Catholic Art and Architecture in the twisted world of Blasphemous: how religious iconography can build nightmares

As the name suggests, Blasphemous is a horror metroidvania that really uses inspiration from religious art to create the unique world of Cvstodia. In this horrific land, the Miracle is a sort of eldritch energy that grants wishes to the believers, but twisting their desires and martyrdom in a disturbing and unexpected way. In this fictional land where religion and fanaticism are founding elements, existing classic and religious art is the most important reference. Dark fantasy elements are combined with the aesthetic and extremes of Catholicism, shaping a unique world full of interesting places and memorable characters. Not only famous paintings of saints and religious figures are partially reshaped into disturbing creatures, but also symbolism and religious iconic elements are used to create nightmarish entities. Between the many twisted creatures and characters inhabiting the world of Cvstodia, in the following article I selected the most striking references to Catholic art in terms of paintings, sculptures, and architectures.

One of the strongest and most evident connections with religious art is the boss called Ten Piedad. Probably the first boss to be faced in the game, the creature immediately strikes for the resemblance with the iconic Michelangelo’s statue the Pietà. If the statue of the Virgin Mary is identical to the real one, Jesus, by contrast, is far more different, because the boss itself is lying in the arms of the statue. The reference is familiar but disturbing at the same time, since the hideous and disfigured monster is still posing at the beginning of the fight as the statue of Jesus. The name of the boss is also not hiding the reference, since Piedad is the Spanish name for Pity, same as Pietà in Italian. Other than a striking artistic reference, the boss also works reverting the religious symbolism, transforming the body of Jesus ready for resurrection, in a disturbing figure. The monster was once a man, who just wanted to sleep in the arms of the statue of Mary. During his restless sleep, the Miracle morphed his body in a disfigured monster, imprisoning his sleeping mind in this hideous monster. This concept could be a symbolism of “what if the resurrection of Jesus went wrong?”. A creepy what-if, imagining how after sleeping, or being dead, the man-that-once-was would instead come back as an evil version of himself.

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The martyrs are a common topic in many religious paintings, often adorning the colourful windows inside churches with images of their ultimate suffering. San Sebastiano (Saint Sebastian) is probably one of the most famous martyrs, at least for the strong and iconic image of his death. The Christian man was executed by Romans after they discovered his true religion and, after being bound to a stake, he was shot with dozens of arrows. The image of his martyrdom was portrayed many times by famous painters, becoming an iconic symbol of unjust sufferance. In Blasphemous’s world, the character of Gemino is a direct visual reference to the martyrdom of San Sebastiano. He is imprisoned inside a metal statue, bound to an olive tree, exposed to extreme coldness, and pierced by multiple arrows, resembling in the pose every painting of San Sebastiano. Gemino is also a martyr, suffering this terrible torture until he will become part of the tree itself. Gemino’s only treasure is a small olive, the last gift that nature offered him before starting his torment, a small symbol that he will treasure in his hand till it will freeze.

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Between countless artistic references to Spanish traditions or masterpieces such as the works of Goya or Velazquez, it is difficult to decide which reference is more interesting. But focusing on the religious more than on the artistic side, Cherubs, for example, are a very common concept used in many characters and creatures of Blasphemous. Sometimes, the reference is used quite literally, for example in the collectables, which in this case are flying childish angels imprisoned in cages.

Even if there are several references to Cherubs, especially to the way they are portrayed in religious art, the case of the Headless Chamberlain is probably the most emblematic. The nightmarish creature has the body of a man but missing the head, going around with a pillow with on top the head of a Cherub. To highlight its creepiness, the creature has also a bag full of disembodied heads. The Headless Chamberlain attacks by throwing the flying head, which can move on its own while hunting the intruders. In this specific case, the Headless Chamberlain is directly inspired by the painting The Immaculate Conception (1662), as stated by the creators of Blasphemous in the official artbook (NDR which is really gorgeous, if you didn’t buy it). In the painting, several angelic heads are flying in the top corners of the painting, harmless and angelic in this case, but used as the core element to create the nightmarish Headless Chamberlain.

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Child-like angelic faces are common in many other designs in Blasphemous universe. The lord of all the Cherubs, called Jocinero, is a particularly interesting and disturbing character, but I will talk about him in a future article. The embodiment of paedophobia, or the fear of children, is clearly Exposito, the most iconic and disturbing boss of Blasphemous. The creature is a gargantuan baby with the strength of dozens of men, resembling a giant Cherub. However, Exposito is also very similar to Baby Jesus, especially due to the golden crown of thorns adorning is head. I will not speak more about Exposito since I already covered its design and symbolism in a previous article, available HERE.

The artistic religious references inside Blasphemous are not only limited to paintings but are also connected to more architectural details. Churches are specifically implemented inside the design of several enemies, a combination of flesh and architecture, connecting the sacred with the profane. Some enemies simply use as main weapon church elements, such as giant crucifixes or bells. The Shield Maiden is a small exception and, even if it uses religious architecture as weapons, the design of the weapons is more interesting and elaborated, integrating complex decorative elements. The most interesting detail is that while using a golden decorative element as a shield, the creature removed the head of the statue to wear it as helm.

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On the other hand, other creatures have architectural elements directly embodied in their design. Let’s talk for example of the Blazing Icon. The female figure is covered with red velvet, looking like an elaborate walking curtain. The most interesting detail is the cage-like structure around her head, which uniquely defines the design. The structure is clearly inspired by architectural elements inside churches, for example resembling the famous baldachin in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The baldachin is positioned in the middle of the church, marking the entrance to the supposed tomb of St. Peter. The head-ornament creates a figure that is practically a living and walking element of a church. The baldachin-like cage is probably quite heavy, and this is reflected in the Blazing Icon, which is slowly walking around oppressed by such weight.

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Another enemy brings the concept of religious architecture integrated into the design even a step further. The creature is not present in the game, at least for the moment, but its beautiful concept is available in the artbook. The heavy knight shows an incredibly detailed and complex design, practically looking like a weaponized chapel. A tower-like tabernacle, which is used to store the images of various saints, would be probably used as the main weapon of the knight, like a sort of improvised holy mace. The body itself works as a reliquary, with the probable head of a saint exposed behind glass. This is a very common phenomenon in several churches, where body-parts of saints are exhibited as religious emblems. The knight is the quintessence of religious architecture integrated into the design, a walking chapel ready to smash down the infidels.

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Still, there could be a lot to talk about artistic and religious elements inside characters and monsters of Blasphemous. For example, Sepulcro Errante is a golem-like creature bringing on its back the tomb of a Spanish king, while the iconic creature Amargura could be almost considered as a living altar. But I think that the creatures analysed in the article are the most iconic and direct integration of catholic paintings and architectures into the grim world of Blasphemous.

Monster of the Week: Exposito, Scion of Abjuration (Blasphemous)

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Origin: Blasphemous

Appearance: At first glimpse, he could even look like a normal child, a sort of oversized baby Jesus or a giant cherub. Then, his nightmarish profile will become very clear in all the sick details. The giant baby is blindfolded, and looks like that he is constantly crying tears of blood, flowing down under the bandage in red rivers. Exposito wears on his head a big wicked crown, a very clear symbol of Catholicism, and a close recall to the figure of baby Jesus. The baby is held by a wicker woman, a colossal figure missing detailed traits, holding the baby like a maternal shadow. During the battle in the game and also in the last released concept art, a  snake-like creature extended itself from the main body of the wicker woman, like a sort of appendage. While the wicker woman simply moves around, and the baby only tries to catch and dismember whoever can perceive, the snake creature is attacking and protecting the baby with a multitude of skills. It is interesting to notice that, especially in the concept art, the face of the snake is like the one of a sad woman, probably representing the deceased mother of Exposito, which still tries to protect him.

Background: Exposito is really the embodiment of whatever could be interpreted as creepy or scary inside catholic art. The holiness fades because of the disturbing details of this figure, which clearly express the contrast between holy and profane. The complex creature is also a sort of unholy trinity, composed by 3 wicked creatures: the mother (instead of the father), the son is clearly there, and let’s suppose that the snake is a sort of holy spirit. However, the story of Exposito is provided directly by the game itself, and it is really a sad one. Just as introduction, the name Exposito is used  in Spain for orphan children with unknown parents. Exposito was a child, when the Inquisition burned his mother for heresy. The child was blindfolded to avoid to see the horrible scene but, even blindfolded, the poor kid was continuously crying. The last wish of the mother, while burning on the pyre, was that the people build a wicker figure in her image, to hold and to comfort her baby for when she will be dead. The Miracle, an energy mutating and twisting religious events in the land of Custodia, saw this scene and granted the wish, creating Exposito. The giant baby and the wicker woman are the perfect representation of the dualism between mother and son, even if in this case it is twisted with sadness and horror.

Regarding the fight itself and the attacks, the snake-like creature will do most of the job. The monster can attack with its own body, or can spit  poison or fire bullets. The creature will move following complex patterns, making really difficult to fight while avoiding its body. The giant baby will instead target specific regions of the arena. If the main character will be unlucky enough to finish in one of those areas, the giant baby will instantly kill him, brutally dismembering his body.

Interview with ” The Game Kitchen”, the Spanish team behind the dark metroidvania Blasphemous

 

Blasphemous was one of the most successful Kickstarter’s campaigns, and one of the most awaited indie game of 2019. The gorgeous and detailed pixel-art caught almost instantaneously the attention of the press and the players, but there is a lot more in Blasphemous‘s world other than the graphic. The game is a really dark and gruesome RPG metroid-vania, with a strong horror background, especially for the grotesque enemy design. The world of Cvstodia, land where Blasphemous is set, is directly influenced by Catholic religion, creating a unique, twisted and disturbing atmosphere, where religion meets horror.

The Game Kitchen is the brilliant Spanish studio behind Blasphemous, previous authors of the horror point and click saga of The Last Door. Using as inspiration traditions and celebrations from Spain, this independent studio was able to create a really unique and dark world, and one of the most mature and original metroid-vania ever created.

I had the possibility to ask some questions abut Blasphemous to the Game Kitchen. In the following interview, you will find details on how the world of Blasphemous and its creatures were created, the traditional influences of the team, and what are the future plans for the game. If you want to know more about Blasphemous, I hope you will enjoy the following interview.

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Q1: Thank you for your time and for the opportunity. Blasphemous looks a really promising game, with an interesting and unique setting. As an action-platform, Blasphemous is very different from your previous titles, the horror point and click adventure saga of The Last Door. How the idea behind Blasphemous was born?

A1: (Enrique Cabeza) Sorry for my English in advance. After The Last Door we needed to lay the foundations for a new project and after a lot of testing we felt that the next game should be different and could attract a wider range of players but, more importantly, that the game would be very attractive to ourselves as developers. At that time the team was extremely small and the project was going to have a minimal budget, but after the Kickstarter campaign, everything changed and we were able to increase the size of the team and the budget considerably. In addition, the success of the Kickstarter campaign indicated that the game was attractive enough and that we were heading in the right direction.

Q2; Which are the biggest influences for the design, the lore and the gameplay of Blasphemous?

A2: Well, gameplay influences come from games like Castlevania, Strider, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Metroid, Dark Souls or Devil May Cry. We wanted to mix Hack&Slash combat styles and progression and exploration of the metroid-vania genre. In terms of lore we have followed the heritage of the Souls saga format that we love so much, but really the stories are inspired by legends of our city Seville of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and mystical religious writers such as Santa Teresa, Gonzalo de Berceo or San Juan de la Cruz. 

Q3: What was the most challenging part of the developing?

A3: From my point of view, the most challenging thing has been to unite the artistic part of the game with the combat design with the giant bosses. That’s probably what caused us the most nightmares. We’ve learned a lot about how not to do some things.

Q4: Spanish traditions, folklore and culture seems to have an interesting influence in the world of Blasphemous. How much Spanish traditions influenced the world of Blasphemous? Could you make some examples?

A4: We realized that our own city, Seville, was full of interesting and unique elements that could serve to create our own dark fantasy. The cultural richness of the city is enormous from the artistic, architectural and historical point of view, so we felt that we were doing an honest job and our own. 

For example, one of the Spanish painters whose works have influenced us the most is Francisco de Goya because he has a series of dark and macabre paintings whose atmosphere fell in love with us and that fit perfectly into the tone of the game we wanted to create. Seville is full of religious art with hundreds of years of antiquity. One of its most important traditions is Holy Week which is truly spectacular. Really, all these works and traditions are not lived here as something merely religious, but it is something cultural and traditional, and a part of our DNA.

Q5: From the title to the world itself, Blasphemous clearly integrates religious figures and symbolism, for example Michelangelo’s Pietà for one of the first bosses [Figure 1]. How did you integrate religious topics in a horror environment?

A5: Much of the religious art, especially that of Andalusia, in southern Spain, is very dark and gloomy. Seville is full of religious iconography that represents suffering and tragedy in a unique way. I think it was a good decision to inspire the art of the game in all this art and heritage of southern Spain.

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Figure 1: Boss inspired by “La Pietà” of Michelangelo

Q6: I am a personal fan of the creature design of Blasphemous, especially one of the bosses: a gigantic blindfolded child lifted by a humanoid dark creature [Figure 2]. The design is really terrifying and unique, is this boss still part of the game? Could you provide some details maybe about the background or the battle against this creepy foe?

A6: We don’t want to give many clues about it because inside the game the players will be able to find a lot of information about all the characters and the world of Cvstodia. We think it’s better for players to find and discuss the whole lore of the game. We have published a two hundred page art book explaining the artistic influences and creative processes that have given rise to all the creatures and characters in the game. I hope you find it interesting!

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Figure 2: One of the most creepy and disturbing bosses of Blasphemous

Q7: Let’s continue to talk about the unique creature design of Blasphemous. Which is your favourite monster or boss so far? Why?

A7: I think Crisanta is one of my favourite bosses, the design of her armour is very iconic, also the girl climbed to the giant is one of my favourite enemies and has turned out to be one of the most shocking for players, is inspired by one of the most important Spanish paintings in history and the universal painting ‘Las Meninas’ [Figure 3]. One of my favourite characters is Desamparados, the woman in the painting that appears in the Blasphemous comic “El Arrodillamiento”, which is published in Steam, I think is one of the characters I enjoyed most designing and writing.

Q8: How are you balancing the difficulty of Blasphemous? Will it be more difficulty levels or maybe a New Game+, in the way of Souls game for example?

A8: Yeah, there’s a New Game+ on the way. The balancing in the games is something very difficult to achieve and I think the gameplay designers of Blasphemous have done a tremendous job. Hopefully we can even improve this aspect in future updates with the help of the community.

Q9:  The world of Blasphemous looks a really interesting place to explore. How much focus will be on the exploration and on the search for secrets? Just to have an averaged idea, how big will be the map in terms of hours to be fully explored?

A9: It’s complicated to say. I think we’ve introduced a lot of rooms to explore and secrets to discover with the budget we had. There are players who complete the game after thirty hours and others much earlier.  However, we have plans to add more and more content to the game which we hope players find very satisfying.

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Figure 3: Artwork of the creature inspire by “Las Meninas”

Q10: My obvious last question will be about the future of the game. Are you planning to support the game after lunch, with DLCs for example?

A10: Yes!! We are already working on new game content as well as correcting and improving existing aspects of the game. Blasphemous has just started!

Final Remarks:

I would like to thank the Game Kitchen, especially Mauricio Garcia Serrano and Enrique Cabeza, for the great opportunity and for their interesting answers. As probably many other fans, I am also curious to discover what monstrosities will be lurking in the future DLCs. I want just to remember that Blasphemous is available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and also STEAM.