our Lady of the Charred Visage is the same process seen in reverse. The monster which we face is what happens when Aurea’s single act of self-mutilation is transformed through tradition, narrative, symbolism, and ultimately game mechanics and genre tropes, into a living entity.
Piecing together Aurea’s story, and remembering first the unreliability of the accounts attached to her sacred artefacts (they are composed by the church too) we get a very different picture. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that the burning of Aurea’s face in response to the pressure of the townsfolk was an act of desperation rather than the ‘pious sacrifice of her beauty’, or some combination of the two. The fact that Aurea’s agency is completely removed in the second half of her story further emphasizes this, we get no description of her beyond her wound, instead being told about the order founded ‘in her name’. Her canonization in life equates to removing her humanity and replacing it with legend.
Reading the story of Maria Coronel back into Aurea’s narrative emphasizes this idea – the savvy political operator, still capable of wielding royal patronage even after her family had been decimated, and capable administrator of a Seville nunnery, is completely flattened in favour of the uncorruptible burnt face of the assaulted woman. The game’s narrative drive pushes us into conflict with a false narrative, but by carefully accumulating the lore, and exercising our empathy the player can, like Kempe, reach for an emotional engagement with the sad story behind it.
This story is hinted at by one of the statues which can be seen in alcoves which pepper the Convent of Our Lady of the Charred Visage. This statue depicts a new nun joining the order, and participating in a ritual act of self-mutilation mimicking Aurea’s own. The smaller, more overtly feminine, figure is having her hand guided towards the boiling oil cauldron by a nun whose broad shoulders, square face (caused by the golden mask she is herself waring) and larger frame make her, in the low-fi visuals of pixel art, appear somewhat masculine.
With the story of Coronel in mind, it’s hard not to read the story of sexual assault back into this picture, the icon of the convent’s ritual affirmation accidentally echoing an image of brutal coercion and freezing this traumatic moment for posterity. The in-game purpose for defeating Nuestra Señora is in order to acquire one of the Three Humiliations, aspects of penitence which attach to El Penitente’s soul and allow the story to progress, functionally typical ‘key’ items for opening doors. The ‘Humiliation’ which defeating the boss grants to the player is, fittingly, Compunction, or spiritual guilt. Aurea’s guilt for the act of self-mutilation many years ago which transformed into this monstrosity but also, maybe, the guilt of generations of tellers of Maria Coronel’s story, perpetuating the sublimity of horror, without asking about the real people behind it. As Enrique Cabeza, the game’s creative director, has said, they ‘did not want to offend anyone’ with the game’s engagement with religion, and the team have responded to questions on a Reddit AMA by reiterating that the religious origins of the game’s imagery are intended as historical touchstones rather than explicit references to contemporary Catholicism.
I see no reason to disagree with these statements, any more than the affective piety practiced by Kempe, Teresa, and others constituted an attack on Christianity itself – what the stories of Aurea and Maria Coronel do reflect is a broader critique of historical narrative, and the way in which individual stories can be subordinated and twisted into institutional myths. As Adam Chapman has argued, in the introduction to his recently launched Historical Games Network blog and in a Play the Past article on games and historical truth, games provide a unique opportunity for exploring historical truths because of the ‘inherently metaphorical relationship’ they have ‘to past action by communicating about it through the often-vast abstractions of contemporary gameplay’.
This focus on metaphor and abstraction, like the translating of Maria Coronel’s story into that of Aurea, or the conversion of an argument about institutional narrative subordination into a boss-fight, replaces a plain argument about historical fact with an experience in which player agency, (whether they read the lore; whether they stop to consider the statue) becomes the foundation for understanding something new about the period represented by the game. What Blasphemous offers us, I would argue, is an opportunity to experience a kind of emotional historical truth, the affect of affective piety, applied to a real historical subject, Maria Coronel, specifically through the barriers of being a game. By our player-actions we construct a counternarrative to the initial one the game presents us with, and therefore become invested in its argument, just like the affective meditator, following an ’intimate script’, but coming to an ultimately sincere conclusion nonetheless.