Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jesus was in shape (Gid remix)

The Trigger

It all began with this logo of the Stade Toulousain, the storied rugby union club of Toulouse. I've seen it millions of times and it never rang synchromystic bells, except the red and the black: Stendahl, of course; accounting terminology, yes; the anarchists and reds of the Spanish Civil War. In Toulouse, this latter is not as far-fetched as it may first appear.

The logo appears banal enough, really. A shield, a show of strength, the diabolic and virile colors, aggression and warning, blood and bile, the S. the T. Stade Tolousain. Simple. But one day, my kid was drawing the logo, tracing it from the computer screen, and something struck me. It resembles a serpent and tau I saw in a local basilica; then the associations exploded: the snake on the Tree of Life; the snake vanquished under the foot of the Virgin; but especially, Moses fending off a serpent plague with a bronze snake on a tau--a scene John evokes for the crucifixion.

I'm not crazy. I don't know what the designer of this logo intended. But therein lies not the rub. We're all about the bean-pole of the empty vessel: a head, a pair of eyes, a set of memories, a keyboard. We say sumpin', and we aims to extrapolate upon the association.

Before we wander too far down this associational trail of images, let's take a moment to consider the historical context in which Stade Toulousian arose.

Sporting History

Fraternal organizations date back to the ancient past; we know of them among the Greeks and Romans, for example. During the middle ages, trade-based guilds or lay fellowships of confraternities were common. Closer to our time, the 19th century saw an explosion of groups, fraternities and clubs. In the US, an estimated 50 percent of adult males belonged to a club or fraternity at the beginning of the 20th century, leading historian Arthur M Schlesinger to refer to the US as "a nation of joiners."

Part of this was due to the emergence of a middle class with time on its hands; for the first time, leisure became more widely available and at the same time more regimented, mirroring perhaps the more regimented life of the worker in an emerging industrial capitalist economy. Leisure became sport. Baseball and American Football have their origins in the late 18th or early 19th century, but it wasn't until the second half of said century that the rules were codified and the first leagues formed. The first professional American football league dates to 1903 after evolving out of rugby, although the NFL formed in 1920. Walter Camp, who perhaps is the single most important figure in its development during the 1870's onward, was also a vigorous proponent of exercise, penning several works on the subject. The National League (1881) of Baseball joined the American League in 1901 to form MLB.

Concurrent with the increasing coherence of organized sport, the Anglo-Saxon world experienced an upsurge in so-called "Muscular Christianity." Put simply, this refers to "a movement during the Victorian era which stressed the need for energetic Christian activism in combination with an ideal of vigorous masculinity." Although originating in England, the doctrine found a strong reception in the US. The YMCA (1844), for example, was influenced by it, and the organization's version has left us with volleyball and basketball.

The link of athleticism and Christianity is not as zany as it might seem. The New Testament includes a number of athletic metaphors linking faith with racing and even boxing. According to Wikipedia, "Such metaphors also appear in the writings of contemporary philosophers, such as Epictetus and Philo, drawing on the tradition of the Olympic Games, and this may have influenced New Testament use of the imagery."

19th century religious movements also involved aspects of health and diet. The Mormons (Book of Mormon, 1830) have had bans on caffeine. The 7th Day Adventists (1863) are known for a heavy emphasis on diet and health. Kellog's corn flakes were created by an Adventist as a natural extension of the sect's practices; the Kellog company itself dates to 1906. Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science, 1866) left us Science and Health. The Oxford Group of the 1920's and 30's sviewed sin as a disease.

In Europe, the same growth of sport and athleticism was occurring. The "father of gymnastics" Friedrich Jahn may have studied theology and philology, but his gymnastics movement, the Turnverein, spread starting in 1811 and influenced a physical culture movement which came to encompass Muscular Christianity. The Czech Sokol and following Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon culture of bodybuilding and gymnastics were heavily influenced. On other fronts, the German Scout-like Wandervogel was founded in 1896. Baden-Powell founded the Scouting movement in 1907. In sport, the Football Association was formed in 1863. FIFA in 1904. Stade Toulousain, point of origin for all of this, also traces its origin to 1904. Rugby's first rules were written in 1848, that revolutionary year, and perhaps its final form was set off in 1863 when the Football Association formed. Rugby union (15 players) has been governed by the same board since 1886. 13-player rugby (league) can be dated to 1895.

The 19th century ferment of sport, athleticism and a spiritual emphasis on the benefits of being sound in body has had an enduring legacy. Muscular Christianity emphasized manliness and our instinct is that it refelects certain colonial insecurities about the fitness of young men. What but sport can arouse the full-on nationalism of the fans, the undulating flag-waving masses, the closest thing to a Nuremberg rally--witnessed every weekend. Sport was wholesome. Billy Sunday, popular evangelist in the 1920's, denounced drinkin' and card playin', but baseball was okay, even edifying. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (1954) would also seem to adhere to this mode of thinking. The Promise Keepers, though not specifically a sporting group, is centered around the idea of masculinity and reclaiming one's role as a man: fit, rugged, head of the household. Telling that the groups was founded in 1990 by the head football coach at the University of Colorado. And this guy uses the Muscular Christianity heritage flat-out, athletic/spiritual metaphors abound, time to trim the "spiritual gut", etc. His program: "In short, it's a fitness program for men based on the example of Christ... "

Okay--now that we've placed the formation of Stade Toulousian into the context of rising fraternalism and Muscular Christianity, let's start that tour of images that we've associated with the logo of Stade Toulousian.

Healing Serpents

Let's begin with the chapel of the Black Virgin at the Daurade Basilica in Toulouse, where we find several serpent images. First, near the chapel, we find a depiction of the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a staff. A snake is coiled around the staff, which has the form of a tau. This refers to a curious incident in the Old Testament book of Numbers. In Numbers 21 the Israelites have just set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea and, disheartened by their difficulties, speak reproachfully against God and Moses. So the lord sends fiery serpents among the people and many die from the bites. The people return to Moses and recognizing their sin, ask Moses to pray for a reprieve.

“And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live”.

So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:8-9)

According to my annotated Bible this echoes the serpent magic practiced in the ancient world, e.g. Egypt. The bronze serpent, called Nehushtan, itself became an object of worship and the Israelites burned incense before it until the reign of Hezekiah, who broke it into pieces (2 Kings 18:4).

In Exodus 7:8-13, we find the famous story of Aaron’s rod. God instructs Aaron and Moses to impress Pharaoh by throwing down the rod, which becomes a serpent. Pharaoh has his sorcerers do the same, but Aaron’s rod swallows them up. The incident is repeated in the Quran, and many traditions developed around the rod, associating it not only with the Tree of Life, but the Cross. Indeed, Jesus himself makes the connection between the incident in Numbers and his own destiny: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15). Its inclusion of the snake/tau image at the Daurade sanctuary thus refers not only to the healing powers of the Virgin but of redemption through Christ.

Another depiction of the serpent in the Daurade Basilica can be found in a massive oil painting of Mary as the Queen of Heaven. She has a halo of stars and stands upon an upturned crescent moon. In this image the snake is being vanquished. Mary’s right foot rests upon his head and his body seems uncomfortably pinioned underneath the moon. It is a common theme and is even in my own village of Aucamville, one can find a statue of Mary treading upon the wily Beast.

Initially I was baffled by these representations of the serpent, but an illuminating essay on Biblical typology by George P. Landow, Professor of Art History and English at Brown University, partially clears up the matter of the unusual imagery:

Certain problems arise in making representations of Genesis 3:15 since it comprises a prophetic, rather than an historic or legal, type…. One common solution is to combine two realistically depicted images in a realistic - that is, non-historical - manner. For example, mediaeval carvings of the Madonna which show her with one foot upon a serpent take Mary as the seed of the woman. These carved Madonnas offer visual images of a symbolic or spiritual act, since Mary nowhere in the Bible treads upon a snake. The artist therefore has juxtaposed two realistic images, one of Mary and one of a serpent. Whereas the pictorial representation of a legal or historical type depicts only those elements present in the type itself, this portrayal of a prophetic type conflates two times, for it includes the serpent from the Fall and Mary, mother of Jesus, in the same image. A second instance of such conflation of two times appears in those mediaeval Crucifixions that include a snake curled around the Cross. The snake rarely gives the impression of having been bruised, and only the viewer's knowledge of Genesis 3:15 explains its presence.

Genesis 3:15 then, is where God says to the serpent after Eve admits to eating of the apple: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The logic of the paintings is thus explained, but the reason for the inclusion of the prophetic type in the Daurade remains elusive until we read on to 3:16: “To the woman he said “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children…”

Thus, the iconography of the chapel serves to remind the pregnant woman precisely why she suffers, and why the intercession of Mary is necessary. For Mary conceived without sin and gave birth to the Savior who, through his Sacrifice upon the Cross, gave humanity the opportunity of washing away their sins.

At the opposite end of the transept from the Black Virgin, there is a depiction of the Cross. As the Sacrifice of the Christ offers humanity the chance for salvation from sin, Mary offers the pregnant woman salvation from the punishment incurred through Original Sin as described in Genesis 3:16. In this chapel a cross with a tetragrammaton in glory has a snake coiled around it. We speculate that this connects the role of Christ with Mary; references the actions of Moses; calls to mind the intrinsic relationship between sin and the Trees of Life and Knowledge; and among other possibilities, reminds us of Christ as Healer.

Salvation Through Health

As the examination of the iconic serpent imagery in Daurade basilica shows, the serpent is a complex symbol associated with a variety of meanings; two common tanglings are religion and health. Thus, for example, we find the previously discussed tale of Moses' bronze serpent. Originally it healed, but as time went on, it was worshiped.

Likewise, Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, was symbolized by and often depicted carrying a wand or rod around which a serpent was wrapped. It is still used in medical symbolism today.

Another ancient symbol used in medicinal symbolism is the Caduceus, typically represented as a winged staff around which two snakes are coiled.

It often used interchangeably with the Rod of Asclepius, although the latter is considered more accurate despite the common usage of the Caduceus. The Caduceus has been linked with Tamit, the Phoenician goddess of the moon, but is more usually associated with Hermes, father of alchemy and known to the Romans of Mercury. In alchemy, the crucified serpent was used to represent making the elixir of mercury, a healing potion of sorts, which was made by removing the “volatile” element. The serpent represents the poisonous mercury held in check by the “soufre d’or” of the cross.

Predating both these rods, as well as that of Moses, is the Mesopotamian god Ningishzida. He was a god of healing; unless you prefer to think Western Civ and/or the Israelites grew up in a vacuum, it's hard not to see the link; the serpent(s) and stick represent healing and thus, health in general, and it has been with us from the farthest reaches of our symbolic history. Logos redolent of these ancient images proliferate from this image as far back as 2000 BCE.

The Salvation Army; plus obligatory Masonic References

Earlier, we tried to place the formation of the Stade Toulousian in an historical context fraternalism and Muscular Christianity. Other images come to mind. Check out the Crest of the Salvation Army, an image which we obviously associated with Stade Toulousian logo:

The Salvation Army was founded in 1878--right in the same time frame as the rise of rugby and other popular team sports. The Crest features a cross and crown reminiscent of those featured prominently on the early publications of experimental sects with radical health proscriptions: Christian Science (1879) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (1869). The Salvation Army, like the YMCA (and also, Alcoholics Anonymous) promotes the health of "mind, body and spirit." This three-part mission refers to Jesus' stages of development. This idea of progressing in steps or stages, passing rapidly through thresholds echoes the idea of ranks in the military and Scouting. In the logo a five-pointed crown is decorated with five gems and surmounted by five five-pointed stars. There are seven “shots” at the bottom of the crest which represent the seven truths of the Gospel. The S in the center wrapped around the cross represents “Salvation”. It also reads as a dollar sign and a snake on the cross. Spiritual hygiene for the armies of the Lord. Blood and Fire. The red and the black.

This cross and crown is also the symbol of the Masonic Knights Templar.

In addition to the Knights Templar, the 33 rays of the sun (count 'em) might be evocative of Freemasonry, to a mind so primed....

Freemasonry is, of course, much older than the Salvation or rugby or the YMCA, or the Scouts, but it is easy to imagine that any well-established fraternal organization, like Freemasonry or the Benedictines would have had a powerful influence (both directly and indirectly) upon a era so focused on joining and forming teams and organizations of men. The aforementioned Football Association was formed at pub called The Freemason's Tavern, later destroyed to build The Freemason's Hall, headquarters of the UGLE. Some people believe a baseball diamond is the Masonic square and compasses. Random we searches reveal that this guy's interests include Freemasonry and soccer. Freemasons even seem to have been pretty important in transmitting to us the lovely game of golf.

Which brings us to money, the filthy luchre of sport!

$: There is no other god but me

When we think of religion, how not but think of money money money. Actually, I didn't think that, but I did think that the pole and snake dance reminded me of the dollar sign--which is the next symbol to explore in our associational tour: Mr. Moneybacks. Ducks bathing in seas of golden coins. Silver, more likely, one theory is that the S and I comes from der silver mines in SLP. And that's San Luis Potosi not Salt Lake Punk. There are many other theories of its origin, but for us, we like the weirdo esoteric explanations, things we've touched on in LoS. This is because we wear sausage gloves.

Some say the dollar sign derived from the symbols of Hermes, god of tricksters, bankers and thieves. We've already talked about him. Supporters of this theory point to the image of the Caduceus Hermes often carries. Others point to an alchemical provenance; it has been used to represent cinnabar since the 18th century. You will remember the serpent and cross has other alchemical meanings. It may also derive from the Spanish coat of arms. Previously discussed due to the inclusion of the Pillars of Hercules, here draped with an s-shaped ribbon, the image evokes many LoSian themes....

Bringin' it All Back Home

[Sorry, D, but I didn’t come up with a snappy conclusion for this. In your earlier draft you’d mentioned in the intro that you were going to take us through Palestine? I didn’t get that, so I wonder it maybe you had some more associational images in mind. If so—it’d be pretty easy to keep tacking on more sections like we’ve done here, each section basically focusing on one or two images that you associated with the Stade Toulouse image. You’ve good work here! Keep at it! – gid]

And that's a good enough ending for me.


  1. Ha, ha, ha -- Why that dog's not so shaggy!

    That ending is just as bad as the ending to my previous post ("Son of Man Son").

    Seriously, though, I enjoyed this piece, esp. the Sporting History look at how the rise in leisure time helped to fuel the rise of sports and muscular Christianity, and the biblical analysis.

    I'd never heard that great story about Moses' bronze serpent!

  2. That crucifix link you sent me fits into all of this. Talk about a muscular Christian! Very masculine....

    Moses' serpent? Yikes, indeed.

  3. Rome Journal
    Shedding the Collar to Lace Up Cleats

    ROME — On a recent weekend morning, a crowd gathered on a field behind St. Peter’s Basilica to cheer as a team of South American and Italian soccer players faced off against a team of Americans. Some fans played guitars and drums, while others dressed up like superheroes and Vikings.

    But this was not a World Cup qualifying match, or even your average amateur soccer match. It was the finals of the Clericus Cup, a four-year-old tournament between teams of priests and seminarians from Rome’s many Catholic institutions.

    Read more

  4. "Have you noticed, he went on, lowering his voice, leaning toward them over the high pulpit, —the charm that doctors wear? A cross? No. In the very name of Heaven, no! It is a device called the caduceus. Look closely . . . two serpents coupling round a wand, the scepter of a pagan god, the scepter of Hermes. Hermes, the patron of eloquence and cunning, of trickery and theft, the very wand he carried when he conducted souls to Hell." - William Gaddis, The Recognitions, p. 46


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