Saracens in salacious poses, and beasts at prayer, facing Mecca: an exhibition of photos at Berlin's Museum of Islamic Art follows the trail of anti-Islamic propaganda in mediaeval Christendom. Lennart Lehman reports
Claudio Lange's theory stands in opposition to traditional readings of art history. In the exhibition catalogue, he writes: "The usual art-historical talk of an Arabic influence on Christian art serves to mask the gulf that separates two enemy camps." In his view, the rebirth of sculpture in the 10th century – usually denoted "The Romanesque Period" – was part of a campaign of propaganda images (using a medium that was new and revolutionary in its time) to justify calls for a Holy War against the Mohammedans.
The core exhibits are sculptures that had previously received little attention: anti-Islamic representations designed to show how "the higher civilisation of Islam could be defeated by a triumphalist Christianity". Therefore, says Lange, the word "Romanesque" is misleading, "for it wasn't Rome but 'Anti-Islam' that inspired the rebirth of sculpture".
Equipped with funds from the Reemstma Foundation for Science and Culture, the 59-year-old, Chilean-born photograph visited mediaeval churches all over Europe. He was looking for anti-Islamic sculpted images on their facades and in their interiors – and he found them: copulating couples in Muslim prayer posture, turbaned men tearing their own beards out or parading their huge circumcised penises, headscarved women flaunting their vaginas, donkeys playing music on Arabic instruments while gargoyles cover their ears and grimace in protest (which Lange sees as a clear mockery of the Muezzins).
Most of these figures are naked, and many of them greet the spectator with their hand on their breast. In Lange's view, Biblical Babylon, the perverse but vincible adversary of Christendom, is here being projected onto Islam.
Besides holding a doctorate in Religion, Lange is himself a practising freelance artist. He discovered most of the aforementioned sculptures on the Iberian peninsula, where Catholic Spain was busy with the Reconquista until well into the 14th century. The presence of anti-Islamic images is therefore as unsurprising as is the use of Arabesque fragments in Iberian church buildings. Lange emphasises that these elements were the spoils of war, and not mere imitations arising from an admiration for Arabic culture.
But he also found similar specimens in other parts of Europe: masturbating wildcats in Spain, monkeys playing the drums in Cologne, chained Muslims supporting the roof of a church in Prague, knights kicking Turks in Würzburg, and turbaned men dismembered by lions in Sweden.
Claudio Lange sees these sculptures as a means of mobilising a largely illiterate population against Islam. He places the responsibility for this on the Catholic Church, which was motivated by the need to find a unifying, external enemy after having failed to establish peace within Europe. By uniting Europe, the Church hoped to strengthen and expand its power; and with this "propaganda in stone", says Lange, the Church was laying the groundwork for the Crusades.
An easily-comprehensible language of images
As just one example of how the Church fought against Islamic cultural influences within Europe, Lange points to a sculpted representation of paradise in Gerona: it depicts Adam and Eve plucking the fruit from the tree of knowledge, while a snake slithers furtively among the branches. With the help of botanists, he discovered that the plant depicted is no apple tree, but the mystical mandrake – an essential element in the medicine of the Mediterranean countries, introduced to Western Europe by the Arabs.
"The sculptors knew exactly what they were doing", says Lange; and he feels certain that their contemporaries had no difficulty in understanding this pictorial language.
© Qantara.de 2003
Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan