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This report is taken from PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.

A Donkey, a Mother, a Baby P.J. Kavanagh

The poet Clive Wilmer once described his visit to Ishfahan, in Iran, and his admiration for the delicate abstractions of the inlaid marbles of the mosques. These, he discovered, had been cut and designed by Christian craftsmen from Armenia; at that time - in our terms about the period of the first Elizabeth - they were considered the best in the world at that work. It takes a long time and the Persians allotted the Armenians and their families their own part of the town, where they could stay as long as they liked and could follow their own religion. So the Armenians built their own churches inside their enclave and Wilmer talked excitedly of his astonishment, on entering these churches, his eyes washed, as it were, in the colours and geometries of the mosques, to find pictures `of a donkey, a mother, a baby!' He understood fully, for the first time, the physical nature of Christianity, how rooted it was in the facts of this world, in other words, its literal-mindedness.

There is room for the sense of a mystery that it would be blasphemy too closely to define and illustrate, and for a fear, derived of course from the Decalogue, of `graven images', the human tendency (which I believe is exaggerated) to worship the depiction rather than the depicted. I find I don't particularly mind, or fear, that last, and often wonder whether, Christianity apart, human temperaments world-wide divide naturally into catholic and protestant, the ...

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