A Tell-Tale of Two Cities

Twenty-twenty has been an interesting year for national monuments. In America, statues have been toppled on public squares everywhere, even as President Trump declares a heroic past beneath the stony visages of Mount Rushmore. In Russia, victory over Nazi Germany has been commemorated by the construction of a cathedral—one of the largest in the world—whose consecration brought President Putin alongside Patriarch Kirill. And in Turkey—once the heartland of Eastern Christendom, the majestic Hagia Sophia has now been designated by President Erdogan a national mosque. Continue reading

Russia’s Pearl Harbor Day

For most Americans, December 7, 1941 possesses a gravity and symbolism like few other dates in our nation’s history. It was the moment when America ceased to be free of the Second World War and became one of its most consequential combatants. It ended an era of isolation and catapulted us into a global superpower. And it was marked, of course, by a devastating suprise attack by the Japanese on our naval base at Pear Harbor.

But many Americans do not realize that Pearl Harbor Day has an equivalent in Russia, where entry into the war also occured involuntarily after a suprise attack by the enemy. In fact, the event marking the beginning of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War dwarfed America’s tragic losses, as did the body count when the war finally ended.

Half a year before our “day of infamy” (to quote President Roosevelt), the Soviet Union was forced into World War II by a suprise attack by Germany. On June 22, 1941, the entire weight of the Nazi war machine came crashing down on her western borders. Operation Barbarossa was the largest invasion in world history and was an even greater example of diplomatic infamy than Pearl Harbor. Without warning, the Germans smashed Soviet defenses to pieces along a border stretching two thousand miles from the Baltic Coast to the Black Sea. Within hours there was nothing left of the border. Within days, the Germans had destroyed or surrounded its reeling defenders. Within a month they had conquered a territory greater than Germany itself. And by December, they could see Moscow–six hundred miles from the border–in their field glasses. No suprise attack has ever been so overwhelmingly successful.

And yet it would ultimately collapse and lead to the ruin of Nazi Germany. The Red Army sustained unimaginably high losses but kept fighting. By the time Germany’s ally Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, in fact, the Russians had launched a counterattack that saved Moscow from capture. The road to Soviet victory was a long one, and would pass through even greater catastrophes like the heartbreaking siege of Leningrad (in which the Germans starved a million unarmed civilians to death) and the epic Battle of Stalingrad. After the two titans all but exhausted themselves in the tank battle of Kursk, the Red Army rose again to continue the struggle. There was simply no stopping it. By the summer of 1944 it had recovered nearly all of the territories lost to the Germans since Barbarossa. During the year that followed, it advanced inexorably to Berlin, where Hitler committed suicide. Soon after Germany finally surrendered.

Russia’s war against Nazi Germany has never been ignored in the West, but it has been neglected. Americans are far more familiar with D-Day than Stalingrad, with the Battle of the Bulge than the Battle of Kursk, and with Pearl Harbor than Operation Barbarossa. This is a natural expression of patriotism. However, it can sometimes have troubling consequences.

Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin published an article in a Western journal criticizing the West’s sometimes myopic narrative about the Second World War. There was much that was inevitably political about the piece. But it did raise an important point: No long-term harmony between the United States and Russia is possible as long as the latter’s role in destroying twentieth-century fascism is ignored. Indeed, Putin’s article was provoked by a White House communique stating that in the fall of Berlin “America and Britain had victory over the Nazis.” In point of fact it was the Red Army that captured the German capital, but nowhere was this acknowledged in the brief Twitter statement. The suggestion was that it was a Western achievment.

This helps explain why in Russia today so much attention has been given to patriotism and the importance of national unity. At a time when America is experiencing divisions comprable the 1960s and national monuments are being thrown to the ground for their association with historical evils, Russia recently raised a monument in Moscow to her victory over Nazi Germany. It is not a statue, but a church.

In fact, it is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. 261B1F77-D58E-4325-8E19-B381778D88CB_cx0_cy7_cw0_w1200_r1The Temple of the Resurrection of Christ was only completed within the past month and consecrated a week ago by Patriarch Kirill. And it was opened for public use today, June 22, the anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

It is an example of a very different vision of modern culture than that which currently prevails in the secularistic European Union or America. Whether Russia will succeed in rebuilding her nation on a foundation that includes Christianity–as Ukraine likewise sought to do with the commemoration of Saint Volodymyr in Kiev last year–remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, having lost twenty-seven million lives along with other Soviet states during the Second World War (compared to America’s 420,000–an unquestionably heroic but far smaller number), she deserves the West’s respect.

 

What Child is This?, or, On the Rise of “Baby Jesus”

The renaissance was a time of dramatic shifts in the culture of western Christendom. It was a time of origins, when former patterns of thought and culture faded into the background and modern values began to  appear. This was true in the case of humanism, and it was true in the art it came to influence. Famous paintings of the renaissance document this shift.

One type of painting that came to represent the epitome of renaissance art was the Madonna. We are used to this term, but its historical background is interesting. It comes from the medieval Italian Ma Donna, or “My Lady,” and entered the English lexicon as a specific type of painting depicting Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. As such, it is simply the descendant of a long tradition of artistic representation in Christendom dating to the early centuries.

The image of Mary holding Jesus itself came to be standardized not in the medieval or renaissance west, but the Byzantine east, where a range of icon types were developed such as the icon of She Who Points the Way (Hodegetria in Greek). Whereas such earlier depictions of Mary and Jesus were primarily liturgical, however, the renaissance Madonna gave rise to a new conception of the two, one that was increasingly worldly. I commented briefly on this development in an earlier post, and here I would like to take the reflection a step further.  Continue reading

On the Diminution of Angels

The reorientation of modern Christendom toward an untransfigured world was, as I indicated in in my post this past summer, the central project of the Renaissance. This Renaissance project was inspired by the values of the classical pagan world, but it was also motivated more immediately by the desire to escape the increasingly pessimistic anthropology of medieval western Christendom. Humanists like Mirandola proclaimed a new humanity to their generation, one that possessed free will, one that enjoyed complete autonomy. This was the dream of the Renaissance, and it became over the centuries an inalienable feature of our modern culture. Continue reading

The Secular Transformation of Western Art

The Renaissance was a reaction to medieval pessimism about the human condition. Petrarch, Mirandola, and other early humanists celebrated the dignity of man because western culture, despite deep roots in the anthropological optimism of traditional Christianity, had for centuries come to diminish the human experience of paradise in this world. Having explored this reaction in light of eastern Christendom, I would now like to turn to one of the most famous elements of the Renaissance, its art. Continue reading

The Desiccated Soil of Late-Medieval Western Christendom

The Christendom of the late-medieval west was a soil desiccated of the experience of paradise. Centuries of Roman Catholic piety had enriched this soil with faith in the kingdom of heaven, but not far below the surface there was an aridity that caused longing for a more immediate experience of it. Growing frustration was expressed in the period’s proliferation of mystics, and also in the life work of the man that would unintentionally inspire modern Europeans to depart from Christianity altogether, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (d. 1374). Continue reading

The Pessimistic Cultural Atmosphere of Petrarch’s Christendom

By the late middle ages, western Christianity contained within it the distinctly pessimistic anthropology I described in my previous post. As I noted, this contrasted sharply with the anthropological vision of the east, recently defended by Gregory Palamas in the form of hesychasm. And when disasters struck in the west beginning with the fourteenth century, this pessimism was exposed and began to assume an even greater force. The Black Death in the middle of that century killed more than half of the population of western Europe. The Hundred Years War, by the time it was over in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought France and England to a point of exhaustion. Despair and the pessimism that accompanies it ran deep. Continue reading

Why Hesychasm Mattered

In yesterday’s post I presented the movement in fourteenth-century  eastern Christendom known as hesychasm as a sort of foil (or contrasting device) against the disaffection that was stirring at the time among western thinkers such as Petrarch. The necessary link in this case was Barlaam of Calabria, the theologian who lived temporarily in Byzantium but fell out with the hesychastic current there and ultimately returned to his native Italy. There he converted to Roman Catholicism. Serving as Greek tutor to the illustrious Petrarch, it is conceivable that his agnosticism about the possibility of man experiencing the immediate presence of God in this world (what I call “paradise”) was passed on to his pupil, soon to be known as the father of modern humanism.

And so, we not only have a moment when a new stage in the history of Christendom is discernable–what I called the symbolical birth of utopia–but also an opportunity to reflect on what was being “left behind” in the old stage, represented as it was by the east. By this time, the Roman Catholic west had pretty much committed itself to what, to the Orthodox at least, appeared to be significant innovations. These included papal ecclesiology, scholastic theology, and doctrinal development (resulting in what had come to be called purgatory). As such, the west represented what might be called a “new Christendom,” and I will be spending time in future posts addressing it. But here I would like to say a few words about the “old Christendom” of the Orthodox east, and the important place hesychasm played in it. For it was this movement that not only embodied traditional Christianity’s conviction about the presence of God in this world, but insulated the east from forces that would eventually lead western Christendom into disarray. Continue reading

The Image of Saint Nicholas

Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, a holy day (“holiday”) for Christendom since earliest times.

Nicholas was an early fourth-century bishop, a victim of pagan persecution, and a saintly defender of the poor and the afflicted.

The following is a traditional icon of him, still used in Orthodox Christian worship today (the scenes around the borders depict events from his life):

Icon_c_1500_St_Nicholas

It is remarkable that his image was ultimately transformed in our post-Christian Christendom to look like this:

Coca_cola_Santa

How did this happen? What historical changes occurred to change the fourth-century ascetic into a symbol of indulgent consumerism?

For those interested in finding out, I can recommend a website that lays it all out. It makes for very interesting reading, especially in the wake of the Black Friday rush for the malls!

In any event, finding a pair of images better suited to tell the history of the secularization of Christendom would be hard to find.

Image credits: Wikipedia and Multi-Lingual Living

A Cathedral, a Skyscraper, and a Swimming Pool

The story of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow is a remarkable one, and well known by many Orthodox Christians in our time. Like so many of the stories of the New Martryrdom, however, few Americans know about it. cathedral_of_christ_the_savior_russia_moscow_hdr_95755_3840x2160One of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, it was originally built in the nineteenth century. But it was blown up on orders of Joseph Stalin in 1931, and became the site of a remarkable–and almost comic–effort by the Communists to establish a new, post-Christian culture. Rebuilt after the collapse of Communism, it is in some ways a monument to the resilience of Christianity in the modern world and of the durability of Christendom.  Continue reading