Monday, 1 June 2015

A Short History of Terror

Throughout the Charlie Hebdo outrage and its aftermath earlier in the year, pundits in their desire to defend Islam often pointed our attention to the depredations of Christianity over the ages: the Crusades; the Inquisition; the 30 Years War; the conquest of the Americas. When it came to savagery, they bewailed, few religions could hold a candle to your fervent Christian, who would slash, burn and massacre everything in his path.

Ah, came the counter-response, these are all matters of the remote historical past. Christianity has now moved on, matured, lost its bloody zeal, acquired sense, tranquillity and good order. Most British Christians hardly believe half of it all anyway, they are only in it for the carols, and tea and cake at the vicarage on a Sunday. Show me today the militant Christians ready to inflict terror on the world like the extremists of Islam?

There is something to these arguments. Yet in the end for me it's not really a question of whether historically Christianity has been more or less bloody-thirsty than Islam. What people in the West tend to forget is that a reinterpretation of the Christian narrative is central to the very genesis of Islam.

Terror is I think intrinsic to the historical legacy of Judaism and Christianity, impinging on the psyche of people in the West from a very early age. Yet I am also intrigued at how a re-interpretation of that 'terror' has manifested itself in the Islamic world.

Let me start off with my own small universe. As a little Catholic boy in England, the figure of Jesus writhing in agony on a crucifix was the dominating image of my childhood, an image I was subjected to constantly in my primary school classrooms and in weekly masses at church. Before I could hardly form sentences, this intense horror was my constant companion. I was soon informed that it was all my fault: I was guilty and Our Lord had died to redeem my sins...

This terror was forever planted in my psyche, such that no amount of rationalizing could ever quite wash it away. I'm keen however that my own children will not be exposed to the same abuse. Even in today's secular age however, it's surprisingly difficult to keep an impressionable young mind away from a sudden avalanche of religious terror.

Let me give you an example. The other day my 6-year-old son happened upon a mounted reproduction of Leonardo's 'Last Supper' given to me as a gift by my grandmother for my first Holy Communion when I was 7.

'I know this picture, Daddy' he said. 'We learnt about it at school. It was made by someone whose name begins with a L...'

'That's right', I marvelled. 'Leonardo! Like one of the turtles.' (6-year-olds see the world refracted through a lens held up by Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles.)

'My friend T says that he cut off his ear and shot himself.'

'No, no, darling. That was Van Gogh.'

(Looking at the picture) 'And one of them did something quite naughty to Jesus...'

'Oh, that was Judas...'

'And what happened to him?'

'He hung, he got quite sad and died.'

'And what happened to Jesus?'

'Er, he was cru....he died too.'

I was thankful he didn't ask me what happened to all the other apostles: crucified, beheaded, crucified upside down (image by Michelangelo below) ...Is there any religion in the history of the world that is as brutal in its iconography as Christianity? In Britain, I rarely take my children into churches but while on holiday in Spain recently, I frequently entered churches only to be confronted with ghastly images of nails being hammered into Christ's feet, blood dripping from his crown of thorns, a soldier plunging a lance into his side. My children wanted to know why poor Jesus was constantly being savagely tortured in this way (Flagellation scene by Cranach the Elder below). At the time the best secular response I could muster was, 'He was a man of ideas, darling, and people didn't like that', but a more accurate response would be, 'Because the Church wishes to terrorize your imagination and fill it with horrors'.

I had always thought that the one advantage I had over those people such as my partner who had a completely religious-less education ('Who was this King James who wrote the Bible?', she once asked) was that at least I could make sense of the history of Western art. How could you navigate your way round the Italian quattrocento and quintocento without a solid Catholic education?

But now, I've moved on. Who after all would want to look at any of these pictures anyway? Endless gallery rooms filled with excruciating Grunewald-esque crucifixions, occasionally enlivened with a St. Sebastian studded with arrows, or a scene of flagellation or flaying. And don't forget the Massacre of the Innocents (early version by Giotto below) and the beheading of John the Baptist (below, 19th century version by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes). Sudden exposure to the brutal iconography of Christianity can be almost as shocking as watching the obscene images of torture produced by Islamic State - and for good reason because they are both inspired by similar sources.

There is however a key difference. In the post-Jesus, Christian version of terror, it is the victim - the Imitation of Christ - who is the stoical, indomitable hero, looking forward after unspeakable suffering to the rewards of virtue in the after life. This is what Nietzsche referred to as 'ressentiment', the canny ability of turning seeming defeat into transcendent moral victory.

But for the Moslems, the Christians were just kidding themselves: Jesus, despite being a great prophet, was not 'resurrected' at all, he was simply murdered by his Roman oppressors. To bring justice to the world, they argued, force had to be met with force. To watch the obscene torture images of the IS fanatics is like strangely reliving the medieval images of Christianity but with the torturers now cast in their own minds as heroes.

But Christianity too was only glorying in self-sacrifice in its post-Jesus aspect; it, like Islam, also drew on the cultural legacy of Judaism. Concurrent with the New Testament version of 'transcendence through torture and sacrifice', in utter contradiction Christian art also turned for inspiration to the Old Testament. Here, it was always the purveyors of divine terror who were the heroes: Abraham sacrificing his son Issac (below); Judith cutting off Holofernes' head (below); David slaying Goliath (at top, all three versions by Caravaggio).

Catholic churches have always teemed with this type of ultra-violent imagery. Confusingly some images are a straight-forward glorification of violence, while others are supposed to offer a critique - though in truth the artists were mostly just interested in a juicy subject matter. It's hardly surprising if the Christian observer missed any supposed subtleties: the brutal images were transposed to a corner of the psyche, waiting to be awakened and re-enacted, often, ironically, in the defence of the faith and particularly when encountering so-called 'heretics'.

My flippant self has to laugh when I hear priests opine that Christian values don't approve of all the sex and violence in the movies and on the internet. Huh, I groan, it's all utterly amateurish in comparison to the extraordinary pornography of violence and sadism available at many churches and art galleries.

It's too late for my brutalized soul, but I do wish my young children to avoid looking at and contemplating these grotesqueries.

If we search for the cause of the appalling atrocities currently being committed by Islamic State, then the brutality of the US-UK Coalition's bungling and unnecessary invasion of Iraq is certainly a contributory cause. But the way in which those atrocities manifest themselves with Old Testament-style beheadings shows that far from this being a 'clash of civilizations', IS is actually an abhorrent aberration of a religious culture with which we are in our own not-too-distant historical past all too familiar.

If you want to get inside the mindset of an IS fanatic, you don't need to travel to Syria, just try wandering through the Medieval and Renaissance Europe section of your local art gallery...

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