by: Valerie Elverton-Dixon on February 12th, 2014 | 3 Comments »
When we think of the casualties of war, we think of the physical death of human beings. We think of the physical, psychological and moral injury warriors suffer. We think of the collateral damage of non-combatants killed, thus making the idea of a just war an impossibility. We may sometimes stretch our imaginations to include an injured earth, a wounded natural world where animals die. In the movie “The Monuments Men”, directed by and starring George Clooney, we see other casualties of war – fine art. We see a dedicated quest for a particular piece of art, the Bruges Madonna and Child, a representation of the feminine divine.
The movie is based on the real-life Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Task Force, a group of trained art historians, architects and designers whose purpose was to protect important monuments, buildings, and fine art if possible. They were to also locate and seek to return art stolen by the Nazis. The central question of the movie is whether or not a piece of art is worth a human life. Commanders in the field are loathe to risk the lives of their men over a work of art. If the decision comes down to bombing an important building considered a monument worth protecting and winning the battle, the battle takes priority.
The Allied forces destroyed many monuments during bombing campaigns, even when they were told of their artistic value. This story along with the story of the real-life Monuments Men are told in an excellent documentary “The Rape of Europa.” We see the astonishing number of works of art, religious objects, and everyday household furnishings that were stolen by the Nazis. However, one object becomes supremely important in “The Monuments Men” – The Bruges Madonna and Child.
This work of art depicting the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus was the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. Toward the beginning of the movie, we hear Clooney’s character – George Stout – tell his men not to risk their lives for a piece of art. However, as the movie unfolds, we see the Monuments Men willing to put their lives at risk for the sake of art.
In the movie, a British officer – Donald Jeffries – played by Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame volunteers to go to Bruges, a city in Belgium, to protect the Madonna and Child, a sculpture he had seen as a boy. We are told that Jeffries has lived a life of a drunkard and a thief. He has been a disappointment to his father. His wife and family have left him to his own devices. This mission is another chance for him, and he needs the Madonna for the sake of his own soul.
He writes a letter to his father while he is guarding the Madonna and Child, describing her as gently holding and guarding the child “from a fate she knew would come.” He thinks that great art belongs to everyone, and he feels the Madonna gently guarding him from his own inevitable fate. When the Nazis come, he alone cannot protect the sculpture, so the team rededicates itself to its recovery. This representation of the feminine divine becomes the primary object of the team’s search.
The Bruges Madonna represents the feminine divine in its most compassionate iterations. It represents unconditional love, spiritual protection, healing, and redemption. It is an object that we can see representing realities that we cannot see. The mother god has a long history in human consciousness. She has been seen as Mother Earth who takes seeds into herself and gives us food. She has been worshiped as a goddess of many breasts who is the source of our sustenance. According to Sir James Frazer in his book “The Golden Bough”, the Egyptian goddess Isis represents many of the same qualities as the Madonna. She is “true wife, tender mother, beneficent queen of nature.” She is “encircled with a nimbus of moral purity, or immemorial and mysterious sanctity.” In Judaism, Shekhina is the female aspect of God. I say the Holy Spirit in Protestantism is the female divine because she is the comforter and the wisdom of God.
Within the European Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary has assumed these same qualities and more. In the Litany of Loreto, devotees of the Blessed Virgin Mary give her 50 titles, among them are Refuge of sinners, Comforter of the afflicted, Queen of families, and Queen of peace. The sculpture in its cool beauty crystallizes the various attributes, making the presence and the possibility of refuge, comfort, familial acceptance, and peace tangible.
And one need not be Catholic to appreciate what the sculpture represents. Stone crafted into an image takes us beyond the difficulties of the moment and helps us reach the capacity to both give and to receive grace. The preservation of such works of art is another way to preserve our human spiritual capacities. To hoard, hide, or destroy such art robs all of humanity. In the documentary “The Rape of Europa”, Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum reminds us that “Art belongs to humanity. Without this we are animals. We just fight. We live; we eat. Art is what makes us human.”
In this movie, Clooney shows us a band of brothers who, as all warriors in all wars, fight for each other. The larger cause, be it political, ideological, or the quest to find a particular piece of art, becomes more holy with the shedding of human blood.
As we think about architecture and art as casualties of war, we are aware that the problem continues to this very day. As we watch the horror that is the war in Syria, we weep not only for the starving and homeless Syrians, but we recognize that architecture dating back to biblical times have been bombed into a pile of rocks. We also see brave men and women working to protect the libraries of Timbuktu in Mali.
The recurring question of the movie: Is a work of art worth a person’s life?
I say we ought to take that question, read it through the symbol of the Madonna, the Queen of Peace, join the movement against all wars (http://www.worldbeyondwar.org/), and say that war is a useless barbarism that humankind as a whole ought to decide is unnecessary and unacceptable because it kills human beings and animals. It wounds the earth. It destroys architecture and art. It destroys both life and the objects that give life beauty and meaning.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation