Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
For all the anecdotes recorded in the Passion chronicle, there seems a lacuna at the heart of it. Something goes missing. Something in the text lacks explication. The politics of it are plain enough. But is there not a rupture in the psychology of the crowd, an unaccountable fickleness? Why the discontinuity between Jesus’ reception into Jerusalem and the calls to crucify him days later? Were the Jews that mercurial and unstable?
Anonymous. Fresco (14th C). Basilica of San Abbondio, Como.
Romano Guardini anticipated the question and answered it in The Lord. A magisterial reflection on the Gospel story, the book revivifies our grasp of Jesus within the contours of his time. One chapter, “The Trial,” abolishes all thought of a breach in the behavior of the multitude. In Guardini’s retelling, those who spread their clothes under his feet and, in Luke’s words, “came early in the morning to him in the temple, for to hear him” were not the same ones who cried “Crucify him:”
Pilate is skeptical but sensitive—possibly also superstitious. He feels the mystery, fears supernatural power, and would like to free the accused. He counts upon the masses to demand Jesus’ release. There is a man in prison who has been really seditious—and in addition committed murder. His name is also Jesus, Jesus Bar-abbas.
Pilate: Whom shall I give free, Jesus the Bar-abbas, or the Jesus called Messiah? But the Procurator has reckoned falsely. The crowd outside is no real cross-section of the masses composed in the main of serious, hard-working, long-suffering, honest men and women, but mob, plebs. The High Council has seen to that, and its agitators are busily and successfully spreading ‘public opinion’ among them. So they yell: Bar-abbas!
Pilate tries to placate them: “What then am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
All: “Let him be crucified.”
It is a stunning passage. So convincing. Why did we not see it before? Through Guardini's words we understand the complexity of pressures on Pilate. And we recognize that mob. It is the poison fruit of a political machine, one as old as politics itself. It lives among us. We meet it in the news, in our own streets.
Flash points change; sources of ignition differ with time and place. But from Sennacherib’s day to our own, the mob is the same: angry and relentless. From the banks of the Tigris to Crown Heights in 1991 or Ferguson last summer, resentments smolder, poised to catch fire. The Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day operated no differently than today’s party apparatchiks. Agitators, zealots, militants, monomaniacs, young Turks, influence peddlers, race-baiters, community organizers—plus ça change . . .
Guardini presents Pilate as a man who understood mob psychology as we do: The mob will not be satisfied until it inflicts pain. Blood must flow. Send an innocent to the flogging post, if only to quiet things down.
One might suppose that Pilate was simply without conscience. But this would not explain his behavior during Jesus' trial. Had he really lacked integrity, he could have directed the trial or have let it direct itself so that the sentence against Jesus would have been inflicted as against a dangerous agitator. Actually, he does nothing of the sort. He insists upon the defender's innocence—repeatedly, to the end—and then, fully conscious of the illegality of the decision, pronounces the sentence of death, and what a death! We are likely to overlook the contradiction, or to explain it away with Pilate's ‘weakness.' This is insufficient. The procurator is sucked into the depths of “the powers of darkness,” into a confusion so dark and deep that he is no longer sensible of the gruesome and ignominious folly he is committing.
Guardini passes on to Calvary by reminding his readers that they should not retreat “before the horrors recounted here, but should read them through, will all the concentration of his heart, remembering that they were suffered for him.”
. . . millions of Americans now regularly eat French-fried potatoes with their fingers. We have sunk, anthropologically speaking, beneath the level of the fork. The daily, unrecorded habits of a people are measures of its values. A disintegrated civilization shows not only in the low level of the arts, but in its pop entertainment and its lunchbox.
John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture
Nothing is more exhilarating than counting oneself an accomplished spotter of cultural decay. We relish the frisson of it even while we wring our hands. So I know what you think when you hear that the world’s first art museum catering to selfie mavens has opened in Manila. You say to yourself: We have descended from finger food down, down, all the way down to wanton flippancy in a temple of art. Worse, a pretend temple—a garish, tacky, tongue-in-cheek anti-temple.
Quite right. Yet despite that, there is something endearing about this goofy, impertinent, interactive sacrilege. We have enough vulgarities to purse lips over. This does not have to be one of them. Let me try to explain.
Previously tagged the social network capital of the planet, the Philippines have now been anointed the selfie capital to boot. According to research by Time Magazine, Manila, followed by three other Philippine cities, averages more selfies per 100,000 people a day than anywhere else in the camera phone world. You can tunnel into the sociology of this on your own. What interests me is the museum itself, Art in Island.
The whole point of Art in Island is to let people pose for selfies in front of the art on the wall. They can even touch it. And they are exempt from the absurd hush that we museum-goers adopt to prove ourselves pious appreciators of strict observance. Visitors to Art in Island can hold up their selfie-sticks, open their Instagram app, noodle the image, add a caption, and send it giggling into the wide world. It is Everyman’s catchpenny variant of the hoary old message in a bottle tossed on the high seas.
What is the message here? It is in code, but bear with me. I think it is this: that we, in our First World affluence and leisure, have made a fetish of art. The gift that it is has swollen like a puff-adder into a dogma. And a moral tonic. The Philippines, by contrast, have not had the same history of grand acquisitions that find their tax-advantaged way into public collections. Art in Island is a poor nation’s finger in the eye of the cult of art. It is an antidote to the peculiar twist taken by modernity’s bent toward idolatry.
We are a happy band, we aesthetes. We tell ourselves that art awakens the faculties by which we perceive God. Yet, quite possibly, it runs the other way around. It is the religious mind—quickened but still restless—that grants to visual art its status as a locus theologicus. (Gilson was terse: “There is no necessary connection between the fine arts and religion. . . . Religion exists in religious men.”) We distill art from the labor of its making, and quarantine it from the boundless variety of human creativity. Thereby, we raise it to an object of devotion.
Once we dematerialize art and make it a springboard for other interests, philosophy and theology among them, we hardly have to look at it. Much art-and-beauty discourse is less about art—the thing seen—than a display of the observer as an acolyte of the beautiful. Often as not, the true object of consideration is that golden panorama visible from the piazza of one's own sensibility. It becomes a selfie of another kind. Behold the beholder.
Christianity decreases while art-consciousness intensifies and spreads. More than half of American art museums were founded after 1970. New ones continue to open; older ones renovate and expand. Meanwhile, church attendance shrinks. Table 75 in the 2012 U.S. Census shows those who self-identify as having “no religion” more than doubled between 1990 and 2008. Upsurge in the authority of art is a useful index of the atrophy—or displacement—of faith in Judeo-Christian sources of revelation. On the evidence of Art in Island, Filipinos have ducked a First World god.
The Mediterranean after the beheading of twenty one Copts. Photo: Universal News & Sport.
While Christian circles contemplate the redemptive power of beauty, a conquering Islam reasserts itself. It advances in defiance of our trust in art's contribution to “the good.” The Cross was bloody awful. Harrowing. Few of us can bear to look. It is easier to repeat the mantra—unearned by you and me—that beauty will save the world.
Our beguiling but deceptive stress on art and beauty brings to mind The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio de Sica’s 1971 film about a sophisticated Jewish family in Italy during the rise of Mussolini. Their ease and cultivation obscured the magnitude of the threat marshaling against them. In the end, they walked politely to their extermination, the refinement of their upbringing no stay against barbarism. It was annihilated with them.
Art in Island could not have come at a better time. Join me in praying for franchises to open in Paris, New York, Berlin, Florence, every art capital in the Western world.
Note: Art in Island has no website but the museum does have a Facebook page.
You would not pass a dollar bill on the sidewalk without picking it up. Maybe not even a quarter. I am sure of that. But a penny? Do you stoop for that? I do.
Thomas Rowlandson. Two-a-penny Buns (1799). Museum of London, London.
And I just did this morning. Two at time were lying by my car in a local lot when I ran out for groceries. That makes three so far this week. The first was lying on Lexington Avenue outside of St. Jean Baptiste earlier in the week. As I bent to retrieve it, a passerby saw me and admonished: “It's not lucky, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” I told him. “But it's unlucky to leave it there.”
And I believe that. It is the one superstition I permit myself. Never mind black cats, Friday the thirteenth, or pressing #13 on an elevator. Walking under ladders does not faze me. And where I live, a bat in the house is not uncommon. But the smallest coin, even a penny, cries to be picked up.
Thomas Rowlandson. London Penny Post (c. 1800). Museum of London, London.
Why? Perhaps because it seems too complaisant, even arrogant, to leave it there. If I snub so much as a penny, abandoning it to be stepped on, am I not tempting the gods to put me in my place? Won't the gods of the purse pay me back in some unwelcome way? I can hear them: “She's too flush to bother over pennies, is she? We'll show her.”
In day-to-day transactions, I do not trouble over pennies or any change at all. But a coin on the ground is different. You have to break your pace, bend down, and get your fingers dirty. And be seen doing it. In its way, all superstition aside, bobbing for a penny is a small genuflection made in gratitude that I do not need the very thing I stoop for.
Domenico Fetti. Parable of the Lost Coin. (17th C.). Berlin
The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.
William Burroughs, Introduction to The Naked Lunch
That book seethed up from forgotten shallows while I watched a recent episode in the third season of House of Cards. Robin Wright’s character, Claire Underwood, wants to avenge herself on a male diplomat who has slighted her. In a previous scene, he scanned her body, and told her how good she looked in the dress she was wearing. It was no compliment. It was a sneer: she was a woman playing at a man’s game.
Scorned, Mrs. Underwood—First Lady and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—determines to act like a man. She invites the offender into the ladies’ room to negotiate just the way real men apparently do, at the urinal. Unequipped to stand, she sits on the toilet with the cubicle door open, conversing all the while. Door still open, she pulls up her pantyhose and smooths her skirt. Dead pan. Unselfconscious. After all, urinating is just another one of those natural things women do, like dressing well.
Denise Colomb. Student with Chamber Pot (1954). Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimone, Paris
A pillar of sang froid, the First Lady walks to the sink to wash her hands and dismiss the embarrassed man. The scriptwriter intends us to cheer the bold Mrs. Underwood, who looks as good with her pants down as up. She humiliated the smug s.o.b., did she not?
The scene made me wince. I had just watched something corrupting, something not meant to be seen. I felt like washing my own hands and was grateful to be watching it alone. The sense of violation was visceral, a spontaneous and instinctive recoil. The last time I flinched so reflexively to a filmed moment was when I saw Luis Buñuel’s camera slide a razor across an eyeball in the silent classic Un Chien Andalou.
Now, this morning, I read Marilyn Penn’s review of Map to the Stars, the latest film by Toronto director, David Cronenberg. Amid other vignettes crafted for us sophisticated moderns, Julianne Moore appears on the toilet. She defecates while bellowing instructions—just like a man?—to her assistant.
Max Beckmann. Medea (1949-50). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
When Medea sought revenge, she killed. Modern woman takes to the potty. One was tragedy; the other . . . travesty? low camp? We are meant to witness the second as an advance for women. An empowerment. The sight levels the playing field between men and woman. It is a liberating assault on regressive sex distinctions. I want to think that Ms. Wright and Ms. Moore have given us anomalous spectacles, a freak coincidence, not signals of a looming trend. But I am not so sure.
We have been watching men at the urinal on TV and in the movies for years now. We have become quite used to it, forgetting that an earlier generation of actors would never have been filmed at a toilet. Rarely does any plot require a men’s room scene. (Dinner Rush, with murder on its mind, was an uncommon exception.) Yet, somehow, male characters are routinely viewed, back to the camera, at a urinal. American Standard tethers good guys to bad, shoulder to shoulder. A plumbing fixture reduces hero and anti-hero to the same bodily reality, the same exposure. Here’s looking at you, kid.
Is it girls’ turn now? We cannot imitate the male stance but we can shed our mortifications. Stuffy relics of prudish, bourgeois attachment to privacy are the last obstacles to full surrender of shame. There is no getting back to Eden until we rid ourselves of taboos of concealment that every society until our own enacted and secured to mark the boundary between man and animal.
Pier Ghezzi. Monk with Carrot & Woman with Chamber Pot (18th C.). ©Metropolitan Museum of Art
In her groundbreaking study, Purity and Danger: an Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), social anthropologist Mary Douglas took the techniques of research into non-Western cultures and applied them to her own. Dame Douglas, a practicing Catholic, warned against modernity’s lust for the abolition of taboos that accompany a sense of the sacred. Building on a vibrant body of anthropological material, she argued for the social necessity of boundaries between what is public and visible and what demands to be shielded from view.
Not only is that separation fundamental to an ordered society—the crux of social justice as the term was traditionally understood. To Douglas, it is also the bedrock of meaning itself:
An unstructured society leaves us prey to every dread. As all the veils are successively stripped away, there is no right or wrong. Relativism is the order of the day.
Her essay “Environments at Risk” acknowledges that relativism is the summons offered by our times. It is an “invitation to full consciousness” that we cannot avoid. We are compelled to accept:
But we should do so knowing that the price is William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. The day when everyone can see exactly what is on the end of every one’s fork, on that day there is no pollution and no purity and nothing edible or inedible, credible or incredible, because the classifications of social life are gone. There is no more meaning.
In a world bereft of reticence, intimacy vanishes together with shame. And alongside them both, goes all coherence in our common life. At the end of our forks is disarray. And absurdity.
Children were lifting their tunics for each other before pants ever existed. You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. It is an ancient dare, a forbidden game, played behind bushes, in stairwells, or in rumpus rooms with the door shut. In secret.
But when a grown woman plays it by herself in the Musée d’Orsay, under lights, and in full view of other grownups, we know we are not in a playroom anymore. Not even one in Sin City. We are somewhere close to the Central London Hatching and Conditioning Center. (The d’Orsay is in what we still call Paris but one part of Huxley’s World State is just like another.)
On Ascension Thursday last May, Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah de Robertis went to the Musee d'Orsay in a gold sequined mini-dress. Barefoot. No panties. She sat down in front of Gustave Courbet's famed Origin of the World (1866)—that peerless beaver shot—spread her legs, her labia, and showed the world her own smiling orifice. She titled her performance Mirror of the Origin. Her cameraman videoed the stunt for broadcast later on Vimeo.
Ms. de Robertis abjured any hint of exhibitionism. She told Le Monde:
I behave in a very natural manner, which is why even when there are guards around, sometimes they don't say anything. They see something in my demeanor that isn't shocking. I always try to convey something very pure, with my feminine sensibility.
Out of delicacy, she exposed not herself, you see, but rather a wanton gap in art history. Missing until then had been the “point of view of the object of the [male] gaze.”
In his realist painting, Courbet shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.
You have to suffer higher education to learn to talk—to think—like this. Set aside the pathetic fallacy that grants to body parts the consciousness required to have a point of view. Disallow even the prank itself. What matters most is the ruined intellect behind it.
Thomas Couture. Romans of the Decadance (1847). Detail. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
We can only mourn the spoiled intelligence that devises an apologia for a blue movie caper, and enshrines it on video—Ave Maria playing on sound track—in mockery of high seriousness. Yet, in a crooked sort of way, the artist’s faux-solemnity is comical. The true barbarism of Mirror of Origin lies less in its vulgarity—there is always room for one more custard pie—than in the timid, almost deferential, response of authorities.
Add the applause of onlookers rooting for shamelessness raised to a principle. (Which principle? Try female empowerment. Or gender expression.) You listen to the clapping and understand how it came to be that our politicians and newscasters feel free to lie to us: We admire their cheek, and envy them for getting away with it. It is the temper of well-behaved grownups who wish they had spilled their porridge when they had the chance.
If you feel up to it, you can watch the age-restricted video here.
Most startling was the reaction of the guards. Too intimidated to respond assertively, they tried—unsuccessfully—to shoo cheering gallery-goers out of the room. Not one of them risked lifting the prankster to her feet and pulling down her skirt. Or simply throwing a jacket over her knees. Instead, a female guard stationed herself in front of Ms. de Robertis in a feeble effort to block the view.
Eventually, police arrived to escort the artist away. The museum and two guards filed a complaint against her for sexual exhibitionism. But the prerogatives of art carried the day. Charges were dropped.
Imagine if a male onlooker, in the spirit of participation, had unzipped and given the artist’s “eye” something to look at. Quite likely, guards would have acted more energetically. The man would have been carted off to 36, quai des Orfèvres while women's groups demanded his comeuppance for a priapic insult. But Ms. de Robertis is a woman. Women cannot be flashers. And, of course, Mirror of Origin is an artwork. Who would challenge that? Inarguably, it is an act of self-expression to which we are each—artists above all—entitled.
Bettina Heldenstein, art historian at the Casino Forum of Contemporary Art, Luxembourg, strode forward to declare Ms. de Robertis’ performance one of those catalysts “which change the perspective on the relationship between men and women, artists and gallery owners, or even artists and models.” Mirror of Origin entered cyberspace as a ground-breaking art historical intervention.
• • • •
That was last year. What brings it to mind ten months later? Here in hand are recent articles in the Canadian press detailing Ontario’s brave new world of sex education. Beginning September, 2015, pre-pubescent children will begin immersion in explicit information about sex. By the time they are Ms. de Robertis’ age, they will have marinated in Ms. Heldenstein’s changed perspectives. And they will be well groomed for what sexual liberationists call the orgasmic imperative.
First graders will learn to “identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology.” By third grade pupils study such topics as sexual identity and orientation. In grades 6 and 7 they will be introduced to terms like “anal intercourse” and “vaginal lubrication.”
Wally Wood. Disneyland Memorial Orgy (1967).
Pete Baklinski, at LifeSite News, expands on the sixth grade curriculum:
When asked about what is “normal” development, teachers are to respond: “Exploring one’s body by touching or masturbating is something that many people do and find pleasurable. It is common and is not harmful and is one way of learning about your body.”
Children are taught to dismantle “what is ‘normal’ or expected for males and females” since such “assumptions . . . are usually untrue, and they can be harmful.”
Children will hear nothing of courtship or tenderness. Instead, there will be much about prophylactic measures to avoid pregnancy and HIV. Brian Evoy, president of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education, tells The National Post that “our organization is very much in favour of the curriculum and all of the changes that will be made.”
By the time Ontario’s little scholars reach puberty all reticence will have been vanquished. Steeped in government run sex-ed, they will understand sex as a value-free, mechanical activity, a recreational choice like any other. They will know all about the social construction of “gender” but nothing of morals, self-control, or commitment. Any lingering sexual shyness will have been coaxed out of them. Sexual shame will be the only sin left. Children will enter adulthood as the free, consenting, rutting species that Huxley anticipated.
And performance pieces like Ms. de Robertis' will be obsolete. No taboos will be left to violate. The culture will be on a soma holiday of another kind.
There can be no question that it [religion] has lost the organic relations with culture which it possessed in the great religion-cultures of antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture
Art Be With You
Slogan on website of the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo
Of all the forces that bind Western civilization, no anchorhold has been stronger than the Bible. It has been a monumental, creative driver of Western culture. Scripture provides the vaulting under literature and history; it has inspirited majestic visual art. Our own national identity is indecipherable without understanding the centrality of the Bible in the emergence of modern Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries and of the Puritanism which suckled America at birth.
Abraham Lincoln’s claim that the Bible is “the best gift God has given to man” finds little purchase in contemporary culture. Since the 1960s banned it from public school classrooms, Christians themselves—particularly the young—no longer know what it might mean to grow like a cedar in Lebanon or dance, like David, before the ark. Bereft of a common fund of metaphors and allusions, believers and unbelievers alike are displaced from the civilization that housed us.
To counter this diminuendo the American Bible Society established the Museum of Biblical Art (MoBIA) in 2005. It began bravely as a gallery within the American Bible Association headquarters, overhead of a Bible sales room. Location, off Columbus Circle and near Lincoln Center, seemed ideal. And its fifty-plus exhibitions have been small, imaginative, often splendid jewels.
Luca della Robbia, The Art of Dialectic (1437-39).
Yet attendance lagged. Christopher Dawson's contention that “religion is the dynamic element in culture” does not play well at the box office. After a time, the Bible showroom was swept out of sight and MoBIA sought distinction from its parent. Still, traffic never rose to the quality of exhibition. Now, the ABA is moving to Philadelphia; the building has been sold; and MoBIA—living rent-free these ten years—is scrambling to relocate to an economical space.
To date, the museum's crucial support has been the generosity of the ABA. Come June, MoBIA will be dispossessed, a concept in search of affordable housing. (Why concept? Because MoBIA, like many non-profits using the word museum, has no collection, nothing to store or conserve. It exists as a Kunsthalle, a vacant hall that displays revolving installations of borrowed art works.)
MoBIA needs money. On the eve of displacement, the museum’s new director and fundraiser-in-chief Richard Townsend has responded by expanding the bureaucracy. He hired more staff, enlarged the Board of Trustees, introduced a Director of Finance and Operations, and inaugurated partnership with Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. While the Duomo’s museum is undergoing refurbishment, it has loaned MoBIA works removed from the baptistry, the bell tower and the cathedral in the course of alterations. It is hoped that the prestige of the Duomo will raise the profile of MoBIA.
Enter Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral.
Nanni di Banco, St. Luke the Evangelist (1408-13)
Expensive to crate, transport, insure, and install, this showcase occasion is oddly disappointing. Its mix of grand and lesser (including badly damaged) works, together with skittishness about the religious basis for the work, has the air of a pre-auction event at an architectural warehouse.
Isolated from their liturgical setting, the art on view bespeaks a Church submissive to secular pretensions. Without intending to, the Duomo and MoBIA collaborate in late modernity’s view of Christianity as a spent tradition, one that requires injections of museum prestige. Museumization allows Christianity to linger as an historical phenomenon, no longer a creative cultural force but compliant with the conceits of a post-Christian culture.
MoBIA follows the reigning practice of translating enhancements for a sacral setting into museum stock on shelves in the cultural pantry. Struggling for mainstream recognition, the museum declares itself a neutral, demilitarized zone that has ceded claim to any investment in the religious substance of the art on display:
The Museum takes a secular perspective on the Bible’s pivotal role in art history, and looks at how this text impacts artistic practice in both familiar and surprising ways. MoBIA is inclusive and non-sectarian . . . .
A pivotal role in art history. There you have it. Not a pivotal role in civilization, but in artistic practice and its revelatory harvest of artifacts. The imperatives of art history form a magisterium tolerable for our times. Every item is presented in standard art historical terms: stylistic affinity, artistic identity, authorship, the like. What they affirm—and why Donatello’s name tops the cast list—is modernity’s conventional reverence for the cult of individual genius.
Donatello and Nanni di Barolo, known as Rosso . Sacrifice of Isaac or Abraham and Isaac (1421).
That said, there are several magnificent sculptures here. The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo, is chilling to look at. The biblical incident is depicted in gestures evocative of what we watch now on YouTube: the knife at the neck of kneeling innocents. The work is on show as the stunning technical achievement that it is, carved from a single block of marble. But what commands attention is the contemporaneity of the image. The full impact of Abraham's fidelity—the ferocity of it—arises from what we bring to the sculpture from life. In Isaac, we see Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach and shrink from the sight.
I came away from the exhibit in love with Nanni di Banco. Outstripped by Donatello and Ghiberti in the art historical sweepstakes, di Banco was co-equal in introducing the expressive realism that is the hallmark of Renaissance sculpture. His monumental Luke the Evangelist, evocative of a Roman consul interrupted in his reading, transcends the era of its precedent and of its making. We know this man. We have met him at conferences, on faculties, on institutional boards. Or perhaps in tweeds in one of David Lodge’s academic romances. That face, that posture—you ache to ask him something.
Across the room are two youthful, standing figures each labeled simply profetino, small prophet. One is attributed to Donatello, the other to di Banco. The Donatello is an all-purpose set piece, useful for filling architectural gaps. But the di Banco is a rhapsody of boyhood on the cusp of manhood. This round-faced boy has the power of life, of breath and movement. I welled up with an urge to bring him food—a pizza, or a home-cooked meal—and listen to him talk. (MoBIA flattens him into “a clear instance of stylistic variety” in the cathedral’s decorative program.)
By any measure, MoBIA has staged fine exhibitions over the last decade that would honor MoMA or the Metropolitan. Biblical themes are indivisible from our cultural history and need not be relegated to an independent institution. MOBIA’s very existence concedes a hidden starting point: that motifs drawn from scripture—and without irony or disdain—have become a world apart from contemporary culture.
Thus, the Duomo’s self-abnegating publicity slogan: “Art be with you.”
This morning's broadcast from Sandro Magister lists the names of our twenty-one new Coptic saints. The essay “Saint Milad Saber and His Twenty Companions” can be read in full here. But let me list their names for you. They died whispering prayers, some calling upon the name of Jesus at the moment of decapitation. By knife. We honor them by name:
Milad Saber Mounir Adly Saad, bachelor
Sameh Salah Farouq, married, one child
Ezzat Boshra Nassif, married, with one son of four years
Kyrillos Boschra Fawzy, bachelor
Tawadraus Youssef Tawadraus, married, three children
Magued Soliman Shehata, married, three children
Mina Fayez Aziz, bachelor
Samouil Alham Wilson, married, three children
Bishoi Stephanos Kamel, bachelor
Samouil Stephanos Kamel, brother of the latter, bachelor
Malek Abram Sanyut, married, three children
Milad Makin Zaky, married, one daughter
Abanub Ayyad Ateyya Shehata, bachelor
Guerges Samir Megally Zakher, bachelor
Youssef Shukry Younan, bachelor
Malek Farag Ibrahim, married, baby daughter
Mina Shehata Awad
Louqa Nagati Anis Abdou, 27 years, married with infant
Essam Baddar Samir Ishaq, bachelor
Hany Abdal-Massih Salib, married, four children
Guerges Milad Sanyut, bachelor
What made Christianity so dangerous [to imperial Rome] was its uncompromising, radical de-divinization of the world.
Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics
Early Christian thinking, like the biblical thinking of the Jewish culture which informed it, was a sedition against the entire pagan world of the sacred. It abolished nature gods: the moon goddess, the gods of thunder, of the hunt, of fertility, the harvest, the waters, all the deities of pagan cosmology. It denied Flora and Faunus sacred status. It cut down the sacred oak, climbed sacred mountains, and built atop the sacred moss.
William Blake. Ancient of Days (1794). Pierpont Morgan Library, NYC.
The radical desacralizing process of nascent Christianity held to the biblical polemic. Jacques Ellul summarized that vision with brisk economy:
God speaks his word and things are. This is all. What this means is that God is truly outside the world, that he is totally transcendent. He is not enclosed in any part of this creation. He is beyond it. He has established a Creator-creature relation, but this is a relation of love, not a sacral relation. . . . The Christian God makes himself known in Jesus Christ and not elsewhere.
Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff’s evolutionary euphoria, in full feather in his Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, undoes all that. Jesus’ roots, like ours, are in the Milky Way. “His homeland is the solar system, and his house is planet Earth.” Jesus is no longer the totality of the Word but, more modestly, its “peak.” The incarnation extends to all humanity who will “also be verbified” by the Word. From this perspective, the biblical intuition of a hidden Godinaccessible apart from Jesus Christis obsolete. It is an androcentric archaism blind to the grand drama of cosmic progress to which ecology is key.
Boff’s dream would re-sanctify planet Earth, reconstitute a pre-modern and non-Christian sense of the sacred. Reported adviser to Pope Francis on the coming climate encyclical, the ex-Franciscan brings to his task the cosmic orphism of Teilhard de Chardin and giddy embrace of the noospherethat notional final stage of evolution from which is thought to emerge, in Boff’s words, “a common consciousness around the Earth, and which would function as the Earth’s brain.”
Artist Unnamed. God the Father Measuring the Universe (13th Century). Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.
The Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation issues from the same linear, patriarchal mind as modern scientific cosmologythat ”rationalist and dualist” system at the root of modern man’s assault on “God’s extended Body.” It has wreaked “massive destruction of the many-colored universe of polytheism and its anthropological significance.” To counter the devastation, Boff exalts the myths of deep ecology:
All the living and nonliving elements are interconnected and make up an organic whole in dynamic equilibrium: the great living being, Earth. It is indeed, as the indigenous peoples and the mystics have always called it, the great and good Mother, Nurse, and Pacha Mama.
Boff would relax emphasis on monotheism. However valid it might be philosophically and theologically, emphatic monotheism is damaging psychologically and politically. Christianity’s struggle against polytheism failed “to safeguard the element of truth” in it:
That truth is that the universe with its variegated beings, mountains, fountains, forests, rivers, firmament, and so forth, is permeated with powerful energies and hence is the bearer of mystery and sacredness.
Entranced by hybrid eco-spiritualities buttressed by Jungian psychology and scavengings from modern physics, Boff argues for “recovery of the aspect of truth in paganism, with its rich pantheon of divinities inhabiting all the spaces in nature”:
Indeed, human beings are inhabited by many powerful energy centers overflowing them on all sides and with the universal Energy shaping the cosmos for billions of years, centers that impart a profound meaning to existence. Throughout history, these transcendent forces have been hypostatized in the form of male and female deities. . . . The deities functioned as powerful archetypes of the depths of the human being. The radicalization of monotheism, as it battled polytheism, closed many doors of the human soul.
. . . To cure humankind of its polytheism, early Christianity subjected the faithful to a violent and harsh medication. . . . A rigid monotheism is not salutary for the soulas if all spiritual riches could be reduced to a single principle.
Venus of Willendorf (Upper Paleolithic). Natural History Museum, Wien.
By their very bodies, women are superior to men in overcoming “the dualisms introduced by patriarchal and androcentric culture.” They are natural bearers of a redemptive cosmology that yields ecological wisdom and “cosmic fellowship.” The insights of eco-feminism are crucial to Boff’s insistence on a new covenant with nature. Women are instinctive beings who refuse rule by reason alone. Hence, they are closer to the “archetypal universe of the personal, group, and cosmic consciousness.”
Boff leans on that rickety epistemology popularized as women’s way of knowing. By the “wholeness of female experience,” women are attuned to “planetary and cosmic sacredness.” Christianity’s assault on female deities disrupted the world’s “gender balance” and created “a break in social and religious ecology.”
Boff is fond of referring to women as generators of life. But strictly speaking, it is men who generate life. Women incubate it. Given the agenda Boff’s rhetoric serves, the distinction matters. So does his revival tent scaremongering. He preceded Al Gore with threats of environmental catastrophe and extermination:
If Gaia has had to rid itself of myriad species over its life history, who can assure us that it will not be forced to rid itself of our own? Our species is a threat to all other species; it is terribly aggressive and is proving to be a geocide, an ecocide, and a true Satan of the Earth.
Our theologian does not like “the species Homo.” Certainly not the Western male variety. He exempts only indigenous peoples and the Eternal Feminine from the dock.
The “imperial and feudal” Church, with its popes and bishops, has been corrupted by the same “linear logic” that has brought humanity to the point of immanent ecological collapse. While there is still time, a new paradigm must be forged. The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972) points the way. Christian conscience must acknowledge the Gaia hypothesis: humanity is not entitled to hierarchical dominance in the sentient super-organism called Earth. It is “the great cosmic community,” not merely man and woman, that is made in the image and likeness of God.
For anyone seeking exercises for initiation into eco-spirituality, Boff suggests K. Keyes, Jr., Handbook to Higher Consciousness; A. LaChance, Greenspirit: The Twelve Steps of Green Spirituality; and some others.
Celestial Globe Drawn on a Flat Sheet (1729). Reiner Ottens, mapmaker. Amsterdam.
First published in 1995, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor remains a vivid witness to the ecotopian vision at the heart of Boff’s advisory role on environmental matters. His recent Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church (2014) repeats the twenty-year old mantra. His exultant doctrine of Woman-inflected “cosmic fellowship” still stands:
There are many people who say that the twenty-first century will be the woman’s century. Life is threatened, and they who generate life will know how to take care of all life forms and of our sister Mother Earth herself, as Saint Francis called her. She is alive, she is Pacha Mama, she is Gaia, she is the Great Mother who gives us everything we need to live. Pope Francis will need to strengthen this mission entrusted to women and to all of us.
Boff’s refrain“everything is spiritual”echoes Teilhard’s “everything is sacred.” It is a doctrine that Dietrich von Hildebrand had repudiated decades earlier in his essay “Teilhard de Chardin: A False Prophet.” However sublime the principle sounds, von Hildebrand argued, it bristles with “nihilistic denial of low and high, of good and evil.” Like Gaian dogma, it denies hierarchy to the structures of reality. In seeming to exalt everything, it “results in denying everything.”
St. Hildegard of Bingen. Man as Center of the Universe (12th C.). Biblioteca Statele, Lucca.
The line between the crackpot and the mystical is not at all narrow. It is broad and deep. But the chasm can be obscured with rational-sounding phrases (e.g. “crisis of the social paradigm”) and magpie assemblages of scientific and scholarly references woven together with christological language. Doubtless, it is camouflaged most significantlyand insidiouslyby incontestable concern for the poor.
You will decide for yourself whether to welcome Boff’s environmental counsel to Francis of Rome. Or dread it.
What has happened to Ash Wednesday? Is the wearing of ashes in decline everywhere? Or only in New York City, a sanctuary city for people of every faith or unfaith? Or was I just in the wrong part of town at the wrong hour?
Francisco de Goya. Lent (c.1794). Academia Fernando, Madrid.
I took an early commuter train into the city this morning, and was on the subway to Columbus Circle between 8:30 and 9:00 am. Coming up out of the station, I passed a young woman with ashesthe first I had seen since I left the house. Walking west one block to St. Paul the Apostle, I saw only a single man marked with ashes. A trickle of people were going into the church for ashes. I followed in for mine, turned around, and doubled back to Broadway. On the way, no one else passed me with their foreheads marked.
I was headed for the Museum of Biblical Art for a press briefing by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of the Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage in Florence. He had no ashes either; and neither did anyone else attending.
Three people took note of the black smudge on my forehead. Over coffee, a public relations woman greeted me with “Oh, I love your . . .” I thought she was about to say “haircut” but, after a pause, she came up with, “mark.”
A second woman tapped me to sayin the hushed tone women use when they tell another that her slip is hanging or her dress label is sticking up”You have something on your forehead.” She thought she was being helpful. So I smiled and said, “Yes, it’s Ash Wednesday.” She gave me a quizzical look that suggested she had no idea what Ash Wednesday was. Such is the level of ritual comprehension in the press.
Pieter Breughal the Elder. Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559). Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.
It was heartening to have a third woman tell me that she had not yet had a chance to get her ashes. But relief did not last long. In the next breath she confided that she was up from Virginia where she lives in an ashram and is used to all kinds of ashes. In all kinds of colors. For all kinds of reasons.
Press business done, I headed back down into the subway, back to the shuttle, and over to Grand Central. Along the way, I scanned the morning crush, looking very hard for ashes. I counted only three more people in the crowd. (Believe me, I was really, really looking.) A total of five in one of the most heavily traffickedfoot trafficparts of the city.
Maybe it was just too early in the day. Maybe Catholics will stop in a church at lunchtime or their way home. Still, on this Ash Wednesday, more than any other day in a very long time, I felt bereft.