Sunday, September 1, 2013

Religious Images And The 2nd Commandment

I love a lot of religious images, I love them a lot. Byzantine mosaics, stained glass -- fugettaboutit. I'm sometimes almost tempted to say that the whole religious fooferah was worth it for the art, and music. Actually I'm not, that was an attempt at a joke. My actual attitude is that what happened happened, and that a lot of the art which has happened was made for religious institutions because they were running the entire society at the time, and the choice for artists was sell religious art or not sell anything. Can we really even say that the work of, for example, Fra Filippo Lippi really is religious art, from Filippo's point of view? He didn't become a monk because he was filled with the Holy Spirit, but because as a baby he was abandoned at the door of a monastery, and he didn't behave at all the way a monk was supposed to, having a stupendous number of love affairs, many of them with nuns, and his paintings have religious themes because the Church was who was paying for paintings. I don't think you can tell by Fillipo's paintings that he was less than pious, and I don't think you have to be a believer to fully appreciate any painting on any subject.

In fact, as we know, religious belief can and often does interfere with all sorts of enjoyment, and in the case of visual art there is the 2nd Commandment. Someone said that the Roman Catholic Church simply eradicated that Commandment from all texts "for many centuries." I really don't think they struck that passage for any length of time, even though Pope Gregory II immediately denounced iconoclasm as soon as the Byzantine Emperor Leo III proclaimed it. If they struck or suppressed the 2nd commandment at any time, it seems to me that this would have been the time, in the 8th or 9th century. But I don't know of a single manuscript of the Vulgate, Catholicism's official version of the Bible from the early Midlle Ages until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's, in which Exodus 20:4 is missing or altered from "non facies tibi sculptile neque omnem similitudinem quae est in caelo desuper et quae in terra deorsum nec eorum quae sunt in aquis sub terra," If anyone knows of such an altered manuscript I'd be sincerely very interested in hearing about it. Likewise if you know of a Breviary or piece of stained glass or something else which contains an altered version of the 10 Commandments.

I don't want to ask the person who asserted that this change was made "for many centuries" where he got that. Experience has taught me that people making such claims tend not to tell you where they got their info, and they do tend to get very unpleasant instead and accuse you of being an undercover Catholic spy, and I'm really over it. (Maybe I need to come up with a less unpleasant way of asking than "Where on Earth did you get that?!") But if anyone does happen to come across something which looks like a source for a "the Catholic Church struck the 2nd Commandment from the text of the Bible for" many centuries, or for a shorter period of time, I'd very much appreciate being told about it. Primitive superstitions fascinate me, whether held by religious people thousands of years ago or by atheists today. (Oh yes I did.)

Now of course, the RCC greatly decreased literacy rates among laypeople during the Middle Ages, which was probably much more effective in dealing with inconvenient Bible passages than altering them would have been.

And of course there was the very famous period of iconoclasm in the Orthodox East, although it didn't last as long as some people seem to think. Government-approved iconoclasm in the Orthodox territories actually only lasted a few decades, staring some time between 726 and 730 and ending in 787, and then being reinstated in 814 and lasting until 842 until it disappeared forever -- at least as far as Eastern Orthodoxy is concerned, and thank Euphemism, because, as I said, mosaics. There were sporadic, minor, localized tendencies before and after that to follow the 2nd Commandment, but that's been true of Christian groups in all regions and eras. Calvinists churches come to mind. By now, almost 5 centuries after Calvin, they represent a rather wide range of practices, but some of them to this day are very very free of images.

I wonder whether it's more than a coincidence that a little over a dozen years after the first period of official iconoclasm ended in the East that the Pope crowned the first Western Emperor, the first ruler of what eventually would be called the Holy Roman Empire. Could the Catholics have looked on aghast at iconoclasm, and thought, Okay, these guys are getting fanatical and crazy and it's time to break away from them? Just a thought. Maybe the timing is no more than a coincidence. Maybe Byzantine iconoclasm was just a symptom of a greater, broader social or political tendency. This is a job for a new Steven Runciman! and I'm not him, and I don't see any new Steven Runcimans anywhere, which is a real shame.

What is not a shame is that most of even the most pious Christians have just pretty much ignored the 2nd Commandment, along with many more of even the most pious Jews and Muslims than many people realize.

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