The Martyresses

The Martyresses April 15, 2016

I have often blogged about paintings or illustrations, which are excellent ways of illuminating historical attitudes, particularly in matters of religion. Today, I want to do that again but in an unusual way, without actually reproducing the painting directly, and for once, that’s not just about copyright concerns. Aside from its value as a historical source, the painting raises sensitive questions of pedagogy. It is an unusual story, so let me explain.

By way of background, I am interested in the power of religious politics in modern history. Orlando Figes wrote a fine book about the Crimean war of the 1850s with the subtitle The Last Crusade, although I would apply that title to the First World War, as described in my own 2014 book The Great and Holy War. Briefly, I think that religion motivated Europeans (and Americans) much more powerfully than we think in quite recent historical periods, and not just in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

Nowhere was that truer, perhaps, than in the crisis years of the 1870s. In 1876, the Christian Slavic Bulgarians rebelled against their Ottoman rulers, and in response were subjected to hideous atrocities at the hands of Ottoman forces. Most notorious among the perpetrators were the irregular militias, the bashi-bazouks. Many thousand Christians were murdered, and some incidents – such as the Batak Massacre – became notorious. Those horrors led to demands to expel the Turks from Europe. The Russians invaded, and that in turn came close to generating a European war in 1878, as England determined to stop them sweeping up the whole dying Ottoman realm. Matters were then patched up at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. The story is a lot more complicated than that, but that is a sketch.

What is striking about all this in retrospect is the very powerful religious quality of the debate. The Russians turned to medieval prophecies about a new Constantine who would reconquer Constantinople, while Christian populations everywhere mobilized against Islamic barbarism. This came close to being a real “crusade” of sorts, setting Christians against Muslims.

At the height of the anti-Ottoman reaction in 1877, popular Russian painter Konstantin Makovsky produced a visually stunning, but deeply troubling painting, entitled The Bulgarian Martyresses. It caused a sensation, and contributed to Russian war fever. You can see it in detail here: but please, be strongly cautioned about the content. It depicts two young Christian Slavic women in a desecrated church, both of whom are subjected to rape by Ottoman irregulars. One woman is already dead, the other is on the verge of being assaulted and, presumably killed. The blood on the floor might indicate that one woman had been a virgin, while the other was a young mother of a baby, who is also about to be murdered. They are thus modern day Christian martyresses.

Nothing in the painting is inaccurate, in the sense that it reflects very extensive observation by contemporary journalists and travelers. Murder and rape did occur on a very large scale in Bulgaria at this time, and churches were target for ruin and desecration. There really were martyresses. This is not just atrocity propaganda. (By the way, the Batak Massacre also attracted artists).

I would, though, be nervous about using the Martyresses in a class without substantial discussion and warnings, and I speak as one who is not sympathetic to recent calls for “trigger warnings.” Rather, I am concerned about the messages Makovsky was trying to send. Yes, he was reflecting real crimes, but he was doing so by producing something very close to sado-masochistic pornography, if not torture porn. We have to ask the question: are we meant to be watching the scene with loathing and anger at injustice and oppression, or is there intended to be a sick form of sexual stimulation? Plenty of critics have remarked on the sado-masochistic quality of depictions of martyrdom through the centuries, but what is different here is the very realistic nature of the imagery. In a slightly different context, the woman standing could be a figure in commercial pornography, which was already a booming industry at this time.

These issues are all the more troubling when the soldiers about to commit the rape are so heavily characterized in racial terms, with one black African participant. Those concerns take precedence over any qualms about possibly generating Islamophobia. It really is hate propaganda. As I look at the picture again, and especially the leering bashi-bazouk in red, with his heavily Oriental features, the stronger the resemblances to Nazi depictions of Jews in the pages of Der Stürmer in the 1930s.

Significantly, this painting appeared just a year after the German depiction of the Prussian Crown Prince entering Jerusalem, which I described in a recent post. Both works draw heavily on both medieval imagery and early Christian concepts to contribute to strictly modern political causes and alignments. Both Germany and Russia had strong messianic currents in their political ideologies.

Like I say, the Makovsky painting is a terrific historical source, it does a wonderful job of illustrating attitudes, and Makovsky’s work actually helped to drive the Russians towards war. If I was teaching a class on Europe or the Middle East in the later nineteenth century, I would be remiss if I did not use the painting. But I would be very careful indeed about how I used it.


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