Thursday, May 15, 2008

Heritage Bigotry

A three centuries old pulpit in the Catholic Church of Our Lady in Dendermonde has been getting a lot of blog-play over the last week, principally among the devout believers in the great war of civilisations theory of modern geopolitics.

The pulpit was sculpted in wood around 1685 by Mattheus van Beveren, a Flemish artist too obscure to warrant his own Wikipedia page, to celebrate the victory of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Vienna on September 12, 1683. This victory was such a big deal for seventeenth century Catholicism that, in November 1683, Pope Innocent XI decreed that the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary should henceforth be celebrated either on the Sunday after the Nativity of Mary or September 12, the date of the Battle.

There are two photos of the pulpit on the internet, repeatedly copied from this post at The Brussels Journal which was published in April, 2006. The pulpit is supported by a sculpture of two angels trampling on a bearded man holding a book as if to protect it. According to Matthias Storm, author of the post:

The person subdued by the angels and having a Koran in his hands is generally thought to be Mohammed. The sculpture represents the triumph of Christianity over Islam.

The sculpture is as technically accomplished as van Beveren's statuette, Cupid on a Lion, currently in the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unlike Alfred Hrdlicka, whose 1984 tribute to Pier Paolo Pasolini (a depiction of the Last Supper as a homosexual orgy), attracted conservative ire when it was included in a recent retrospective of
his works in Vienna, van Beveren didn't 'bite the hand that saved him'. Commissioned to celebrate a triumph of Christianity over Islam, he celebrated a triumph of Christianity over Islam.

According to some, we need a lot more van Beverens, and a lot fewer Alfred Hrdlickas, in our troubled modern age. If we can't have more van Beverens, we can have the next best thing. Like The Brussels Journal ('the voice of conservatism in Europe') we can acknowledge our proud heritage of anti-Islamic art, by posting the really good stuff on the internet, bringing it into the global purview. Eventually we might get noticed by the denizens of that other civilisation who will be obliging enough to remind us of the superiority of our own civilisation by taking aggressive offence at the published pictures. This week, a mere two years after the original publication of the pulpit photos that finally happened:

Belgian police is protecting a 17th century pulpit in the Flemish town of Dendermonde. The pulpit in the Catholic church of Our Lady dates from 1685, two years after the battle of Vienna when the Christian armies of the Polish King John III Sobieski defeated the Turks poised to overrun Europe. The sculpted wooden pulpit, made by Mattheus van Beveren, depicts a man subdued by angels and represents the triumph of Christianity over Islam. The man is generally thought to be Mohammed. He is holding a book which is generally assumed to be the Koran.

Two years ago, on April 16, 2006, during the height of the Danish cartoon affair, this website published a photo of the pulpit to show that there is a long tradition of depicting Mohammed in European iconography. Last Friday the Turkish newspaper Yeniçag reprinted our picture on its front page with the caption “Stop this hideous insult.” Yeniçag demands that Belgium remove the pulpit. The paper writes that “We have had the crusades and now they are still trying to humiliate us. This is as bad as the Danish cartoons and Geert Wilders’s Fitna movie in the Netherlands. Even Pope Benedict does nothing to stop these humiliations.” (bold added)

The rationale for publishing the photos of the pulpit (in bold) wasn't stated in Matthias Storm's original post, nor was there any discussion of the Danish cartoon affair.

The result of Yenicag's complaint has been the revival of that "long tradition of depicting Mohammed in European iconography" with the pulpit photo turning up on various conservative web-sites, usually with an amusing caption - amusing, that is, to any non-muslim who doesn't quickly tire of of reading the same shiatsu joke repeatedly rephrased.

The proper response for a citizen of any of the countries comprising 'Western Civilisation' is obvious: we must denounce the staff and publishers of Yenicaq and the religion which inspired their demands, creating the need for police protection of the church housing the pulpit. The lads at The Brussels Journal must be lauded as heroic defenders of western values. The publication of the photos on the net must be defended as a legitimate exercise of the democratic right of free speech (which it is) rather than decried as a rather silly and obvious provocation (which it also is). The thought that Van Beveren's sculpture is merely a crude piece of 17th century political and religious propaganda which would be much improved by an infestation of art-loving woodworms is not to be entertained. Like the statues of Ecclesia and Sinagoga on the walls of Paris's Notre Dame it's a part of our Western heritage, to be cherished and defended.

As for the people at Yenicag and their co-religionists, they very obviously need to bring their thinking up to date, and recognise that while demeaning caricatures used to be part of some Christian iconography, us Westerners had that Enlightenment thing and now we're completely over that stuff - give or take the occasional relapse.

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