I recently uploaded some paintings of stories from the Old and New Testaments.
I visited the Albertina Museum while I was in Vienna where I found an exhibit of sketches and paintings by Durer and Rubens.
Scattered among the paintings by these old masters were some by a more recent artist, Egon Schiele (early 20th century, mostly pre-WW1).
I had to crop and modify the images to make them family friendly. I am not sure why the curator would place the ‘paintings’ of Schiele next to those of Durer and Rubens. According to the plaque at the entrance to the exhibit, the goal of the mixed exhibit was to show “the uniquely encyclopedic nature” of the museum. No doubt! The museum has taken diversity and inclusiveness to a whole new level! But then again, it excludes those who want to see paintings by Durer and not the sick pornography of Schiele.
The plaque explaining Schiele’s artwork is full of Freudian buzzwords.
His [Schiele’s] discovery of the damaged psyche and of sexuality were to be the definitive means of unhinging art as imitation of nature.
This is a misleading comment for it suggests that art was once nothing more than imitation. What modern art dismisses as ‘imitation’ is really the rejection of the basic laws of form and composition observed in nature. This problem can be seen in other exhibits in the museum dedicated to modern art. (I have copied portions of the exhibit labels verbatim – in italics)
Fernand does not see persons, he sees objects. The human face is a profile to him.
I guess Picasso did not get to the countryside very often if this is his attempt at a bucolic scene. Picasso does not seem to perceive nature at all, or the God of nature.
Picasso tells us that we should “stop perceiving pretty harmonies.” Why does Picasso hate the world so much?
Bacon rebels against the very forms of nature. His art glories in the obscene and cruel. He hears the curse, but not the promise. He sees a world beyond redemption. I was always under the impression that this kind or art did not begin to thrive until after the WW1, after the promise of the enlightenment was shattered by mechanized warfare. But modern art thrived well before WW1. The apostle Paul nails it when he connects idolatry with the obscene and describes the very last stage of decadence as the embrace of what is unnatural.
In his book “The Clockwork Universe”, Edward Dolnick argues that the development of science in the 17th century led to man losing his place of primacy in the universe.
“Mankind had long taken its place at the center of the cosmos for granted. The world was a play performed for our benefit. No longer. In the new picture, man is not even the pinnacle of creation but an afterthought. The universe would carry on almost exactly the same without us. The planets trace out patterns in the sky, and those patterns would be identical whether or not humans had ever taken notice of them. Mankind’s role in the cosmic drama is that of a fly buzzing around a stately grandfather clock.”
Dolnick might see himself as “a fly buzzing around in a stately grandfather clock” but the same cannot be said for the 17th century scientists he writes about. Their discoveries had exactly opposite effect. Kepler’s study of the night sky led him to view the universe as a vast and wonderful book created by God for man to read,
I may say with truth that whenever I consider in my thoughts the beautiful order, how one thing issues out of and is derived from another, then it is as though I had read a divine text, written onto the world itself … saying: Man, stretch thy reason hither, so that thou mayest comprehend these things” Johannes Kepler
Likewise, Blaise Pascal believed the vastness of the universe was intended to make man marvel at the omnipotence of God which is the exact opposite of Dolnick’s ‘fly in the clock’ allegory.
Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full lofty majesty, let him behold the dazzling light set like an eternal lamp to light up the universe, let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by this star, and let him marvel at finding this vast orbit itself to be no more than the tiniest point compared to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament. But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further; it will grow weary of conceiving things before nature tires of producing them.
The whole visible world is only a imperceptible dot in nature’s ample bosom, No idea comes near it; it is no good inflating our conceptions beyond imaginable space, we only bring forth atoms compared to the reality of things. Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In short it is the greatest perceptible mark of God’s omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought. (Pensee 72)
Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, Man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying… the universe knows nothing of this. Let us strive then to think well; that is the basic principle of morality. (Pensee 347)
As awe inspiring as the universe may be, there is something even more wonderful and mysterious – the mind of man. Pascal believed that man has a responsibility to think correctly about God, himself, and the universe – this is what distinguishes him from the animals, and it is the foundation of morality. Modern science doesn’t get this. But Pascal and Kepler did. Dolnick does them both a great injustice.
Walking through the Louvre the other day, I was struck by how different the Greek and Roman sculpture exhibits are from those of the medieval period. In the latter, chastity and motherhood are celebrated instead of the purely sensual.
The symbols and representational artwork of natural religion have remained constant through the ages. They may be expressed spectacularly in Greek sculpture or Renaissance art, or they may be depicted crudely on primitive tribal masks or on MTV, but they draw from the same well.
M. Legaspi argues that we cannot understand the change in attitude towards the Old Testament in German universities in the 18th and 19th centuries without also considering the way in which classics departments in these same universities embraced ancient Greek literature. Legaspi writes,
German philhellenism was not simply a movement: it was a “faith”. To its proponents, it entailed the monumental task of replacing Christianity with a new form of life derived from an imaginative engagement with Greek antiquity. To say this is to indicate the kind of personal, intellectual, and creative investment that characterized philhellenists and inspired them to create journals, pioneer new forms of literature, undertake Mediterranean pilgrimages, adopt looser sexual mores, and abandon respectable careers. One of the pioneers in this field of study was J.J. Winckelmann (1717-1768), of whom Goethe hails as “the first great pagan of his time.” (Legaspi 2010, 56)
Winkelmann sought to throw off the shackles of Christianity, which he believed suppressed the human individual, and replace it with the beautiful, free, noble view of humanity he found in classical antiquity. Goethe continued Winckelmann’s project, “immersing himself in Greek literature and art and began the constructive enterprise of creating a pagan alternative to bourgeois Christian culture. This was the new gospel preached in Germany. Schiller argued that the best hope for humanity lay in “a new, hellenically inspired program of aesthetic ennoblement, the creation of a kind of “asesthetic state” to transcend the existing political and religious order.” (ibid.)
Almost contemporary with Winkelmann was another pioneer figure in the German university, J. D. Michaelis, who taught Old Testament at Gottingen. Michaelis approached the Old Testament from a purely literary perspective. The students taught by Michaelis and Winkelmann would dominate Biblical studies for the next century.
There is some evidence that it was an ancient cultic site. There is apparently a hole cut in the rock at the top of one of the pillars that aligns with the sun during the solstice. The sun may have shone through this hole into a darkened chamber of some kind. One can see something similar to this at Casesarea Maritima where a hole was cut in the ceiling of an underground vaulted chamber so that the sun shone into the chamber and lit up a small altar during the summer solstice. The chamber was used by devotees of Mithras, an eastern cult that was very popular in the Roman world in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
There are also tombs in the area although I am not sure how old they are.
It looks like the top of the tomb chamber was used as a podium of some kind.
The most interesting thing about these pillars is the relief carved into the rock face that to dates the middle ages.
The iconography follows a common theme in the religious art of the period. The middle panel shows Christ being taken down from the cross by his disciples. Their heads are bowed in mourning The upper panel shows Christ triumphant, holding a banner. The lower panel shows death and the ancient serpent, Leviathan, defeated at the cross.
One of Jesus’ disciples is standing on a tree that is bent over under the weight.
The museum description says that the followers of Christ are standing on a chair and that nothing more is intended by the symbolism here. But this is quite clearly not the case. it is a tree and not a chair! Here are the reasons I think so:
It has been suggested that this is an ancient depiction of the Irminsul, a Saxon cultic pillar. The relief places the cross next to the Irminsul to make a statement.
This site has an interesting history in the modern era as well. The Nazis turned Externsteine into a national monument and used the meager archaeological evidence to invent a history of the place. It is interesting that the Nazi’s were so keen to promote pagan historical sites in Germany.
Neo-pagans come here each year to celebrate Walpurgis night.
According to the Frankish Chronicles, the Irminsul was a Saxon idol destroyed by Charlegmagne:
The most gracious Lord King Charles then held an assembly at Worms. From Worms he marched first into Saxony. Capturing the castle of Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this idol and carried away the gold and silver which he found. A great drought occurred so that there was no water in the place where the Irminsul stood. The glorious king wished to remain there two or three days in order to destroy the temple completely, but they had no water. Suddenly at noon, through the grace of God, while the army rested and nobody knew what was happening, so much water poured forth in a stream that the whole army had enough. Then the great king came to the River Weser. Here he held parley with the Saxons, obtained twelve hostages, and returned to Francia. He celebrated Christmas at Herstal and Easter, too. And the date changed to… 773. (from here)
From this chronicle we learn that the Irminsul was:
The 12th century Kaiserchronik (an important sources for early German history) provides further clues as to what exactly the Irminsul was.
Upon an yrmensul
Stood an idol huge,
Him they called their merchant. (ie. Hermes, the Greek god of merchants?)
Romans him untruly slew,
On an yrm they buried him.
On an yrmensul he [Simon Magus] climbed,
The land-folk to him all bowed. (Massmann as cited by Jakob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, pg 116)
Based on these texts, an irm seems to be a pedestal or mound upon which an image could be placed.
Rudolph of Fuld defined the Irminsul as “a universal pillar that bears all.” ( Jakob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, pg 117) According to Grimm, the German tribes believed that Irm was the high god of the whole human race and not just a local deity. Grimm further suggests that there may be some connection between Irm and Hermes for whom the Greeks also raised pillars. 1
There is a church in Eresburg, on the hill overlooking Obermarsburg, that is purported to be built on the place where the Irminsul once stood. It is certainly one of the most impressive hills in the area.
The original church in Eresburg was built by Charlegmagne in 800 AD.
A statue standing in the entrance to the church has an interesting inscription.
O Mars! You were supposed to be God. But here I stand before you with scoffing and mockery. Ages ago the heathen would call upon you. Now In true faith We call upon Christ. (1757 AD)
Ironically, the middle of the 18th century saw a resurgence of pagan ideas in Germany. New classics departments were established in German universities that celebrated a somewhat sanitized version of Greek mythology and a the Bible was demoted from scripture to literature.
There is another possible site for the Irminsul that I think is even more interesting. But I will have to save it for another post.
Gnaeus Mallius Maximus (thrived circa 100 BC) sought powers to grant Roman citizenship as a way to expand his power base. He also began to recruit men for his army from the very lowest census rank. With regard to these innovations, Sallust remarked,
If a man is ambitious for power, he can have no better supporters than the poor: They are not worried about their own possessions, since they have none, and whatever will put something into their pockets is right and proper in their eyes. (Sallust, Jugurthine War 86.3)
The poor have nothing to lose and therefore tend to vote their stomachs – or the NDP.
“Nothing in the horizon. Nothing in the sky… Around him are darkness, storm, solitude, wild and unconscious tumult, the ceaseless tumbling of the fierce waters; within him horror and exhaustion.” – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
The people of Judah in Isaiah’s day might have identified with Hugo’s description of the drowning man. They too, were ‘up to their neck’ in a raging Flood that swept across the land – the Assyrian invasion. Picture the hills swarming with orcs like in the Lord of the Rings, and you get some idea of the absolute terror the Assyrian army inspired. Life in those days was short and brutal. Everything was constantly shifting and changing. But in those days of darkness and despair, the prophet Isaiah brought a word of comfort.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa. 40:3-5 ESV)
The LXX version of this passage is quoted in Matthew, Mark and Luke in reference to John the Baptist. (Lk. 3:3-6, cf. Mk. 1:2-4; Matt. 3:1-3) And John the Baptist said that his ministry fulfilled these words of Isaiah. (Jn. 1:22-23) That this passage is quoted in all four gospels gives some indication of its importance. What makes this passage particularly significant is the context in which it appears. Isaiah connects the revelation of the glory of God with the Word of God and the proclamation of Good News.
A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa. 40:6-8 ESV)
I recently read this verse with my grandmother and found myself choking up a little. I saw in her face, a vivid illustration of the meaning of Isaiah’s words. At 90 years of age, her outward beauty had faded away… As I read, I wondered if Isaiah offered any hope to my grandmother, and to the rest of us?
Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news (mevasheret tzion); lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isa. 40:7-11 ESV)
The root word Isaiah uses for ‘good news’ (bashar) is always used in the context of war, and more specifically of news that the war is over and has been won. The one who brought the good news was a mevesheret, a herald of good news.
In ancient times, the swiftest soldier was sent from the battlefield to announce the news that the battle was won. Soldiers contested for the honor of being that person who announced to the cities that everything would be ok, that they no longer had to fear the enemy at the gate. This was truly good news although it is difficult for we, who have only known peace, to comprehend. If the battle was lost, it meant certain death for a great many; rape, pillage, and deportation for the rest. This has always been true in war.
I asked my grandmother what it was like to hear the news that WWII was over. Although she can barely speak, she can still reminisce a little about memories that are particularly vivid. She said, oh yes, she remembered when the news reached her small farm in central Alberta. The hired hand picked her up and hugged her. She was 19 at the time. My grandmother knew what it was like to hear the news that the war was over, and so did the millions of others who danced in the streets as church bells rang in every village and the boats on the Thames sounded their giant fog horns. It gave rise to a spontaneous outpouring of joy, the likes of which the world has rarely seen. The war is over!
Like so many other passages in the book of Isaiah, it is difficult to separate the near from the far, the historical from the prophetic. Although Isaiah’s words have a very real historical context, probably the invasion of the Assyrians, his words rise far above that event. When the glory of God is revealed, all flesh shall see it together. (vs. 5) Then all wrongs shall be made right and justice will be established on earth. (vss. 10-11) Isaiah uses the very real threat from the Assyrians and the good news that comes with victory in war to enable his listeners understand the real significance of an event that will bring world history to a conclusion. Our hope is in God, no matter how dark our own personal circumstances become.
The Hebrew word Isaiah uses for ‘good news’ (bishra) is translated as euangelion in the Greek and ‘gospel’ in English. (go = good + spel = story). About this good news, the apostle John declared,
From God we have received the eternal Word that “became flesh and made his dwelling among us… We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:1, 14 NIV)
And so the angels sang,
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (Lk. 2:14 NIV)
Oh tidings of comfort and joy! Merry Christmas!
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light… (Is. 9:2a)
Be it mine to look up to your light, even from afar, even from the depths. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding. Lord, I acknowledge and I thank you that you has created me in this your image, in order that I may be mindful of you, may conceive of you, and love you; but that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices, and obscured by the smoke of wrong-doing, that it cannot achieve that for which it was made, except you renew it, and create it anew. I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand. (From Anselm’s Proslogion)
Plato gave the intellect priority over faith but Anselm reverses this so that where Plato’s system leads the common man to put his faith in ‘philosophers’ who have seen ‘the light’ (Plato’s metaphor of the Cave), Anselm would have all men put their faith in God and see the light. Of course, Anselm is simply echoing the ultimate book of wisdom.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Prov. 9:10 ESV)
The two major competing political ideologies in the west can be traced back to Anselm and Plato. Modern progressives would have us place our faith in enlightenment figures who are experts in their fields whereas conservatives are suspicious of claims of ‘enlightenment’ and would seek to protect us from the evils of fallen humanity.