Saturday, April 19, 2008

Painters love martyrs and prophets

Saint Sebastian's death – arrows puncturing skin – is straight out of Shia martyrology

By Robert Fisk

"....Indeed, it was only when I began to examine the provenance of Hizbollah "martyr" portraits in Lebanon that I discovered the same principle applied. The top painter of Hizbollah's dead – those young men invariably shot, blown up or bombed to death by Israel – is a man called Shelala......

Yet I had forgotten the degree to which these two men – along with their "schools" and countless other minor artists across Italy – focused their attention on martyrs and anchorites, lonely old hermits who live out their days in grim contemplation of God's goodness and cruelty.

The martyrs are familiar enough. Christ's body and blood are set pieces, the red fountains always pouring from identical wounds, the feet bleeding into little piles of gore where miniature but obsessive monks can be seen staring at the stuff with unbecoming enthusiasm.

The violence of the age marries perfectly into the Shia martyrology of the imams Ali and Hussein, whose blood-boltered features dominate the posters beside the great mosques of Najaf and Kufa and Kerbala. Indeed, St Sebastian's death – all arrows puncturing white skin – is straight out of Shia martyrology.

One altarpiece I came across in Perugia this week showed a remarkably pristine version of the crucifixion, with scarcely a sign of holy wounds, until, at the bottom right-hand corner, I espied the head of St Peter with what looked like a meat cleaver in the top of his skull, from which rained the inevitable blood. His face, eyes squinting in pain, bore the expression of a man who, well, who has just been bashed over the head with a meat cleaver. A violent time, the Renaissance......"

No comments: