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

An Eastern Perspective on the Western Renaissance

In the nineteenth century, the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt famously characterized the Renaissance as a revival, after a full millennium, of the non-Christian values held by the ancient Greeks and Romans. This was not new, as contemporaries of the Renaissance such as Giorgio Vasari had themselves used “rebirth” as the metaphor of the culture of their time. Vasari (d. 1574) all but dismissed the value of the arts between the rise of a Christian culture in Europe after the conversion of Constantine and the rediscovery of classical art in his own time. But Burckhardt (d. 1897) canonized this interpretation for a modern audience. Henceforth the period of Christian art and culture that flowered for a thousand years was dismissed as the “middle ages” when traditional Christianity obscured the worldly potential of human greatness.

This view is no longer held in its purest form by historians, many of whom have today come to discover the riches of medieval art and culture. But like all great ideas it has cast a lasting shadow over our understanding of the past. 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

The Specter of Anthropological Pessimism

What historians call the late middle ages was a difficult period in the history of western Christendom. From about 1300 to about 1500, a series of horrible events occurred including the Black Death and the Hundred Years War.

Illustration of Victims of Bubonic Plague from the Toggenberg Bible

Dying Victims of Black Death

As they did, they caused new features of western culture to appear. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that these catastrophes acted as abrasives across the surface of an otherwise verdant Christian culture, exposing stones that had long remained buried beneath it.

One of these long buried stones was what can be called anthropological pessimism, a emphatically negative view of the human condition in this world. 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 Birth of Utopia

It has been several months now since my last post, and I apologize to my readers for the long delay. It is due in part to obligations and tasks that arose soon after Christmas and which required my attention. It is also due to the fact that in presenting my reflections I came to a point that required a pause as I prepared for a new phase in the project. This post represents the beginning of that new phase, as I take a step back in time from from what for the most part has so far been reflections on the twentieth century. Modern Christendom, the subject of this blog, is after all the result or product of cultural shifts occurring over a period much greater than the few generations that separate us from the rise of things like militant atheism.

So far I have been interested mainly in recent history. I would now like to take my readers back beyond the twentieth century, beyond even the past five centuries, to the moment when, in my judgment, an event happened that symbolizes a shift away from traditional Christendom to the modern Christendom that would see a decline in Christianity and the rise of a secularized alternative to it. The event symbolized the decline of a civilization directed toward the kingdom of heaven. It symbolized the end of paradise and the birth of utopia. Continue reading

The Crusades, Again!

Since my last post in the aftermath of the Parish shootings a new atrocity has been committed by Muslim radicals, and this time in America. The married couple who massacred fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, did so in the name of ISIS, at least according to this morning’s news. gettyimages-499859786_custom-c3e7f667bc8b56d4b2030f0f78810b27dd59f994-s900-c85Regardless of their motivation (which may never be fully known), reports further reveal a “gleeful” response on the global internet in recent days by ISIS supporters, some of whom, once again, identify the victims of this attack (and who were doing nothing more threatening to Islam than attending a holiday party) as “crusaders.”

As I’ve said in earlier posts, there is no point in taking the ravings of fanatics too seriously. But the readiness of terrorist sympathizers to affiliate the San Bernardino victims with the crusades, those Christian wars against Muslims nearly a thousand years ago on the other side of the planet, reminds us of the need to keep our historical memory clear of errors.

So, let me say three things about the crusades that will clarify their significance for the identity of the west and Christendom generally.

  1. First, The crusades were fought during the course of only two centuries, from the First Crusade of 1096 to the fall of the last crusader outpost of Acre in 1291. This chronology alone demonstrates how secondary and even accidental they were to the character of Christian civilization, which had flourished for a millennium before they occurred. During those first thousand years wars were not waged by Christians in the name of their faith. The only possible exception–the one that “proves the rule”–was the defensive war against Persia fought during the seventh century by Byzantine Emperor Heraclius to push back a pagan aggressor and recover from it a sacred object for Christians, the True Cross (on which Jesus was reputed to have been crucified). And, of course, during the first three centuries of Christendom Christians altogether lacked the military and political resources to wage war. The crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, therefore, are not necessarily characteristic of Christian civilization, and as I will argue more directly in point three below are even an aberration within it.
  2. Second, the crusades were a re-conquest of lands earlier conquered by Muslim Arabs fighting a jihad, or religious war, against Christians. The lands that today make up much of the Arab world were once populated by Christians. This detail is often lost on modern evaluations of the wars. Those lands had “originally” been conquered by the pagan Roman Empire, and when that empire converted peacefully to Christianity beginning in the fourth century the populations there became Christian ones. Known to historians as Byzantium, the Christianized eastern Roman Empire of Constantine and his successors was the main target of the Muslims who, following Muhammad’s example of violent religious expansion, exploded out of Arabia during the seventh century and rapidly overran Christian Palestine (Jerusalem fell in 637), Christian Syria (Damascus fell in 634), and Christian Egypt (Alexandria fell in 642). Arab Muslim assaults on the citadel of Constantinople itself in 674 failed, saving Byzantium and the rest of eastern Christendom from Islamification. In 732, Frankish ruler Charles Martel defeated the invading Arabs at the Battle of Tours (located in modern day France), saving western Christendom from the same fate.
  3. Finally, the crusades were an aberration of traditional Christianity, which, as everyone knows, contains in its New Testament scriptures (again in dramatic contrast with the Muslim Koran) not only no calls to arms, but commandments to love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek. This aberration is revealed historically by the fact that religious wars did not only not occur for the first thousand years of Christendom (unlike Islam, which launched religious wars from its inception), but that they never occurred in the history of eastern Christendom at all. Their occurrence in the west coincided almost directly with the event known as the Great Schism, which separated western Christendom from eastern Christendom. This event, occurring formally in 1054 (that is, only about one generation prior to the opening of the First Crusade), consolidated two distinct cultural units. Western Christendom was thereafter shaped by Roman Catholicism (at least until the Protestant Reformation shattered its unity five hundred years later) and eastern Christendom was shaped, as it always had been, by Orthodox Christianity. The Great Schism was an event of huge significance in understanding the history of Christendom and the formation of modern western civilization, though, strangely, it is usually ignored when making assessments of the place of the crusades in that history. And if people in the west ignore its significance, we should perhaps not be too surprised when the jihadists of our time do so as well!

The fact is, Orthodox Christendom has never supported the concept of holy warfare, or killing in the name of God. There have been plenty of atrocities and abominations committed by Orthodox Christians over the centuries. But the Orthodox Church has never formally launched a crusade. As a matter of fact, her faithful were more than once victims of them. (To learn about the Roman Catholic crusades against Orthodox Christians, readers can listen to my podcast episode here). Nor, it bears emphasizing, has she ever instituted an inquisition to persecute and punish heretics. Nor has she fought religious wars against schismatics such as occurred in the horrible “wars of religion” between Roman Catholics and Protestants for two centuries in western Christendom on the eve of the Enlightenment, and which contributed significantly to the loss of confidence in Christendom and the rise of a modern effort to secularize it.

But that is another story, to be discussed in another post.

Image credit: National Public Radio