The not so new Cult of Celebrity

Alison-ChristianMy husband and I have just returned from a great ‘city-break’ in Vienna and one of the things that struck me whilst we were there is that the Cult of Celebrity, so often bemoaned as a modern obsession is, in fact, not such a new thing.

On our first afternoon in the capital we came across the so-called ‘Sisi Museum’ in the Hofburg Palace. Sisi was the pet name of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was married at age sixteen to the Emperor, Franz Joseph, leaving her beloved childhood home and freedom in Bavaria. Sisi was, as the picture shows, very beautiful and people became obsessed with her. But in reality Sisi was deeply unhappy and became more and more reclusive and disengaged from the role she had had thrust upon her with her marriage. Upon her death from an assassin’s knife in 1898 her life took on a cult status. As I walked around her state apartments I kept being reminded of that icon of our own time, Princess Diana. In life both women were beautiful, gifted and unhappy, thrust whilst very young into the public domain and a life they were not prepared for. Both found ways of being independent; both died tragically and both became part of a cult of celebrity; more famous in death, if it were possible, than in life. It could be said they lived and died from too much attention.

Compare this then with another picture we saw in Vienna – Brueghel’s wonderful masterpiece, “Christ’s Way of the Cross.” At the centre of the huge canvas Christ carries his cross, surrounded by crowds, but no one takes any notice of him. The crowds are far too interested in having a good time, being entertained, trying the latest thing, the popular fashion, the newest cult; all, that is, except for one small group near the front of the painting. These people, obviously Christ’s family and dearest friends, are dressed in the traditional clothes of religious paintings. Everyone else in the painting is dressed in the clothes of Brueghel’s own day. It is as though Brueghel is indicting his own people for their superficiality and escapism. There in their midst, right under their very noses, something is happening that will revolutionize and transform human life, but they chose not to look, not to see. The Cult of Celebrity creates something substantial from something unreal and ephemeral for the sake of entertainment, whilst ignoring the life-giving and eternal because it is too demanding. As T.S. Eliot said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”