The 2006 version of the film “The Da Vinci Code” brought back memories of my first visit to the Louvre in 1978, before the (in)famous glass pyramid by the architect I.M. Pei was installed, making for a more organized flow into the museum’s many linked buildings and bewildering maze of rooms. The Louvre website explains that the pyramid consists of 673 glass panes—and not 666, as claimed by those who opposed its construction and created the fake news to scare off visitors who know 666 as “the number of the Beast” in the Book of Revelation. Installed in 1989, the pyramid was yet to be when I first visited, but the rooms shown quickly in “The Da Vinci Code” are memorable for painting upon painting, many of these filled with scenes from Greek and Roman mythology that I knew from high school literature class. All these Greek and Roman gods interacted with humans and ended up acting in all too human, flawed, ways.
One looked at the images and focused on symbols—for example, the Apple of Paris given by a handsome youth to one of three squabbling goddesses, earning him the ire of the others. You look at this bright red, crunchy apple and wonder if this bit of mythology gave us the apple in the fairy tale of Snow White, or perhaps the apple in artistic depictions of the Garden of Eden. If you reread Genesis, you will be surprised that the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge is not described. Yet many people remember the Serpent tempting Eve with an apple, just like that offered to Snow White. Genesis says that when Adam and Eve bit from the forbidden fruit, they realized they were naked and covered themselves with fig leaves. So was the fig the forbidden fruit?
In the 19th century, one Filipino crackpot claimed that the Garden of Eden was in the East and that, based on his calculations, this meant the Philippines. Thus, he claimed further, the forbidden fruit might have been a luscious Philippine mango.
Philippine folklore also has its share of forbidden fruit, the most famous being the lanzones that is said to have taken its name from lason (poison). It was said to have been originally poisonous until it was made edible and sweet by the pinch of a virgin that could either be the Virgin Mary of Catholic tradition, or Mariang Makiling of our folklore.
My first visit to the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid was an experience in cultural indigestion. How much art could a young Pinoy admire in a day? I did not know enough Greek and Roman mythology to make sense of the pictures. I did not know enough Western history to recognize the faces of all those ancient crowned heads of Europe. I did not know much of the Old Testament to appreciate the stories and moral lessons imparted by the pictures that were well worth more than the proverbial thousand words. In another time and place, people read pictures like books effortlessly; today these “masterpieces” need some explanation.
If one walks through San Agustin Church today, you will encounter a wide array of saints both in pictures or images that collectors call santo. Those in the know can identify these saints from what they are wearing, or holding. Christ and the Virgin Mary are easy, but identifying each of the 12 Apostles is not, except for St. Peter who comes with keys, a rooster, or both. Santa Lucia holds a plate with a pair of eyes, because she was a martyr whose eyes were gouged out, making her the saint to invoke against eye disease. Saint Agatha holds her breasts on a plate, because those were cut off before she was martyred. In many images, either due to the incompetence or prudishness of the artist, these breasts are not accurately depicted, leading viewers to mistake them for loaves of bread or bells, making Agatha the patron saint, not just of those with breast ailments, but also of bell-makers and bakers.
Then there are the four Evangelists known in Spanish as “Evangelista” (which people associate with the Makati street filled with second-hand shops). Bautista is not the surname of San Juan Bautista that is rendered in English as John the Baptist. Aquino—which we associate with Ninoy, Cory, Noynoy and Kris—comes from the hefty Dominican saint Thomas Aquinas, the patron of the University of Santo Tomas (de Aquino). All these allusions come from my antiquated education, and I wonder how different those formed by K-to-12 graduates will be.
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