How the Concept of Pain Has Changed Throughout History

And why you feel like an a-hole for complaining about it now.

Katlyn Roberts
9 min readFeb 7, 2021


Martyrdom of Saint Ciricus and his mother Juliitta represented in the Romanesque antependium (frontal altar), known as the Durro antependium, dated to the mid-12th century, originally from the Sant Quirc de Durro chapel in the Vall de Boí area in Alta Ribagorça in Catalonia, Spain, now on display in the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona, ​​Catalonia, Spain. Photo courtesy of the author… who will never un-see it and now you can’t either.

Churches in Europe are on a whole other level, man. And yet I’m somehow drawn to them like I was to the Cinnabon shop back at the mall in Tucson. There’s something irresistible about an over-opulent assault on the senses mixed with guilt and bodily hostility.

I can’t believe I pulled that comparison off.

See, since pain is, in many senses, invisible, and one of the only methods we have to measure it or express it to one another is language, I thought maybe if I couched this cringe-worthy topic within the folds of a delectable dessert, it might take the edge off.

Did it work or are you just hungry now?

Another way we humans have found to express pain is through depictions of the human body experiencing something undoubtedly painful. Since moving to Europe, I’ve noticed that the super-old churches here have that artform on lock. There are the many depictions of Jesus, of course, in various states of delirium and agony. Puncture wounds in all the usual places, vulnerable ribcage, tears and blood and sunken belly.

Then there’s Mary. She’s serene and accepting of visitors in the nativity scene because depictions of womanly birth pain were apparently never acceptable at any point in history, but her emotional anguish at cradling the head of her dead and tortured son in her lap is usually pretty palpable. And the juxtaposition of these two scenes gives us an extra dose of oof.

Then there are the martyrs. Beheaded, stabbed, boiled, crushed, you name it. There was no shortage of imagination when it came to torturing martyrs. In many depictions, they reach towards the heavens, already anticipating the end of their pain and the commencement of their eternal pleasure.

“I’m well done on this side. Turn me over.” -The reported last words of St. Lawrence as he’s being burned alive on a gridiron. St. Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks, chefs, and comedians. Notre-Dame Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve written before about being curious where this religious reverence for pain came from. It’s a phenomenon that baffles me a little because my personal preference for a place of prayer and introspection would be to display the more…



Katlyn Roberts

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark.