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Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Fall of Saint Peter's

It begins with a single ominous crack which appears high overhead in the arched roof. For a few moments all is still, and it seems as if nothing further will happen, and that this negligible damage will be confined to nothing that a plasterer could not fix. But these few silent moments are the calm before the storm. Another snaking crack appears, and another, as the monolithic building is hastily evacuated. Then with a noise like gunshots most of the roof gives way, sliding in a welter of dust and crumbling masonry to the cold marble floor below…

The Fall of Saint Peter's
Supposing that there was an institution whose influence was as wide as the world. Supposing that, to achieve that influence and to consolidate its dominance on the stage of history, this institution had slaughtered [1]millions. Supposing that to further silence any dissenting voices, it had initiated a [2]body drawn from its own ranks which imprisoned and tortured both men, women and children, and that this body had continued its practices, not for months, nor even for years, but for long centuries. And supposing that those within its hierarchy had been, and continue to be, responsible through sexual abuse for ruining thousands of the young lives of those entrusted to its care, and that these perpetrators enjoy the [3]tacit protection of the very hierarchy to which they themselves belong. Now suppose that this institution presumes to found itself upon the rock of religious moral values, and continues to flourish even today.

“Though the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting,
With exactness grinds he all.” 

…wrote Henry Wordsworth Longfellow in his poem Retribution. My above painting is not so much a fanciful prophesy as what I see as a future inevitability. But the painting is also a metaphor, an image of justice come home, and in that sense is real enough. And if the Sistine Chapel with its iconic writhing frescoes of plodding scriptural literalism is destroyed along with it, then you will see a smile on my face.

[1] The Record of History: Do not think to protest that this is an exaggeration. This total collectively includes Gnostics, Cathars (Cathar mortality at the hands of Papal forces accounts for one million deaths alone), Waldensians, Manichaeans, Paulicians, Templars and those of any denominational faith or any individuals which the Papal office perceived as a threat to its own power base. There can be no denying what already has happened, what already is a part of recorded history.

[2] The Inquisition: Originally founded in the 12th-century and run by the Dominican brotherhood, the Inquisition (left), which was little more than repressed sexual sadism and pseudo-pious sanctimony masquerading as a watchdog of the faith, persisted in one form or another up until as late as the 18th-century, making any belief which it decided was a heresy punishable by death - and at times even beyond death, with the Inquisition even exhuming the bodies of the accused and putting the corpses on trial: a grim legal ploy which allowed the assets of their surviving family to be seized by the Church authorities. The Inquisition as an institutionalized Church body survives even today under the pretentiously-titled Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. As Voltaire dryly observed, the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

[3] Targets for Excommunication: Archbishop Desmond Tutu has stated that tacit inaction in the presence of injustice is to participate actively in that injustice. Were the Papal office to assert its moral authority (assuming that it has any) and vigorously excommunicate the offending pedophile priests, it would send a clear message to others. It does not do so, being content in many such cases merely to shuffle the offenders from diocese to diocese, which only relocates the crime and offers potential new victims to the perpetrators. Rather, it targets for excommunication such individuals as Father Roy Bourgeois (right), who already had devoted over four decades of his life to his church. Father Bourgeois’ unforgivable offence? Proposing the ordination of women as priests.

How Saint Peter's was built: It is worth noting that the building of Saint Peter's was originally paid for by the sale of indulgences: the corrupt buying-off of worldly sins by individuals making payments to priests and others in the Church hierarchy. Source: The Role of Indulgences in the Building of New Saint Peter’s Basilica (2011): Ginny Justice, Master of Liberal Studies thesis, Rollins College.

Stop Press: Today's news carries the announcement that, having been fast-tracked with near-breakneck haste to sainthood, John Paul II (left) is due to be canonized on 27th of this month. This is the man who during his papacy refused to sign a document formally pardoning Giordano Bruno, and who also during the same term of office wrote an apostolic letter denying women the right to hold any positions of rank within the Church hierarchy: a judgement which the letter concludes is to be 'definitively held'. In other words: forever.

Note added April 28, 2014: Now that the event mentioned in my stop press has taken place, I'll add that the Church body named in note [2] above as being the contemporary equivalent of the Inquisition was run during John Paul II's term of office by... yes... Cardinal Ratzinger, who succeeded him as Pope Benedict XVI. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lilith: Spirit of the Night

She is a demon. She is a monster, a wraith, a vampire. She is everything you fear when the sun dips down below the horizon and your world slides into darkness. Both scorned and feared by men, her name is Lilith, the spirit of the night.

Lilith: Spirit of the Night
This is the way in which Lilith has traditionally been portrayed in folklore, and it is an image which endures into popular culture even today. Goth, metal and post-rock bands continue to get mileage out of referencing her in lyrics, and she has reached our own age via the Romantics of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, who were happy-enough to turn her into an alluring Victorian femme fatale. At times her identity has been blended with that of Lamia, that other predatory being of legend, half serpent, half female. But how did this legend begin?

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Book of Genesis is that, in just its first two chapters, it relates two separate and conflicting accounts of the creation of the first humans. Chapter Two is the familiar version of God forming Eve from a rib of the comatose Adam. But in the previous chapter the first couple, who now remain unnamed, are created at the same time, and from the same prima materia. It might at first seem like a minor adjustment to this story, for such stories already were an inherited oral tradition, and must have varied with subsequent retellings. But this difference has impacted folklore, and spawned a legend.

This Babylonian relief carving of a winged and bird-footed female is a reminder that Hebrew texts were influenced by the lands of Hebrew exile. In Babylonian beliefs lilitu were a class of female demons.
Later Jewish folklore names the nameless woman in Chapter One (which also is the first chapter in the Jewish Torah) as Lilith, the first wife of Adam. Since Lilith is created in the same moment as Adam, she is not, as Eve was, formed from a part of Adam’s flesh. Eve, who was Woman, already was a second-generation product. Lilith contrastingly is an autonomous being, and as such is in every way Adam’s equal. Adam expects his new mate to be subservient, also in her sexual role. Lilith has other ideas, and protests mightily both to God and to Adam that she also has rights and expectations. Having scorned both man and deity, Lilith storms off into the night. Unlike Eve, Lilith is not ejected from Eden. Instead she keeps the power to herself, and leaves of her own volition.

Two Victorian lamias (left, by John William Waterhouse, and right, by Herbert Draper) both draped in the shed skins of their serpent selves.
In her wanderings and in legend, Lilith becomes a creature of the darkness associated with vampires, monsters and night spirits: associations which have endured into contemporary popular culture. But whatever she has become since, in folklore she originally was Adam’s equal partner – a state of affairs about which both God and Adam apparently had regretful second thoughts. The all-too-masculine deity did not make that mistake twice, and with the feisty and assertive Lilith out of the picture, Eve was created to be subservient to the man.

This serpent-entwined version of Lilith by John Collier would seem to be little more than an excuse for some exotic Victorian titillation.
Lilith’s punishment for doing nothing more than assert her equal gender rights was to be transformed in folklore into a predator of the darkness. It seems that what men feel threatened by, what invokes male insecurity, is not so much a woman’s sexuality, as a woman’s sexual autonomy. What also seems to be underscored by Lilith’s story is another simple but stark reality: that although we might not know the identities of the writers of these ancient texts of scripture and folklore, their pro-male story lines are in themselves enough to persuade us that they were written by men.

Lilith: Spirit of the Night painted for this post by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved. For those interested in the sources of such things: the geomantic symbols which are painted on the body of my model are those meaning 'great good fortune' - a visual statement which I feel in itself redresses in some small measure the gender injustice of these pro-male stories which have become so entrenched in our culture, whether or not we are 'believers'.

Babylonian carving: British Museum, London. The blue on the manes of the two beasts is the original surviving pigment with which this carving was painted. Lamia, by John William Waterhouse, 1909 (collection untraced). Lamia, by Herbert Draper, 1910 (collection untraced). Lilith, by John Collier, 1892, in the Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport, England.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What The Fire Said

An Arrow already in Flight
From our distant past to mysterious futures, from sirens of the seas to contemporary sorcery: the silence of abandoned cities, echoes of ancient myths, prophesies and oracles – and even my own portrayal of Dracula - can all be found on my new weblog What The Fire Said, the online portal which features my own art and writing. For those interested, the site also includes articles on the techniques which I use to create my art. You are welcome to visit, and if you enjoy what you see, you are of course always welcome to become a follower and return to view the new work which I shall be adding.