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Ferrebeekeeper recounts a lot of mythological stories and religious tales–using almost the same voice as we use to tell non-fictional stories.  However, it is critical to remember that such folklore and mythology is not true…at least not in the same way as history or science are real (and even those reality-based disciplines are shot through with ambiguity and factual inadequacy: truth is a very lofty ideal indeed!).  Instead religious tales tell a complicated moral or ontological truth about our species by means of symbolism.  How we interpret this symbolism is all-Important.

I had a classics professor in college who gave us a reading about the Punic War from Livy.  Livy (who himself lived in politically fraught times) prudently cited the failure to properly observe the state religion as one of the reasons the Romans lost a huge Punic War battle (or as Livy stated it: the Romans failed to sacrifice enough to the gods of Olympus).  On the midterm, the professor asked why the Romans lost the battle and many students dutifully regurgitated Livy’s exact answer in their little blue books.  “I was surprised to find so many pantheists in this class!” said the professor as he handed back the books and explained why readers need to think carefully about what they are reading (and also why so many students did not have the grades they expected).

It might seem like I am writing about this subject because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of contemporary religious sentiment. For example, based on their actions and pronouncements, many contemporary Christians seem to believe that the central message of Christianity is that they (fundamentalist Christians) are always right about everything and God will take them to heaven to live in happy bliss when they die (even as he casts all of the people they personally dislike (and pretty much everyone else) into eternal hellfire).  Gods are a metaphor for the self—unless you happen to be devout; in which case your god is an actual magical entity who cares about you personally but mostly despises everyone else.

Ahem, anyway…Instead of talking about whether evangelical Christians fail to understand Christ’s message of kindness and giving, I wanted to draw people’s attention back to a Greco-Roman story we told here a while ago—the story of Asclepius, god of healing.  Asclepius was the son of the beautiful and terrible god Apollo (whose myths always fascinate and horrify me).  According to the myth, Asclepius mastered healing to a profound degree previously unknown to mortalkind.  Through study and devotion, he obtained the ability to alleviate all of people’s suffering, anguish, and illness.  His art was so profound that he could even stop death itself.  Unfortunately, Asclepius became so great as a healer that he lost sight of the healing itself.  He began to think of himself as one of the gods.  He was originally drawn to medicine out of sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.  But success changed him and he began to only heal those who gave him enormous amounts of gold.  Because of this Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him.  Asclepius was incinerated utterly. His quasi-divine healing prowess vanished from the earth because of his hubris and people were thrown back into lives of suffering and death.

Now here is my point.  I suppose if we had a devout pantheist here they would say “Zeus is all powerful and Asclepius offended him by trying to imitate that power!  Hubris will always be punished. All hail Zeus!”  Since the pantheists are pretty much gone though (except maybe in my history class), we can look at the story on its own.  Asclepius was a human, and he his mastery of healing represents humankind’s surprising ability to master this subject to an enormous degree.  But Asclepius was arrogant and selfish.  He started to misuse his healing arts for profit. When he stopped caring about being a physician first and began to lust for gold and power instead of wisdom, his healing art was lost and everyone suffered.  The story has a patina of magic, but it is a metaphor about real things. Indeed, it should seem intimately familiar to any American who has been forced to contend with our for-profit healthcare system (even before the contemporary American medical industry mixed up the staff of Asclepius with Hermes’ rod of commerce). Seem from that vantage, the story of how Asclepius was destroyed when he forgot his true purpose doesn’t just sound like an ancient Greek myth about hubris.  It sounds like a rebuke to contemporary healthcare companies which are so stingy, cruel, and greedy that they are shortening people’s lives.  Worrying about gold instead of research and healing didn’t work out so great for the greatest physician.  Perhaps it is a mistake in contemporary medicine as well.

Of course, a careful reader might also ask whether I was being completely honest when I said that this post has nothing to do with Christianity in contemporary America.  This particular myth about somebody who incurs a terrible all-consuming price for losing their compassion is Greek—but the moral seems… familiar. A great rabbi once asked a seemingly hypothetical question “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” I don’t believe in souls as real things.  They are symbolic of what is eternal and all-important in our little lives as pieces of the great gestalt of human life.  Perhaps the question could be interpreted as, “what if you lose the most important aspect of yourself by being greedy and power-hungry?”  The story of Asclepius provides a ready answer to that question.  Perhaps the New Testament has similar answers, which people are overlooking.  Physicians need not lose their healing.  Christians need not abandon what is truly divine within Jesus’s words.  Perhaps the Romans need not even lose the great battle, but we are all going to have to focus a bit harder on the complicated symbolic aspect of the text.

Hans_Memling_PassioneThis amazing painting is by Hans Memling a Netherlandish master of German birth who worked in Bruges during the late 15th century.  Memling painted the work around 1470 AD for a Florentine banker based in Bruges (that’s the banker’s donor portrait down there in the lower left corner).  The painting is most important for illustrating that extremely rich financiers can commision whatever sort of work they like from gifted middle aged painters in their hometown, be it medieval Bruges or, say, contemporary Brooklyn, however, the painting is also astonishingly a still painting with modality: like a sort of 15th century movie.  Instead of telling one scene from the passion of Christ, the painting tells many stories from the death and resurrection of Jesus in the same larger scene.  By moving around the painting and “reading” it, the whole story becomes evident (I especially like how ancient Jerusalem looks like a slightly exoticized version of Bruges).  Since WordPress hates art, you can only blow it up to a certain size here, but it is well worth going to Wikipedia and looking at a larger version where you can pore over the exquisite details of Memling’s craft (and contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and his execution).   For such an intricate work, the original is rather small–less than a meter wide.  Memling excelled at painting complex pictures of entire cities like this, yet despite the ornament and pageantry, the real focus never leaves Jesus as he is hailed and then denounced by the mob, judged by politicians, tortured and executed, and finally risen as a deity.  Despite its intricacy and scope this is a rather human and intimate work.  Memling seems to have known the fickle back-and-forth of society, so one can find all sorts of reticent retainers, devout followers, haughty lords, and confounded strangers in this work.  It is a reminder that the the antagonist, and the supporting characters, and even the setting of the passion are humankind–the story is meant to represent all of us.  Even Jesus, the son of man, is human until the last instance when he is revealed with his halo and scarlet robes of godhood.

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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met.  This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.”  It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520.  The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy.  From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino.  Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.

But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green.  Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands.  Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports.  The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance.  You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).

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Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus.   The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling.  The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity.  I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals.  With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…

Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter.  It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary).  Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry.  The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.

I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful.  The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power.  Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages.  However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration).  The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.

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Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)

This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival).  Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention.  There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.

Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness.  The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food.  The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict.  Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea.  Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers.  His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden.  Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy.  Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden.  The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.

Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness.  That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power.  Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement.  Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).

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Ferrebeekeeper has a great love of space-themed art. Yet the beginnings of western art as we know it today were not about space, but instead about religion. Christian iconography dominated: the heavens were not the literal heavens but instead the supernatural …uh…actually, never mind.  This is a fresco by Giotto from the Arena Chapel.  Giotto single-handedly reshaped the classical and medieval precepts of art (and remade our notion of visual culture).  The Arena Chapel is his masterwork–a project where Byzantine opulence, Christian devotion, linear perspective, and new Italian realism converged to give birth to the European artistic tradition (although, to be sure, Western art had many grandparents…and lots of weird uncles that were an influence before–and after–Giotto).

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Here is the birth of art…showing the birth of Christ, and there, proudly in the center of the composition, right above Jesus and the adoring Magi, is a comet which would not look out of place in nineteen-sixties space art.  The flying ball of fire points directly into the manger where the astonished kings (and their even more astonished camels pay homage to the new-born savior who has appeared as a refugee child).  It is a beautiful picture–and an unexpected appearance of outer space imagery right at the dawn of the 14th century as art began to manifest itself in familiar fashion.

 

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera,  1634, oil on canvas)

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera, 1634, oil on canvas)

Saint Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Christ… Yet, considering the exalted company he kept, we do not know very much about Bartholomew.  Bartholomew means “son of the furrows” in Aramaic, which suggests he was possiblya ploughman…or at least descended from farmers (it is also funny to think that Bart Simpson’s name is originally Aramaic).  Bartholomew shows up by name in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “Synoptic” gospels, which give roughly the same account of events) but he is replaced by Nathaniel in the enigmaticand iconoclastic gospel of John.

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Whatever the case, sources (such as they are) place Bartholomew at the Ascension–the Greek-myth style apotheosis of Christ, when the risen savior ascended bodily into heaven to assimilate with the divine.  Bartholomew’s story gets a lot more interesting thereafter.  While other apostles went west and north to spread Christianity to the Roman Empire, Bartholomew headed East, right out of the boundaries of the known world. Along with Saint Thomas, he is credited with bringing Christianity to India.  Along the way he is alleged (by varying sources) to have stopped to spread the faith in Mesopotamia, Parthia, and Lycaonia.

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

However Bartholomew is most affiliated with Armenian Christianity.  Along with his fellow apostle, Saint Jude, he is credited with bringing the faith to Armenia in the 1st Century and the two are the Co-founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia was also the site of his thrilling martyrdom.  According to popular tradition,Bartholomew converted Polymius, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. This infuritated the king’s brother Astyages, a devout pagan who thought that getting rid of the proslytizer would get rid of the faith.  Astyages had Bartholomew seized, crucified and flayed alive–which seems like overkill.  In some accounts the holy man was drowned or beheaded (maybe Astyages feared a Rasputin type situation and had Bartholomew crucified, flayed, drowned, and beheaded).  Armenia is not necessarily the center of the world in contemporary times, but it was a thriving society in the early medieval world.  There were huge cities filled with great cathedrals to Saint Bartholomew   Whatever the case of the real Bartholomew, popular imagination seized on the flaying aspect of this tale.  This death of Saint Bartholomew became favorite theme of artists  Michaelangelo even painted himself as Saint Bartholomew’s nightmarish skin in the last judgement.  There he is between heaven and hell in the saint’s flayed hand.  Will he be cast down and discarded of ascend as a saint?

Detail from "The Last Judgment" (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Detail from “The Last Judgment” (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Some scolars have noted a deliberate similarity between Bartholomew and the Greco-Roman demigod Hercules. Churches to the saint were often located on former sites of cult centers to the strongman. Additionally the two shared iconongraphy: Bartholomew frequently holds of wears his skin like Hercules wears the Nemean lion’s skin. There are even certainly weird parallels between the figures. Hercules transcended death through physical strength: excellence at fighting and a divine pedigree allowed him to rise to heaven.  Saint Bartholomew a normal man–a farmer–transcended mortality by spiritual strength–he shrugged off the most terrible death possible and joined Jesus in heaven (and in working miracles here on Earth).  Barthomew and Hercules even shared a doom caused throught the skin.  Barthomew was flayed, while Hercules was poisoned intracutaneously and ripped his own skin off.  It is a good theory, but it overlooks the even more straightforward Christian message of Bartholomew. He transcended his mortality through his association with Jesus. He shrugged off his human flesh and became part of the divine.  The raw power of the tale is instantly recognizable in the beautiful & horrible art.

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)

Crucifixion (Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1460, tempera on panel)

Crucifixion (Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1460, tempera on panel)

Here is Andrea Mantegna’s exquisite tempera masterpiece showing the crucifixion of Jesus.  I am going to present it without much comment except to note that it is a high-resolution file so you can (and should!) click on it to see a larger version. By doing so you will be sucked into the disturbing, beautiful 15th century world of Mantegna where everything and everyone seems to be carved of some aristocratic stone (quarried perhaps from the Golgotha they stand upon). Tempera paint gives an artist the ability to paint with disquieting hyper-realism, but it takes away some of the velvety shadows and lifelike glow which have made oil paint the preferred medium for western art for six centuries.  In the hands of an all-time master like Mantegna tempera’s strengths and limitations creates an unearthly effect fully appropriate for the death of the savior.

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

January 14th was a fanciful medieval holiday known as the “Feast of the Ass.” The feast commemorates the flight into Egypt, a biblical episode from Christ’s (very) early career. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea heard a prophecy that a greater king than himself had just been born in Palestine. The king launched a murderous anti-infant pogrom to rid himself of competition before his rival could reach adulthood (an ugly spate of newborn killing known in Christianity as “the Massacre of the innocents”). Mary and Joseph fled Palestine with the baby Jesus. The little family traveled down into Roman Egypt with the exhausted post-partum Mary and her baby traveling on an ass (you can read about this directly in the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-23)). It was not the only episode in the Bible to portray Jesus on donkey back. On Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem (and to his ultimate death) he was mounted on a white ass. The medieval feast gently celebrated the donkey’s importance to Christianity with banqueting, sermons about the biblical events, and pageantry. A beautiful girl bearing a child would ride a donkey through town to the church. Thereafter the donkey stood beside the altar during the sermon. The congregation participated in the fun by answering the priest’s questions and observances by shouting “hee haw” (or whatever donkeys say in France–where the celebration was most often observed).

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1530s, oil on panel)

In our age of internet and celebrity worship, every day is the feast of the ass, but I wanted to write about the medieval celebration (which fell out of favor and vanished in the fifteenth century) so I could share these three beautiful paintings of the flight into Egypt. I also wanted this episode to be an introduction to tomorrow’s post about the donkey—for the poor animals are terribly underappreciated—being so disparagingly associated with human posteriors and loutish individuals. Additionally the donkey’s place in the world has been taken over by modern engines, and fancy patrician folk have not held on to them as a status symbol (as happened to the horse). It’s worth taking a moment and remembering that donkeys are very sacred in Christianity and have a better scriptural claim to being the animal of Christ than any other creature other than perhaps the sheep. More about asses tomorrow!

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

 

 

The Madonna of the Passion (Carlo Crivelli, 1460, tempera on panel)

The Madonna of the Passion (Carlo Crivelli, 1460, tempera on panel)

Just in time for the holidays, here’s another “Madonna and Child” painting by Carlos Crivelli, the enigmatic Quattrocento master.  Ferrebeekeeper has already featured two posts about Crivelli including a short biography (which includes just about everything we know about him) and an exquisite painting of Mary Magdalene.  Today we present another Crivelli tempera masterpiece from 1460 which shows Mary holding a pensive baby Jesus as creepy little foreshadowing figures gather round.   Although Mary is not without a certain supercilious beauty, the two central figures are not nearly as fine as in other Crivelli masterpieces.  Standing on his little black velvet pillow like a demagogue orator, Jesus looks downright horrifying (and he also seems suitably appalled at knowing his own fate). The great strength of the painting lies in the supporting cast of corpulent androgynous children brandishing accoutrements of the crucifixion.  The little beings to the right solemnly proffer a crown of thorns and a cross to infant Jesus.  On the left, one child (wearing tiger skin grieves!) holds a fistful of crucifixion nails while his naked playmate grasps a classical column with spidery hands.  Behind him are children with a lance, a bucket of vinegar, and a ladder.  The little lanceman on the left is staring up at an allegorical rooster standing atop capitol.  In the background, on the right, the death of Christ takes place on a distant hill, while at the top, beyond a garland of peaches, pears, cherries, and songbirds, a final pair of putti play divine music on the harp and lute. The suffusion of tiny black pits or holes in the composition was probably not intended by Crivelli (although he did have a fascination with nail wounds), but it adds an extra dimension of entropy, torment, and decay to an already vexing painting.  Once again Crivelli deftly takes traditional religious elements of the passion and arranges them into an allegory which seems to subtly elude the comprehension of the viewer.  Is that Peter’s rooster or is it some lost symbol of 15th century Italy?  Are the childish beings with the implements of Christ’s death a vision of the anguished Christ child, or are they meant to represent us, the viewer, tormentors and torturers of the world who, like ignorant children, don’t even understand what we are doing?

Venetian painting owes an immense debt to Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430 – 1516 AD).  Not only was he the teacher of Giorgione and Titian, Bellini’s sensuous and atmospheric painting style colored the work of all the subsequent Venetian masters of the 16th century. Bellini’s figures have a grace and dignity lacking in earlier Venetian art: their emotions seem real and profound. He was also one of my favorite painter of mysterious and evocative backgrounds.

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Here is an exquisite Pietà by Bellini which highlights his artistic mastery. Fields of exquisite flowers (of many species and types) lead the eye back to winding roads and sinuous city walls. Looming across the entire background is Jerusalem, mysterious and lovely (and looking suspiciously like a Renaissance Italian city-state). Beyond the holy city, great mountains and cliffs march off into the horizon. Yet all of the beauty of the background is still. The roads are empty. Jerusalem seems deserted. In the foreground, Mary stares at the dead body of her son with desolate eyes. The savior is dead and the whole world has literally stopped.

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