The Myths of the West (II)
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
In the previous article on Medieval myths I stopped at the Linbourg brothers of Flemish origin, who were the pioneers in portraying the human figure in the early fourteenth century when images of the human being were prohibited by the religious authorities. By then, a significant reform of the political and religious system of Western Europe had already been undertaken, most notably the prohibition of the use of arms by priests and of their participation in military actions, the abolition of marriage, the division between members dedicated to liturgy and monks who dedicated their whole lives to praying and keeping monasteries in operation, especially to serve those who spent their time traveling to collect taxes for the monarchs. It was then that several coinciding factors emerged that were of great importance at a time when the Christian Church was experiencing one of the worst moments in its history. After the death of its first generations of apostles, the Church had been left in the hands of very unenlightened individuals who were ambitious and violent, and who saw themselves as owners of God’s territories on Earth and natural censors of the souls of all earth’s dwellers with meagre economic resources or who didn’t own noble titles.
Although Charlemagne had started it from the middle of the 9th century AD, the political and religious reform of Medieval Europe did not end until the beginning of the fourteenth century, when the entire European political, religious and military apparatus reached very important agreements for the Church and the Monarchy to operate with a certain degree of diplomatic and secular consensus. This allowed them to achieve a period of great political, commercial, financial and artistic development during the Renaissance.
Although the most enlightened people still viewed the universe as geocentric and as being within a large shell of concentric circles, they still did not use analytical thinking and their level of scientific development was very poor. The idea of a world based on primitive Christian concepts persisted, namely that man should spend most of his life trying to obtain divine forgiveness for sins committed by his ancestors and avoiding at all costs new sins that would completely destroy his chances of going to Heaven after death.
Apart from the old-fashioned and obsolete religious myths of the Renaissance period, some external elements emerged that facilitated the development of Europe to the level of becoming world leaders in both economic and military power and scientific development. Some of these elements included trade by the naval route to the Arab world and to the Far East, the use of gunpowder, discovered by the Chinese, for military purposes, the use of compasses and clocks on voyages, the appearance of the printing press and a general tendency towards amassing great wealth and luxuries. This led to the emergence of a huge aristocratic class whose intense commercial activity made Europe grow more than ever, creating an intercontinental trade route for the first time in history and enabling the conquest of the first colonies in America, Asia and Africa. This unusual development made Europeans, especially the Spanish and English, think that they were naturally superior to other ethnic groups, and that their control of lands and slaves in their new colonies was a divine and righteous concession falling within the Christian values that taught them to help the weak.
As we know very well, all this paraphernalia of trade, wars, and wealth generation was transferred to the United States by the end of the eighteenth century, when the high French aristocracy decided to create bureaucracy to deal with those who had neither titles of nobility nor wealth. Although originally the United States was only a colony of England, it became a great world power, and right now is the richest and most powerful nation in the world militarily.
At that time, most of Europe’s upper social classes devoted much of their lives to amassing wealth and luxuries, removed from a society that lived in precarious conditions suffering from plagues, endemics, and diseases caused by lack of an adequate sanitary system and development of hospitals and medicines. In that period from the 14th to the 18th century there was brutal exploitation of people without resources or titles of nobility because the alliance between the Church and the Monarchy was impenetrable and there was no attempt at social liberation movements of any kind.
But it was precisely in this period that the most important discovery of modern art was made with the portrait of the human figure no longer floating but standing on the ground. It had volume and was depicted in three-dimensional space. That was the time of the most wonderful creation of the plastic arts that history has ever seen, with the great geniuses of the Renaissance, a stage of art that has still not been surpassed by human beings, despite their huge scientific and technological achievements.
Addendum: At present, everything makes us think that the same myths of ethnic superiority, narcissism and contempt for weak nations have emerged in the United States, just as in the late eighteenth century in Europe, when members of the French monarchy and aristocracy felt they were masters of the world by divine consent.