What the Holy See Saw—and Didn’t See

. . . technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original in itself . . . the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition . . . And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced . . . Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

When, on May 13, 2015, the Vatican declared that it would recognize Palestinian claims to statehood, the stunning announcement came just short of a year after Pope Francis had made his celebrated, if controversial, three-day visit to the “Holy Land,” in late May 2014. Mahmoud Abbas, disputed leader of the Palestine Authority (PA), was in Rome at the time of the Vatican announcement, attending the canonization event for two nineteenth-century Palestinian nuns, a venerable religious ceremony that also assumed its appropriate political robes as worldly, if hardly mundane, concerns inflected the more sacred, otherworldly, visions of sanctification. Statehood, it seemed, trumped saintliness—for the moment, at any rate. Palestinian statehood, in other words, is still far from a foregone conclusion, and the Vatican’s proclamation, momentous though it might have been and even as part of a small but growing international chorus, remains largely symbolic.

That very symbolism is nonetheless steadfastly grounded in the long-standing Palestinian struggle for self-determination. Francis’s visit to Palestine the previous year provided the occasion for a provocatively innovative experimentation in revisioning and repicturing a long-contested historical narration. In the Presence of the Holy See, an exhibition of twenty-four images virtually mounted by the Palestinian Museum—a museum-in-the making—was created, according to the museum’s website (where all of the images can be viewed), to “honour [Francis’s] visit.” Also available as postcards, the bifurcated representations combine reproductions, on the one hand, of Baroque paintings by Caravaggio and his sixteenth and seventeenth-century European coevals with contemporary photographs from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and, on the other, historic photographs from the archives of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) kaleidoscoped again with contemporary shots of recent scenes of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.

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About Barbara Harlow

teaches English and comparative literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Resistance Literature (Routledge, 1986), Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (Wesleyan, 1992), After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (Verso, 1996), and co-editor with Mia Carter of Archives of Empire (Duke, 2003). She has taught in Egypt (Cairo), Ireland (Galway), and South Africa (Pietermaritzburg and Durban). In addition to an intellectual biography of the South African activist Ruth First, she is working on a project examining historical connections of international humanitarian and human rights law with Third World literature.