AND MY bet for the best artist award goes to Sun.Star Cebu photographer Allan Defensor.
On assignment, Defensor trained his camera on the nativity painting outside the New Cinema Theatre in Colon St. My guess is that he routinely took several shots for his editors to choose from and then moved on to his next assignment.
But among Defensor’s images is the indelible one selected by central newsroom editors for the Nov. 22 front-page Sun.Star feature about the controversial creche that has hogged media for the past days and caused Catholic Church officials to sputter words of displeasure, even the “blasphemy” word.
Blasphemy, defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia as "a sin against the virtue of religion,” ranked in the Dark Ages as the worst of sins.
Because blasphemy “outweighs murder” (St. Thomas Aquinas), the Church dictated in medieval canon law the worst possible forms of purging men of piety could invent for the impure. Offenders were burnt at the stake, had their foreheads branded with the letter “B,” their tongues pierced or pulled out, and their heads cut off.
Fortunately for my newsroom colleague, other photojournalists and even the unknown New Cinema Theatre painter, we are no longer in the age of the burning bishops.
Unlike other media images that focused on the painting’s odd couple—President Gloria Arroyo and impeached-and-pardoned former president Joseph Estrada—Defensor’s photo included the urban background: the marquee shrieking “Sex Drive,” the downtown traffic and pedestrians oblivious to the beatific smile bestowing peace and reconciliation (see another Defensor shot published last Nov. 23).
Aside from the Church’s censure, people’s reactions to the painting included both amusement with the parody of peace and disagreement with the choice of models. As the Decalogue-quoting monsignor pointed out, no one in his right senses will ever see Mary Immaculate in that Malicious Mole, or see Joseph, whose honor forbade him from deserting a woman not bearing his son, in his Filipino namesake, whose curdled visage does not only jump out from the Colon painting but every recent news photograph that has him cockily claiming he was pardoned because he was never corrupt in the first place and will even run to give Filipinos hope for a credible opposition bet for the next president.
But unlike my elders in the Church (they haven’t cancelled my membership yet, I hope) I find Defensor’s photograph worth more than a hundred features and commentaries on the message of that long-ago birth in the manger. The most poignant and moving detail in the nativity story is the world’s rejection of His coming, presaging our crucifixion and denial of Him today.
However, the traditional Nativity scene—the babe in the cradle, the people kneeling, even the ox and the ass—are artistic conventions that have been, over the years, refined by the Church and given the iconic power of symbols. A mother will instinctively put a newborn next to her breast to nurse and warm it. Before joint parenting, a man will likely snore away, oblivious to the fruit of his loins bawling away (that is, perhaps, why he married its mother).
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB), the threat of the Protestants forced the 16th-17th century Catholic Church to muster every weapon in its spiritual arsenal to keep its captured souls and win others. During the Counter-Reformation (or Catholic Revival), the Council of Trent “simplified” the Nativity tableau to emphasize the “terrestrial trinity” of the Infant Savior and his earthly parents, representing the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit.
By the 16th century, some creative liberties of artists of that time (the midwives, other animals, even the bathing of the infant) were removed for contradicting dogma. For instance, theologians positioned the infant in a cradle-like container to foreshadow the altar and the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice during Holy Eucharist.
Recently, I learned from Fr. Stephen Cuyos, MSC that the iconic image of the Madonna and Child has the viewer perceiving the infant as always being on Mary’s right when to do so, a right-handed woman will have to carry a child on her less used and weaker left arm, an awkward and risky act. This artistic rendition was theologically necessary then because the Italians considered the left side as sinister (the Latin sinister means the “left side” or “unlucky”).
On a less reverent level, Defensor’s photograph reminds me of my full backing for the Church’s stance on procreation (ironically endorsed by the porn movie’s title) but rejection of its opposition to population control. If the only outcome of procreation would be to inflict on this world a lot of Glorias and Eraps, I would even endorse castration.
For outside of the Church’s control, truth and images are the oddest of couples, only approximating reality, at most revealing the beholder’s biases. The crucifix heaving on a pop star’s cleavage reminds me of a different Madonna. Even if the halo was the convention for divinity, beloved by Michelangelo and Titian, several constellations of halos surrounding certain powerful figures of the Church will not change my mind about their fealty to Christ’s call for the Church of the Poor.
Why is the Defensor photograph better than the most sentimental rendition of the manger scene? The photo is more honest.
That first Christmas eve exposed not the poverty in the manger, but the poverty without. It shows how hollow and empty is a faith sustained only by appearances.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 25, 2007 issue