Statues, as with any art, are seldom neutral. Images frozen into stone, marble, bronze or wood are more than a reproduction of an actual person or event.
the medium is the message
We stand before seemingly unchanging massiveness, firmly grounded and soaring above us. Physical immutability etching a permanent message for the ages.
And yet, messages can change. Sometimes they must change. Should statues and monuments reflect that change?
history is not neutral
Many of us learned history by memorizing facts from a text book. The facts we learned depended on the dominant view at the time. For example, as a child I learned of heroic Jesuit missionaries martyred by the savage Iroquois. The historical focus was on courageous colonizers of foreign lands, who brought civilization and Christianity to uneducated natives.
Today, there is an increasing awareness about the dark side of colonialism. European domination and empire building led to enforced assimilation, loss of cultural and linguistic identity, pillaging of natural resources, slavery and war after war after war.
In my university studies, I learned the importance of historical criticism, the need to judge sources carefully. Who is recording the history? What sources are they using? What is their ideological leaning? The most important lesson I learned is that history is never without bias. The honest historian will acknowledge their own bias while trying to be as objective as possible.
But, history is never completely objective or neutral.
historical bias in the church
Some of the most blatant experiences of historical bias can be found in our churches and cathedrals. If history is written by the victors, than those same victors and their followers wanted to make sure we remembered them in all their glory. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is filled with tombs and monuments of military heroes. Massive statues of the apostles stare down at you as you walk the nave of St. John Lateran in Rome. St. Peter’s Basilica itself is dizzying in its proportions. Statues of saints and popes tower over us lesser humans.
The effect of these historical edifices, at least for me, is an “in your face” shout out to patriarchal leadership. If we, in the present, are standing on the shoulders of giants, then those shoulders are predominantly men. And they are GIANT…or at least their egos were.
sinners and saints
As history is read more critically, we learn that many of our saints were more sinner than than we realized. Our heroes were more scoundrel. The fact is that our public squares and worship spaces are filled with monuments to historical figures who have an odious past; who have no place in the public square. Their pasts were whitewashed by faithful scribes. Their looming presence chiseled in stone.
The question is what do we do with them?
Sometimes destruction is necessary for societal healing. Tearing down monuments of toppled tyrants and dictators can be both cathartic and necessary. The problem is, that one person’s tyrant can sometimes be another person’s hero. There is no easy answer.
education and dialogue
As with all controversies, education and dialogue is vital. The more heated the controversy, the more difficult it is to reach a consensus. Often, a consensus will never be reached. What to do?
One solution is to acknowledge the controversial past of the person or event with a plaque, or other educational method, explaining the controversy and encouraging dialogue and education.
Another positive action is to put money and resources into statues and monuments depicting those who have been denied a place in history,
- Those who have been silenced.
- Those who have been erased from history literally and/or metaphorically.
- Those whose backs were broken to fill the purses and feed the egos of the “giants”.
Today, we are experiencing a resurgence of nativism, racism and white supremacy; evils that we thought were safely locked away in the annals of the past. We are watching, horrified, as history is repeating itself.
We cannot erase history. We must remember the evils of the past in order not to repeat the horrors in the present.
Here is an older blog post reflecting on the photo attached to this article…a woman in the the church
3 thoughts on “statues, history writ large”
Just read your earlier blog on “A Woman in the Church”. Seems to me she is asleep; tired from the weight of her “cross” – her role as taught. When she wakes up…. and she is waking up.
One of the truly sad things about the Church is that so many things may not be talked about. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were to accept that the people of the past were just like the rest of us — almost all had some good and some bad; most were just struggling to do what they saw as being the right thing — in the time in which they were in. Then, perhaps, we would be able to recognize the negative more clearly and learn not to emulate that.
But as long as there is supposed to be this unquestioning adherence to what was said in the past and a refusal to recognize current scholarship in all fields, we cannot really move forward.
Well said Alexandra! Thank you.
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