Sunday, December 16, 2012

How Come This Creature?

Here is my response to an email from a religious publisher asking me to comment on the selected cover art for a book by Pope Benedict XVI.  The original inquiry appears below my response.

William B. Eerdmans, Jr.
2140 Oak Industrial Dr NE
Grand Rapids, MI  49505

Dear Bill,

It is not every day that a Unitarian Universalist minister in the American Midwest is asked to provide commentary on a book by the Pope.  (Well, to be precise, you asked me to comment on the cover art selected for a book by the Pope, but let’s not ruin a good story.)  To make matters more mysterious, it seems that I was referred to you by a professor at a Lutheran seminary whom I don’t believe I’ve ever met.  Unfortunately, as I will explain below, I must refute the claim that the cover art you have selected depicts Jesus and the disciples eating guinea pig at the Last Supper.

The art on the book cover of Pope Benedicts XVI’s Holy Days is a detail from the altarpiece of the Sigena Monastery and is currently on display in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona.  It is believed to have been painted by Jaume and Pere Serra in the late fourteenth century, approximately one hundred years before the Spanish conquest of the Americas.  I suppose one could hypothesize that the painting is misdated or that this detail was altered at some point after Pizarro conquered the Incan empire in 1532, but such a theory would not explain why an Incan symbol would be included on the altarpiece of a monastery in Catalonia.  At this point we have overstrained the limits of credulity.

A few years ago while on sabbatical in Peru I dined on cuy (guinea pig) in Aguas Calientes, a tourist town at the end of the Incan Trail that is a staging area for visitors to Machu Picchu.  Souvenir shopping offered an exercise in pluralism; one could purchase votive candles emblazoned with images of the saints, jewelry with symbols of Incan deities, crucifixes, and T-shirts depicting scenes of Amerindian spiritual power.  One restaurant, in a fantastic feat of commercial syncretism, displayed a wall-sized mural of the Last Supper with Jesus joined by fourteen Incan Kings instead of the twelve disciples.  Naturally, they dined on maize and avocado.  You might also be interested to know that the specialty of this restaurant is wood-fired pizza, an unexpected culinary dish in Peru’s high-altitude jungle.

The Serra painting should not be confused with depictions of the Last Supper by Peruvian artist Marcos Zapata (1710-1773) that decorate the cathedrals in Cusco and Lima and in which a cooked guinea pig can be found on the center of the table.  It is possible to make the case that by featuring cuy in artistic representations of the Last Supper, the Catholic Church was intentionally seeking to appropriate Incan religious practices.  We might note that guinea pig is thought to have played a role in Incan religious rituals.  We can also make the case that the inclusion of cuy represents a symbolic resistance to Spanish imperialism.  Residents of Cusco believe that Zapata’s depiction of Judas Iscariot is a portrait of Francisco Pizarro.

While we can confidently say that the creature in Serra’s Last Supper is not a Peruvian guinea pig, we have not yet considered what it actually is.  According to Wikipedia (and please, Bill, let’s keep it between ourselves that I’m citing Wikipedia; my professors would be horrified) there are some 115 species of wild mammals native to Spain.  Unfortunately, while ministry is a profession that requires a wide range of diverse skills, I claim no special expertise in mammalian taxonomy.  However, allow me to propose a few possible options for your consideration.  It occurs to me, and to the members of the congregation I serve and to assorted fellow clergy colleagues, that the creature in question might be:

            ∙ a poorly painted lamb
            ∙ a very poorly painted fish
            ∙ a thin, suckling pig
            ∙ a weasel, ermine, or marten
            ∙ a rabbit or hare
            ∙ a dog (whippet? Whippet good?)

I wish you good luck in solving this mystery.  Please do not hesitate to let me know if I can be of any further assistance.

My kindest wishes to you and yours for a peaceful and joyful Christmas,

Rev. Thom Belote
Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church

Dear Father Thom:

I’m sending you a copy of Holy Days by Benedict XVI just published, the cover art of which must raise questions for many people, speaking mainly of the rather live animal on the platter on the table surrounded by Christ and the Disciples.  It would be nice for our next printing to be able to add an explanatory historical note about how come this creature.

The painting of The Last Supper is by Jaume and Pere Serra.  I’m advised by Ted Peters, New Testament Professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, that you can supply an explanation of why the artist chose to put somewhat central to the depiction a guinea pig, or cuy.  Such a contribution by you would be helpful to all who view this cover art.

Thank you for whatever you may supply, I am

Very cordially yours,

William B. Eerdmans, Jr.
2140 Oak Industrial Dr NE
Grand Rapids, MI  49505