September 11, 2020

Few today spend long thinking about the vagina of the Virgin Mary. Which is a pity. Because the Virgin Mary’s vagina might help us better understand not only what is going on in an ancient church in Istanbul but also what is going on elsewhere in Turkey, and in Bristol and in Oriel College, Oxford, and in Canada, and anywhere else that anger is rising and statues are falling and history is being held to account.

But first back to that church in Istanbul. Unless you’ve been to Istanbul you may not have heard of the Kariye Museum. But it is glorious. This ancient church – converted into a museum decades ago – looks a bit unprepossessing at first. Outside it looks like a bunker. But inside it takes your breath away. For here you will find heaven held in beaten gold and ancient ages stilled on its ceiling. The blue and red and gold mosaics that cover this church from top to toe are some of the oldest still surviving from Byzantium – and arguably the most beautiful.

They are also now no longer in the “Kariye Museum”. Because last month an edict signed by President Erdogan announced to the world that this building was instead to be called the “Kariye Mosque”. Evidently Erdogan has a taste for this, having also just turned the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. It seems that some of the local Istanbul citizens are also pleased. Hundreds hurried to the Hagia Sophia to pray after it was changed. It is said that locals rushed to the new Kariye mosque hoping to pray there too.

Others were less pleased; indeed they are horrified. Byzantinist specialists the world over are holding their breath. In Hagia Sophia, mosaics of the Virgin holding Christ have been covered over with a curtain. That’s not so easy to do in Kariye. This isn’t just about one picture, or two. They’re on every wall. The great fear is that something more dramatic will happen. It happened before: when the Ottomans invaded in 1453, the frescoes were plastered over.

This debate is, on the face of it, about religion. But it is also about history, and how history is written — and above all how it is covered up. Istanbul — part place, part palimpsest — is long familiar with such debates. Any city that has had three names can’t help but know that history is as much about writing over the past as the writing about it.

The Kariye Mosque, that was the Kariye Museum, and that long before that was the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, is as good a place as any to consider this writing and rewriting. This ancient building, first built in the fourth century and decorated in the fourteenth is as much Etch-a-sketch as edifice: it has been written and rewritten so many times that it is hard to know what it “should” be at all.

And even when its frescoes were fresh, back in the fourteenth century, they were themselves based on a rewriting of the Gospel. And a relatively radical one too. For the frescoes that those Istanbul residents are hurrying to pray beneath, refer to a Christian gospel that contained a version of the Virgin Mary’s vagina that could burn human flesh.

The gospel, called the Gospel of James, on which this church’s frescoes are based is enormously important to church history.  It dates back to the second century, and was, for a time, one of the most popular — and one of the most influential of all. If you have ever seen a nativity image that contains an ox and an ass you are seeing its influence. Yet even if you’re from a devout family you’re unlikely to ever have heard of this gospel.

Because starting in the second century this book, and others like it, started to be first denigrated, then denied by church authorities, especially in the west (it survived much better in the east, hence its presence in the Kariye). I hadn’t heard of it – and my parents had been a monk and a nun. My father, despite spending almost 14 years dressed in a cowl, had no idea it existed. The fact that we have all but forgotten this book tells us a bit about Mary — and a lot about history, and about religion, and what they are used for.

This Gospel of James may be ancient but even in the beginning it was itself a rewrite of history (or at any rate of the Gospels, which in Christianity pass for history). This Gospel appeared in a time when Christians were very, very concerned about proving the virginity of Mary. Chiefly, it seems, because their neighbours thought the idea was laughable nonsense. Mary was no virgin, they said. She’d been knocked up by a Roman soldier.

The other four Gospels, somewhat problematically, are not that helpful on this point. Most biblical accounts of Jesus’s birth are brisk to the point of perfunctory: after Jesus is born, they largely fade to black. They offer precious little in the way of proof that Mary was, indeed, a virgin.

Which is where the Gospel of James comes in. In it, after Jesus’s birth, a woman walks past, hears that a virgin has given birth and says: what nonsense, I don’t believe it. Mary’s midwife (this story has a midwife) says: test her yourself. In other words: check she has a hymen. So, strange as it may sound to a twenty-first century listener, this is what the woman does. She comes over to Mary, inserts her hand into Mary’s vagina – and it is promptly roasted off. “Woe,” she says, which is fair enough.

This gospel was immensely popular — though not among church authorities. When in the fourth century, the final form of the Bible was decided on, the Gospel of James didn’t make the cut. Then, Church authorities started to get stern about the offcut gospels. They were, declared a later decree, “not merely rejected but eliminated” from the Church, while their authors followers should, it added, “be damned in the inextricable shackles of anathema forever.”

The coming of Christianity ushered in an era that was distinguished by almost hysterical desire for purity against all wrong thought. Bishops encouraged the faithful not to read all parts of all “heathen” books lest  they “receive some contamination unawares”. To be not Christian, or worse, the wrong kind of Christian, became a crime. “Pagan” statues were torn down or defaced lest they pollute the eyes of those who saw them. Public show trials forced heretics to recant, grovellingly and humiliatingly, to their former wrong-belief. The most influential history book of the era explicitly stated that it would, in general, record only the Christian behaviour that set a good example — and not mention the rest.

This, the Christians said, was “liberation” not oppression. But being liberated is not always that much fun. The dialogue that this earnest, pure Christian world created was characterised, as the academic Brent D Shaw has put it, by a “hectoring moralizing of the individual, and a ceaseless management of the minutiae of everyday life. Above all, it was a form of speech marked by an absence of humour. It was a morose and a deadly serious world.”

The results on what we know about the church, and history, can still be felt. Even today, the Gospel of James has barely been studied by theologians. Discreet intellectual curtains covered it over. Our minds were protected. What a pity.

Our smiles have faded again. In 2020, an earnest desire for purity is once again in the air.  Make a joke about gender, or women, or the wrong bit of history and Twitter — as JK Rowling knows well – will have you. Books that might cause offence are getting “trigger warnings” or being removed from syllabuses. To Kill A Mockingbird was removed from classrooms in Canada and taken off the syllabus in a city in Mississippi because “there is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable.” Statues are, once again, under threat. Edward Colston has gone. Rhodes is going to go. The souls of other statues are started to be weighed in the balance – and found wanting. And in Istanbul, the fate of the Church of the Chora hangs in the balance.

Let’s be clear: those who are banning books and toppling statues and no-platforming speakers are not doing this because they are unkind. On the contrary: they are doing it because they care. Either because they care about an ideal; or a god; or a religious law. They are all, every single one of them — Erdogan, the anti-Rowling Twitter mob, topplers of statues — acting — or so they say — to protect vulnerable hearts and minds; to liberate people from oppression. Erdogan, when opening Hagia Sophia to worship, said that that the building “is breaking away from its chains of captivity”.

Maybe. But it’s worth remembering that history is unlikely to see any of this as “liberation”. History, as much as anything else, is on a side: its own. And history dislikes those who destroy its evidence; those who ban books or silence speakers or pull down statues. Yes, people who do these things have their reasons. Arguably, they may be very good reasons. That doesn’t matter to history. When it says in a history book “they burnt books” no reader ever pauses to ask: which books? It is enough that they burnt them.

And now, history may well be about to rewritten again. So the world watches the frescoes in Istanbul, and waits.

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  • September 19, 2020
    Where have all the comments gone, Unherd? As writers you may appreciate it's quite sad for one's words to just be erased for no reason. Some thoughtful person kindly and intelligently replied to one of my comments, and I came to reply in kind to him, and it's all gone.......For one, I am left... Read more

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