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Santuario_de_Las_Lajas,_Ipiales,_Colombia,_2015-07-21,_DD_31-33_HDR.JPG

This is Las Lajas sanctuary in Colombia.  It was built on a bridge 50 metres (160 ft) tall which crosses the Guáitara River not far from the Ecuador border.  This beautiful sanctuary, a gothic revival mini cathedral, was completed between 1916 and 1949, but previous chapels have existed at the site for a long time.  According to folklore, the Virgin Mary appeared to a woman, Maria Mueces, and her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, at the site in 1754.  The two were passing by the Guaitara River when a storm broke out.  They sought shelter by a waterfall coming from the canyon wall.  Suddenly Rosa began shouting to her mother that the Virgin was calling to her and the pair witnessed the goddess above the gorge.  Later when Rosa unexpectedly died, Maria went back to the canyon to pray, whereupon her daughter was restored to life.  The modern church also features its own “miracle”: there is a fresco of the Virgin mother behind the altar…and nobody knows who painted it! To an artists, this latter miracle seems a little less like a miracle and more like an improperly executed PR plan. Also look at the Virgin’s enormous crown!

Nossa-Senhora-de-las-lajas-1.jpg

 

SerapisHellenistic

Serapis was a deity created by fiat for political convenience. When the Macedonian empire conquered Egypt during the heady reign of Alexander the Great, it proved difficult to integrate Greek and Egyptian culture. Religion was a particular sticking point: the animal-headed & multitudinous gods of Ancient Egypt struck the Greeks as barbarous and primitive. Likewise, the Greek gods, who cared little for humans (and even less about what happened to them in the afterlife) struck the Egyptians as cold. Ptolemy I, Alexander’s satrap who came into control of the Egyptian part of the empire realized that this was a dangerous tension, and so during the 3rd century BC he proclaimed a new god, Serapis, who combined elements of Greek and Egyptian deities (although some ancient sources suggest that worship of Serapis existed before, at least in some form, and Ptolemy merely stylized and popularized him).

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century BC)

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century AD)

Serapis took the form of a powerful Greek nobleman with a fulsome beard, a modius upon his head, a forked scepter in his hand, and the dog of the underworld, Cerberus, at his feet. Sometimes a serpent was depicted beneath Serapis. Serapis was meant to combine the Egyptian gods Osiris, death lord of the underworld, and Apis, a mighty bull god of fertility, but soon the new deity acquired characteristics of Hades and Demeter as well (who were also deities of the underworld and fertility, respectively). Serapis thus stood for the mystical death/resurrection cycle of living things. He shepherded the dead to a comfortable land beyond while simultaneously bringing life and fecundity to the world of the living.

 

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Serapis became very popular in the Greco-Roman world. During Roman times he was often portrayed as the consort of Isis (whose cult was extremely fashionable and beloved throughout the Roman sphere). Great temples—Serapeums—were built throughout Egypt and beyond to venerate the cosmopolitan international deity. Yet Serapis did not transition out of classical antiquity very well. Christians had their own deity of death and resurrection (who had uncomfortable parallels with the older god), and one of the defining moments of transition between the classical and Christian eras was the destruction of the Alexandrian Serapeum in 389 AD. Later, Renaissance classicists and scholars were drawn to the Olympian pantheon with their gripping moral dramas, but not to the perplexing syncretic figure. Yet numerous statues and artworks are left to testify to the age of Serapis, when the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world blended together (as did their deities of the underworld).

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

 

The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

Here is one of my favorite disturbing religious paintings.  The work was completed in 1864 by the not-easily-classified 19th century French master Édouard Manet.  At first glimpse the canvas seems like a conventional devotional painting of Christ just after he has been crucified and laid out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but, upon closer examination the multifold unsettling elements of the painting become manifest.  The figures are painted in Manet’s trademark front-lit style which flattens the figures out and gives them a hint of monstrous unearthliness.  This is particularly problematic since we are located at Jesus’ feet and his body is already foreshortened.  The effect is of an ill-shaped Jesus with dwarf’s legs looming above us.  Also, from his half-closed eyes it is unclear whether Christ is dead or not.  Is he artlessly deceased with his eyes partially opened?  Has he been resurrected already but is somehow still woozy?  Are the angels resurrecting him?  Here we get to the biggest problem of the painting:  when is this happening?  This scene is certainly not in the gospels (at least I don’t remember any episodes where weird angels with cobalt and ash wings move Jesus around like a prop).   Did Manet just make up his own disquieting interpretation of the fundamental mystery at the heart of Christianity?  It certainly seems like it!  In the foreground of the work, empty snail shells further suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning.  An adder slithers out from beneath a rock as if to suggest the poison in our doubts.  Painting this kind of problematic religious work did not win Manet any friends in the middle of the nineteenth century, however it is unquestionably a magnificent painting about faith…and about doubt.

In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of healing (as well as the god of light, poetry, music, and sundry other good things).  Yet Apollo was surpassed as a healer by his son the demigod Asclepius.  Asclepius should be one of the most exalted figures in classical mythology, yet his story is ambiguous and troubling (which is perhaps a more fitting tribute to the complexity and heartache of the healers’ arts). The mother of Asclepius was a mortal woman, Coronis, who cheated on Apollo with a mortal lover. When a crow reported to Apollo that Coronis was unfaithful, the sun god disbelieved the fowl and he turned all crows from white to black and gave them discordant voices.  Yet the story rankled the god’s heart.  When he investigated the rumor and found it to be true, Apollo killed Coronis with one of his terrible arrows.  As she writhed in death agony, he slit her open to rescue the son she bore (hence Asclepius’ name means “to cut open”).  Apollo then granted crows cleverness beyond other birds to make up for his anger.

The Birth of Asclepius (print)

Like many other demigods, Asclepius was raised and tutored by the centaur Chiron, a matchless teacher.  Soon the pupil surpassed the student and it was rumored that snakes licked Asclepius’ ears and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection).  Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing.  To this day a species of pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus) are named for the demigod.

Asklepios (Marble, c. 160. AD, found at Asklepios sanctuary in Epidaurus. Copy of an original from IV century BC)

Being the greatest healer in the world brought wealth and fame to Asclepius, who had many successful children, each of whom was named after some aspect of the medical craft (Hygiene, Panacea, Recuperation, etc…), but his success became his undoing.  When he left Chiron, the centaur had given him two vials of blood—one from the left side and one from the right side of a gorgon. The blood from the left side was a fatal poison which caused ultimate agony (as Chiron himself experienced firsthand at his anguished destruction).  The blood from the gorgon’s left side was a miraculous elixir which could bring the dead back to life.  Asclepius began to accept gold to revive the dead and he drew the baleful attention of Hades.  Afraid that the decisions of the gods would cease to hold terror for mortal kind, Hades begged his brother to make a final end of Asclepius.  Zeus was in full agreement and he burned Asclepius to a cinder by casting a lightning bolt at him.

Asclepius Reviving Hippolytus (Claude Lorrain, 17th century, pen & ink, wash and chalk on paper)

Apollo was furious at the death of his son (and the extinction of the apex of medical art).  Not daring to strike Zeus, Apollo killed the Cyclops who has fashioned the lightning bolt, an act which led Zeus to banish Apollo to the mortal realm for a year (during which time the god designed the walls of Troy). When his term was served, Apollo joyously rejoined the other Olympians.  Different traditions interpret the story’s end differently.  In happier versions, Zeus and Hades bring Asclepius’ spirit to Olympus to act as god of healing forever.  In other versions Apollo and Zeus hang the image of Asclepius in the heavens as the constellation Opiuchus, “the Snake Bearer” both to remind humankind of the physician’s greatness and to warn them to eschew seeking immortality.

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