White Crow

Editor's Notes: Stone Giants

from White Crow Volume 5, issue 3

Three giant statues of religious figures have been in the news over the last year. In March of 2001, in the Bamiyan region of Afghanistan, the Taliban destroyed giant statues of Buddha, the largest of which was 125 feet tall. Buddhists worldwide wept at and protested the destruction of the 1500-year-old Buddha statues, and the non-Buddhist world was outraged as well. The new Afghan government plans to restore the statues, according to a BBC news report from December 2001.

A 107-foot tall statue of Gilbert Bourdin, "The Cosmic Christ," leader of a cult known as the Mandarom sect, was destroyed in Castellane, in the French Alps, in September 2001. Members of the Mandarom sect prayed silently after the 11-year-old cement statue of their leader was destroyed, while other area residents cheered and had a champagne celebration at the destruction of the local eyesore (which drew thousands of tourists each year).

In February 2002, Tom Monaghan, founder of Dominos Pizza, proposed building a 250-foot crucifix, complete with 40-foot Jesus, in Ann Arbor Township. The proposed crucifix has not yet been built, but let's just say that Ann Arbor Township officials have been taking certain zoning ordinances about maximum structure heights very seriously as of late.

Destroying Statues

The destruction of statues and other religious icons is not without precedent. Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaten, pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, instituted a radical change in Egyptian religion in the mid 1300s BCE and converted the polytheistic nation to monotheism. After his death, the country quickly reverted to polytheism and destroyed nearly all record of Amenhotep IV's existence.

During the Protestant Reformation in England, under Henry VIII and later Edward VI, the protestant Iconoclasts were particularly effective in destroying Catholic art and images in the 16th century. Stained-glass windows were shattered. Saints' relics were burned or scattered. Pages of books from great libraries were burned to fuel the fires that melted artworks down to the precious metals of which they were made.

Mao Zedong's efforts destroyed many Buddhist relics (as well as killing many Buddhists) in Tibet in the 1950s-1970s. "Religion is a poison," Mao said, and set out to "Smash the Four Olds:" old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits.

Building Statues

Our culture will probably not produce many giant statues, due to zoning ordinances and laws similar to the ones used in Castellane to bring down the Cosmic Christ. The building of a giant statue can commence only if the community where it is to be built is entirely agreeable to having it. Not to mention, it must not black anyone's view.

One of the best-known carvings of fantastic proportion in the United States is Mount Rushmore. Each head on Mount Rushmore is 60 feet tall. It took 14 years to build, and nearly a million dollars (15 million dollars, adjusted for inflation). "?Ten thousand years hence, the people of the earth will know Gutzon Borglum," said Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore's sculptor. The sculpture is located in an area considered sacred to the Lakota Sioux, which was taken from them by the government symbolized by the men whose faces are now carved there in stone.

Work is still in progress on the carving of Crazy Horse, designed by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski. In 1939, Henry Standing Bear envisioned the project as an answer to Mount Rushmore. He said, "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too." Work began in 1948, and when the carving is complete it will be 563 feet tall, the tallest carving in the world.

Why Do We Care?

Why do we care if these statues are destroyed? In the case of the statues of Buddha, how many of the people who were outraged at the destruction even knew the statues existed before they heard the news? How many of us had even seen photographs of these statues? How many of us would ever have both the desire and the opportunity to go to Afghanistan to see them? And why do we care so much more about statues in a remote mountainous region of Afghanistan than we do a statue in a remote mountainous region of France?

Why would anyone want to build a giant statue? Does it show the size of the builders' devotion to the divine? Do we carve out of rock what which we wish to make eternal, for fear that our legacy will disappear in a few generations? What are they really symbolic of? A 250-foot crucifix seems to be at odds with humility, espoused by Christianity. And I don't recall that "bigger is better" is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism. Sculpture is a perfectly legitimate and beautiful art form, but why does anyone need a statue over 100 feet tall?

What Survives?

There are four 65 ft. tall statues of Ramses II, an Egyptian pharaoh of the 19th dynasty, at the entrance to the Great Temple of Abu Simbel. The colossi are over 3000 years old, and were moved in 1971 after the construction of a dam would have put them underwater. An earthquake in 27 BCE destroyed the face of one of the statues. Thanks to a laser light show, visitors can see the colossi restored in full-color glory, and even watch the face of the one colossus fall, as it must have 2000 years ago.

A different colossus of Ramses II, in the Valley of Kings in Thebes, inspired these words:

A Greek poet shows us that memory can outlive stone, and provides a counterpoint to Shelley's "Ozymandius":

To create such a statue is futile. True faith does not exist in rock, no matter how large, no matter how it is carved. To look upon such a statue is impressive and awe-inspiring, as it is to look upon many other great and terrible things. But in the end, what mortal work can ever stand the terrible the wear of the elements across eternity?

What can a statue of such proportion ever show but the pride and arrogance of humankind?

Additional links of interest:
Colossus of London
Defacing Statues: The Joe Louis Fist
Tom Monaghan to build 250 ft. crucifix in Naples, Fla.

Last updated 06-17-2005