Monday, September 18, 2006

Pope calls for Moor's head

The Pope's current global difficulty with (some) Muslims brings back to mind the curious coat of arms His Holiness adopted last year.

One of the charges or objects on the shield, said to relate to his Bavarian homeland, is the so-called Moor's head (pictured) or caput ethiopicum - or Ethiopian's head, alias the "Moor of Freising" or " Crowned African king". The image has been associated with the principality of Freising (Pope Benedict was once Archbishop of Munich and Freising) since about the 14th Century or earlier. So you might think its inclusion on the papal coat of arms pertinent and innocent.

It most probably is. Yet a few commentators last year wondered at its appropriateness, or political correctness, in the 21st Century. To the contemporary eye it looks like a caricature of a savage. It could too easily be interpreted as the triumph of Christianity over Islam. The Boston Globe speculated on the origin of the Moor's head:

"He could be St. Maurice, a Roman commander from Africa whose Christian soldiers refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods after an important victory, and were themselves massacred. . . . And there is a more grisly possibility. At the time of the Crusades, some Christian kings displayed a severed Moor's head on their flags or crests to symbolize victories over their Islamic enemies. It is conceivable that the king, known as the 'Moor of Freising,' evolved from such an image."

It added: "The portrait is practically a caricature of an African male, with exaggerated lips painted ruby red."

Even the Pope is uncertain of its precise meaning. Back in 1998, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he offered a subjective interpretation: ''For me, [the African king] is an expression of the universality of the Church." (From his Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977).

That must be right, but is Benedict XVI fully sensitive to the effect of his words and images in a world of hyper-ventilating drama queens?

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