The Great Darkening
CATHERINE Nixey takes us back to the destruction of the premier artworks of antiquity by Christians in her book titled The Darkening Age.
Using the intentional mutilation of faces, arms, and genitals on the Parthenon’s beautiful sculptures and reliefs as one of her many, thunderingly memorable case studies, Nixey makes the fundamental point that while some lionize Christian culture for “preserving works of learning,” sponsoring exquisite art, and adhering to an ethos of “love thy neighbor,” the early church was in fact a force of crazed anti-intellectualism, iconoclasm, murder, and destruction. This is a searingly passionate book. Nixey is transparent about the particularity of her motivation. The daughter of an ex-nun and an ex-monk, she spent her childhood filled with respect for the wonders of post-pagan Christian culture. But as a student of the classics she found the scales falling from her eyes. She wears her righteous fury on her sleeve.
Christian monks in silent orders summoned up pagan texts from library stores with a gagging hand gesture. The destruction of the extraordinary, frankincense-heavy temple of Serapis in Alexandria is described with empathetic detail; thousands of books from its library vanished, and the temple’s gargantuan wooden statue of the god was dismembered before being burned. One pagan eyewitness, Eunapius, remarked flintily that the only ancient treasure left unlooted from the temple was its floor.
Christians became known as those “who move that which should not be moved.” Their appeal to have-nots meant that bishops had a citizen-army of pumped-up, undereducated young men ready to rid the world of “sin.” Enter the parabalini, sometime stretcher-bearers, sometime assassins, who viciously flayed alive the brilliant Alexandrian mathematician and pagan philosopher Hypatia. Or the circumcellions (feared even by other Christians), who invented a chemical weapon using caustic lime soda and vinegar so they could carry out acid attacks on priests and others who didn’t share their precise beliefs.
Books were systematically burned. In A.D. 386 a law was passed declaring that those “who contend about religion… shall pay with their lives and blood.” This was a dying civilization killing itself, destroying its own great works — the death spiral of the end of the Classical civilization of European man.
Paganism and the high Classical philosophies that had evolved from it were considered a psychological and a physical miasma by the adherents of the new Hebrew-derived cult. To Christians, the food that pagans produced, even the water they touched, was “unclean” — such was the insane fanaticism that their very breath was thought to be “infected by demons.” Surely, then, believers in the new cult thought, meting out death to “unbelievers,” something the Classical religion had never done, was surely “pleasing to the Lord.”
And while 90 per cent. of all ancient literature had been burned by Christians, the European religions and the philosophies they inspired still lived tenuously on, fated to re-energize European civilization a thousand years later when rediscovered in the Renaissance.
Sixteen centuries ago Christians took iron bars to the awe-inspiring statue of Athena in the sanctuary of Palmyra. Intellectuals in Antioch were tortured. The greatest thinkers, the best men and women of that time, were beheaded — as were the astoundingly beautiful statues their artists had created. The contemporary parallels glare.
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Source: based on an article by Patrick Dollard