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The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God spacer The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God
Pictures of God
by Richard West
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From time to time pictures of God appear in newspapers. These are usually of the miraculous/ridiculous variety. So for example the face of Jesus will appear on a potato, in a smudge on a wall or in a smoke stain. The stories confirm our assumptions about the credulity of the simple faithful; that they will flock to gawp at mouldy wallpaper. To give a little absurdist colour it helps of course if they are American. Take for example the year 1977, a good year for these stories as it saw the first of a number of tortilla miracles. Here is the story as told by www.roadsideamerica.com:
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It happened in the small town of Lake Arthur, New Mexico, 40 minutes south of Roswell. Maria Rubio was rolling up a burrito for her husband Eduardo's breakfast, when she noticed a thumb-sized configuration of skillet burns on the tortilla that resembled the face of Jesus. Despite the braying of scientists and skeptics, the Holy Tortilla quickly developed a solid fan base. By 1979, over 35,000 people had visited, bringing flowers and photos of sick loved ones. Mrs. Rubio quit her job as a maid to attend full-time to the hastily constructed 'Shrine of the Holy Tortilla' in her home.
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In November 1977 a competing Miracle Tortilla appeared in the skillet of Phoenix housewife Ramona Barreras. It was the face of Jesus, this time accompanied by the letters K, J, C, and B, which Ramona believed stood for 'King Jesus is Coming Back.' In March 1983, housewife Paula Rivera claimed the image of Jesus appeared on a corn tortilla she was making in Hidalgo Texas. She created her own 'Shrine of the Holy Tortilla.'
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And so on It is unlikely that many readers are impressed by these tales and yet in other contexts pictures of God are some of the most prized objects in our culture. A Raphael Madonna and Child is valued at £36 million yet a genuinely miraculous tortilla, very likely with similar iconography, is worth nothing. Take another story, this time of an image of Mary and the Holy Spirit recounted on www.theworkofgod.org:
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Our Lady appeared in Zeitoun hovering above Saint Mark's Coptic Church. At 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday 2 April 1968, She appeared on the roof of the Church in a kneeling position, surrounded by light. The first man who saw her, a Muslim, Farouk Mohammed Atwa, was undergoing operations for a case of gangrene. The following day when he went to hospital for his scheduled operation, he was certified completely healed.
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For the next three years Our Lady appeared on many occasions especially at night, and sometimes she was accompanied by white doves that would fly around her. The first two years she appeared about two to three times a week. The apparitions finally ended in 1971 leaving an atmosphere of unity and peace.
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A photograph of Mary and the Holy Spirit is better than a tortilla picture, this at least seems a more plausible type of image. But really we are still in the class of picture that includes the Yeti and prehistoric Scottish sea monsters. It seems that pictures of God, whether you are an enthusiast or not, are to be treated very differently depending on where you come across them. Yet even those treated as a joke are newsworthy and can still get a good following if word gets about.
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So perhaps it would be useful to clarify what type of pictures of God we have available to us and which ones we should take seriously. To make this easier we will limit ourselves to the God of the Judeo-Christian variety and, without getting too deeply into any theological questions, include his various family members, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Mary etc. Secondly we will consider all types of picture as the two examples given have already suggested that paintings are more valued than photographs yet photos have more popular appeal. A key question for God has traditionally been whether he exists or not. Notwithstanding Yetis and flying saucers we still use photography as a benchmark for proving things have taken place (cf. recent Iraqi torture pictures) so perhaps God in photographs will elucidate something about both the subject and the medium. Also we will use any guidance we can get on God without worrying too much about our sources.
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To get us started a helpful question is going to be what God looks like. At the outset it seems we don't know much about this, but we do at least know that at the very beginning of Genesis (1:26), on the sixth day of creation, God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness '. If man looks like God, then God must look like man. So immediately we can classify the different pictures of God available to us as follows:
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1) those that are of God, such as photographs of God. 2) pictures that may look like God (in that they at least look like men) but are more likely conventional. This will include naturalistic paintings since the Renaissance. 3) pictures that don't look like God at all. Pictures from before 1450, icons showing people with long green fingers, Jesus in South Park etc.
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Looking over these categories we might notice that they are distinguished by an emphasis on resemblance (as in the first two) and presence (only in the first). We have also established a hierarchy of images based on these two conditions. The photographs are the most believable because they offer the best evidence, while the pictures that don't look right, by someone that wasn't there, don't rate very highly at all. Of course for some people 'evidence' and 'believability' will not be the most important qualities in a picture of God but we will start with these, assuming that they will be the chief interest for an age as reputedly 'sceptical' and impressed by 'reality' as our own.
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Before we embark on a Fortean Times style report on known photographs of God, in a spirit of thoroughness, it might be useful to go back briefly to our third category of picture and early Christian paintings that 'don't look like God', just in case we have dismissed this first thousand or so years of history a little too casually. Until Jesus came along (or at least shortly after he came along) the Judeo-Christian God was not depicted, the Jews famously placing emphasis on his words rather than his image. The God of the Old Testament is also less prone to appearing for his creation to look at, than the altogether more approachable Jesus. When he does appear it is generally in some abstract and enigmatic form, such as a burning bush or pillar of fire. Finally anyone interested in making pictures of God would probably have been discouraged by the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4) which reads: 'thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth', which seems unambigious enough; no pictures, not even of fish.
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So how did they even get started? Most likely because the Christian church grew up in a Roman empire with an established tradition of depiction. But either way the propriety of making pictures was in fact the subject of lively debate in the early church. In the 4th century the Bishop of Salamis wrote of painters that, 'some represent St. Paul as an old man with receding hair, others as being bald and bearded', clearly suspicious that they were making it up as they went along. These arguments culminated in the 'iconoclastic controversy' that ran, on and off, between 736 and 843, and as with more recent bouts of iconoclasm, (in the 17th century for example) frequently turned nasty. Pictures were defaced, theologians were anathematised and painters were mistreated, some reportedly even having their hands burnt to stop them painting.
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Riding to the defence of pictures were a number of champions, including one John of Damascus the writer of three Orations in Defence of Images and the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. These contain a number of arguments in support of pictures, a theological one running as follows: St. Paul says that 'Christ is an image of God' (II Corinthians 4:4) and we have already seen how man is an image of God, He must therefore sanction image-making as His own creation is a representation.
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This line of thought establishes a kind of metaphysical world view ('everything's a representation', sounds rather contemporary), that can accommodate God and images. But perhaps its novelty for us says as much about the contrast between the 8th century where images were relatively unusual and today when you would have to row out into the sea to get away from them. Unexpectedly the Byzantine church also shared our contemporary interest in proof and reality, so the iconophiles followed up with two more arguments, one based on tradition and the other on the evidence of miracles.
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The first of these derives from the story that the evangelist Luke was a painter and had painted pictures of Mary and Christ. These original paintings were studiously copied by subsequent painters thereby maintaining their link with the original subject. These pictures could therefore satisfy our demand to be both 'drawn from life' and lifelike, depending on the saint's skill as a painter, the accuracy of the copy (and our willingness to believe the whole story).
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If this explanation was insufficient the second basis for giving credence to pictures was the frequently miraculous nature of their production. A number of stories included painters having dreams or visions in which they saw the subject of their paintings, enabling them to create a true likeness. In other stories the artist would awake to find the picture already drawn, needing only to be coloured in. This could be taken even further with someone having a dream in which they meet an unfamiliar saint and then subsequently recognising them in an icon(confirming both the vision and the picture).
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Whatever credence we may want to give these justifications they do at least show that early Christian art shared similar concerns with us about the appearance and evidential quality of their pictures. Though a 6th century icon may not fulfil our expectations of 'photographic' verisimilitude it was considered important that the picture looked like its subject. In fact the comparison with photography goes much further than that. The curious thing about the authentication of pictures, either through tradition or through a miraculous vision, is that they require the subservience of the painter. The artist is obliged to be an honest recording device rather than an interpreter. Not unlike a camera, their job is simply to mediate the miraculous vision/traditional representation. Just as we think of a snap as a trace of reality, so an icon is seen as a record of God through the same causal process of recording an impression. Sounding as if he might almost be describing photography, St. Theodore the Studite (in the 8th century) writes 'As the shadow becomes clearer with the radiation of the sun, so also Christ's image becomes more conspicuous to all when it appears by imprinting itself on materials.'
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The ultimate in pictures that represented (or recorded) God were known as images 'not made by human hands'. These rare and famous images came about miraculously, in most cases after some kind of contact with God. The most celebrated of these was the Mandylion of Edessa which was said to have been sent by Christ to King Abgar of Edessa who was seriously ill. The cloth, a kind of napkin, had a miraculous imprint of the face of Christ on it and cured Abgar of his illness. Other similar works include Veronica's veil, supposedly used to wipe the face of Christ on Calvary and containing a similar image of Jesus' face (Veronica is also read as meaning 'true-icon'). And then of course there is the Turin Shroud, though this seems to have been produced later.
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Discussion of these objects soon starts to read like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Before we indulge this curiosity it is worth noting another unexpected comparison with photography. Counter-intuitively a trace of reality does not necessarily 'look like' anything. An icon of Jesus may be 'real' if produced after a vision, even if it does not conform to our idea of 'realism'; a blurred or out of focus photograph is no less a trace of its subject than a focussed one. So the coupling of 'appearance' and 'presence' may be merely coincidental. The hierarchy of believability might in fact be completely wrong and Jesus with long green fingers (though perhaps not Jesus in South Park) be our best bet for a true picture of God. Also, as an aside we might ask how much our contemporary ideas of reality and appearance are indebted to an older theology.
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The Turin Shroud or Mandylion of Edessa have at least the advantage of being very old compared say, to the New Mexican tortilla. These objects offer the tantalising possibility of a link with the historical Jesus. Cut to Hollywood actor in old library, reading ancient scroll in Greek. The trouble is that these objects often changed hands, were frequently copied so it is hard to tell which is the original and finally were victim to the propaganda of rivals. The Mandylion is first reported in the 6th century, is in Constantinople by the 10th century but disappears after 1204 when the city is sacked (by the crusaders bizarrely). It is at this point that the West starts to proclaim its own Christ image, the Veronica, at St. Peters in Rome, as the true image. The Mandylion may have been brought by the French king with some of the other spoils of Constantinople and kept in Saint Chapelle in Paris where a holy cloth is recorded until 1792 (and the royal collection is scattered or destroyed by the approaching revolution). The Veronica meanwhile becomes as famous in the West as the Mandylion had been in the East. It attracts pilgrims and prestige until 1527 when Rome is pillaged by Lutheran soldiers. They are reported to have put it up for sale in a tavern. It is not recorded who bought it.
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Reading these stories it becomes obvious that the point of pictures of God is partly to do with how we think of images and reality but it is also to do with the role pictures have in the exercise of power. From the earliest times icons were seen as a kind of super-weapon that would ensure the enemies of the Eastern church would be scattered. Take for example this account from 626 of an icon of the Virgin Mary saving Constantinople:
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'On all the gates to the west of the city, whence the monstrous brood of darkness came, the venerable patriach had painted, like a sun that drives away darkness with its rays, images of the holy figures of the Virgin with the Lord her Son on her arm, and cried with a terrible voice to the masses of the barbarians and their demons: 'You wage war against these very images But a woman, the Mother of God, will at one stroke crush your temerity and assume command, for she is truly the mother of him who drowned Pharaoh and his whole army in the Red Sea.''
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The iconoclastic controversy can be seen as not so much a theological question as a simple question of effectiveness. The empire was under threat so the question was asked whether in putting their faith in icons they were deploying divine assistance in the right way. Pictures of God also played an important role in establishing the status of the Emperor. Coins would include both Christ, 'ruler of rulers' and the emperor, invoking divine authority for imperial rule. An image of the Mandylion adorned a banner that was taken into battle by Ivan the Terrible (in the 16th Century) and was on the banners of Bulgarian and Russian troops in the First World War.
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The role of images of God in the exercise of secular power is not so obvious today but the current US president ill advisedly remarked shortly after the attack on the World Trade Centre that he was going to start a 'crusade' so it has become sadly inevitable that US/UK adventures in the Middle East have had religious overtones. The American religious Right is predominantly Protestant and therefore more likely to use biblical language rather than images. However, some of President Bush's supporters still like to write about how pictures of God relate to the actions of the current US administration. Two recent apparitions of the 'Blessed Virgin Mary' (known as the BVM) have occurred as what looks like condensation in the window of a hospital in Milton, a town south of Boston, and as a reflection in the window of the Ugly Duckling used-car company in Clearwater, Florida. The website www.revelation13.net discusses prophecies and apparitions and makes predictions about future world events. This is what they make of the BVM's most recent appearances:
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'This Mary sighting being in Milton may relate to Milton's book Paradise Lost, where Lucifer is seen to fall from heaven. I think this relates to former President and present President Bush seeing Satan rising to power on earth in Iraq as Saddam Hussein and later as Osama bin Laden, and by defeating these evil Muslim leaders, both former and present President Bush have made the world a safer place, by destroying evil, and not ignoring it. Perhaps this Mary sighting is a sign of the influence of Christ in Milton Massachusetts, that resulted in a hero being born there, who along with his son would help bring peace and security to this nation and the entire world. This Virgin Mary image is a sign of hope, and relates to the Bush Presidents bringing hope to the world, defeating evil in the world and helping bring world peace. Also it is interesting that the other Mary image is in Clearwater Florida, and Florida was critical in President George W. Bush's election victory.'
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As crazy as this may sound the Cincinnati based Shepherds of Christ Ministries bought the 22,000 square foot Clearwater building for more than 2 million dollars (only to have the top of the miraculous image smashed by an angry teenager with a catapult). As in much of this discussion the search for reality produces what looks like a hearty dose of unreality.
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