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):

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

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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.

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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

From Christ Pantocrator to George Washington Pantocrator

In a post earlier this week, I asked how paradise was manifested in early Christendom. To illustrate, I described the convention within the eastern Church of building temples with a central dome within which an icon of Christ Pantocrator was painted. The effect was that worshipers looking up into the dome experienced “heaven on earth,” or paradise.

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The original model of the Christian dome was the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the largest church in the world when it was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. (By the way, this became the model for Muslim architecture as well, which began to proliferate after the conquest of large parts of Christian Byzantium during the following century and culminated with the actual conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when Hagia Sophia was first desecrated by the Muslim conquerors and then converted into a mosque–to hear that story, readers can listen to my podcast episode about it here). In the centuries that followed the construction of Hagia Sophia, paradise continued to be experienced in the world through Christian worship and the liturgical art that accompanied it.

However, in the nineteenth century, at the close of the American Civil War, another building with a huge central dome was being completed: the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

What a difference a millennium makes! On the one hand, the Capitol building grew out of the tradition within Christendom of erecting monumental structures with central domes within which icons, or “images,” were painted. In this case, however, the design for the image was motivated by modern Christendom’s alternative to paradise, utopia.

The painting can be seen by any tourist to (or resident of) the nation’s capital to this day. Standing within the famous rotunda below, a proud citizen or respectful foreigner gazes up one hundred and eighty feet into this most symbolic of American domes to behold  the image of . . . George Washington.

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One is tempted to call it “George Washington Pantocrator” because in addition to appearing in majesty as Christ did in early Christian dome icons (the right hand is even outstretched as if in blessing), the first president is surrounded by figures emphasizing the greatness of America and her power to build a perfect civilization on earth.

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Farming and industry, science and commerce: the whole range of earthly potential is celebrated. A personified War even appears there, wielding a sword against the nation’s enemies as did the Archangel Michael against the Church’s foes in ancient Christian iconography.

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It is a good example of modern Christendom’s secularization of paradise.

What is also of much interest is that the actual title of the painting is The Apotheosis of George Washington.  One translation of apotheosis (from the Greek word for deity) is “deification.” It is the word that was used by the pagan Roman state when it claimed its departed emperors were gods and called upon Christians, among others, to worship them.

What does this fascinating painting within one of our nation’s most famous buildings say about the  Christian heritage of American civilization?

How Was Paradise Manifested in Early Christendom?

I have defined Christendom as a civilization with a supporting culture that directs its members toward the transformation of the world around them. ISR-2013-Jerusalem-Holy_Sepulchre-dome

A very long time ago, this core value was grounded in the traditional Christian experience of paradise. This experience, the very kingdom of heaven, was joined to life in the world. God was everywhere present within it. Having entered into the world and assimilated it to himself through the incarnation, he gave new life to it and this in turn inspired a totally new approach to it. Christians now saw every aspect of worldly existence in light of the kingdom of heaven, which, while not of this world, was nevertheless in this world through the presence of the Church.

As a result, family life was transformed from a means toward security, status, affection, or sexual gratification into a real encounter with God and a taste of salvation. More problematic was the state, which after Emperor Constantine’s conversion rolled back the blood sports of pagan Rome, but did little to eliminate slavery and continued to descend into savage cruelty in its irrepressible lust for power. I will write about these and other examples of early Christendom in due time.

For now, though, let me direct your attention toward the way ancient Christian worship and the liturgical arts manifested paradise. Perhaps the best example of this is the central dome of a church building, which hovered over the inhabitants of Christendom (especially in the east) as the heavens do over one standing in the middle of a field in the darkness of the night. But instead of looking upward to behold the moon and stars, Christians beheld the face of God incarnate. An icon of Christ Pantocrator (which means “all-mighty” in Greek) was typically painted within the interior of the dome and gazed down majestically on those assembled.

To be sure, this was a breakthrough in the history of architecture and painting. But it was much more than that. It was a proclamation that “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” to this world.

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An interesting question to ask is, If a great percentage of the population of Christendom regularly stood within a church building and gazed upward into the face of an incarnate God who was visibly manifested in their midst, what effect would it have on their vision of the world around them?

A Triumph of Absurdity

While the Wagnerian suicide of Adolf Hitler in 1945 may have been the perfectly consistent end of a modern nihilist (see my previous post), the death of Albert Camus in 1960 was not.

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True, this great French novelist and philosopher–a recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1957–was fascinated with nihilism, and even spent a good part of his early career as an exponent of it. Convinced with fellow existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir that God does not exist, he celebrated the absurdity of human action in the face of its resulting meaninglessness. An early work was The Myth of Sisyphus. For Camus the ancient figure of Sisyphus pushing a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down again–for all eternity–was the ultimate mythos of modern Christendom. For him, Sisyphus was a kind of post-Christian “hero of the absurd.”

Yet far more than his fellow existentialists, Camus was a dynamic thinker. He was never satisfied with his conclusions about the moral dilemmas of the modern west and progressively explored their root problems. This was the case with his fictional account of Nazi totalitarianism, a novel called The Plague. This beautiful book (one of my students once commented after reading it in our course that it made him “proud to be a human being”) took Camus beyond nihilism, back toward the central concerns of traditional Christianity.

Part of his inspiration was, interestingly, a lifelong attraction to Saint Augustine that contradicted his otherwise atheistic convictions. In the novel, evil is absurd, yes, and all-pervasive, but the protagonist’s response to it is not. A physician, he applies the cure of sacrificial love knowing that he can not completely annihilate the evil in this world, but knowing that he can prevent its triumph. Himself an atheist, the protagonist comes in spite of himself (and perhaps in spite of the author) to the remarkably similar conclusions of traditional Christianity. Indeed, some see Camus’s allegory of Nazism as a “proto-Christian” step in his intellectual development.

If so, his next work of fiction–and, alas, his last–went much further. The Fall is a very strange short book about a man who compulsively confesses his sins to a bartender. The man in question is a former judge, and an atheist. Or so he claims. Yet his preoccupation with a great sin he once committed reveals the weakness of his self-proclaimed nihilism, which he associates with Friedrich Nietzsche (who, it might be noted, was one of Hitler’s intellectual heroes). In the case of The Fall, Camus now takes his study of evil–what modern philosophers call theodicy–away from society and government and locates it . . . deep within the heart of the individual.

By this time in his career Camus had been visiting a Roman Catholic monastery off and on and was increasingly drawn to the values of traditional Christianity. It is significant that the sinner in the bar has the given name of Jean-Baptiste–John the Baptist, who once preached a “baptism of repentance.” His family name is also significant–Clamence, similar to “clemency,” or mercy and forgiveness. The problem is, he is an atheist. From whom does he need forgiveness?

Camus’s dynamic and honest struggle to confront the moral and philosophical problems of a post-Christian Christendom did not end with The Fall. Though self-consciously an atheist until the end, he continued to be drawn to the Christian anthropology of Saint Augustine.

Then, one day in 1960 he decided to accept the invitation of a friend to drive him to Paris by car. He would have preferred the train and had even bought himself a ticket. But nevertheless he agreed to drive. Along the way, the car went off the road and slammed into a tree.

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Camus was killed instantly. At only forty six years of age, the restless philosopher who had traveled beyond modern nihilism into the heart of traditional Christianity might very well have gone further. It was a tragic end to a remarkable intellectual journey, and perhaps a truly absurd one as well. They even found the unused train ticket in his pocket.

A Final Lullaby for Hitler

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April, 1945 was not a good month for Hitler or the German nation he ruled. The Third Reich teetered on the brink of collapse and a national catastrophe loomed. As American soldiers fought their way across the Rhine River from the west, the Russians moved inexorably toward a doomed Berlin from the east. Soon the city Hitler had once dreamed of redesigning as a monument to Nazism would be reduced to rubble by the Red Army. Mere boys were conscripted to mount a hopeless defense and young women prepared for the worst at the hands of the approaching conquerors. The atmosphere was simply apocalyptic. And it was in exactly this atmosphere that a symbolic but unnoticed moment in the history of modern Christendom was played out.

Albert Speer, the evil genius of German wartime munitions production and a professional architect–indeed, the very man Hitler chose to give Berlin its modernistic face lift–organized one final, climatic performance of the city’s world-famous philharmonic. The event must have been surreal. He tells of it in his remarkable memoirs, Inside the Third Reich.  I always find myself fascinated by this work, written as it was by a man who looked over Hitler’s shoulder at some of the most important scenes in the history of Nazi Germany (he can be seen immediately to the Fuehrer’s right in the famous photograph taken before the Eiffel Tower after the fall of France).

The musical performance Speer organized as the capital was encircled served as a kind of artistic last will and testament of National Socialism. As such, it provided a kind of swan song or perhaps even final lullaby for the visionary Fuehrer who had now withdrawn underground into his bunker to prepare for the end, brooding over plans to kill himself.

What was Speer’s musical taste for such an occasion? What else could it be? Richard Wagner’s opera Goetterdaemmerung, or Twilight of the Gods. Wagner was, of course, the preeminent composer for Hitler, and the final opera in the series the Ring of the Nibelung contained an ending that was as nihilistic as Hitler’s vision of the world. I will have much to say about Wagner’s place in the history of Christendom in later posts. It is really quite significant. For the moment, it is striking how well the music suited that vision.

In the final scene of the work, the heroine Brunnhilde, who is herself preparing to commit suicide by riding atop the funeral pyre of her lover Siegfried, pauses for a moment to sing softly to her absent father, the impotent god Wotan. In fact she sounds more like a mother singing a bedtime lullaby to her child. “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” she coos, “rest, rest, O god!” And then the ten-minute march toward the destruction of everything begins, as the Rhine River overflows and the palace of the gods, Valhalla, comes crashing down in flames. It is marvelous music, beautiful and stirring and, when put to use by the Nazis, chilling. If any of my readers has never experienced it, one particular good production (with Gwyneth Jones singing the lead) can be watched here. As the smoke rises on stage at the end of the  performance, the scene looks rather like what I expect Berlin did after its fall in 1945. 

“Rest, rest, O god!” These words say quite a bit about modern Christendom. No longer convinced that a heavenly paradise can be attained in this world, no longer hopeful that a secular utopia can be built in its place, the values of twentieth-century Christendom found it difficult to resist nihilism. And in the case of the Nazis, to a horrendous degree.

And what was it like to attend that final concert in the doomed Nazi capital? One account related that when it was over, and the chords of one of modern Germany’s greatest musical compositions gave way to the distant thud of approaching tanks, a Nazi official was standing by to distribute cyanide tablets to Berlin’s true believers as they departed.

Was such a scene inevitable for a culture that had lost its moorings in both paradise and utopia?

So What’s with the Women?

This blog is about the history of Christendom, so what’s with the curious-looking women in the header’s image?

Well, these are very special women and they have a great deal to say about the content of my blog. They adorn one of the most famous temples in Christendom, and one that brings both its eastern and the western halves together in a common experience of paradise. It is the Basilica of Saint Appolinare the New in Ravenna, Italy. Listeners of my podcast already know of its importance in the history of western civilization’s architecture and painting. (If you haven’t listened to that episode, you can do so here). It was built in the sixth century by the western Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great but consecrated in the time of eastern Byzantine Emperor Justinian (who proved to be even greater).

These women are also noteworthy because they are, after all, women. Christendom transformed ancient society’s attitudes toward women, elevating them according to traditional Christianity’s standards of sexual dignity and the value of the human person, female as well as male. (You can listen to my podcast on this topic here).Sharing equally in “the image of God”–that essential feature of the traditional Christian vision of humanity–they are depicted here standing equal to and not behind a matching image of men on the wall opposite to them. They hold crowns of glory in their hands.

But most importantly, the image I chose for the blog’s header features one of the most explicit statements about the core experience of Christendom. These women have a purpose. They are going somewhere. What is their destination? The iconographer who depicted them, by integrating his work with the very architecture of the temple, subtly directed their bodies toward the altar area at the easternmost part of the building (to the right of the image we see). The women are therefore oriented, which literally means “facing east.” That is their destination. And not just that, but facing east and moving in its direction they are experiencing paradise, because according to traditional Christianity (and Judaism) paradise is planted in the east (Gen. 2:8). Living in this world, they belong to the kingdom of heaven which is not of this world but which has broken into it and is already present within it. They live in paradise.

This is the core experience of Christendom.