“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Penny Plain or Tuppence Coloured (reprise)

On reflection I have come to realise that my attitude towards art in a religious setting is strangely inconsistent. I find the calligraphy and floral decoration in a mosque very beautiful. And memories of a visit to the Russian Orthodox St. Isaac's Cathedral in Moscow in 1987 come back to me. Outside, it looks a bit like St. Paul's Cathedral, but inside, there is the most magnificent iconostasis (wall of icons), which again I found beautiful and awe-inspiring.

It seems that my Puritanical sensibilities are only disturbed in a West European context. Such as a recent (2008) visit to the Berliner Dom, when I was shocked by all the gold, and by the huge statues of the giants of the Reformation, Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin and Knox. (To be fair, I think that they would have been shocked to find statues of themselves in a Protestant cathedral!)

It seems that I am the child of the Reformation, with an in-built and thoughtless bias against "images" in a place of worship. I am not proud of this. I worry that my reaction varies as much according to aesthetic taste as to religious sensibilities.

A beautiful Virgin and Child in Reims Cathedral
For example, in Laon Cathedral yesterday, I noticed three different statues of the Virgin Mary and Child, and had different reactions to each. I am so not proud of this. There was a creamy white one, made of stone or resin, in the worship area in the transept. And I thought "I can see that she would be a good aid to devotion." Then there was a larger one carved from dark brown wood, which I admired for the beauty of its carving.

But lastly, there was one which I saw as tawdry, painted crudely in a white robe with a blue sash, an ugly face, and with a rosary draped over her arm, which I found to be totally inappropriate. After all, Jesus' mother was a Jewess.

But it was this statue which had the most candles lit in front of it, and which was obviously used for intercessory prayer to Sainte Marie de Laon. My lapsed Catholic husband laughed at my indignation, and poked fun at my Protestant prediliction for taking things too literally. He pointed out that the literal truth is not the key thing for Catholics; it is what (or who) such a figure represents (i.e. the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven) that matters.

Suitably chastened, I have realised that I need to be more open-minded and open-hearted, and to exercise what Karen Armstrong would call compassion when confronted with religious traditions that don't chime with my own. If a blue and white madonna provides comfort, who am I to criticise?

1 comment:

  1. The Eastern Orthodox like to point out that you can't walk around to the back of an ikon, which is why it is different from a statue. An ikon is more like a window.

    I do have various statues (Shiva for instance) and I think they are nice, but I can't manage to pray using them; whereas a picture of a Goddess is fine by me because it seems like a gateway for the numinous. So maybe I'm a sad old Protestant too, but I have done my best to expunge the unnecessary aspects of Christianity from my psyche, and the distinction between a statue and an image still seems valid to me.

    Also, the geometric patterns in mosques perform a completely different function than imagery; they are meant to induce a sense of transcendence and an awareness of the breathing-in-and-out of God.