A few days ago, I called up a Jesuit priest in Bihar (an eastern state of India) to know his thoughts on the conditions of Christians during the ongoing pandemic. He was bemused by the question and emphatically stated—the rich survive and the poor die, that’s the story of the pandemic. Christians, like all others in India, are privy to this rule. According to him, there isn’t a “Christian angle” to the pandemic. His answer was understandable. Having worked in one of the poorest, ill-resourced states of India—all his life—the faultiness of class and caste are too apparent to him. Thus, talking exclusively about Christians or Christianity, especially during a pandemic, isn’t a priority.
Less than three percent of Indians are Christians. Yet, their absolute numbers are comparable to the Christian populations in Spain, Kenya, Poland and Ukraine. In fact, there are more Christians in India than Venezuela. Christians are not uniformly spread across the country. Half of them are concentrated in the southern peninsular states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh (Kerala alone makes up 22% of the total Christian population). Out of the remaining half, nearly eighty percent are spread in eastern and north-eastern states and the rest in the western, northern and central states of India. The population is further divided along confessional and caste/ethnic, linguistic lines, with varying class interests and political affiliations. All these factors make religion-based generalization on a national scale a problematic terrain. Owing to the confessional variety, Christian populations are linked to different civil society groups and global circuits.
The Orthodox art of the predominantly Eastern Christian regions of Eastern Europe has much to offer, yet it has been relegated to the margins of inquiry. Outside of local communities and circles of academic specialists, relatively little is known about the countries, peoples, cultures, and histories of Eastern Europe. This is especially true of the Middle Ages and the early modern periods, whose studies have been divided between the Western traditions and those of the Byzantine Empire, including the centuries after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, with few moments of contact and interchange explored in scholarship or in the classroom. The history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the rich Orthodox artistic production of these lands have been excluded from the geographical, thematic, cultural, and temporal purviews of art history. In essence, Orthodox art poses problems to the artificial periodizations and geographical boundaries of art history, but its study has the potential to enhance the picture and bring into the conversation voices that have long been silent (or silenced).
Inconsistencies and disagreements in the geographical definitions of Eastern Europe have contributed to the marginalization of the Orthodox cultural spheres within it. What constitutes Eastern Europe, or Southeastern Europe, or Central Europe, or East-Central Europe at any given moment has shifted over time. The regions of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north into Russia have been included in specific periods in select conversations; on other occasions, they have been excluded and ignored altogether. For much of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, Eastern European territories—like the principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania around the Carpathian Mountains (which later formed the country of modern Romania), the powers of Kievan Rus’, Muscovy, Serbia, and Bulgaria—experienced shifting political borders that complicate the picture. Today, these lands are located in many different countries, each with its own language and customs. The history is complex but enriching as well and could offer much to our understanding of the interconnectedness of the medieval world and the different traditions that contributed to the development of local customs and visual vocabularies.
After the Resurrection of Christ, we witness Him appearing eleven times to his disciples. His purpose is only one: to assist them in their belief and to convince them about the fact of the Resurrection. It is important to understand what Christ aimed for by appearing to his disciples, because it confirms the fact that belief in the Resurrection of the dead does not constitute a matter of intellectual acceptance. The Resurrection cannot be understood by reason alone, but is revealed in the Holy Spirit to those who sincerely seek Christ.
It is not a matter of coincidence that people nowadays accept that Christ’s teaching is of value and importance, but they find it extremely difficult to believe that He was resurrected from the dead. If it was so difficult for His disciples—i.e. the persons who have lived with Him, heard his divine teaching and experienced His miracles (see Lk. 24:11; Mt. 28:17)—to believe in the Resurrection, imagine how difficult it is for all of us, the modern believers; for our faith is not strong and solid but weak. Faith, however, is not just a human question. Above all, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a revelation of God to humankind.
“Who is my neighbor?” This question, posed coyly by a slick lawyer looking for an easy answer, is most poetically answered by Christ in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The story involves a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. Many supposed noblemen pass by and offer no help, while a foreign stranger of an offbeat faith comes to the man’s aid with great compassion and becomes the silent hero of the day. The Good Samaritan was insightful in its Biblical time, but I also find the story to be most relevant now in our post-pandemic world.
It has been over a year now since I began working on a tribute art piece honoring lives lost in the Houston, Texas area due to Covid-19. I’ve combed through obituaries, news articles, TV programs, and have spent literally thousands of hours trying to place a name and a face to the over 7,000 deaths that have occurred just in and around my own city. So many stories have come out of this project—the loneliness, isolation, separation of families, the inability to properly grieve and bury loved ones, the mental strain—so much sadness.