Rice University Religious Studies Scholar Claims Renaissance Painting Shows Unknowable UFO Mystery Beyond Human Knowledge
Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University and ought to know better when it comes to studying the role of space aliens in ancient history. Anyone who has risen to such a position, and who has written about the role of the paranormal in the sacred, ought to have a bit of conception of the difference between the scientific and the supernatural, and between the plausible and the implausible. And yet in the recent edition of Edge Science magazine (No. 31, Sept. 2017), Kripal has an article, taken from his new book Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions, rehashing the infamous claim that a gray splotch on a Renaissance painting of the Madonna and child is a flying saucer occupied by space aliens. He wants to accept all of the ufological evidence but sidestep the problems with claiming alien intervention by proposing that an unknowable “entity” manifests as shiny metal discs.
Kripal’s argument for the splotch’s identity as a UFO-shaped “entity” offers little to recommend it, but his broader claim about the fact that scientific elites are unwilling to explore space aliens or interdimensional beings or whatever he thinks it to be is surprising for someone in Kripal’s position, and who is allegedly an expert in philosophy. This is not the first time Kripal has credulous embraced ufology. Among other things, he has coauthored a book with infamous anally probed abductee Whitley Strieber, spoken credulously of the alleged “UFO battle” over Nuremberg in the 1500s (actually a sundog), and alleged that science fiction is a “Trojan horse” opening the mind to the paranormal.
The painting in question is an anonymous work from around 1510-1520 known as the Natività, located in the Hall of Hercules in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. It depicts John the Baptist holding the infant Jesus on the hem of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. In the background, a rustic man appears to be gazing upward, and a grayish ellipse hovers in the sky over him. Golden rays surround the gray ellipse. While the depiction is not exactly standard, it seems to show an angel in the form of a luminous cloud, with a shepherd shielding his eyes from the divine glory, with the whole cameo scene representing the Annunciation. Later paintings would depict the angel in humanoid form, but the cloud form is not exactly unknown. The identity of the ellipse with an angel is confirmed by the three dots on the opposite side of the picture, representing a Byzantine synecdoche for the threefold virginity of Mary. This is pretty good evidence that the objects in the sky were meant symbolically, not literally.
Kripal disagrees with this argument, first because he simply refuses to review Renaissance art. Instead, he chose not to engage with someone who tried to explain it to him. “I didn’t have the courage to ask him what the Holy Spirit was doing in a scene that had nothing to do with the Annunciation, or why a man and his dog are staring at the thing hovering in the sky, whereas the Virgin seems completely unaware of it.” Had he taken a moment to review Renaissance paintings, he would find similar symbolic depictions of the Annunciation alongside the Nativity in other Renaissance paintings on the same theme, such as the Natività di Gesù by Vincenzo Foppa, from 1492, where an angel replaces the ellipse.
But let us dispense with his choice to minimize art history. His next point is that regardless of the intended symbolism, the anonymous artist must have modeled the cloud on a real life flying saucer because the indistinct, formless blob is too accurately UFO-shaped to be anything but real, despite his own belief that UFOs are not actually metal space discs. To this he adds the “fact” that the wheel-shaped divine appearance is the same as that seen by Ezekiel, which is also a spaceship. This argument—for Ezekiel’s vision of wheels as a spaceship—was, to my knowledge, first proposed in 1956, and it has advanced not a whit since Erich von Däniken and Josef F. Blumrich picked up the claim and ran with it. As Mike Heiser and others have long since explained, Ezekiel was describing a divine chariot in the form of a Mesopotamian transport for the statue of a god. Again, Kripal chooses to ignore the history of his subject (though pretending to embrace it) in order to follow the simplistic formula of “looks like, therefore is” with a side order of “ancient people are too stupid to do symbolism.” In fact, he chooses to cite only books about UFOs in analyzing Ezekiel. Remember, Kripal is a professor of religious studies. There is absolutely no excuse for this.
Kripal makes an excuse, however. His excuse is that any attempt to understand the past is impossible because we cannot properly evaluate whether an unprecedented event in fact actually took place. Specifically, he claims that any “reductive historicizing attempt to explain away the luminous cloud by citing a textual precedence backfires, since the texts themselves may well have been expressions of actual sightings and encounters.”
Oh, but this almost sounds logical. However, let us swap out aliens for angels using the well-known equation of the two. Now you can see how illogical the argument is: “Any attempt to explain the appearance of an angel in a painting with reference to a preexisting mythology of angels backfires, since this mythology may well have been inspired by actual meetings with real heavenly angels.” But if angels can derive from Biblical texts, then so, too, must Ezekiel-style wheels. Logically, to expect that silver wheels must be spaceships is to prove that angels are real. You can’t logically claim one and not the other since there is an equal paucity of evidence for both. Why give credence to flying metal spheres but not to glowing interdimensional humanoids? As I have explained many times before, “UFOs” are a phenomenon created by modern definitions, with no proof of an underlying extraterrestrial reality.
“Why, after all, privilege one relative historical moment and cultural framework over another?” Kripal asks, suggesting that there is no reason to doubt people thought of angels when they saw aliens. Here, though, he reveals his own bias: Why explain angels in terms of aliens and not aliens in terms of angels? It is because Kripal instinctively prefers explanations that sound like science even though he himself believes, per his own admission, that science is fatally flawed because it does not admit the paranormal. Yet if we were to admit the paranormal, there is no longer a reason to doubt the existence of the angels he wishes us to reduce to aliens! Worse, he seems to have no conception of how to delineate the difference between the paranormal and the material; for, it would seem that any phenomenon that actually existed would fall within the purview of science.
I think the reason the art historian is so troubled by the ufological comparison is the same reason that the conventional scholar of religion is so troubled: both the art historian and the scholar of religion are ideologically committed to a purely materialist history in which there can only be political, institutional, textual, and material influences but never, ever, interventions out of space and out of time.
But for there to be any phenomenon that does not fall into the realm of science, it would have to be both immaterial and unknowable through observation or logic. How, pray tell, are we to evaluate that which by definition cannot be known? And if, as Kripal claims, Italians and modern Westerners see, touch, and experience flying saucers, how can they be either immaterial or unknowable? An alien spacecraft is not a ghost or a spirit; this hypothesized object has mass and shape and force and therefore is an object for scientific study. If, on the other hand, it does not have any of these, then the burden is on Kripal to explain how exactly anyone saw, felt, or heard such non-objects to paint them, writer of them, and to describe their sounds and motions.
Bottom line: If a UFO interacts with the physical world, then it is subject to scientific inquiry and cannot be excluded from science due to “materialist” ideology. But Kripal would sidestep all of this by dismissing aliens and angels alike in order to conclude that UFOs are neither spaceships nor divine chariots but something new and unknowable. “I think these presences possess their own intentions and agencies, which we are in no position to understand or essentialize at this point in our cultural evolution.”
In true postmodern fashion, Kripal wishes to preserve the “mystery” of a phenomenon for which no real evidence exists by wishing away the very understanding that there is a knowable objective reality that can be discovered. He wants to reenchant the world by literally claiming that we have to accept mystical beliefs because reality is unknowable. Thus,
In the end, we have no answer for [the painting]. I think we should just say that and stop pretending that we do. Much better to begin reimagining the history of religions as a long and complicated series of real (as in “really experienced”) contact events…
This is enormously frustrating because the assumption that “contact events” are “real” in any objective sense is predicated on the existence of a material world that can be studied and known. Without that assumption, there is no way to tell fact from fantasy, and paranormal encounter from hallucination. Try this thought experiment: Using Kripal’s rules, try to prove that H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is fictitious and not based on “real” contact with interdimensional Old Ones. (Some so-called magickians already believe this.) It cannot be done even though we know damned well that it is so. Kristal’s rules would forbid a distinction between primary and secondary accounts, between original reports and embellished retellings, and between fact and fiction. He wishes to accept them all as equally valid reflections of some ineffable underlying truth under the mantra that, even in fictitious narratives written centuries after the events they describe, “Something is ‘out of place’ and ‘out of time’ here.” And he thinks there is no way to know what it is.
It is doubly frustrating that Kripal wants these “contact events” to be simultaneously “something really seen, really experienced, and something still unidentified” and also paranormal and beyond the purview of science. In other words, he is basically asking us to exempt his faith in things unseen from critical inquiry in order to protect an ineffable mystical quality that he fears will vanish if exposed to reason.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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