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Heresy Hidden in Orthodoxy
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Tim Wallace-Murray
Cracking the Symbol Code:  Revealing the Secret Heretical Messages within the Church and Renaissance Art (Watkins Publishing, 2005.  309p.)

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This author is interested in how religious concepts are expressed in art and ritual.  Particularly he explores how the unpopular or suppressed finds it way in to the formal and orthodox to become a permanent part of the the public established religion.  

Historical Base
This scholar gives attention to suppressed or unpopular versions of faith to see how the art of those communities expresses the worldview and beliefs of that community.  He compares the symbols used in these various forms of religious expression through history from Egypt and the Middle East then on into Europe through the Judaic-Christian stream of faith.

Wallace-Murray establishes his firm historical base by examining the iconography of various art forms of various cultures.  From a religious and cultural perspective, this might be considered a work of comparative religions.  In Middle Ages Europe, the culture was inextricably tied up with the concept of "Christianity."  Thus alternative expressions of Christian faith were a threat to the order of society as established at that time.

Roots in Egypt
Wallace-Murray probes the connection in form, practice and concept between ancient Hebrew religion and Egyptian religion.  He builds a context by focusing on religious symbols and how they are used.  He analyzes the various functions of symbols in culture and religion throughout history and across the cultures of humanity.  He then narrows the focus to the topic of the title, "Christian" Europe of the Middle Ages.

He probes the worldview meaning underlying the art of the non-standard expressions of religion in each situation.  Thus the term "heretical."  So we will discover here some substantial themes in the art of groups considered heretical in medieval Europe.  Groups he looks at include the Knights Templar and the Freemasons.

Heresy and Culture
My observation is that many of the differences in osme "heretical" groups were cultural factors.  Difference was a threat.  Difference was seen as a threat to power, even order.  Culture and religion were united for most peoples of the world until the modern era, the 1600s in the West.  But the weight of the discussion centers in the "code' found in patterns of the art of each sect or sub-culture.  He maintains that the art served as a channel to express underlying forbidden ideas and beliefs.

Wallace-Murray looks into public artifacts of medieval Europe carrying the secret "codes" such as great cathedrals like Chartres and Rheims.  He claims that heretical groups were active in the arts at a broad level in European society, so the underlying forbidden messages were imbedded in the very monuments of the formal official state-church that was trying to suppress the troublesome and aberrant groups.

This book gathers a lot of good historical information, so there is historical value in the work.  The reader may be forgiven for being somewhat skeptical of the validity of some of the analysis and conclusion, as it takes on somewhat the theme of the common conspiracy theories, which at best use questionable logic.

There is no doubt that the groups in question existed and were opposed for one reason or another.  The problem is becoming very certain about just why certain things occurred.  Why did one pope work closely with some special order, like the Knights Templar, then suddenly another turns against them with a fury.  We don't seem to have all the story.  The conspiracy theorists fill in the gaps, but not always in a satisfying way.

A great value here is a fairly good introduction to each of the historical groups considered as heretical.  If you like European history, you will like much of this.  Different readers will resonate with different parts of it.  It makes a good read at any rate.  

Valid Thesis
There seems to be some valid basis here for his broad theme that non-standard groups found ways to express themselves in the art of the era.  The cultural aspects of art are of interest to me, and I found the insights here valuable.

But you may think there is also a lot of fanciful imagination here too.  The significance of some event or expressions may be more a result of the difference in the medieval worldview as a whole from the modern perspective.  It is too easy to read back into symbols and artifacts of another culture, factors and perspectives from our own time.

It is interesting, whatever you decide about the validity of the conclusions.  At least it is another great sci fi code adventure like Da Vinci.  But with a lot more authentic history.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[TXT] Fantasies and Fictions: Mary Magdalene as the Gaulic Christian Goddess
[TXT] The Gospel of Judas – Is this Really Good News?
[review] History and Art in Cyprus
[TXT] Semi-Gnostic, Semi-Christian, Semi-Islamic Gospel

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First reading notes written 6 September 2009
Review developed and posted on Thoughts and Resources 17 August 2010
Last edited 1 April 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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