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

The Fool Says . . .

One of the really remarkable things about the Soviet cult of Vladimir Lenin was its religious character. It is a reminder that strict atheism is rare, even in the modern world.

There is a Psalm verse that speaks of how unusual and even ridiculous atheism is: “The fool says in his heart, there is no god” (Psalm 14:1). The Communists were adherents to the philosophy of Karl Marx and therefore strict atheists. They were convinced religion is an “opiate of the masses” imposed by class oppressors upon the workers and that there is in reality no god whatsoever. The Soviet Union was the first government in world history that committed itself to atheism. And yet, it was also the first government in history to invent a new culture, or system of beliefs and values, that was pseudo-religious. This can be seen in several features of the Lenin cult. Continue reading

“Into the Dustbin of History”

It was a dramatic moment in the history of modern Christendom. It was 1917, and the Bolsheviks, under the iron resolve of Vladimir Lenin, had just seized power in a Russia that politically had all but collapsed.

096u10000610

Lenin’s speech to the Congress of Soviets

The last tsar–a devout Christian–had abdicated earlier in the year. An irresolute provisional government under Alexander Kerensky had isolated itself from the discontented population of peasants, workers, and soldiers who were demanding immediate change. And now, as socialists of all types assembled at the Congress of Soviets in the capital, Bolshevik guards were arresting the provisional government and putting Kerensky to flight. (He would ultimately make his way out of Russia and settle in Palo Alto, California, to spend his remaining days teaching about the Russian Revolution at Stanford University). The breathtaking moment was recreated later in Sergey Eisenstein’s rousing but highly deceptive masterpiece of propaganda film, October (which can be viewed here). It was the birth of the world’s first “proletarian dictatorship.”

As Lenin finished explaining–and proclaiming–the imposition of dictatorial rule, a group of moderate socialists decided to walk out in protest. They sought a revolution different than the bloodbath for which the Bolsheviks, soon to be known simply as Communists, were preparing. And as they did so, one of Lenin’s closest collaborators, Leon Trotsky, jumped to the podium and shouted, “That’s right, get out of here! . . . You are worthless! . . . Go were you belong now . . . into the dustbin of history!” Continue reading