Consider this: a comfortable French fashion artist living in Paris has a profound religious experience. Because of it, he drops everything, leaves his comfortable Parisian life, and heads to the Holy Land to find Jesus. There, he immerses himself into the culture and history of the place. He pores over the bible and scholarly biblical texts. And then he illustrates the complete gospel of Christ, as set in the Holy Land, with brilliant artworks that are as historically accurate as possible.
And that is the (abbreviated!) story of James Tissot!
I’ve been poring over his artworks and his writings as of late, and honestly it’s brilliant. He made a masterwork called, “The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ” in which he paired his watercolor paintings with the text of the bible — both in Latin and in English/French — along with his commentary on why he painted the scene as he did.
His commentary is a gem in itself. Because of his scholarly research in the bible, he’ll often cite historical sources, explaining the history in layman’s terms, so sometimes it seems like a history book hidden inside scripture. But then, sometimes, it reads more like a travel log, in which he recounts the history passed on through the generations by goat herders, as recounted by the goat herders he spoke with during his travels.
Alas! Currently, the book is out of print. But, all of Tissot’s artwork is available, thanks to the Brooklyn Museum. (And I might be working on a top-secret project to restore the book to its original glory, now that I’ve finished(!!!) my Rosary book series. 🙂 )
Anyway! While there, he was surprised with how differently the Holy Land was portrayed by the artistic traditions of the West, and sought to recreate the scene to be both historically accurate and visually accurate to the Holy Land. After all, many artists like to portray Jesus in there own land, like this picture of Jesus in the wilderness — which actually places Jesus is the Scottish highlands. And so, Tissot took a great pride in his renderings of the scenes that broke with artistic tradition, but were actually more historically accurate and could help you visualize the gospel better.
For example! Since we are in the middle of the macabre religious art series, let’s take the Massacre of the Innocents as an example. The gospel describes the scene as this:
In the Western art tradition, many artists depict this as women running away, protecting their children, while soldiers rip out the children from their arms. For example, here is an artwork of the massacre of innocents, as it is commonly portrayed. Take a peek of it, if you want. (It opens in a new tab.)
Now take a look at Tissot’s portrayal of the Massacre of the Innocents:
It’s a ghastly scene, in which the young infants and toddlers are tossed out of the windows, some of them caught in the tree, in a bizarre detail that makes the scene even more ghoulish. And while many children are dead, only two mothers are present, and are being forcibly held down by the Roman soldiers.
Plus, as a personal aside, the children portrayed splayed out on the cobbled floor look similar in size to my own infant. It’s honestly a hard picture just to look at.
James Tissot’s commentary goes as follows:
“The account of this horrible massacre astonishes many readers of the Gospel narrative and they exclaim that it is improbable. It must, however, be remarked that the number of children under two years old in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood is not likely to have exceeded sixty.
“What were a hundred murdered children to Herod? There were nothing but butcheries throughout his reign, and even his own family was not safe from his fury. According to the Emperor Augustus: it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son; and Voltaire says that Nero was gentle compared to this tyrant. Of the six children born to him he killed four. After the siege of Jerusalem the members of the Sanhedrin were all massacred. Antigonus conquered: he was killed; Aristobulus, Herod’s brother-in-law, was drowned in his bath; the venerable Hyrcanus, the last of the Asmonœans or Maccabees, was murdered; Herod’s wife Mariamne was assassinated, his last two sons, her children, were strangled; the two leaders of revolts, Judas and Matthias, were burnt alive, with many others of less note. When he felt his own death approaching, Herod ordered the massacre of thirty thousand Jews in the circus of Jericho in honour of his funeral.
“According to tradition, the Massacre of the Innocents took place in the following manner: all the mothers who had children under two years of age were gathered together, under the pretext of a fête to be held in honour of the birth of one of Herod’s own sons. Not a mother would have liked to miss it, and all the poor women came, bringing their little ones decked out in their best. To avoid a tumult when the broken-hearted mothers gave vent to their shrieks of despair on discovering the cruel deception, the women were made to enter one by one a porch opening into a court. There the child was torn from the mother’s arms and flung into the gloomy court, whilst she was driven out at the other end of the porch or gallery, so that the group of waiting mothers, still in happy ignorance and eager for their own turn to come, had no suspicion of what awaited them.”
…doesn’t that make the scene all the more ghastly?
And yet, in many ways, Herod was considered to be a fairly competent politician. Yes, he called for the deaths of many, including innocent children and even his own family. But, he did a lot of economic reforms that arguably made it easier for the Jews under Roman rule. He served as a mediator between the Jews and the Romans and did his best to ease tensions between the two, and effectively restarted the Jewish Kingdom when he was chosen by Roman rule to be the King of the Jews.
He also rebuilt the Temple, a fact that made many question whether Herod — of all people! — were the Messiah. After all, was he not King of the Jews? Did he not rebuild the Temple? In fact, it is thought that one of the reasons why he ordered the massacre of the innocents was because he wanted to be the one who was remembered as being the Messiah.
Can you even imagine? Herod being considered the Messiah? The thought seems ludicrous.
Well! History didn’t remember him well, and that is a good thing. He killed the innocent children. And that is what he is famous for to this day.
Still, with the election coming up, it makes me wonder — in the long term of history, how will history remember us? Will they look at our economic prosperity and marvel in the comforts of the day and of our technology that can do so much?
Or will they be horrified by the other parts of our culture, so much so that the horror outweighs the good?
There are certainly some horrible parts about our culture. There are weapons of mass destruction that are even terrifying to imagine. But there are also other technologies that can used to kill that are relatively common and many can get their hands on. There are families that are being broken up in a variety of ways — sometimes by force, such as in the case in many illegal immigration cases or through the prison system, but other times by conscious choice through divorce and sometimes just the deliberate abandonment of children altogether.
And I realize I am over-simplifying things and that there are nuances and particular circumstances and all of that. Things are complicated.
Trust me, I know.
Still, in the light of the Massacre of the Innocents, I can’t help but think about how abortion fits into this. Thousands of years later, Herod is remembered as a villainous character for killing a couple dozen children. How much more would our generation be condemned?
As our medical technology grows to be better and better, we have a clearer idea about the development of the biological development of the human at the earliest points of development. There are free pregnancy apps that allow you to research the development of the growing human inside the womb. We have medical technology that can help save premature babies, sometimes as young as 21 weeks old, and as our medical technology improves, we may be able to improve that number and save lives even earlier of babies who would otherwise be dead.
Even I am probably a miracle baby: thanks to medical technology, I survived. I was the smaller twin who was at a weird angle at birth. If I had been born a century earlier, I would probably not be alive right now. Thanks to medical technology, I am. And the medical technology has only improved since I was born!
And yet, we also have widespread abortion. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the number of abortions worldwide to be 40-50 million abortions a year.
For those who like visuals as to how big this number is (and that’s probably all of you, because otherwise, why would you be coming to a religious art blog if you didn’t appreciate visuals?) that is: 40,000,000 to 50,000,000.
And yes, there are plenty of reasons for abortion and the women who have abortions are often impoverished and marginalized in some way. There are financial, cultural, social, and, yes, even biological reasons behind abortion. Pregnancy is hard. I speak this as a mother of three, and yes, I’ve dealt with complications with pregnancy and labor. It’s not easy.
Yet, I ask you: if scientists were studying animals that constantly ate a poison to deliberately miscarry their young, the scientists would hypothesize that something was terribly wrong somehow, perhaps with the environment that this animal was living in. The scientists would examine the environment to determine why it was so toxic for the animals to even seek out that poison in the first place.
We are, in a way, animals too. How much more does this speak about the toxicity of our own world? St. Pope John Paul II used the phrase “the culture of death” to describe the world that we live in. And no, that is not an exaggeration on his part. The dead babies thrown down on the cobblestones in this artwork, as accurate and violent as James Tissot tried to be, are still not as disturbing as the photographs that depict the torn apart fetal remains, in which every finger can be clearly seen on the disembodied arms.
When we vote, we need to try to fight against this tide of death. Which, honestly, is hard because things are complicated. The world is complicated. We live in a toxic environment and it’s not clear which how to make the environment less toxic. Otherwise, things might be better than they are.
However, a good rule of thumb is this:
Does the person that I want to vote for normalize the death of the innocents?
Or does this person want to fight against it?
Let us be people of action.
Please vote for life.