Monday, November 18, 2019

Something To Be Thankful For

James Tissot, Jesus Healing the Woman Crippled for Eighteen Years
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
This image is painful for me to look at because this is how I was last year.

"He was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath.
And a woman was there who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit; she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect.
When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.”
He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God.

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, said to the crowd in reply, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the Sabbath day.”
The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering?
This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?”

When he said this, all his adversaries were humiliated; and the whole crowd rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him."

Luke 13:10-17

Thanksgiving Day 2019 is approaching and this year I have more to be thankful for than usual.  Some of you may remember that the second half of 2018 was a time of extreme pain for me, for on June 30th I suffered a ruptured disk in my lower back.  

For several weeks I was unable to walk except bent over double, more like a chimpanzee than a human being.  The few people who saw me during those weeks were dumbfounded.  Looking back on it I am amazed that I survived the dreadful pain and the terrible inability to stand.  

Over the next several months there was a mostly fruitless effort to treat the problem so as to alleviate the pain a bit.  Over time I was able to straighten up slightly, but would frequently experience stabs of pain so intense that they would cause me to scream, terrifying anyone I was with.  Eventually, it became clear that no treatment would work and that the time for surgery had arrived.  
The Alexander Master, Jesus Curing the Crippled Woman and the Parable of the Fig Tree
From a History Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 38, fol. 170r

Then there were a series of delays in scheduling the surgery that tried my patience, and everyone else's.  Finally, on December 12, the surgery was done.  

Then followed a week in hospital and a month in residential rehab.  Finally, in mid-January I was able to return home and continue healing on my own, working with physical therapists.  By late March I was walking pretty well with a rollator walker.  In July I began to try to walk with just a cane.  I'm getting stronger, but there is still a long way to go before I can walk without any kind of support.  I can get about a mile with the cane, but I tire easily and require rest stops here and there and it does hurt.  The pain is lessening, however, so that is a hopeful sign. I have also returned to participating in many of the activities I was doing before the disk ruptured and have even added one or two new things!

About a week ago I was waiting for a bus on a New York street and thought how blessed I am to be able to stand upright on my own two feet, to walk again, even if slowly, and to participate in things again.  I truly marvel at how far I have come in this year.  

This time last year I was praying for God to guide the hands and brains of the surgeon and of those who would assist me after my surgery.  I asked him to let their hands take the place of his.  And he answered those prayers.  So I have a great deal to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.  

I am also grateful to the many people who read my anguished posts on this blog and contacted me to offer their good wishes and prayers.  Their kindness was very moving and helped quite a lot, as did the prayers and help of those friends and acquaintances around me.  Thank you all! 

(You can read about the artistic side of Thanksgiving by clicking the Thanksgiving article in the right hand column of this page.  And may your Thanksgiving be as filled with gratitude as mine will be.) 

© M. Duffy, 2019

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Problem of the Pachamama Figures

Master Honore, Moses Receiving the Law and His Reaction to the Golden Calf
From Somme le roi by Frere Laurent
French (Paris), c. 1295
London, British Library
MS Additional 54180, fol. 5v
The LORD said: Here is the covenant I will make. Before all your people I will perform marvels never before done in any nation anywhere on earth, so that all the people among whom you live may see the work of the LORD. Awe-inspiring are the deeds I will perform with you!  As for you, observe what I am commanding you today.

See, I am about to drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land that you are to enter; lest they become a snare among you.  Tear down their altars; smash their sacred stones, and cut down their asherahs.  

You shall not bow down to any other god, for the LORD —“Jealous” his name — is a jealous God.  Do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land; else, when they prostitute themselves with their gods and sacrifice to them, one of them may invite you and you may partake of the sacrifice.    And when you take their daughters as wives for your sons, and their daughters prostitute themselves with their gods, they will make your sons do the same.

You shall not make for yourselves molten gods.

Exodus 34:10-17

 As an investigator of Christian, and specifically Catholic, iconography, I have been very interested in the controversy that erupted over the native figures that were given such prominence at the recently concluded synod on the Amazon at the Vatican.  There seems to be considerable confusion about whether they were images of a “pagan goddess” or merely “symbols of life”.  What really astonished me, however, was that no one, on either side of the controversy, nor any of the media reporting on the controversy, seems to have thought to ask for some clarification from the people who study such things, that is from anthropologists, ethnographers and/or art historians.  People who deal in the material artifacts of a variety of cultures might have been thought to be able to provide some insight into their identity and how they fit into the history of images.  But, NO ONE ASKED.  So, I thought I’d add my two cents from the perspective of an art historian, especially of one interested in Christian iconography.
The initial appearance of the Pachamama figures was at a tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens on October 4, 2019.  Pope Francis appeared to be a bit taken aback by the entire event, as he did not read his prepared remarks, but opted instead for a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.  
First off, I have to say that when I first saw the two that were included in the tree planting ceremony at the Vatican Gardens on October 4, I was a bit shocked.  What was shocking was not specifically the nudity of the two identical statuettes, but their particular pose and the manner in which the proportions were presented.  They reminded me of some images from Art History 101, the elementary introduction to art history that begins with the productions of the Stone Age.  So, I did a little investigating. 

One of the noticeable things about art history, when considered on a worldwide scale and across the centuries, is that it appears that nearly all cultures begin their specific development at about the same point, though not necessarily at the same point in time.  Some cultures then change fairly rapidly, while others remain static for hundreds, even thousands of years, as was the case in ancient Egypt, for instance.  This depends very much on their degree of control, as well as on their degree of isolation, or of their integration into trading networks and on their level of material prosperity.  What may appear primitive in one culture may be the height of contemporaneity in another. 

That said, one of the earliest forms of figural art which seems to appear everywhere is sculpture.  Indeed, sculpture may be the earliest form, as we have some small sculptures that predate the earliest known paintings by thousands of years.  And the early sculptures often have human figural themes.  No one can say for certain what those who made these figures intended in their making, but the resemblances are striking.   

Of course, one must acknowledge and keep in mind the fact that not all early sculpture may have survived.  Only those figures made of stone have the most likely level of survivability, followed by ceramic and metal figures.  However, ceramic already presupposes a level of sophistication, in that the ability to create ceramics presupposes having learned the effects of high temperature fire on objects made of clays.  The ability to extract and to work metals goes a step further.  But ceramics may be broken to small bits and metals are often melted down to create new objects, so both of these kinds of objects are less likely to survive than stone.  Objects made of wood or other vegetable material are least likely to survive except under certain specific conditions.  Presumably, no one began sculpting in stone immediately.  There was probably a long period of experimentation during which sculpture was created in easily malleable materials, which didn’t survive.  Therefore, our knowledge of the remote past may be skewed somewhat by what is available to us and may change if more items are uncovered.

Bearing all this in mind, one can begin to approach the question of how to classify the native figures used at the Synod. 

Among the predominant characteristics of early human figures which may have been used as symbols of fertility or even worshiped as fertility goddesses are that they all place an extraordinary emphasis on the reproductive organs.  That is, interest is directed specifically the abdomen, thighs and breasts in female figures and to the penis in male figures, with almost no emphasis on the head and with virtually none existent arms/hands or legs/feet. 

One of the five Pachamama figures that were on display in the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina.
These characteristics are found in the very earliest object of human sculpture we currently know of.  This is a small female figure found in 1908 near the Austrian town of Willendorf and factitiously nicknamed “The Venus of Willendorf”.  Her abdomen and breasts are enormous.  Her arms and feet are non-existent and her face is missing.  Instead, her head has a decoration that may represent coiled braids or some kind of cap above a blank space.  She is made of limestone, with a coating of red ochre pigment.  Her age has been estimated as approximately 26,000 – 28,000 BC, well within the parameters of the last Ice Age.1   She is, therefore, in the neighborhood of 30,000 years old!  This age makes her by far the oldest artistic expression by humans that we know of.  Further, it has been determined that the limestone she is made of is not local to the area in which she was found, which makes her evidence for either migration (perhaps as the ice receded) or for an early trading network. 
Venus of Willendorf
Paleolithic, c. 28,000 BC
Vienna, Naturhistorishes Museum

How she may have been used is not known. She doesn’t seem too well adapted as a practical item for daily use, so she must have had some symbolic function.   She may have had some ceremonial function in religion, to ask for the conception of a child, for instance.  She can fit in your hand, so she may have been used as a charm to assist a woman in labor.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that she and her many descendants have been classified as fertility “goddesses”.  
Side views of the "Venus of Willendorf"

Little about such figures changed over time and across cultures.  If made of suitable substances, they can be found in the remains of all kinds of societies across the world.  They have been found in locations as varied as Europe, the Middle East, the Levant, North, South and Central America, the Greek Islands and Africa.  And that’s only the results of a fairly short search of art museums.  It is likely that many more can be found in museums of natural history or in anthropological and ethnographic collections. 

Female Figure
Near Eastern, Anatolian Neolithic Period (Modern Turkey), c. 6000–5500 B.C.
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Female Figure
Mesopotamia or Syria, c. 5600-5000 BC
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Neolithic Female Figure
Greek, c. 6th-5th Millennium BC
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
Female Figure
Iran, c. 5,000 BC to 9th Century AD
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Female Figure
Cycladic, Final Neolithic Period, 4500-4000 BC
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Glazed Naked Woman
Egyptian, Middle Kingdom, c. 2033-1710 BC
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Female Idol
Susa (Iran), 3rd Millennium BC
Paris, Musédu Louvre
Kneeling Woman, Middle Bronze Age Amulet
Byblos, Syria, 2000-1600 BC
Musédu Louvre

Ceramic Female Figure
The Levant, Middle Bronze Age, Early 2nd Millennium BC
New York, Metropoliltan Museum of Art

Female Figrure
Egyptian, Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, c. 1950-1885 BC
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Female Figure
Iran, Middle Elamite, c. 1500-1100 BC_
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Female Idol
Cyrus,  Late Bronze Age (1230-1050 BC)
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Female Figure
Mediterranean, c. 1070-712 BC
Marseille, Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne
Fertility Goddess
Northwestern Iran, Iron Age II, c. Early First Millennium BC
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lime Flask in the shape of a Woman
Colombian, Cauca Valley, c. 500 BC-700 AD
London, British Museum
Standing Female Deity
North Indian, 3rd-2nd Century BC
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Egyptian, Roman Period, c. Second Century AD
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Four Kneeling Female Figures
Mexican (Jalisco),  2nd Century AD
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kneeling Woman
Mexican, c. 2nd-4th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Female Deity
India (Madhya Pradesh), 8th-9th Century AD
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kneeling Female Deity
Cambodian, 12th Century AD
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Goddess of Water and Fertility
Mexican (Aztec) , 15th - Early 16th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kneeling Female Deity
Mexican (Aztec), c. 15th-Early 16th Century AD
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Seated Female Figure
Mali (Bamana Peoples), 15th-20th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art 
Female Figure
Guinea (Baga Peoples), 19th-20th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Maternity Figure
Nigerian (Azume), 20th Century
London, British Museum

The so-called “Pachamama” figures that have been at the heart of the controversy during the Synod share many points with these images.  It was rather surprising to see that they appear to have been mass produced, as five of them were removed from the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, where they were continuously on display, and thrown into the Tiber by two men in the early hours of Monday, October 21 (to be recovered and reappear a few days later).  One wonders for what purpose so many were prepared and, even more, about how many more there are, questions which do not seem to have been asked or answered.  Nonetheless, they share the same kind of emphasis on the reproductive organs; the nudity; the de-emphasis on heads, hands and feet; even the kneeling pose with many of the historic fertility figures. 
Photo of at least two of the five figures as placed in front of an altar at Santa Maria in Traspontina, near a copy of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the second image is in the front left corner of this picture.  Also on the mat, which appears to represent the Amazon region are other items, such as images of birds and snakes, a pipe and a model boat, which may be regarded as references to the wildlife of the region.
Initially, it was asserted by some spokesmen at the Vatican Synod that the initial exposure of two figures, facing each other, at the tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, was actually an image of the Visitation.  
Another view of the tree planting ceremony, showing the same "Amazon region blanket" with the display which first drew attention to these problemmatic figures.
The Visitation is the Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth, who was pregnant with Saint John the Baptist, almost immediately after the Annunciation, as Jesus began his development within her.  This event is honored in the Rosary as the Second Joyful Mystery.  However, there is already an established iconography for this event, which I covered in several postings.  Most closely related would be the posting called Visible Babies which shows both fetuses within their mothers’ bodies.  However, the differences are more striking then the similarities.  There is usually an age differential between the Virgin Mary and her older cousin.  The babies are clearly delineated (unless obliterated as in one case) and John is often shown in adoration of Jesus.  
Austrian, 1210
Nauders (Austria), Chapel of St. Leonard
Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, visitation
German, c.1310-1320
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Antependium of the Visitation
Alsatian, c. 1410
Frankfurt-am-Main, Museum für Angewandte Kunst
Marx Weiss the Elder, Visitation
German, 1563
Ueberlingen, Church of Sankt Nikolaus
Bradi Barth, Visitation
Swiss, c. 2000
Copyright HERBRONNEN. vzw
James B. Janknegt, Vistation
American, 2007
Copyright James Janknegt

There is a distorted representation of something delineated within the red oval (representing the uterus) of the Amazon figure, but it is not identifiable as a specific person of any sex or age.

With all these considerations in mind I think it is safe to say that this object was most likely a representation of an indigenous pagan fertility/childbirth goddess than it was anything else.  Therefore, it is somewhat disingenuous to say that it was placed in a church “without idolatrous intent” after having been the subject of rather obvious signs of full worship (such as a circle of people on their knees with their foreheads touching the ground) at the tree planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens.  
Obeisance being made to the figures during the tree planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens.
Such obeisance goes well beyond veneration and traditionally has been the clear sign of the reverence addressed to God alone.  This special kind of reverence is known as latria. 2

At least one of the images was also included in something billed as an Amazonian Stations of the Cross along the Via della Conciliazione and in Saint Peter's Square, which in the photos I have seen at least seemed to make a model canoe containing it the center point of the procession, rather than the plain cross that was also carried.  In addition, the statue made at least one appearance in a liturgy inside Saint Peter's Basilica.

Canoe containing one of the figures, along with other Amazonian materials being carried in Saint Peter's Basilica.
I have seen it reported that there was an outcry about their removal from the church in which they were displayed and that their disposal into the Tiber was decried as being racist.  This is presumably because these objects were representing a Native American religion.  This is nonsense.  The action would have been the same if they were statues of Venus/Aphrodite or Mars or Thor, that is, representatives of indigenous pagan European religions on display in a Roman church for veneration.  The Vatican museums are full of pagan religious images, including many from non-European sources, and no one has tried to throw any of them into the Tiber.  But, they are not on display in the museums in order for them to be venerated.  Here are a couple of examples:

Mexican (Aztec), c. 1360-1521
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Ethnological Museum Anima Mundi
Mongol Female divinity Palden Lhamo
Mongol, From the Jehol Area, Late 19th-Early 20th Century
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Ethnological Museum Anima Mundi

It was the location and use of these images that was upsetting to those who took action.  What would have been appropriate, had there been no other agenda in action here, would have been for the synod organizers to present the image to the Pope for inclusion in the Vatican Museum.  But, one senses that something else has been at work in the last month, though in an arrogant and clumsy way.  And that "something" is very like what the Lord warns about in the passage from Exodus with which I opened this essay.

M. Duffy, 2019

1.  See: American Museum of Natural History, “The Coming and Going of an Ice Age” ( for some data about the last major ice age.
2.  For a reasonably good description of the terms “latria”, “dulia” and “hyperdulia” which are used to distinguish the different types of reverence shown to God (specifically for the Persons of the Trinity and for the Eucharist) – latria; the Blessed Virgin – hyperdulia; and the other saints and angels – dulia;  see  However, this article is marred by Wikipedia’s informal editing platform.  Someone has added the last three paragraphs regarding the differences between Catholic and Methodist views of the Eucharist which are completely irrelevant in the description of the words.  One may ask, why just Methodist views?  Why not Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian and other denominational views?  Presumably the person who added these paragraphs is a Methodist and that is all he or she knows.  As always, Wikipedia should be used with caution and some previous knowledge of the subject, if possible.