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Catacomb Saints

About a month ago, I took a short bike tour in the Allgäu, starting in Ulm and going down to Rot and der Rot, where I gave a speech. Taking the bike on an IC train turned out to be pretty straightforward, as long as you reserve everything first. The landscape down there, at the border between Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, is idyllic: rolling hills, verdant meadows, cool deciduous forests, and fat, lazy cows and sheep everywhere. Perfect for biking: The hills are just high enough to add some variety to your ride, without being too intimidating.

The entire area is filled with baroque monasteries and churches. I usually find baroque churches a bit tedious: after a while, the hovering angels and ornate columns and rays of light remind me of a Mexican cab-driver's dashboard. So I was a bit surprised to find myself really liking the South German baroque on display. In the really fine churches, such as the spectacular Ottobeuren monastery church, the pleasure comes from the consummate skill on display. The sculptural groups -- in particular, the Baptism of Jesus located above the pulpit -- are minor masterpieces, as are the ceiling frescoes by Januarius Zick. Riotous blasts of juicy Counter-Reformation drama.

Ottobeuren Baptism of Christ Above Pulpit (Joseph Christian 1763)

Ottobeuren Main Altar
But there's also a charming, folk-art aspect to many of the churches. St. Verena, the monastery church at St. Norbert in Rot and der Rot, is a soothing blend of neoclassical columns and baroque ornamentation. It has paired groups of side-altars topped by ingenuous sculpture groups created by F.X .Feichtmayr II in the 1780s:

St. Verena Sculpture Group Moses and Copper Snake (F.X. Feichtmayr II 1779-86)

St. Verena Sculpture Group Crucifixion (Feichtmayr 1779-86)
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of these churches is the phenomenon of the so-called Catacomb Saints (Katakombenheiligen). Beginning in the 16th century, the catacombs under Rome were re-discovered. Someone had the ingenious idea of locating skeletons buried on or near Christian symbols (cross, monograms, lambs, martyrs' palms) and declaring them to be early Christian martyrs. The skeletons could then be sold to interested buyers, of whom there were many in Germany.

After arriving from Rome, the skeletons would then be draped in the most precious finery the local community could afford, and displayed in ornate glass-enclosed altars. Sometimes the skeletons are propped on pillows, holding martyrs' palms, sometimes they are standing up. The bones are usually held together in fine white gauze. To make them more life-like, the faithful might place wigs on them, or even entire reconstructed model faces. Nevertheless, their clothes are always made with cunningly-placed openings showing a shinbone here or a ribcage there, to make sure the faithful know they are seeing an entire skeleton. A few pictures:

St. Verena Reliquary Altar St. Domitia (Feichtmayr 1779-86)

St. Verena Detail of Head of St. Benedictus

Ottobeuren Reliquary Shrine St. Bonifacius

Ottobeuren Reliquary Shrine St. Bonifacius Detail of Head-1

It goes without saying that the attribution of entire life histories to these anonymous remains was almost always spurious. The practice was finally ended in 1860. Tour guides and brochures often gloss over them or ignore them entirely, as if they were faintly embarrassed by the whole charade.

I found them fascinating. The German artist HAP Grieshaber, known for his monumental woodcuts, was born in Rot an der Rot. As a child, he was also drawn to the catacomb saints, as his wife recalls:

He rode to Rot an der Rot. After a half-century he saw the place of his birth again.... There, Helmut Andreas Paul (HAP) had been born to Protestant parents. His first steps led to the monastery church, which was his playroom. Immediately, he found his childhood, and himself, again. Some visitors might have thought him very pious as they saw him on his knees in front of the side altars, to see everything from the perspective of a four-year-old, before his nose these glass cases* with their martyrs' relics, these macabre delights, whose ivory-shimmering bones are draped so richly in pearls, embroidery, sequins, and glimmering semi-precious stones. A skull blooms like a bouquet of roses, some were covered with plaster and painted to a doll-like sheen. Some hands held swords, and some had embroidered shoes over their delicate ankles. Grieshaber recognized everything once again. He remembered how he had felt as a child, and saw everything he had previously kept covered and hidden in his conscious life. And over him arched the round, figure-strewn heaven of the Baroque.

(source: Kirchenführer Pfarrkirche St. Verena, p. 27).

Continue reading "Catacomb Saints" »


Surrounded by Swastikas

Swastikas pop up in the most unlikely places, including all over India and a building on a U.S. Navy base.

One of the odder sightings was sent in to me recently by a reader who works at a refinery in Texas. Some parts of the refinery are pretty old, and need routine maintenance and/or replacement. What do they find when they cut open some insulation to inspect an old fitting but this interesting corporate logo:

Swastika Pipe
In fact, there were swastikas all over the place in the early 20th century. The Crane Valve company used to use them on almost all its valves:

P_vh_swastika
As the corporate website drily notes: "The swastika unceremoniously disappeared from Crane valves in the 30’s as a certain country in Europe began using it."


More on the Troy Davis Case

The New York Times quoted me today on European attitudes toward capital punishment:

With passage in 2000 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, capital punishment was abolished across the European Union. Germany had ended the practice in 1949, Britain in 1969 and France in 1981. Those decisions were far from universally popular at the time, but a wide-ranging consensus has since emerged that capital punishment is a backward and unjust practice, analysts say. Still, a handful of politicians on the fringes of the right still call for a debate over executions.

Doing away with the death penalty is “seen as an established norm of modern society,” said Nicole Bacharan, a French historian and political scientist at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. Most of the French have come to consider capital punishment as a moral question, Ms. Bacharan said — and one with an unequivocal answer.

It puzzles many Europeans, then, that capital punishment persists in 34 of the 50 American states.

“They don’t understand that Americans believe you can lose your right to life,” said Andrew Hammel, a former Texas defense lawyer who is now an assistant professor at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany.

The deep cultural influence of the Roman Catholic Church has imbued many Europeans with a belief in “unconditional human dignity,” Mr. Hammel said, a belief that the state “must respect human beings whatever they’ve done.” The Protestant tradition of the United States, by contrast, emphasizes individual responsibility, he said.

In further contrast with the United States, most European judicial systems rely on jurists who are appointed rather than elected. Activists working to abolish the death penalty in the United States often suggest that political considerations affect the thinking of judges and prosecutors.

I spoke to the article's author, Scott Sayare, for about 30 minutes or so. Considering the space limitations, he did a good job of conveying my views. Nevertheless, I thought I'd add a bit of context:

  • First, as Sayare suggests, you can't really say that "Europe" has turned against capital punishment. What in fact happened was that European elites -- judges, legislators, professors, senior bureacrats -- turned against capital punishment after World War II, and finally abolished it. And this change of opinion, even among elites, took many decades to solidify. The populations of most Western European countries now rejects capital punishment by pretty solid majorities, but that has only emerged since the mid-1980s or so. The situation is very different in Eastern Europe, where capital punishment was eliminated in the face of widespread public support for it, only because the Council of Europe demanded this step for EU admission. Capital punishment remains popular in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and mainstream politicians occasionally there occasionally call for its reinstatement. (Various treaties make this impossible).
  • When I talk about the Protestant tradition in the United States, I'm speaking specifically of a Calvinist/Puritan strain of Protestantism that has considerable influence in the States, not of Protestantism in general. Joachim Savelsberg has argued, I think pretty convincingly, that the background cultural influence of American Protestantism has created a way of looking at crime, punishment, and the death penalty that differs from continental European attitudes. Roman Catholic natural law doctrine has developed a strong notion of human dignity that has influenced European legal orders, but which plays a much weaker role in the United States.
  • Two caveats to the above observations. First, nobody is arguing that Americans believe in capital punishment because they're Protestants, or Europeans disagree because they're Catholics. Many non-Catholic Europeans who object to almost everything about the Catholic Church are nevertheless influenced by the accumulated deposit of thousands of years of its intellectual influence. Savelsberg is talking about cultural attitudes, the 'background radiation' of society, not about specific religious affiliations.
  • It's interesting to speculate about why the population as a whole embraces or rejects capital punishment, but the opinions that really matter are the ones held by people who actually have influence over policy. In almost all continental European societies, there is one criminal code for the whole country. This code defines all major crimes and sets out the relevant punishments. Generally, this criminal code was based on a draft put together by commissions of experts, reviewed by senior bureaucrats, and then passed by the national parliament. The judges and prosecutors who implement the code are all life-tenured civil servants. Ordinary voters have almost no direct influence over criminal justice. Politicians may bloviate about law and order, but this rarely leads to dramatic changes in actual policy.
  • In the U.S., by contrast, direct public participation and democratic control over the criminal-justice process is a fundamental part of the legal tradition. Half of all state-court judges are elected, as are almost all state-level prosecutors. Each state has its own criminal code, and they often vary dramatically. Juries participate in almost every criminal case that comes to trial (although about 90% of cases are settled by a plea-bargain). If the politicians of a certain state don't get tough enough on crime, citizens can create new crimes, or re-introduce capital punishment, by direct popular referendum. The state of Oregon, for instance, got rid of capital punishment by a direct popular referendum in 1964, and then brought it back in 1984. This level of direct popular control over criminal-justice policy would be unthinkable in almost every country on the European continent.

Some American perspectives from Andrew Sullivan here.


America: Less Godly Every Day

Greg Paul at the Washington Post looks at the increasing secularization of America:

As the survey results come in, as the irreligious best-sellers sell, and as the scientific analysis gets published, it is increasingly clear that Western atheism has evolved into a forward-looking movement that has the wind at its back, is behind the success of the best run societies yet seen in human history, and is challenging religion as the better basis of morality. Even in the U.S., a religious anomaly in the Western world, atheists are making major gains while Christianity withers, already having lost the mainstream culture to secularism. The least religious regions of the nation are enjoying superior societal conditions.

...

The still-common claim that nine out of ten Americans still believe in God is an outright falsehood. When asked if they believe in God or not, about 90 percent say yes, but when asked about whether or not they believe in God or a higher power or universal spirit, the actual God-believing theists drop to eight in ten. Two Harris polls also show that a fifth of Americans are atheistic to a greater or lesser degree. These results accord with Pew’s estimate that America in general is half as religious as the most theistic nations. Up to the 1960s only a couple of percent told Gallup they did not believe in God or a universal spirit, all out atheists have since quadrupled to the upper single digits. That’s why Bible skeptics have doubled to one in five since the 1970s, and those who accept evolution are at an all time high while creationism shows signs of slipping. Bible literalism is in strong decline, and the religious right, always a minority, is showing signs of distress as an internal report by the Southern Baptists bemoans that “evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernible deterioration.” That’s because the churches are losing the digitally connected, traditional organization-averse youth; today’s twentysomethings are twice as irreligious as was the same cohort in the 90s. (Further details here.)

I've noticed (or at least think I've noticed) religion getting less and less important in American life over the years. As with a lot of other social trends -- income inequality, capital punishment, etc. -- religiosity seems to becoming increasingly a specialty of the American South, while the rest of the country moves toward Western European social attitudes.

From a purely personal standpoint, the level of religion in mainstream American culture seems to be gradually ebbing, and the stigma attached to being an atheist is fading as well. I'd be willing to bet that one factor driving religiosity in the U.S. is immigration from highly religious countries. As any drive through a typical U.S. city such as Houston immediately shows, the massive, sprawling areas of town filled with recent immigrants are full of churches of all kinds, offering services in Indonesian, Tagalog, Korean, Spanish,Vietnamese, Chinese, you name it. If you counted the number of faithful Americans among only those born in the U.S., you'd probably see even less religion.


No More Berliner Fahrbier?

Ahh, the beloved German custom of drinking an ice-cold brew wherever you please. The Fahrbier, or 'beer for the journey', I call it. Alan Nothnagle reports from Berlin that transport officials there are mulling a ban on drinking on subways:

THERE'S A MOVEMENT UNDERWAY calling for a complete ban on the consumption of alchoholic beverages in the vehicles and stations of Germany's [sic, he means Berlin's] far-flung public transport network, the BVG, and I think it's a bad idea. Sure, I understand where the initiative is coming from: alcohol-fueled violence and vandalism, let alone the inevitable mess they leave behind, have long since reached unacceptable levels, and the city's passenger association, under the leadership of a conservative Christian Democratic suburbanite, wants to put a stop to it. But is banning booze on the bus, as other German cities have done, the solution? No, it isn't. At least, it isn't as long as Berlin doesn't want to become like any other city.

Since reunification, Berlin has heroically defended the wide-open, "Wild East" quality that it earned in the "front city" days of the Cold War and the mad years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. As globalization and the simultaneous consolidation of corporate power endeavor to make our increasingly bland and overheated planet safe for Facebook and Amazon.com, Berlin remains "free" with just a hint of genteel anarchy. You might call it "sin," but we call it "Berliner Luft" (Berlin air). It may not smell very nice, but it sure is refreshing.

Take the city's relationship to alcohol. As things still are today, you can buy any kind of alcoholic drink in any of hundreds of all-night shops and consume them pretty much anywhere in the city. Not only are sidewalk cafés everywhere (without the railings that my own American home town insisted on before it finally legalized such cafés after a decade of controversy), but particularly young people, wary of high bar tabs, increasingly choose to pick up a few bottles of beer or cheap champagne and guzzle them in parks or on bridges. The large, trendy thoroughfare near my flat becomes a sort of mobile saloon every evening as the tourists wander along clutching half-liter beer bottles in their feverish provincial hands. Booze is still banned in schools, the last I heard, but it is a popular beverage in movie theaters, right alongside Coke and Red Bull. The only restriction on beer is that you have to be at least sixteen years old to buy it.

I strongly second Nothnagle's sentiments. If they ban public drinking anywhere in Germany, I pledge to go to that place and engage in massive civil disobedience.

One quibble with the piece, though: Nothnagle claims banning subway beers in Berlin will make it 'like any other city'. This is a piece of 'only-in-Berlin' preciousness. You can drink in public just about everywhere in Germany. The same goes for most of the other things Nothnagle mentions about Berlin, such as the omnipresence of legal bordellos, streetwalkers, adult video stores, nude bathing, and people casually lighting up a spliff in public. You'll find these things in all major German cities.

So, if Berlin actually did ban public drinking, that would actually make it stand out from every other German city. And it mark yet another depressing stage in Berlin's steady transformation into a tame, homogenized outdoor shopping-mall.