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

Those Inconvenient Christians

An upcoming Holy Land festival this weekend, and a documentary on Iraqi Christians I caught on TV last night, have given rise to a somewhat chastising post this morning, for which I hope the reader will forgive me – even though, as we say on Twitter, I apologize for nothing.

The presence of Christians in the Middle East is a fact which much of the mainstream media in this country, and even certain supposedly humanitarian groups, often chooses to ignore.  Their mere existence muddles the narrative.  It is much easier to assume that everyone who speaks Arabic is a Muslim, and that all Muslims are potential terrorists, than it is to recognize that not only are people individuals, but that there are Catholics and other Christians in places like Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, many of whom have been suffering greatly in recent years.

This situation has so deteriorated, even at this moment with the recent actions of ISIS or whatever they decide to call themselves this week, that hundreds of thousands of Christians have left their homelands in the Middle East to seek safety in other countries.  Yet when they arrive at their destinations, they are often scorned and ostracized by the very people they were hoping would welcome them.  This is unworthy of the West, particularly among those of us who happen to call ourselves Christians.

When I was in college, one of my closest friends was a Kurdish-American, a young lady whose family had fled the regime of Saddam Hussein and immigrated to the U.S.  Back then the problem everyone was discussing with regard to Iraq was the fallout from what we refer to as “The” Gulf War in 1990, in which Iraq had invaded and occupied Kuwait.  Although the issues surrounding Iraq were certainly considered at the time, to a large extent they were overshadowed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ensuing aftermath. Thus the suffering of the Kurdish people under the rule of Saddam Hussein was not as widely covered in the press back then, so that much of what I learnt about them at the time came from what my Kurdish friend told me, and the people she brought to campus for discussions and debates.

So it was interesting, given the non-stop coverage of the rapid takeover of Iraq in recent weeks by the latest brand of radicalized Islamic militants, to come across a program last evening which highlighted not only the suffering of Christians in Iraq in recent years, but also how so many of them have found a new home in Kurdish territory.  Even as church bells fell silent in the city of Mosul for the first Sunday in over 1600 years, Christians in the Kurdish-controlled north of the country were comparatively free to go about their business, knowing that the Kurds would protect them.  This is no small development, in the history of the region.

The Catholic diocese in the largest Kurdish city of Erbil for example, has grown from around 1,500 families before the invasion of Iraq, or roughly the size of a suburban parish in many parts of the U.S., to over 25,000 families today.  More and more Christians have left Baghdad and other cities, moving north in search of a haven where they can practice their faith without emigrating to other countries.  I was stunned to see footage not only of brand-new Christian primary schools being built, and discussions about a new high school, but churches filled with worshippers.  There was even a sit-down reception and dinner between the local Catholic and Orthodox prelates and their Muslim and Yazidi counterparts, where everyone seemed to be getting along just fine, and enjoying one another’s company.

All that being said, I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by pretending to be an expert on the complexities of religion, history, and politics in the region.  For example, I’m sure that there are still many issues faced by Iraqi Christians even amidst the relative safety of the Kurdish people, which could be shared anecdotally; certainly that debate could be carried out in the comment section of this post.  And given my own limited grasp of the subject, if you are looking for more informed analysis about issues faced by Christians in the Middle East, you should be following people like my friends researcher Phillip Smyth, or filmmaker Jordan Allott over at In Altium Productions, who are far more knowledgeable about such things.

What the Christian crisis in Iraq and elsewhere in the region does however, is spotlight something rather ugly, and often ignored by the mainstream media.  Caught in the middle of much of the sectarian fighting in the region are Christian minorities who are too poor to get much press.  Our ignorance of them is particularly unworthy of Christians in this country, many of whom are the descendants of those who also had to flee their ancestral homes because of religious persecution.  Shouldn’t we be doing more to embrace and welcome our fellow Christians from the lands of Christ, the Apostles, and the Early Church, rather than just lumping them all into a politically convenient category of “other”?  If we (rightly) blame the mainstream media for a dearth of reporting on this issue, what are we doing to aid these people once they arrive on these shores?

One way those of you in the Washington area can learn more about Christianity in the Middle East is by attending this weekend’s first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, this Saturday from 11am to 5pm [Metro: Brookland].  It will highlight the Christian people, places, and customs of our brothers and sisters from this part of the world, something which too few of us are aware of, and too little is done to protect and preserve.  I will be there to enjoy the food, presentations, and finally getting to meet Diana von Glahn in person, and hope to see many of my readers, as well.

Yet even if you cannot make it, I encourage you to take this opportunity to start educating yourself about the issue.  The media will not educate you themselves, for it is not in their interest to do so.  As usual, the buck stops with those of us who claim to be Christians, keeping in mind Christ’s prayer that we might all be one, as He and the Father are one.

Iraqi Catholics outside of their destroyed parish church in Kirkuk

Iraqi Catholics mourn outside of their parish Church of the Holy Family in Kirkuk, bombed by ISIS

Common Sense in the West Conference: July 17-20

Here’s a terrific opportunity for you to check out if you’re in the New York City area, or looking to get away for what sounds like quite a weekend for debate and discussion:

An upcoming conference co-sponsored by the Adler-Aquinas Institute, Renewing the West by Renewing Common Sense, will give those of you with a philosophical bent the chance to meet with others of like mind, in order to consider some of the issues facing Western society today, as old bonds fracture and need repair or replacement.  How does the church receive funding from the state going forward, if said funding increasingly has moral and ethically problematic strings attached to it? How do we see the question of theological anthropology now, in the wake of the new, trendy version of atheism? What can we learn from the ideas and leadership styles of figures like Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul II?  What lessons about tyranny from Socrates are still applicable in the present socio-political climate?

These are some of the topics to be considered the weekend of July 17-20 at the inaugural international conference, which will be held at the beautiful Seminary of the Immaculate Conception on Long Island  Registration is still available, and includes accommodation, meals, and receptions, but spaces are becoming limited.  You can find out how to register by visiting the Adler-Aquinas Institute site.

Even if you cannot attend, several of the talks at the conference will be streamed live on YouTube. Some of those which will be streamed include presentations on humanism and management, Dante, and the work of G.K. Chesterton.  If you subscribe to the conference’s YouTube channel, you will be able to catch those selected for broadcast.  In addition, selected papers from the conference will also be made available over on the Dead Philosophers’ Society.

For further information, and to be a part of the conference as it is going on, be sure to visit the conference Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter.  Those attending the conference or wanting to interact with those who are, will be using the hashtag #CommonSense to keep the conversation going.  The organizers are very keen on having those participating engage with the speakers and other attendees, so your thoughts, questions, and comments will be most welcome!

Immaculate Conception Seminary Huntington, New York

Immaculate Conception Seminary
Huntington, New York