The naughty nuns that inspired Lady Gaga.

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June 9 2010 5:52 PM

Naughty Nuns

A brief historical tour occasioned by the new Lady Gaga video.

Lady Gaga. Click image to expand.
Lady Gaga

The walrus was Paul, and Lady Gaga is the pornographic priestess. In the racy video supporting "Alejandro," Gaga (assisted by director Steven Klein and a mess of smooth beefcake) explores a number of fetish behaviors, many of which I had never before even begun to think about trying. The most interesting of these concern the star's appearances in a few unusual nun costumes. She drips with latex robes, opens her throat to swallow rosary beads, that sort of thing—all in all basically prank-calling the Catholic League.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

If you're gonna go that way, you could do much worse than this divine piece of blasphemy. In an earlier foray into Gagalogy, I attempted to stress the significance of Gaga's having "trained for her career in performance art on the burlesque stage … but also at the Convent of the Sacred Heart." She is a Catholic girl gone bad, but she was also a fine pupil. In honor of her latest pop-art mini-epic—and taking care to thank the authors of the reference guide TV Tropes and the critical essay "Convent Erotica"—I have composed a timeline.

Herewith, the top 10 naughty-nun moments in recorded civilization:

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Héloïse's first letter to Abelard (ca. 1133). He was "the most pre-eminent philosopher and theologian of his time." She was the most scholarly teen hottie who ever lived. They more or less met at a book club. When he knocked her up, her uncle was pissed. Castrated, Abelard became a monk, and Héloïse took the habit. While serving as Abbess of the Oratory of the Paraclete, she drafted correspondence well worth plagiarizing next Feb. 14: "God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore."

The Decameron (1353). Of the 100 stories Boccaccio presents here—tales told by characters sharing a country vacation away from plague-ridden Florence—two focus on brides of Jesus. In the better of these, a strapping lad makes himself acceptable for a handyman job at a convent by pretending to be deaf, mute, and dense—surely no threat to chastity. Things get going when two nuns, working in tag team, take advantage of his convenience to try out this sex thing they'd heard rumors about: "Before the time came for them to leave, they had each made repeated trials of the dumb fellow's riding ability, and later on, when they were busily swapping tales about it all, they agreed that it was every bit as pleasant an experience as they had been led to believe, indeed more so."

La Religieuse (1796). The Guardian is very high on Denis Diderot's epistolary novel, known on these shores as The Nun, the account of "a young woman forced into a convent by her parents. Suzanne tries to be a good Christian, but is tortured by her fellow nuns and finds herself the object of attention for a sexually predatory mother superior. No way out!" As reported below, Jacques Rivette instigated un scandale with his 1966 screen adaptation.

The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal (1836). A hoax memoir. Here's a fine piece of scholarship: "The Awful Disclosures draws on every popular fear and misunderstanding of Catholicism prevalent at the time. Written in the style of a gothic novel, it features sex and violence without lapsing into pornography." Maria Monk alleged that she had escaped from the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal, where she endured indignities including taking on three priests in an orgy. Evidence suggests that the author was actually then making her home at a Magdalen Asylum for Wayward Girls.

Religieuse Italienne Fumant la Cigarette (1944). Nasty habit. This oil painting ranks among the most successful created by Clovis Trouille, an artist adopted by André Breton and his circle but totally off on his own trip, which occasionally involved soft Surrealist nunsmut. Pay attention to the attention Trouille pays to pairs here—ripe legs, stern crosses, pensile tassels, smoke trails like fuming incense …

Black Narcissus (1947). Anglicans in the Himalayas. "They renounced the world of men but found that the world was not to be denied." Kathleen Byron is the bomb as Sister Ruth. Dizzy in the thin air, Ruth wears a powdery neurotic pallor setting off a mouth coated crimson.