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 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):

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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

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?

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.