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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.
Happy Tomb Sweeping Day! The 104th day after the winter solstice is celebrated in China as the Qingming festival. Throughout China, People go outside to tend to the graves of deceased loved ones and to enjoy the beauty of springtime.
As the English name implies, the holiday is also an occasion to carefully tend and restore revered grave sites because, above all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion for ancestor worship. Celebrants visit graves and tombs with offerings for the dead. Traditional offerings include roosters, flowers, paper decorations, pastries, tea, incense, chopsticks, wine and/or liquor.
In addition to being a day to show respect for the dead, Tomb Sweeping Day is a celebration of the changing seasons. People go on family outings together to enjoy blossoms or fly kites (these kites are usually shaped like animals or heroes from Chinese opera). Some people carry flowers or willow branches with them throughout the day or decorate their houses with willow branches–which are believed to ward off the wandering dead.
The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient. If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization. But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence! Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).
It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses. Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects. Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic). She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth.
The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”). The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.
Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”). The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers. The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:
Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments
The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.” I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.
Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time. Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade. At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.
This past weekend was Open House New York. For a weekend the whole city was an elementary school field trip as cultural, architectural, and industrial institutions throughout the burroughs opened their doors to the public for a sneak peek behind the scenes. There were a lot of tempting choices, but, in keeping with ferrebeekeeper’s long obsession with all things gothic, some friends and I visited Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery to look inside the catacombs and palatial mausoleums of nineteenth century elite. Green-Wood cemetery consists of 478 acres of lovingly tended forests and gardens where more than 600,000 individuals are buried. The cemetery is sprawled over the terminal moraine left by the Wisconsin ice sheet when it retreated back to Canada about 18,000 years ago. As the thousand foot tall wall of ice melted it dropped its burden of pebbles, boulders, and topsoil into rolling hills which now form the bulk of Long Island. The tallest hill on Brooklyn is Battle Hill in Green-Wood where one can stand in the middle of a field of obelisks and look down at the harbor, the Narrows, and lower Manhattan.
The main gates of Greenwood are a gothic revival masterpiece created by Richard M. Upjohn in 1861 (the cemetery itself dates back to 1838). Back in the 1960s a shipment of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) being flown from Argentina to Idlewild somehow escaped and the renegade birds set up nesting sites first in the cemetery gate. Later, as the colony expanded, the birds also occupied the coEdison transformer station next to the cemetery. So, as you walk into the park, you are greeted by raucous screeches and streaks of chartreuse among the trees. And what trees! Since the cemetery is old and is protected by a spiked fence, armed guards, and fierce dogs (along with who knows what sort of malevolent chthonic agencies), the trees have grown to maturity unmolested and the grounds feature numerous huge field oaks, mighty beeches, giant metasequoias and every other ornamental or native specimen which grows in these parts.
It is difficult to convey the scope of the cemetery. Visitors wander through different landscapes going up and down hills, into dark forests, across garden glades, and beside lakes—and everywhere there are tombs of every sort. There are thin limestone headstones where the text is fading, tall granite plinths with statues, squat obsidian cubes, Egyptian pyramids, and elegant urns. Sometimes you also pass huge haunting circles of graves which evoke feelings of barrows and ancient standing stones. During the open house my friends and I visited the spooky Greek revival mausoleums of a heartless railroad baron and of a rich tobacconist who turned to spiritualism after the mysterious death of one of his (demi-mondaine?) female employees. We also visited the underground catacombs where workers installed a creepy underground network of burial chambers in the excavation left over from a pebble mine.
The largest mausoleum inhumes the remains of Stephen Whitney, one of the richest and most parsimonious merchants of the nineteenth century who eschewed philanthropy. As one might imagine he was not well loved and when he died, the famous social commentator George Templeton Strong remarked that “his last act was characteristic and fitting. He locked up his checkbook and died.” Although Whitney’s grave was magnificent and the cemetery’s great mourning chapel (pictured below) was even more so, to me the most interesting mausoleums and graves were the smaller gothic ones which I have pictured throughout this post. We’re getting closer to Halloween (and to peak foliage)—why not take a constitutional through a nearby cemetery and contemplate the ephemeral nature of things amidst a beautiful vista?