Monday, October 27, 2008

Religious Visual Art in Konstantini: Iconography and Blasphemy

I study dead religions. They’re fun. But I still see and think about living religion all the time. On the trips, we’ve randomly seen a great deal of interesting things relating to religion in practice, and so I thought I’d make a few posts over the next few months on the more noteworthy or quirky or freaky things we’ve come across. I’ll start with one of my favorite works of religious art here in Greece so far.

During Trip II, we visited a small church in the town of Konstantini because it had a very important Lex Sacra built into the wall of the entrance. Dan Leon gave his site report on the ancient decree (from Andania), which has some very valuable information about ancient Messenian religion and mystery cults. Besides the ancient stuff, one of my favorite things was this picture, framed and hung on the door of the small church. The text accompanying the image says basically: “Don’t Blasphemy.” It details all the horrible things that will befall those who do so.

What I especially love about it is the iconography. What does it tell us about blasphemy and those who practice it? Here’s my art historical approach to the pic. First, let’s see what it actually shows. Jesus hangs upon the cross. At the base kneels a soldier, hands clasped in prayer and head bowed, eyes closed. His gun has been laid at his side and his helmet rests before him – he seems to have come straight from the Front. He has short-cropped hair and is clean shaven. As a soldier he is a brave young man defending his people from evil; he is pious and correct, humble and thankful. But behind him is his mirror opposite.

Another young man, decked out in the latest fashion, moves towards the peaceful scene. He has long hair and enormous side burns. His pants flair at the bottom. His demeanor is loud, he struts about, his head is raised defiantly towards Jesus, rather than lowered as it presumably should be. He looks like a spoiled city brat, a late night drinker, the kind of man who hangs with less-than-demure women. He clearly lacks any discipline whatsoever and wastes his time doing frivolous things while the humble soldier does his duty. The contrast between the two could not be more pronounced. The townie’s words, blasphemy physically aimed towards the cross, spews out and up - but it hits an invisible barrier just at the location of the young soldier, leaving him and his god in a protective bubble. The blasphemous words bounce back towards the upstart, changed into rocks (my favorite part): he is condemned and stoned by his own words. The serpent creeping up behind him is either egging him on or it is waiting to consume him when he turns away from the salvation depicted before him.

It’s fantastic. As a composition it is split down the middle, the townie upstart and the serpent on one side, the pious soldier and Jesus on the other. It says a lot about rich kids that don’t serve their country when they should, and the assumed devoutness of soldiers. It contrasts rebellious fashionistas with those who wear modest and drab uniforms. It contrasts silent prayer with loud voices. It contrasts gi-normous monster snakes with the culturally weighty symbol of Jesus on the cross. Its message could not be more clear.

I wish I knew when it was made. The picture elevates blasphemy to a mortal sin, while reflecting that old dichotomy between the two stereotypical kinds of young men. What a totally brilliant picture. Love it!

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