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

 

An Invincible Woman

Somehow it seems fitting that today is not only the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche, but it’s also the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila.

Nietzsche, of course, not only proclaimed that “God is dead”, but he also gave us the concept of the “Übermensch” or “Superman”.  In his book, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – which, if you ever studied advanced German, you probably had to struggle through at one point – the Superman was a kind of new human, brought about through a rejection of Christian hope in the next life.  The materialism espoused by Nietzsche sought a perfection of the physical and mental capabilities of human beings in this life, since he believed that there was no afterlife to follow, and that whatever creator-god there may once have been, he had faded away leaving only a cloud of dust, like the remains of a supernova.

In creating the post-religious superman as a goal for mankind to strive toward, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for all sorts of monstrosities, from eugenics to Nazism. In fact, when the comic book character of the same name was first conceived back in the 1930’s by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, he was actually a super-villain, along the lines of the materialist, amoral ideas of Nietzsche then being championed by Hitler, et al.  It was only later that Superman was changed to become an anti-Nazi champion and the world’s biggest goody-two-shoes.

St. Teresa of Ávila was probably just about as opposite a thinker to Nietzsche as you can get. A woman whose childhood piety was muffled in young adulthood as she was drawn to seek the material pleasures of this world, she later rejected those comforts in order to draw herself and others closer to God through her life of prayer, her many writings, and her work.  She also gave us something far better than the concept of the Superman: an encapsulation of her thinking which today is referred to as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”, so called because it was found written on a prayer card which she kept in her breviary, the book of daily prayers centered around the Psalms still used to this day in the Church.

ST. TERESA’S BOOKMARK

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve shared this counsel of St. Teresa’s with others, particularly non-Catholics who have never heard of it, and there’s always a positive reaction.  It’s really a reflection of what Christ told His listeners in the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew 6:25-34) about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It’s also a reflection of St. Paul’s exhortation in his Letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

We all have choices to make in this life. We can conform ourselves to this world, saying that this is all there is, as Nietzsche did, so let’s all have a good time.  I can then put on the rather tight tights and the cool (if admittedly pointless) cape, and go around pretending that I’m invincible, but in the end suffering and death are my kryptonite just as they are yours.  Sooner or later I’ll be made painfully aware of the fact that I’m not invincible after all, and material satisfaction is just as much a passing fantasy as leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

If however we choose to see this life as a kind of training ground for the life to come, as St. Teresa did, then we can find meaning even in our suffering.  She demonstrated how invincibility comes not through a reliance on material ends, but rather through spiritual means.  If the goal becomes obtaining eternal life in Heaven, and not the finite, ultimately futile effort to conquer the world rather than ourselves, then we realize that there, at last, lies the permanence we are seeking.

This only happens, as St. Teresa came to understand, through the surrender of our will to God.   “Christ does not force our will,” she observed. “He takes only what we give him. But he does not give himself entirely until he sees that we yield ourselves entirely to him.”

On her Feast Day then, let’s try to exercise that real superpower, by making the same choice to show our invincibility through our surrender.

"The Holy Spirit Appearing to St Teresa of Avila" by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam

“The Holy Spirit Appearing to St. Teresa of Ávila” by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam