A Selfie with Jesus: Religious Art or Political Propaganda?

If you could, would you ever take a selfie of you and Jesus?  If you did, would you do it for personal reasons? Or would you do it to try to manipulate others into thinking better of you?  These are questions which come to mind following the rediscovery of a work of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, particularly as we get closer to election day here in the States.

Our story kicks off with this 16th century portrait of King Henri III of France, the recovery of which was announced yesterday. The painting had been in The Louvre in Paris, but went missing during World War II.  The story of how it was found, as detailed in the article, is quite a remarkable one, and demonstrates just how important the online community can be for finding lost works of art.

From the point of view of what the media presently refers to as “optics”, the idea of painting the portrait of your country’s leader at the foot of the Cross, when he lived centuries after the time of Christ, may seem particularly odd.  However if one takes a look at the rather calamitous times in which Henri reigned, one can see that the image serves a particular purpose.  Just as today a politician might go to a factory and roll up his shirtsleeves for a photo-op with the workers before slipping back into his limousine, so, too Henri needed to convince his kingdom that he was a good Catholic, albeit in a manner which may seem foreign to us today.

In Western art history there is a long-standing tradition of portraying contemporary persons who paid for a work of art alongside Biblical figures.  Art historians refer to these people as “donors”.  Sometimes the identity of a donor is well-known as a result of documentation or the existence of other known images of the person, but sometimes they remain anonymous, unknown to us a result of the passage of time and the loss of records.

Originally, most of these “donors” were sized much smaller than the holy person being portrayed, as we can see in this example from about 1386.  Over time however, the donor grew to be equal in size to the saintly individuals shown in the art.  Eventually the donor became part of the action, as it were, such as in being presented to Jesus Himself. Oftentimes this inclusion in the scene was meant to demonstrate the personal piety of the donor, but sometimes the donor was just as much – if not more – interested in propaganda as they were in prayer.

As it happens, Henri III himself was not very saintly in his personal life, even though he liked to put on a show of pious devotions.  He managed not only to offend many Protestants with his loose living, but to alienate his fellow Catholics to the point that they formed an armed league to dethrone him.  After having to flee Paris when the people turned on him, he tricked his chief rival, the fiercely Catholic and hugely popular Duke of Guise, as well as the Duke’s brother Cardinal Louis of Guise, Archbishop of Reims, into coming to see him at the Chateau of Blos; ironically, this is where the researcher who rediscovered the lost painting currently works.  Henri then had the two brothers murdered by the royal guards.

For his actions Henri was publicly condemned in Parliament but never tried.  He continued trying to mount a military campaign to take back the capital, plotting his return to power  by manipulating both potential Catholic and Protestant supporters to shore up his failing rule.  A year after assassinating the Duke and the Cardinal, Henri himself was assassinated by a fanatical Dominican friar, who had been egged on by the Duke’s widow.  In the end, Henri’s efforts came to nothing, and the throne passed from his family to that of his Protestant cousin Henri of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism and placed the House of Bourbon on the throne until the French Revolution.

When we see images today of politicians attempting to manipulate us into thinking that they are just like us, such efforts are not new.  By appealing to what they believe the average person wants to see, our contemporary leaders are simply following in a long tradition that stretches back through centuries of Western culture. The form of the media may have changed from painting and sculpture to videos and tweets, but the thinking behind these efforts is still very much the same.

Thus, the rediscovery of this painting is not only important for historians, it’s also a great opportunity to remind ourselves that the use of popular, and even religious imagery for political ends will likely always be a part of the media landscape.

King Henri II at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century) The Louvre, Paris

King Henri III at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century)
The Louvre, Paris

Dominicans to the Rescue: Saving Souls and Civilization in Iraq

Obviously there is much to be said, and much that is praiseworthy, when someone heroically saves another’s life.  People are more important than property, something which all of us need reminding of from time to time.  Yet sometimes we can find equally praiseworthy acts of heroism when it comes to rescuing objects that are part of the heritage of all mankind.  So for this blog post, I want to take the opportunity to laud the work of my favorite religious order, the Dominicans, who are doing something heroic not only for the care and salvation of souls, but also for preserving civilization, right now, in a very dangerous place and time.

As ISIS slashes and burns its way across Iraq, we are right to focus on their human victims, first and foremost.  Yet ISIS is not only interested in terrorizing their fellow human beings through violence and intimidation.  Rather, they want to show the people of the lands they are conquering, to paraphrase a line from the film “Doctor Zhivago” after the Bolsheviks have killed the Tsar and all of his family, that now, there’s no going back to the way things were. And part of the way ISIS is going about this task is through the destruction of culture and history.

To counter that effort, the Order of Preachers, more popularly known as the Dominicans, have been trying to rescue as many ancient Christian texts as they can ahead of the ISIS onslaught. In an interview with France24, Fr. Laurent Lemoine, O.P., described how he has been assisting in Iraq with the preservation of centuries-old manuscripts, currently in the care of Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., who with the help of his fellow Dominicans threw everything they could into a truck and fled ISIS for the comparative safety of the Kurdish city of Erbil, with only half an hour’s warning.

Fr. Michaeel’s is a name which may be familiar to some of my readers from publications like First Things, where he has been reporting on the experiences of the Dominicans and those to whom they minister. This interview in particular gives some indication of what he and the other friars face, and also why they choose to stay.  Their dedication and courage in this regard is an example to all of us who can glibly declare, amidst our relative ease and comforts, that we’re prepared to lay down our lives for our brother, as Christ tells us we must be willing to do.  These friars are putting themselves at risk every day, and not only for their fellow Catholics, but for all of those who are fleeing the ISIS terror.

For those who understand the importance of history and preserving the heritage of civilization, the work that Fr. Michaeel and the Dominicans are doing is no less important.  Without it, the real danger would be the loss of identity and roots for a group of people who have already lost almost everything else they once had.  At the same time, the existence of these objects connects them and indeed us to centuries of our forebears in Christianity, in the part of the world where Christianity first arose.

Christians do not need old objects, like ancestral bones or ancient parchments, to be able to worship God. Yet the Church has always recognized that preserving the past is a way to be more fully aware of the role God has played throughout human history, and the need to respect and honor the traditions and knowledge which others have contributed to the Church as well as to mankind as a whole.  Let us hope that one day, these books and the descendents of those who created them will once again be able to find a place of peace and restoration.

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts

 

Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.

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