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

3 Big Thank-You’s

Allow me to take a moment, gentle reader, to scribble down three notes of thanks:

1. CatholicMom.com

My “New Media Sister” Sarah Reinhard (and “Domer Tailgater Mom” Lisa Hendey), very kindly added me to their roster of bloggers to know about over on CatholicMom.com this week.  Mrs. Reinhard interviewed me for this piece some time ago, and kindly allowed me to both speak to my own experience in media, as well as get in a bit of humor at the end, while saying some very kind things about me, herself.  I’m really honored to have been included. Thanks and God bless, CatholicMom.com!

2. WordPress.Com

The editors at WordPress have once again selected one of my posts for spotlighting in their “Freshly Pressed” section.  The piece in question was this one, which rose out of news that London’s National Gallery was going to reverse a long-standing policy, and allow museum visitors to take photos.  The editors complimented my taking a general overview of the subject of photography inside museums, and encouraging readers to share their own thoughts and opinions about the question.  This is now the 5th time that I’ve been selected for “Freshly Pressed”, and I’m just as grateful today for their most recent nod of approval: thank you very much indeed, WordPress.

3. YOU.

Finally, my thanks to you, dear reader, for subscribing to this blog, or bookmarking and dropping by when you’re in the mood for something to read. It’s always wonderful to be recognized by your peers, particularly when you don’t work in media for a living, but no recommendation or accolade means as much as knowing that your readers enjoy what you write enough to want to stick around.  I offer you my sincere gratitude for your continued patronage of these virtual pages.

"Chez Tortoni" by Edouard Manet (c. 1878-1880) Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston in 1990

“Chez Tortoni” by Edouard Manet (c. 1878-1880)
Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston in 1990

 

Why Being A Good Editor Matters

I heard on the radio this morning that Ben Bradlee, Executive Editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate era, turns 93 today.  If you’ve ever seen “All The President’s Men”, you’ll remember Jason Robards’ turn as Mr. Bradlee, which won the actor an Oscar.  At one point in the film, Bradlee raises questions about his reporters’ source for an article, but then realizes that he must trust them to do their job properly.  “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters,” he admits, “which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody. Run that baby.”  One wonders what Mr. Bradlee thinks of that trust level today, or indeed, what Perry White would think of it.

News that a rare, pristine copy of the first comic book to feature Superman sold for $3.2 million this weekend has generated a substantial amount of media reporting over the last couple of days.  Unfortunately, the rush to report also generated numerous errors in grammar and punctuation, enough to make any high school English teacher go into paroxysms of rage.  At the same time, the hurried storytelling has revealed, once again, that too many news outlets are committing factual errors in the urge to upload.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this piece from MTV News, for example.  Opening with poor verb-subject agreement (“statistics” is plural in this instance, not singular) is not a good omen for what’s to come.  I realize that many of my readers and followers have a problem with my pointing out this sort of thing.  However, errors in grammar and punctuation do make a difference.  This is a fact made all the more apparent when reading a bullet point like this:

4. This debut issue features the first appearance of Superman, alias Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

When you do not put a comma after “Clark Kent”, the headline becomes rather different, as I think you’ll agree.

Then there are the obvious research and reasoning issues with this piece.  For example, the author’s statement about Christopher Reeve being the first to play Superman on the silver screen is simply wrong.  Not only was there a live-action Superman series shown in movie theatres back in the 1940’s, in addition to animated cartoons, but George Reeves played Superman in the first feature film about the character in 1951.

The piece concludes with Reason No. 5 for the price of this very expensive comic book.  The author explains that Superman was originally an orphan, and that neither the Kents nor Kansas were mentioned at first in his mythology.  I’ll choose not to split hairs over the Last Son of Krypton being an orphan, and instead focus on the real problem with this assertion.  It isn’t so much that it could have been phrased better, but the fact that it’s irrelevant to the story.  It’s a bit like saying that a Francis Bacon painting sold for tens of millions of dollars because his last name also happens to be Twitter’s favorite pork product.

Of course, I don’t mean to pick on this individual writer, per se.  The real issue in my mind is whether anyone at MTV News actually does any editing, given that they let this piece be published as-is.  Keep in mind, this is just one, short piece on a pop culture subject, so one has to ask oneself what else are editors at major media outlets allowing to slip past on more serious matters.

Trying to put out a well-written, well-researched story is more important than simply throwing information onto the digital wall as quickly as possible, and hoping that at least some of it sticks.  Without common writing standards, and the enforcement of those standards by editors, writing becomes a kind of free-for-all, in which no one may point out anyone else’s faults.  Yet if you don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong, how am I ever going to get better?

If you write online, you have just as much responsibility to your readers when you hit “publish” as a newspaper or book publisher does.  If you expect your online readers to pay attention to what you’re about to tell them, then you have to be authoritative, and back it up with facts.  You also have to command the language, rather than either allowing language rules to intimidate you, or pretending that they don’t matter when they most certainly do.  Just because blogging is a new form of media, doesn’t mean that you should be allowed to escape the virtual red pen of a good editor.

Clark Kent could have snapped Perry White like a twig, if he wanted to.  Nevertheless, he respected his editor, and followed his orders when it came to writing a story.  Let’s all try to aspire to good writing and good editing in following that example, even if that means being corrected for mistakes, so that we can improve upon the writing powers we already have.

Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein  Panel from Action Comics #288 "The Man Who Exposed Superman" (1962)

Panel featuring Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein
Action Comics #288 “The Man Who Exposed Superman” (1962)