The days of angry white men backlash are hopefully numbered.One thing this strange phenomenon of privileged males feeling under threat has brought to the surface is the long struggle of women for the basic acknowledgment of human equality.Ironically, it took a horrible war to move the cause forward.Rosie the Riveter became a fixture during World War Two, blazing the message that women could do the tough jobs men had always done, now that males were off trying to kill one another overseas.These images of Rosie have found new life in the era of Trumpism that has objectified women in the crudest possible ways, because it’s, well, monkey-see monkey-do in the world of politics.Just consider Brett Kavanaugh and try to challenge the point.
One of the more famous portraits of Rosie, back when Fascism was an evil thing, is that painted by Norman Rockwell.A pugnacious Rosie eats her lunch with her feet on Main Kampf and her riveting gun in her lap.(These days she would need to have her feet on an elephant rampant.)Something about this painting always bothered me.I could never put my finger on it.It certainly wasn’t the confident look on Rosie’s face—she’d earned that and deserved it long before it became a reality.Even the patriotism at that time was tasteful.No, it was her posture.There was something uncanny about it.Then I learned that Rockwell had consciously copied Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Isaiah, according to that famous rendition (Isaiah has never been a popular subject for paintings, for some reason), has his head turned at that peculiar angle because an angel is whispering in his ear.Instead of a riveting gun, he’s packing a nascent Good Book, but he is receiving a direct message from on high.I like to think it might be “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord,” but then I’ve always been a dreamer.Rosie, in Rockwell’s rendition, is prophetic.She is proclaiming an equality which, inexplicably, coming up on a century later, is still unrealized.Why?The angry white man only recognizes God made in his own image.
I was reading the account of the Transfiguration the other day, the way that you do, when a thought occurred to me. How did Pete, Jim, and John know that Moses was there? Yes, Elijah came along too, but the Bible physically describes Elijah. They at least knew what he wore. But Moses lived some thousand years before and the Good Book says nothing about what he looked like or his clothes. Fashions didn’t change so quickly back then. When they did it was often because an invading army from another nation was living in your town. If you wanted to blend in you’d start dressing like a Persian. Or an Assyrian. Otherwise people tended to have a set of clothes that might help identify them at a distance. But holy Moses…
One of the commandments he handed down declared images to be prohibited. There were no pictures made of Moses, no portraits. Our view of Moses comes from sources like Michelangelo and the Charlton Heston character based on Michelangelo’s vision. The inner circle of disciples could presumably make some educated guesses—Moses would be bearded, but so would most men. Beyond that, how do you recognize someone who’s been dead for over a millennium and for whom no images or recordings were ever made? Peter was so confused he suggested camping out on the mountain in housing with private booths. Was it something Moses said that gave him away?
Or did he have a shiny face and/or horns? The Hebrew Bible’s a bit unclear on the point. Horns, far from being a symbol of the Devil in those days, were a sign of divinity. All the gods were wearing them. Call it divine fashion. Uncomfortable with the implications, later readers decided the Hebrew word meant something like “shining” or “glowing.” That fits in well with the Transfiguration theme, but horns had been signs of power and authority for millennia. Rewriting history, however, has become the fashion of this day. Picture the scene: four men on a mountain top, a bright cloud comes down and engulfs them. Now there are six, a holy half-dozen. Moses, tradition said, had been translated to Heaven. Same was true of Elijah. But also Enoch. Of the three only Enoch has no recorded words in canonical scripture. Then suddenly the mountaintop experience is over and the apostles have to face another Monday. At least they’d had a glimpse of Moses and apparently had no doubt of who he was.
While reading a recent article on the origins of the abstract art movement I was struck by this quote from Wassily Kandinsky, widely considered to have been one of the founders of the movement: “the contact between the acute angle of a triangle and a circle has no less effect than that of God’s finger touching Adam’s in Michelangelo.” Apart from putting me in mind of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, this statement emphasized once again the power of one of Genesis’ creation stories. It also made me aware of a new dimension of the distressed pleas of Creationists for a reversal of science and a resetting of the hands of time itself. It seems that there is so much to lose.
Michelangelo’s Adam, as I always tell my students, has bestowed a disproportionate influence on all subsequent biblical interpretation. Rather like the case with Handel’s Messiah and Isaiah 9, modern readers find it exceptionally difficult to climb over Renaissance images to peer directly at the ancient sources themselves. Isaiah was writing about Hezekiah ben Ahaz rather than Jesus of Nazareth, but just try to convince any holiday shopper of the fact! Art has made the decision for us; there can be no questioning of Handel. Michelangelo was a brilliant painter, indeed, a genius by any stretch of artistic imagination, but he was no Bible scholar. Even if he had been, the tools available now were not available then.
I sense that Creationists fear the loss of the literal image (if it can even be considered literal) of Michelangelo’s God and Adam. How threatening it is to ponder that God is not a bearded white man! What blasphemy to consider that instead of an insouciant Adam we have promiscuously procreating ape-like hominids hopping around!
One of my favorite movies has always been 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s coming of age. The iconic monolith with early, distinctly apelike humans cavorting around it, timidly daring to touch it, to become something more — this abstraction felt like creation to me. Indeed, much of the film is abstract art. Creationists fear the demise of classical art; however, abstract artists do not destroy classical art, but rather build on it. It is humanity growing up. Like abstract art the biblical images leave much to the imagination. Is it better to remain firmly mired in what we know cannot be true or to allow human progression to continue? Even Wall-e reaches a mechanical hand out to the light (image copyrighted, all rights reserved).