Calling a Crusade; Europe's True Foundations

Struggle for the Cross Has Changed Directions

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 12, 2009 ( And you thought the Crusades were over. Nope. Now, however, instead of battling to return the cross to once Christian lands, besiegers struggle to uproot the cross from its 2,000-year-old home. On Nov. 4, the European Court of Human Rights decreed that the presence of crucifixes in schools violates students’ rights to religious freedom.

The seven judges of the European court handed down the sentence that “the crucifix could be easily interpreted by students of all ages as a religious symbol. Thus they would feel that they are being educated in a scholastic atmosphere of a certain religious stamp.”

(As an art teacher, I have to sadly note that a great many students do not know what a crucifix is or means, leaving them incapable of comprehending the vast body of Western art produced from the fourth to the 17th centuries.)

The judges awarded €5,000 in damages to Soile Lautsi Albertin, an Italian citizen of Finnish origin, who started her suit in 2002 to remove crucifixes from her sons’ classrooms in Padua. After every Italian court found against her, she finally brought her case to the European Union, which found unanimously in her favor.

Although the court fined the government, it did not order crucifixes to be removed, which hang in Italian schools by law. Italy has three months to file an appeal.

Massimo Albertin, the plaintiff’s husband, obviously delighted by the verdict, was quoted by ANSA news agency as saying “The crucifix creates discrimination.”

The Albertins’ position was not shared by the Italian government, nor the overwhelming majority of Italians on the street. Television reporters combed Italian piazzas recording the shock and perplexity of the Italians.

From left to right, Italian political parties were taken aback by the decision. Pier Ferdinando Casini, leader of the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats, claimed that the decision was the “consequence of the cowardice of the European governors who refused to mention the Christian roots of Europe in the European Constitution.”

Even the Secretary of the Italian Communist Party, Paolo Ferrero noted that “the Strasburg sentence is not a good answer to the demands of a lay state, which are legitimate and understandable.”

The Atheist and Muslim Unions, however, were both pleased by the decision.

Several Italian politicians noted a more menacing aspect of the verdict. Minister of Education Mariastella Gelmini warned that it is “not by eliminating the traditions of individual countries that a united Europe is built,» and Sandro Bondi, the Italian Minister of Culture, mourned that “this decision takes us away from the idea of Europe founded by De Gaspari, Adenauer and Schumann [founders of the European Union]. At this rate, failure is inevitable.”

In Italy the crucifix is more than a religious symbol; it is a reminder of what continued to unify the peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire. Ever since Constantine’s vision of a cross on the eve of the battle of the Milvian bridge the crucifix has been a beacon for Italy’s greatest achievements. The reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, far from being a cause of discrimination (we don’t have fundamentalists here except as regards mozzarella, olive oil and soccer) draws out the best of the Italians. 

When Italians spontaneously help a person in need, they often say “quel povero Cristo” calling to mind “that poor Christ” they have seen on the cross all their lives who spurs them to selfless kindness.

One of the first things that made me appreciate Italy enough to dissolve my love affair with France and settle here was the powerful sense of identity and tradition among the Italians. As an art historian, it seemed that I could still glimpse the world of Michelangelo and Giotto in their modern descendants. This ECHR verdict, aimed at eliminating differences among the people of the European Union, indicts Italy for having maintained its link with its Christian identity.

This ruling should serve as an alarm bell to citizens of the European Union, urging them to monitor closely the ideologies that are about to be foisted on its member states. Most of the Europeans see the EU as a gravy train, leading its members into greater prosperity, but nothing comes for free. European citizens need to realize that for a few more designer clothes and fancy cars, they may end up having unwittingly sold their souls.

Where does this ruling end? Will we have to deface our monuments and rip down our images of the Madonna and Child that gaze benevolently upon us from countless street corners? Will the Pope be prohibited from carrying the crucifix in the Corpus Christi procession?

The ultimate legacy of the European Court’s verdict is a void, an emptying of the beauty and tradition which distinguishes Italian culture. As Pope Benedict XVI has so often reminded us, religious faith and expression stand at the very core of human culture. Removing them guts culture of its transcendent soul.

Far more frightening is what is appearing on the horizon to fill that void. Rex Murphy, writing for the Globe and Mail last week, noted that the anti-crucifix ruling coincided with a U.K. court decision that gives climate change beliefs the same legal status as religion. 

So in short, Europe proposes to take down the Tree of Life to save the trees.

* * *

Making a saint

Italy no longer crusades with armies, but with a far more powerful weapon, her long-standing tradition of art and culture. During these heated debates about the crucifix in classrooms, Italy issued a visually sumptuous reminder to the European Union of the Christian roots of every nation in Europe, and of the continent itself.

“Power and Grace: The Patron Saints of Europe” is a unique exhibition on display in Rome in the Palazzo Venezia until Jan. 31. Over one hundred works by artists ranging from El Greco to Hans Memling, Caravaggio to Mantegna and Titian to Murillo stand side by side with Eastern icons and snippets from the most famous films about saints.

The show — co-sponsored by the highest level of Italian government and the Church hierarchy — was opened by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone on Oct. 7 (incidentally the feast of the Holy Rosary and the commemoration of the battle of Lepanto, where secular and Church forces fought side by side to save the Christian life of Europe from Turkish aggression).

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, wrote the opening essay of the catalogue with a provocative question. Echoing Albert Camus, he asked, “Can one be a saint without God? Is it enough to be a person of good will?»

Archbishop Ravasi’s answer is a resounding “no.” Grace, he writes, the fullness of faith, is essential for sainthood. Backing up his claim are 20 centuries of men and women from the first martyrs to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose extraordinary lives and deeds were accomplished through their cooperation with God’s grace.

Even more astounding than the exquisite copy of a stained glass window from the Le Mans Cathedral, were the opening words on the didactic panels: “The history of Christian sainthood and the social, cultural and political history of Europe are closely connected.” The power of saints, they write, is “a link between heaven and earth.”

The first room is dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. Glowing stained glass, a tender Russian icon of Mother and son and the dazzling vision by Murillo of the Immaculate Conception testify to Europe’s Marian devotion across both space and time.

The witness of the martyrs, particularly St. Peter, fills the next room, but pride of place goes to St. Martin of Tour
s, whose feast day was Wednesday. Martin bears special distinction as the first saint who was not martyred. Hermit, abbot, bishop and missionary, St. Martin lights the way for a world of legalized Christianity where without persecution, men and women must find ways to live like Christ. 

Monasticism is the next form of sanctity explored in the exhibit. St Benedict, whose vow of stability gave order in the chaos wrought by the fall of Rome, is featured side by side with Caravaggio’s meditative St. John the Baptist. Hans Memling’s exquisitely painted portrait of the saint shows Benedict reading his Rule, which, according to the exhibit, would be “the instrument for preserving the knowledge, texts, customs, techniques and values of ancient civilization.»

The development of the cult of the saints through miracles and memory is rendered through touching ancient testimonies painted on antique panels, but also in a startlingly large canvas by Russian painter Illarion Michaijlovic Prjanisnkov from 1887. Called “The Day of the Savior,” the work uses bright colors of the devout procession to brighten the leaden sky hanging above, and recalls Russia’s long tradition of faith. This same section also features St. Nicholas of Bari, beloved by both Eastern and Western Europe.

The beloved mystics of Europe are prominently rendered as well. Jan Van Eyck’s delicate panel illustrates St. Francis receiving the stigmata, while St. Catherine of Siena, patroness of Europe, is depicted on small panels to large canvasses.

St. Stanislaus of Poland leads the homage to bishops and missionaries, who brought the Word of God to the lands of Europe. St. Stephen of Hungary and St. Louis of France set examples of how men in possession of supreme temporal power can live lives of exemplary holiness. 

The combination of temporal authority and sanctity is a volatile one, however, and this tension is likewise depicted in the exhibition. Threats encroach on the freedom of the Church both through the stifling of religious freedom and through the corruption of religion. Peter Glenville’s 1964 film “Beckett” plays overhead, showing the Archbishop of Canterbury executed by King Henry II’s assassins.

The show closes in homage to St. Thomas More, whose portrait by Hans Holbein seems to meditate on the images of the 1966 film “Man for All Seasons” by Fred Zinneman. The didactic panel comments on this sad chapter with these words: “This exhibition leads to the conclusion that the balance between power and grace depends on the principle of religious freedom, which is the criterion for properly understanding the principle of the secularity of the state. This involves recognizing the dignity of human beings in whom consciences are borne freely and according to reason; these are responses to God, which no power can induce or prevent.”

These words, seemingly from the lips of the hundreds of European saints depicted in the exhibit, speak more convincingly than the judges from the European Court of Human Rights.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and at the University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at

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