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Here is one of my favorite disturbing religious paintings. The work was completed in 1864 by the not-easily-classified 19th century French master Édouard Manet. At first glimpse the canvas seems like a conventional devotional painting of Christ just after he has been crucified and laid out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but, upon closer examination the multifold unsettling elements of the painting become manifest. The figures are painted in Manet’s trademark front-lit style which flattens the figures out and gives them a hint of monstrous unearthliness. This is particularly problematic since we are located at Jesus’ feet and his body is already foreshortened. The effect is of an ill-shaped Jesus with dwarf’s legs looming above us. Also, from his half-closed eyes it is unclear whether Christ is dead or not. Is he artlessly deceased with his eyes partially opened? Has he been resurrected already but is somehow still woozy? Are the angels resurrecting him? Here we get to the biggest problem of the painting: when is this happening? This scene is certainly not in the gospels (at least I don’t remember any episodes where weird angels with cobalt and ash wings move Jesus around like a prop). Did Manet just make up his own disquieting interpretation of the fundamental mystery at the heart of Christianity? It certainly seems like it! In the foreground of the work, empty snail shells further suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning. An adder slithers out from beneath a rock as if to suggest the poison in our doubts. Painting this kind of problematic religious work did not win Manet any friends in the middle of the nineteenth century, however it is unquestionably a magnificent painting about faith…and about doubt.
In terms of taxonomical diversity the gastropods are second most diverse class of animals on Earth (outnumbered only by the teeming class Insecta of the other great invertebrate phylum Arthropoda). This means that there are some deeply strange arthropods out there. While we traditionally think of gastropods as snails and slugs there are odd subcategories of these creatures, like the subject of today’s post, sea angels (of the clade Gymnosomata).
Sea angels consist of six different families of pelagic marine opisthobranch gastropod molluscs. Gastropods are named for their famous foot (the name means “stomach-foot”–a misnomer since gastropods all have true stomachs elsewhere) however the name is even more inappropriate for sea angels. In these free-smimming predators, the gastropod foot, so familiar to us as seen on snails, has evolved into a pair of delicate wings for swimming through the water. Sea angels are very small: the largest species only reach 5 cm (2 inches) in length and most varieties are much more miniscule. They prey on other tiny creatures swimming among the plankton—particularly other smaller slower species of gelatinous mollusks.
Adult sea angels lack any sort of shell—which they discard when they metamorphose into adulthood. Their feeding apparatuses can be strangely complicated—pseudoarms and tentacles which recall their cousins the cephalopods. Sea angels are numerous in the oceans but some scientists are concerned that the acidification of the world’s oceans will cause substantial problems for the tiny translucent gastropods.
Lucas Cranach the Elder painted this troubling allegorical panel of melancholia in 1532 at the end of the era of gothic painting. A shrewd but withdrawn angel sits on dark cushion and whittles a long stick into a toy for nude children who are trying to push a large globe through a hoop (the globe may or may not fit). In the middle ground, a silky white spaniel sits on the window sill above a mated pair of partridges. Is one of the birds to become the dog’s dinner?
Beyond the window, the painting’s background offers a terrible spectacle: armed opponents kill one another in a craggy Saxon landscape of walled towns and hill castles. In the skies above the battle, wild pagan deities ride the storm. Astride boars, hounds, and rams, the grim deities relentlessly pursue their hunt with casual indifference to the bloodshed below.
The painting is symbolic of the collective destiny of humankind. The angel’s mien, the animals, and the dark background all suggest that, even with heavenly assistance, the new generation will not succeed at their serious game but are condemned to a circle of violence.