One must ask then, should sacred art be sacred? Protected from the accidents of history? Or all art? And who decides what is sacred? Or for that matter, what is art?
As we watched the Taliban destroy the Bamyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, and blow up the ancient African City of Palmyra, and as we now continue to watch zealots destroy the mosques and ancient tombs of Saints that are sacred to all the Abrahamic religions, who can say with certainty what qualifies as sacred or civilization’s patrimony beyond religious relevance? Violence against ideas has expressed itself through the physical destruction of objects of sacred traditions for thousands of years. Professor Erin L. Thompson observed in a June 24th article in the New York Times that we tend to destroy rather than protect cultural objects during times of transition. In fact destruction is the norm historically. Bronze statues were ripped from pedestals, melted down, recast to look like the winners and returned to the same pedestals. If there was neither time nor money at the end of a war, the victor’s head would be recast and attached to the losers body.
This essay is published here on the occasion of the first prayers following Hagia Sophia’s reversion to a mosque, July 24, 2020.
It was spring 1964—a difficult year for the Orthodox Greek brothers of Constantinople, because of the well-known anti-Greek acts of the Turks, due to Cyprus. I was in the Theological Academy of Chalke (whose operation unfortunately has since been forbidden by the Turks). Great Lent had just started. In the Holy Trinity Monastery of Chalke, cantor Stanitsas chanted with his students: “Open for me the gates of repentance, O Life-Giver.” It was then that I experienced and understood Orthodox Byzantium: with all its grandeur it humbly repents in front of the Living and True God, as simply as washing in the morning or eating our daily bread.
I set out with a colleague and friend, a student of Theology in Chalke, to visit and worship at the “Aya Sophia,” as people called it in my country without knowing what it meant. For me it was the Great Church then. I used to hear about it, and it was something like a dream. When we entered the Hagia Sophia, I remembered St. Symeon the New Theologian: “If you have heard from someone about a city, its squares and its streets, the buildings and the rest of its beauty, and if you ever find yourself in this city, even if you recognize from what you have heard the streets and the city plan, you are still not sure it is the one you have heard so much about, until he himself tells you that this is the city he was talking about.” Of course, St. Symeon used this example to discuss the revelation of the Lord Himself to him and the confirmation of a true epiphany to him by his spiritual father, Symeon the Pious. When I entered the Hagia Sophia, I saw and realized that this is God’s Holy Wisdom. I was a hieromonk, but forced to be without a cassock, because it is forbidden in the city.
I categorically refuse to pay an entrance fee for a church, out of principle. When I was in Bratislava, and the Catholic cathedral charged a very small fee, I did not enter. When I returned to the wonderful Cathedral Church in Trogir, Croatia, two years ago, it was selling entrance tickets—so I relied on my memories. I once had the privilege of a private tour to the Sistine Chapel; I would not have paid to see it. In my view, there is a fundamental difference between a house of prayer which must be open to everybody, and a museum which can charge entrance fees.
However, the boundaries between churches and museums are frequently blurry. One does not pay to enter St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, but the mere fact that they have to have a person standing next to the entrance to bar visitors with dogs, ice cream cones, shorts, or bathing attire shows that many people do not regard it as a place for prayer, meditation, and adoration of God, but rather as a must-see during their visit to Rome. In St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was supposed to be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2017, but public outcry kept it a museum, with only occasional services. Now, a woman in trousers and her head uncovered can enter, walk around, and look closely at the paintings on the iconostasis—unless she enters the side nave dedicated to church use. Then, most likely an elderly woman will come and reproach her for not being properly dressed. I like the solution I saw in Krakow, Poland: the back part of St. Mary’s Basilica can be entered for prayer free of charge; tourists who want a better look at the famous altar woodwork must pay at another entrance.
Amid a nationwide BLM movement calling for the removal of statues and monuments that enshrine, even glorify, the genocidal, colonizing, enslaving, and imperialistic past of the United States, well-known BLM activist Shaun King tweeted that “The statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down” and in his next tweet adds: “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form of white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda. They should all come down.” Predictably, a swirl of some positive and extremely negative responses, including death threats, ensued.
What has struck me as I follow the fallout of King’s response is the opinion shared by some, perhaps by many, that simply put, King is wrong. That he is equivocating when he conflates Sunday’s liturgical art with social realities outside the ecclesial walls. That we can, and in fact should, draw a clear line between the sacred art of “white Jesus” and the atrocities committed on this continent (and others) by whites against native and African folk (in the name of “white Jesus”). In brief, that there is no complicity between the representational modalities of sacred art and genocide, slavery, cultural supremacy, and systemic racism. This perspective is historically and theologically untenable.