The drama of the anunciation in medieval European art
I arrived in old Nazareth on a Friday in the autumn of 2018.
I was on my way to the West Bank.
Over the previous ten days, starting in Tel Aviv, I’d made my way along the west coast of Israel. This had been an interesting and intense journey.
It was in Old Nazareth however that my journey entered a different dimension; that I got my first premonition of a entering an incipient war zone. It came in the form of an angel, an angel of the night, an angel named Gabriel…….
Getting down from the bus, the first thing I saw was a mosque on an open square; it was a small one, without minarets. Outside the mosque there was a cloth banner in English which read:
‘I am indeed a slave of Allah. Allah is my Lord and your Lord so worship him and him alone.’
There was something going on at the mosque. Men had appeared from inside the mosque carrying rolled up carpets. These they unrolled over the square, one after the other, like something out of the Arabian Nights, until most of the square was covered in deep red carpet.
A small table was placed in front of the carpets and a large flat screen TV on the table. Loudspeakers were connected to the TV. There were cables everywhere. The whole operation took about an hour. On the TV screen came an image, a still photo, of the great mosque in Mecca. It stayed there.
Nothing much happened.
Something was going to be broadcast and I wanted to see what, but I got impatient.
I decided to check into the hotel I had booked over the net instead.
I walked through the maze of ancient alleyways to my hotel, walking over stone slabs, through archways and passed little shops and cafes. There were posters everywhere for candidates competing in the local elections.
Up until comparatively recently, Nazareth was a Christian town. For centuries it was a popular destination for Christian pilgrims from all over Europe. It was here where according to the believers, Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would conceive the son of God. This immortalised event was referred to as the ‘annunciation’. This event, along with the Crucifixion, was one of the most frequently painted scenes in European art. Nazareth was also where Jesus grew up and learned his trade as a carpenter and delivered his first sermon. Even today amongst the maze of narrow alleyways of old Nazareth, there are stone buildings which were originally hostels built to accommodate the constant stream of pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Mind you, back in the Middle Ages, some of the Christian pilgrims who came to the Holy Land were highly unsavoury types such as the Crusaders for example. On their way across Europe, the Knights of Christ indulged in the time-honoured sport of Jew-killing. Whole communities of Jews were wiped out in Southern Germany and Eastern Europe. Leaving a trail of blood behind them, the Knights arrived at their destination and then proceeded to massacre Moslems.
Today Nazareth is a Moslem city. Most of its inhabitants are Arabs and most of these are Moslems but there is also a large minority of Arab Christians. 5% of the population are Jews living a parlous existence and dependent on the protection of the IDF (Israel Defence Forces).
On the way back to the main square, I stopped at the Basilica of Annunciation, a modern church built between 1960 and ’69, with funds provided by the Catholic Church. The basilica isn’t actually a true basilica – like the traditional half spherical domes one sees in old churches. Rather it’s an immense cone, at the top of which is a lantern shaped skylight.
It was quiet inside even though there were at least a hundred pilgrim-tourists present. They came from many countries including the U.S., Germany, Poland, China and Japan; Christians travelling in an organised biblical group. There is a lot of this kind of tourism in Israel. The route that the biblical tourists followed took them to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.
I sat on the bench seats amongst the pilgrims and took in my surroundings. For me the church was a fine example of modern architecture.
For the believers, it was a sacred place.
I was impressed with how quiet the believers were. Hardly a whisper could be heard.
As an atheist, it was difficult for me to give a story like the annunciation much credence. But it did set me thinking about the angel named Gabriel.
Not only did Gabriel convey the news to Mary that she was going to conceive the son of God, but the very same angel turned up 600 years later in a cave outside Mecca in Arabia. There he materialised before a middle-aged merchant who had fallen asleep in a cave. His name was Mohammed. Gabriel had a message for Mohammed which came straight from God (the Arabic word for God being ‘Allah’). It was a long message. Two centuries later it was written up as a book called the Koran.
I left the Basilica and went out a side door where there was a long ‘L’ shaped wall shaded by a canopy. Here there were also throngs of biblical tourists. Along the wall were 30 large panels – mosaics and painted relief works – representing the theme of Mary and her baby Jesus. Each panel was made by Catholics hailing from various countries from all over the world. The images were very different. It was fascinating to see how each culture had their own image of Mary. Each one was beautiful in its own way. I especially liked the Mary´s from Vietnam and Korea.
At some point whilst I was admiring the images of Mary and Jesus, a loud high-pitched screaming began. Putting two and two together, I realised it must have been an imam on the TV in the square who was delivering a sermon.
He screamed and ranted and yelled. It was an unpleasant sound and it was so loud.
The TV imam was apparently pretty wound up about something.
Robbed of my silence, I thought I’d better go and take a look at what was happening in the square. ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’
I arrived there to see about 50 men seated on the carpets. On the TV was an old man with a turban and a long white wispy beard. He could have been an ascetic. I was really surprised. It was incredible that such an old man could find the energy to keep up such a burning rage. How could his vocal chords withstand such sustained screaming?
He just went on and on.
I got bored. I was hungry and went into a nearby café.
The café was a large one by the crammed, side-street standards of old Nazareth. From a narrow front it extended back quite a way. There were wooden tables and chairs. On the walls there were old photos of Nazareth when it was a village and some pieces of embroidered cloth. The café reminded me of a place somewhere in Cairo; there was a feeling of oldness covered over by a veneer of freshly painted walls and a newly installed counter.
I don’t think that the screaming imam would have approved of the Moslem family who ran the café. The mother and daughter had short hair and were not wearing headscarves. The café sold wine – Israeli wine – which a group of men, who were sitting at one of the tables, were enjoying to a perhaps somewhat excessive extent. They were laughing a lot.
The teenage son who served me found it difficult to drag himself away from The Call of Duty.
I ordered hummus, salad and pita bread – and a glass of wine.
The hummus in Israel is the best in the world. It’s another thing entirely to the muck which is sold in the supermarkets in the West. Everyone in this country, in spite of their differences in religion or race, is addicted to the hummus and it’s easy to see why.
My meal finished I walked outside.
The sermon was drawing to a close and the men were prostrating themselves on the carpet.
I made my way back to my hotel.
The couple who ran the hotel were interesting people. He was a Jew and she was an Arab. He was a non-believer and she was a Christian. The other guests were French and Israelis. We sat on the roof and watched the sun set and talked late into the night.
It all seems so distant now in these times of the virus: to travel, to experience, to talk to others from other cultures.
I had trouble sleeping that night.
I was thinking about the angel Gabriel.
Gabriel started out as a Jewish angel. He materialised before the ancient priests of the Israelites a thousand years before the birth of Christ. He was an avenging, war-like angel charged with protecting the ancient Israelites from their enemies who were numerous and powerful – such as the ancient Babylonians and the Persians who enslaved the Israelites and carted them off as war booty. Ethnic cleansing, in other words. But the Israelites survived the centuries of enslavement. Thanks to Gabriel, the messenger of God……
But then Gabriel, charged with protecting the tribes of Israel, had later announced to Mary that she was to give birth to Jesus and 600 years later, recited the Koran to Mohammed.
Christianity and Islam evolved from Judaism. In each religion Gabriel played an important role. Now considering all of this, one would have thought that the followers of these three religions might be able to appreciate the things they had in common. Gabriel for example.
On the contrary. There were three different Gabriels. A Jewish, Christian and Islamic.
Clash of Civilisations: ‘Our Gabriel is not your Gabriel.’
Our modern global world was defined by the communications revolution yet at the same time it was a world stalked as never before by its ancient past – and by religion in its most fundamentalist (‘pure’) forms, be it Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism. Often as not these extreme versions of religion went together with extreme nationalism. A toxic mix.
So many nations had their own version of a Gabriel and politicians ready to exploit a myth called the past. It seemed as if the human race could not live in modern times; that it was hard-wired to find a sense of belonging in the mystical, the irrational.
Nietzsche once asked: ‘Is god an aberration created by the human race or is the human race an aberration created by God?’
An apt question, leading to a few others:
Israel: how many agreements had come and gone?
How many accusations of bad faith, how many bullets and bombs traded in the deadly stakes?
How many rights and wrongs, how much history conspiring against any glimmer of lasting peace?
The battle ground called Israel, seen from the comfort of our homes, was us looking at ourselves and this was the worst of it all.
Gabriel? The angel of God, or Satan?
Next stop The West Bank.