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The Art-Loving Atheist Wants to Know

A Currell

Tamara Isabell - Regina Magazine - published on 04/10/14

Why ARE Saint Lucy's eyes on a plate, anyway?

At the age of seventeen, I stumbled upon the idea of moral relativity. At that age, the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ seemed self-evidently to be pure fabrications. This almost immediately – probably inevitably – led me to atheism.

It was 1989 and I was the only atheist I knew. I was ridiculously enamored of my own philosophizing and fancied myself bold and daring in my godlessness.

Ten years later, I was the wife of an Army Aviation Officer, assigned to Germany. I fell in love with German culture from the beginning, fascinated by their rich artisanal history displayed in every archway and cobblestone, a history so lacking in our own American landscape.

We wound up living in Germany almost fifteen years.  Two of our three children were born there. I became ever more fluent in German over the years, immersing myself by stages in community life, primarily through my eldest son, who spoke German from his earliest Kindergarten days and entered the Grundschule at the age of six.  My life centered around his school and play schedule, the mothers of his playmates becoming my dear friends.  

Most of those years were spent in or near Wuerzburg, “The City of Churches” in the Franconian wine region.  My daily errands were run in the midst of the most impressive architecture.  I loved to stop in the gaudy Hofkirche chapel of the Residenz, letting my eye follow the gilded swirls of Baroque exuberance, ever upward to the domed ceiling.  I regularly passed the 900 year old Dom (cathedral), hastening my steps past the looming skeletons above the side entrance.

Though my everyday horizons were dominated by church domes and steeples, and my days were measured by church bells, I remained an atheist. I regarded it all with the academic curiosity of a museum-stroller, absorbing the beauty of the Christian world around me for its aesthetic value alone, never considering there might be more.

Almost all my German friends at this time were ‘Catholic.’  I found myself swept along in their customs, helping my son keep his candle lit against the wind in the children’s Laternezug honoring Saint Martin, allowing my house to be marked with a chalk blessing by neighbors dressed in Magi costumes on Three Kings Day.

Through it all, I maintained a stubborn intellectual detachment.  I observed and participated with pleasure, but made a point to find it all very fascinating in a strictly anthropological sense. I was still an atheist, still proud to stand in opposition to religion in all its backward manifestations.

Then a strange thing happened.  As the years went by and my appreciation for German culture deepened, I somehow found it harder to hold it at an academic arm’s length.

Gaze long enough at a statue of Saint Denis, and you find yourself asking why he happens to be holding his head in his hands.  Surrounded by so much Christian art, I began to focus on recurrent themes and symbols. What were they all about?

Of course, like art enthusiasts before and after me, I initially explained such symbols in terms of mythology. I did this for many years, but those explanations ultimately could not satisfy because of one overwhelming theme in Christian art, found nowhere else: suffering.

Indeed, why does that stone saint hold his head in his hands?  Why will Saint Lucy persist in offering up her gouged eyes on a golden plate?  And what about Christ on the cross?

I slowly started getting a sense of voices from the medieval past; it was as if they were trying to communicate with me through the paintings and statues they’d left behind.  I began to wonder if the structures they’d erected stood as a testimony to something, perhaps something other than the patriarchal Church-state I’d always disdained.  I developed a nagging sense that evil could not be the creator of such beauty.

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