I recently watched a short video showing black-clad members of ISIS in Mosul take sledge hammers and power drills to ancient Assyrian statues dating back to the seventh century B.C. Considered forms of idolatry by the nihilistic and bloodthirsty barbarians, these works of art, which survived so many centuries, wars and invasions, were finally reduced to sad piles of rubble. With methodical fury, those charged with the statues’ destruction relentlessly unloaded blow after blow, exposing the white marble so long hidden inside the worn carvings. I read one art historian lament that even the Mongols, who destroyed pretty much everything in their path, appreciated the sublime beauty of such carvings and left them alone. Not ISIS.
On the scale of gut-wrenching, genocidal atrocities committed by ISIS on a daily basis in the Middle East, the smashing of statues certainly ranks lower on the list. But it was nonetheless so hard to watch these elegant statues, the pride of an entire civilization, which must have seemed to locals impervious to time itself, crash to the floor in pieces, lost forever. I also thought of the numerous churches in Iraq and Syria that have been gutted of all sacred art. How many ancient icons and statues have also been smashed or thrown into fire?
We believe that only God can create out of nothing. Man, applying his reason, creates, but out of existing material, and in so doing participates in and reflects God’s unique creative act. This doesn’t offend God, but rather points back to His creative genius and unfathomable generosity. He allows us to share in his creative life! This conviction has given the world Michelangelo, Bernini, Caravaggio and Gaudi, not to mention Mozart, Palestrina and Victoria. The list goes on. How often has a beaten-down humanity been lifted up by being drawn into the ineffable beauty of such works of art? Where would we be without the consolation of such God-given gifts, which so clearly point to the ultimate Source of beauty and goodness?
The depressing video showing the wanton destruction of art is so striking because the acts stem from an incomprehensibly bleak, empty, dark and hopeless ideology, completely opposed to the Catholic understanding of man’s role in the order of creation. The artists and art of our civilization direct the soul’s eye to God, the all-loving source of beauty and Creator of all things. In other words, art brings us closer to God. It’s not hard to see where ISIS gets its destructive and deadly inspiration from, and where it will ultimately lead.