history of religion

Representing Material Evidence: The Catacombs in Print

by Madeline McMahon

bosio1632 frontispieceAntonio Bosio’s Roma sotterranea was published posthumously in 1634. Bosio’s original manuscript, now in the Biblioteca Vallicelliana, was finally brought to print by the Oratorian scholar Giovanni Severano. The book would have cost a fortune—it was over six hundred folio pages long and heavily illustrated—but it became enduringly popular (Simon Ditchfield, “Reading Rome,” 189). It covered much more than the underground world of the Roman catacombs for which it is now known. It detailed how the martyrs’ bones had been preserved by providence for future believers (book I) and discussed early Christian material evidence from construction sites as well as excavations proper in books II and III. But the vast majority of the visual evidence for which the book is so famous and the detailed analysis of that evidence in book IV were primarily the work of the editor Severano rather than Bosio (Ditchfield, “Text Before Trowel,” 346). Severano’s team of engravers recreated Christian sarcophagi, catacomb paintings, lamps, and inscriptions, often from multiple angles.

In the catacombs, as Jerome reflected dramatically in the fourth century, “So great is the darkness that the language of the prophet seems to be fulfilled—‘Let them go down quick into hell.’” How did one bring the catacombs to light in print—how did one depict the material evidence that was so often fragmentary but also charged with devotional meaning? Severano’s interests were clearly iconographical. His added fourth book addressed the typical representations of biblical figures and the symbolism used in the catacomb art. Iconography could both help and hinder understanding of early Christian art. It helped the engravers fill in destroyed or only partially visible carvings and paintings. Typically they did not call attention to it, but sometimes they did.

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Reconstructing a damaged wall painting, with a hypothetical restoration (p. 271)

Here, for example, they have taken the liberty of showing a corresponding figure in the orans pose on the other side of good shepherd where a piece of plasterwork had fallen off. But they have also taken care to show both their addition and the damaged area. Yet their expectations for iconography could also blind them, leading them to expect the instruments of martyrdom (p. 433) or subtly shaping their depiction of a bust-length portrait of Christ (p. 253).

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.18.40 PMThe way in which they depict text is especially fascinating in light of Severano’s attempts to depict and describe early Christian iconography. As he noted in IV.31, “the ancient Christians not only represented our Lord with various images, as we have seen, but his most holy name was expressed in different mysterious ways,” including the monogram (cifra) of the Chi-Rho (p. 629), comprised of the Greek letters Χ (chi) and Ρ (rho). Letters could function like images—to such an extent that Severano included the symbol in the book’s index under “X” rather than “C,” so that befuddled readers could learn what this common sign meant.

This awareness of text as image sometimes influenced the reproductions of epitaphs on sepulchers. Although many of the reproductions only imitated original inscriptions through their use of capital letters, Severano’s team occasionally reproduced visual elements in the text, such as the exaggerated size of T’s (probably referring to the association of the Greek letter Τ (tau) with the cross) in some (p. 300). As in the case of the praying figure on broken plaster, they also tried to indicate damage, either by replicating cracks in the stone or including ellipses in the transcription. While they frequently attempted iconographically based reconstructions of missing parts of paintings or imperfect sarcophagi, textual frammenti were left incomplete. In one instance, on a marble stone that was especially “worn out,” they simply confessed, “Il resto non si può leggere” (p. 400).

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A broken inscription and an inscription with exaggerated T’s (p. 151)

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.24.59 PMWhile even simple capital letters in a square are evocative of the material object they represent, there are a few instances in Roma sotterranea when Severano clearly felt that the script was integral to the artifact. One was a broken sepulchral inscription found by the Via Portuense catacombs—one of many fragments “from which one could not extract any sense” (p. 125). Perhaps its very difficulty made it necessary to reproduce with greater attention to the placement of the text on the stone. Text, with symbols like palms, doves, and the Chi-Rho, also features as part of the reconstructions of the sepulchers carved out in the catacomb walls. One page in particular includes an attempt to copy the curved, messy writing on an anonymous grave: “Rest in peace. Kalends of December” (Sabbato in pace KK decembris) (p. 214).

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Tombs with inscriptions (p. 214)

Although Severano’s appreciation of script was not as sophisticated as his understanding of early Christian iconography, the two are not unrelated. As William Stenhouse has shown, earlier contemporaries of Bosio and Severano had begun to contextualize classical inscriptions and reproduce them to scale, differentiating between different kinds of writing. They had even made attempts to reconstruct fragmentary inscriptions. In many ways, Roma sotterranea follows these trends more closely in its engravings of catacomb paintings than in its reproductions of Christian inscriptions and epitaphs. Nonetheless, there were certain instances in which image and text were treated as one. The inhabitants of “Underground Rome” had envisioned Christ in many guises—as a Good Shepherd, as an Orpheus, and even as collections of letters. Their own writing was part of the material evidence that Bosio encountered, and these textual objects became part of a new one when Severano brought the book to press.

Moses Gaster: Folklore, ‘Medieval’ Judaism and Turn-of-the-Century Jewish Historiography

by guest contributor Yitzchak Schwartz

Historians have a very specific idea of how Jewish intellectuals understood their history at the turn of the twentieth century. Most see Jewish historiography of the period as centered around the German Wissenschaft des Judentums (roughly ‘Jewish studies’). Such prominent practitioners in this school as the philosophical historians Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, Heinrich Graetz for instance saw the Judaism of their day as stuck in the rut of a medieval past characterized by suffering and superstition.  Many of them portrayed ancient Jewish history as pointing the way towards a reflowering of Jewish civilization in the modern period.  They imagined classical Jewish history as a time before medieval Jewish legalism, the proliferation of Jewish mysticism and the institution of legal and social barriers to Jewish participation in general society.

Moses Gaster in 1904

Moses Gaster in 1904

Moses Gaster (1856-1939), a Romanian-English Jewish intellectual, might serve as a model with whom we can broaden this narrative of Jewish historiography and explore alternative turn-of-the-century metanarratives of Jewish history. Gaster was both a popular and academic historian even as his work took place at the borders of academic scholarship of the period. Using the emerging discipline of folklore, his work trumpeted medieval Jewish life, legends and folklore as containing rich lessons for the Jews of his own day and as a valuable means of accessing Jewish folk culture.

Gaster was born in Bucharest in 1856 to a wealthy Romanian-Jewish Family of Austrian descent. He attended gymnasium while receiving a classical Jewish education from private tutors. Later, Gaster completed his first degree in Romania at the University of Bucharest and pursued a doctorate at Breslau, where he also studied under Zunz and Graetz at the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary. Gustav Gröber, Gaster’s mentor at Breslau, was a philologist and pioneer of scientific comparative textual criticism in the service of philology. Gaster’s dissertation traced the history of the Romanian phenome k from its Slavic and Latin roots, incorporating folkloric materials as a means of discerning its development. During his time in Germany, he also began corresponding with Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu (as Măriuca Stanciu documents in a biographical essay on Gaster (82), the first scholar  to apply the structural and comparative methods of Jakob Grimm and Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl to Romanian folklore. Before completing his doctorate, Gaster began to publish in Hasdeu’s journal Trajan’s Column (Columna lui Traia), and began authoring studies on the structure of folktales along the lines of Hasdeu’s work in various Romanian and German-language publications.

Returning to Romania in 1882, Gaster took a position at the University of Bucharest. Applying Hasdeu’s methods, Gaster began to argue what would become a major theme of his work: the idea that Jewish folklore and legends as preserved in the Talmud constituted a lost link between Romanian legends and the literature and folklore of the classical world. (A convenient summary of his work on this topic appeared in an honorary volume published for his eightieth birthday, in an article by Bruno Schindler (21-23). In 1885, after he was exiled from Romania because of his proto-Zionist activities, Gaster settled in London and was appointed Hakham (Rabbi) of London’s Sephardic-Jewish community and Lecturer of Slavonic Literature at Oxford. In England, he encountered a very different field of folklore than he had known in Central Europe. There, folklore was less established a discipline, and was primarily the province of educated laypeople organized around the Folklore Society in London. In this atmosphere, Gaster became increasingly omnivorous in the source material he analyzed, and functioned increasingly independent of any established discipline, even folklore. He also began to focus more on Jewish subjects, which became the primary thrust of his research, writing on topics as diverse as Biblical archeology, the history of the Samaritans and Jewish mysticism. He heavily involved himself in the society, serving from 1907 to 1908 as its president and publishing extensively in its journal, which featured contributions from gentlemen scholars as well as academics working in other fields.

What unified Gaster’s work was an interest in the history and ways of life of ‘medieval’ Jewry, defined as the Jews of the post-Roman to modern periods. His scholarship was revolutionary in arguing for the importance of medieval Jewish texts and practices, and especially so in its retreatment of Jewish mysticism. His interest in folk practices as sources of value in and of themselves paralleled Central European nationalist folklore studies even as it comprised a new approach in the historical study of Judaism. Gaster’s revisionist narrative of medieval Judaism is perhaps best expressed in a public lecture delivered before the Jews’ College Literary Society shortly after his initial arrival in London in 1886. In it, he expressed the idea that medieval Judaism contained treasures for the Jews of his own day, and that “This youngest among the sciences… the science of Folk-Lore…” was the means to access this rich past. He begins with an explicit challenge of the Graetz-Zunzian picture of Jewish life in medieval times, one that also challenges its focus on elite levels of Jewish society:

When we look back at bygone times and try to picture the life of the Jews within the walls of the ghetto … we see only the gigantic towers lifting their heads to the sky above… whilst all beneath them is plunged into night and darkness…. Such is the picture presented our minds when we attempt to realize the life of the ghetto. Is this picture true? The science which endeavors to answer these and similar questions is a new one… The science of Folk-Lore…. Thanks to this science we now recognize as mere legends matters which we considered as facts for centuries, and, on the other hand, many a poetical fiction… is reinstated in its rights. We look with other eyes on the heaped up treasures of Jewish aggadah [the legends and ethical teachings of the Talmud]… Brought under this new light cast on them they glitter and gleam in a thousand colors.

Gaster’s disciplinary independence allowed him to open up new directions in the study of Judaism. His acknowledgement of the importance of mysticism in Jewish life and of the vitality of the Middle Ages presaged the revolution wrought by the scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem’s scholarship decades later. Likewise, the attention to Jewish Law as a historical source evinced in much of his work would only become mainstream in Jewish-historical scholarship after the work of Jacob Katz in the 1950s.  Taken as a whole, his work suggests some exciting new directions for the study of Jewish historiography.

Yitzchak Schwartz is a doctoral student in modern history and Jewish Studies at New York University. He studies the role of popular ideas in religious and intellectual movements and narratives of history. He can be reached at yes214@nyu.edu

Reflections on “Treasured Possessions” and Material Culture

by Madeline McMahon

Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment,” an exhibit at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, folds the viewer into the fabric of life in early modern Europe. Street venders hawked their fare and pharmacists displayed their wares, and men paraded around in the latest fashion while women stepped into slippers to protect their elaborately embroidered heels from the mud and dung of the city. In the relative quiet of the house, people cooked, ate, drank, sewed, prayed, and saved money, all aided by or in the setting of their material belongings, which, of course, they also spent time arranging. Much in the same way an early modern household would display its finest objects for view, the exhibit shows off some of the Fitzwilliam’s fantastic collection of decorative arts.

The exhibit is also an instance of historians in the museum: it was co-curated by three historians from Cambridge’s faculty—Melissa Calaresu, Mary Laven, and Ulinka Rublack— and the keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Victoria Avery. Thanks to this collaboration, “Treasured Possessions” responds to recent historiographical developments in the study of cultural history and reflects their own research interests. Objects, not just archives, can teach us about the past—about production, acquisition, possession, and use. This exhibit is an homage to the rise of the study of material culture and it makes a strong case for that study’s importance by putting material evidence before the public. The cases and commentary do not merely display objects but also create a historical narrative around them—setting them into their local and larger contexts, while focusing on no one country or region in particular. The rooms depict the consumer revolution as Neil McKendrick and others have envisioned it since the 1980s, but with important addenda, noting, for example, that “alongside the production of worldly goods…[there was] a simultaneous surge in the production and consumption of items of religious significance” (case 18).

In fact, the case of “Spiritual Belongings” (18) especially captured my imagination (in part thanks to my own interest in early modern religious history). The case is in the final section of the exhibition, “At Home and On Display.” The exhibit as a whole gradually takes the viewer from the marketplace (a 17th-century print of Roman venders and their cries adorns the right-hand wall at the entrance) into the home, but to show devotional objects used in private versus those used in public—that is, in a church—is a helpful intervention. We would expect a cross or crucifix in many early modern churches, but to see the scene of the crucifixion on a bright green lead-glazed stove tile from late sixteenth-century Germany is almost startling. The tile is telling—Christ made his way into the early modern kitchen—but also obscure: we can’t be sure whether that stove fed and heated a Protestant or a Catholic family (Treasured Possessions, 241). Yet many of these objects were nonetheless crucial to confessional identity, as Laven observes in the catalogue (244). An 18th-century Dutch wall panel bearing an inscription from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians was likely Protestant, while a tin-glazed earthenware statuette of the Virgin and Child would have been a treasured possession in a Catholic home. Perhaps more than other items, religious objects reveal the limitations as well as the possibilites of the study of material culture: ultimately we cannot recreate precisely what they meant to early modern owners, even if aided by signs of use and the help of accompanying text or images.

Text and images, after all, are objects, too. Early moderns recorded their own use of objects—as in Matthäus Schwarz’s “book of fashion,” a manuscript in which he recorded his outfits for forty years—and they were eager to capture the material culture of the world around them, as the prints of venders and costume books attest. They were even interested in the material culture of the past, as we are in theirs. They also used and displayed books in much the same way they showed off their other stuff. A pendant in the shape of a book, with biblical scenes as pages, and a book of hours would have worked in much the same way, and both were deluxe goods that signalled material well being as well as spiritual.

The mere survival of early modern objects can speak volumes. Many treasured possessions were ephemeral—such as tulips and camellias, and food and drink (although some trendy foods were represented in surviving objects, such as the this pineapple-shaped teapot, the container for an even trendier drink). Textiles and leather easily disintegrated: the only full suit of clothes in the exhibition is a reconstruction, and we are fortunate to have this worn pair of sixteenth-century leather shoes. But the objects that lasted despite their delicate nature, such as the many items from the Fitzwilliam’s impressive porcelain and maiolica collection, were clearly conserved thanks to the people who treasured them in the early modern period and after. The collection and display of objects are in so many ways distinctively early modern, and the exhibit captures and plays on that, like a modern Wunderkammer of ordinary and luxury goods.

“Treasured Possession from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment” is open at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK until September 6, 2015.

Approaching Religious Belief and Practice in Modern Intellectual History

by Emily Rutherford

Two weeks ago, I attended a concert of seventeenth-century German music. The theme was the liturgical season of Lent, with a number of pieces meditating somberly on death. They meant Jesus’s crucifixion, of course, but I found myself thinking of the death, destruction, and political upheaval that characterized the period in which most of the program’s composers were active. Was the emotional pain evident in vocal pieces like Samuel Capricornus’s setting of “O Traurigkeit” related to Capricornus’s experience of fleeing Bohemia at the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War? Or do such secular explanations indicate an unwillingness really to explore the content of religious belief and practice, figuring religion as significant only when resulting in sectarian political violence and not as something that might inform affect, action, and art in its own right?

This is easy to do, when European politics seems to have been so shaped by the considerable violence and instability of the seventeenth century: monarchs deposed and killed, new systems of international order formed. It’s easy to see how it is that so many historians of modern political thought are drawn to the Thirty Years War and the transition it marks (or so the traditional story goes) from sectarian religious divides to a pragmatic, “Enlightened” politics of European balance of power. In Steve Pincus’s highly successful retelling of Britain’s 1688 (the so-called “Glorious”) revolution, the choice of the Dutch prince William of Orange as monarch in preference to the Stuart king James II involved two competing visions of the modern British state and its relationship to its empire. In his discussions of James’s Catholicism versus William’s Protestantism, Pincus shows Catholic-Protestant, High Church-Low Church distinctions largely to be political labels; they map—perhaps a little too neatly—onto the Whig-Tory divide. Like the modernizing story about Westphalia, Pincus’s account of 1688 has more to do with polities—the alternative constitutions and philosophies of empire modeled by the Netherlands and France—than with cultural divides suggested by the differences in Catholic and Protestant belief and practice that had previously shaped England. It’s a compelling story, but it might miss out too much. It’s true that politics were entwined with the church: bishops could be elevated to positions of political authority, deviance from the established church had long been associated with political radicalism (Pincus pays little attention to the fact that republican Dissenters had, all too recently, actually killed a king), the head of the state and the head of the church were (and are still, in Britain) formally the same person. Taking religion seriously on its own terms doesn’t mean ignoring the Realpolitik ways in which the powerful maneuvered around it in order to stake their claims to governance. But it does mean, perhaps, moving away from a way of understanding European history in which the “modern,” pivoting on a series of crucial moments in the seventeenth century, can best be apprehended as a body of secularized political thought. Perhaps it also means apprehending that when James II proposed to re-Catholicize Britain, this was something that would have consequences for belief and practice (re-emphasizing the Mass, returning to non-vernacular worship) that were central to many people’s lives, powerful/educated and not.

In nineteenth-century Britain, it is more possible to speak of a politics not fundamentally intertwined with theology. But as biology, geology, and archaeology changed how people understood the Biblical past, debate raged about how to understand Darwin’s theory of evolution or whether the Bible could be read metaphorically and allegorically. On June 30, 1860, huge crowds turned out to watch “Darwin’s bulldog” T.H. Huxley debate evolution with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, at the Natural History Museum. One member of the crowd may have been the undergraduate John Addington Symonds, whose letters are filled with commentary on how theological controversies of the period raged within Oxford. As he recalled in his autobiography, “Theology penetrated our intellectual and social atmosphere. We talked theology… wherever young men and their elders met together” (244). Years later, on holiday in France with his young family, Symonds experienced a nervous breakdown—what his friend and early biographer Horatio Brown termed “the crisis at Cannes,” and attributed to the catastrophic implications of Symonds’ loss of faith.

From the 1960s on, as Symonds has become recognized as a pioneer of homosexuality, scholars have taken a different tack: a man as ahead of his time as Symonds is not so likely to have been deeply shaken by loss of faith; the breakdown must have been a result of his struggle to repress his true sexual orientation. But is it so impossible to believe that a man who evidently thought deeply about theology, who wrote about the relationship between religion and science throughout his life, might have been paralyzed by the thought of a world without God? Is it so difficult for the historian to imagine how a change in formal patterns of worship (whether their sudden absence in Symonds’ life, or a shift from Protestantism to Catholicism brought on by a regime change) might have affected someone’s life as much, or more than, sex? Is it so strange that thinkers of the age of science and industry, grappling with radical new ideas, might also have asked questions that had troubled others for many centuries?

Belief is a tricky thing to grasp—it’s not always as well-documented on paper as the decisions of statecraft—but it’s important to try. For me, apprehending the complex relation of theology to more earthly matters, and the ways in which the formal rituals of religious observance can structure societies very differently to my own pluralist society of twenty-first-century Manhattan, flexes my muscles of historical empathy. But more importantly, it troubles the connection many of us instinctively draw between secularism and the modern west, and challenges us to think critically about the intersections of religion, politics, thought, and art in both the past and the present.