Upon this Rock I Will Build My Show: Archaeology in “The Young Pope”

When I first saw the trailer for the new HBO show “The Young Pope” I was immediately excited: Jude Law? Diane Keaton? HBO levels of scandalous television in the Vatican? YES, PLEASE!! What I was not expecting was that, in the very first episode, I would get material for a blog post. (really minor spoilers. So minor I don’t even know if I should call them spoilers.)

Basically, the show is about a new (American!) pope, Pius XIII (Jude Law), who has been recently elected and is pretty young, somewhat of a wildcard, and is creating conflicts with the Vatican administration. We are introduced fairly early on to Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), Camerlengo and the Vatican’s Secretary of State, who it seems will be the main antagonist to Pope Pius.

In one of the earliest scenes, we see Voiello confessing his sins, his lustful thoughts in particular. TWIST! His thoughts aren’t for a woman or a man, but for a famous artifact: the Venus of Willendorf, which is kept on display in the pope’s office. Throughout the episode we see Voiello staring at it in its display case with definite creeper status.


Seriously, though. Creeptastic.

The Venus of Willendorf is a real artifact, though it is not kept in the Vatican. The good news is you don’t have to have access to the pope’s office to see it: it is actually in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is a small (just over 11 centimeters/4 inches tall) limestone figurine of a woman of voluptuous proportions, but its fame is much greater than its small size. It is roughly 25,000-30,000 years old, and was found in Willendorf, Austria.

This object and quite a few others like it have been the subject of simplistic assumptions in popular culture. These assumptions mostly point to “exaggerated” sexual aspects of the figurines, such as large breasts and hips, to describe them as sexual in nature. Indeed, they traditionally have been interpreted as representing fertility goddesses of some sort, and this is the reason why they are popularly called “Venus figurines,” after the Roman goddess of sexual love. The connection with fertility has often made its way into popular culture, and New Age groups often emphasize this presumed connection, falsely believing these figurines demonstrate the worship of the “Earth Mother” extending deep into the Paleolithic. These figurines became e a totem of sorts for New Age feminism, but they ignore interpretations informed by feminist archaeology.

Çatal Hüyük "Mother Goddess" Figurine

Figurine from Çatalhöyük, Turkey


Figurine from Aegina, Greece

In an important article in American Anthropologist, April Nowell and Melanie Chang discuss the history of interpretations of Venus figurines, and the problems with them. Among the old assumptions are:

  1. They were made for male sexual arousal
  2. These diverse representations are for the same purpose
  3. They are female
  4. Paleolithic gender systems recognized only two genders
  5. Nudity is meant to be erotic

Most of these assumptions take a Western, patriarchal point of view, and project it onto the deep past uncritically. Voiello is actually a good personification of this. Representing that most patriarchal of Western institutions, the Catholic Church, he is sexually aroused by the perceived exaggerated femininity of the object. The perceived emphasis on sexual features comes from Western expectations of feminine body types. Studies have shown cultural differences in modern societies when it comes to perceived sexual ideals. We certainly cannot choose one of those, project it back 30,000 years, and think we’ve come to a satisfactory conclusion about an object’s intended symbolism.

In future posts I’ll talk about the specifics like non-binary genders. The Venus of WIllendorf appears briefly on screen again in Episode Two, in a clear shot, intention of which is to remind the audience of its existence, so I have a feeling it’s going to appear again. In any case, I find its centrality to the plot device of Voiello’s sins to be worthy of comment, as a misinterpretation of the past in popular culture that may have real effects on this character’s storyline. Understanding archaeology badly has consequences.

It’s fitting, though, that a show about the Vatican involves archaeological misinterpretation at its core, because the church is both literally and figuratively built on top of dubious archaeology.

St Peter’s Basilica was allegedly built at the site of the tomb of St. Peter. There are many accounts, from at least 100 years after his supposed death, which claim that he was buried somewhere in the city of Rome. In Passio sanctorum apostolorum Petri et Pauli, one Marcellus writes that Peter was buried on the Vatican hill. The problem is that this document was written some 400 years after his death. There are various accounts throughout the years between this document and Peter’s death that attest to something recognized as Peter’s tomb. As yet there is no evidence that these were all the same tomb. Neither is there any way to know that someone didn’t just decide after the fact that some random tomb was that of St. Peter.


Bernini’s Baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, underneath which St. Peter’s tomb is claimed to exist. Photo Credit: Dennis Yarvis.

In fact, excavation ordered by  Pope Pius XII (interesting… Jude Law plays Pius XIII in the show…) under the basilica found many Christian tombs there, but they were mostly too late in date to have been that of St Peter. In 1942, the administrator of the basilica—not the archaeologist of the project— found bones in the church that he stored away. When they were rediscovered in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI announced they had found the remains of St. Peter, to the objections of the original archaeologist in charge of the excavations. The only evidence for the claim is that analysis concluded that the bones belonged to a man in this 60s. You know, because there probably was only one man in his 60s to be buried in that Christian cemetery. Some Indiana Jones-level scholarly recklessness right there.

But while the actual Church of Rome is built on misidentified archaeological remains, so  the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire incorporated a flurry of new false archaeological claims. It’s widely known that Emperor Constantine was the first emperor to convert, and that his mother, St. Helena, was a Christian before him. Upon his conversion, Constantine sent St. Helena to the province of Palaestina, where she essentially took Biblical text and set out to find the places described there, such as the locations of the birth and death of one Jesus of Nazareth. Many important churches, there, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Church of the Nativity, and St Catherine’s Monastery (allegedly the site of the Burning Bush) were placed on spots identified by her. She’s also credited with finding many holy relics, such as the True Cross and the nails of the crucifixion.

The trouble is that most of these relics and places just happened to be in a place mentioned by the Bible, rather than being actually connected to it. The cities and villages mentioned in the text have been inhabited for many thousands of years, and it is improbable that on a trip like St. Helena’s, without scientific archaeological methods, these places could have been positively identified. Indeed, such identifications are extraordinarily difficult to make even today. For example, archeologists recently were given access to the supposed tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and archaeologists concluded there is no way to ever know for sure whether that tomb could have been that of Jesus. While its location fits what is described in the biblical text, there are also thousands of similar tombs nearby that equally fit with the text.

But ultimately, sometimes the original purposes of things don’t matter. Objects and places have biographies of their own, and their meaning can change and be just as powerful today even  (or especially) when they are misconstrued. It is important, however, to investigate the original meaning or use of things, to inform their meaning today.

Side note: A friend of mine recently bought a condo, and found a homemade “Venus figurine” in a cabinet. She gave it to her friend who is trying to get pregnant. I’ll post an update if it is effective 😉

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