Thursday, 2 August 2018

Fake News and The Holy Family


I had occasion to be in Madrid recently and took the opportunity of visiting the legendary Prado Museum.

I went with the intention of viewing their collection of Francisco Goya paintings.  I have long been an admirer of this radical visionary as much because of his unbending moral and political principles as his skill with a paintbrush.

He appears to have been constitutionally unable to obfuscate the truth – while an artist at the court of Spain’s Ferdinand VII, at the risk of his life he portrayed the king as a vacuous popinjay.

Goya later became the first major artist to depict in realistic terms the grinding poverty of the common people. 

Neither did he shy away from representing the actual horror of warfare at a time when the artist’s job was to highlight its patriotic glory. 

Eventually, however, he did pay a price for his independence - deaf, depressed, and elderly, he was exiled to France for his political views.

I thought that in these days of “fake news” in our “deep state” there might be lessons to be learned from this unreconstructed radical.

To my surprise, however, my eyes were instead opened by El Greco the very conservative Christian artist whose work had never touched me before.

Although few Spaniards now appear to be practicing Catholics, yet the country continues to be defined by its history of militant Christianity. 

In 1492 Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or choose exile, while 80 years ago Catholic Nationalists defeated Left Wing Republicans in a brutal civil war.

El Greco (so called because he was born in Crete) believed that Christian heaven and earth are inextricably linked and separated by only the flimsiest of veils.

Whatever your views on such matters, there’s little doubt that this 16th Century artist reflected the beliefs and mores of his times.

After viewing a number of his overblown, if legendary, pictures I was drawn to his very simple and beautiful The Flight into Egypt. 

Mary and her infant, Jesus, are mounted on a donkey while Joseph attempts to drag the frightened beast across a bridge.

The Holy Family was fleeing the oppression of King Herod and seeking asylum in Egypt.

How often had I been told this tale as a boy and how little impact it had made on me. Just another “holy story” that droned on in another Wexford sermon.

It seems to have just as little resonance in contemporary USA, one of the most Christian of countries.

Then again the teachings of Jesus have been twisted to suit political expediency time and again. The Nazarene carpenter is often portrayed as a righteous militant rather than the compassionate visionary who delivered his bedrock moral principles in the Sermon on the Mount.

I gazed again at El Greco’s luminous portrayal of the Holy Family. Though the painting was over five hundred years old, yet I was reminded of a recent newspaper photo of a Guatemalan couple and their child apprehended on our borders as they sought political asylum.

Is the analogy too simple? Perhaps, and yet I remember nothing in the Sermon on the Mount that would justify separating young children from their families as has been done lately in this country.

Jesus, as far as we know, was not taken away from his family in Egypt. Joseph was allowed to practice his craft as carpenter and when the danger from Herod had passed years later, the family returned to their native land.

Although we have no way of knowing, it seems probable that the “dreamer” Jesus would have had little problem remaining in Egypt had he so chosen.

I turned away from the painting. I had intended to take another look at some of the radical Goya’s s masterpieces, but I had learned enough lessons for one day – and from a conservative visionary too.

As I strolled out into the blazing Madrid afternoon, however, the words of another radical thinker, Ewan McColl, echoed from somewhere within my consciousness:

“Two thousand years have passed and gone
Many a hero too
But the dream of that poor carpenter
Remains in the hands of you…”