On Blond Jesus — how a little art history can go a long way

Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre

Everyone once in a while, someone, maybe a friend in conversation, maybe a preacher from a pulpit, will come down hard on traditional western images of Christ, saying that that pale, blond, slender Jesus is a remote image of someone who is very close. Or, as Mark Driscoll says, he can’t worship a Jesus whom he could beat up. Or there is a complaint that the white Jesus is just another example of western, imperial triumphalism over the Middle Eastern, Jewish roots of Christianity.

A few words about how misguided the above representations are in order, then.

Starting with the last first: Most of these images are too old to be imperialist. In fact, they’re often so old and from places so far removed from the Middle East that it would surprise me enormously to see a swarthy Jesus. In, say, mediaeval Norway. Third, I have a feeling that, even if the artists were thinking, ‘Let’s make Him look Jewish’, they would have made him pale, given that a lot of European Jews are, in fact, pale.

A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)
A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)

But just as there is more to slender, wispy mediaeval saints than their status as pillars, so also is there more to our images of Christ. We must ask ourselves why Jesus is sometimes blond, and why sometimes a fairly slender specimen of the male gender. The answer will silence those of Mark Driscoll’s ilk and hopefully be the starting place of an answer for those who find these Jesuses remote.

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)
He can’t help but be pale when carved out of ivory. Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

So, if you ever see a blond Jesus, why would that be? (Blond Jesuses are actually hard to find; mind you, my experience of looking is mostly Italian and Orthodox art.) The answer, as always with mediaeval art and architecture, is theological (who’d’ve guessed?):

Beauty.

Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)
Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)

These images are not supposed to be perfect, mimetic, historically accurate pictures of Jesus as he actually was whilst on earth. Byzantine icons (which are definitely never blond) and western mediaeval paintings/mosaics are, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘theology in line and colour.’

Jesus is perfect. Jesus is God. He is, spiritually speaking, beautiful. In fact, He is Perfection. He is Beauty. He is the Good/Beautiful (to kalon) that Plato aspires to in the Symposium.

As a result, Jesus has a tendency to adhere to cultural standards of beauty wherever he goes. This is the short and simple answer why northern Europeans would make a blond Jesus — because they are blond. Because blond in their culture is beautiful. So Jesus is beautiful. So he is blond. And white. Like them. It is the enculturation of Christian theology and Gospel.

This, when combined with the spiritualising of the human form I blogged about earlier, produces our pale, slender Christ Crucified. Put Him in stained glass, and He also is a reminder of the Uncreated Light, drawing us upward into God with Gothic architecture and its spirituality of light and of height.

Christ in Glory
Blond Jesus, from Haworth Parish Church (my pic)

People still do this — we have black Christs, First Nations Christs, Chinese Christs. By doing this, we take the particularity of the Christian narrative — that God became a man in first-century Roman Judaea to save us — and make it universal — He did so for you, here and now in this remote corner of the world. Here in Paris, in Toronto, in Timbuktu — Christ is for you.

Chinese Jesus, ca. 1879 (thanks, Franciscans!)

And He is Beautiful.

Humility, the foster mother of charity (Catherine of Siena)

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

I am in Rome for about a month, starting earlier this week. One my wild research trips. Two days ago, I went into the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva — Rome’s only Gothic church, run by Dominicans. While there, I saw the tombs of St Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico. Because of my week in Florence, I am already well-acquainted with Beato Angelico, but St Catherine of Siena? Merely a name.

So I downloaded a (somewhat garbled) copy of her ‘Dialogue‘ onto my Nook eReader and have been perusing the works of the Sienese saint. The first section was essentially all about the necessity of persevering at prayer, and how God makes himself known to us through prayer, and that we need to clear our minds to pray.

Tonight at supper, I came across this striking passage:

No virtue, my daughter, can have life in itself except through charity, and humility, which is the foster mother and nurse of charity. (trans. Algar Labouchere Thorold)

I like the image of humility as charity’s foster mother and nurse.

Every once in a while I think about charity, and not just because Leo the Great has a habit of addressing people as tua/uestra caritas, but because charity, as understood properly, is one of the great theological virtues.

We have stained the word with the idea of our cast-offs, our unwanted things for unwanted people. In that famous ‘sermon’ he gave to George W Bush a few years ago, Bono said that what Africa needs from the West is not ‘charity’ but ‘justice’ — a mere tithe of the US Gov’t’s cash would ‘solve’ a lot of problems, says Bono.

But is that justice? I’m not sure. Given that justice has both a restorative and retributive side, I don’t think Africa needs or wants justice. Africa, and everyone we meet, needs charity.

It has been remarked (in the Friendship Book of Francis Gay one year, I believe) that when the translators of the KJV those long years ago needed a word to express the great, boundless, unfathomable, unconditional love of Almighty God, they chose charity, from Latin caritas, the word commonly used in the Latin Bible for agape — as in I Corinthians 13.

Charity, in the Latin Christian tradition, comes to mean that supernatural love that can love the unlovely, moving beyond the bonds of mere affection or the uncontrolled/uncontrollable amor. It is, as C S Lewis observes in The Four Loves, to love the unlovely. To love the unloveable.

It is a great thought. A powerful thought. One often left as mere ‘sentiment’.

And why?

Lack of humility, I think.

Certainly this is what holds me back from acting and feeling charitably towards others. Charity and compassion for the poor beggars on the street, charity for tourists in the way everywhere you go, charity for library employees, charity for people whose dogs poop on the sidwalk, charity for late buses/subways/train, charity for other drivers in traffic, charity for loud Americans in Europe, charity for queue-jumpers…

If I didn’t think I was better behaved, or too busy, or better educated, or too important, or in too much of a rush, or any of a hundred other comparatives that put me above others in one way or another, perhaps I would have more charity.

So humility. It is a powerful theme that runs through so many of the Fathers and Mothers and spiritual masters of Christianity. Let’s hunt it down and get ourselves into it, into the foster mother and nurse of charity (and without charity, what am I?).

Tomb of St Catherine of Siena
Tomb of St Catherine of Siena

Wisdom and Foolishness: A Reflection for Tuesday of Holy Week

I shared this reflection with my fellow students today at lunch time, joined with prayers from my translation of ‘The Office in Honour of the Holy Cross‘ out of Aelfwine’s Prayerbook.

The inspiration is the text of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence
My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

Here we are on the third day of this week, headed inexorably towards Friday. From palms and rejoicing to death and sorrowing. Friday’s long shadow, the shadow of the cross, covers this week for us, even though we know that Sunday and the rising of Christ will come. But before we stand in awe of the risen Jesus like the mosaic in the apsidal dome of Basilique Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre, in Paris, we must pass through Friday, where we come face to face with the wisdom of God, with Fra Angelico’s fresco of Saint Dominic adoring the cross in the monastery San Marco in Florence. This is the wisdom of God—a darkened sky and a bleeding, dying saviour.

This automatically looks like folly to the wise of the world. And let us not fool ourselves here. We are the wise of the world, are we not? We are getting or already have university educations, learning the skills of critical thinking and logic. Some of us are so ‘wise’ we are getting PhDs — the height of worldly wisdom! We are accumulating knowledge and parsing ideas and texts and persons and characters. The whole university project, including New College, is founded upon the importance of reason. So let us not scoff so quickly at the worldly-wise fools who have not accepted Christ, those silly atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Muslims. For we, too, are worldly-wise. We, too, like it or not, are so very often fools.

Think upon this — and I do not mean to scorn the theologian’s trade in what follows; a Classicist and historian by trade, I am nonetheless an amateur in the field of theology — we spend hours and years and pounds of paper and litres of ink to talk about this glorious, wondrous event that occurred on Good Friday all those years ago. What we do, what we have been doing for centuries, amidst the glory and the wonder is, at times, parse the mystery. How does the death of Christ save us from our sins? Why does the death of Christ save us from our sins? What exactly must we do to profit from this death? Not unimportant questions. But not always to the point.

For here is the wisdom of God, the logic of salvation: The immortal dies. The mortal benefits from this death and gains immortality by trusting the immortal who died.

There is no logic here.

This is divine wisdom. It is myth enacted on the stage of human history.

I like reading the books of theology and the books of the mystics and the beauty of liturgies.

Sometimes, however, we think we can pierce the mystery of the cross and what transpired there. Sometimes we think we can figure out, to the most precise degree of logic and computation using the tools of history, philosophy, and philology, how it is that God became a man and died for our sins. But however close we come, we fall short. We cannot fully penetrate this mystery, for it is the divine economy for our salvation. It is the power of God to save the entire human race through his own death and resurrection.

Try as we may, the Cross will forever be a stumbling-block. To ourselves. To our friends. To ‘Greeks’. To ‘Jews’.

Therefore, without ceasing our rational questionings altogether, there are times when we must put the books down. Put our pens and paper down. Close our laptops. Stop parsing mystery and revel in it. Become wise fools for God.

And here we shall find the wisdom of God — a wisdom that is baffling to the wise. A wisdom bound up in the death of an otherwise obscure Jewish carpenter on a cross 2000 years ago. A wisdom entrusted not to those with eloquence or resources but to fishermen. Theodoret of Cyrrhus says, ‘The God of all … overcame the learned through the unlearned, and the rich through the poor, and through fishermen he snared the world.’

And so let us turn aside from those equipped with wealth who take pride in rhetorical skill and join with the humble fishermen of Galilee who had trouble perceiving the meaning behind the miracles and parables of our Lord. Let us take up this stumbling-block, this foolishness, this wisdom of God, and wonder at it. Let us become wise fools.

I have a few ideas to help cure us of our worldly wisdom, to help us enter into the mystery of the wisdom of God as wrapped up and displayed for us in gory glory on the Cross. As an historian and Classicist, they tend to take us back in time to our forebears in the faith.

The hymns, for example, help us stop parsing this mystery — ‘Man of Sorrows, what a name for the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim.’ ‘’Tis mystery all, th’immortal dies.’ ‘So I’ll cherish the old, rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.’ ‘…beneath thy cross abiding for ever would I rest, in thy dear love confiding, and with thy presence blest.’

For those so inclined, fear not art. A painting of the crucifixion will have trouble presenting to us Our Lord and Saviour’s majesty—but therein is the glory. The glory of God is found precisely in his weakness, in his willingness to suffer and die as one of us for all of us. A fifth-century theological motto was, ‘One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.’ And he suffered fully God and fully human. In San Marco, Florence, Fra Angelico painted frescoes of the crucifixion in each of the cells for the novices. Before each crucifix was the image of St Dominic in a different posture of prayer.

In the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, there is a Renaissance painting of Christ with the crown of thorns. This was probably one of the first bits of Renaissance art I’d ever seen. And it moved me almost to tears—the exquisite skill of the artist made the thorns look like real thorns in real flesh, the red paint like wet drops of real blood. Here was Christ who saved me. In the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, is a large, exquisite bronze crucifix by Bernini. Just Christ’s body, suspended in the air of the gallery, hanging, dying, his flesh and bones and agony and sorrow on display for all—one of the Holy Trinity was crucified for us. These images were made to drive us to prayer, to remind us of the real cross of history.

Prayer is the gateway to this mystery. Why not pray before an icon or painting? Doing so, you may just become a wise fool.

How else can we become wise fools? Through the world of music. Try Bach’s St Matthew Passion or St John Passion. Listen to Part 2 of Handel’s Messiah. Enter into the world of mediaeval mystic St Hildegard von Bingen through her music as well. It is beautiful and enchanting. Or perhaps the Renaissance is more your style — there is always Thomas Tallis and Alessandro Striggio, whose settings for the Eucharist — that perpetual memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious Resurrection—can stir the soul to worship of Almighty God in potent ways. There are ways music can lift our souls that reason and logic cannot. Embrace them to enter into the mystery of Christ crucified. Find the wisdom of God in music. Become a wise fool.

We should realise that the great theologians were also often great contemplatives. St Anselm of Canterbury, the twelfth-century theologian notorious in many circles today for fleshing out penal substitutionary atonement theory, was also a man of prayer. See the other side of this man through Sr Benedicta Ward’s translation of The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm—we have copies in New College library. He writes in his ‘Meditation on Human Redemption’:

See, Christian soul, here is the strength of your salvation, here is the cause of your freedom, here is the price of your redemption. You were a bond-slave and by this man you are free. By him you are brought back from exile, lost, you are restored, dead, you are raised. Chew this, bite it, suck it, let your heart swallow it, when your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. Make it in this life your daily bread, your food, your way-bread, for through this and not otherwise than through this, will you remain in Christ, and Christ in you, and your joy will be full. (pp. 234-235)

Perhaps St Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ is more your style. Or maybe you’re more Reformed, and these mediaeval people are a bit unsettling. Become a wise fool through John Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life — found in the 21st chapter of the Institutes. Find your way beyond simple logic-chopping into mystery. Become a wise fool.

Read and reread the Gospel narratives of Our Lord’s passion. Enter into the story. Join Mary, Mary Magdalene, and John at the foot of the cross. Through the cross we enter into paradise, into the embrace of the Holy Trinity — of a God whose very nature defies worldly wisdom and straightforward logic. Become a wise fool.

Let us return to the words of St Paul:

God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.

Grasp this foolish God, grasp this God who conquers through defeat, who is exalted in lowliness, who dies to bring life, who lived with us to die, who is one yet three. Grasp this foolish God who brings heaven and life and paradise and wonder as close as our very breath. Who is Himself as close as our very breath. He became a human that we humans might become like him — and he wrought this great deed through the foolishness of this stumbling-block that is the Cross.

What is ‘orthodox’?

Fra Angelico’s fresco of St Dominic adoring Christ on the Cross, San Antonino cloister, Museo di San Marco, Firenze

Yesterday morning, with only City of God and a largely-unreadable-due-to-uncut-pages copy of Dante’s De Vulgaris Eloquentia to keep me company, I did a little websurfing over/after breakfast before hitting the mean streets of Firenze and visiting San Marco Priory (aka Museo di San Marco) where I saw Fra Angelico‘s work in situ and was stirred to worship of that Person of the Holy Trinity Who was crucified and died for us.

Fra Angelico’s art takes us to the heart of orthodoxy with his numerous crucifixion scenes depicted in the cells of the Dominican friars housed in the Renaissance priory.

And the question of what orthodoxy is came up before my departure. I wandered through the Internet Monk, but find the site a bit lacklustre since the falling asleep of the iMonk himself, so then I popped over to Bill Kinnon, and reread this post about Brian McLaren’s departure from orthodoxy. I was then ultimately led to this good post by Jeremy Bouma about his journey into, through, and ultimately beyond Emergent Christianity.

Which, after almost 200 words, brings me to the starting point of this post. One of the commenters on Bouma’s blog said this:

Something is only orthodox after a larger body holds it for long periods of time. But that doesn’t make it true.

This statement is a common thought amongst tradition-averse evangelicals and progressive liberals alike: Orthodoxy is a construct made by the majority opinion or the victors of the Church councils. It is not, therefore, true.

Well, it is not necessarily true.

First, then, what is orthodoxy? This sort of question is the sort of thing that Emergent stuff was good at when evangelicals were still willing to listen and be unsettled by the conversations McLaren et al. started/fuelled.

Here is a moment when etymology is not a fallacy (unlike some PoMo/Emergent attempts to make church = called out because of the etymology of ekklesia). Orthodoxia is right belief or right worship. Both are important — one is the worldview, the other how we live in light of the worldview. Do we worship rightly? Do we worship the right God? Do we believe the right, or true, things?

In his book A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren affirmed that at the heart of orthodoxy lies the Apostles’ Creed. I spoke on this in Cyprus; the Apostles’ Creed encapsulates the Gospel and the Canon of the Faith which were also elaborated in the so-called Nicene Creed in 381. This Canon of the Faith existed as the oral tradition of the Church at a time when the New Testament canon was still loose and somewhat in flux; it helped the Church set the boundaries of what was and was not Scripture, in the end.

We have evidence of it in use in the early 100s and in various forms throughout that century.

The Canon of the Faith is, then, the central core of orthodoxy, the heart of the tradition.

If this is what we mean by orthodoxy, then, yes, a lot of people have believed it for a long time. While that does not make it necessarily true that makes any of the other contenders not necessarily, properly speaking, Christianity. If the people who chose our Scriptures and evangelised the world believe something to be central to their religious identity, and we deviate from that, we are no longer actually part of the same religious group as they were.

We have become something other.

Now, there are lots of other bits of orthodoxy that Emergent people have questioned. Some of them are in Scripture, others are logical outworkings of Scripture but not the only possible results, some of them are the majority opinion for most of history, some of them are the widespread beliefs of modern evangelicalism. These, like theological hymnody and the cult of the saints, should be evaluated individually. Of these parts of what is called ‘orthodoxy’ all truly orthodox?

And if we do this in humility and with prayer, perhaps we’ll have a different vision of faith. So long as it ever drives us upward to the Crucified God, questioning things beyond the core of orthodoxy is a helpful habit.

But remember, weary travellers must find at least an inn, if not a home. Let us not endless deconstruct with never resting in God’s Truth.

Saint of the Week: Girolamo Savonarola

Savonarola, by Fra Bartolomeo

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) is one of the many colourful characters of Florentine history. My favourite Florentine will always, of course, be Dante Alighieri (saint of the week here), but Savonarola and his younger contemporary Michelangelo Buonarotti are also well worth knowing.

Savonarola was born in Ferrara and educated in ‘Renaissance’ ‘humanism’, headed originally towards a career in medicine. Yet, inspired by a sermon, he decided to leave the world and become a knight for Christ, joining the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans (whose founder was saint of the week here), at Bologna in 1475. After a few years of study, Savonarola became an itinerant preacher, one of the original roles of the Dominicans (hence the official name ‘Order of Preachers’).

In 1490, under the influence of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Lorenzo de Medici ‘il Magnifico’, Savonarola was reassigned to the friary of San Marco in Florence. This friary still stands, although it is one of the conventi soppressi closed by Napoleon in 1808, and I shall visit it tomorrow morning. San Marco was the monastic house of Fra Angelico (d. 1455) and still contains many of his original paintings in situ in the friars’ chambers as well as hosting a museum today.

The last eight years are when it gets exciting.

In Florence, Savonarola proved not only to be a man of keen mind, but also a prophetic, apocalyptic preacher. He drew crowds upon crowds to hear him preach. Indeed, so many people came to hear him preach that the only pulpit large enough was the Duomo (already equipped with Brunelleschi’s [d. 1446] dome).

People liked Savonarola’s very medieval style of apocalyptic. He preached the gospel of repentance to a decadent city in a wealthy peninsula. He preached against tyrants who suppressed the people entrusted to their care. He preached against wealthy clergy who abused their spiritual power for worldly gain. A cult following formed around Savonarola, called the Piagnoni, the weepers/wailers.

I have seen in the Galleria dell’Accademia the two side panels of a triptych painted by one of Savonarola’s disciples (whether a Dominican or a lay artist, the museum label did not tell). They are of John the Baptist on the left and Mary Magdalene on the right. The figures are grey-skinned and ragged, their flesh hanging off their bones. This is the late-medieval spirituality of Savonarola, in stark contrast of the well-fed and well-dressed saints of the contemporary Renaissance. This is the spirituality of poverty — worldly and spiritual, the intersection of the two.

And it was the lack thereof that Savonarola so railed against in Florence.

Not that he was apolitical, mind you.

In 1493, Savonarola preached a series of sermons proclaiming that a new Cyrus was to cross the Alps and invade Italy, then set the Babylonian captives free by reforming the Church. To prove that Savonarola had the gift of prophecy, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy the next year.

Charles VIII marched South and invaded Tuscany, taking the towns along the way. Piero de Medici fled, and soon Charles’ army was encamped outside Florence asking why the Florentines hadn’t supported him. Savonarola went forth and interceded for the Florentines, encouraging Charles to take up his mantle as reformer of the church.

And so Florence was a republic again. And Savonarola was in the thick of it all. 10 December, 1494, he declared:

I announce this good news to the city, that Florence will be more glorious, richer, more powerful than she has ever been; First, glorious in the sight of God as well as of men: and you, O Florence will be the reformation of all Italy, and from here the renewal will begin and spread everywhere, because this is the navel of Italy. Your counsels will reform all by the light and grace that God will give you. Second, O Florence, you will have innumerable riches, and God will multiply all things for you. Third, you will spread your empire, and thus you will have power temporal and spiritual.

This was not to be the case.

Things looked to be looking up. In 1497, Savonarola held the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history. The transitory things of this world — art, money, books of astrology, make up and so forth — were burned in a huge bonfire in front of Piazza della Signoria. My Time Out guide to Florence greatly laments this bonfire, wondering what wonders were lost; however, it also fallaciously claims Michelangelo was there, fallen under Savonarola’s spell, and threw some of his own artworks in. Given that Michelangelo was in Rome at the time, I don’t think so.

No doubt, however, some beautiful objects were lost alongside the make up and money and astrology books. And this is too bad. The world is full of too much ugliness to lose the beauty. But for a Renaissance Florentine banker, is this art he has burned? Or is it another attachment to a world of vanities, to a world where the rich oppress the poor, to a world more concerned with gilt haloes around the saints than with emulating the virtues of the saints?

I don’t recommend having a Bonfire of the Vanities yourself, but note that Savonarola was not the only one. Note also that, despite his best efforts, Florence still has the highest concentration of art anywhere in the world. There are masterpieces everywhere here, from the famous (like Michelangelo’s David) to the not-so-famous (like the aforementioned Savonarolan triptych).

The execution of Savonarola

In 1498, the pope was finally fed up with Savonarola. And so were the people of Florence. The new golden age hadn’t really come for them, and Charles VIII was threatening papal lands. And so Savonarola was tried for heresy and burned in the selfsame spot as the Bonfire of the Vanities.

I first heard of Savonarola in connection with this quote:

Read this book.  It contains everything.  You ask for love?  Read this book of the Crucified.  You wish to be good?  Read the book of the Crucified, which contains everything good.

I don’t recall where I found it, sorry. I next heard of Savonarola in connection with the Bonfire of the Vanities (little knowing that there were many) and then as yet another voice calling for reform in the wilderness who was silenced by a tyrannical church hierarchy out to preserve its own wealth and decadence.

The real Savonarola is both more colourful and less heroic. At least, he is less heroic for the Protestants who hold him up as yet another Dominican proto-Reformer/martyr. He helped establish political reform in Florence and believed the King of France to be God’s agent for church reform everywhere. This is not quite the same as Jan Hus (d. 1415), is it?

I look forward to visitng Fra Girolamo’s monastery tomorrow and seeing what trace he has left on Florence as I now enter tourist mode.