15. The spirituality of Europe

15.2 The Evangels

Marc wrote for Jews desperate after the destruction of the Temple by Titus, in AD 70. Jesus is described abandoned by God as are the Jews themselves. Matthias wrote also for Jews and attempted to persuade them to abandon the Torah in favor of the Revelation. Luc was a gentile who wrote for educated gentiles. He did not attempt anymore a conversion of the Jews. John related events in a manner considerably different from these three first presentations. According to John, Jesus is not at the merci of the militia but is willing to follow them. He is not abandoned by his followers but enjoins them to leave. He is not affiliated to the Jews through Abraham as claimed by Matthias but is their opponent. The battle for the Jews was deemed lost and Paul drew its consequences. The Jews attempted to put him to death, ordeal avoided because he was a Roman citizen. They lapidated Christians in Jerusalem in 62 and massacred Romans and Greeks in 66, which prompted Titus to sell 100,000 of them in 70 AD. The talion was clearly incompatible with the evangels and the Jews forbade the access of the synagogue to Christians who, in turn, refused to participate in 132 to the revolt of Simon Bar-KoKheba, which consummated the separation. Christians, be they Jews or Gentiles, were tolerant of foreigners ever since Christ advised “render to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God”. They actively defended Romania against invaders. If they failed with Rome, they succeeded with Byzantium.

Marcion attempted to eliminate the Torah from the Christian heritage and the rare references to it in the evangel of Matthias. The separation advised by Marcion of a bible axed on justice and its unavoidable corollary, vengeance, from an evangel advocating tolerance and forgiveness was refused by the Fathers without however an endorsement by them of the Torah. Jerome translated the Hebraic texts in Latin, which was the Vulgate, at the beginning of the 5th century. This enormous effort astonished the Christians, including Augustine and the Roman Catholic Church, which had no use for it and paid initially no heed to it. Only the Visigoth Christians of Spain saved the Vulgate from oblivion.

This unjustified maintenance of a filiation with Orthodox Judaism proved, in retrospect, the most damageable error in judgment the Church committed, when printing made the Bible accessible to puritans and integrists.

15.2.1 Tolerance of ambiguities

The Evangels and the Acts of the Apostles are sacred texts of reference of Christianism but, contrary to the Torah and the Koran, they were, for the sake of harmonization, subject to discussion. The Nestorians, Arians, Monophysites and other heretics who contested the orthodoxy in the name of Logic wanted to conciliate monotheism with the variety of divine manifestations, and the Fathers of the Church defined the dogma of the Trinity. The Christian Faith resides in the affirmation “I love thus I am”. It is from this irrational premise that the dogma of the Trinity stems: love is an expansive movement that needs an object to return this love. Since Love is of divine origin, the returned love must also be divine, hence the Son of God. But an autistic back and forth love bridles the expansion proper to this love. Love is generosity and must address a third person, hence the Holy Spirit. This dogma is the most precious thesaurus of the Church. It remains the Mystery of Mysteries but the tendency was to demonstrate that the mystery did not offend reason whereas its refusal offended the Christian faith. Facing the absurdity of heresy, the Fathers attempted, slowly and painfully, to avoid antinomies while discovering, by questions and answers, new aspects of the Truth. The dogma of Trinity familiarized the occidental mind with the notion that unity and variety are not necessarily opposite concepts because they harmonize in God. Or that different realities exist within one entity. That one can distinguish without opposing, converge without confounding, reconcile without uniforming.

The scientific spirit is tolerance to ambiguity. Unique among all religions, Christianity is the only that has conscientiously incorporated a scientific approach in its search for truth.

15.2.2 Tolerance of disparities

Donate, bishop of Carthage in 313, led by a powerful sense of social justice, opposed the poor Berber shepherds to the opulent Roman colonists by stating that the communion of the Believers is made of those who are perfect. In his mind, in concordance with the evangels, it was more difficult for a rich man to accede to the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. This position leads to Puritanism, exclusion and subjectivity. Augustine condemned it in 401. One does not judge neighbors, and one does not perpetually question once’ appurtenance to the Church by examinations of conscience. There are no irreconcilable positions opposing benevolence and malevolence, spirituality and materialism, sanctity and depravation, richness and poverty. There exist intermediary situations and no situation exists that is desperate beyond hope of improvement.

This position runs counter the instigation of a stark antagonism between social classes and the Church is profoundly, viscerally anti-socialist. This position of tolerance, with the affirmation that humanity cannot live in extreme positions, was capital to forge the occidental mind. The Franciscans and Dominicans, who developed the idea of purgatory, restated this position in the 13d century. The Church hastened to dogmatize this idea that there exist not only a Heaven and an Inferno but also an intermediary stage, the Purgatory, were the souls deemed too tainted to enjoy forthwith the benefits of Heaven may do penance and repent. Luther violently opposed this concept, and Calvin a fortiori.

15.2.3 Tolerance of the flesh

The sedentary civilizations that appeared in the Near East 6000 years ago used clothes for protection against a transient cold and its lower social classes often went to their business naked or else clad only with a loincloth. Today, the Cistercians wear no trunks and the Scottish troops of her Gracious Majesty are naked under their kilt. The nobility of Pharaoh swore him fidelity while holding their testicles in their right hand, and the bible cites on two occasions such a practice for Hebrews (Gen. 24:2 and 47:29).

The style of life varied with fashion, with the weaving abilities of artisans, with the availability and price of clothes, with social status, with varying climatic conditions and with cultural habits. A hysteric obsession with sex led to odious practices, as the copulation of Egyptian embalmers with beautiful dead women. The promiscuity of the Etruscan women unable to name the father of their children was shocking to Romans. This promiscuity was probably inherited from the Magdalenian, of which the Etruscans, Vascons, Berbers, Corsicans descend: a plural-paternity was, in the difficult peri-glaciary conditions that the Magdalenian had met, beneficial for the children because all their presumed fathers would take care of them. Polyandry is still practiced today in the Bhutan. The Greek frowned at the participation in the nude of Etruscan women to athletic games. The nomad Hebrews made of body coverage a strict religious obligation (Lev. 18:1-19; Gen. 9:18-25), forced their priests to wear trousers under penalty of death (Ex. 28:42-43), punished pitilessly adultery and female impudicity, even if inadvertent (Deut. 25:11-12). An obsession with purity justified the destruction of Canaan whose lax population was exterminated.

Paul stated in his first letter to the Corinthians “The master of the woman is man. Man must not cover his head because he is at the image of God; whereas woman, she is at the image of man. It is of course not man who was created for woman but woman for man. Therefore, woman must carry on her head a sign of subjection (1 Cor. 11:3-10). Paul followed the Yahwist version of the creation of man. But he certainly knew that only prostitutes covered their face (Gen. 38:15), that women outside the house covered their hair only when wanting to show respect (Gen. 24:65) and that they wore no veil inside the house, even in the presence of strangers, as we know from Luke (7:36-38) who tells the story of a woman who dried in public the feet of Christ with her hair. John relates a similar story (12:3).

This admonishment of Paul appears worth those of our most narrow-minded contemporary clergymen, rabbis and mullahs, fierce enemies of human happiness, yet must be replaced in its context. In 1 Cor. 5:1, he complains: “One hears talk only about impudicity among you and of such an impudicity that it does not even exist by the heathens” and he advises in 1 Cor. 6:18: “Avoid fornication. He who fornicates sins against his own body”. The Corinthian women had a solid and well deserved reputation of free and joyous cheerfulness. Corinth was the most depraved city of the Roman realm, where women maddened with pleasures got drunk like men, assisted naked to banquets served by nude ephebes, banquets where both male and female dancers were served after dinner to the guests for immediate consumption on the spot (fig. 15.2).

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Figure 15.2. cup, detail, c. 510 BC. British Museum. The pipe player is virtually naked and the girl with castanets wears a panther-skin. The figures are drawn with a lively grace and a simplicity of lines which suggest the rhythm of the dance. We may see in this type of work the rise of Western drawing.

Dancing girls and musicians were a traditional part of the Greek drinking party. At the theater, mimes copulated in erotic scenes and Pasiphae, the spouse of the king Minos, offered herself daily in a life scene to the bull in the Cretan labyrinth. The argument of first creation of Adam and subjection of woman was meaningless to Greeks who did not believe in creation. They ignored the Torah, which insists on the virginity of a fiancée (Deut. 22:14) and punishes adultery by death (Deut. 22:22). They approved the generosity of denuded bodies, also practiced in Egypt and Canaan (Lev. 18:3) but violently condemned by the Torah (Lev. 18:4-20), they ignored the exhortations of the holy man and continued to enjoy life.

The problem of Paul, and of the Church, was to compromise between Puritanism and debauchery. The conservative Peter recommended that copulations be restricted to the necessities of procreation. This position is too extreme. Paul, predicator of gentiles, knew that the philosophical indigence of the evangels forced Christianity to seek the help of heathen philosophies to acquire credibility in their eyes. Confronted with a superior rational civilization in love with Life, the primitive Church had to follow other spiritual guides than the archaic Torah. The Church adopted the Stoical, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies.

The Church rejected the extreme position of Peter and did not endorse the prudishness and pharisaic stand of Paul. The Church is of course attentive to the decency of its flock assembled for prayer in churches. She does not admit castrates to priesthood, militates in favor of virginity of fiancés and fiancées, favors a decent behavior and a sexual restraint essential for the maintenance of the monogamous conjugal bonds that are the foundation of a pacific, sedentary and productive civilization but a monogamous family cannot fulfill its educative role for its children if the parents do not live in mutual respect. Monogamy alone is insufficient without the equality of the sexes.

If the primitive Church had to enforce moral rules on a decadent Empire moribund because of abortion and child abuse, this was not true anymore in the Middle Age, which faced extinction not because of sexual excesses but because of abstinence promoted by integrists as the Cathars. The Decameron of Boccaccio appeared in 1352. Maybe was it written to oppose the Puritanism of the Cistercians, whose aversion toward women was justified by the Stoical Seneca and by newly studied Ancient Holy Texts as the Ecclesiastic (Si. 25:24 “It is through woman that sin started and it is because of her that we all die“. Stupidity: it is through them that we all come to life). A few of the ninety-nine stories of the Decameron stated the equality of the sexes. The stories extol the carnal pleasures taken by monks and nuns. These were indifferent to the celibacy imposed to the priestly class by Hildebrand in 1074, whose purpose was the prevention of ecclesiastic benefices for the benefit of the offspring of the Church princes. This concern was not theirs and they were not committed to chastity. The Council of Trent initiated the Counter Reform on 6 December 1563. It censored the libidinous activities of the clergy without however suppressing in the least the eroticism of the text, wherein the monks and nuns became fornicating valets and servants. One story, deprived of erotic connotations but describing the avariciousness of an inquisitor, was excised, which reduces the number of stories to ninety-nine.

For the Church, the sin of flesh is not the greatest, but well the sin of haughtiness, which was committed by Lucifer in the context of the highest spirituality. Arrogance and Satanism are one. The Church consistently stated the equality of woman with man and the tolerance of the Church for carnal love frequently entered in conflict with an ideal of purity very present in a Torah that extols the virginity of nubile women to the point of extermination of all those who are not (Jg. 21:10-12) but also proclaimed in the midst of Christianity by sexually inhibited, doctrinaire or else martial souls (Orthodox, Donate, Mani, Wickliffe, Hus, Cathars, Taborites, Jansenists, the spiritual Franciscans, Luther, Calvin), and absolutely victorious in integrist Islam. These peevish doctrinaires engrossed by their repulsive certainties and obsessions are attentive to filiations and heritage, and want to ignore the attractiveness of women and the comfort of their presence (fig. 15.3).


Figure 15.3. Photography by Shirin Neshat (born 1957 in Qazvin (Iran), works in New York). Without title, from the series “Rapture, women scattered” (1999). The artist wants to emphasize the separation of the sexes in Iran. This is “purity of woman” at its best. During the Islamic Revolution, courageous gangs of guardians of the Revolution roomed Tehran in search of wandering women who had indulged in make up. Those found with maquillage had their lips cleansed with wet Kleenex loaded with ground glass.

In the West, the affirmation that a woman was the mother of God placed Mary in such prominent position that she was soon considered as the fourth person of the divine trinity. This was an essential element of progress for the women of the occidental civilization. They acquired therewith a status inaccessible to women in any other civilization.

The Church inherited the Greek spirit of tolerance, not the Hebraic spirit of hatred, and saved from destruction and collected the Greek sculptures representing impudent ephebes and sensuous Venuses whose voluptuously exposed anatomies rejoice without hindrance the eye of the honest man. In the West, women are attractive and are free to display their charms as they please but man may surrender to the attraction only insofar that woman allows it. The Church persevered, even during the cursed times of Iconoclasm, Reform and Counter Reform, in the glorification of the naked human body, including that of Christ. Luther had started the religious schism in 1517 and Protestants sacked Rome in 1527. This horrendous crime against civilization did not prevent Michelangelo to paint (1534-1541) The last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, imprinting there with the idea that the most sacred scope of painting is the exploitation of the nude (fig. 15.4).

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Figure 15.4. The last Judgment, central fragment (1534-1541). Fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome. Every figure is given its own space and is then related to one of a series of compartments. Danielle da Volterra (1509-1566) was ordered by the pope to paint breeches, pants and draperies over the profusely displayed genitalia. Benedict XVI celebrates mass in the Sixtine chapel under the painting made by Michelangelo.

Paul III, who had commissioned the Judgment, immediately commissioned two more frescoes for his own chapel. Paul III was raised in corruption. He became cardinal because his sister had been the mistress of Alexander Borgia. This would not have happened in former times. When Hughes Capet attempted in vain in 1004 to have one of his bastards named bishop of Bourges, the Abbott of Cluny was of the opinion that: “it is not becoming for the son of a courtesan to dominate the Church”. It settled the case: other times, other mores.

By his culture and inclination, Paul was a man of the Renaissance and the last of the humanist popes. He asked Michel Angelo to pursue the construction of the dome of Saint Peter, in the Vatican. His portrait by Titian, in 1540, is among the best portraits ever painted (figure. 15.5).

Figure 15.5 Portrait of Pope Paul III without a cap, 1543, Oil on canvas Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte Naples, Italy

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Looking at it, one sees an impressing old sage who took the three cardinal decisions that will oppose the Reform. The Lutherans had brought havoc to Germany and the Netherlands, the Calvinists in Switzerland and the Huguenots (from the German Eidgenoss, meaning confederate) in France had preached destruction, massacres and bloodbaths. Both had called for the destruction of Rome, which resulted in its horrendous sack in 1527: Paul III approved of the order of the Jesuits newly created in 1534, established in Rome in 1542 the Holy Office of the Universal Church, in fact a revival of the Inquisition, and called the Council of Trent (1545-1564).

For Michelangelo, beauty of form was a manifestation of divine grace that moved him most when he found it in the human body. He believed that the Divine was most clearly revealed in what was most perfectly created. The expression of artistic accomplishment leads to a heroic ideal of grace. That the beauty of Michelangelo’s Christ has a spiritual meaning and effect is evidenced by the need to protect the forward foot by a metal shoe from the kiss and touch of the devout (fig. 15.6).

The statue is meant to be seen only from the front. In later times, statues were made to be seen from all sides. The small bronze “Astronomy“, by Giovanni Bologna 1573, is 39 cm. (fig. 15.7). It is to be looked at long, and very closely. It is meant to be turned round in the hand. The figure exceeds nature in its grace.

Figure 15.6. Resurrection by Michelangelo. 1519-1520. S. Maria sopra Minerva.
Figure 15.7. Giovanni Bologna, Astronomy or Venus, 1573, bronze Vienna, Kunsthistoriches Museum.

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In The risen Christ and Astronomy, style became subject and the subject was driven out. This was Mannerism, that evolved in Italy and also in the Low Countries.

H. Goltzius painted in 1616 Lot and his two daughters to ridicule the behavior of Sem and Japheth with Noah. Yet the meaning of the painting is not obvious : one must know the story to understand the painting.

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Figure 15.8. H. Goltzius, 1616, Lot and his daughters, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. The virtuosity of the painter is best noticed with the nude on the right, who is seen from the rear, strongly shortened. In the upper left of the painting, Lot is depicted in a cave, barely observable in the darkness.

Goltzius (1558-1617) was a leading Mannerist painter, one of the few who were not Italian. This painting, made on the eve of his death, mocks the biblical story of drunk Noah and his sons Sem and Japheth, which is told in reverse. Lot looks drunk, holding in his right hand a cup of wine. He is naked in the company of his gorgeous naked nubile daughters who plan to be both incestuously inseminated by their father.

This Mannerist work of art was created at the beginning of the 17th century for a cultural world with ideals remote from our own. Mannerism follows the high Renaissance, blossoms in the 16th century and precedes the Baroque. The 16th century was intensely aware of itself in a way that no earlier post-antique century had been and asserted that what it produced was better, and belonged to a more refined society, than previously. One critic (Paolo Pino) advised in 1548: “in all your works you should introduce at least one figure that is all distorted, ambiguous and difficult, so that you shall thereby be noticed as outstanding by those who understand the finer points of art”. It was part of a mannerist artist’s function to produce oddities, which he was usually very fond to supply. Boredom must at all cost be avoided. The concept of variety is a motivation for license but had a positive result, namely a beautiful and refined level of execution, attention to detail, while the negative aspect was an absence of interest in atmosphere. A mannerist painter places the expression of artistic qualities before that of the subject, the subject being thought unimportant. This led often the mannerist artist to commit the sin of neglect of fitness to purpose: the mannerist style did not conform to the subject, as had been recommended by Bacon. Mannerism is a style of excess. There was a resistance to mannerism from moderate critics who pleaded for restraint.

There was antipathy between Mannerism and Counter-reformation. In the final session of the Council of Trent (1564), injunctions were such as ‘all sensuality will be forbidden [...] images shall not be painted with excessive elegance […] there shall be nothing dishonest or profane […]’. This plea was not heard. The painting (1594) by little known painter Cornelisz van Haarlem represents Bathsheba on her toilet (Fig. 15.9).

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Figure 15.9. Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem. The toilet of Bathsheba, 1594, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Bath Sheba was married to Urie, a Hittite mercenary. David summoned her to copulate, impregnated her, ordered the killing of Urie, incorporated Bath Sheba in his harem but the child died and David sired thereafter Salomon with her.

The summon offered an occasion for the sensuous display of an opulent female form. In this painting, David is not seen, nor the palace except for vague contours. The garden is contemporary Dutch. The painting acquires meaning if the story of Bathsheba is known, and focuses on nude women who are rendered in monumental as well as natural facets. We are far away in style from the religious subjects painted 100 to 150 years earlier.

Mannerist license lead to the baroque freedom, where the touch of elegance and the beguiling preciosity of mannerism was improved with passion and tenderness, communicating an emotion specific to the subject. The power of love resounds throughout baroque art. The relations between the sexes and the effects of carnal passion are represented with candor and insight.

The retrieving of energy and organic unity between subject and form was the main achievement of the Baroque (fig. 15.10).

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Figure 15.10. Bathsheba, 1654, Rembrandt (1606-1669)
Figure 15.11. Bathsheba with David’s letter was painted in 1654 by W. Drost (1630-1687). It was painted in the same year by Rembrandt (Fig 15.10). Both paintings are at the Louvre.

The Bath Sheba painted by Drost is a charming little person who has caught the eye of a mighty ruler and shows a slight triumph that she succeeded in being chosen by a king. Rembrandt moved beyond Mannerism. Though his Bath Sheba is one of the finest nudes in Baroque art, Rembrandt brings to light the tragic inner meaning of the story. He shows the inner struggle of Bath Sheba for the decision she is going to make. Should she obey the command or should she remain faithful and perhaps make therewith her husband suffer in his career? Her servant is unaware of what is taking place and we are therewith made conscious not only of the conflicting emotions in Bath Sheba’s mind but also of her psychological isolation. One is inclined to forgive the woman. The thoughts and sentiments of Bath Sheba meditating on the letter are expressed with subtleness and a comprehension of the human soul that a writer would express only in several pages.

A regression to mannerism occurred in the 18th century with the Rococo style developed by Rubens (see fig. 11.3), Boucher (see fig. 12.5) and Fragonard (see fig. 9.3).

We now live in an age of functionalism, which is based upon premises just as irrational as the 16th century conviction that non-functional decoration has the right to exist provided it be beautiful. Contemporary intolerance inhibits our enjoyment of some works of art. Mannerist and baroque works were the product of an Epicurean society enthusiastic for artistic beauty. Mannerism was an extreme manifestation of civilized living. It was a satisfying source of beauty that transgressed with conviction moderation towards excess in style. By reproving it, it is not Michelangelo, Bernini, Goltzius, Rembrandt, Rubens and Drost who suffer but we.

What distinguishes Christianity from Judaism and Islam is the teaching of the Holy Books. For the Church, which does not favor the reading of the Old Testament, Puritanism, xenophobia and violence are deviations from the evangelic message, which aught to be combated. It is in Exodus 22:17 that Calvin found justification for the burning of many thousands of midwifes and herbalist women accused of sorcery because they had dared heal without having studied medicine. The Torah and the Koran preach hatred, ethnocentricity, exclusion and violence, and appeals to tolerance are repressed, even in contemporary times. Bahaïsm, which promoted a syncretism and tolerant Islam was very popular in Iran during the last century. It was abolished by ayatollah Khomeyni in 1979. Israel has embraced a Hebraic talibanisation.

15.2.4 Tolerance of criticism

Erasmus wrote the Prize of Folly in London in 1511 during the week that he was host of T. More. This masterpiece stigmatized everything. Institutions and human beings, fruits of 1500 years of Christianisation, appeared to him so unbearably stupid that he could not anymore contain his impatience and irritation: popes, kings, monks, scholars, war, theology, philosophy, everything was examined and condemned. His appreciated diatribe sold in thousands of exemplars without him being molested. It is true that he lived in the Empire, not in France or England. Erasmus criticized the ecclesiastic institution without however attacking the Institution itself. He wanted reform not regression.

Most of us view civilization as a constant progress toward humaneness. The Reform and Renaissance, as well as Islam, are, in this perspective, viewed as natural precursors of the Century of Enlightenment followed by the French Revolution, which is itself presented as a progress. Biologists know that Evolution makes mistakes, takes paths without issues, and some erring paths are also discerned in human evolution. W. Durant insists that it takes a century for a human culture to leave barbarity and only a day to embrace it again. The trust Toynbee had in continuous progress was shaken when he witnessed the barbarity of the German invasion of Belgium, as war correspondent, during WW I. The last centuries have seen severe regressions, among them Islam, the Reform, the Counter-Reform and the French Revolution.

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