If the 1920’s were the Roaring Twenties, what will this decade be called — The Whimpering Twenties? The Weeping Twenties? So far, so bad, but perhaps we will all rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of 2020. One can only hope.
Here in the US, COVID deaths have now reached (surpassed?) an unimaginable 200,000, making it anyone’s guess how we’ll wrap up the year. (“Worse”, I could posit.) My parents — and maybe also yours — used to say, “There are two sides to every story.” In the current political climate that sentiment seems downright nostalgic, as we currently have a country with two distinct stories, each side primarily getting information from news outlets that support and calcify its entrenched beliefs.
Whimpering feels like the appropriate response. Or, you can do what I do: cover your ears saying “La, la, la” whenever the Great Pumpkin holds a news conference. That voice alone is like nails on a chalkboard, nevermind the inanities being spouted.
But this is not meant to be a political blog, so on to a new — and more uplifting — topic. I recently read about a Brooklyn tailoring firm known for working with customers of all shapes, sizes and gender identity that also offers a free bespoke suit to wrongfully incarcerated citizens who have been exonerated through actions of the Innocence Project.
A new suit won’t make up for years of misery and injustice, of course. But it helps restore a person’s sense of dignity and normalcy. And isn’t that something worth celebrating amidst all this lousy news?
Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, already one of the most popular medications worldwide, may become even more widely used as evidence grows of their safety and value to the elderly and their potential benefits beyond the heart and blood vessels.
Among the latest are reports of the ability of several leading statins to reduce deaths from common cancers and blunt the decline of memory with age. Perhaps such reports will persuade a reluctant 65-year-old friend who has diabetes, and others like him, that taking the statin his doctor strongly advised is a smart choice.
In addition to accumulating evidence that the benefits of statins far outweigh possible risks for the vast majority of people for whom they are now recommended, nearly all statins on the market are now available as inexpensive generics.
Full disclosure: I have a strong family history of heart disease and have been taking a statin — atorvastatin, originally marketed as Lipitor — for many years after dietary changes failed to control a steadily rising blood level of artery-damaging LDL-cholesterol. My prescription is now fully covered by my Medicare Part D insurance with no co-pay.
But cost of a medication is not the only consideration for a drug that can be lifesaving for many people. The primary indication for taking a statin is to reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke by lowering serum LDL-cholesterol and, in some cases, also triglycerides, both of which can damage coronary arteries when levels rise above normal.
Statins offer further cardiovascular protection by stabilizing the fatty deposits in arteries called plaque that can break loose, block a major artery and cause a heart attack or stroke.
Current guidelines typically recommend statin therapy for:
People over 40 with diabetes and an LDL-cholesterol level above 70 milligrams per deciliter;
People over 21 with an LDL-cholesterol level of 190 or higher (despite dietary changes to minimize saturated fats and achieve a normal body weight).
Currently, more than 60 percent of older people in the United States who, like me, have high cholesterol take a statin to help prevent a heart attack or stroke.
Still, there’s been a long-simmering debate as to whether statins are advisable for people over 75, even though the risk of suffering life-threatening cardiovascular disease rises precipitously with age. Concerns have been raised about side effects associated with statins, potential adverse effects of the drugs on other ailments common in the elderly and possible harmful interactions with the many other medications they often take.
Writing in the Harvard Health Blog last October, Dr. Dara K. Lee Lewis noted, “The paradox that we face is that as our patients age, they are at increased risk for heart attacks and strokes, and yet they also become more sensitive to medication side effects, so it is a tricky balance.”
Statins can sometimes cause blood sugar abnormalities, resulting in a diagnosis of pre-diabetes or diabetes, and possible toxic effects on the liver that necessitate periodic blood tests for liver enzymes. A very small percentage of people prescribed a statin develop debilitating muscle pain. An elderly friend developed statin-induced nightmares. There have also been reports suggesting statin-associated memory problems and cognitive decline, already a common concern as people age.
But likely the biggest deterrent was the existence of meager evidence for the role statins might play for older people at risk of cardiovascular disease. As is true in most drug trials on new medications, relatively few people over 75 were included in early studies that assessed the benefits and risks of statins.
The latest reports, however, are highly reassuring. One followed more than 120,000 French men and women ages 75 to 79 who had been taking statins for up to four years. Among the 10 percent who stopped taking the drug, the risk of being admitted to a hospital for a cardiovascular event was 25 to 30 percent greater than for those who continued taking a statin.
Another study in Israel, published last year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, involved nearly 20,000 older adults followed for 10 years. Among those who stayed on statin therapy, the chance of dying from any cause was 34 percent lower than among those who failed to adhere to a prescribed statin. The benefits were not reduced for those older than 75 and applied to women and men alike.
This year a study published in JAMA by a team headed by Dr. Ariela R. Orkaby of the VA Boston Healthcare System found that among 326,981 United States veterans whose average age was 81, the initiation of statin use was associated with 25 percent fewer deaths over all and 20 percent fewer cardiovascular deaths during a follow-up of nearly seven years.
However, none of these studies represent “gold standard” research. The results of two such studies, the Staree trial and the Preventable trial, both randomized controlled clinical trials of statin therapy to prevent cardiovascular events in the elderly, have not yet been published. Both will also assess effects on cognition.
Meanwhile, a report last year from Australia published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found no difference over a six-year period in the rate of decline in memory or cognitive status between statin users and those who had never taken the drugs. In fact, among those who started a statin during the study, the rate of memory decline was blunted. Another observational study by a Swedish team published in Nature found beneficial effects on reaction time and fluid intelligence among statin takers over 65.
Finally, there are several reports that a major class of statins called lipophilic (including atorvastatin, simvastatin, lovastatin and fluvastatin) may have anticancer effects. One study of nearly 2,000 survivors of early-stage breast cancer found a decreased five-year recurrence rate in women who started a statin within three years of diagnosis.
In a report presented in June to a virtual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, Dr. Kala Visvanathan of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore described a 40 percent reduction in deaths from ovarian cancer among more than 10,000 patients who had used statins either before or after their diagnosis. The patients who benefited in this observational study had the most common and aggressive form of ovarian cancer.
Dr. Visvanathan explained that statins inhibit an enzyme in a chemical pathway involved in the growth and proliferation of tumors. At a press briefing, Dr. Antoni Ribas, president of the association, said that if the finding is confirmed in a randomized clinical trial, “this would be a great outcome.”
Through Sallman’s partnerships with two Christian publishing companies, one Protestant and one Catholic, the Head of Christ came to be included on everything from prayer cards to stained glass, faux oil paintings, calendars, hymnals and night lights.
Sallman’s painting culminates a long tradition of white Europeans creating and disseminating pictures of Christ made in their own image.
In search of the holy face
The historical Jesus likely had the brown eyes and skin of other first-century Jews from Galilee, a region in biblical Israel. But no one knows exactly what Jesus looked like. There are no known images of Jesus from his lifetime, and while the Old Testament Kings Saul and David are explicitly called tall and handsome in the Bible, there is little indication of Jesus’ appearance in the Old or New Testaments.
The earliest images of Jesus Christ emerged in the first through third centuries A.D., amidst concerns about idolatry. They were less about capturing the actual appearance of Christ than about clarifying his role as a ruler or as a savior.
To clearly indicate these roles, early Christian artists often relied on syncretism, meaning they combined visual formats from other cultures.
Probably the most popular syncretic image is Christ as the Good Shepherd, a beardless, youthful figure based on pagan representations of Orpheus, Hermes and Apollo.
In other common depictions, Christ wears the toga or other attributes of the emperor. The theologian Richard Viladesau argues that the mature bearded Christ, with long hair in the “Syrian” style, combines characteristics of the Greek god Zeus and the Old Testament figure Samson, among others.
Christ as self-portraitist
The first portraits of Christ, in the sense of authoritative likenesses, were believed to be self-portraits: the miraculous “image not made by human hands,” or acheiropoietos.
This belief originated in the seventh century A.D., based on a legend that Christ healed King Abgar of Edessa in modern-day Urfa, Turkey, through a miraculous image of his face, now known as the Mandylion.
A similar legend adopted by Western Christianity between the 11th and 14th centuries recounts how, before his death by crucifixion, Christ left an impression of his face on the veil of Saint Veronica, an image known as the volto santo, or “Holy Face.”
These two images, along with other similar relics, have formed the basis of iconic traditions about the “true image” of Christ.
From the perspective of art history, these artifacts reinforced an already standardized image of a bearded Christ with shoulder-length, dark hair.
In the Renaissance, European artists began to combine the icon and the portrait, making Christ in their own likeness. This happened for a variety of reasons, from identifying with the human suffering of Christ to commenting on one’s own creative power.
The 15th-century Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina, for example, painted small pictures of the suffering Christ formatted exactly like his portraits of regular people, with the subject positioned between a fictive parapet and a plain black background and signed “Antonello da Messina painted me.”
The 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer blurred the line between the holy face and his own image in a famous self-portrait of 1500. In this, he posed frontally like an icon, with his beard and luxuriant shoulder-length hair recalling Christ’s. The “AD” monogram could stand equally for “Albrecht Dürer” or “Anno Domini” – “in the year of our Lord.”
In whose image?
This phenomenon was not restricted to Europe: There are 16th- and 17th-century pictures of Jesus with, for example, Ethiopian and Indian features.
In Europe, however, the image of a light-skinned European Christ began to influence other parts of the world through European trade and colonization.
The Italian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi” from A.D. 1505 features three distinct magi, who, according to one contemporary tradition, came from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They present expensive objects of porcelain, agate and brass that would have been prized imports from China and the Persian and Ottoman empires.
But Jesus’ light skin and blues eyes suggest that he is not Middle Eastern but European-born. And the faux-Hebrew script embroidered on Mary’s cuffs and hemline belie a complicated relationship to the Judaism of the Holy Family.
In Mantegna’s Italy, anti-Semitic myths were already prevalent among the majority Christian population, with Jewish people often segregated to their own quarters of major cities.
Artists tried to distance Jesus and his parents from their Jewishness. Even seemingly small attributes like pierced ears – earrings were associated with Jewish women, their removal with a conversion to Christianity – could represent a transition toward the Christianity represented by Jesus.
Much later, anti-Semitic forces in Europe including the Nazis would attempt to divorce Jesus totally from his Judaism in favor of an Aryan stereotype.
White Jesus abroad
As Europeans colonized increasingly farther-flung lands, they brought a European Jesus with them. Jesuit missionaries established painting schools that taught new converts Christian art in a European mode.
A small altarpiece made in the school of Giovanni Niccolò, the Italian Jesuit who founded the “Seminary of Painters” in Kumamoto, Japan, around 1590, combines a traditional Japanese gilt and mother-of-pearl shrine with a painting of a distinctly white, European Madonna and Child.
In colonial Latin America – called “New Spain” by European colonists – images of a white Jesus reinforced a caste system where white, Christian Europeans occupied the top tier, while those with darker skin from perceived intermixing with native populations ranked considerably lower.
Artist Nicolas Correa’s 1695 painting of Saint Rose of Lima, the first Catholic saint born in “New Spain,” shows her metaphorical marriage to a blond, light-skinned Christ.
In a multiracial but unequal America, there was a disproportionate representation of a white Jesus in the media. It wasn’t only Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ that was depicted widely; a large proportion of actors who have played Jesus on television and film have been white with blue eyes.
Pictures of Jesus historically have served many purposes, from symbolically presenting his power to depicting his actual likeness. But representation matters, and viewers need to understand the complicated history of the images of Christ they consume.
Author: Anna Swartwood House Assistant Professor of Art History, University of South Carolina
I can’t remember the last time we ate at a restaurant. By which I mean inside, not grabbing takeout. I’m all for cooking at home but it’s begun to feel a little, well, punitive.
So I was happy to read that being forced to cook more during lockdown has an upside: developing healthier eating habits, according to preliminary results from a worldwide Corona Cooking Survey.
11,000 people in 11 countries have weighed in, reporting fewer purchases of microwave foods and sweet or salty snacks. At the same time, consumers say they’re eating more fruits and veggies, wasting less food, and eating more leftovers.
“Consumption of salty, fat and sweet products usually goes up when people are under stress, but during the pandemic this heightened craving has been fulfilled in many countries with home-baked delicacies,” said Charlotte De Backer, chairman of FOOMS, a research group on food and media at U. Antwerp.
She probably didn’t mean this as a license to go crazy making endless batches of cookies but hey, the very act of baking is a terrific stress reliever. One takes solace where one finds it.
De Backer expects some of these new eating habits to outlast the pandemic, because the lockdowns have been longer than the six weeks it takes to form a new habit.
I’ve been trying to stay positive throughout the whole hideous pandemic but this week it’s gotten the best of me.
We’re fortunate enough to be sheltering in place near the ocean where we’ve been able to stay sane with daily beach walks and lovely, clear air. Unless Wednesday.
I woke up to what looked like a vivid sunset, along with the dense, acrid smell of smoke. US readers will know that we are facing massive wildfires on the west coast, and even our little corner of Oregon is not immune, as there have been outbreaks to the north and east of us. While we’re intensely lucky not to have to evaculate thus far (fingers crossed), the air remains at a dangerously unhealthy level so all outdoor activities are curtailed for now.
Suddenly, sheltering in place is even more claustrophobic, while my anxiety is skyrocketing and even minor annoyances feel overwhelming. Praying for rain.
OK, enough whining; how about some activism? In news from London, thirty bare-breasted women locked themselves to the railings outside Britain’s Houses of Parliament to demand action on climate change. Members of Extinction Rebellion, they’d written the dire consequences of global warming on their bodies to call attention to our world’s predicament.
I’d go topless too if I were a few decades younger.