Paolo de Matteis was born in 1662 near Salerno and died in Naples in 1728. He is regarded as an important artist of the period. According to the Grove Encyclopedia of Art:
…His elegant art encouraged the movement away from Baroque drama towards a more tender, rocaille style in harmony with the earliest manifestations in Naples of the Arcadian school of poetry and of the Enlightenment. He painted frescoes, altarpieces and allegorical and mythological pictures.
These works, among many others, are not just in Naples, but throughout Europe and elsewhere. One work by de Matteis that goes totally unmentioned in the Grove encyclopedia —probably for reasons of “political correctness” (I’ll be happy to stand corrected)— is The Triumph of Religion over Heresy through St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St. Francis Borgia and the three Japanese martyrs, while Muhammad is cast down with the Koran (photo, right).
This work, no doubt, fits into the
broad range of images—especially of the Prophet Muhammad— that at least some Muslims
object to, often violently. The Islamic prohibition
against images, human and divine, has origins in the hadith (the collected sayings of
Muhammad), not in the Koran (the putative recitations of
God given by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet). Hadith relative to
the making of images include:
-Who would be more unjust than the one who tries to create the like of My creatures?They do not seem much different than the commandments in the Jewish and Christian faiths that say,
-The angels do not enter a house which contains pictures or images.
-The people whose punishment will be the most severe on the Day of Judgment will be those who try to imitate the creation of Allah.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath...You shall not bow down to them or worship them…...the interpretation of which has caused much controversy, often violent, over the centuries in various manifestations of the Christian faith. (Having said all that, in the early history of Islam, and even later, there were numerous cases of respectful renderings of the Prophet. (note 1) Indeed, even in Western works on, for example, the history of Islam, there have been neutral and respectful, though fanciful, images of Mohammad.)
are not a lot of examples of images of Muhammad in
Christian art. One in Italy that comes to mind is the 15th-century
fresco by Renaissance artist, Giovanni da Modena. It is
in the Basilica of St. Petronio in Bologna. (The church
has received threats of vandalism.) The fresco is a
depiction of a passage in Dante’s Divine
Comedy. In Canto XXIII of the Inferno,
there is a section reserved for “sowers of discord,
schismatics, and heresy” whose punishment is (in the
H.W. Longfellow translation) to have “…their limbs
miserable maimed or divided in different ways.”
Among those suffering such punishment are Muhammad and
his son-in-law, Ali:
...vedi come storpiato è Maometto!(Again, transl. Longfellow)
Dinanzi a me sen va piangendo Alì
fesso nel volto dal mento al ciuffetto.
"e tutti li altri che tu vedi qui
seminator di scandalo e di scisma
fuor vivi, e però son fessi così.
...How mutilated, see, is Mahomet;
In front of me doth Ali weeping go,
Cleft in the face from forelock unto chin;
And all the others whom thou here beholdest,
Disseminators of scandal and of schism
While living were, and therefore are cleft thus.
passage has also been the basis for more modern
renderings by William Blake and Salvador Dalí, among others. The most
well-known drawing of the scene is by Gustave Doré
(1832-1883) in his illustrations of the Divine
Statue of Moses by Michelangelo
Mateis’ work is NOT based on that scene. The
Prophet appears in the lower left of a much larger
painting on the ceiling of a church in Naples (photo,
above). The depiction simply shows Muhammad holding the
Koran and being cast down, out of Heaven. He is shown
looking back up at Ignatius and is wearing a head
covering crowned by what is intentionally ambiguous:
either horns (diabolical) or the crescent moon (Islam).
I am reminded by my
erudite friend, Warren, that the sense of “diabolical”
presents its own anomaly, however. Medieval artists such
as Michelangelo, for example, often rendered Moses with
horns. This is from the fact that the Hebrew word “KRN”
can be read to mean “rays of light” or “horns,” the
latter being the translation used in the Latin Vulgate
version of the Bible. Recall, too, that “Lucifer” means
“bearer of light” in Latin. It is unlikely that de
Matteis is endowing Muhammad
with the strength and light of Moses, but rather of
also certainly seems a strange coincidence that “Koran”
(or “Qur'an” in more modern transliteration —thanks to friend Annemarie
for correcting my glottal stop!) also has a similar
phonetic root in Arabic—a language closely related to
Hebrew. Yet, as far as I know, the meaning of Koran
comes from the Arabic root “read” or “recite”. I have
found no interpretation that reads it as “light.” Beyond
that, I welcome suggestions.
my knowledge, no one has ever made a fuss about the
painting, and I hope no one does. In the interest,
however, of discouraging what another friend, Peter, (I
know. I have a lot of smart friends. It helps.) calls
the “Bamyan Buddha effect,” *3
I shall not disclose the name or location of the church.
(note: De Matteis is entombed within the church of the Concezione al Chiatamone, the premises of which contain a number of either his paintings or those of his students.)
*1. A scholarly review of such art may be found in "From the Literal to the Spiritual: The Development of the Prophet Muhammad's Portrayal from 13th-Century Ilkahnid Miniatures to 17th-Century Ottoman Art," by Wijdan Ali (of the Royal Society of Fine Arts, Amman) in the Proceedings of the 11th International Congress of Turkish Art, Utrecht, The Netherlands, Aug. 23-25, 1999, No. 7, 1-24, in EJOS (Electronic Journal of Oriental Studies), IV (2001). M. Kiel, N. Landsman and H. Theunissen (eds.) (back to place in main text)
*2. The phrase relevant to “horned Moses” is to be found in Exodus 34.30 (or 34.29, depending on the translation). The Jewish Publication Society (in their 1917 translation) renders the verse as: “…when he [Moses] came down from the mount, that Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while He talked with him…” The Septuagint (the oldest—between the 3rd and 1st centuries b.c.—of translations into Greek) translates the Hebrew phrase as "his face was glorified.” The Vulgate Latin translation by Jerome in the early 5th century, a.d., however, translates the phrase into Latin as cornuta esset facies sua— "his face was horned". The King James version (1611) has, simply, that the skin of Moses' face “shone.”
*3. Recall that the Buddhas of Bamyan were two monumental statues of standing Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan. They were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, working on the principle, presumably, that you shall destroy that which offends your faith. With all due respect, that is a strange interpretation of the tolerant passage in the Koran that says, “When you see those who meddle with Our revelations, withdraw from them…” (The Cattle, 6:68).