Playing Soccer With A Michelangelo

The Prado certainly seems to be on a roll lately.

First there was news of the new van der Weyden exhibition, which I wrote about last week, and now news that the only Michelangelo sculpture in Spain is being put on display for three months at the museum, following a twenty-year restoration. The work, a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist owned by the Dukes of Medinacelli, is not particularly impressive. And yet the story of why it needed so much restoration should not be swept under the rug, as art historians tend to do these days when it comes to those with whom they have anticlerical sympathies.

In about 1495 in Florence, Michelangelo carved a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist for Lorenzo de Medici, but no trace of it has been found in Italy. Current thinking is that the statue was one mentioned in correspondence as being given as a gift by Cosimo I, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, to Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, the private secretary of Emperor Charles V. He in turn installed the statue in his family’s funerary chapel.  De los Cobos’ titles, etc. eventually came into the Medinacelli family, as did the family chapel, located in the Andalusian city of Úbeda. 

There the statue stayed for nearly 400 years, until in the early 1930’s debate began to swirl around whether the work was the missing Michelangelo. At this point however, events took a tragic turn with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  Anticlerical leftist (laughably referred to as “Republicans” by most historians) troops sacked, burnt, and destroyed churches and ecclesiastical works of art all over the country, and the chapel housing the remains of the de los Cobos was no exception. Worse, the statue of the Young St. John was smashed to pieces, with the soldiers reportedly using the head as a soccer ball for fun.

In 1994 the Medinacellis had the fragments sent to Florence for restoration, which took twenty years to complete. Today, the statue is about 40% original, with the remaining 60% made of resin and other materials. It was put together using old images of the piece before it was damaged, and with the assistance of modern technological scanning and measuring through computer assistance, to achieve a truly remarkable result, given what the restorers started with. 

This being the first time that the more-or-less-complete statue will be on public display in a major city, for art historians and connoisseurs this will be a wonderful opportunity to finally air some of the questions, assertions, doubts, and so on that often come with uncertain attributions. Debate will likely be lively and ongoing for some time. It is unfortunate that such wonton destruction however, was the catalyst for it.


The statue after being vandalized

A Consideration of Imagery

Yesterday I was pleased to read that the crowns and orb which had been stolen from the much-beloved statue of Our Lady of Fuencisla, which depicts the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus, in the city of Segovia, Spain, had been recovered by police, and that suspects were very close to being apprehended.  In the process of stealing these items, the thieves broke the hand of the Baby Jesus, and so some restoration will have to take place which is expected to be completed in March of this year.  Today, the city’s mayor has proposed that the official ceremony to re-crown the image when it is repaired take place not in the small church where the statue is displayed, which can only hold a couple of hundred people at the most, but rather in the Plaza Mayor, the large and beautiful main square of the city, which can hold several thousand people.  This gives me an opportunity to write about  two topics which I hope my readers may find worthy of consideration: the Catholic position on images, which is often completely misunderstood or misrepresented, and also the significance of this forthcoming ceremony, itself.

For my readers who are not Catholic Christians, a bit of explanation is in order.  We do not, whatever you may have heard or read to the contrary, worship images of Jesus, saints, angels, and so on.  We use these things as aids to prayer, and visible reminders of our Christian faith, much as having photographs or portraits of your family and friends around your home help you to remember those people whenever you see those images.

Yet just as you do not need a photograph of Grandma to remember that you loved her when she was alive, for Catholics, religious images are not in any way necessary for the practice of the faith.  If a painting or a statue is damaged or destroyed in some way, we regret the loss, but our faith is not damaged or destroyed along with it.  We do not believe that such objects are magical talismans in and of themselves.  Just as your love for Grandma would in no way diminish if, heaven forbid, your photograph of her was lost or ruined, though of course you would be sad not to have it any more, if the Catholic community in Segovia had lost their statue as a result of theft or vandalism,  they would be sad to have lost it, but that would not mean they would stop loving God or practicing their faith.

Let us shift our consideration slightly to the secular world. Suppose that tomorrow, the famous marble statue of Abraham Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial here in Washington were to be destroyed in some horrible natural disaster, like a flood or an earthquake.  Would we forget who Lincoln was, or the great things he did for this country, simply because we had lost an image of him? Of course not: we built the Memorial to honor him, and a beautiful object it is, but the Memorial itself is not why we honor him, nor is it necessary in order for us to be able to honor him.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that Lincoln did not command his memorial to be built.  I would suggest that this is the inverse of what the pagans, such as the Egyptian Pharaohs, thought.  If they built a temple to honor themselves, putting a giant statue of themselves inside, it was because they expected the people would, to paraphrase Lord Byron, look upon their works and despair.  A man who was so powerful that he could build gigantic memorials to himself was a man to be respected, and feared, by a people who had no other choice.   It was true in Luxor then, as (arguably) it is today in places like Pyongyang.

Turning back to the news story that sparked this post, the reason Segovia’s mayor thought it would be fitting to have the images of Jesus and Mary publicly re-crowned in the city’s main square, is because that is where they were originally crowned, in a public celebration held back in 1916.  The restoration of this sculpture, which means a great deal to the people of Segovia, is certainly worthy of celebration among the people of that ancient city, which among its many features possesses the most perfectly preserved Roman aqueduct from antiquity.  Hopefully the diocese will agree with the mayor’s proposal.

For all that we hear about the secularization of Europe, and the de-Christianization of formerly ultra-Catholic Spain in particular, I must tell you that this idea, coming from a politician rather than from a bishop, struck a note of joy for me, that all is not lost.  One can speculate on political motives for the mayor acting as he is doing, or commercial motives for businesses that support his plans, but the fact that ultimately it is God who is being honored, in an imperfect way by imperfect human beings, will not be lost on the participants if this event comes off well.  I for one will be very interested to see how this proposal proceeds.

Procession of the Virgen de Fuencisla passing
under the Roman Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain last year