We would either have a silent, a soft, a perfumed cross, sugared and honeyed with the consolations of Christ, or we faint; and providence must either brew a cup of gall and wormwood, mastered in the mixing with joy and songs, else we cannot be disciples.
— Samuel Rutherford, Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself (1627)
The “serenity” of the crucifix dates back to the middle ages and remains common in our own churches despite the oddity of the image. Christ hangs from the wood, looking clean and unblemished. Only pin-pricks mar his hands, feet and head. In cast-bronze statues, uniform metal further blends away the wounds. Empty crucifixes signify Christ’s resurrection and conquering of death—but they also remove our need to face his dirt and sweat and screams on a Sunday morning.
Even when I was too young to see the film, I could appreciate Mel Gibson’s handling of crucifixion as a bloody reality in The Passion of the Christ. My high school math teacher gathered us into the gym once a year, as Easter approached, to deliver a detailed forensic account of what this ancient method of execution actually does to people. Every year I heard that talk, clean and beautiful crucifixes started to look—I’ll be honest—a little more ridiculous. An image intended to portray a spiritual truth instead belies the extent of Christ’s participation in our suffering.
Beauty, Anne M. Carpenter says, lies sometimes: “Beauty does not immediately tell us whether it has any relationship to truth. We will not get out of this by listing what is ‘really’ beautiful and what is not…but also it is not clear whether the distinction would be useful.” Her work argues that Beauty is indeed transcendental, a splendor uniting the True and the Good—but, she warns, Beauty is powerful in part because of its nearness to human experience, including sin. Beauty “lies” when, for example, it sanitizes and idealizes parts of Christian history that are far from glorious. Some legacies, such as colonialism—still gilded and sanctified in our cultural memory—appear beyond forgiving, in part because we distract from them through beauty.
The reality of crucifixion demands a different way of looking for its beauty; confronting the ugliness of our heritage means a more critical search for grace. We must acknowledge that Beauty lives deeper than our images. It lives in the story, in the drama where redemption takes place and where Christ’s vitality outshines the failures of his church. When we lose sight of this truth, we neglect the negative potentials of images to proliferate and take on lives of their own. Suddenly, we find beauty doing and saying things we never expected.
I lived in this tension through my tour of the famed Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, hosted—appropriately—by the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. I stood before dozens of artworks grappling with a sovereign God who permitted the Spanish Inquisition to march through the streets in his name. Later artists such as Francisco de Goya nearly drove themselves crazy trying to come to terms with the “prodigious flowering of rage” he saw emerging from Spain’s religious history. Others, such as Diego Velázquez, seemed tempted to ignore such questions by retreating into ideal worlds made possible by paint and canvas.
This year, as I loaded up Blasphemous—a dark 2D action game from studio The Game Kitchen—I watched the pivotal character stand up from a mass of bodies and set off on a bloody path straight out of Goya’s Procession of the Flagellants.
Blasphemous isn’t shy about its inspirations, full of art and imagery drawn from Golden-Age Spanish Catholicism. Guiding a capirote-capped character known as the “Penitent One” through the nightmare land of Cvstodia, players explore decrepit cathedrals and dispatch insane victims of an omnipotent divine force. Playing through Blasphemous is like digitally revisiting the Prado—plus some wild platforming mechanics and brutal execution animations.
Blasphemous’s extreme and self-conscious connection of religious content to artistic form makes it far more interesting than other games more blithely critical of religion. A highly visible and acclaimed piece of work (winning “Indie Game of the Year” at the 2019 Titanium Awards and named 2019 Game of the Year by Vice), Blasphemous might be the most concentrated and imaginative exposure to Christian aesthetics and theology that many gamers have ever experienced. It also holds up a mirror to contemporary Christianity, asking us to reflect on what our God-talk—of sin and guilt and punishment; of justice and penance and sovereignty—actually causes people to imagine.
The Game Kitchen is based in Seville, in southern Spain. The city itself is a keystone inspiration for the game’s world. According to creative director Enrique Cabeza, the company set out to use a genre and style so often associated with medieval England and to turn it instead towards the perception of Spanish folklore outside of Spain (Blasphemous Art Book, 11). In Blasphemous, art and religion alike are material for showcasing Seville’s ancient heritage in a fever dream of references to Spanish folklore, art, music, architecture, and, of course, the Inquisition—along with a hyperbolic stylizing of Catholicism.
In fact, the first image we see in Blasphemous—“The Penitential Mask or metallic hood of The Penitent One, which is probably its most characteristic visual element”—evokes the deep-rooted importance of Holy Week to southern Spanish culture. The garments and pointed helm of the Penitent One are inspired by very public expressions of repentance; these same expressions were later transformed by the Inquisition into symbols of shame, guilt, and punishment without hope of forgiveness (20, 45).
The player also encounters more benign evocations of St. Francis of Assisi, the “kisser of wounds” (41), or the arrow-pierced St. Sebastian (42), but the line between homage and critical commentary starts to blur as the game explores more fantastic folklore. Blasphemous features, for instance, several characters inspired by stories of desperate women seeking reprieves from unwanted sexual attention, their very human actions later interpreted as expressions of piety. One imposing enemy—Nuestra Señora de la Faz Denegrida—is inspired by Santa Maria Coronel, who made herself undesirable to King Pedro the Cruel by pouring boiling oil over her face (102), and the hairy, three-headed giant Altasgracias evokes Santa Librata, who also prayed to be made ugly in the eyes of her suitor, only to be later executed as a heretic (48).
Other set pieces rely on the fame of their inspirations for further layers of meaning. The beast Ten Piedad is discovered reclining in the same position as Christ in Michaelangelo’s Pietà (107). Melquiades, the Exhumed Archbishop, evokes the Jeweled Saints as his corpse is puppeted by the hands that buried him. Each of these characters is, furthermore, massive, gigantism being part of their curse. They appear larger-than-life to both the Penitent One who opposes them and to the player, who feels they are viewing a sculpture in a gallery.
All this imagery provides an eerie, oppressive setting through which the player explores Blasphemous’s subterranean story about a warrior restored to life by the supernatural will of El Milagro Doloroso (“The Grievous Miracle”). Receiving the prayers of people overwhelmed by guilt, El Milagro gives and takes, heals and harms, at will, blessing the faithful with monstrous forms while preserving their zeal and faith. But the Penitent One, destined to sever Cvstodia from the will of El Milagro, takes up the relic-sword Mea Culpa and follows the Rule of Three Humiliations—both a game mechanic and a reference to monastic strictures on behavior—which will allow him to enter the main cathedral and face the unruly pontiff Escribar. All the while, the thorns of the sword wound the Penitent One as he wounds others, showing that he is also a paradoxical agent of El Milagro, “whether for its punishment or its forgiveness.”
In Blasphemous, both guilt and piety receive the same divine rewards.Despite his salvific role, the Penitent One is much less Christ than crusader. The Penitent One “saves” the cursed denizens of Cvstodia by carving his way through their ranks—but he also participates in their deaths. Indeed, the ending the player receives upon defeating Escribar depends on whether or not they have undertaken a series of obscure tasks that end in the Penitent One deliberately dying multiple times before destroying the Cvstodians’ means of confession and taking upon himself the “Weight of True Guilt.” Only then can he become the “Custodian of Sin” and banish El Milagro’s power from the land. This balancing of the scales is a Christ-like feat indeed—though in Blasphemous, the Penitent One wets his via dolorosa with the blood of others even more so than his own.
If this seems like a lopsided approach to atonement, then I would argue it is a feature rather than a bug of the game’s narrative design. This is a Manichean story of man against God that reveals a more sinister theo-logic. The player recognizes the monsters opposing the Penitent One as themselves birthed by El Milagro, even implied to be extensions of its will. This is the same will that has chosen the Penitent One to defeat Escribar and established the Rule by which the sentence can be carried out. The knight Crisanta de la Agonia Vendada, nemesis to the Penitent One, tells him they are yet two sides of that same will: “Our faceless helmets point sharply at the same sky, for we are both penitents before the eyes of Our Miracle of the Greatest Pain. Yours of iron, without voice. Mine, of gold, without a glance.”
Thus El Milagro devilishly appears as “a house divided against itself,” evidencing a theological claim buried in the art of Blasphemous: that God—understood as the sovereign cause of both suffering and salvation—is evil. Omnipotence, taken to its furthest conclusions, must finally resolve in horror. As the game takes on an almost Lovecraftian tone, we see that the salvation of Cvstodia is as much a game to El Milagro as it is to the player. It is a spectacle akin to a bull fight.
Blasphemous doesn’t leave us to discover this theology by inference, either. The doctrine of El Milagro is exposited by Deogracias, the giant hagiographer of Cvstodia: “[I am] witness to and narrator of the acts of the Grievous Miracle,” he says. “Such is my penance, as yours is silence.” Describing his lord, Deogracias speaks of El Milagro’s many and contradictory manifestations: “Guilt, repentance, mourning, and every pain of the soul of all kinds were visibly and tangibly manifested, everywhere and in all of us. Sometimes in the form of blessing and grace, sometimes in the form of punishment and corruption. That divine will, equally pious and cruel, which we could not and will never be able to unravel, was called The Miracle.”
The sovereign will of El Milagro manifests in its inscrutable answers to the prayers of Cvstodia’s citizens. Their identities are wrapped up in begging for forgiveness for sins they never name, enumerate, or even appear to understand. Nowhere is this clearer than in the story of El Retorcido, the patron saint of Cvstodia whose design is based on paintings of the thieves crucified beside Christ (42). Deocragias explains, “He prayed hoping to be heard. He prayed for pain, so he could ease the guilt that sharply pierced his soul. Then the Miracle manifested itself. It made roots grow and twist over his arms and legs, but not a cry nor a complaint came out from his mouth. Every inhabitant of this land bore witness to it, and all of them prayed before the besought eternal joy of that youngster. . . . For twisted are, were and will be, the paths of the Miracle.”
Even the actions of the Penitent One, following an arbitrary “Rule” that makes his suffering and violence alone redemptive for Cvstodia’s citizens, are swallowed up in the free and sovereign machinations of the divine will. He becomes, as Deogracias says, “a last sacrifice in order to finish penance and break off with the ungodly will of the Grievous Miracle.” (It is implied multiple times that “finishing penance” and enduring punishment meant for others is itself the “blasphemy” the game’s title refers to.) And yet, even as the Penitent One is venerated for saving the city, Deogracias warns, “The plans of the Miracle are capricious. Penance never ends, but changes, hurts, and condemns at will.” For God, even the very rules of salvation are subject to change—and for this, he deserves worship.
The paradox of sovereignty and “goodness” becomes clearer still as the Penitent One encounters an even more perverse answer to the childlike hope of bearing others’ pain in the living saint Socorro (46): “As the legend goes, the wounds of lashes, cuts and blows received by the condemned began to appear on Socorro’s body, and still she prayed for them, despite all that pain transferred to her, thus freeing the condemned from their suffering.” Her meaning is interpreted to the Penitent One by her attendant Cleofas: “Isn’t she majestic? She is a miracle in herself… Unceasing… Eternal… She suffers… For all of us… Day by day, with no rest, with no end… She is our living miracle, a true example of Holiness.” Overwhelmed at the sight of her, Cleofas aestheticizes Socorro’s suffering. His act of worship impregnates her pain with mystery and meaning for himself. To Cleofas and others—Socorro included—El Milagro appears good because it arranges for Socorro to suffer in such a selfless and holy way.
In Blasphemous, both guilt and piety receive the same divine rewards. Penitents and saints alike assent to the justice of their suffering through acts of worship. Again, we are never told the individual sins that Socorro has taken on to herself, or those of any other characters. There are only the abstract concepts of sin and of pervasive guilt, and these only make sense in light of El Milagro’s esoteric and spontaneous punishments. In the eyes of the characters, transcendence and omnipotence must be good, they must be beautiful, and so any suffering they decree must be in response to some falling-short, some triggering sin—sins that cannot be forgiven, only paid for.
It is the urgent task of religious education in the present to be bold and candid about the ways we’ve wounded our witness by assuming our doctrines translate easily when teaching our children or making disciples.The clear argument here is that no amount of beauty can finally hide the senselessness of a sovereign God or the evil done in his name. This argument is expressed in the very hyperbole with which the makers of Blasphemous profane their Catholic heritage. The designers draw attention to the ways beauty can distract from suffering by, in a way, allowing aesthetics to overcompensate. Idyllic paintings such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas inspire twisted monsters such as the Guardainfante that comment on over-romanticized images from Spain’s Inquisition period, turning them into reflections of the very horrors they neglect or erase (74). This, as well as other enemy designs, showcase the dehumanization of the penitent and the “guilty” under the thumb of the Inquisition, “dispossessing [them] of human traits” while at the same time aestheticizing them through forms of performative torture (88).
All of this underscores Blasphemous’s unique take on profanation: not defacing sacred imagery, but gilding the sacred until it becomes absurd, buckling under all the attempts to cover its incongruence. It is, in effect, an inversion of another inspiration cited by the creators, the work of twentieth-century Irish painter Francis Bacon: “[The character Jocinero] takes elements from one of the fifty variations that . . . Bacon made of the portrait of Pope Innocent X, by Velázquez, which he titled Figure with Meat (1954), where you can see two halves of hanged beef on each side of the pontiff” (52). Whereas Bacon parodied Velázquez’s work to show ugliness behind a beautiful image, Blasphemous instead wants to call attention to beauty as a distraction from cruelty and confusion. In this world, “Beauty” is not a halo uniting the True and the Good; it is a meaning-making strategy. The powerful use it to reinforce their authority, and the suffering use it to come to terms with atrocity.
One other famous artist inspired the landscapes of “the Dream,” mentioned several times as a sort of afterlife by the denizens of Cvstodia: “We had to explore the concept of ‘purgatory,’” says Cabeza. “For a place like this, located between the world of the living and beyond, we seek inspiration in the 19th century engravings made by Gustave Doré to illustrate key moments of the magnificent Divine Comedy. Thus, we create our own circle of hell: a stormy sea full of people struggling to stay afloat, except where everything is absolutely still, stopped in time, because everything is made of cold iron” (150).
This, it seems, is also Blasphemous’s indictment of Christianity: ascribing both goodness and sovereignty to God—when by “sovereignty” we mean absolute, arbitrary freedom—produces a human existence “struggling to stay afloat” in something darker than the “fear of the Lord” described in scripture. When asked how we can obey a good God who swallows people into the earth, who demands martyrs, and who kills his son to save the world from himself, we sense that these criticisms miss the point while also having a point. Many times, throughout our history, Christians have eased our vigilance over our language and images, and haven’t always been grieved when those rearrangements birth evil from good. Whether or not one tracks with his bolder conclusions, David Bentley Hart is at least right to caution us that theological carelessness can hide persistent horrors within the logic of Christian faith. As I write this, some are still citing the COVID-19 pandemic and stoked racial tensions as evidence of God’s good pleasure in confounding the impious at the cost of innocent lives. Like the people of Cvstodia, our faith often confronts a dark side to divine goodness and, though we can point to that goodness being “higher” than ours, and so mysterious, the effect is often a fragile, fearful wonder.
We need not purge such mysterious goodness from our theology, but Blasphemous’s story reminds us, via El Milagro, that we too often reduce our mysterious God to a player on both sides of a cosmic chess game. When theology tries to address such a notion through pure logic—so argues William Placher—it risks becoming part of the problem. Reason, too, can gild and erase, justifying God’s allowance or infliction of pain. When we are too impressed by our own logic, theodicy buffs the blood from the cross and aids in washing the blood from our history. We say it’s a sublime mystery—or else a sovereign order that, we insist, makes sense to those willing to see it. Blasphemous is an artistic argumentum ad absurdum against this kind of theodicy.
The creators of Blasphemous have theological allies. Han Urs von Balthasar once commented that contemplations of divine transcendence and freedom must inevitably devolve this way if not first governed by a prior, faithful understanding of divine character at work in history on our behalf. Long bearing witness to the problems of evil and pain, centuries of theological tradition refuse to reconcile God with his enemy, either by beauty or reason. At its best, theology recognizes evil as senseless and absurd, subordinating the question of evil’s source to Christ’s kenosis: his overcoming evil by becoming vulnerable to it. The Christian answer to our suffering and God’s sovereignty is that we are saved by a God who won’t abandon us. When our thoughts are ordered towards the living God, Placher says, the theology of the “unitary sovereign” who blesses and curses at will does, in fact, collapse into the mystery of evil, demanding again to be replaced and redeemed by the kenotic sovereign: the “Triune source of grace” who is our breath and being.
It is the urgent task of religious education in the present to be bold and candid about the ways we’ve wounded our witness by assuming our doctrines translate easily when teaching our children or making disciples. These wounds, too, are our heritage, coming down to us from arguments and urgencies that have come unmoored from their ancient and medieval contexts. We are, indeed, morally frozen whenever we suggest that God’s “greater good” requires further suffering beyond what Christ endured to save us. We also freeze our capacity to reason nearer to the true beauty of the cross: the drama behind the image, the King affirming our fallen world and communicating his nature to us not from above but, as Johann Georg Hamann said, “under all kinds of rags and tatters”—“under the rubbish” with us, and for our sakes.
But this God is scary, too. He does not govern the world in the ways we would like. I’d hazard that our own insecurities over God’s character lead us to prefer his absolute transcendence, though this must finally set him at odds with us. In response, we stuff our pain behind pretty images, our suffering into simpler and more obviously lovely interpretations. Instead of seeking the Lord in love, we shroud Him in a glory that keeps Him at arm’s length. We can’t avoid belittling the sufferings of others when we ourselves are struggling for a glittering correspondence between our pain and God’s sovereignty. We do not face sovereignty’s true, kenotic meaning in faith.
The correspondence of Christian reason and imagination is itself at stake here. We cannot communicate the God we believe in on our own zeal and imaginative power. We cannot render beauty out of suffering, punishment, and justice when we have preferred a smooth and burnished cross to the splintered wood on which God dies to transform us. What do we really expect from the imaginations of unbelievers, when we fail to take this seriously? Blasphemous offers a lurid example that we cannot ignore.