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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).
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…
…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)
As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor. Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it. We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals. Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world. Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for. Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.
I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature. Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production. It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.
In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile. In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.
What is going on here? This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation. Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans. Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides. Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey. The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!
Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that. The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind. Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal! Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature. We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated. The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast. As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…
Try to imagine the Namib Desert, where a stormy foggy shoreline gives way quickly to endless bone-dry dunes of shifting golden sand. It is one of the starkest contrasts in the world’s geography: the fury of the cold waves is juxtaposed with the opposing starkness of the sun-pounded dunes.
The coastline where the Namib Desert runs up against the Atlantic is known as the skeleton coast both because it is a place where whalers and sealers once discarded the stripped carcasses of the marine mammals they killed in droves and because it is one of the world’s most treacherous coastlines. More than a thousand major modern wrecks dot the coast (where they mingle with countless older shipwrecks). Portuguese sailors trying to get around the horn of Africa to reach the riches of Asia called the area “the gates of hell.” A human powered craft can make its way through the pounding surf to the desolate coastline but it then becomes impossible to re-launch. Sailors shipwrecked on the Namib coast thus faced the daunting prospect of walking through a vast expanse of waterless desert. Before the modern era, most ship-wrecked souls did not escape and their skeletons soon became part of the landscape.
The desert is ancient. For more than 55 million years it has existed as a wasteland with almost no surface water. Since the end of the age of dinosaurs, the warm tropical air of the Hadley cell has intersected a cold oceanic current welling northward from Antarctica. But the region was arid long before that. West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago and has remained there since—a wallflower in the great dance of continents.
Namibia was a German colony during the colonial era. Unsurprisingly, the Germans made their Namibian colony the sight of the twentieth century’s first genocide when they tried to extinguish the unruly Herero and Nama peoples in 1904. The nation was seized by South Africa after the end of World War I but after many decades of gradual power shifting Namibia gained complete independence in 1990.
The Republic of Namibia is the second sparsest nation on earth with only 2.1 million people spread across a landscape roughly the size of Germany, Poland, the Czech republic, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined (not that those nations should ever be combined!). It is one of the few stable multi-party democracies in Africa (maybe I should say the world). Namibia makes most of its money from mining uranium, gemstones, lead, tungsten, gold, tin, fluorspar, manganese, marble, copper and zinc. Natural gas can be found just off the coast (though it may prove challenging to drill there).
Why am I writing about this beautiful harsh anomaly of a nation? The unique and isolated geography of Namibia have made it a unique ecosystem of creatures capable of surviving the harsh desert environment (to say nothing of the creatures which team in the rich coastal waters). Desert dwelling creatures have had a long time to adapt to the hostile conditions of the world’s oldest desert. One of the most unique of all placental mammals is found in Namibia. I’ll address this bizarre fossorial hunter in my next post.