Monday, August 08, 2005

Mutilating Pagan art

Via The Cranky Professor, I discovered Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm, a blog devoted to early Christian campaign to destroy or at least any earlier art that suggested connection to Pagan thought. The writer is a Danish graduate student in archaeology, Troels Myrup Kristensen. The thesis will attempt to answer questions such as who were the image-breakers? In what contexts does iconoclasm occur? What role did religious violence play in late Roman/early Christian society? What is the larger picture?

The Abrahamic religions' hostility to art continues--witness the Taliban's destruction of the giant Buddhist statues in Afghanistan a few years ago.

Discusing a damaged sculptural group of the Three Graces, Kristensen notes,

There were many different motives for Christians to smash pagan sculpture, and one of them was an aversion to nudity. This is clear from a series of sculptures, whose genitalia have been mutilated.

Genital mutilation. What more is there to say?


Blogger Peculiar said...

Dear Chas,
Just a note on the Abrahamic religions' hostility to art: its worth noting that traditional Christianity stands out as the one member of this group in which such a priori hostility is emphatically not present. It took a seventh Ecumenical Council and well over a century of nasty conflict with the Iconoclast heretics to decide the subject. Eastern Orthodox teaching maintains that to deny the possibility of representing spiritual truth in material symbols is to miss out on the full import of Christ's Incarnation. God took on a material body so that we who are also formed of matter may know Him and be united with Him. Renowned Iconodule St. John of Damascus wrote: "I do not worship matter but I worship the creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter... I will not cease from worshipping the matter through which my salvation has been effected." That's why Orthodox churches are full to the gills of paintings, and it's why we use material things-- bread, wine, oil, water, wedding rings, crowns-- in our sacraments. They're not just symbols, but rather matter deified through the Creator's presence within His creation.

It's a joyous and celebratory theology which the Western churches have unfortunately been missing out on for quite a while now; many sects took it a very sad extreme, e.g. the Calvinist iconoclasts destroying Christian art in Scotland. Archbishop Kallistos Ware explains it thus: "[The Iconoclasts] fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But that is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ's humanity, to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured."

We're not dualists, however much most Christians have neglected and forgotten the point. C.S. Lewis remembered, though. I love his blunt and to the point remark: "God likes matter. He made quite a lot of it."

Of course, non of this is to deny that the Early Christians were more than happy to smash up Pagan art. It just means that they (the right-believing ones, anyway)objected to the content, not the style.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

Dear Peculiar / AJF3

What you say about the current Orthodox position is true, but it did take a nasty struggle between iconoclasts and iconodules (picture-breakers and picture-servants, for those who aren't used to the Greek) to get there. I'm sure you are aware of the struggle between the emperor Leo II, the patriarch of Constantinople, and the pope over the issue during the eighth century CE.

Back then, I see echos of the Arian controversy: can you contain Christ's nature in a human body, let alone a picture?

And then it all started again during the Reformation--not just Scotland but throughout England during the reigns of Edward IV and the early Tudors. And I read of a recent spate of iconoclasm among one group of Christians in Kenya claiming that any church decoration was "Pagan" or "Masonic."

Note my earlier post about Wahabi Muslims bulldozing historic buildings in Mecca for much the same reason.

As long as certain key texts are normative, such as the 2nd Commandment, the impulse to smash and destroy will reassert itself, I fear.

8:08 AM  

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