Friday, February 2, 2018

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

The Ancient Greek myth of Iphigenia tells the story of Agamemnon who offended the goddess Athena in some way as he prepared to lead an attack on Troy.  To make good with her, he had to sacrifice his young daughter Iphigenia, which he did.  There are any number of paintings, and a few sculptures, depicting the event.  One of them was painted by Arnold Houbraken of Amsterdam in the late 17th century.  It normally hangs in the Rijksmuseum, but we saw it in Sydney where it was on loan along with others by Rembrandt and his school.

The painting shows Agamemnon (and his wife?) hiding their faces in their hands while curious onlookers stare at the two central figures.  One is an attractive teenage girl, kneeling, stripped to the waist, looking apprehensive.  Behind her, holding a large knife, is a priest who is about to slit her throat.  What struck me about this painting of a Greek myth from the time of Homer were the vestments of the priest.  They were the vestments of a second temple Hebrew priest, or at least what popular imagination believed them to be.  Why would a late 17th century Dutch painter portray a Hebrew priest in a painting about a Greek myth?  Think about it.

If nothing else, he made a clear public statement that if one wanted to look for the source of nasty things being done to good, righteous, God fearing Dutch people, look no farther than to Jews, especially Jewish bankers.  They’ll cut your throat and never give it a second thought.  Why Jewish bankers?  At the time, the only “international” bankers in Europe were the great Jewish banking houses.  It was they who financed wars and trade across state lines.  There are lots of reasons for that, none of them sinister, but it did make them an easy target for racist blame.  It was not the beginning of European anti-semitism, but it was an obvious example of a trend of long standing that would continue uninterrupted another 240 years building momentum toward the Third Reich and the Holocaust.  

In the aftermath of WWII we believed the world had learned its lesson, that we had freed ourselves at last from the curse of anti-semitism.  It was not to be.  Instead, we became more aware of its close cousins, the brutal prejudices we had accepted and promoted as the normal way of things that placed those of us of white Northern European heritage above all others, the rightful rulers of all others, the enforcer of limits on the freedoms and rights of all others.  The decades long battles to right the wrongs we had perpetrated over the centuries have had some success.  Of that we can take modest satisfaction.  At the same time, it has emboldened the remnants of white supremacists and neo-Nazis to put  other races and ethnicities back in their places, Jews among them.  That’s especially true under the current administration whose leader has made no  secret of his own prejudices expressed in violent, humiliating terms.

Houbraken’s painting could be replicated many times over, with the knife wielding priest portrayed as a black man, Asian, Mexican, American Indian, Australian Aborigine, Pacific Islander, Arab sheik, or any of a dozen others.  It would be understood instantly.  It would be applauded and endorsed by many who would otherwise proclaim themselves to be good, righteous, God fearing people.  We can do better.  We must do better.


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