An Icon for Saint Greta Thunberg

A mural of Greta Thunberg in San Francisco (Image via Instagram, One Atmosphere)
In San Francisco, a Biblia pauperum for Thunberg disciples.

If anyone does not accept representation in art of evangelical scenes, let him be anathema.

If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and His saints, let him be anathema.

— Second Council of Nicaea

Mass literacy is a very modern miracle.

Clerics in the medieval Church did not have the luxury of literate pew-sitters. They, rather creatively, used the architecture, sculpture, and paintings in cathedrals to convey the biblical narrative to the unlettered faithful. Gothic architecture so arrests the modern eye not only for its structural and formalistic brilliance but also because the ornature itself narrates the story of salvation.

The climate clerics have erected their own Biblia pauperum for the unwashed masses in San Francisco. One Atmosphere, an area non-profit, dedicated a mammoth mural yesterday of the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. The Putinesque mural, painted on the street-facing side of an urban mid-rise, took an estimated 700 cans of aerosol spray paint to complete. Hypocrisy? No, says the non-profit: syncretism. “The finishing details can only be done with spray paint, but we are using spray cans without CFCs,” the organization said in a statement. “We are using low pressure cans with a minimal footprint.”

The mural’s financiers seem intent on pushing a sort of potted theology with the display. The executive director of the non-profit, Paul Scott, said that Greta Thunberg “is a bright light in a dark time and we hope people will follow her lead and make some changes.” Not only is Scott a voice crying out in the wilderness, heralding the virtues of the Thunbergian project, but he is an outright evangelist for the faith: “We’re hoping to have other building owners who like this idea and support our objectives and want to have something similar on their buildings.” Scott hopes the mural will “open up their hearts and minds to the unbridled conviction of Greta’s message.”

Much has been said on the religious undertones of the cultish affection many adults have shown this Scandinavian teenager, but the mural elevates the metaphor to the level of analogy. The aims of the mural’s financiers mirror those of the Gothic architects: Make sacred truths available to the feeble masses who, but for the pre-chewed theology rendered in imago by their clerical superiors, would be unable to engage in the prevailing moral discourse.

The Gothic architects and the clergy who directed their artisanal creations had a much stronger case to make about the incompetence of their audience than do the Thunbergians. The population in the Middle Ages was largely illiterate and uneducated, if England can be taken as a representative hub of medieval Christendom — Saint Thomas More in his Apology in 1533 placed the national English literacy rate at about 40 percent; Latin, the Church’s universal tongue, was understood by a similar proportion of the bourgeois merchant class at the time. Both figures suggest that the Church’s preachment would be inaccessible to the majority of the English people in both Latin and the vernacular without some sort of visual aid.

In 2019, the once-illiterate masses can read. They’re just not that interested in what the Thunberg cultists are selling. The Thunbergian clergy might claim that the public is functionally illiterate on issues of climate change, but the mural seems to suggest that they are more interested in selling indulgences than in informing the masses of the putative virtues of climate conversion. It might be that the great majority of people are “illiterate” on, for instance, the literature of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But the mural is not a Biblia pauperum of the 2019 IPCC report. It doesn’t reduce the “scientific literature” down to an image — the mural is not a scatter plot of computer-generated climate models. Instead, it’s meant to evoke the nagging guilt one feels for disappointing an earnest, if misguided, child.

Thunberg is drawn with her gaze fixed on passersby, leering on in perpetual contempt. She’s wearing much the same face she did when she accused strangers of having “stolen my dreams and my childhood” for, ostensibly, disagreeing with her proposed remedies to projected changes in global temperatures. Don’t ruin Greta’s childhood, the image says to the passerby — turn off your air conditioning. Recycle your beer cans. Limit your meat intake. Vote for Democrats.

Saint Greta Thunberg is watching.


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