The third King

Balthasar is black, and it’s a good thing

Ravenna mosaic of the Magi

Today is Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the Christian feast commemorating an uncorroborated legend in one of the Gospels (Matthew 2, vv 1-9) of a visit by a group of Magi to the infant Jesus. By AD 500 the unnumbered Persian astrologers had become three kings. These mosaics from imperial Ravenna still depict them in Persian dress, but that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages. Nobody in Western Europe in say 1100 AD had any idea what a Zoroastrian astrologer might have been like, so the shift is understandable.

What is far more puzzling is why one of the kings – usually Balthasar, sometimes Caspar – should be often painted as black. Continue reading “The third King”

Two iconic portraits

An exploited girl and a goddess-queen.

My reaction to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague surprised me. I was expecting to admire this famous work by a great master, the favourite painting of the Dutch. It is indeed technically marvellous. Vermeer was one of the greatest technicians of oil painting ever. My problem with the picture is as a portrait. It’s formally a tronje, a painting of an unidentified and representative human figure. But it’s plainly not a stylised ideal but a portrait of a real girl. She has no name, perhaps (as in the film) a servant paid a few ducats to sit. I find it unflattering, and not by any lack of skill. Newspapers rightly get criticised for printing photos of politicians with their mouths open: everybody looks stupid when caught like this. Vermeer went to enormous trouble, over multiple sittings, to make his subject look dimwitted. She was exophthalmic anyway, and he faithfully reproduced or exaggerated this. The combined effect is disrespectful and exploitative. And to what purpose? Possibly to make a trite contrast with the perfection of the enormous pearl earring lent her for the occasion. Pshaw.

My second portrait is an extreme contrast: Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt for almost 20 years, in Berlin. Again, the extraordinary technical skill of the bust (about two-thirds life size) is indisputable. The effect is remarkable. She is not just beautiful but glamorous: beauty weaponized. (The origins of the word lie in Scottish witchcraft.) For what purpose? The classic glamour photos of Hollywood studio stars were designed to transform their exploited and vulnerable subjects into unattainable objects of sexual desire, in order to sell film tickets. Nefertiti didn’t need that; she was a Pharaoh’s queen already.

The Hollywood stars were metaphorical sex goddesses. Nefertiti was the real thing.

First, the sex part. There is no reason to doubt her depicted beauty. Her husband Amenhotep was portrayed as ugly, with distended belly and elongated limbs, possibly as a result of a congenital condition. So the burden of regal show, and quite likely of day-to-day rule, fell disproportionately on the queen. She rose to the challenge; she even had herself sculpted naked, a radical step in any culture that you can only get away with if you have a great body and total self-confidence.

Second, the goddess. Pharaohs and their consorts were semi-divine personages anyway, on speaking terms with the gods. But Amenhotep IV – Akhenaten – was determined on a religious revolution. He swept away the pantheon, and replaced it by a proto-monotheistic cult of Aten, represented only as the solar disc. The worship of Aten was carried out in courtyard temples open to the sky, not dark labyrinths. The Pharaoh and queen became the unique intermediaries between the people and Aten, and the priests were out of a job. They did not appreciate this, and after Akhenaten’s death staged a successful counter-revolution. His son Tutankhamun (by another wife) was buried surrounded by images of the old pantheon. The Aten cult was forgotten, the new capital at Amarna abandoned. While it lasted Queen Nefertiti was a sacred priest-empress, as near to a goddess as monotheism allows.

Did the cult die? Sigmund Freud for one thought not. He suggested that the Aten religion influenced Jewish monotheism. Archaeologists pooh-pooh this. The Egyptian captivity is generally considered unhistorical; all the evidence points to a Canaanite origin for Judaism. But in that case, where did the story of the Exodus come from? Canaan was often a frontier province of the Egyptian empire. Metropolitan political and cultural upheavals would have filtered there during Akhenaten’s quite long reign (ca. 1350 BCE) . A contribution to early Jewish developments is certainly possible – it’s more believable than the bloodthirsty fantasies of the unread Book of Joshua. Once you ask “Why not one?” the question is hard to put away.

Maybe Nefertiti is still our Queen.

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PS: If you enjoyed my offbeat art history, you might take a look at some older posts on women subjects and great artists: Bernini, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo.

Imran Khan, blasphemer

Imran Khan is a cricket player who has gone into philanthropy and then politics in Pakistan, and until now is the leading candidate for prime  minister in the upcoming elections (despite a #metoo problem a decade old).  He has, however, committed blasphemy, which is a very big deal in Pakistan, so it will be interesting to see how events unfold.

Khan’s offense is to claim, implicitly but incontrovertibly , that the teachings of Mohammed are so unpersuasive, and his person so unprepossessing, that Islam needs the protection of a murderous regime of capital punishment and vigilante justice. This regime is a matter of national law (article 295c of the constitution), and Khan just came out in support of it. The killing is not only judicial: in Pakistan, people are also  lynched if they say something a tinpot local vigilante, or just a small-time religious nut, or for that matter a guy who thinks you looked at his sister funny, wish to view as disrespectful to the prophet, and the body count is not trivial. Along the way, this savagery devalues all professions of genuine faith, as who can tell whether they are sincere or just fearful?

Remarkable in the extreme that a national figure can show such disrespect for the prophet, adherents, and doctrines of his own faith, especially as Islam has a pretty good record (independently of episodes of conversion by the sword), attracting adherents by teaching and preaching its intrinsic merits, over 14 centuries.  It’s hard to imagine a more abject surrender of the high ground than “actually, I got nothin’ but this gun to shoot you with.”  I have no special case for Khan either way, but I hope he at least survives this suicidal episode.

 

 

The monuments at Pere Lachaise cemetery

I wept Sunday, placing stones at various Holocaust memorials at Paris’s Pere Lachaise. I cried  remembering various survivors I have known, many now deceased: The neighbor up the street, my friends’ parents growing up in Rochester, NY. the math professor  Lipman Bers, who introduced me to multivariable calculus many years ago.  He reminisced in class about the Big Ben-style clock in Prague’s old Jewish ghetto. It ran counter-clockwise in homage to the Jewish tradition.

As human beings and citizens, we have such an obligation to oppose cruelty, discrimination, group hatred, and dehumanizing rhetoric. In every form. Always.

Continue reading “The monuments at Pere Lachaise cemetery”

Easter messages

Easter messages compared.

An Easter message from a head of state:

Religious holidays are special days, during which the society enjoys intense feelings of unity, solidarity and brotherhood.

Easter is one of the most important feasts, celebrated by our Christian citizens of various churches and groups.

We, with the strength and the understanding of justice we draw from our civilization which considers differences to be a source of richness, attach great importance to all our citizens’ ability to freely practice their religions, cultures and traditions in our country regardless of their belief, religion, sect or ethnicity.

I congratulate all Christians, our Christian citizens in particular, on the occasion of Easter. Peace be upon you!

The author is Recep Erdoğan, President of Turkey. He’s a conservative Muslim in a country where Muslims make up 82% of the population according to Ipsos and 99.8% according to the government. He is also an authoritarian populist, and has fought to bring the media and the judiciary under his control. However, there’s nothing wrong with the message. That is, it’s inoffensive and positive boilerplate.

There is no obligation on heads of state to issue Easter messages. Very few do. I can’t find any statement from the monarchs of Spain, Denmark, and Norway, or the President of Italy, countries where Christianity has a privileged status by constitution or custom. Queen Elizabeth of the UK didn’t say anything, but Prince Charles recorded a video, focussing on persecuted Christians round the world.  The King and Queen of Sweden put a photo on Instagram of the couple sitting by a fire with their dog, Brandie, in the snow. Their message said, “The royal couple wishes a happy Easter from Storlien.” Tip: kings are not limited to 140 characters.

In the USA, the 45th President put out a bland combined Easter and Pesach message as is customary, on video. His real message was a furious anti-immigrant tweetstorm on Sunday morning,  attacking Mexico, Dreamers -“NO MORE DACA DEAL!” -, NAFTA, Democrats, and Senate Republicans.

How much longer will Americans put up with so contemptible a man occupying – you can’t say filling – the office held by Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama?

Caiaphas’ question

When did Jesus claim to be the Messiah?

Good Friday 2018

The synoptic Gospels agree on this. At the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas challenged the charismatic sect leader Jesus of Nazareth whether he claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus said yes, he was. Mark 14: 61-62, NIV:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?  “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

This was the critical moment in Jesus’ two trials. The admission was an open-and-shut proof of blasphemy and led immediately to the first, and SFIK legally sound, conviction under Jewish religious law. The second trial and conviction by Pilate on the charge of sedition was a secondary put-up job to secure an execution, which the Sanhedrin either had no jurisdiction to impose or thought impolitic to carry out if it did.

Mosaic in Ravenna, 6th century Source

I’ve observed before that the omissions in religious art are sometimes as striking as the emphases. You don’t see many paintings of “Caiaphas versus Jesus.” Partly this is diffuse anti-Semitism. The scene is one of a balanced confrontation between two figures of authority – Jesus does not challenge the hostile High Priest the way he slights the sleazy apparatchik Pilate, the guy who controls the troops. Caiaphas is a baddie, but he has to be presented as a figure of dignity and substance. Much better to show nameless hook-nosed Jews sneering at Jesus as he’s flogged or crowned with thorns (the latter incidentally clearly part of the Roman stage-setting for the public destruction of a rebel). However, it’s mainly because the orthodox reading of the gospels has been that Jesus’ messianic claim was well established already, so the exchange with Caiaphas merely confirmed the already known.

But is that so clear? If you leave out John, an interpretation more than a history, the prior claims look ambiguous. The acknowledgement by Peter of Jesus as the Messiah in Matthew 16:15-16 and Luke 9:20 results from a question by Jesus to his close disciples: “Who do you say I am?” This is conventionally read as a test, and the passage continues in Matthew (but not Luke) with a confirmation. The question could just as easily have reflected uncertainty as policy. Elsewhere, after the transfiguration, Jesus orders the inner disciples not to divulge their vision (Matthew 17:9). Again, either explanation is possible.

The strongest evidence that Jesus had not made an unambiguous public claim is from the trial itself. Mark and Matthew recount that witnesses against Jesus came forward, but could not establish a clear case. The best shot was an indirect (and, according to the gospel writers, false) claim that Jesus had declared he could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. The Temple party had known about Jesus for some time and identified him as a major threat. In this it was supported by other factions (Pharisees and Sadducees) who had come into opposition to Jesus earlier. If Jesus had made a public claim to be the Messiah, this would have been common knowledge and the authorities would have found truthful witnesses easily enough.

So it’s a very plausible reading that it was only at the trial before the Sanhedrin that Jesus came clean. The moment was of extraordinary importance. Jesus could have walked back from the claim and quite probably saved his life, like Sabbatai Zevi.

This reading also makes more sense of the moving accounts of the agony in the garden at Gethsemane. On the traditional reading, the die is already cast. Jesus faces certain death, and struggles to come to terms with it. The synoptics say that the disciples both fell asleep and overheard Jesus pleading to God for a get-out-of-jail card. It’s possible, but something isn’t quite right, not just the overhearing. The natural reaction to inevitable doom is surely to huddle with your friends for comfort. You go off by yourself when you are struggling with a fateful decision. On my reading, how to respond to the Sanhedrin about the messianic claim fits perfectly. Jesus was deciding whether to confirm it and die, probably horribly, or walk it back and live.

Notes

1. The above takes a mainstream conservative Christian approach that the synoptic gospels are reasonably accurate while John should be taken, as history, with a pinch of salt. I’m not going to argue this position. If you take the line that the synoptics are also basically theological meditations loosely connected to historical events, or more radically that Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional character, my problem has no meaning. I will just observe that the reliability of a text and its internal coherence are not independent. A text should be judged by its most coherent internal interpretation, not polemically by its worst.

2. I trust I have not offended any reader by this little essay. It is not proselytising, though it comes from within a Christian tradition. It may serve as a topical reminder that “Christian” and “ignorant idolatrous bigot” are not necessarily synonymous.

3. Where I do plead guilty is to the longstanding Christian vice of engaging in the enjoyable pastime of speculating about the person of the founder of my religion rather than the harder work of living as he recommended. Given this long history, it is most unlikely that my speculations are original. I apologise to any unrecognised predecessors, whether Gnostics, Cappadocian Fathers, or Unitarian divines.

 

Perspective again

The best I can do this Christmas is to repost this effort of mine from six years ago. The theme of moral perspective is even more necessary today. As Dickens’ great fable reminds us, there are Christmases past and future as well as present, some for the worse, many for the better. Hold on.

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For Kenneth Clark, it was ¨the greatest small painting in the world¨. It’s certainly a masterpiece – and a puzzle. Why did the Umbrian master Piero della Francesca choose around 1450 to paint an overworked stock subject, the Flagellation of Christ, in this extraordinary way?
(Warning: large page below the jump) Continue reading “Perspective again”

Worthwhile Papal initiative

Cecilia Bartoli sings in the Sistine Chapel.

Last Friday, a woman sang in the Sistine Chapel. Not just any woman of course, but a star operatic mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli.

This falls a long way short of the message of Michelangelo’s powerful Sybils on the ceiling, or my suggestion that Pope Francis appoint some women cardinals. Canon Law (which has required them to be priests only since 1917) would have to be changed to allow this; but he’s an absolute monarch and can legislate what he likes. Call them coadjutors or cardinal deacons or something. Still, Ms. Bartoli is progress, and as Michelangelo knew, cultural symbols matter.

The favour went both ways. By report, the Sistine Chapel choir sank to an embarrassment in the 20th century, and were labeled the “Sistine screamers”. Ten years ago, a leading professional like Ms Bartoli would not have wanted to sing with such a poor group. The revival is not due to Francis but to his predecessor Benedict (Josef Ratzinger), a reactionary but with German standards. In 2010 he appointed a good choirmaster, Monsignor Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest; and, more important, widened the pool of eligibility by a factor of 10,000 from Italian priests (n ≈ 45,000) to male Catholics from any country, boys and adults, married or not (n ≈ 600,000,000). The invitation to Ms Bartoli is surely Francis’ work.

The choir, with Bartoli, have released a CD of Christmas music, some of it recently unearthed from the Vatican archives. This looks worth a try as a seasonal gift.

The profits go to the Pope’s personal charity. This looks to be a small scale operation, largely among the street people of Rome. You get the cutting-edge accountability of regulations adopted in 1409 by Alexander V. Alexander was a Pisan antipope, whose main contribution to the end of the Western Schism was dying conveniently soon, thus reducing the problem of multiple popes by a third. Relying on his paperwork is, in American terms, roughly equivalent to having the statutes of your college signed off by Jefferson Davis.

Still, if you are going to contribute to anybody’s slush fund, Pope Francis and his almoner Konrad Krajewski are a reasonable bet.

Cecilia Bartoli singing Mozart’s Laudate Dominum in Dresden in 2001.

What Does It Take to Found a Religion?

Now that the Senate-blessed Neil Gorsuch has donned the Robes of the Righteous, we have to reconsider the way we live our lives. Not very religious myself, I am now thinking that I should be more active in this area.

So here’s how one might fight fire with fire (and a touch of brimstone). As far as I know, there are no hard-and-fast criteria for defining a religion. For example, Scientology was started by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard (who knows, maybe it started out as a joke?), and has been able to gull some of Hollywood’s dimmest stars into joining it.

So what might it take to become a religion recognized by the Supreme Court? My brilliant idea: turn tennis into a religion. Let’s call it Tênis, using the Portuguese spelling to make it more exotic.

Here are some of my p-baked thoughts (hopefully, p > 0.5):

  • Shrines: we have Forest Hills, Wimbledon, Roland-Garros, and Melbourne Park, to which we can make our pilgrimages.
  • Matriarchs and patriarchs: the Grand Slam tournament winners would surely qualify.
  • Club fees: since you are contributing to a religious endeavor, you should be able to include your fees as a charitable deduction on your income taxes.
  • Government grants: as per the Trinity Lutheran decision, if the court surfaces need to be redone, a government grant is not out of the question.
  • Rackets (an obvious double entendre) and balls: they could be purchased tax-free.

I don’t mean to imply that all religions are as shallow as the one I’m suggesting; it’s just that if we are going to remove the barrier between church and state, as Gorsuch, Alito, and Thomas seem to want to do, we should consider how to leverage it to our advantage, or at least to point out the inconsistencies in their arguments.

PS: I originally entitled this post “What Does It Take to Start a Religion?“ but felt that “Found” would be more …. profound.

PPS: I considered focusing on golf instead of tennis, but thought that it might give someone in high office an idea.

PPPS: In adding comments to this post, be thoughtful. After all, this could be the founding Testament for a new religion. I don’t want it to include a shopping list, as in “A Canticle for Leibowitz.”

Satmar Hasidism: a study in corruption

Forward (the English-language incarnation of the once-preeminent Yiddish-language פֿאָרווערטס‎ (Forverts), has a fascinating account of the transition of power within the Satmer branch of Hasidism.  So far as it goes, it’s pretty unsparing. But it doesn’t go far enough.

Forty-five years ago, Al Lowenstein challenged John J. Rooney for a Brooklyn Congressional seat in a district that included Williamsburg, then the Satmar stronghold. I was one of the hundreds of volunteers who moved to Brooklyn for the summer to work on the campaign. (Huge mistake from the campaign’s viewpoint, but that’s a story for another day.)

The Satmar leadership – in particular, Yoelish Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe – loved Rooney, for a slightly complicated reason. The Satmar brand of misogynistic patriarchy was so obnoxious that girls tended to walk out of the sect when they reached maturity. (That’s since been fixed by miseducating them in Satmar schools in the isolated and Satmar-dominated villiage of Kiryat Joel; the schools turn out girls not merely well-indoctrinated but so ignorant of everything but Talmud as to be unable to function in mainstream society, and the sect so far has managed to beat back attempts to ensure that Satmar children get adequate education. (No doubt Betsy DeVos will be their ally, in the name of “parental choice.”) But back then Satmar schools taught the girls  to read and write in English, giving them the option of leaving the community.

This was a problem for the Satmars; where were they to find brides for their young men?  The answer was straightforward: the community imported brides for arranged marriages from the remaining Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Rooney, as the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that handled the State Department budget, was able to makes sure that the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs didn’t look too closely at this (thoroughly illegal) practice.

Teitlebaum – never, in my hearing, referred to by name, but only by title – exercised a different kind of power locally. Forverts was the largest Yiddish-language publication in the country (it had once published stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and essays by Abba Lerner), and Jewish Williamsburg was largely Yiddish-speaking. But the Satmars were relentlessly anti-Zionist and anti-socialist, and Teitlbaum had put a ban on the sale of the newspaper. Newsdealers who challenged that ban tended to suffer from suspicious fires and other acts of vandalism, so in fact the newspaper was simply unavailable in what should have been its biggest market. And the police found it unwise to defend press freedom against someone who could reliably bring several thousand voters to the polls to vote however they were told to vote, especially given the difficulty of finding witnesses bold enough to testify. (The re-run of the Lowenstein/Rooney primary was on Yom Kippur; buses to the polls left directly from the synagogues.)

In Teitlebaum’s long dotage – thoroughly documented in the article – and under the leadership of his nephew and grand-nephew, who succeeded him, a variety of instances of Satmar misbehavior have come to light, including the usual scandal about clergy taking sexual advantage of children and having their crimes covered up by their superiors and a fairly wide variety of  financial scams, some of them rather creative.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Satmar Hasidism has many of the nastier characteristics of an organized-crime enterprise, including the abuse of political influence to acquire impunity. But don’t hold your breath waiting for anyone who has to run for office to speak out about it.