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Gustav_Jaeger_Bileam_Engel

Balaam and the Angel (Gustav Jaeger, 1836), oil on canvas

Do you know the story of Balaam from the Old Testament?  Balaam was the greatest magician and prophet of the Moabites, who were the enemies of the Israelites (who were nearing the end of their exile in the desert under the leadership of the dying Moses).  In brief, Balaam was main villain of the final stage of the Exodus: sort of an anti-Moses.   If things were written from the point-of-view of the Moabites, Balaam would have been the hero! In fact, we even get POV episodes in the Bible which follow him on perilous magical missions…which are thwarted by the terrible power of God.

In the most (in)famous of these episodes, Balaam is riding off to commit some nefarious act when the donkey he is riding balks.  The donkey can see that there is a sword-wielding angel in the path in front of them.  In anger, Balaam savagely beats the donkey, which starts to speak!  Here is the episode as set forth in the King James Bible (Numbers 22):

And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So what is the point of this story?  I suppose a rabbi or a Catholic priest would tell you it is about how it is futile to withstand the command of YWEH or some kind of hegemonic orthodox lesson of that sort (indeed, Balaam is frequently stuck in situations where he can perceive that his actions will not alter what is to come). Fortunately, we don’t actually believe in a giant omniscient space wizard in the sky, so we can look at the passage with a more literary eye.

And, it makes for an intriguing metaphor about humankind’s relationship with the natural world! Balaam’s donkey is perfectly capable of seeing the angel and she tries to save her human rider, who pays her back by intemperately beating her (despite her leal service) . Poor wicked Balaam is unable to figure out what is going on (even with the donkey telling him) until the angel sighs heavily and expositions the whole thing for him.  His desire for power and status are so great that he ignores what the long-suffering animal ass tells him, first with her actions, and then when she speaks with the very voice of God.

Of course the real world does not benefit from invisible angels or talking donkeys, so here we have something more like Raskolnikov’s dark dream from Crime and Punishment (where a drunk peasant beats his suffering old horse to death for failing to pull a load which he (the peasant) had loaded too heavily).  Everywhere we look we see that animals are dying from our crazy desperate actions.  Do we pause to heed this horrible lesson? Do we ask whether a dark angel of doom stands invisible yet implacable immediately before us?  No! We curse the oceans for not having enough fish. We execrate the bats for harboring coronavirus.  We shoot the polar bears for starving to death in a desolation we have created.

Of course Balaam is hardly a free agent.  He has a king who commands him to act as he does. He has a nation of people to save from invaders. He has to buy provender for his donkey and altar accessories and who knows what else.  We would probably feel sorely used if we were in his sandals.  Indeed, that is part of what makes me think we ARE Balaam. Right now the donkey we are riding is starting to fall down.  Are we asking the right questions about our own actions or are we reaching for the rod?

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Here is a very beautiful painting by Pre-Raphaelite luminary Evelyn de Morgan.  This work is titled The Angel with the Serpent and it was completed between 1870 and 1875. Although the work is a religious allegory, its meaning is surprisingly elusive.  In Judeo-Christian myth, the serpent represents sexuality, subversiveness, knowledge (and evil). These meanings certainly pertain to this work, yet the angel’s tenderness for the snake seems to suggest that God has wrought these aspects of existence too.

Admittedly this painting might depict a world before the fall (the sumptuous flowering bush and the bare lands beyond hint at this possibility).  Is the handsome angel in the red robes Lucifer before he was cast down?  Even if this painting does depict the time of Eden, it still suggests that the snake was always part of God’s plan and is dear to the Divinity and his agents (a forbidden idea which raises numerous troubling questions).

I am presenting the painting not just so you ponder the metaphorical meanings of Genesis (although I hope you are doing so), but also to introduce my Halloween week theme of supernatural snakes.  Ferrebeekeeper is no stranger to snake deities and monsters at all levels, but snakes have always been part of every mythos except for those of the farthest north and so there are plenty more to get to.  Enjoy Evelyn de Morgan’s lovely painting and get used to numinous snakes–we are going to see some amazing scales and forked tongues before next Tuesday!

Landscape with Monsters (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Landscape with Monsters (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Today was another day which rushed by! Here are three more sketches from my little book.  I doodle these during lunchtime, my commute, and other spare moments so they are not very polished, yet they sometimes attain a robust charm with their spontaneous verve.  I particularly like the mysterious haunted landscape above with the sphinx, the red spider, and the vampire (to say nothing of the absurd tragicomic ghost).  I keep putting mummies in my pictures:  these ancient human remains are a very tangible and fascinating link with our ancient past (but they also are a solemn reminder of mortality).  I think of all the characters in the drawing, the worm rising from the pit may have the most personality.

Fireworks over the East River (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Fireworks over the East River (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Here is a picture of fireworks drawn from a Williamsburg rooftop as my friends and I watched the East River Fourth of July show (you can see the towers of Midtown there at the bottom).   Below is another enigmatic allegorical donut.  The snack sits atop a stone crab while a gorgon glowers between two dancing pink shrimp. The entire piece has an elusive votive quality, but its religious overtones are greatly eclipsed by the outright miracles of the last picture.

Donut with Arthropods and Gorgon's Head (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil on paper)

Donut with Arthropods and Gorgon’s Head (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil on paper)

This final selection shows a flying saint soaring the sky with a large heron.  The holy man (an angel with a bowl of broth?) is soaring up to a castle surrounded by a fearsome carnivorous garden.  More benign flowers also bloom in the castle garden as the first pink tinges of sunset stain the sky.  I imagine he is bringing nourishment to the castle-dwellers, but it is hard to tell exactly.  As always, I welcome your comments!  Thanks for looking at my little pictures.

Carnivorous Plant and Angel (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Carnivorous Plant and Angel (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Study for "The Voyage of Life: Childhood" (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

Study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” (Thomas Cole, ca. 1840, oil on canvas)

I have been thinking a great deal about beautiful & meaningful allegorical paintings (indeed, you can go to this gallery of my own art and look at the strange seething world of symbolic paintings I have been creating under “Allegories”).  Here is a very lovely painting from the nineteenth century American master Thomas Cole.  This is a study for “The Voyage of Life: Childhood” the first painting of his magnum opus “The Voyage of Life,” a series of four huge paintings which portray a human life as a river running through the four seasons (I have put the relevant detail from the finished painting at the bottom of this post, but, for reasons unknown, I like the study better)

This is the beginning of life—an angel is launching an infant out of celestial darkness into the world. The little child is frolicking in delight among a fulsome bouquet of spring flowers little aware of the waterfalls, rapids, and sluggish poisonous bends which lie along the great river.  What the painting lacks in symbolic subtly it makes up for with its boundless energy, personality, and immediate glowing exuberance.

Cole was not a pessimist—he viewed life as a dazzling sojourn of pellucid joy.  This is a view which has fallen out of fashion in art (and maybe in larger realms of thought and endeavor), but the jubilant baby in this picture and the tender solicitous angel from suggests that we might want to revisit Cole’s worldview.

Detail from "The Voyage of Life Childhood" (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

Detail from “The Voyage of Life Childhood” (Thomas Cole, 1840, oil on canvas)

The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

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.

Clione or “sea angels” swimming in a Tokyo aquarium (Photo by REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama)

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).

A “Sea Angel” (Clione limacina)

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.

A hunting sea angel (photo by Alexander Semenov)

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.

Sea Angel (Platybrachium antarcticum)

Melancholy (1532, Lucas Cranach, the Elder: Oil on panel. 51 x 97 cm. Copenhaguen, Statens Museum for Kunst)

 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.

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