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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…

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Today, as we continue through “princess week”, Ferrebeekeeper introduces a whole new feature: movie reviews!  For our inaugural cinematic post, we are writing about a mediocre fairy-tale movie made thirteen years ago for little girls. “Ella Enchanted” stars Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes (as the evil prince!), Eric Idol, and a whole bunch of people I have never heard of.

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Featuring jarring joke anachronisms, weird pacing, strange scenery, and some pretty hammy acting, “Ella Enchanted” is not “Citizen Kane”.  Yet the protagonist Ella is played by a young Anne Hathaway who brings her full emotive talents to the role and gives real poignancy to the nightmarish plight of central character.  And, even though this a children’s movie, the central problem is horrifying.

The movie’s magical fairy godmother is a mercurial entity who uses her magic capriciously. When presented with infant Ella, this fay sorceress is revolted by the chaotic nature of babies. She uses her power to endow Ella with a terrible gift: absolute obedience.  Ella must promptly do whatever she is told by anyone. Ella’s loving family shields her throughout childhood by home-schooling her, keeping her away from outsiders, and avoiding idioms & imperatives as much as possible, yet adulthood and the world inevitably intervene.

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In the wider world, obedience is a terrible curse.  Malicious and malevolent forces abuse Ella and make her into a pawn. Any stranger can kill her with a careless word or cause her to do the most terrible things imaginable.  At one point, she gets in a cooking pot while ogres light the fire.

Ella falls in love with the handsome prince (who seems quite taken with her beauty, wit, and seemingly impulsive character, however the realm’s other political players swiftly recognize and exploit her curse. Acting under the direction of the wicked regent, she must kill the handsome prince at midnight… Does she murder her true love, or can she find a way to break the compulsion of obedience laid upon her in her infancy?

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Now I don’t want to ruin Ella Enchanted for you…so I won’t.  You can go watch this thing if you want to find out the ending (if you can’t already guess how it turns out). I am writing about it because I can’t stop thinking about it.  The malevolent fascination of ineluctable obedience gives the movie far deeper resonance than it perhaps merits.  Watching someone trapped under a terrible compulsion do what others desire is enthralling.  There is fear and horror shining in Ella’s eyes as she goes around hurting people and destroying herself at the whim of others.  And yet, dare I say it, it all seems…familiar.

Society is built like “Ella Enchanted” and most people are acting under compulsion to do things they don’t care to do.  A great many of these things are self-evidently stupid and pernicious.  We live in a world where you have to drive or else be run over. If you answer your mail wrong you could go to jail. Social compulsion makes even the most powerful people into puppets.  And if you balk very much at all, you go out on the street to freeze and starve.

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And there is an even darker other half to “Ella Enchanted’ which we could think of as ‘Everyone Else, Entitled.”  In the movie, most people are perfectly happy to take advantage of Ella (just as most of us don’t care how we get out iphones and chicken dinners). People very quickly come to think “Now you work for me.  I own you and control you and tell you how you must feel and must act.”  Such ideas apparently just come naturally.  Exploitation seems to be a built-in price for society—fore REAL society, not just this stupid movie.

Yet, to leave the real world and return to Ella and princesses. The entities who control Ella never control how she feels about things.  A princess has autonomy even if, sometimes under duress, she can only use it in the smallest ways.

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Ella figures out the secret to breaking her enchantment and winds up a princess (oops, did I spoil the movie?).   In fact, she was always the hero (that handsome prince was a bit of a stuffed-shirt, if you ask me).  The real question is whether we can learn this lesson?  Can we find the right touch to make use of use little moments and fleeing opportunities in a life filled with compulsion?  Is there a way to escape, or at least partially master society’s oppressive burden of obedience?  Can we ever really be autonomous and star for a moment as the hero in our own life?  It is a big question, and the answers are not as certain as a princess’ storybook ending.

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LG, the hero of yesterday’s post, is a charismatic genius of a goose: he went from being a wild animal (of a sort which most people consider to be a pest!) to having a whole hobby farm organized around him for his own amusement.  Of course there are geese at the opposite likability end of the spectrum….

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My parents had this one asshole goose (he had a name too, but I have forgotten it).  He was always cropping up in unexpected places hissing at you like a feathery viper and lunging at you.  If you are a domestic goose, it is unwise to alienate your human liaisons.  Sure, we look all innocent when we are handing out corn, but we are really giant axe-wielding tragic apes…insatiable, invasive, and dangerous.  Apparently the other geese realized this and they didn’t want my parents to get any notions about how delicious geese are (by the way, geese are really really delicious…maybe the most delicious thing there is–like eating heaven, if heaven were a rich fatty poultry).  Also, the geese didn’t like this jerk goose either, because he was a jerk to them all day every day.  He messed up really badly at gooseatics and made everyone—human and goose–hate him, so, before the axes came out, the flock banded together and straight-up murdered him. When they were all at the pond, the other geese grabbed the jerk goose, and held his head underwater until he drowned.

"We were just minding our business...He probably just slipped."

“We were just minding our business…He probably just slipped.”

I know about all of this because my parents watched it happen.  When it was obvious that gooseatics had turned sour and gone completely Roman, my father rushed down from the farmhouse to the pond, but he got there too late. The corpse of the hated goose was floating in the water and all of the other geese were looking extremely innocent & abashed as if to say, “Who us?  We certainly didn’t murder anyone!” There was nothing left to do but transform the unpleasant goose into delightful cutlets, quill pens, and throw pillows. I have one right here (a goose quill pen, not a cutlet).  I can use it for ink wash drawings or writing out inflammatory political treatises.

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I mention all of this as a way of explaining why I find geese so fascinating.  They are clever omnivorous, bipedal creatures which live for decades. They are sort of imperfectly monogamous, insatiably hungry, and prone to clans and squabbling (which can turn murderous).  Does anything seem strangely familiar in this description?

...like looking in a mirror

…like looking in a mirror

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