Leo J. O'Donovan
After lengthy negotiations with the Vatican, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has curated a 26-gallery show that celebrates the ways in which Catholic imagery has inspired fashion. But the exhibit is fundamentally about what drives creativity.
For a while, boundaries in art have been fading. Life and art, the world and the way we imagine it interpenetrate one another.
Nowhere in New York these days is there punchier, closer-to-earth religious art than at El Museo del Barrio on upper Fifth Avenue. The exhibition there, “Testimonios: 100 Years of Popular Expression,” has lots more than religious material. Its point is to show how largely self-taught or folk artists have imagined their world, and its more than 300 pieces trace the interplay of family life, cultural heritage, community relations, dislocation, oppression and liberation.
About “early holiday decorations and shopping,” it seems, little more can helpfully be said. But what can be said about the “Christmas story” will always be inexhaustible. Even, for example, about demigods and demagogues before whom, unaccountably, human beings have so long been inclined to bow their knees.
In the ancient Near East, kings represented the gods -- and were reverenced accordingly. Israel’s monotheism provided a sharp critique not only of polytheism but of all ruler-worship. But after Julius Caesar, deification of the Roman emperor became common (probably of course taken most seriously among the less educated classes). Augustus was certainly regarded as a god, and on the denarius that Peter found in the fish and showed to Jesus there would have been the inscription “Son of the Divine Augustus.” In the Greek-speaking but multiethnic East, ruler worship was even more common.
Nor was the practice simply ancient. Think of the way Nazi crowds idolized Hitler (and how neo-Nazi terrorists are active today).