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Marc Chagall’s Jesus

In Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion,” now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Jesus is in a tallit, the traditional prayer shawl worn by religious Jews, especially the Hassidim. He also wears the sort of headcloth a shepherd might wear. (All Jewish men traditionally cover their heads in prayer.) The barely legible inscription above Christ’s head is the Latin INRI and its Aramaic translation. A menorah is below his feet. Obviously, Chagall meant to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus.

Scholar Ziva Amishai-Maisels of Hebrew University in Jerusalem writes that Chagall’s rendering of “Nazareth” (HaNotzri) in “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” was the artist’s double-entendre, the word Nazarene having become another name for “Christian.” Thus, Amishai-Maisels writes, Chagall “emphasized Jesus’s importance to both Christians and Jews, for the Jewish Jesus with his covered head and his fringed garment is also a Christian.” (Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 15, No.2, 1991)

(It’s interesting to note that in Arabic, the letter nun has been painted by ISIS on Christian homes in Iraq and Syria. It’s the initial letter of Nazarene and used by the terrorists to indicate those to be exiled or martyred. Nun or nün is written similarly in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.)

In 1938, when Chagall painted “White Crucifixion,” European Jews were beginning to face the worst persecution in history.

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The Tragedy Around “Hamlet”

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was written when William Shakespeare was 36 years old. His first play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, c. 1590, was written when the playwright was 26; his last, The Two Nobel Kinsmen, c. 1614, when he was 50.

The genius of Shakespeare’s work makes it difficult, probably impossible, to name one play as greatest. Nearly every speaker of English with at least a high-school education (and many without a diploma) knows the titles: The Taming of the Shrew; Richard III; Romeo and Juliet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Merchant of Venice; Henry V; Julius Caesar; Othello; King Lear; Macbeth; The Tempest. And those are just a dozen out of forty-two.

But, really, it’s Hamlet, isn’t it? It’s the most performed of all the plays – in the theater and on film. The role is a milestone in the career of every actor (and some actresses too), from Richard Burbage to Edwin Booth; from Mel Gibson to Kenneth Branagh; and from Sarah Bernhardt to Ruth Negga.

I believe many productions have miscast the lead. Burbage (of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) was the first actor to get the role, likely when he was 35. Booth (the greatest American actor of the 19th century) first played Hamlet in his twenties and was 58 when last he did. Gibson was 34 in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, and Branagh was 36 in his own version.

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Following Which Science?

This world recently lost several luminaries – Alice von Hildebrand and Joan Didion, Terry Teachout and Sidney Poitier, John Madden and Betty White. Our world is a little poorer without them, and the next world – theologians of the Strict Observance, please allow a metaphysical license here – shines a little brighter. But amid those departed – people like ourselves with great gifts and human flaws – was one who has both fascinated and puzzled me for decades.

E.O. Wilson was for many years Professor of Science at Harvard and a significant figure not only in science but in public affairs. He became embroiled in cultural debates because he popularized the notion of “socio-biology” – put simply, the quite reasonable view that the biological characteristics of many living things are adapted to the external environment, but also to interactions with other members of the same species – wherever there was some sort of biological “society.”

Wilson grew up in Alabama and early on became fascinated with ant colonies, his academic specialty years later. Sociobiology has some utility; it may even provide some insights into human societies.

But to talk about biological structures that have social consequences is a postmodern No-No. Feminists were outraged. (“Biology is not destiny.”) Gays too. (“Born that way” is allowed to point in only one direction in our deeply confused time.) Harvard colleagues, of course, protested publicly.

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Papal Indulgence and the “Style of God”

Future Church historians, looking back at our time, will encounter multiple mysteries. They won’t be puzzled by the essential mysteries of the Faith such as the Incarnation and Real Presence, which are always with us. But they will scratch their heads at the many unnecessarily confusing, ill-informed, and divisive ramblings of the current occupant of the chair of St. Peter. Which we may piously hope will only survive as historical curiosities.

The latest in this sad series is his December handwritten letter to Sister Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry, which just came to light, on top of an earlier letter praising that group, which has been condemned by previous popes and multiple American bishops for its unapologetic and unambiguous promotion of homosexuality.

Francis is notorious for psychoanalysis-at-a-distance – witness his repeated claims, based on nothing more, it seems, than some past experience in his own life, that all those “rigid” seminarians and young people in love with the Latin Mass – and “traditional” Catholicism more generally – have some hidden psychological problem and may be mired in something even worse – perhaps even the sin of a lack of charity.

Just as a simple matter of truth, it’s a bad idea to generalize about a large group of people of varying backgrounds and interests, distributed over scores of different nations and cultures around the world. It’s the kind of overgeneralization that you used to learn to avoid by the time you were a college sophomore.

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Tony Loves Maria

In a review of a less-than-stellar 2016 remake of Ben-Hur, I asked: “Why? Why a remake of Ben-Hur? Why ever remake anything, for that matter? Are there no original ideas?”

I haven’t changed my mind about that specific remake, but I have changed my mind, provisionally, about some remakes. After all, nobody objects to Broadway revivals of Guys and Dolls or Fiddler on the Roof.

Remaking a movie is a bit different, especially when casting in the earlier version has made it a classic. I can’t imagine Casablanca without Bogart and Bergman.

So, I was queasy about Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, because the 10-Oscar-winning 1961 original, directed by Robert Wise with choreography by Jerome Robbins, was such an electrifying experience. After seeing it, I and some of my high-school football teammates walked down the main street in town attempting to dance as the Jets do at the start of Wise’s film.

I left the theater this time wishing my aged knees would still allow me to slide and leap.

The opening sequence of Spielberg’s version (choreographed by Justin Peck) is nearly as good and in some ways better. And I know why: casting. It’s not that actor-dancer Russ Tamblyn (as Riff) and the rest of his 1961 Jets gang weren’t very good; it’s that Mike Faist’s Riff and the ensemble of Spielberg’s delinquents are better. For starters, they look better: more like rough street kids spoiling for a rumble and less like guys who left their leotards in lockers at City Ballet.

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Prophecy, Optimism, Hope 2022

For reasons unknown to science and every other mode of knowledge, the human race has a weakness for prophecy. Both true and false. And especially at times like the beginning of a new year. It’s “only human” to wonder what the next year will bring, even though – as COVID time has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt – we have little ability to predict and even less to control the future. Except for very rare individuals – with names like Isaiah, Micaiah, Daniel – God seems to think it’s best that way.

But it’s always a safe bet to believe prophets who tell us that if we continue on as we are, disasters will follow.

It’s easy to see, for instance, that without massive renewal, Christians are headed for a status unlike anything since the fourth century: a despised group, “enemies of the human race” (Tacitus, even earlier), subject to various political and social penalties.

And our secular politics in most Western nations are locked in a suicidal drive towards woke utopianism that is already, as all revolutions do, eating its own.

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He Brings True Peace – and a Sword

You don’t have to be a genius like Dickens to appreciate the special warmth and light of Christmas. But more and more it would help, since few of us now spend much time outdoors experiencing these days of cold and dark. And others have made Jesus – who by reliable accounts was, by turns, both compassionate and severe – into a year-round warm and fuzzy security blanket. So it takes some effort to see the special nature of the birth we will celebrate tomorrow and in coming days, which is both a comfort and a challenge.

In some ways, this is nothing new. As Benedict XVI rightly argued in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, “The ordinariness of Jesus, the provincial carpenter, seems not to conceal a mystery of any kind. His origin marks him out as one like any other.” Generations of Scripture scholars now have labored, largely taking their start from materialist or secularist assumptions, to show that this is really the whole of the Christian story. He was born like everyone else; his life unrolled like his neighbors’; yes, he said some remarkable things – but we can find rough parallels in earlier Judaism and even other religions; the miracles are unbelievable and must be explainable as really natural human phenomena like sharing (loaves and fishes) or as merely symbolic stories (the Eucharist, above all).

Against all that, however, stand two millennia of witnesses to the way Christ works in individual lives and the world. Thomas Aquinas, no credulous thinker he, recalls that Jesus Himself encouraged people, if they could not believe in Him as who He was, to believe in Him because of “the miracles by which Christ confirmed the doctrine of Apostles and of the other saints.”

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Words about the Word: Esolen’s “In the Beginning. . .”

Whenever people ask me what they should read to help them understand the Catholic faith, I say: “Chapter 1 of John’s Gospel.” In his new book, In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John, Anthony Esolen has distilled that to just the first 18 verses of John 1. Professor Esolen has written a tour de force of linguistic and Biblical scholarship that may well endure as an essential evangelical tool for years to come. If you look at John in the right way, it’s hard then to look away. Ever.

But why just the Prologue? Esolen writes:

For a long time, the so-called prologue . . . was called “the Last Gospel,” because it was read after the dismissal at every Mass. Thus would the people leave having heard not only some things that Jesus said, but who Jesus was: and thus might the temptation be checked, to patronize Jesus, to humiliate Him by exalting Him to the status of a great teacher, a deeply spiritual man, an advocate for the poor and the insulted and the injured, and so an icon of peaceful resistance against evil.

That John is the most theological of the four Gospels is common knowledge, although there’s theology in Matthew, Mark, and Luke too.

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Notre Dame, Restorations, et le Moi

I used to travel to Paris fairly often about twenty years ago for academic and professional reasons. For I don’t know how long, the inside of Notre Dame back then was all but invisible behind a bewildering maze of scaffolding as various parts of the interior were being restored (all that, of course, years before the recent fire). But you still visited the cathedral whenever you were in Paris because it was. . .Notre Dame de Paris.

One evening after a day of work, I ducked in briefly. Evening prayer was underway near the main altar. I joined the group, about twenty people. Afterward, the priest asked everyone to stay as long as they liked but to be considerate of the staff, who wanted to lock up soon and get home to their families.

Everyone else seemed to have been local because they all immediately left. It was only then that I realized that the scaffolding was all gone. And I slowly walked back, entirely alone and utterly enchanted, through one of the most remarkable – just restored – sacred spaces in all of Christianity.

I’m hardly the only one to have had such an unforgettable, life-changing experience there. During Vespers at Notre Dame on Christmas Day 1886, the great modern poet Paul Claudel, previously a non-believer, recorded, “In an instant, my heart was touched, and I believed.”

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Rubens’ “Elevation”

Some think of the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) as mostly images of voluptuous (sometimes nude) women. (His The Judgment of Paris is a good example.) If I see a full-figured woman, I reflexively think: Rubenesque. Other artists, Pierre Auguste Renoir is one, painted women who were zaftig (a lovely Yiddish synonym), but nobody says Renoiresque.

But that aspect of Rubens’ work is really the celebration of the human form in the spirit of Michelangelo (1475-1564). And Rubens was probably the greatest Catholic artist of the Baroque period (c. 1600 through 1750), as, arguably, Michelangelo had been in the Renaissance. In painting, especially, the Baroque style is the artistic manifestation of the Catholic Counter-Revolution, the energetic reassertion of Catholicity against the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation.

Of all the Catholic paintings by Rubens, none stands taller than “The Elevation of the Cross” – literally: the triptych in which “Elevation” is the centerpiece stands more than 11 feet tall and is over 15 feet wide. (The image below, showing a woman standing before it in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, gives some perspective on its size and impact.)

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