Islam and the Art of the Cross

Evan Kuehn reviews Navid Kermani

Image result for wonder beyond belief on christianity
Kermani. Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 272 pp., $30

Art and religion face each other. Their gaze can offer unity beyond the oppositional pairs that define our mundane lives: subjectivity and objectivity, knowledge and action, freedom and dependence, love and hate. People commonly intuit or encounter revelatory experiences in their religious life that hold the sacred and the aesthetic together. Yet, the aesthetic function of sacred art can remain veiled to those within a religious tradition even as tourists or other outsiders experience religious art in revelatory, unexpected ways.

Navid Kermani describes his book, Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity, as “freely associated meditations” on Christian art. Wonder Beyond Belief is an exercise in aesthetic reflection as a viable mode of negotiating religious discourse and distance. What Kermani provides is more than simply a model for dialogue between faiths, although he does do this. In his engagement with Christian visual art, we encounter a model for aesthetic judgment that also does justice to the everyday piety of religious believers, who may not engage with sacred art as works of genius, but do potentially invest a religious significance in these works that is open to recognition and question by the tourist. This approach recommends itself in large part because it is unassuming.

Kermani’s approach may be better understood by placing him in conversation with philosopher Gianni Vattimo, who influenced my own first impressions of Kermani. Both Vattimo and Kermani describe art tourists to churches in Rome who find themselves out of place, and yet both authors make bold proposals for religious art in a time when outsider experiences of religious art remains ambiguous. In Beyond Interpretation, Gianni Vattimo describes a secular tourist, interpreted as a benign interloper within a setting of prayer. The tourist enters a church—in this case, Sant’Ivo della Sapienza, notably designed by the Roman Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. It is a Sunday morning, and although there is clear signage to restrict tourist traffic during the celebration of Mass, the Sant’Ivo tourist awkwardly proceeds. The embarrassed parishioners are torn between their duty to Christian hospitality and their reverence towards the interrupted prayer. The tourist seeks an aesthetic appreciation of the building’s unique architecture, yet interrupts the intended use of this space. For those who pray, the building as a work of art is peripheral. Church is a place for prayer, not a museum.

This is an awkward moment of dissonance between subjects—a tension created by the pluralism of a secular age. Vattimo presents the events at Sant’Ivo as a symptom of the secularization of aesthetic spaces where there is a clear asymmetry weighted against mundane piety. Secularism is a one way street: one does not see a religious believer praying before an altarpiece housed in a museum. Within the context of a museum, it is understood that the canvas is a work of art rather than a tool of worship. In Vattimo’s example of Sant’Ivo, it is “clearly the dimension of the museum that is in control,” to the point that worshipers can themselves become artifacts of religiosity for the tourist who disregarded the clear signs marking Mass as a time of worship.

Yet, there is room to quibble with this assessment of art’s separation from religious life, or at least to highlight the fact that we encounter art in situations where its relationship of explanatory priority vis-à-vis religion is left unresolved. One example of a more melded situation is the St. Nikolai Kirche in Hamburg, Germany, which after being bombed during World War II has been kept in ruins but adorned with open air statues by Edith Breckwoldt. The experience of these works is not clearly aesthetic or religious; for many visitors it seems to be both. In his Pictures & Tears, art historian James Elkins has compiled reflections on the stories of many who, while viewing art, have experienced an emotional fervor comparable to a religious experience. Some of these experiences blend the spaces of museum and church, as in Mark Rothko’s chapel in Houston, Texas. The dark canvases from which texture and subtle variation emerge are, for the attentive observer, focal points for meditation as much as for observation. These are two quite different examples. The Rothko Chapel was made for Rothko’s paintings; it has no strict religious history of its own and serves as a place of contemplative aesthetic experience of canvases with no human form or discernibly religious particularity. St. Nikolai’s courtyard is clearly a postwar space of preservation after destruction, but it remains a monument to an earlier religious history. Nevertheless, both the tourist at Sant’Ivo and the St. Nikolai statues raise questions about the significance of religious art across confessional and historical boundaries

Almost a decade before its publication, Kermani’s Wonder Beyond Belief began as various shorter writings published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. A reader unfamiliar with Kermani may not guess that the most well known of these articles, first published in 2009 and later to become the basis for one of the book’s chapters, was not the reflection on the comically ugly Perugia Christ Child statue. Neither was it the commentary where he finds Perugino’s Vision of Saint Bernard to be scandalously erotic, but rather it was his account of the nearly bloodless crucifixion painting by Guido Reni at the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.

The original 2009 article, titled “Why Have You Forsaken Us?,” is an open-ended reflection, at once a travelogue, art criticism, and a theological polemic. Kermani’s San Lorenzo experience, like Vattimo’s tourist’s experience in Sant’Ivo, is secular in the sense that it does not exist within the active religious life of the space that houses the work of art. He enters the church almost accidentally, and he notices the three believers in the mostly-empty pews only after first misperceiving the situation, assuming the priest is turning on the electric candles for him to better view Reni’s crucifixion rather than in preparation for the regularly-scheduled mass. Kermani is conspicuous among the worshippers, pulling a laptop out of his backpack rather than a prayer book.

Kermani’s aesthetic experience always remains “secular” in the sense that there is a gap between Kermani’s own devotion and that of the Christians coming to San Lorenzo to pray. However, Kermani’s engagement with Christianity also resists this secularity by grounding itself religiously. He directly engages with the work of art as religious art rather than peripherally: Reni’s crucifixion is a genuine object of aesthetic intention and critique for him in a way that it is not for others in the room. Kermani describes his encounter as both familiar and unfamiliar, based on recognizable strains of traditional postures and interpretations shared by Catholicism and Shi’ism. He is a critic and columnist viewing the Reni, but he accounts for the work within a place of worship; he wrestles with it as an object of prayer; he observes the believers and the priests as well as the canvas, and these become a part of his reflection in a way that Vattimo’s tourist never achieves. Yet, as much as this encounter recognizes religious continuity, it also dismantles superficial common ground. Kermani does not mince words in his article, calling the crucifixion “blasphemy and idolatry.” Thus, Reni’s work becomes significant only because “he accomplishes what other crucifixion scenes only suggest: he transposes suffering from the physical to the metaphysical.” Where Vattimo’s Sant’Ivo tourist is indefinitely secular (perhaps a devout Christian in their own life, but certainly interrupting Mass rather than attending it at this particular moment), Kermani the tourist and art critic writes as a Muslim whose experience of Reni’s crucifixion could be understood as genuinely devout, at least insofar as he comes to the work from within the fold of Abrahamic faith. His devotion is never Christian, although it entertains Christian devotion.

Soon after the appearance of the San Lorenzo column, Kermani was awarded the Hessian Cultural Prize jointly with Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Peter Steinacker, and Salomon Korn. The intention of the award was to recognize dialogue between faiths, but the Christian awardees (Lehmann and Steinacker) objected to sharing the honor with Kermani, who had offended their sensibilities by candidly calling the theology of the crucifixion “blasphemy and idolatry” in his article. But even in his sharp judgment of the crucifixion, Kermani engages with the Christian aesthetic tradition in good faith.

In his speech upon receiving the 2015 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Kermani offered a perceptive account of love in friendship that he learned from Father Jacques Mourad, a monk from the Mar Musa community in Syria, who had recently been abducted by ISIS: “The love of one’s own—one’s own culture, one’s own country and also one’s own person—manifests itself in self-criticism. The love of the other—of another person, another culture and even another religion—can be far more effusive; it can be unreserved.” In Wonder Beyond Belief, a long and touching chapter on the founder of the Mar Musa community, Paolo Dall’Oglio, reinforces this effusiveness of Christian love for Islam, and inspires Kermani’s own love for Christianity. Effusive love exists because of distance and boundaries, rather than in contrast to them. It is precisely in the realm of the familiar where love manifests itself in critique. Within a San Lorenzo experience, where distance and even discomfort is preserved, an opportunity for an aesthetic experience of effusive loving judgment can occur. This opportunity for aesthetic judgment is available to religious outsiders like Kermani because they are religious, and is perhaps available in a way that a secular tourist of Vattimo’s sort cannot appreciate. The personal stakes that led Kermani to identify blasphemy and idolatry also compel him to offer a meaningful account of religious works of art as meaningful signs.

In the book, Kermani moves all talk of blasphemy and idolatry from his reflection on the San Lorenzo crucifixion to another chapter. These sentences have been transported into reflections about a cross that was given to him and sits on his desk at home. The cross may be blasphemy to him, but he also writes that, “for the first time, I think: I—not just someone—I could believe in a cross.” And then he adds an explanation: “It stands not for the Incarnation in one man; it stands for Incarnation as a principle.” Why Kermani rewrites these thoughts into a different episode of his life is unclear, but perhaps it does not matter. The cross sitting on his own desk, at home where he guesses that Christian neighbors may wonder about its odd juxtaposition with his visibly Islamic prayer practices, represents something theologically distinct for Kermani.

The image of a cross is a sign of the incarnation of universal brotherhood, symbolized in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Such a principle of incarnation is well-fitted to his earlier reaction to the Reni crucifixion: “He is looking up to Heaven, the irises almost vanished in the white of his eyeballs: ‘Look,’ he seems to be calling. Not just ‘Look at me,’ but ‘Look at the earth; look at us.’” If God does look at us, or if we look at our own lives refracted through the perspective of an art tourist, does this threaten our identity as we know it? Does aesthetic experience threaten piety by making uncomfortable considerations central—those which have thus far been peripheral?

The sign of the cross signifies something different for Kermani than it does for Christians. The crucifixion may still be blasphemy for him, and his alternative explanation of the crucifixion may in turn be blasphemy, or at least heterodoxy, from the perspective of the Christian. What is gained in this exchange is Kermani’s perspective, his confessional distance from Christian art, and his recognition – by means of his own religious devotion – of the important challenges posed by Christian art as sacred art. Kermani evokes discomfort among some of his Christian readers. He recognizes that God’s gaze focuses on humanity—and explains this as a common humanity that art can capture.

“God may have forsaken us -,” Kermani says, “yet man is not lost as long as we have one another.” This is a difficult interpretation disguised as consolation. It does not simply express “wonder beyond belief,” but actually interprets wonder against the grain of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s cry of forsakenness. The crucifixion is theologically opaque even for Christian believers, and there is no ecumenical consensus about its meaning. But whatever the crucifixion tells us about our common humanity, it is certainly not a message of humanity’s own ability to save what is lost. Even so, Kermani’s method of free association and contemplation on religious art offers hope of shared bonds of affection across difference, and perhaps there is consolation in people conversing in love rather than hostility.

Evan Kuehn is the theological librarian at Rolfing Library, Trinity International University. He wrote his dissertation on Ernst Troeltsch and is interested in modern religious, philosophical, & social thought, as well as Christian doctrinal history.