What I find interesting is that “Demetrius” is in fact a pagan-derived name, meaning “devoted to Demeter.” It’s parallel to “Isidore,” meaning “gift of Isis,” or “Diodorus,” meaning “gift of Zeus.” All three of these names are borne by Christian saints! Apparently, like the names of the days of the week or the months of the year, early Christians were prepared to tolerate this vestige of paganism. I suppose by the late Roman empire names were simply “names,” as they are for us, and fewer people were in the habit of inventing literal names expressing qualities they hoped to see in their children.
A followup to my post about Pasaquan: Paradise Garden, located between Summerville and Trion in Chattooga County, Georgia, is another visionary art compound, constructed by Howard Finster (1916-2001). Finster was a Baptist preacher and ran a bicycle repair business; in 1976 he saw a human face in a smear of white paint on his finger and heard a voice commanding him to “paint sacred art.” This he did enthusiastically until his death, producing some 47,000 pieces, many of which adorned the buildings he had built on his four-acre plot of land, soon dubbed Paradise Garden. He developed a distinctive colorful, flat style for his images, which were often accompanied by extensive text, often Biblical. Here is a representative example from Wikipedia:
My understanding is that when Finster died in 2001 his heirs sold off a lot of the moveable art at Paradise Garden, and Wikipedia claims that the site “began to decay in the heat and humidity of rural Georgia.” When I first saw it in 2006 (with the help of my friend Brad Adams, an art professor at Berry College), it was clear that the place wasn’t quite as glorious as it once was – but it was still pretty interesting! Here are some photos from that visit, so many years ago now:
It’s clear that Finster was a committed Christian and saw his art as essential to his ministry. The vast majority of it is religious in theme. Yet his notoriety was not the result of any sort of religious revival in late-twentieth-century America. Instead, Finster became famous as a self-taught “outsider” artist, a Southern eccentric true to his own vision. Michael Stipe of the rock band REM did not get Finster to design the cover of Reckoning, nor have the video to “Radio Free Europe” filmed at Paradise Garden, because he was in sympathy with Finster’s religious message. And it seems that Finster was well aware of this, and enjoyed the celebrity: witness his exuberant appearance on The Tonight Show in 1983. Tom Wolfe talked about this act in The Painted Word (1975) – successful artists may like to cultivate an image of otherworldliness, but they always have an eye to producing what sells, or what will impress the critics. Yet Finster never completely sold out. For instance, of the Talking Heads’ album Little Creatures (1985), he stated:
I think there’s twenty-six religious verses on that first cover I done for them. They sold a million records in the first two and a half months after it come out, so that’s twenty-six million verses I got out into the world in two and a half months!
Well done, thou good and faithful servant!
From UnHerd (hat tip: Paul Halsall):
“A perpetual forge of idols.” So Calvin described the human mind. This conviction, that fallen mortals were forever susceptible to turning their backs on God, to polluting the pure radiance to his commands, to practising in his very sanctuary pagan rituals, was a dread that constantly shadowed Calvin’s more committed followers in England. To Puritans, as they were called, the riotous celebrations that accompanied Christmas appeared a particular abomination.
It made the festival seem, as one of them disapprovingly noted, “some Heathen Feast of Ceres or Bacchus.” This anxiety fused over time with another deeply-held Protestant conviction: that papists, in their cunning and their deviancy, had been altogether too ready to compromise with the legacies of idolatry. Rather than clear away the brambles and nettles of paganism, they had instead tended them, and encouraged them to grow. What, then, was all the revelling, and dicing, and feasting that marked the celebration of the Saviour’s birth, all the “Licencious Liberty,” if not the Saturnalia by another name?
Today, the doubts about Christmas originally articulated by Puritan divines continue to flourish — as does so much Protestant anti-popery — in polemics that target not merely Catholicism but the Christian Church tout court. “Nothing in Christianity is original.” So opined the distinguished symbologist Sir Leigh Teabing. “The pre-Christian god Mithras — called the Son of God and the Light of the World — was born on December 25…” Dan Brown’s take is one well suited to a capitalist age. The Da Vinci Code, by portraying the early Church as an institution that had knowingly and cynically appropriated the feastdays of other gods, was able to cast Christians as predatory monopolists, asset-stripping the cults of their rivals.
Part of the reason for Dan Brown’s astonishing success is clearly that he was telling lots of people what they were ready to hear. That Christmas is a fraud, a festival stolen by the Church from pagans, has become a staple of many an atheist meme. Fuelling this trend is the fact that backing for it is to be found in distinguished works of history as well as in thrillers. “The Church was anxious to draw the attention of its members away from the old pagan feast days, and the December date did this very well, for it coincided with the ‘birthday of the invincible Sun’ of Mithraism, and the end of the Roman Saturnalia (December 24).” So writes John North in his book Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos.
UPDATE: More on the topic at HillFaith.
I was pleased to be able to visit the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension yesterday in Resaca, Georgia. This is an Orthodox community associated with ROCOR – that is, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which I regret to say that I had never heard of before. ROCOR has its origins in the Russian Revolution and the exile of some Russian clergy, who declared their independence from the Patriarch of Moscow, now taking orders from the Bolsheviks. It was a happy day in 2007 when ROCOR reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate (now under Patriarch Kyrill; ROCOR itself is headed by the Metropolitan Hilarion in New York City). I especially enjoyed speaking with Father Thomas Janikowski, visiting from Saint Athanasius Orthodox Church in Davenport, Iowa, who reminded me that the division between Protestants and Catholics, which has dominated western Christianity for over 500 years (and with which I’m reacquainting myself in preparation for teaching this fall) comprises “two sides of the same coin – one that Orthodoxy doesn’t even use.” The Orthodox hold themselves as practitioners of the true, original Christian faith, with others being deviants from this. For instance, regarding ecclesiastical priority, one should not look to Constantinople (founded in the fourth century), but to Jerusalem, whose patriarch remains Orthodox. Furthermore, at the beginning, the leader of the Jerusalem Christian community was James, the brother of Jesus, who had the final say at the Council of Jerusalem in AD 50 – not St. Peter, whom Jesus allegedly designated his spiritual heir and from whom the Bishops of Rome claim the right to be preeminent as “Pope.” (According to Orthodoxy, Peter was bishop of Antioch, not bishop of Rome. He may have been martyred at Rome, but he was never designated the leader of its Christian community in any ancient source.)
I did not know any of this!
Unfortunately, their shop had no St. George icons for sale, but there were a number of other ones for saints whom I had not heard of before. I gratefully acknowledge permission to take these photos.
An icon of an “Angel Deacon of God.”
St. Irene Chrysovalantou (fl. ninth century in Cappadocia). The icon illustrates a cypress tree bowing down to her, and her possession of three apples, a miraculous gift from St. John the Evangelist.
A detail from a Romanian altarpiece of Christ making wine from grapes from a vine, supported by a cross-shaped trellis and growing from his own side, graphically illustrating the doctrine of transubstantiation (or perhaps I should say metousiosis).
A Serbian warrior saint from the fourteenth century, I believe St. Nikita.
St. Spyridon (c. 270-348) was a Christian shepherd of great piety who became a monk and eventually Bishop of Trimythous (on Cyprus). In this capacity he attended the Council of Nicaea and forcefully denounced Arianism. He also used a potsherd to illustrate how one thing (a pot) could be composed of three different things (fire, water, and clay), an analogy for the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity. Whether or not this is Partialism I am not equipped to say, but a pagan philosopher was convinced by it, and by the miracle that followed: the potsherd burst into flame, water dripped on the ground, and only dust remained in Spyridon’s hand.
As a bishop Spyridon wears an omophrion, and holds a bible in one hand and makes a blessing sign with the other. A more particular attribute is the straw shepherd’s hat that he wears, a reference to his original profession and to his shepherding of his Christian flock.
One thing I like about the Pride flag is that it shows a properly stylized rainbow – the three primary colors red, yellow, and blue, and the three secondary colors orange, green, and purple, producing a flag with six horizontal stripes (preferable to vertical stripes since that’s the way a flag flies).
Of course, the spectrum contains an infinitude of colors, but showing six of them is a logical and visually appealing abstraction. But didn’t we learn in school that there were seven? Doesn’t the mnemonic “Roy G. Biv” stand for Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet? Where does this “Indigo” come from? Wikipedia informs us that:
Indigo was defined as a spectral color by Sir Isaac Newton when he divided up the optical spectrum, which has a continuum of wavelengths. He specifically named seven colors primarily to match the seven notes of a western major scale, because he believed sound and light were physically similar, and also to link colors with the (known) planets, the days of the week, and other lists that had seven items. It is accordingly counted as one of the traditional colors of the rainbow.
Ah, Newton. One of the great geniuses of the previous millennium, but still not entirely a man of science as we now understand that term. The designation of “indigo” as a color of the rainbow simply to get to the number seven seems similar to a hypothetical situation in which we decided that five is a special number, and so imagined five cardinal directions – North, East, South-East, South, and West.
But I wonder whether this seven-color Newtonian version – the product of a man who believed that the “Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect… and from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being,” as he says in the Principia – might not be a way to distinguish the rainbow for those who wish to “take it back” from the Gay Pride movement. It would certainly fit with the Christian idea that six is the number of “man” or “imperfection,” and seven the “totality of perfection” or “completeness.” So a seven-striped rainbow could be “Christian,” and a six-striped rainbow could be “gay.”
In the meantime we do wish everyone a happy Pride Month!
From the Bollandist Facebook page (hat tip: William Campbell):
21 May: The Ascension of the Lord. One of the oldest depictions of Jesus’ Ascension is an ivory plaque, produced around 400 in Rome or Milan and now kept in the Bayerische Nationalmuseum, Munich. It is contemporary to the establishment of the Feast of the Ascension and as such a unique testimony to how the theological reflection and artistic imagination regarding this mystery of faith developed. The image combines the Ascension with the Resurrection (with Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the background), but more importantly, it shows to what extent Early Christian art was a product of the Late Antique market: Christ does not ascend to heaven, but is literally given a hand by God. The Christian literati rich enough to command such a plaque would have appreciated this depiction, familiar to them from the image of the goddess Athena lifting up the hero Hercules at his apotheosis, or the coins of the consecration of Constantine, which show him ascend his chariot with his arm stretched out towards a hand from heaven. Was this association of Jesus with the demigods of this world merely an artistic devise, or did the heresy of Arianism, still rampant around 400, play a role as well?
One thing you’ll notice when you visit Rome is that classical things got preserved – if they could be Christianized in some way. It is easy to get upset at Christians for such imperialism, but their faith was perhaps stronger than ours, and the choice, for them, was either Christianization, or obliteration. Let us be glad for such things as:
• Trajan’s column being topped with a statue of St. Peter.
• The Pantheon becoming the “Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs.”
• Egyptian obelisks being crowned with crosses
• Hadrian’s Mausoleum becoming the Castel Sant’Angelo, the medieval papal safe house.
The Colosseum, alas, was not Christianized – thus its dilapidated state. Once Emperor Theodosius banned gladiatorial combat in the late fourth century, there was no use for this building, so it was used as a quarry in the Middle Ages, and you can find bits of the Colosseum in other buildings throughout Rome. It has been considered sacred by Christians as a site of martyrdom, but I’ve often felt it was a bit of a shame that there was no late antique Joel Osteen figure who would repurpose the Colosseum as a megachurch.
By the way, the official name of the Colosseum is the Flavian Amphitheater, having been built during the Flavian dynasty in the late first century A.D. The second word, “amphitheater,” is also accurate, as the theater goes all the way around (amphi = Greek for “on both sides”). Most “amphitheaters” these days are actually just theaters.
(All images Wikipedia.)
PENGLAI, China (BP)—From the Christmas offering for international missions that bears her name to movies, books and documentaries detailing her life of service, Southern Baptists often hail Lottie Moon as a missionary hero. Now Lottie Moon’s legacy will be preserved beyond Southern Baptist life.
Wulin Shenghui Church of Penglai in Shandong province, where Lottie Moon was a member during her time in Dengzhou, has been designated as a nationally protected historical and cultural site by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, the China Christian Daily reported….
“We celebrate the decision to protect this location of historical significance,” Wisdom-Martin said. “More than a century later, we still feel the impact of Lottie’s legacy that helped shape our global missionary enterprise. Her sacrifice for the sake of the gospel continues to inspire new generations to fulfill (Christ’s Great) Commission.”
Built in 1872 by Southern Baptist missionaries Tarleton and Martha Crawford, the church is still in use, with a current church membership of about 4,000. The church was closed to foreigners in the early 1900s but reopened in 1988.
WMU leaders from the United States were some of the first foreigners to visit Moon’s church once it reopened. Within the walls of the European-style building, WMU leaders discovered a monument dedicated to Moon by Chinese Christians in 1915.
More at the link.
From Facebook, some “portentous” reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire:
Whoa… that’s just like us!!! Although I question whether the Romans engaged in much “outsourcing,” or ran up much debt (this was a problem with the Roman economy – it couldn’t create debt!). And where’s “The Triumph of Christianity,” Gibbon’s main reason for the fall of the Empire (or at least of “The Closing of the Western Mind,” in Charles Freeman’s formulation)?
Speaking of the religion, here is an interesting theory by one Mark Fulton:
Mary Wellesley in the London Review of Books revisits a distinctive aspect of medieval piety:
The cell was the size of a large cupboard. There wasn’t enough room to lie down. I’d come late on a winter afternoon; the light was seeping away. What light there was came through the ‘squint’ – the small window that looked onto the sanctuary. It was a cruciform shape and through it I could see a single candle standing on the altar. I turned on the torch on my phone. In front of the squint was an oak shelf with a dark circle on its edge where the wood had been rubbed smooth. Above it was a notice that read: ‘Please put nothing on the ancient sill. This was the prayer-desk of the anchorites for several centuries.’ I knelt in front of it. If the floor had been at the same height in the medieval period, the desk would have been too high for an anchorite to rest their elbows on. Had the indentation been made by pairs of hands gripping the edge of the ledge? I wondered at those pairs of hands. This cell had been a coffin to its inhabitants – once inside, they were never to come out. They may have been buried beneath my feet, in this tiny anchorhold in the church of St Nicholas in the village of Compton in Surrey.
An anchorite or anchoress permanently encloses themselves in a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation. The word comes from the Greek ἀναχωρεῖν (‘anachorein’) meaning ‘to retire or retreat’. Anchoritism emerged in the late 11th century in tandem with a monastic reform movement and a growth in spiritual enthusiasm that is sometimes referred to as the Medieval Reformation. In the Middle Ages in England, as elsewhere in Europe, the practice was not uncommon – there were around a hundred recluses across the country in the 12th century; over the 13th century, the figure increased to two hundred. Women significantly outnumbered men, by as much as three to one.
I came out of the church into the empty churchyard. Except for the sound of passing cars, I was alone. The anchorites who had lived in the cell probably rarely felt that. Anchorites withdrew from the world in one sense, but anchored to their church, they were at the centre of community life. Anchorholds were often situated in prominent places in medieval English towns – sometimes along the routes of liturgical processions. In London there were many cells along the old city walls. As Claire Dowding has noted, they formed a ‘ring of prayer’ encircling the capital.
Life as an anchoress began with a death. On entering their cell for the first time, the recludensus (novice recluse) would climb into a grave dug inside the cell. The enclosure ritual is a piece of macabre high drama. In places the liturgy is indistinguishable from a funeral service. When the moment for enclosure arrived, the anchoress-to-be would process with the celebrant, choir and others out of the church and into the graveyard, as the choir sang ‘In paradisum deducant te angeli’ – traditionally sung as a body is conveyed to a grave. The procession would arrive at the cell built onto the side of the church, usually – in England – on the north side, where the wind was most biting and no direct sunlight fell. Some ordines (liturgical directions) state that the recludensus should pause at the opening of the cell and the bishop should say, ‘Si vult intrare, intret’ (‘if he/she wishes to go in, allow him/her to go in’). An antiphon drawn from the Book of Tobias was sung, concluding with the words, ‘Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand.’ The anchoress would then climb into the grave, where she was sprinkled with earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – and the door of the cell was bolted.
More at the link.