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A Quick 1: ISIS and Karbala

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- another quick one, this one concerned with "key religious and transportation hubs"-- ie pilgrimage routes ]
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BBC Karbala
Millions of Shiite pilgrims in the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala for the Ashura mourning rituals, 2012.

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Everyone should calm down.

That’s the message from Michael Knights in his Politico piece yesterday, Why the Islamic State Is Losing, subtitled The pundits have it wrong — the terrorists’ move toward Baghdad is a sign of desperation. Read the full article for his reasoning.

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Given my abiding interest in religion, and in the ritual commemoration of Husayn at Karbala, these two paras in particular caught my attention:

But most likely, ISIL is simply readying for its annual killing spree against Shia pilgrims during the Ashura and Arbaeen religious festivals. In the week before Ashura begins on Nov. 3, Baghdad will swell with millions of pilgrims making their way to Karbala, just southwest of the capital. Many of these pilgrims make the 50-mile walk from Baghdad to Karbala, which passes within seven miles of Jurf as-Sakr, a heavily-contested ISIL stronghold to the south of Baghdad. We can expect mortar attacks, car bombings and suicide-vest detonations inside the crowds.

This is the real meaning of ISIL being at the gates of Baghdad – that the movement is poised perilously close to key religious and transportation hubs, and may be intent on mounting sectarian outrages at the most sensitive moment of the year for the Shia.

Martyrdom is already one the minds of Shia pilgrims as they make their way to Karbala to memorialize the death of Husayn ibn Ali and his infant son, Abdullah ibn Husayn. If they risk their lives in this way, their dedication to the memory of the martyred Husayn may have much to do with it.

As an eyewitness quoted in Elias Canetti‘s Crowds and Power puts it:

No destiny is accounted more beautiful than to die on the feast-day of Ashura, when the gates of all eight paradises stand wide open for the saints, and everyone seeks to enter there.

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Tisha b’Av and Gaza

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- of the Temple Mount and Noble Sanctuary, by way of Bamiyan and Timbuktu, the Cordoba Mezquita and Cathedral ]
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The Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary, then and now

The Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary, then and now

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Today as I write this, it is Tisha b’Av — the day on which the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem took place in 587 BCE and 70 CR respectively — observed with mourning in the Jewish calendar.

I have recently been saddened by the destruction of sufi shrines by jihadist forces in Timbuktu and of Shia Husseiniyas in Tal Afar and Mosul. I am saddened by the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples in much the same way that I mourn the destruction of so many other sacred sites across the centuries — most personally in my case, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Afghan Taliban within my lifetime. And I sympathize with those saddened by the imposition of a Christian cathedral in the middle of the Mezquita of Cordoba — and would be saddened yet again should that cathedral be torn down in the name of yet another “conquering” religion.

It is the habit of conquerors to destroy or reorient the shrines and temples of the conquered in alignment wiuth their own religious beliefs or secular ideologies, and likewise of the conquered to retain their own faith, either adapting it to continue under cover of the newer religion, or maintaining its memory with the hope of its soon revival.

Cordoba, the Mesquita / Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site

In the case of the Mezquita or Grand Mosque of Cordoba, the mosque itself was built on the site of a Visigoth church, and still contains its eastern wall in which the mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca is now situated. I tend to share the regret Carlos V expressed when he said of the cathedral built within the mosque:

You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.

Be that as it may, history is a palimpsest, and while I can sympathize with the grief Msulims feel at the loss of their great place of prayer in Cordoba, I can also sympathize woith those Christians for whom the cathedral is their place of worship.

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Likewise, while I can sympathize with how observant Jews feel at the loss of the First and second Temples, commemorated with fasting on this day, I am also vividly aware that on Temple Mount — known to Islam as the Noble Sanctuary — now stand the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, two structures sacred to observant Muslims.

As we consider the recent events in Gaza — warfare and ceacefires alike — and on the occasion of Tisha b’Av, it is worth remembering that as recently as a little over a year ago, Knesset member Uri Ariel suggested it was time to rebuild the Temple on Temple Mount:

Perhaps he envisioned the words of the prophet, “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former, saith the LORD of hosts; and in this place will I give peace, saith the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:9).

“We’ve built many little, little temples,” Ariel said, meaning synagogues, “but we need to build a real Temple on the Temple Mount.”

Rabbi Richman on Temple Mount

Indeed, today Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute led a party of Jews up the Mount in commemoration of the two previous Temples, telling reporters:

Today, on Tisha B’Av, the day upon which the Holy Temple was destroyed, we came together with hundreds of Jews to the Temple Mount to fulfill the commandment of being in the holy place, to pray there for the welfare of the IDF soldiers who are defending all of Israel, and to show that the cycle of endless mourning can only end when the Jewish people are ready to accept responsibility for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. That responsibility rests squarely upon our shoulders. The sages of Israel have taught that the Holy Temple can only be rebuilt once the nation has achieved a level of unity and unconditional love. Throughout the past few weeks, our nation has been witness to a level of unity that is almost unprecedented in memory. This is the type of unity and commitment that will enable our generation, with the help of God and with the will of the people of Israel, to rebuild the Holy Temple.

Thus Gaza this year is interwoven with Tisha b’Av and the rebuilding of the Temple — on a site already occupied by the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock — in a manner which complicates the overall situation in Jerusalem with the “end times” expectations of not two but three great world religions.

Grief upon grief.

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For greater detail on these issues, see my posts Three from Haaretz on the Temple Mount and The most contested piece of real-estate on earth. As I noted in both posts, Gershom Gorenberg‘s book The End of Days is the definitive text exploring these differing apocalyptic expectations.

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Of literal and metaphorical readings

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from "whistleblowers" via the interpretation of hadith to Aztec sacrifice and Christian Eucharist ]
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Whistleblowing in Thailand (upper panel, above), which I wrote about in my previous post, is a literal matter, and whistles have seen a huge surge in sales since the “whistleblower” campaign began. In the US practice and politics of leaks, on the other hand, whistleblowing is an activity that requires no physical whistle — just a “blower” with some form of access to media.

There’s nothing terribly metaphysically significant about the distinction in this case, but in other cases it can make a great deal of difference. It’s an issue I keep running into, as a poet and as an analyst of religious drivers in war and peace, and the image of Thai schoolkids blowing their (literal) whistles finally nudged me into writing about it.

I suspect the difference between literal and metaphorical readings maps closely to many of the major fissues in US and globe-wide society.

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One area where the distinction can be of vital importance is in the interpretation of scriptures. Thus Jonathan Brown, Georgetown professor and author of Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, shows how the same authoritative text can be very differently interpreted:

When I tell you a hadith, this is in Sahih Bukhari and other books, where the Prophet says to Abu Dharr, his companion: Do you know where the sun goes after it sets, Oh Abu Dharr? and Abu Dharr says, God and His Prophet are more knowledgeable. Tell me, and the Prophet says The sun goes goes down and it prostrates before the throne of God… it prostrates before the throne of Ar Rahman and it asks His permission to rise again and one day it will rise from the West.

Now it’s very interesting, you see in the early twentieth century, Muslim scholars who were kind of modernist scholars start reacting very strongly to this hadith. They said it contradicts astronomy and this hadith contradicts the certainties of modern science because nowadays we know that the Earth actually goes around the Sun and not vice versa and classical Muslims didn’t know that and that’s why they accepted this hadith so we need to go back through the hadiths and analyze them to see which ones are scientifically impossible and which ones are acceptable. This was a big debate and we still have this debate today. Guess what? Classical muslim scholars, going back to the ten hundreds, said exactly the same thing.

Because if you’re a muslim scholar, one of the things you do before you had clocks on your phone and everything is to calculate prayer times and living in a place, I need to tell people what time the prayers are.

And what they found very quickly is that prayer times differ based on latitude, longitude..and they knew that the sun was always up in certain places. You can go to certain parts of the earth where the sun never sets.

So they looked at this hadith and they said how do we understand it then? Oh it must mean that the sun prostrates to God metaphorically like in Surah Rahman Najmu washajaru yas judaan.. the stars and the trees prostrate to God. It doesn’t mean literally the star is doing little sujood up in the sky. It means it’s surrendering to God’s will, it follows God’s will. So they had no problem, they just said this hadith is obviously figurative.

FWIW, the Neoplatonist Proclus, quoted by Henry Corbin in his treatise on Ibn Arabi, uses very similar language:

Just as in the dialectic of love we start from sensuous beauties to rise until we encounter the unique principle of all beauty and all ideas, so the adepts of hieratic science take as their starting point the things of appearance and the sympathies they manifest among themselves and with the invisible powers. Observing that all things form a whole, they laid the foundations of hieratic science, wondering at the first realities and admiring in them the latest comers as well as the very first among beings; in heaven, terrestrial things according both to a causal and to a celestial mode and on earth heavenly things in a terrestrial state….

What other reason can we give for the fact that the heliotrope follows in its movement the movement of the sun and the selenotrope the movement of the moon, forming a procession within the limits of their power, behind the torches of the universe? For, in truth, each thing prays according to the rank it occupies in nature, and sings the praises of the leader of the divine series to which it belongs, a spiritual or rational or physical or sensuous praise; for the heliotrope moves to the extent that it is free to move, and in its rotation, if we could hear the sound of the air buffeted by its movement, we should be aware that it is a hymn to its king, such as it is within the power of a plant to sing…

That’s either nonsense, taken literally — or poetry, taken in a metaphorical sense.

We would do well in reading scriptures of any tradition to bear both possibilities in mind — and remember that in the cultures of the writers, the distinction may be one that is less clear-cut than in our own.

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My second version of literal vs metaphorical readings of texts in this post — there have been and will be others — has to do with the overall genre of sacrificial liturgies, and specifically with Aztec and Catholic practices.

But first, some Judaic background. Leviticus 1-7 is concerned with sacrifice — and opens thus:

And the Lord called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock.

If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the Lord. And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces. And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire: And the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar: But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord.

Blood sacrifice was indeed a central aspect of worship in the First and Second Temples — and those who would like to see the Temple again restored in our own times are busy training kohanim, preparing ritual vessels sand holding “practice” sacrifices so that once the Temple is rebuilt, the sacrificial liturgies can recommence…

The Psalmist, however, appears to be of the opinion that God takes no pleasure in blood sacrifices:

Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.

and:

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

— so we also see from the time of the Second Temple what might be characterized as an inward-turning or metaphorical approach to sacrifice.

Eric Heaton, with whom I studied the prophets at Oxford, was easily distracted from whatever text I should have but hadn’t read by a quick reference to blood sacrifice — it would send him into a tirade sufficient to see us through to the end of my tutorial. I will have none of your blood sacrifices, saith the Lord, Dr Heaton would thunder…

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Early Christianity takes this a step further, heightening the sense of sacrifice in the Eucharist to the point where it transcends physical existence, and the “memorial” sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood in bread and wine at the Last Supper — prefigured by and embodied in the sacrifice of the paschal lamb of Judaism — along with the subsequent sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, and the continuing of that sacrifice in each successive Eucharist, are all portals within time to the “marriage supper of the lamb” or “heavenly eucharist” beyond time and space.

Thus the church historian JND Kelly writes that in the early days of Christianity:

the Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice. … Malachi’s prediction (1:10–11) that the Lord would reject Jewish sacrifices and instead would have “a pure offering” made to him by the Gentiles in every place was seized upon by Christians as a prophecy of the Eucharist. The Didache indeed actually applies the term thusia, or sacrifice, to the Eucharist.

I’ve quoted Dom Gregory Dix‘s long, profound and astoundingly beautiful paragraph “Was ever another command so obeyed?” in the Cadenza to my Said Symphony game, so I won’t repeat it here, but a poetic reaqding can be far more than metaphorical, it can be sacramental.

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And in the Catholic and Anglican liturgies, one phrase struck me with peculiar force. It is found in the opening of the Eucharistic prayers of consecration, the Anaphora. The Book of Common Prayer gives it as:

V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up unto the Lord.

— while the Latin of the Catholic missal has:

V. Sursum corda.
R. Habemus ad Dominum.

It is Sursum corda — literally, Hearts lifted — that I’m concerned with here, because it is a poetic or metaphorical usage, as we can see very simply by contrasting it with its literal equivalent as found in Aztec ceremonial.

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Hearts lifted – isn’t that precisely what is depicted here?

To the best of my knowledge, that’s an indigenous, post-conquistador image of Aztec ritual. And since the section of my library discussing such things is largely still in storage, not to mention under threat of auction, I’ll quote a crafts page on the history of obsidian to bring you a verbal description:

With sacrificial alters at the top of tall pyramids, built to be as close to the sun as possible, human offerings were often dispatched with the aid of an obsidian-bladed knife, their still pulsating hearts lifted high to the Sun.

How’s that for “hearts lifted” in a literal sense, ritually enacted?

It’s crucial (no pun intended) to note that there are significant differences between the various forms of sacrifice I have described here —

  • human vs animal sacrifice
  • the sacrifice of self vs the sacrifice of another
  • sacrifice by God vs sacrifice by humans (albeit commanded by God or the gods)
  • actual vs symbolic blood sacrifice
  • demonic inversion vs divine sacrament
  • etc..
  • — and yet they all fall under the general heading of ritual sacrifice. And although many Aztec ritual practices seemed to the early Catholics who first encountered them as demonic parodies of Christian rites, at some level they spring from the same archetypal soil and utilize the same archetypal imagery–

    — which has itself, thank God, been slowly transmuted from human sacrifice to sacramental symbolism across continents and centuries, a process for which we should be profoundly grateful.

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    For those of you interested in further readings in Eucharistic theology, I recomment particularly:

  • Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology
  • William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist

  • I shall have more to say on Torture and Eucharist in an upcoming post on Sarah Palin, baptism and waterboarding.

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    Coronation: the magic of monarchy

    Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- describing the second of two books I am currently working on -- your comments invited ]
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    I’m currently working on two book proposals for a publishing start-up a couple of friends of mine are putting together, and wanted to keep interested ZP readers informed. One proposal is titled Coronation: the magic of monarchy, and the other Landmines in the Garden: religious violence and peace-making. In this post, I want to say a little about coronation and monarchy.

    Coronation:

    Tregear's image of the coronation procession of Queen Victoria, 1837

    Coronation is the secret ingredient in monarchy, the symbolic gesture which sets things turning. It is high ritual — but whereas in general sacred rituals, countly rituals, legal rituals, military rituals and so on are separate and distinct from one another, at a coronation they are combined, with the sacred taking pride of place.

    Thus in Tregear‘s image above, we see the loyal subjects, the liveried flunkies, the military, the justices, the noblility, and Her Majesty… but it is the church to which her procession tends, the church in which she is crowned, and the church, in the person of the Archbishop, which crowns her…

    Coronation is a fascinating business, and in the course of the book I’ll be exploring coronations far and wide — papal coronations, the coronations of Charlemagne and Napoleon, the tantric union of the Emperor with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-omikami in the symbolism of the Imperial Japanese enthronement rites [Holtom, Japanese Enthronement Ceremonies; White, Tantra in Practice, p 27]

    Closer to my second home here in the US, I’ll be looking at the coronation of Mormon offshoot leader James Strang, the alleged ordination as “king of the Kingdom of God” of Joseph Smith himself [Shipps, p 199 n 7] — and the extraordinary 2004 coronation of the late Rev Sun Myung Moon in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC.

    Ah, well…

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    The Anointing:

    This golden Ampulla containing sacred oil or chrism was first used at the coronation of Henry IV in 1399

    The secret ingredient in the western tradition of coronation is the anointing: it is the signing with chrism that confers on the monarch the blessing of God, the crown being no more than a confirmation of that blessing in terms of visible power and dignity. Thus Sir Laurence Olivier, reading the words of Christopher Fry in the film commentary on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, called it “a moment so old, history can scarecely go deep enough to contain it”.

    From a poetic perspective, the sacral anointing of the monarch conveys not merely temporal power, but also a priestly and a healing function. Thus the ceremonial partakes of some of the same features as the ordination of a bishop, while the monarch also receives the gift of healing scrofula with the Royal Touch, as Shakespeare notes in Macbeth:

    A most miraculous work in this good king;
    Which often, since my here-remain in England,
    I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
    Himself best knows: but strangely-visited people, 150
    All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
    The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
    Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
    Put on with holy prayers: and ’tis spoken,
    To the succeeding royalty he leaves
    The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
    He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
    And sundry blessings hang about his throne,
    That speak him full of grace.

    In monarchy, and by the divine anointing, earthly and celestial powers are ceremoniously aligned.

    Notice, too, that in Handel‘s celebrated coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest (video below), it is the anointing of the monarch that is featured:

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    The ripples that extend from anointment and coronation across time and continents are many and varied. This video shows one small but beautiful ritual associated with British royalty since the twelfth cedntury, which takes place during the third week of July each year…

    At the opposite end of the royal spectrum, if I may call it that, we find the cargo cult on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu that awaits the coming of the man they call Man Belong Mrs Queen:

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    I will close with the ode Handel wrote for the Birthday of Queen Anne, Eternal Source of Light Divine, featuring the fabulous voice of countertenor Iestyn Davies and brilliant trumpet of Alison Balsom, directed by Trevor Pinnock with the English Concert.

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    Your comments and suggestions for the book are most welcome.

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    On the history of the selfie

    Monday, February 3rd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- on self representation, avatars, and what we may be missing ]
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    Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen, aka The Conversion of the Magdalen

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    Where to begin?

    The Washington Post doesn’t like selfies much, according to Galen Guengerich in the Religion, yes, the Religion section — in a post titled ‘Selfie’ culture promotes a degraded worldview he writes:

    The 2013 word of the year, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, was “selfie,” which Oxford defines as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” The first use of the term, according to Oxford, occurred when a young Australian got drunk at a friend’s 21st birthday party and fell down the stairs. He hit lip-first and his front teeth punched a hole in his bottom lip. His response was to take a photo of himself and post it online for his friends to see. “Sorry about the focus,” he wrote, “It was a selfie.”

    Okayyyyy…

    As usual, the Kierkegaard / Kardashian combo that tweets as @KimKierkegaard manages to straddle the worlds material (in the Madonna sense) and spiritual (in the sense of the Madonna):

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    I wanted to dig deeper — the WashPost Religion section, Kierkegaard, how could I not? I often want to dig deeper, and today I was driven to do so because today — not or the first time — I ran across a terrorism analyst and blogger named Cristina Caravaggio Giancchini, who uses a detail from her namesake Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s Martha and Mary Magdalen (above) as her avatar…

    Avatars are a kind of selfie, aren’t they?

    In any case, I found myself looking for the particular Caravaggio that contains that detail, discovering it was the Martha and Mary Magdalen, which you see that the top of this post — then kept on digging via Google to learn a little more.

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    Here’s what I found in a blog post titled Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome:

    The inclusion of the mirror asks viewers to enter into a dynamic conversation about their own delight in the rich textures of the picture; alongside a powder puff and comb, it points us to Mary’s vanity, and her concern with the things of this world. Rather than showing Mary to herself, however, the mirror captures a diamond of light — a visual representation of the divine grace that inspires Mary to look beyond her earthly passions. The flower that Mary clutches to her chest is an orange blossom: symbol of purity.

    As Debora Shuger realises, in a stimulating essay on early modern mirrors, for Renaissance viewers ‘the object viewed in the mirror is almost never the self’ (22). Such mirrors are, Shuger suggests, if not totally Platonic (reflected an absolute ideal), at least ‘platonically angled, titled upwards in order to reflect paradigms rather than the perceiving eye’ (26). Renaissance mirrors, she concludes, ask us to think differently about the mental worlds and self-awareness of people living in this period: ‘they reflect a selfhood that … is beheld, and beholds itself, in relation to God’ (38).

    Pilgrims who travelled to Aachen in the fifteenth-century appear to have purchased small convex mirrors as souvenirs: as relics were carried through the thronging crowds, travellers held up the mirrors to catch a glimpse of them, and then preserved the mirrors as objects which, according to Rayna Kalas, ‘betokened that moment when the pilgrim had a vision of and was visible before the sacred relic. … Every subsequent glance at this mirror memento might serve to remind the believer of that glimpse of sacred divinity’. In Caravaggio’s painting, though, Mary looks away from the mirror which might capture her reflection (the ‘dark glass’ of Corinthians?), and towards her shadowed but persuasive sister.

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    We began this post with the idea that our 21st century ‘Selfie’ culture “promotes a degraded worldview” — and here by way of contrast, in the use of hand-held mirrors in 15th century Aachen, we see what we are missing…

    … a glimpse of the sacred, in which the sacred glimpses us in transcendent return.

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