Nadya Be

Treasures of Faith, Trauma of the Faithful

27 Jun 2012


The practical business of the Church consists in instilling by every conceivable means into the mass of one hundred millions of the Russian people those extinct relics of beliefs for which there is nowadays no kind of justification, "in which scarcely anyone now believes, and often not even those whose duty it is to diffuse these false beliefs." To instill into the people the formulas of Byzantine theology, of the Trinity, of the Mother of God, of Sacraments, of Grace, and so on, extinct conceptions, foreign to us, and having no kind of meaning for men of our times, forms only one part of the work of the Russian Church. Another part of its practice consists in the maintenance of idol-worship in the most literal meaning of the word; in the veneration of holy relics, and of ikons, the offering of sacrifices to them, and the expectation of their answers to prayer.

-Leo Tolstoy, “The Kingdom of God is Within You”



I am a Doukhobor. And when I say this to anyone, I am invariably met with one of two reactions: complete puzzlement, or mild horror. Puzzlement, because the term “Doukhobor” is unknown and foreign to them. Mild horror, thanks to their limited knowledge, because in the early twentieth century, a group of Doukhobors broke away to create their own cult, one that resulted in the longest-running terrorist campaign in Canadian history, and one which has plagued the overall conception of what constitutes authentic Doukhoborism.

This is not the forum in which to devote my time to meticulously explaining what comprises the main tenets of Doukhoborism; that is what the internet is for, and a quick Google search will offer you everything you want to know about it. I will, however--for the sake of readers who need some kind of immediate context--simply state that being a Doukhobor means pacifism, rejection of materialism, respecting Christ as the mortal teacher of unlimited compassion that he was, and most of all, a devotion to God that wants nothing to do with displays of wealth, places of worship, icons, or supernatural hocus-pocus. At its core, Doukhoborism means worshipping the God that is present in absolutely every organic form of life without having to resort to paying tithes, gilding cathedrals, or adhering to scripture that doesn’t seem to suit the ever-evolving needs of human beings as they progress in both scientific and psychological realms (though most certainly not spiritual).

It took me until I was in my mid-twenties to truly understand and embrace the progressive, limitless system of belief that being a Doukhobor entailed; it seemed too strange, undefined, open to interpretation, and yet limited to the Russian language and various traditions that I had no interest in, having been raised in a dull suburb outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. Yet once I began my quest for some kind of spiritual pursuit to make sense of the life I hadn't been terribly interested in making the most of, it seemed that being raised a Doukhobor was, perhaps, one of the greatest blessings that I could have ever asked for. Tolstoy himself claimed that the Doukhobors were ahead of their time, and actually helped fund their immigration to Canada through the proceeds of his mostly-unknown novel “Resurrection.”

Given my spiritual background and my ongoing, nonstop, endless quest for some kind of meaning in this exhausting world, it was with a sort of metaphysical intent that I decided to visit the Bode Museum's “Treasures of Faith” exhibition. I very much wanted to see the sort of religious artifacts, items, and holy relics that were of such vast importance to Europe in the Dark and Middle Ages; to see for myself, personally, how these treasures could serve to uplift and enlighten the most pious of Christians and church-goers, and if there was some kind of spiritual significance or even intangible power in the displayed items. I am mostly unfamiliar with the sanctity of religious iconography, but have always had an endless curiosity about their usefulness and practicality in not only maintaining, but actually elevating one's devotion to the divine.

As the Bode Museum is yet another glorious, yet rather massive architectural marvel in Berlin's Museuminsel (Museum Island), it was somewhat difficult to locate the correct signage for where the actual “Treasures of Faith” display was. My hopeless, embarrassing attempts at Deutsch were lost on the security guards, who simply pointed me in the general direction of what appeared to be a massive exhibition of artwork, carvings, and paintings that all adhered to religious themes. And so—mistakenly, but fortunately—I spent the first 30 minutes of my visit looking through creations from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque period.

(I assure you that this perusal of the permanent exhibition impacted my overall impression of “Treasures of Faith” once I discovered that my intended presentation was actually held in the below-ground level of the Bode Museum. The way in which it did so, I will address momentarily).

After taking in the extremely moving items that covered the entire area of the main floor, I at last made my way down to the lower level, where I opened two sets of doors that housed the temporary exhibit. Immediately, I was impressed with the ambience that had been created to make a solid, and quite solemn impact: everything was extremely dark, all black walls and columns and low lighting, with only the individual pieces lit up in their glass cases offering any brightness. The fact that the treasures themselves were the only sources of illumination in this room enhanced their sacred beauty, and created an extremely otherworldly atmosphere wherein I dared not even breathe too loudly. Such a thing sounds like hyperbole, which I am often guilty of, but without a doubt it was an extremely intense and impressive first impression.

This exhibition, according to the accompanying literature and description provided by the Bode Museum, “is formed by key works from the Welfenschatz (which once made up the church treasure of the Collegiate Church of Saint Blaise in Braunschweig, also known as Brunswick), as well as from the Hildesheim cathedral treasure.” Some of the items are 1,000 years old, and range from the Late Antiquity to the Gothic period in Europe.

My attention was instantly drawn to the fact that everything surrounding me was an heirloom of great luxury. Gold, gold, gold was everywhere, and silver, and gems, and semi-precious stones, and gleaming objects, and generally magnificent wealth and stateliness. I do not own any items of extreme monetary value, such as jewelry or antiques, and have visited a jewelry store perhaps four or five times in my life (simply as an escapist fantasy to admire the beauty of the jewelry’s craftsmanship, and to experience what it would be like to have thousands of extra dollars to spend on sapphire rings or emerald pendants). Wandering quietly into the exhibition, I sort of felt like an infant whose parents dangle shiny, jangly keys in front of her to keep her mesmerized and silent, so ornate and gorgeous were the treasures displayed all around me.

Treasures in the name of God.

The chalices were the first thing I looked at and and studied, particularly the Communion Chalice fashioned from silver and gold, the purpose of which I wasn't entirely certain. I am only vaguely familiar with the Catholic practice of Communion, in which Catholic church-goers receive the Eucharist and wine (the body and blood of Christ) from a priest, and I assumed this chalice was the vessel for the “blood.” I am even less familiar with First Communions, and this is only through what I have come across in various books or articles, wherein a child—a female child, for instance—dons a regal white gown and headdress and undergoes the ritual of receiving her first Eucharist.

I am not an expert, nor would I ever pretend to be. These are the core basics of my understandings. I only have a rudimentary knowledge of (and interest in) Catholicism as a whole; the religion itself seems fraught with archaic rules and doctrines that don't seem to apply to modern-day society. As a whole, Catholicism appears to have not evolved with the passage of time, and consists of many elaborate rituals, doctrines, and ceremonies to commemorate a devotion to Jesus, God, and Mary.

There is no question that some of these practices are aesthetically beautiful, and likely bring much comfort to those who have been raised in an Orthodox Catholic household that steadfastly maintains the ancient traditions, but ultimately—having lived and worked in a couple of countries where Catholicism infiltrates government decisions, much to the detriment of teenage girls who become pregnant with two, three, four children before the age of twenty-one with no father in sight—I can't say that I need to know much more than what I already know, or want to know more than the countless newspaper headlines detailing yet another monstrosity committed by a priest against innocent young children working in the parish. How can these experiences not colour my perception of this organized religious practice?

These items in the presentation, according to the texts in both Deutsch and English that accompanied the display here and there, were ecclesiae: objects of veneration (spiritual), and precious valuables (material). Yet another new word for my vocabulary! So here were the most outstanding items of the ecclesiae that I noticed as I wandered through the darkened, almost austere display, which wasn’t that huge, but which had plenty of of items to gaze at through glass:

The chalices, numerous chalices of gold and silver, studded with precious and semiprecious stones.

The countless crosses and crucifixes on display, also mostly constructed from gold and silver, embedded with invaluable gemstones. In particular, the Cross of Heslio, flawless gold, embellished with emeralds and amethysts.

The Cross of Emperor Henry II, which was astonishing in the amount of expensive materials used for its construction. Herein lay the melding of two institutions—the Ottonian Dynasty of the Middle Ages and the Catholic Church—and the end result was one of the most over-the-top, flagrant displays of wealth and power, embodied by the almost ostentatious Cross of Emperor Henry II.

The Three Solar Crosses (1128 – 1140), which were actually perfect crosses set against a circle; gorgeous, festooned with gems, with a four-point star in the centre cross.

A picture frame created from gold and pearls.

Portable altars, which were actually appealing; they had the appearance of keepsake boxes, generally made of some kind of metal with marble lids, not decorated with any pearls, gems, or stones. These were among the most “modest” of the items in this exhibition.

It was one of the last items I looked at, right in the back of the room, which was a silver-and-gold model of the Virgin and Child (1482), that made me realize I could not and would not be able to view this display through a neutral, impassive lens; my Doukhobor conditioning had made it so. My personal philosophy of what constitutes religious faith--which is as simple as being a pacifist and embracing God in all its natural forms wherever you happen to be--was completely influencing the way in which I viewed these extravagant antiques.

Furthermore, the first walk-through of the Bode Museum in which I looked at the permanent display (remember the Italian Renaissance and Baroque pieces that I mentioned earlier?) had cemented my view of religious icons and iconography, and how absolutely imbalanced and unjust this system was and has been for centuries and centuries. There was no way for me to regard “Treasures of Faith” without bias.

Allow me to now address the mistaken stroll I took through the upper level of the museum: now, housed upstairs in the Bode, before I came down to stare at all the precious metals and stones, the Renaissance and Baroque art had created pieces that were devoid of any noticeable inclusion of highly-priced materials, and yet was far more moving, more stirring, than anything I was gazing at in this basement exhibition. The Italian artists had not used—or, more likely, had no access to—any priceless materials, and perhaps did not want or need them. They had fashioned sculptures and paintings and objects and models from what seemed to be an overall need to pay homage and respect to Christianity through their own passion and talents.

For example: the fragment of the “Crucifix” by Tedesco (1460) took my breath away. Hanging on the wall, this depicted Jesus on the cross (simply an endless theme throughout these upstairs rooms, outnumbered only by Madonna and Child images) made from wood. The decay or age or fragility had caused most of the bottom limbs to disappear, and the white paint used for his body was mostly chipped, exposing the original dark wood that had been used by Tedesco to fashion this crucifixion. However, the paint appeared to have come off in long strips and strands, and the overall, unintended effect of this erosion was something like rivers of blood streaming down Jesus's face, torso, and what remained of his legs. It was true homage, and most of all—given the tortured facial expression of the subject—true suffering, which of course, the Buddhists believe all of life to be.

This piece of artwork struck me as being far more of a “treasure of faith” in its rawness, its use of simple materials, and the awe-striking passion for detail that the artist had infused into its creation.

The “Six Captives” by Piazzetta (1678 / 81) were small figurines painted in gold, yet the most striking element to their design were the expressions on their faces: that of anguish, dismay, and sorrow.

The “Virgin and Child with 5 Cherubs” by Savelli (1480), all of the cherubs with sleepy or fearful expressions on their faces.

The most disconcerting but compelling of all, contained in the Baroque rooms: side-by-side, “Fall of the Rebel Angels” and “Last Judgement”--astoundingly elaborate carvings made of ivory, so detailed that the figures appeared to be coral framed by gold at first glance, and both pieces of art only about 30 cm high. Peering closely at these twin works, we see piles of bodies and figures, winged, horned demons, skeletons half-stuck in the ground or climbing out of coffins to terrorize the damned...no detail or facial expression spared to convey the torment of the victims’ nightmarish journey to a Christian notion of Hell.

Here they were, two exhibitions that housed items spawned of religious devotion: the first, relatively ordinary materials to depict religion as a brutal, almost malignant process inflicted upon humanity. The second, holy objets d’art utilizing expensive materials to produce symbols, icons, and almost unnecessary items to venerate the power of the Church on the citizens of Europe.

The juxtaposition was astounding. The Doukhobor spirit in me could not dredge up any admiration for these “treasures of faith”, as to me, they represented only oppression, abuse of power, and the unabashed parading-around of a wealth that most commoners and civilians would never, ever have access to in order to provide for even their most basic of needs.

I could not marvel over these artifacts, nor could I even pretend to. Here were heirlooms of no practical necessity, elaborately ornamented, engraved, crafted, and...for what, exactly? For whom? God? Jesus? Jesus, a simple man, supposedly a former carpenter, who taught compassion and a rejection of materialism for the good of humanity? Were these “treasures of faith” a means of worshipping God, or the people in power who were in possession of them?

My Russian peasant ancestors suffered without mercy at the hands of the church-state, enduring beatings and physical torture and exile simply for the right to worship God as they understood him--without the gilded chapels, without the jewel-embossed crosses--and it was with this lifelong knowledge that I walked away from the Bode Museum with a somewhat heavy heart, but not before reading the inscription on the Head of the Godehard Crozier Hildesheim (1133), which somehow seemed to sum up everything about organized religion that I, and many others, cannot subscribe to:

“Conquer those who put up resistance, lead those who stand upright, raise up the fallen.”


 
Photo: Aaron Licht