The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

Mutilations of statues and the body

Simon Mercieca Monday, 12 November 2018, 07:33 Last update: about 2 years ago

Last week, I was in the news for different reasons. On Monday, I uploaded on Facebook a post wherein I stated that a ceramic image, on the façade of my property, had been vandalized. I did not do this simply because somebody had intentionally or unintentionally destroyed the image, nor because it represents the image of the Virgin Mary with a child, but more importantly because whoever committed this act mutilated the eye of the Madonna.

Then, on Thursday, I had the honour to present at the President’s palace in Attard, Maria Attanasio’s book on Rosalia Montmasson.  The ceramic piece that was vandalized was a gift from the author for helping her research material for her novel. These two events are connected. Attanasio wished that at Tarxien there would be a small memento from her home town. What better way of doing so than by commissioning a ceramic piece that  has the typical colours of her home town? Incidentally, Attanasio concludes her latest novel with the image of the fertile goddess found at Tarxien.

More importantly, this ceramic piece was a symbol of tolerance. The donor is a leftist and a woman who has fought in support of divorce and abortion in Italy, yet she had no problem in commissioning a ceramic image that exalts religion and evokes the figure of Mary with her child.

Maria Attanasio ordered it from one of the best ceramists currently working in Caltagirone. It was an expression of contemporary art of this famous Sicilian city. I wanted to share this image with the rest of the community and this is why I put it on the façade.

Since the Inquisition, there is a tradition in Malta to have sacred images in our homes and even on the facades. It was the Roman Inquisition in Malta which enforced the presence of these sacred images in every Maltese household.

Whoever committed this act is not only intolerant, where religion is concerned, but worse, he or she has no knowledge of culture whatsoever. I am inclined to think that the perpetrator or perpetrators are males and I will explain why.

The fact that only the whole eye of this piece was destroyed is of particular significance. First, this required a special tool to chisel it off; it was not removed by accident. This was a deliberate act. The way the eye was defaced shows that the person who did it is dexterous and likely to be someone working in plastering or the construction business, normally a male dominated world.

This analysis answers the hypothesis suggested by some that this image may have been damaged accidentally. It could not be the work of children either. Young children cannot reach it. Undoubtedly, it is the work of an adult or possibly an older adolescent.

Furthermore, it is not possible that the paint cracked as suggested. Those who have a knowledge of ceramics know that this cannot happen. The clay is baked at very high temperature making it resistant to change. My piece was in the shape of a rondo.

The reason this ended in the news was because I stated that this misdeed does not augur well for those in favour of integration and religious tolerance. Not everybody agreed with me.

There were those who expressed solidarity but there were others, albeit few, who accused me of being too hasty in commenting. I can confirm that I was not being rash or hasty when I associated the episode to integration and vandalism. I actually mulled each word before putting it down on paper. This was indeed an action linked to religion or the evil eye or to both. Yet, there is another important reason to explain why I uploaded this incident on Facebook.

In my research on the history of sexuality, I came across a number of instances where old, ancient and classical statues, portraying the ancient male gods in sexual erection had their male genitalia chopped off. This was not the work of the ancients but of the civilizations that came later. Both Christianity and Islam attacked these images and chopped off the male sexual organ.

Yet, desecrating images is much older than Christianity and Islam. We find it being practised among the Romans and the Greeks. Many ancient statues have mutilated noses or missing ears. In some cases, these statues were damaged with time but in many other instances, they were mutilated deliberately. The nose or the ear were chopped off because they represented an Emperor or some other political figure who were relegated to what the Romans called ‘damnatio memoriae’; perpetually banished from memory.

This is what also happened to a number of statues representing Germanicus, the nephew of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Mutilation of statues is also known to have been practised in Early Christianity. Once Christianity became the mainstream religion, its followers began chopping the head of statues. In some cases, they too defaced pagan religious statues.

Islam did the same. In Islam defacing of Statues became even more stronger as the Christians, both Latins and Orthodox took the practice of painting sacred images. The heads of these statues could not be chopped. They could only be defaced.

We have evidence in Malta that this practice amongst the Muslims was still ongoing in the fifteenth century and early sixteenth. There are painted sacred frescoes, like those at the Catacombs of St. Agatha in Rabat, where the faces of the saints have been effaced.  In this case, it is thought that the images were desecrated when the Ottoman army attacked Rabat Malta in 1551, before moving against Gozo. Nonetheless, these images could have been defaced earlier, during the Moorish Siege in 1429. During this siege, Rabat was razed to the ground.

I mention these episodes because iconoclasm has always been present in history. There were times when the Byzantines themselves started destroying their own sacred images because they began associating them with adultery. After the Reformation, a number of reformed churches too started to attack Catholic sacred images for the same reason. Even Muslims did the same. But by the fifteenth century, defacing of sacred images by removing the eyes became peculiarly a Muslim practice.

Most of those commenting on my post concluded that this was done by Arabs or Muslims. However, no one asked whether it was possible that this could be the work of some fanatic member of a Christian sect. As a historian, I ask the question: why not? The answer is that this was not a simple act of vandalism. It was an act of mutilation. In my case, the attempt was to destroy and remove the eye.

Normally, iconoclasm carried out by Christians on Christian images involves  destroying the whole image or chop the head off. This is how Protestants destroyed Catholic religious images during the Wars of Religion. The same fate met Roman Catholic religious images during the French Revolution. In both instances, the Lutheran protesters or the Parisian Revolutionary did not resort to partial mutilation or efface the subject.

This leads me to another point. The culprit in this case must also believe in the concept of the evil eye. In fact, the eye in this rondo resembled the eye of Osiris. What worries me is not the act itself. Even if the damage is extensive and irreparable, this is an act which shows that there are individuals in Malta who have knowledge of the past Muslim practices of effacing Christian sacred images and which we wrongly thought are defunct.

What the study of these practices shows is that those civilizations that practised mutilating statues, repeated these same actions on human beings. When the Romans chopped off the noses of their statues, they also practised the mutilation of the noses of adulterous women. When, the Christians chopped the heads of statues, they had beheading as part of their capital punishment.

I still remember my mother telling me that sacred printed images (santi) should not be thrown away in the bin. Instead, they should be burnt. This is a clear remembrance when Catholics burnt effigies or real individuals at the stake.

Whoever committed this act believes in the evil eye and belongs to a culture where mutilating the human body is still an accepted social practice.

In Malta, we believed (and there are some who still believe) in the evil eye. But such beliefs did not lead the Maltese to mutilate or efface an eye. It is this aspect that worries me most. I don’t want to be an alarmist but it is a known fact that ISIS in the recent past have resorted to these sinister aspects that were present in all past cultures and civilizations.

Christianity abandoned these practices and one sincerely hopes that we never return to them. The fact that elements within Islam have revived these practices does not augur well for our society. It is about time that we start facing facts before our heritage is completely annihilated. 


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