Darkening Age, 16

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
People built themselves houses from the stones of the demolished temples. Look closely at the buildings in the east of the Roman Empire and you can see the remains of the classical tradition in the new Christian architecture: a pair of cut-off legs here; the top of a handsome Grecian column there.

One law announced that the stones from demolished temples should be used to repair roads, bridges and aqueducts. In Constantinople, a former temple of Aphrodite was used to store a bureaucrat’s chariots. Christian writers revelled in such little humiliations. As one exulted, ‘your statues, your busts, the instruments of your cult have all been overturned—they lie on the ground and everyone laughs at your deceptions’.

Darkening Age, 15

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
Statues, the very seat of the demons themselves, suffered some of the most vicious attacks. It was not enough merely to take a statue down; the demon within it had to be humiliated, disgraced, tortured, dismembered and thus neutralized.

A Jewish tractate known as the Avodah Zarah provided detailed instructions on how to properly mistreat a statue. One can desecrate a statue, it advised, by ‘cutting off the tip of its ear or nose or finger, by battering it—even although its bulk be not diminished—it is desecrated’. Merely taking the statue down, or spitting at it, or dragging it about, or throwing dirt upon it, was not, the treatise warned, sufficient—though the resourceful Christian might indulge in all of these as an added humiliation to the demon within.

Sometimes, as was the case with the bust of Aphrodite in Athens, the statues appear to have been ‘baptized’, with deep crosses gouged on their foreheads. If this was a ‘baptism’ then it may have helped not only to neutralize the devil within, but also to vanquish any more personal demons that could arise when looking at such beautiful naked figures. A naked statue of Aphrodite was, wrote one Christian historian in disgust, ‘more shameless than that of any prostitute standing in front of a brothel’—and, like a prostitute, Aphrodite and her plump bottom and naked breasts might incite the demon of lust in the viewer.

Far less easy to feel desire for a statue who has had a cross gouged in her head, her eyes blinded and her nose sliced from her face. Erotically appealing statues suffered more than chastely clothed ones. We can still see the consequences of this rhetoric. Today, a once-handsome Apollo missing a nose stands in this museum; a statue of Venus that stood in a bathhouse has had her nipples and mons pubis chiselled away; a statue of Dionysus has had his nose mutilated and his genitalia removed.

Darkening Age, 14

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
Further south, the firebrand preacher John Chrysostom—John ‘Goldenmouth’—weighed in. This man was so charismatic that crowds of Christians would pack into Antioch’s Great Church to hear him speak, his eyes flashing, then leave as soon as he was finished, ‘as if’, he observed, with a distinct want of monkish humility, ‘I were a concert performance.’ Chrysostom was nothing if not zealous.

Hearing that Phoenicia was still ‘suffering from the madness of the demons’ rites’, he sent violent bands of monks, funded by the faithful women in his congregation, to destroy the shrines in the area. ‘Thus,’ concludes the historian Theodoret, ‘the remaining shrines of the demons were utterly destroyed.’ A papyrus fragment shows Bishop Theophilus standing triumphantly over an image of Serapis, Bible in hand, while on the right-hand side monks can be seen attacking the temple. St Benedict, St Martin, St John Chrysostom; the men leading these campaigns of violence were not embarrassing eccentrics but men at the very heart of the Church.

Augustine evidently assumed his congregants would be taking part in the violence—and implied that they were right to do so: throwing down temples, idols and groves was, he said, no less than ‘clear proof of our not honouring, but rather abhorring, these things’. Such destruction, he reminded his flock, was the express commandment of God. In AD 401, Augustine told Christians in Carthage to smash pagan objects because, he said, that was what God wanted and commanded. It has been said that sixty died in riots inflamed by this burst of oratorical fire. A little earlier a congregation of Augustine’s, eager to sack the temples of Carthage, had started reciting Psalm 83. ‘Let them be humiliated and be downcast forever,’ they chanted with grim significance. ‘Let them perish in disgrace.’

It is obvious that this violence was not only one’s Christian duty; it was also, for many; a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Those carrying out the attacks sang as they smashed the ancient marble and roared with laughter as they destroyed statues. In Alexandria, ‘idolatrous’ images were taken from private houses and baths, then burned and mutilated in a jubilant public demonstration. Once the assault was complete, the Christians ‘all went off, praising God for the destruction of such error of demons and idolatry’.

Broken statues themselves were another cause for hilarity; their fragmented remains an occasion for ‘laughter and scorn’.

Darkening Age, 13

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
As the laws became increasingly shrill, the extent of the destruction increased, as too did the openness with which it was done. At some point, probably just before the attack on the temple of Serapis, a bishop named Marcellus became ‘the first of the bishops to put the edict in force and destroy the shrines in the city committed to his care’. Then, in 392, Serapis fell. Almost no event, with the exception of the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in AD 410, would resound more loudly through literature of the time. Its collapse would not be heard by later centuries: in the newly Christian world this was one tale, one of many, that would be quietly forgotten.

The attacks were hymned by hagiographies and histories. In fourth-century France, St Martin, or so the Life of Martin proudly records, ‘set fire to a most ancient and famous shrine’ before moving on to a different village and a different temple. Here, he ‘completely demolished the temple belonging to the false religion and reduced all the altars and statues to dust’. Martin was no anomaly. Flushed by his success at the temple of Serapis, Bishop Theophilus went on to demolish numerous shrines in Egypt. Hagiography records such attacks not as dismal or even embarrassing acts of vandalism but as proof of a saint’s virtue. Some of the most famous saints in Western Christianity kicked off their careers—so the stories like, to boast—demolishing shrines.

Benedict of Nursia, the revered founder of Western monasticism, was also celebrated as a destroyer of antiquities. His first act upon arriving in Monte Cassino, just outside Rome, was to smash an ancient statue of Apollo and destroy the shrine’s altar. He didn’t stop there, but toured the area ‘pulling down the idols and destroying the groves on the mountain… and gave himself no rest until he had uprooted the last remnant of heathenism in those parts’. Of course hagiography is not history and one must read such accounts with, at best, caution. But even if they do not tell the whole truth, they certainly reveal a truth—namely that many Christians felt proud, even jubilant, about such destruction.

Darkening Age, 11

As the epigraph of ‘How to Destroy a Demon’, chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey chose a passage from an hagiography of a so-called saint, The Life of Martin: ‘He completely demolished the temple belonging to the false religion and reduced all the altars and statues to dust’.
 

The pages of history might overlook this destruction, but stone is less forgetful. Go to Room 18 in the British Museum in London and you will find yourself in front of the Parthenon Marbles, taken from Greece by Lord Elgin in the nineteenth century.

The astonishingly lifelike statues are, today, in a sorry state: many are mutilated or missing limbs. This, it is often assumed, was the fault of Lord Elgin’s clumsy workmen or fighting during the Ottoman occupation. And indeed some of this was—but not all. Much was the work of zealous Christians who set about the temple with blunt instruments, attacking the ‘demonic’ gods, mutilating some of the finest statuary Greece had ever produced.

The East Pediment fared particularly badly. Hands, feet, even whole limbs have gone—almost certainly smashed off by Christians trying to incapacitate the demons within. The vast majority of the gods have been decapitated—again, almost certainly the work of Christians. The great central figures of the Pediment, that would have shown the birth of Athena, were the most sacred—and thus to the Christians the most demonic. They therefore suffered most: it is likely that they were pushed off the Pediment—and smashed on the ground below, their fragmented remains ground down and used for mortar for a Christian church.

The same tale is told by objects in museums and archaeological sites across the world. Near the Marbles in the same museum is a basalt bust of Germanicus. Two blows have hacked off his nose and a cross has been cut in his forehead. In Athens, a larger­than-life statue of Aphrodite has been disfigured by a crude cross carved on her brow; her eyes have been defaced and her nose is missing. In Cyrene, the eyes have been gouged out of a life-sized bust in a sanctuary of Demeter, and the nose removed; in Tuscany a slender statue of Bacchus has been decapitated.

In the Sparta Archaeological Museum, a colossal statue of the goddess Hera looks blindly out, her eyes disfigured by crosses. A beautiful statue of Apollo from Salamis has been castrated and then struck, hard, in the face, shearing off the god’s nose. Across his neck are scars indicating that Christians attempted to decapitate him but failed.

In Palmyra Museum there stood, at least until the city’s recent occupation by Islamic State, the mutilated and reconstructed figure of the once-great figure of Athena that had dominated a temple there. A huge dent in her once-handsome face was all that remained when her nose was smashed off. A recent book on the Christian destruction of statues focusing just on Egypt and the Near East runs to almost three hundred pages, dense with pictures of mutilation.

But while some evidence remains, much has gone entirely. The point of destruction is, after all, that it destroys. If effective, it more than merely defaces something. It obliterates all evidence that the object ever existed. We will never know quite how much was wiped out. Many statues were pulverized, shattered, scattered, burned and melted into absence. Tiny piles of charred ivory and gold are all that remain of some. Others were so well disposed of that they will probably not be found: they were thrown into rivers, sewers and wells, never to be seen again. The destruction of other sacred objects is, because of the nature of the object, all but impossible to detect.

The sacred groves of the old gods for example, those tranquil natural shrines like the one Pliny had so admired, were set about with axes and their ancient trees hacked down. Pictures, books, ribbons even, could be seen as the work of the devil and thus removed and destroyed. Certain sorts of musical instruments were censured and stopped: as one Christian preacher boasted; the Christians smashed the flutes of the ‘musicians of the demons’ to pieces. Some of the demolition, such as that of the temple of Serapis, was so terrible that several authors recorded it.

Other moments of vandalism were immortalized in glowing terms in Christian hagiographies. Though these are the exceptions. Far more violence was buried in silence.

Darkening Age, 10

In chapter seven of The Darkening Age: The Christian
Destruction of the Classical World
, Catherine Nixey wrote:

Constantine… demanded that the statues be taken from the temples. Christian officials, so it was said, travelled the empire, ordering the priests of the old religion to bring their statues out of the temples. From the 330s onwards some of the most sacred objects in the empire started to be removed. It is hard, today, to understand the enormity of Constantine’s order. If Michelangelo’s Pietà were taken from the Vatican and sold, it would be considered a terrible act of cultural vandalism—but it wouldn’t be sacrilege as the statue is not in itself sacred. Statues in Roman temples were. To remove them was a gross violation, and Constantine knew it…

The possibility that Jesus would triumph over all other gods would, at the time, have seemed almost preposterous. Constantine was faced with an intransigent population who insisted on worshipping idols at the expense of the risen Lord. He realized that conversion would be more ‘easily accomplished if he could get them to despise their temples and the images contained therein’. And what better way to teach wayward pagans the vanity of their gods than by cracking open their statues and showing that they were, quite literally, empty? Moreover, a religious system in which sacrifice was central would struggle to survive if there was nothing to sacrifice to. There was good biblical precedent for his actions. In Deuteronomy, God had commanded that His chosen people should overthrow altars, burn sacred groves and hew down the graven images of the gods. If Constantine attacked the temples then he was not being a vandal. He was doing God’s good work.

And so it began. The great Roman and Greek temples were— or so Eusebius said—broken open and their statues brought out, then mutilated…

Not all the temple statues were melted down. The ‘tyrant’ Constantine also had an eye for art and many objects were shipped back as prize baubles for the emperor’s new city, Constantinople (Constantine, like Alexander the Great, was not one for self-effacement). The Pythian Apollo was put up as ‘a contemptible spectacle’ in one square; the sacred tripods of Delphi turned up in Constantinople’s hippodrome, while the Muses of Helicon found themselves relocated to Constantine’s palace. The capital looked wonderful. The temples looked—were—desecrated. As his biographer wrote with satisfaction, Constantine ‘confuted the superstitious error of the heathen in all sorts of ways’.

And yet despite the horror of what Constantine was asking his subjects to do there was little resistance…

Christianity could have been tolerant: it was not pre­ordained that it would take this path. There were Christians who voiced hopes for tolerance, even ecumenicalism. But those hopes were dashed. For those who wish to be intolerant, monotheism provides very powerful weapons. There was ample biblical justification for the persecution of non-believers.

The Bible, as a generation of Christian authors declared, is very clear on the matter of idolatry. As the Christian author Firmicus Maternus reminded his rulers—perfectly correctly—there lay upon emperors an ‘imperative necessity to castigate and punish this evil’. Their ‘severity should be visited in every way on the crime’. And what precisely did God advise as a punishment for idolatry? Deuteronomy was clear: a person indulging in this should be stoned to death. And if an entire city fell into such sin? Again, the answer was clear: ‘destruction is decreed’.

The desecration continued for centuries. In the fifth century AD, the colossal statue of Athena, the sacred centrepiece of the Acropolis in Athens, and one of the most famous works of art in the empire, was torn down from where she had stood guard for almost a thousand years, and shipped off to Constantinople—a great coup for the Christian city and a great insult to the ‘pagans’…

Note of the Ed.: After the centuries, Europeans even forgot how the Greco-Roman sculptures that were destroyed looked like. My guess is that Constantine’s bishops were not Aryans. Destroying a representation of the beauty of the Aryan physique was part of the Semitic takeover of white society: Let’s destroy your self-image as a means to undermine your self-esteem. Something similar is happening today with the religion of Holocaustianity: Let’s undermine your self-image from a decent person to historic grievances so that you may accept masses of non-white immigrants.

History is written by the winners and the Christian victory was absolute. The Church dominated European thought for more than a millennium. Until 1871 the University of Oxford required that all students were members of the Church of England, while in most cases to be given a fellowship in an Oxford college one had to be ordained. Cambridge was a little freer—but not much.

This was not an atmosphere conducive to criticism of Christianity and indeed, in English histories, there was little. For centuries, the vast majority of historians unquestioningly took up the Christian cause and routinely and derogatorily referred to non-Christians as ‘pagans’, ‘heathens ‘ and ‘idolaters’. The practices and sufferings of these ‘pagans’ were routinely belittled, trivialized or—more often—entirely ignored. As one modern scholar has observed: ‘The story of early Christian history has been told almost wholly on the basis of Christian sources.’

Darkening Age, 9

Saint Apollonia destroys a Greco-Roman sculpture, Giovanni d’Alemagna, c. 1442-1445.

The saint calmly ascends to the ‘idol’, hammer in hand. Hagiographies frequently praised the flair with which saints smashed ancient temples and centuries-old statues.

In ‘The Most Magnificent Building in the World’, chapter six of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 

At the end of the first century of Christian rule, the Colosseum still dominated Rome and the Parthenon towered above Athens. Yet when writers of this period discuss architecture, these aren’t the buildings that impress them. Instead, their admiration is drawn by another structure in Egypt. This building was so fabulous that writers in the ancient world struggled to find ways to convey its beauty. ‘Its splendour is such that mere words can only do it an injustice,’ wrote the historian Ammianus Marcellinus. It was, another writer thought, ‘one of the most unique and uncommon sights in the world. For nowhere else on earth can one find such a building.’ Its great halls, its columns, its astonishing statues and its art all made it, outside Rome, ‘the most magnificent building in the whole world’. Everyone had heard of it.

No one has heard of it now. While tourists still toil up to the Parthenon, or look in awe at the Colosseum, outside academia few people know of the temple of Serapis. That is because in AD 392 a bishop, supported by a band of fanatical Christians, reduced it to rubble.

It is easy to see why this temple would have attracted the Christians’ attention. Standing at the top of a hundred or more marble steps, it had once towered over the startling white marble streets below, an object to incite not only wonder but envy. While Christians of the time crammed into insufficient numbers of small, cramped churches, this was a vast—and vastly superior—monument to the old gods. It was one of the first buildings you noticed as you sailed towards Alexandria, its roof looming above the others, and one that you were unlikely to forget.

Walk on and, just behind the porticoes of the inner court, you would have found yourself in a vast library—the remnants of the Great Library of Alexandria itself. The library’s collection was now stored here, within the temple precinct, for safekeeping. This had been the world’s first public library; and its holdings had, at its height, been staggering, running into hundreds of thousands of volumes. Like the city itself, the collection had taken several knocks over the years, but extensive collections remained.

Like all statues of this size, Serapis was made of a wooden structure overlaid with precious materials: the god’s profile was made of glowing white ivory; his enormous limbs were draped in robes of metal—very probably gold. The statue was so huge that his great hands almost touched either side of the room…

To the new generation of Christian clerics, however, Serapis was not a wonder of art; or a much-loved local god. Serapis was a demon… Fierce words—but Christians had been fulminating in this way for decades and polytheists had been able to ignore them. But the world was changing. It was now eighty years since a Christian had first sat on the throne of Rome and in the intervening decades the religion of the Lamb had taken an increasingly bullish attitude to all those who refused it…

One day, early in AD 392, a large crowd of Christians started to mass outside the temple, with Theophilus at its head. And then, to the distress of watching Alexandrians, this crowd had surged up the steps, into the sacred precinct and burst into the most beautiful building in the world.

And then they began to destroy it.

Theophilus’s righteous followers began to tear at those famous artworks, the lifelike statues and the gold-plated walls. There was a moment’s hesitation when they came to the massive statue of the god: rumour had it that if Serapis was harmed then the sky would fall in. Theophilus ordered a soldier to take his axe and hit it. The soldier struck Serapis’s face with a double-headed axe. The god’s great ivory profile, blackened by centuries of smoke, shattered.

The watching Christians roared with delight and then, emboldened, surged round to complete the job. Serapis’s head was wrenched from its neck; the feet and hands were chopped off with axes, dragged apart with ropes, then, for good measure, burned.

As one delighted Christian chronicler put it, the ‘decrepit, dotard’ Serapis ‘was burned to ashes before the eyes of the Alexandria which had worshipped him’. The giant torso of the god was saved for a more public humiliation: it was taken into the amphitheatre and burned in front of a great crowd. ‘And that,’ as our chronicler notes with satisfaction, ‘was the end of the vain superstition and ancient error of Serapis.’

A little later, a church housing the relics of St John the Baptist was built on the temple’s ruins, a final insult to the god—and to architecture. It was, naturally, an inferior structure. According to later Christian chronicles, this was a victory. According to a non-Christian account, it was a tragedy…

Nothing was left. Christians took apart the temple’s very stones, toppling the immense marble columns, causing the walls themselves to collapse. The entire sanctuary was demolished with astonishing rapidity; the greatest building in the world was ‘scattered to the winds’. [1]

The tens of thousands of books, the remnants of the greatest library in the world, were all lost, never to reappear…

Far more than a temple had gone. As the news of the destruction spread across the empire, something of the spirit of the old culture died too. As one Greek professor wrote in despair: ‘The dead used to leave the city alive behind them, but we living now carry the city to her grave.’

_________

[1] Note of the Ed.: See the remains today of the Serapeum of Alexandria: here.

Darkening Age, 7

Yesterday I said that in the third volume of the series Christianity’s Criminal History, ‘The Ancient Church: Forgery, Brainwashing, Exploitation, Annihilation’, Deschner argues that the tales of Christian martyrs in early Christianity were grossly exaggerated, and that I planned in the future to translate some passages of it. But the impatient English reader can go to his nearest library and read chapter four of Catherine Nixey’s recently published The Darkening Age, ‘On the Small Number of Martyrs’.

Within that chapter are included the images in colour that illustrate the book. Above, you can see the surviving figures of the Parthenon in Athens. Nixey says that these figures ‘were almost certainly mutilated by Christians who believed them to be “demonic”. The central figures of the group are missing, probably levered off the ground into rubble to build a Christian church’ (image facing page 57).

Published in: on July 14, 2018 at 12:01 am  Comments Off on Darkening Age, 7  
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Isenheim Altarpiece

Hagenauer & Grünewald
Isenheim Altarpiece
~ 1512-1516
Unterlinden Museum at Colmar

Published in: on June 20, 2018 at 11:24 am  Comments (8)  
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Darkening Age, 1

PROLOGUE

Palmyra, c. AD 385

‘There is no crime for those who have Christ.’

—St. Shenoute

The destroyers came from out of the desert. Palmyra must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots, armed with little more than stones, iron bars and an iron sense of righteousness had been terrorizing the east of the Roman Empire.

Their attacks were primitive, thuggish, and very effective. These men moved in packs— later in swarms of as many as five hundred—and when they descended utter destruction followed. Their targets were the temples and the attacks could be astonishingly swift. Great stone columns that had stood for centuries collapsed in an afternoon; statues that had stood for half a millennium had their faces mutilated in a moment; temples that had seen the rise of the Roman Empire fell in a single day.

This was violent work, but it was by no means solemn. The zealots roared with laughter as they smashed the ‘evil’, ‘idolatrous’ statues; the faithful jeered as they tore down temples, stripped roofs and defaced tombs. Chants appeared, immortalizing these glorious moments. ‘Those shameful things,’ sang pilgrims, proudly; the ‘demons and idols… our good Saviour trampled down all together.’ Zealotry rarely makes for good poetry.

In this atmosphere, Palmyra’s temple of Athena was an obvious target. The handsome building was an unapologetic celebration of all the believers loathed: a monumental rebuke to monotheism. Go through its great doors and it would have taken your eyes a moment, after the brightness of a Syrian sun, to adjust to the cool gloom within. As they did, you might have noticed that the air was heavy with the smoky tang of incense, or perhaps that what little light there was came from a scatter of lamps left by the faithful. Look up and, in their flickering glow, you would have seen the great figure of Athena herself.

The handsome, haughty profile of this statue might be far from Athena’s native Athens, but it was instantly recognizable, with its straight Grecian nose, its translucent marble skin and the plump, slightly sulky mouth. The statue’s size—it was far taller than any man—might also have impressed. Though perhaps even more admirable than the physical scale was the scale of the imperial infrastructure and ambition that had brought this object here. The statue echoed others that stood on the Athenian Acropolis, well over a thousand miles away; this particular version had been made in a workshop hundreds of miles from Palmyra, then transported here at considerable difficulty and expense to create a little island of Greco-Roman culture by the sands of the Syrian desert.

Did they notice this, the destroyers, as they entered? Were they, even fleetingly, impressed by the sophistication of an empire that could quarry, sculpt then transport marble over such vast distances? Did they, even for a moment, admire the skill that could make a kissably soft-looking mouth out of hard marble? Did they, even for a second, wonder at its beauty?

It seems not. Because when the men entered the temple they took a weapon and smashed the back of Athena’s head with a single blow so hard that it decapitated the goddess. The head fell to the floor, slicing off that nose, crushing the once­ smooth cheeks. Athena’s eyes, untouched, looked out over a now-disfigured face.

Mere decapitation wasn’t enough. More blows fell, scalping Athena, striking the helmet from the goddess’s head, smashing it into pieces. Further blows followed. The statue fell from its pedestal, then the arms and shoulders were chopped off. The body was left on its front in the dirt; the nearby altar was sliced off just above its base.

Only then does it seem that these men—these Christians—felt satisfied that their work was done. They-melted out once again into the desert. Behind them the temple fell silent. The votive lamps, no longer tended, went out. On the floor, the head of Athena slowly started to be covered by the sands of the Syrian desert.

The ‘triumph’ of Christianity had begun.