Saturday, May 1, 2010

The first time as tragedy, the second time as "Funny, you don't look . . ."

A traditional motif in European church art has been the opposed figures of the Old and New Testaments, typically represented by allegorical personifications of Synagogue and Church. In the statuary at Notre Dame de Paris, for instance, the figure of Church is triumphantly erect and the figure of Synagogue is abject and blind, with broken staff and cast-down crown.

Click to enlarge.

And sometimes these paired ideas take on a verbal quality that goes beyond mere pictorialism. In this early fifteenth-century wood carving from the cathedral in Erfurt, for example, the composition's major axis is not vertical, as in Gothic architecture, but horizontal, as in writing. The figures are not static and physically separated, as they are at Notre Dame; they are in motion in a story. They are not just pictures; they are characters.

Within their story, these characters display the equivalent of the western's black hats and white hats. The hat worn by the figure of Synagogue, for instance, is the helmet-shaped badge of shame prescribed for Jews in medieval Germany, and Synagogue herself is carved in much deeper, more realistic relief than Church. Church has a bland generic face and rides a bland generic St. George horse, but Synagogue's face under her helmet is a grimace out of remembered nightmare and her mount is an image that emerges directly from the German dictionary: the Judensau, reserved in German folk art and folk speech specifically for Jews. There is stylized narrative movement in the image, too: movement from left to right, the direction taken by the good guys in the battle scene of almost every movie you've seen.

All of which is a way of saying that in 2010 we read this picture as part of a still living language, in ways we probably can't read the stonework stills from the silent movie that is Notre Dame. But of course, no matter what we read, we read in translation, and translation sometimes approaches us behind the treacherous smile of a faux ami. How do you think you are going to read this next image, for instance?

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 26, 2009.
Photograph by Jamm Aquino.


No, the bearded man in tallis and yamaka actually isn't Jewish. We know that not because of his East Asian face but because of his red shirt: the uniform worn by a band of Christians demonstrating at the Hawaii state capital against a proposed bill allowing gay civil unions. At the contact zone between Republican politics and evangelical Christianity, the Christian doctrine of supersession sometimes assumes a textile realism in the form of Jewish ritual garments -- and that, and nothing else, is what you're reading here.

As to the man in the blue shirt, it might be fun if we could make a correct guess about his religion. Of course we're unlikely to find out, but on the other hand we actually don't even need to learn that part of the story, the part that assures us, "The End." After all, even in the mere ongoing presence of images that can be read only provisionally, the world becomes a comic book where one of the funniest punch lines of them all is, as we say, immer schon available for the reading. That's the one that begins, "Funny, you don't look. . . ."