04 March 2008

On the destructive roots of Christianity

Were the fanatic Christian iconoclasts responsible for all those headless statues that now clutter up the museums? Eberhard Sauer, a reader in classical archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, attempts to answer that question in The Archaeology of Religious Hatred (Tempus, 2003).

The required detective work is, however, no easy task when the only clues available in most cases are nothing more than some headless pagan gods or mutilated murals. How can we know that it wasn’t an enemy soldier seeking revenge, or an earthquake or a simple accident that was the real culprit? According to Sauer, the presence of any of the following 5 pieces of evidence is enough to suspect Christian zealots and "saints".

1 exceptionally laborious and thorough modes of destruction without any obvious practical purpose like re-use of stone,
2 cases where pagan images appear to have [been] targeted, but other artwork spared,
3 cases where naked deities were more thoroughly destroyed than their modestly dressed counterparts,
4 temples in which items of value, notably coins or other metal
items, were deliberately left behind, and, of course,
5 iconoclasm in temples which soon thereafter were consecrated
as churches or built over by churches.
Sauer discusses several examples of vandalized pagan temples, mostly in Europe, but also in the Middle East and Egypt, goes over the available evidence and argues that in many cases the perpetrators were Christians.

Who dunit? Gods that were being restored at Claros in western Turkey in August 2000.

The book provides quite a bit of information on Mithraism, a relatively short lived religion that was popular among the subjects of the Roman Empire, and about which I knew nothing previously. According to Sauer, some common elements Mithraism had with the then emerging Christianity made its temples a frequent target of Christian iconoclasts.
It is precisely because Christianity did not have a monopoly on the promise of salvation and heavenly life after death that Eastern mystery cults, notably those of Isis and Mithras, were serious competition, even though the exclusion of women put Mithraism at a major competitive disadvantage.
Not every case Sauer reviews as a purported example of destructive Christian iconoclasm is fully convincing; in some instances, the evidence is not entirely supportive and his conclusions are speculative and controversial. For example, the destruction of the Mithras temple at Mühlthal in Bavaria was attributed, by its excavator, possibly to looters seeking treasure despite the fact that a large number of coins had been left behind. Sauer, however, thinks that Christians were indeed responsible for the act, because "[i]t makes infinitely more sense to argue that the decision to leave money behind was borne out of religious conviction, the fear of contamination with cursed votive objects, and the fear of divine punishment."

However, treasure-seeking, which must have been a strong and perennial driving force for the vandalism of many religious sites, cannot be easily dismissed. Charles Fellows noted in his Travels and Researches in Asia Minor the impressions he had of the Anatolian peasants' destructive preoccupation with hidden treasures in Anatolia in 1840. (Incidentally, more than 160 years later, the rural mentality towards antiquities is sadly still the same in Turkey.)
My guide kept earnestly begging that I would point out the stones in which he should find gold, thinking that I knew from my books where it was to be met with. The people had spent much time and trouble in cutting pedestals in pieces, imagining from their having inscriptions that they contained treasure. They have in several instances been fortunate, and I saw a split stone which from its form had probably been a kind of altar; into this they had cut, and, concealed in a hollow in the centre, they had found, they said, much gold money.
Overall, this is an interesting book, but it is a little difficult to read, because of Sauer's somewhat dense style. Most of the book is general enough for a reader like me with no relevant background to follow, but towards the end, Sauer veers into what appears to be a long-running dispute between academic fractions and the previously more informative style of the book turns into one of "he said that and I said this." Fortunately, however, those parts are short and can be skipped without missing out much.

1 comment:

John said...

Sounds interesting. If I remember correctly, some early Christian hagiography includes references to destruction or re-purposing of pagan shrines. And of course, the Byzantine Empire went through its own period of Iconoclasm, with destruction of Christian icons. I'm not sure how well written accounts can be matched to surviving artwork, but I would like to see how Sauer does it.