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Do you know the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal?  It is in the Bible in the First Book of Kings Chapter 18.  Israel was then ruled by King Ahab who was unduly influenced by his fancy Phoenician wife, Jezebel, (a Baal worshiper!).  Because of the royal couple’s idolatry and persecution of God’s chosen prophets, the land suffered three years of drought and was turning into a desert.  The great prophet Elijah had been in hiding during this time, but, as the drought changed the political climate (in addition to the real climate), he revealed himself for a dramatic supernatural face-off with the 450 prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel.

The terms of the contest were thus: the prophets of Baal and Elijah would each sacrifice a bull and cut it to pieces and lay it on their respective altar (repairing the neglected altar of Yahweh is a big part of this story…but I will leave the altar-repair instructions out).  Neither camp would light the burnt offerings themselves:  instead they would pray to the respective deities for fire.

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The prophets of Baal went first (which sounds optimal, but think of how this always goes in the Olympics).  They prayed all day–indeed Elijah mocks them at noon suggesting their god must be busy thinking or important doing divine things or just couldn’t hear them.  At the end of the day, at sacrifice time, their bull was unconsumed by divine fire.

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Elijah then sacrificed his bull and laid it out upon the altar.  He then soaked the sacrifice with four barrels of water, which filled up a shallow trench he had dug around the altar. When these preparations were complete, Elijah called upon the God of Israel as described in the Bible

36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.

37 Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.41 And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees…

So why am I telling this story? Is it a parable about wicked leaders and their foreign consorts? Is this a story about divine wrath concerning a king’s corruption and God’s complete control of the weather?  Is this about how even the most revered religious traditions sometimes need to be tested by evidence-based criteria? Am I perhaps somehow suggesting that our own land has been given over metaphorically (or maybe literally) to Baal and his charlatan acolytes?

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No! Of course not! Our very own evangelical leaders have assured us from their private jets and mega-churches that our national leadership is exactly as it should be. This post is just an excuse to show some crazy art concerning prophetic contests!  Look at these wild pictures!  I particularly like the Baal worshipers–it is a shame what happened to them, but, after all, this is only a story. I, for one, certainly don’t believe in Biblical literalism.

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(Speaking of pictures, WordPress has made it impossible for me to properly label images without causing them to go off-center such that they are half obscured, but this last picture is by Lucas Cranach, about whom I have written much).

 

 

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, a six week season of self-denial, repentance, and fasting observed among certain traditional-minded Christian denominations.  Although I myself have no particularly ascetic intentions for Lent, it seems appropriate to mark the occasion with two vivid grisaille paintings by the great fifteenth century Flemish master Hieronymus Bosch, whose bizarre religious visions are among the strangest and most compelling works of painting (despite decades of deliberate strangeness by 20th and 21st century artists) .

The Left Outside Panel of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

The Left Outside Panel of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

The term ”grisaille” describes a completely monochromatic painting in which all colors have been removed and the values are all rendered in countless shades of black, white, and (especially) gray. The grisaille technique was sometimes used for underpainting by the old masters who would then add color later.  It was also used to portray sculptures, to cover large walls (in the fashion of trompelœil illusion), or, most interestingly, as the opposite side of triptych screens and altarpieces.  If a hinged triptych was closed, the two grisaille panels would become all that was visible.

The Right Outside Panel of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

The Right Outside Panel of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

These two paintings are the reverse of what may be Hieronymus Bosch’s most bizarre work, The Temptation of Saint Anthony which was finished in 1502, and can now be found at the Museo Nacional de Antiqua, Lisbon.  The Temptation of Saint Anthony deserves its own post (or its own book), but suffice to say it is a truly deeply strange rendering of the beings who accosted the saint after he went to the desert to pray, fast, and repent as a hermit.  It is a scatalogical hellscape filled with pig-priests, ambulatory jugs, stomach monsters, and flying fish crane ships.  Describing the actual painting exceeds my not-inconsiderable descriptive prowess: you will have to go look at it yourself.  However the work was created in such a fashion that the left and right panel can close in front of the central panel (probably so that the painting’s original owners did not have their brains fried by the twisted nightmares swirling around the saint).  When the actual painting was “shut” the two paintings above became visible.  In stark monocolor, the paintings portray the sufferings of Christ as he moved towards his crucifixion.  Great bestial crowds torture and mock the savior as he crawls on his knees (in the left panel) or is crushed by the weight of his cross (in the right panel), yet it is the torments of the human figures in the foreground which draws our eyes.

Here are the inside panels of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" but don't look at them yet--we are talking about the grisaille panels on the outside

Here are the inside panels of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” but don’t look at them yet–we are talking about the grisaille panels on the outside

In the right image a grim black storm fills the sky above Golgotha.  In the left, the Flemish landscape recedes into a blinding gray erasure.  Perhaps the most disturbing element of these paintings is the ordinary everyday 15th century Netherlandish garb worn by the people around Christ—and the everyday nature of Christ’s tormentors themselves. Are there children among the tormenting throngs?  Of course these magnificent paintings are not really important compared to the true paintings inside the altarpiece.  The one time I saw The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the work was open and the grisaille paintings were turned to the wall—barely visible in the shadows.

(Simone Martini, c. 1324, tempera on panel)

Born in Siena, Simone Martini was a painter whose masterful technique, elegance, and narrative themes greatly influenced the development of the International Gothic painting style. Completed sometime around 1324, this is one of his masterpieces, a three panel altarpiece (with two additional tiny tondo portraits of holy elders of the church)  which illustrates the saintliness of Agostino Novello, a thirteenth century Sicilian nobleman and scholar who renounced earthly life after being left for dead on a battlefield. In an attempt to avoid public life, Agostino joined the Order of Saint Augustine–but a former schoolmate from the University of Bologna recognized him and informed influential bishops of Agostino’s learning. Agostino was dragged into the scholarly life of the church where he rose to become Pope Nicholas IV’s confessor and Grand Penitentiary.

Detail of altarpiece

By the time of this painting, some of the real details of Agostino’s life were being supplanted by miraculous stories, here arrayed in four small story panels around the central portrait of the holy man.

Detail of altarpiece

The stories are painted with delightful detail and elegance.  The narrative flow of each tale is immediately obvious. In the top left corner Agostino appears like spiderman, hanging upside down from a wall to revive a child who has been mauled by a creature which seems to be a cross between a Labrador retriever and a dragon.  The bottom left panel finds the renowned scholar swooping out of heaven to catch a falling child.  Continuing to the bottom right corner, Saint Agostino pops through a hole in existence to heal/resurrect a baby which has fallen from a badly constructed hanging crib (child safety seems to have been a major problem in Medieval Italy).  The top right story-picture shows Agostino aiding a praying knight whose comrade is trapped beneath a fallen steed.

Detail of altarpiece

The center panel shows the Saint standing serenely in a grove of stately trees which are filled with singing birds. He holds a book as an angel whispers divine truth in his ear—a lovely metaphor for scholarship.

Detail of fallen knight

Mictlancihuatl devouring the living

The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl.  According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new.  But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power.  She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld.  One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races.  In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings.  Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.

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Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld?  Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers.  The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor.  Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers.  It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it  lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”.  The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico.  Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.

And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself?  The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild!  The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold.  The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.

(Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage.  Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils and they are also used as ingredients in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings.  In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success.  The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.

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