Along with the flooding and wind-ravaged destruction from Hurricane Sandy, some of the most powerful images in the storm’s wake have shown the smoldering ruins of more than 100 homes in Breezy Point, Queens. Amidst the beachfront neighborhood’s charred landscape, with smoke still coiling off the leveled buildings, Wall Street Journal photographer Natalie Keyssar captured the haunting view of a statue of the Virgin Marty, standing untouched above the ruins.
In a city still shaken and scrambling back to its feet over a week after the storm, the statue’s miraculous survival has become something of a symbol, placing it within the long tradition of the inexplicable survival of objects, particularly religious art, from devastation. Art historian and Episcopal Church canon E.A. Carmean Jr. put the Breezy Point Virgin Mary within this history in a story for the Wall Street Journal, writing that the “idea of the holy being imperishable to fire or other forces has deep roots within the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
While there are several biblical instances, such as the Burning (but not actually burned) Bush in the Book of Exodus through which God speaks to Moses, the legacy of sacred objects unscathed by disaster is even more remarkable for the staying power of their stories. There’s the Shroud of Turin that, albeit with some scarring to the linen’s edges, survived the 1532 fire at Chambery Chapel in Savoy, as well as the Sancta Camisa, a tunic believed to belong to the Virgin Mary, which made it out of a fire at Chartes Cathedral in France.
However, these were already significant objects with huge followings predating their astounding survival stories, yet Carmean also compares the Breezy Point statue with the “9/11 Cross” of beams found at the World Trade Center site, a symbol that arose entirely from the destruction. His conclusion is a bit stark, stating that agnostics “will perhaps pause at the sequence of two religious images emerging out of New York’s two most destructive events some 121 months apart,” and “believers may have their faith in signs or miracles affirmed,” but that atheists will dismiss the instance of survival of the Breezy Point statue “as coincidence” and “would have it banned from public property.”
That may be extreme, as surely even a Jean-Paul Sartre-caliber atheist would find the image of the benevolent Mary with arms stretched before a destroyed neighborhood touching. Carmean could have just as easily discussed the statue away from the framework of Christianity and instead placed it in the secular realm of hope, alongside the Survivor Tree that continued to grow at the bombed Murrah Building site in Oklahoma City, or with symbols from across religions, such as the Buddha statue in Laos that survived US bombings during the Vietnam War or the statue of Buddhist teacher Shinran Shonin that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and now resides on New York’s Upper West Side.
Statues, with their low forms and hard materials, do by their nature tend to make it out of the worst disasters more than other art (just look at this ceramic dog sitting in surreal calm on the burned remains of a house in Russia), but their seemingly miraculous survival makes them striking, and needed, symbols of hope after an almost unbelievable level of loss.
— Allison Meier
(Image: Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for the Wall Street Journal)