The God of Small Things Broken on the Wheel

Titian's Madonna of the Rabbit might be sweet and simple and pastoral: the young woman holding the baby, the child reaching for one of two domestic white rabbits, the mother's hand caressing the back of the child's head. You can almost hear them murmuring, gentle, now. The mother's hand cupping the rabbit's haunches rather than holding the scruff of its neck, an indication of trust on the rabbit's part that must have been observed from life. A shepherd in the backgrond that might be a guardian of the gentle triangle, petting a black sheep, his gaze not anxious, but dreamy and thoughtful in a place where "sheep may safely graze". Is the baby reaching, or blessing? Is the mother's hand intentionally making the Buddha's "earth touching" gesture?

That's a big part of Christmas for me, a midnight when animals can talk, a truce when soldiers from the tranches exchange cigarettes and play soccer, when the world is supposed to stop savaging children and animals. On any other day of the year, the Baby Jesus, the ox and the donkey would be "collateral damage", swollen at the side of the road somewhere-- just look at the statistics on civilians from Our Monkey Emperor's invasion of Iraq, or if, as Stalin believed, "statistics" don't count, Brian K. Vaughan's Pride of Baghdad. For one night, the Roman Saturnalia is turned into a celebration of the most vulnerable fragments of suffering humanity.

Titian's meditation goes deeper; the young girl attending the baby is Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who lived almost 300 years later. Artists called these kinds of paintings "sacred conversations", sacra conversazione, figures from different periods brought together to carry some symbolic message.

A ghost of horror stalks the loving scene, because Catherine symbolized the torture and cruelty imposed on the small things of the world. When she was eighteen, she was condemned to be broken on the wheel: on the "Catherine wheel", the victim is bound to the spokes and the wheel is turned with a rod shoved in between the spoke and the all too human limb. Arms and legs can be broken many times this way, with the victim still conscious; sometimes broken so many times that the torturers could wrap your arms and legs around the spokes like a piece of string. According to the saint's legend, Catherine touched the wheel, and the wheel itself broke into pieces. Robbed of their fun, they beheaded her instead. Of the rabbits, and the flowers (artists were very specific about the symbolism of plants in Titian's day), the shepherd and the black sheep, I'm fairly ignorant, except as indications of gentleness and trust. That the world contains such cruelty in juxtaposition with beauty and tenderness is one of those mysteries of the "philosophia perennis" that I keep trying to understand with Christian and ecumenical metaphors, but there's real blood mixed in with the wine.

So Merry Christmas. Sorry, cosmos, that we've been such vicious, murderous primates all year, but we promise to do better next year. That was Christmas Eve, of course, and we made those promises and toast while we were drunk on sentiment, sentiment being defined here as emotions that you don't really mean, as sincere as Jove's perjuries. Christmas Day, people were back to taunting a captive Siberian tiger, dangling a leg over its prison and then affecting surprise when the tiger climbed up that leg, killed one of them and mauled two more, doing what tigers do. What would William Blake make of this? Word comes as I finish this post of the death of Benazir Bhutto. Let us continue this talent for killing our best and brightest on the altar of a murderous God, and then see what we've accomplished. Our friend Michael in Colorado sends his usual cynical Christmas card: Merry Fucking Christmas. Not nearly cynical enough.

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