Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Christmas and X-rays

I don’t know if it’s an everyday event for Northumbria University and the Bowes Museum to X-ray painted wooden panels of the beheading of John the Baptist.  The panel itself is a bit different than most of renditions of John the Baptist being beheaded, for in it he has not yet be decapitated but depicted as piously praying to God.  This is, for many people, Christian or otherwise, a sad scene, one emblematic of a highwater mark of humankind’s barbarous incivility toward one another. It evokes Herod’s mockery of that religious figure, the triviality with which human life is often treated, and the rapidity with which evil designs can be carried out. 

Yet by that X-ray the experts at the Bowes Museum together with those at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne revealed that beneath this painted version of that tale is a much older painted version of another event: the nativity.[1]  Now this, too, is rather unremarkable: the notion of painting or even writing over useful  material is not new and in fact happened quite frequently in the Middle Ages.  Manuscripts so reused are known as palimpsests.  And here we have, courtesy of the X-ray machine, the equivalent in painting.

But there is, perhaps, something remarkable about this after all. Something to think about.  A few months ago a friend and I were talking, and he said he couldn’t believe in God because the church has done so many cruel things throughout history. Quite cogently he rattled off an entirely correct list.  My only response to him was to agree that these things did happen, but then to suggest that perhaps one should look beyond the abuses of religion to the source of inspiration himself. In other words, perhaps it is better to look to possibilities inherent in the underlying message and the ultimate bearer of that message rather than the those who are patently evil or even mere latter-day screwups, like me, who manage to obfuscate, in one way or another, by their own bad behavior the beauty of the message.  We all make mistakes, some more than others.  No one’s perfect, and, to put it more honestly, many throughout history, like Herod, have been intentionally evil. And often in the name of religion.

But lurking beneath the sadness of history, just as beneath the sad message of this painting’s visible scene, is another story, the truest essence of which is often covered over and forgotten. It’s one of hope, pathos, mirth, and joy.  Birth, not death, redemption, not condemnation, love, not hate.  That’s the nativity in a nutshell, and I think I will just leave it at that.  Merry Christmas, my friends, especially if you’re that particular friend with whom I had that conversation!  I hope that this nutty blog can be like a Northumbrian X-ray for you this Christmas day!

[1] See:  The story has been carried in various news media outlets. For example, cf.

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