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Loteria is a bingo-style game of Latin America (although it descends from an Italian game of the 15th century).  A designated frontperson pulls cards from a deck and calls the images out to players with boards/cards marked with the same images. The players are trying to get markers on four squares in a row to win a prize.  The card-reader often talks in riddles or humorous rhymes to present the cards–which are appealingly heterogeneous.

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As with many other card games through the ages, loteria cards are also used as a mechanism for divination.  This brings us to today’s subject: “la sirena” the mermaid card in the lottery game. La sirena is represented as a classical mermaid—a beautiful nude woman with a green fish tale in lieu of legs.  As you might imagine, the siren can mean many things when she crops up in divinatory readings—representing all sorts of distaff beauty and beguiling opportunities–but the main message is the one which is read in the boilerplate riddle associated with the cards:

Con los cantos de sirena, no te vayas a marear.

A (bad) translation might be “Don’t let the songs of the siren disorient you.”  In Spanish “sirena” is synonymous with dangerous beguilement: the bewitching song and the sea-maiden are one and the same.  The mermaid’s tempting beauty disguises a dangerous situation or is, at best, an illusion. This is a standard truism of the prediction business: It is indeed wise to look carefully at all aspects of an apparently desirable opportunity.  This is especially true in our mercantile world which has become a rigged marketplace.  Anyone looking at the internet will know that every worm online has a hook in it.

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Yet look at the siren: she is the standout knockout of the loteria cards.  Additionally, she has a mythological gravitas which the flowerpot, the boot, and the saucepan (other loteria cards) sorely lack.  Surely her otherworldly beauty (and the beauty of her ocean habitat) have a worth which transcends a sententious admonition about temptation. It is true that mermaids are fantasy, but that doesn’t mean the longing they represent isn’t a puissant force.

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Such thoughts also bring us to the dangerous misogyny inherent in mermaid concepts.  In classical art and literature, beautiful sea maidens are most often an allegory for the trouble which lust brings men into. This seems unfair to mermaids who should be free to be who they are without being chastened as temptresses.  Perhaps the real message of the mermaid is in her fundamental irreconcilable juxtaposition—she is a being who is one thing above and another thing below—a hybrid entity who lives in two incompatible worlds.  That sounds like most people torn by the conflict of pursuing our own dreams and being forced by wage capital to help other people work on awful alien dreams which mean nothing to us.  Perhaps we should spare some sympathy for the mermaid.  That doesn’t mean we should let pretty flippers blind us to the perils of the ocean.  Maybe when we look into her lovely features we shouldn’t see a trap, we should see a mirror–ourselves in an impossible predicament we have always been in.

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).

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.

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1308-1311,
tempera on poplar panel)

In a previous post we analyzed how the devil gradually became red and goatlike in popular imagination (even though scripture does not mention such details).  Here is a stunningly dramatic gothic painting by the Sienese master Duccio which shows how the devil was conceived of at the beginning the 14th century.  The painting illustrates one of the narrative high points of the New Testament:  the devil tempting Jesus by offering him power over all the nations of Earth.  Here is how Matthew relates the story in the fourth chapter of his gospel:

8Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 9And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. 10Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 11Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

Duccio illustrates the very end of the episode as the bird-footed, spiky-haired gray devil waves his hand in disgust and prepares to fly off.  Additionally Satan has gnome ears, bat wings, and seems to be cast in a permanent shadow of decay. Androgynous angels in voluminous robes approach Christ from beyond the horizon to tend to him after his forty days and nights of fasting in the desert. The head of Jesus is naturally at the apex of the composition.  All around him, the architecture of the world is represented in miniature:  the crenellations and towers of the delicate pink and cream colored buildings look like dollhouses beneath the feet of Christ.  The pomp and power of the world’s cities is empty and small compared with divinity.

Last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post regarding leprechauns explored the folklore behind these whimsical tricksters and then delved (somewhat playfully) into the commercially appealing leprechaun mascots adopted by cereals and sports teams.  But leprechauns have a darker side as well.  The original leprechauns from old Irish myth were less like comic gnomes playing tricks and more like anguished demons trying to injure humankind by appealing to our base instincts.

Knowth Passage Grave, c.2500 BC, Boyne Valley, Co. Meath

Leprechauns were minor folk among the aes sídhe—quasi-divine beings from a parallel world, who sometimes came into the mortal realm from across the oceans or from an underworld deep beneath the ancient burial mounds dotting Ireland.  The aes sídhe were colloquially known as the “fair folk” not because they were always just or always beautiful, but as flattery to prevent their terrible anger. Many of the stories of the fair folk’s interactions with humankind are haunting stories of madness and tragedy: maidens seduced away from earthly pursuits who fast to death; heroes dragged into bogs and drowned; lonely people who think they see a dead loved one and walk into the ocean desperate for one last embrace…that sort of thing.

Leprechauns, the lower class of the Celtic fairy world, were not so subtle and refined in their attempts to cozen humankind.  Even in the popular imagination the little people are associated with thirst for liquor, greed for gold, and naked lechery. I wondered if I could find a gallery of leprechauns as accursed evil tricksters and it was not hard.  However, to my surprise, most of these dark leprechauns were not painted on canvas–instead they were carved into human flesh with the sickly greens and blacks of nightmares.  Do you doubt me gentle reader?  Then behold, as a run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day, here is an alarming gallery of evil leprechaun tattoos!

Art by Brian Gallagher

Of course a lot of these tattoos are meant for the basic reason most tattoos exist–to make the wearer seem like a badass–and a lot of them do just that.  It also seems like some of them are the sort applied with a pen and markers which wash off after all the green beer has been quaffed. A few of them however, struck me as surprisingly true to the old stories.  These green sprites have not come from the spirit world to haunt us: instead they emerge from our own desires.  Written on our heart, they peek out from inside our skins, beguiling us with thirst that can never be quenched and greed that can never be sated.

Or maybe I am thinking about it too hard and they are just comical little green men beckoning us to enjoy life while we can.  Perhaps a beer would settle my mind…. Slàinte, readers—may you grasp the world’s pot of gold without it turning to caustic dust.  May you drink the joys of life and not have them drink you.

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