Hagia Sophia

Tom Madden in First Things:

Hagia Sophia’s transformation into a museum in the 1930s was in large part due to an American socialite and fundraiser, Thomas Whittemore. With support from Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., Whittemore obtained permission from the Turkish government to uncover and restore the medieval mosaics of Hagia Sophia. Beautiful depictions of Christ, the Virgin, saints, and emperors arose gloriously from their centuries-old plaster prisons. Armed with cameras and a good head for publicity, Whittemore brought the sublime images of forgotten Constantinople to an astonished world. 

President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, took a keen interest in these discoveries. Atatürk was determined to modernize Turkey, bringing it out of its medieval past. That meant, among other things, distancing the new Republic of Turkey from the old Ottoman Empire. He had already moved the capital from imperial Constantinople, and even changed the name of the city to Istanbul. He had also opened Topkapi Palace to tourists. Transforming the sultans’ old mosque into a museum fit perfectly into that program. In 1934 the Turkish Council of Ministers declared Hagia Sophia to be no longer a mosque, but “a unique architectural monument of art.” And so it remained, until last week.

Some have suggested that the decision to make Hagia Sophia a mosque fits with the statue toppling and cancel culture in the U.S. and Europe. But it is really just a political move. As his popularity among moderates and progressives has faltered, President Erdoğan has become increasingly reliant on rural Islamic conservatives to keep him in power. They have always cherished hopes of reverting Hagia Sophia to a mosque, as they believe Atatürk’s reforms betrayed Islam in a bid for Western acceptance. In the most recent elections, Erdoğan lost the majority in Istanbul. So this decision, loved in the countryside but hated by progressives in the big city, both rewards the president’s supporters and punishes his enemies.

Like all buildings of such age, the history of Hagia Sophia is complicated. For nine centuries it was a church, for nearly five centuries a mosque, and for almost one century a museum. It has been the site of unparalleled beauty and unspeakable horrors. The history of the West is bound up in that remarkable building. It should not be reduced to a pawn in a political campaign. Hagia Sophia should no more be a mosque than the Parthenon should be restored to the worship of Athena. These are shared historical monuments, where people of diverse backgrounds can see our common human experience. The world has plenty of churches and mosques. Let Hagia Sophia be Hagia Sophia.

The Apotheosis of St. Louis

Tom Madden in First Things (hat tip: Matt Phillips):

As a medieval historian, I always cringe when medieval people are judged by modern standards. Their world was very different from our own. Yet the virtue and piety of St. Louis IX of France have always seemed to transcend his age. The crimes leveled against him in this petition are at best misleading. Although praiseworthy today, religious toleration was regarded as dangerous in the Middle Ages. Yet Louis IX (unlike other medieval rulers) still obeyed the Catholic Church’s admonition that Jews were not to be harmed. Like St. Paul, Louis hoped for the conversion of the Jews. Indeed, more than once he served as a godfather for the baptism of a converted Jew. From a modern perspective, Louis’s part in the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1240 is indefensible and certainly constitutes persecution. The theologians at the University of Paris—the best minds of their age—judged that the Talmud contained heresy and blasphemous references to Jesus. From Louis’s medieval (not modern) perspective, it was a threat to his kingdom and a hindrance to the conversion of the Jews. That does not excuse it. Louis followed the advice of churchmen, yet as St. John Paul II eloquently expressed it, those churchmen made grave errors. The pope sought pardon for “the sins committed by not a few (Catholics) against the people of the Covenant.” He continued, “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.”…

Left unmentioned by Louis’s modern detractors is his lifelong devotion to issues of social justice in a world that cared little for such ideas. At his own expense, he continually paid to feed and clothe hundreds of Paris’s poor. Every evening he shared the royal table with local homeless and usually insisted that he wash their feet before they left. He established several hospitals for the poor and homes for battered women and ex-prostitutes. He personally visited lepers and washed their sores. After his humiliation in Egypt, Louis refused to don the rich regalia of the French crown, dressing simply and living humbly for the rest of his life. He was the sort of person, like Mother Teresa or John Paul II, whose reputation for piety and virtue was so great that contemporaries had no doubt he would one day be a saint. He was canonized in a record 27 years.

Read the whole thing. My own photo of the statue

UPDATE

An update to a recent post: according to an article in the Daily Mail, the depiction of St. Michael as used by the Order of St. Michael and St. George was changed in 2011 to make the devil more light-skinned. Click the link to see before and after images of the new design. But people like Sir Michael Palin, KCMG, are still opposing it currently because it’s too reminiscent of the death of George Floyd and police brutality in general. 

Time to make Satan more dragon-like, I guess. Or would that be bad too? Would it be reminiscent of the gratuitous killing of wild animals that Tony Blair tried to curtail with his anti- hunting laws? Then they could go after St. George, too!

I suppose I shouldn’t give them any ideas…

Flag of Mississippi

News of the Times: Mississippi’s Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann says: 

I, like the majority of Mississippians, am open to changing our current flag.

In my mind, our flag should bear the Seal of the Great State of Mississippi and state “In God We Trust.”  I am open to bringing all citizens together to determine a banner for our future.

An illustration accompanying the article shows what such a flag might look like:

Mississippi Business Journal.

But we feel compelled to state that this is not a good design! A seal does not make for a good flag. This isn’t quite a SOAB (“seal on a bedsheet”), as so many state flags are – Mr. Hosemann has retained the tricolor background of the current Mississippi flag (although note that Missouri also has such a flag). But a seal is detailed and intricate and belongs on official documents or on the wall behind the governor as he takes questions from reporters, not on a flag, which should be “so simple that a child can draw it from memory.” On that front, the Stennis flag has this flag beaten hands down.

UPDATE (7/22): This is in fact Mississippi’s Bicentennial Flag, used in the celebrations in 2017 and in some instances as a de facto placeholder with the retirement of the most recent Mississippi flag on June 30. 

Wikipedia.

Apparently the Stennis Flag now has an official status as Mississippi’s “hospitality flag,” and you can get it on a license plate. I reckon that it’s only a matter of time before it becomes Mississippi’s official state flag.

Wikipedia.

I still prefer the Magnolia flag as a design, although it’s probably too Confederate for current taste. It is a version of Mississippi’s secession flag, and was used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the nineteenth century. (Georgia might have been able to adopt a version of the first national flag of the CSA in 2003, but I doubt that such a thing could happen today.) 

Wikipedia.

It’s a shame that this flag lost a referendum in 2001. It retains the horizontal tricolor of the current flag, but eliminates the Confederate battle flag on the canton for an array of twenty stars (the large central one for Mississippi, the other nineteen for previously admitted states to the Union, as in the Stennis flag). 

“Kindly Call Me God”

The Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George was established in 1818 by the Prince Regent, who two years later became King George IV. It was an aspect of Britain’s meddling in the Mediterranean following the defeat of Napoleon, and used to recognize British allies in the region. People are now appointed to it for “extraordinary or important non-military service in a foreign country” or “important or loyal service in relation to foreign and Commonwealth affairs.” For instance, those prime ministers of Canada who received knighthoods (e.g. Abbot, Thompson, Laurier, or Borden) were mostly Knights Grand Cross or Knights Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.* It has everything one expects in a British order of chivalry: a chapel (in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London) with stall plates, crests, and banners, elaborate costumes, regalia, and rituals, a motto-circlet for a member’s coat of arms, and various officers with quaint names (e.g. chancellor, King of Arms, or Gentleman Usher of the Blue Rod).

Wikipedia.

I do not know why the order was dedicated to St. Michael and St. George in particular (nor why a winged lion – the symbol of St. Mark – appears on the order’s collar).† Obviously Michael and George are warrior saints, although the Order is more for diplomats than soldiers. In its regalia the order seems to alternate between depicting St. Michael and St. George, as shown above in the sketch of the badge and star of a Knight Commander: St. George is on the badge, St. Michael on the star. 

Wikipedia.

Here is a better rendition of the Order’s star, in this case for a Knight Grand Cross. Note that in this one St. Michael actually has wings, given that he is an angel. Note also what St. Michael is standing on, which became controversial this past week. From the Guardian:

Campaigners are calling for the redesign of one of Britain’s highest honours personally bestowed by the Queen because they say its badge resembles a depiction of a white angel standing on the neck of a chained black man.

The Order of St Michael and St George is traditionally awarded to ambassadors and diplomats and senior Foreign Office officials who have served abroad. 

The imagery on the award’s badge portrays St Michael trampling on Satan, but campaigners say the image is reminiscent of the killing of George Floyd by white police officers in the US that led to worldwide protests.

Both St. Michael and St. George kill dragons, but because St. Michael specifically killed the “old serpent, that is called the devil, and Satan,” his dragon is often more humanoid than St. George’s dragon.** An old post on this blog intended to illustrate different versions of St. Michael’s coat of arms also illustrates the variety of creatures that he subdues, some of which look like proper dragons, others of which look more like men (although grotesque). It is unfortunate that the Order’s standard depiction of the dragon is both humanoid and dark, while St. Michael himself is light-skinned, which is not a model we want for contemporary race relations. And in general, it is most unfortunate that one of the side effects of mediating reality through sight, as humans do, is that in many cultures lightness is “good” and darkness is “bad.” If you’ve got light you can see, if you don’t you can’t – thus does light come to be identified with knowledge and awareness, and darkness with ignorance and insecurity. Note the Roman anxieties about nighttime, reflected in their laws. Furthermore, in a time before the widespread availability of bleach it was expensive and difficult to keep white garments looking white, thus is whiteness associated with status and cleanliness. Such things have, unfortunately, influenced the reception of human skin tone. Although the amount of melanin in one’s skin is purely an evolutionary artifact of one’s ancestors’ exposure to sunlight, those with lighter skin found it flattering to believe that they were morally good in a way that those with darker skin were not. (Traditionally, among white people darker skin also indicated that one worked outdoors, and thus had less status than someone who got to stay inside – only with the advent of jet travel to sunny climes in winter did suntans become fashionable for white people.) In this way did Early Modern Europeans come to justify their version of slavery – it might be bad, but it’s not quite as bad to enslave those people, who are clearly morally inferior. It is true that in the European Middle Ages, some saints were regularly depicted as black, showing that Europeans knew about the subsaharan phenotype and that they believed that its possessors were capable of sanctity and salvation. But it is also true that they regularly depicted the devil and his minions as black, in a general reflection of the cultural significance of that color. Courtesy Paul Halsall, here are two images illustrating this phenomenon:

I think that this artistic convention has seen its day, and I am absolutely not against redrawing the dragon as it regularly appears in the insignia of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. Make it more dragon-like, or keep it human and make it some other color – green, perhaps. Heck, make St. Michael himself black! There’s no reason why he can’t be. It’s not a bad thing to dissociate “white” from “good” and “black” from “bad.”

Pinterest.

***

The post title is from a joke about the supposed arrogance of membership of the Order, deriving from the post-nominals for the three grades: CMG (Companion), KCMG (Knight Commander), and GCMG (Knight Grand Cross), which are jocularly interpreted to mean “Call me God,” “Kindly call me God,” and “God calls me God.” 

* Though note that Sir John A. Macdonald was a Knight Grand Cross of the Bath, and you can see his stall plate in Westminster Abbey. He was appointed to the Bath just before the Victorian expansion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George beyond its Mediterranean origins.

† UPDATE: The seven Ionian islands, under British protection from 1815, had been part of the Venetian Republic until the 1790s; St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice. According to The Gazette, the Order’s badge:

showed St George for England on one side, with the Archangel St Michael trampling on Satan on the other, in an allusion to Napoleon being crushed by the allied powers. Both saints were surrounded by the motto auspicium melioris aevi, which is usually rendered as ‘token of a better age’, and perhaps reflected [Secretary of State for War Henry] Bathurst’s hope for the future of his Mediterranean enterprise when he signed the founding patent in 1818.

** Revelation 12:7-9: “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

Parallels

I was asked to contribute to a blog post on how medievalists are doing in these troubled times. Here’s what I came up with:

*** 

Medievalists, particularly American medievalists, are usually starved for attention. They must work very hard to convince other people that their subject is relevant. So when the country is under coronavirus quarantine, they naturally bring up parallels with the Black Death of the fourteenth century, which can provide illuminating insights or at least comic relief. A friend claimed that he and his family were hunkered down, “telling a story a day to each other,” like the characters in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Another jokingly announced:

Hmm, just got a thing from a local church. They’re organizing a large group of Christians to publicly pray for mercy and strike themselves with belts and other things to show that they mean it. If it goes well locally, they plan on organizing a march of penance to other towns and cities.

But presumably this neo-Flagellant group is not going to proceed to a local Jewish neighborhood and beat up the inhabitants there, for allegedly poisoning the wells. Because, let’s be honest: a study of history often makes one very grateful to be living in the time and place that one does. We know that this pestilence is caused by a virus, and we know how it spreads; we can even come up with vaccines against it, which eventually we will. No more messing around with astrology, humorism, or aromatherapy, as the poor medievals did. We might study the Middle Ages, but I doubt any one of us actually wants to return to them.

Although, if there is one interesting parallel between Yersinia Pestis and SARS-CoV-2, it is how the spread of both microbes was abetted by international trade. The Black Death got to Europe over the Silk Road; our outsourcing of most manufacturing to China has given us lots of cheap stuff to buy, but it is also the means by which a local outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan became an international sensation. This is an unintended price of globalism – and a good reason to consider bringing home some of the things we’ve outsourced to China.

Majoring in History

From The Conversation:

Don’t despair if your teen wants to major in history instead of science

It might be your worst nightmare. Your child, sitting at the kitchen table, slides you a brochure from the local university.

“I’ve been thinking of majoring in history.”

Before you panic and begin calling the nearest computer science department, or worse, begin to crack those tired barista jokes, hear me out. This might just be the thing that your child, and our society, needs.

Choosing to become a history major is a future-friendly investment. A history degree teaches skills that are in short supply today: the ability to interpret context, and — crucially — where we’ve been, so as to better understand the world around us today and tomorrow.

We’ve never needed knowledge of history and the skills that come with the discipline more than we do now. Not only is it a good choice of a major for all the usual selfish reasons — you’ll likely get a good job, even if it takes a bit longer than the STEM disciplines, and more importantly you’ll probably be very happy with it.

But for our society more generally, we need a generation with deep capacities to acknowledge context and ambiguity. This idea of ambiguity not only pertains to interpreting the past based on a diverse body of incomplete sources, voices and outcomes, but also how our contemporary judgements of that record shape our choices today.

Our whole society hurts when students turn their back on history. A sense of history — where we have come from, the shared anchors of democratic society, the why and how of our current moment in time — is critical.

Read the whole thing.

Venice

My friend Roisin Cossar writes on The Conversation about the recent floods in Venice:

The city of Venice was recently hit by the worst flooding in more than 50 years. Water in the lagoon that surrounds the city rose 1.87 metres higher than normal, very close to the peak levels of the disastrous flood of Nov. 4, 1966. High winds of nearly 100 kilometres an hour made the situation even worse.

The city’s pedestrian streets became rushing rivers of brackish water, boats were thrown onto walkways and the crypt of the basilica of San Marco was submerged. The damage is still being tallied, but the mayor currently estimates restoration costs at more than 1 billion euros. As a historian of Venice who has spent long periods living and working in the city, I followed the stories of the damage with growing sadness and dismay.

Then I reminded myself that the international community has always responded with great concern to cataclysms in Venice. Assistance from across the world in the aftermath of the 1966 flood allowed the restoration of dozens of damaged monuments, paintings and sculptures, as well as the creation of foundations that still work to benefit the city’s artistic treasures.

Why does Venice attract so much international attention compared to other cities? I’ve been pondering this question. The city is an undeniably beautiful place, and many tourists remark on the haunting lights and sounds of a city built entirely on water, with no vehicular traffic.

But Venice is also a place with a long tradition of convincing outsiders of its uniqueness. This tradition may continue to shape the way the world sees the city today, and could be what ends up helping the city survive.

More at the link

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Thomas MacMaster writes, in reference to a recent death in Syria:

Am I the only one startled to see the lack of discussion over the death of a world famous scholar of the medieval world (BA, MA, & PhD as well as numerous publications) who probably did more to weaponize medieval studies in the past decade than anyone else?

We should also acknowledge his leadership of one of the largest medieval re-enactment groups (with a serious commitment to using the digital humanities for outreach).

He makes a good point…

A Recent Local Event

Near where I live is a mosque, called the “Masjid Quba.” It is in a strip mall on GA-20, off I-75. They have a sign over their storefront, and a two-part sign on the strip mall index by the road. The top reads “Masjid Quba” and the bottom is in Arabic script.

Or rather, was. As I drove by today I noticed that “Masjid Quba” had been removed, and only part of the Arabic script sign remained.

And on the other side, the Arabic was completely gone, although “Masjid Quba” remained.

Were they moving out? Probably not – Pakiza Grocery and Chuska Restaurant are no longer in the strip mall, yet their signs are still up.

The broken sign at the foot of the index indicates violent removal.

Could it have been the wind? Not likely – for the wind to take out both sides of the same sign, while leaving everything else intact, would make for a very freak wind.

The fact that one broken part of the fallen “Masjid Quba” sign was placed directly in front of the mosque’s entrance suggests that human agents were responsible, and that this represents an act of vandalism. The metal pole in the photo above was likely the instrument used.

So what is going on? A friend thinks they did it to themselves to get sympathy. Another posits that it was intra-Muslim factional violence, or that they may have owed money to someone.

But given the fact that this was directed against a mosque, in a part of the country where the overwhelming religion is evangelical Christianity, suggests that it is an example of what the newspapers call a “hate crime.” If so, it is rather disappointing.

And, I regret to say, it’s not first time that the Masjid Quba has been targeted:

Mosque Vandalism Includes ‘Racial Slurs’

The Bartow County Sheriff’s Office and FBI are investigating possible hate crimes.

By Brande Poulnot, Patch Staff | Apr 15, 2011 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has stepped in to assist detectives in determining whether acts of vandalism at the are hate crimes, which are federal offenses, Sgt. Jonathan Rogers said.

The mosque twice has been the target of vandals in the past few weeks. The first incident, on March 18 or 19, involved messages such as “Muslim Murders” and what deputies called racial slurs.

The morning of March 19, a worker at an adjacent business noticed several windows had been smashed along the front of the building on Merchants Square. Two messages, including a drawing of the Star of David, had been written on the windows, and concrete and bricks that had apparently been thrown through the windows contained “racial slurs,” according to the incident report.

In the second incident, deputies Tuesday retrieved four large rocks used to damage the center the previous night or early that morning. Four glass doors and windows in the front of the building were damaged.

Of course, this is pretty small potatoes on the grand scheme of things. Muslims in Cartersville, Georgia do not have nearly as much to worry about as, say, the Copts in Egypt do. But it’s still an ugly and shameful incident. It’s a free country, dammit! Their rights are your rights. Don’t do stuff like this!

ADDENDUM

I snapped this picture in 2015, of a church sign on GA-140, illustrating an attitude that (I guess) is all too common around here. Of course, the fact that Muhammad is dead is the entire point of Islam, and I still maintain that you don’t need to run down someone else’s religion in order to promote your own, especially in a place where the only presence of that religion is single mosque in a strip mall.