Saturday, 29 August 2015

Break it up.



Human lives are more important than art, that should be stated right away, and the killing currently going on in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria is the worst thing about ISIS.  Some will try to make out that this tumult is somehow the west's fault and that we should take the blame for these deaths, and we certainly should take responsibility for some of them.  But this fighting is purely ideogical in the way that the Nazi's would have recognised and it was foisted on us.  You'll have quite a job on you're hands to defend the ideogical position of ISIS and even they can only begin to do it through the bizarre filter of their own particular version of Islam.  

Our own mourning of so many human lives can only be from a distance, as rightly only close family and friends can properly grieve over these deaths, but what about the death of art?  Recently reports that ISIS were in the northern parts of Iraq made me mindful of the location of the ancient city of Nineveh which was thought to be a Biblical metaphor as late as the 1820's until it was re-discovered by the brilliant proto-archaeologist Sir Henry Austin Layard towards the end of the 1840's.  Layard's life is one that rewards research and for sheer 'real life adventure thrills' reads like pages from the thousand and one nights.


Winged 'Lamassu' or gate guardian.  From Khorsabad.  Wikipedia commons.
Luckily much that was found at Nineveh is now sitting in various western museums.  ISIS have been judicious in their choices of which monuments to attack and are obviously using this as a means of goading the west, as if only western people really care about these things.  But of course they have managed to terrify their own people into acquiescence.  Their most recent war crime against world heritage sites has been in Palmyra, as it has come to light that a few days ago they blew up the Baalshamin temple (see at top of page) that has stood for two thousand years.  When you take the path of destroying art, you have taken the first step to complete perdition.  The idea of this kind of destruction is the hallmark of the true barbarian, after all where can you go from there?  What kind of society can you hope to build?  A drab dull one dimensional dullard society.  What miserable wretches.

However, we in the west shouldn't forget when we too were art destroying wretches and vandals of the worst persuasion.  Britain's civil war period and its aftermath was a bad time for art, for in a very similar way to those of ISIS, the average British puritan of the seventeenth century saw Idolatry wherever they looked.  And much of what they looked at ended up in pieces.   And then of course, a hundred and fifty years or so before was the reformation.  Scarcely a church or monastery in Britain escaped some kind of damage, and many of the ecclesiastic buildings (like the priory in my home town) were left in ruins.

A lot of the sculptures of saints that line the walls of Wells Cathedral were lost to vandalism, but this set of huddled saints who all look as if they're having a quick cigarette out the back managed to survive.  Wikipedia commons.
 During the period of Charles the Second's reign country people began attacking the stone circle of Avebury, breaking up the stones with sledgehammers and crowbars.  Stone circles might not strictly be termed 'art' but their destruction by the people is a pretty good litmus test for the prevailing mood.  Much of Avebury still survives as it is one of the largest such structures in Europe, but many of it's stones were broken into rubble  through a combination of a need for building material and ignorant religious zealotry.

And then there's the vandalism of the French revolution, where revolutionary hardliners who were convinced that the church represented the ancien rĂ©gime and all that was outmoded and anti revolutionary (they were probably right there) attacked all church buildings and their fabric, just as we did during the reformation.  They damaged or totally destroyed at least twenty buildings that were probably artistic treasures, the most valuable of which was the Church Abbey of Cluny, the largest church building in all Europe.  They began their attacks in 1790, and eventually almost all of it was demolished in 1810, although one tower still survives.  Watch the video below for a beautiful 3D animation walkthrough recreating this lost monument.

  

Another crime committed by the revolutionaries was the attack on the beautiful medieval sculptural group known as 'The Well of Moses' by Claus Sluter.  The hexagonal plinth section which depicts various biblical patriarchs such as Moses (hence the name) was left fairly intact, but the revolutionaries vented their spleen on the crucifixion on top of the plinth.  They destroyed the cross, most of the Christ, and all of a figure of Mary Magdalane that stood at the foot of the cross.  Today, fragments of the Christ figure exist, the head, shoulders and upper torso, enough to see that it matched the fine quality of the work on the plinth.

The Well of Moses by Claus Sluter.  Wikipedia commons
 We are certainly living in dark times, possibly not since the Second World War have they been so dark, and so we should keep in mind something my Grandfather always said, 'those that can't make will always break.'  So if you see anyone anytime soon taking a sledgehammer to a work of art - then run for the hills or stand and fight.  Whichever you feel is the appropriate response.

Picture of Baalshamin temple Wikipedia commons.

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