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 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

The Culture Wars Are Over! Long Live the Culture Wars!


In a recently published book (hot off the press this year), a professor of history at Illinois State University claims that America’s culture wars are over. Or at least they should be. A War for the Soul of America, by Andrew Hartman, is a history of the struggle against cultural change that has occurred in America since the 1960s. That history is now over, he claims, and advocates for a secular, permissive, and pluralistic culture are the victors. Their opponents have been defeated by the statistics. Surveys indicate that the social values of the left have been normalized in American society, with the majority of even young Republicans now favoring, for example, the legalization of gay marriage. 1435410503_white-house--rainbow-scotus-gay-marriage_1Obergefell v. Hodges (decided in June, apparently after the manuscript was sent to press) would only seem to confirm this.

In one sense, the struggle for America’s soul is presented by the author as what it obviously was: a conservative and religious backlash against the rise of movements advancing the separation of church and state, abortion rights, feminism, and gay marriage. But what is curious about the narrative is the way it presents this backlash, not as the struggle to uphold any kind of absolute standard of moral behavior and cultural good order, but as a process of social-psychological adjustment. If polls reveal that the values of the 1950s are dead, then, the author suggests, continued resistance to the new cultural order is futile.

What I find perplexing in this professor’s triumphant liberal narrative is its ultimate point of reference: the 1950s. 840131cba985214861e2455861ef047aWas that decade really the definitive moment in the history of American values?

Would it not be more effective to evaluate the history of contemporary American culture from a broader perspective? To launch that history in the 1950s ignores some twenty centuries of moral formation, minus fifty years. It also sets up the liberal narrative imposed by this author with a sure victory. And yet there is so much more to a moral society than what one finds in America in the 1950s.

In short, would it not be useful to evaluate our present culture and its problems from the perspective of the total history of Christendom, of which America represents a rather recent and incomplete picture?

This is what I hope to do in the posts ahead.

Vladimir Lenin and George Washington: Two Cults, Different Ideals

When Lenin died of a stroke in 1924 the Communist Party was eager to immortalize him. The cult of Lenin that resulted went further than all earlier efforts in the history of Christendom–Christian or post-Christian–to glorify departed leaders.

The case of the United States is an interesting contrast. On the one hand, there were undoubted similarities. The “apotheosis of George Washington” depicted on the interior of the Capitol dome in a capital city named after the first president drew upon the pagan Roman practice of deifying departed emperors (that is, literally declaring them to be gods). Allen Browne Washington was also glorified by a political culture in the early American republic that sought to create an almost mystical sense of his ongoing presence, expressed later by innumerable sites scattered throughout the eastern United States claiming that “George Washington slept here.”

The difference between the cult of Washington and that of Lenin, however, was not just that the one was committed to individual rights and the other to totalitarian dictatorship. What really made the difference was that while Washington showed relative indifference to traditional Christianity and seems to have favored its Enlightenment alternative of deism, Lenin was an atheist and intended to create a civilization of atheists. And it was this goal that colored the cultural revolution that gave rise to his posthumous cult. Continue reading