Michael A Rizzotti
Diana Spencer was launched onto the world stage when it became known that Prince Charles chose her to be his wife. Who can forget a first sight of Diana stretching her long legs out of a Mini Austin, her body unfolding in front of a horde of cameramen lying in wait. A slim five feet ten inches tall blond with a wry smile, instantly made the headlines news around the world. In retrospect, who could have conjured a more tragic story than the one about her short and luminous life.
The fairy tale began when Prince Charles, being of a certain age, was feeling the pressure from the Queen to finally settle down and provide the kingdom with an heir. There were several prospects among the eligible ladies. For his choice the Prince had to abide by certain requirements. He could not marry a Catholic. She would have to be a Protestant, preferably a member of the Church of England. The bride to be was expected to have aristocratic background. And she would also have to be a virgin. Diana Spencer met all of the qualifications. Once the requirements were met he would need the royal court’s approval.
They married at St Paul’s Cathedral on July 29th 1981. The ceremony was viewed by a global audience of close to a billion viewers. It turned out to be among the most watched religious ceremony ever broadcasted.
From her obscure life as an aspiring ballerina, and later a part-time aide at a nursery school, Diana was swiftly swirled into the limelight. Lifted out of lonely anonymity, and cast into the royal intrigue of Buckingham Palace. Ironically Diana would eventually be baptized with the nick name Lady Di, a homonym that spelled out the omen of her tragic destiny. Unaware that she would be irreversibly ensnarled in the abyss of fame, the victim of her own popularity.
To this day it is hard to determine whether Diana was lonely girl or solitary woman. Either might have been due to the fact that she had been a motherless teenager. This may explain why she then dedicated her life to search of a knight in shining armor. Not an uncommon trait among teenage girls. She did find one eventually, to the envy of millions of women around the world.
Part reality show and part Sleeping Beauty, the stage was slowly being set for a most enduring postmodern fairy tale. A rivalry between a beautiful and stylish young princess and a severe Queen mother-in-law. Both competing for the attention of a prince and favorite heir. Unbeknown to them that Charles was in love with another woman. The discovery of the love affair would eventually spark all around feelings of betrayal and recrimination.
From the start Diana indulged in the fame game. Faced with the infidelity of her husband, she used the media to her own advantage. She deliberately courted the paparazzi when she felt abandoned by the royal family after her separation. How else could she stand up to the most powerful woman of the land. Although she used the media she also blamed the paparazzi for the lack of privacy she sought. The ambivalent quest for fame and privacy would eventually lead to her tragic death.
Lady Di had a knack for cultivating her image of accessibility and vulnerability that charmed her devoted fans. Her increasing popularity and openness made her an outcast from the royal family who were sinking in popularity in the eyes of their royal subjects. The humorless, orderly and sheltered images of the royal life where no longer popular and remnants of the past. While Lady Di was portrayed as passionate, fun loving and vulnerable. A star quality that led to her adoption by the media who crowned her with an aura of fame.
Diana embodied the dual nature of a saint and sinner. Saint, to the great majority of world fans who were devoted to her. Sinner, to the aristocracy who shunned her for her public spotlight and personal disclosure. The upper crust is known to be a conservative lot. They believe that royalty should behave properly by setting a good example of stoic composure and stiff upper lip.
A Postmodern Celebrity Cult
It was with her tragic death on August 31st 1997 that Princess Diana was consecrated as a popular icon. In her essay Lady Di et Mère Teresa, Christine Pina makes a persuasive analysis of the funeral ceremony of Diana viewed by billions of spectators. She sees the event as a rediscovery of a cultic practice in a post-modern world. These observations according to Pina, point to a “media” induced form of religiosity. What Jacques Ellul described as the shifting nature of the sacred that morphs into other modes of cultic expression.
Among the noted dignitaries attending the funeral service, was a visible Prime Minister Tony Blair, an emotional Elton John and Diana’s brother who vented out his frustration in an eulogy full of reproach in front of an applauding crowd. A service that included readings from the Bible, prayers and moments of silence. All viewed by billions of viewers who participated in a service typically reserved for an intimate few. Making the ceremony one of the most viewed religious service in history, surpassing the Princess’ wedding ceremony.
The broadcasting of people, some in tears, some visibly moved, laying their bouquet of flowers over a huge floral display in front of a gated Kensington House, are visible signs of heartfelt sorrow, a viewers’ communion of sort, a novel brand of religiosity. What to say about the bridge of Alma in Paris, where Diana’s car fatally crashed in its underpass, which by some twisted turn of fate is the Latin word for “soul”. A place which has since the accident been a popular shrine where devoted fans congregate to commemorate the death of their beloved princess.
The princess’ trademark of walking among the lepers, aids patients, holding maimed infants with a passionate embrace rekindled the old English tradition called “touching” the sick. The practice was associated with the king’s magical healing powers over his subjects by laying a hand on them. He being the earthly representative and the embodiment of divine power. The practice dates back to the medieval times and went out of fashion at the turn of the 19th century.
All the while, the drama is unfolding under a Queen’s reign who happens to be the head of the Church of England, a similar role as the pope in Rome, blurring the separation between the temporal and the religious.
Barely six days after Diana’s tragic death, Mother Teresa passed away on September 5th 1997. Worn out by years of humble service dedicated to the outcasts in the slums of Calcutta. The overwhelming popularity of Diana’s tragedy overshadowed the death of an old and exhausted nun. Unable to compete for attention, the funeral had to be postponed for three days. Prompting a local journalist to write that there were hardly any tears left for a little and unassuming nun who died in silent anonymity. In stark contrast to a life at the Ritz, a speedy car chase and the violent death of a young and rich princess, a world away from the glitter and hordes of paparazzi.
Shortly after her death, Mother Teresa was beatified by John Paul II, the second step towards sainthood. The nun was known to be a staunch Roman Catholic with an uncompromising position on abortion. She faithfully submitted to the teaching of the Church with a stoic acceptance of poverty and the established order. These positions raised criticism about the real nature of her missionary work that were seen as a promotional flagship for a Church mired in sexual scandal and declining popularity. As for the people of India, they were weary of a Catholic nun displaying to the world the slums of Calcutta as if there were none in other countries.
By 2007 Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity resulted in a ministry that included approximately 450 brothers and 5,000 nuns worldwide, operating missions, schools and shelters in over 120 countries. In 1979 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work. A remarkable accomplishment for a tiny nun born in the obscure town of Skopje in the Republic of Macedonia on August 26th 1910.
The two funeral ceremonies revealed two worlds, literally poles apart. The first in London, the center of the British Empire of old, the second, in a former British colony. The princess’ Anglican ceremony was all glitter and mass appeal and was televised to a good portion of planetary viewers. On the opposite side of the globe, a Catholic mass attended by 15,000 people at Netaji indoor stadium in Calcutta. Two funeral services each with their own religious historical backgrounds. Both exhibiting a comparable postmodern media induced form of religiosity.
The funerals reveal two distinctive Christian displays of ritual expression. A simple and rudimentary example of the difference between Catholics and Reformed can be illustrated by the symbolism of the crucifix and the cross. The figure of Jesus-Christ typically appears on the cross for Catholics whereas for the Reformed the cross is in some cases bare and absent of an agonizing body. The first stresses sacrifice, suffering and the surrender to God’s will. The second suggests an absent body of Jesus who has conquered death and heralds a resurrected body of Christ. The former entails an acceptance of suffering and submission to fate. The latter implies redemption and the glory of the risen Lord.
Two different mediated forms of salvation suddenly come to the fore in succeeding funeral services: In one, an exalted princess presented in all her glory. Reigning on a global audience, crowned by the media with a halo of fame. The other, images of sacrifice and poverty, a visible imitation of Jesus’ presence among the powerless and outcasts.
Both heroines point to a postmodern reinterpretation of sainthood. The term saint typically refers to an individual whose motives and actions reflect the will of God. One who possesses some powerful divine attributes. A person who is a model of religious behavior. Miracles attributed to the candidate after his or her death is an important criteria for sainthood. It reveals the saint’s ongoing saving presence of God. This is especially valid in the case of a martyr or someone who died a tragic death.
In a postmodern sort of way we can make an analogy of Diana’s posthumous miracle in terms of the influence she had on the British parliament on the favorable outcome of banning land mines. Also, soon after her death, the Parliament refused to cover the expenses of the royal yacht Britannia paid for by the commoner’s taxes.
As for Mother Teresa, the Vatican is currently reviewing the instance of a miracle that occurred with her intercession. The healing of a tumor of an Indian woman named Monica Besra, who attributes her cure to the application of a locket containing the nun’s picture.
Since her death, Mother Teresa’s personal letters became public and revealed a person with a deep sense of doubt about her faith. Disclosing long periods of longing to feel the presence of Jesus Christ. A presence she sought more than anything else. The letters reveal moments of “darkness” and “loneliness” which she could not dispel. In the end, these doubts did not alter her dedication and commitment to God’s will embodied by her presence among the poor and outcasts.
Sacred Media & Profane Audience
One can narrow the meaning of religion, or religio as the Romans called it, as the cultus deorum (the cults of the gods). Defined as the scrupulous performance of prescribed rituals to the gods. They include a rigorous separation between what belongs to the gods and the mortals. All implemented by a strict juridical boundary between the sacred and the profane. This separation is illustrated by the boundaries set by the templum or the pomerium (religious boundaries). A boundary that the mortals cannot cross or transgress. Any transgression is enforced by the vengeful wrath of the gods. And is also implemented by the unforgiving punishment set by the law. Additionally, sacrare signified to segregate what belongs to the sphere of the humans in order to be consecrated to the gods.
This key aspect of the separation between the sacred and the profane can be found in most world religions and agnostic beliefs. In a postmodern world, the arbitrary separation between the sacred and the profane is seen as being imposed by the media’s technological boundary. This separation is even more radical than the one imposed by the Romans through mythical or juridical means.
As Pina points out, the funerals would not have been omnipresent without the help of the media. As a result, the media has juxtaposed itself onto the world as the gateway to the sacred. A self-ordained tele-vision of religiosity. And in the process transformed the home into media controlled sanctuary. Keeping the separation between the sacred icons and the profane audience complete. Making the sacred physically inaccessible to the profane viewers that lay outside its boundaries.
True religious experience is lived by a process of communication between the human and the divine. And is based on a set of sacred instructions and ritual practices inherited by historical tradition. Spiritual experience can only be authentic if communication, community and communion are present. With the broadcasting of the funeral services, the media has displaced traditional religions as the purveyor of ritual. As a result it has fragmented the idea of communication, community and communion.
As such the media is a quasi-religious content provider. Quasi indicates a genuine similarity, without sharing religion’s ultimate spiritual goals. Whose credo can be summarized in “seeing is believing” (there is something to be said about how the experience of seeing that could be construed as a true religious experience).
A Media’s Icon
Tony Blair who is a gifted politician, referred to Diana as the “people’s Princess”. He recognized in Lady Di a talented ambassador to England. The glamor, the fashionable image and the paparazzi promoted an ongoing fairy tale. She became the greatest national export since the Beatles and other British rock bands that followed.
The Prime Minister interceded on behalf of Lady Di’s fans in the showdown about the protocol of lowering the flag at half-mast at Buckingham Palace. The public showed a similar impatience in respect to the Queen’s long awaited TV address. Signs of remorse and grief were finally seen in Prince Charles’ tears and the Queen’s visit at the floral display at the gates of Kensington House.
Since Diana’s death the movie “The Queen” was released absolving the royals. Tony Blair has since left public office. He is working as a public relations person for some of the biggest corporations in the world with a multi-million dollars a year compensation.
To conclude, it seems that Diana would have been content in being a passionate wife and loving mother. Her discovery that Charles was in love with another woman shattered that legitimate dream.
It turned out that the adulation of her fans made her an outcast of the royal court. Perhaps because no matter how much status or money one has, it cannot buy you grace. It’s a gift. Keeping in mind that Diana came from a sheltered background. She hardly had to work in her life. Her charity work was largely a product of circumstance rather than character. And in her ordeal with the Royals, she was left with a generous settlement. And because she was married to a royal, she was able to meet and date the son of a billionaire.
Diana was sacrificed at the altar of the established order. She was guilty of temporarily blurring the lines between the aristocracy and the commoners, the sacred and the profane. A separation that must not be breached.
Since the tragedy, Prince Charles married his former lover Camilla. The Queen is still among us. She rules alongside a sovereign media who inconspicuously dominates as a quasi-religious medium. Relentlessly searching for another disposable victim to be sacrificed at the altar of ratings and advertising.