Saturday, July 31, 2010

The President and the Bishop

The careers of two people I've long supported are taking very different courses.

It looks like President Obama is set to be the big loser in the November midterm elections. It won't be because the Republicans are particularly brilliant, quite the contrary. They have nothing to offer but obstruction and a return to 30 years of plutocracy at home and militarism abroad. The much vaunted tea party is nothing more than their own far right wing which has been around for over 50 years, since the days when we called it The John Birch Society.
Obama's going to lose because, once in power, he's come down with Democratic leadership disease. The symptoms are a desperate desire to please implacable conservatives, and dissing the very people who voted him into office and who campaigned for him. Bill Clinton had a very bad case of this disease. The Democratic base, after being dissed and disappointed by their leadership, understandably resists urgent demands that they turn out to vote in midterm elections.
I think it's a safe bet that just about all of 2008's Obama voters will stay home this year. The election will be about turn out. The right smells blood and is going into a feeding frenzy. The disappointed and alienated left will probably stay home on Election Day.
And that's too bad because it means some really toxic crazy people out to repeal the last 150 years of history, as well as common decency, will take over Congress.

It looks like Obama's Waterloo will not be healthcare, but Afghanistan. In 2001, I supported that invasion as the proper response to a government harboring those who attacked us. We succeeded in throwing out that regime, and failed to destroy or apprehend the leadership of Al Qaida (because our leaders suddenly turned their attention to a completely pointless invasion of Iraq). In 2010, I'm wondering just what the point of it is anymore. Right now, it looks like a bad remake of the Vietnam War complete with an impossible campaign of "winning hearts and minds" combined with an aggressive and ruthless military strategy. The Karzai government looks even more corrupt and compromised than the old South Vietnamese regime. It's beginning to look like "we have to destroy the village in order to save it." "Victory" in Vietnam would have required the destruction of that country and its population. It looks like we are facing something similar in Afghanistan. In the end, it might be cheaper and more productive to simply evacuate those who want to leave and resettle them.
My biggest and worst disappointment is in Obama's position on the National Security State. Instead of doing what's necessary to restore the rule of law, he not only refused to undo Bush-Cheney policies, he expanded them. It is inevitable that a future president from either party will use these new dubious powers to silence opposition.

The President looks like he's suffering from the Democratic office holder syndrome of listening too much to paid consultants who tell them to be cautious, and that this is a center-right country that is hostile to even modest social amelioration. In his case, it's compounded by his determination to be "post-partisan." I don't think he's a fool. He argues, and rightly so, that he represents all of the people and not just those who voted for him (in contrast to his predecessor). He also argues that we must all share the same country whether we like each other or not. However, how well is that going to work with an opposition determined to obstruct every single initiative? His opposition would diss him and oppose him even if he was to come out with legislation that says that evil is bad, night is dark, and chocolate is yummy. They are implacable and determined to destroy him and his party. There comes a point where being nice and aiming to please enemies just isn't productive anymore, and it begins to alienate the people who really are friends.
The President has made some solid and historic accomplishments in his first 2 years in office. I'm worried that it will all be sabotaged by his own determination to play nice in the face of an opposition with no scruples about playing dirty. The Shirley Sherrod incident should be a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment for his administration and the Democrats, but I'm not optimistic.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is turning out to be a different story. Katherine Jefferts-Schori, let's remember, had a very weak beginning. Her election came as something of a surprise among a field of very strong candidates. She got off to a very shakey start by strong-arming a very unpopular resolution demanded by Canterbury to abstain from ordaining or consecrating anymore gays and lesbians through the General Convention. She then alienated gays and lesbians and their friends in the church by demanding that they "stand in a crucified place," that the unity of the church would be at their expense.

Things certainly have changed. She's turned out to be much tougher than her predecessors when dealing with schismatic factions in the church. She refuses to be bullied and repeatedly calls their bluff. She retains her public self-possession in the face of bitter personal attacks from an increasingly angry right wing, frustrated at no longer being able to bully the rest of the church into submission. When they threatened to break with the church and leave, she replied that we'll leave the porch light on for them. When they tried to take the silver on the way out, she challenged them in civil court and so far has prevailed.

She shows a similar courage when dealing with hostility from other parts of the Anglican Communion. She firmly and ever so politely stands her ground with those determined to expel the Episcopal Church from the Communion, and with hostile and patronizing English bishops. She repeatedly and publicly demands to know why the Episcopal Church is being singled out for beliefs and practices common in other churches (like the Church of England).
She acted gracefully in the wake of serious insults to herself and to her church, most notably at primates' conferences at Dromantine and Dar es Salaam.
The same bishop who told gay and lesbian Christians to "stand in a crucified place" has become a very public advocate for their rights and dignity in the USA and internationally. She was one of the few bishops, and the only primate, to publicly challenge Uganda's proposed draconian anti-gay laws. She has since very publicly stood up for gays and lesbians, and for other disenfranchised pariah populations in her own church and internationally. She's turned out to be a much more effective political player than originally expected. She inserted herself into the Church of England's debate over women bishops, not by saying anything publicly, but by showing up in England and showing English Anglicans what a woman bishop might be like. Instead of confronting a hostile English hierarchy, she cultivates friendships and relationships with English laity and clergy at the very same moment that the hierarchs are contemplating cutting off the Episcopal Church.
She's turned out to be a great success as a church leader.

Friday, July 30, 2010


The issue was over a bill to fund health coverage for 9/11 rescue workers and victims suffering from chronic illnesses. Hoping to avoid Republicans tacking on poison pill amendments to the bill (including a proposed bill to deny coverage to "illegal aliens" affected by 9/11 [WTF?!]), the Democrats sought a two thirds majority vote. A majority of the House did vote for the bill, including a number of Republicans, but it was not enough for a two thirds majority. Apparently Weiner was reacting to Republican complaints about borrowing money to pay for the program (these are the same Republicans who thought nothing of funding $600 billion in tax cuts for the wealthy with borrowed money, or funding over-seas military adventures with borrowed money).

From our own Padre Mickey over on Facebook:
Poster chrenson at Political Animal posted the best comment of the week:
Don't you people get it? The tax cuts for the wealthy are working! Just look at the facts:
1] Unemployment among the wealthy has never been lower!
2] Homelessness among t...he wealthy is at an all time low!
3] America's wealthy have the best health insurance in the world!
4] Not a single wealthy son or daughter has died in Afghanistan!
5] The wealthy are weathering the economic blip just fine!
I tell you, those tax cuts are working!

Indeed they are!


An encore performance for Fox News:

September 11th is an ongoing local story here. Every single one of the people who worked at Ground Zero in the moments, days, and weeks that followed the attack is sick. At least one has already died from post 9/11 illnesses. The ongoing cost to the city is enormous. People here are furious that this did not pass, including the mayor. The Democrats took a procedural risk to avoid poison pill amendments and lost. The local Republican delegation (which claim to have supported the bill in the teeth of party leadership opposition) failed to to deliver votes or to soften the opposition of their party. I think what you are seeing is frustration and exasperation over the failure of a bill that New York really counted on.

Another Great Thriller Filmed in San Francisco

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fishing Kim Novak Out Of The Bay

Michael and I are going to San Francisco for a few days in August, from the 10th to the 14th, a short trip.

I love the place. It gets my vote for most beautiful city in the USA. The natural setting, the climate, and the architecture all come together there like no other city in the States. I've always had a great time there.

Most normal people, when they think of San Francisco, think of the music of Tony Bennett, Janis Joplin, or the Grateful Dead.

I think of Bernard Hermann.

Vertigo is one of my all time favorite Hitchcock movies. Although San Francisco has changed a lot in the 50 years since that movie, much of the scenery and the landmarks featured in that movie have not. You can even take Vertigo tours of San Francisco, there's still so much left.
For example, just about everything featured in this famous scene is still there to be seen, and relatively little changed:

When Michael and I last visited San Fran about 2 or 3 years ago, we stayed in the hotel where this crucial scene was filmed. We didn't know this until we arrived.

I think this is one of the finest scenes in the movie. The editing, camera motion, pacing, and above all, the use of color and Hermann's music tell the story of a man who thinks he sees a ghost, and then realizes he's been made a chump.

I just love this movie, and I always think of it when I travel to one of my favorite cities.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More Epic Texana

The Hall of State, Dallas.

This building was the centerpiece of the 1936 Texas Centennial exhibition. When it was built, it was the most expensive building in the state, for the then princely sum of $1.2 million. It is built mostly out of local Texas limestone. The architect Donald Barthelme designed this little masterpiece of Art Deco. He taught architecture at Rice University in Houston for decades. It's possible that my Uncle Ray studied with him.

Here's the front of the building.

The main entrance with a bronze statue of the "Tejas Warrior." The blue mosaic is supposed to suggest the state flower, the bluebonnet.

Here is the Great Hall of the building.

One of the murals in the Great Hall.

Yes, it does look very Nuremberg Zeppelin Field. It also looks very Hollywood, even stagier than anything Speer or Troost designed.

This building used to scare and fascinate me when I was a kid. It sits today in a badly neglected historic landmark, Fair Park, site of the Centennial Exhibition, and site of the annual State Fair. Most of Dallas' museums and concert halls were once located here. The art museum, the symphony, and the opera moved out 20 years ago to a new "cultural district" just north of downtown. The neighborhood was once the city's unofficial Jewish quarter (the old Tifereth Israel Synagogue still stands a few blocks away). For the last 50 years, it's been a rough neighborhood of mostly poor people. The local glitterati and culture vultures did not like traveling through there to get to the symphony, so the new culture district was built, and Fair Park was steadily abandoned.

The Hall is still well maintained and thoroughly restored about 20 years ago.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Epic Movie Music About Texas

Those of us of a certain age who grew up in Texas heard this epic movie music in our ears all the time:

Dimitri Tiomkin was a Ukrainian Jew who studied music at the Saint Petersburg Academy with Alexander Glazunov. I doubt he ever heard of the Alamo, but he wrote the score to the big 1960 John Wayne movie that taught all us kids our Texas history. Am I right to hear a little of old Russia in this opening score?

Tiomkin's music for these movies was everywhere in Texas on TV, in ads, even in school documentaries about state history. Kids loved it. It made them feel like their own James Dean or John Wayne in their own epic movie in technicolor.

So here's a tip of the Stetson to Maestro Tiomkin, and thanks for making Texas seem so grand.

My favorite old movie about Texas remains Hud, based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, my favorite writer about Texas and the West:


My friend Conrad out of New Mexico (he grew up in the Texas Panhandle) reminded me about another great movie about Texas, The Last Picture Show:

Both of these movies are a lot less epic and a lot truer to the experience of living there.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Florence: From Craft to Art, Part 4

The apse and high altar of Santa Croce in Florence. The Bardi Chapel is on the lower right.


The great Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence was a scandal. It was the largest and most lavish Franciscan church in Italy. It had close ties to the major Florentine banking families who paid for its construction. Other Franciscans (including some who lived at Santa Croce) pointed out that Francis embraced poverty, not wealthy patronage. Francis believed that he and his followers should have no permanent roof over their heads, let alone one of the major churches of Europe. Arnolfo di Cambio compounded the scandal when he incorporated into his design of the church, ten chapels in the transepts intended to belong to wealthy families. Families could effectively purchase a chapel with a legacy to the monastery for perpetual memorial masses for their ancestors and for themselves. The most powerful banking families in Florence did just that, and continued their patronage of the monastery as leverage over local church and civic affairs.
Among the most powerful of all banking families in Europe were the Bardi. They owned the first chapel to the right of the high altar in Santa Croce.

The Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels in Santa Croce.

Still standing on the altar of that chapel is an Italo-Byzantine painting of Saint Francis (to whom the chapel is dedicated) by an anonymous master from the mid 13th century.

Anonymous Italo-Byzantine master, The Bardi Chapel Altarpiece, mid 13th century.

The altarpiece shows Saint Francis not as he was, but as he is now, in heaven. In true Italo-Byzantine fashion, he is a flat figure composed out of patterns. The chiaroscuro, the light and dark, do little to describe anything like mass and volume. He does not stand on any kind of ground plane. Francis is surrounded entirely by gold leaf that reflects back the dim light of the church interior, throwing Francis’ form into a vivid silhouette. Francis does not need mass and volume anymore. He dwells forever in the realms of light. The events of his life surround Francis in an eternal present tense, bearing witness to his sanctity. The anti-naturalistic forms of this painting, as in all Italo-Byzantine painting, remind us that where Francis is, we cannot follow. The world of the spirit is not our world. The five senses that we use to find our way through this world have no meaning where Francis dwells now.

At the beginning of the 14th century, the Bardi family commissioned the most famous artist in Italy, and in Europe, to fresco the walls of their chapel with scenes from Francis’ life.

Giotto's frescoes of the Life of Saint Francis on the wall of the Bardi Chapel, circa 1315 - 1320

Santa Croce was still under construction when Giotto painted the walls of the Bardi Chapel. I’m sure the noise and dust of the construction of the nave constantly irritated the artist as he worked. Giotto presents Francis’ life one episode at a time. There is no single point in the chapel where we can see the whole cycle laid out for us, as we can in the altarpiece. Indeed, we experience our lives and other’s lives one episode at a time.
In the altarpiece, Francis’ death is one episode among many down on the right, third up from the bottom. Giotto shows Francis’ death in the way that we all experience death no matter what we believe about it.

Giotto, Death of Saint Francis, from the Bardi Chapel, c. 1315 - 1320. The damage is from a wall sarcophagus placed there in the early 18th century. Giotto's frescoes were plastered over in the 17th century, and recovered in the early 19th century.

We all experience death as grief and loss. Giotto shows Francis going up into glory in the top, but the Christian apotheosis is minimized. Giotto dwells on the human experience of Francis’ death, on the saint’s final weakness, and on the grief of his followers. A wealthy merchant who doubted the reality of the stigmata experienced by Francis takes advantage of the saint’s greatest weakness to satisfy his curiosity.

Giotto, Death of Saint Francis, detail.

He jabs his fingers into the wound in Francis’ right side in a gesture that could almost be Giotto’s manifesto. Giotto seeks to overcome our skepticism by appealing to our experience of the world. Giotto applies to form what Franciscan preachers are already doing, appealing to our experience. We experience the world as a place of mass, of things with substance and weight, and as a place of volume, of space occupied by things with mass. We experience the world emotionally. We feel grief, fear, and a host of other emotions around death. Giotto wanted to bring Francis’ biography to life and make it seem to happen right in front of us. Giotto encourages us to reach in and to see and touch for ourselves, as the wealthy merchant did at Francis’ deathbed.

Giotto di Bondone was the first artist to achieve international fame since ancient times. His fame was equal to that of his contemporary, Dante. Dante makes a nod at Giotto’s rising fame in a famous passage about ephemeral renown in the Purgatorio, Canto XI:
In painting Cimabue thought he held the field
but now it's Giotto has the cry,
so that the other's fame is dimmed.

Giotto became wealthy from his work investing his money in the rising textile industry by buying up looms and shops. He became wealthier still from his investments. He was apparently a very capable businessman.
He was also very short, almost dwarfish according to accounts. Restorers recently opened his modest tomb in Florence Cathedral to find the bones of a man who stood barely more than 4 feet tall.

Giotto’s career announces a major change in art toward the direction of modernity in two respects. The first is his very individual and humanistic approach to form and content. The second is a change in patronage. The Renaissance is a bourgeois creation, the work of self-made men and women in business and the professions. Almost all of Giotto’s patrons were bankers. Most of the major initiatives for building construction and for the creation of works of art came from Florence’s plutocracy. Some of those great works built on the initiative of Florence’s business nobility would be for the public, such as Santa Croce, and soon after, the cathedral. Others would be for the bankers and manufacturers themselves and for their families. After about 1300, the Church would no longer be the driving force for patronage and construction.

Those two major changes come together in Giotto’s greatest surviving work, which is not in Florence, but in Padua, near Venice. It is the Arena Chapel.

The Arena Chapel, Padua

The Arena Chapel today is an unremarkable little building that sits in the middle of a beautiful little park on the north side of town not too far from the railroad station. Originally, it was attached to the great palazzo of the Scrovegni family. The palazzo was built on the remains of a Roman arena. The palazzo is gone, but the ruins of the arena are still there within yards of the chapel, thus its name.

Detail from Giotto's Last Judgment in the Arena Chapel, Enrico Scrovegni presents the chapel to God.

Enrico Scrovegni built the chapel to be a semi-private chapel for his own use, and for that of his family. The Scrovegnis were very rich and successful bankers (Dante put Enrico’s father, Reginaldo, in the seventh circle of hell, the circle of usurers, in the Inferno). Enrico built the chapel in expiation for the sinful means by which the family fortune was created, usury. He also had it built to announce to God, Padua, and to all the world how rich he was. No expense was spared. Giotto was the most famous (and expensive) artist in Italy, and Enrico had him fresco the entire chapel. It is likely that he built the chapel with Giotto in mind. It is a building designed for painting with almost no ornament inside and windows kept narrow on the south wall, while omitted entirely on the north wall.

Interior of the Arena Chapel, frescoes by Giotto painted between 1304 and 1313.

Ultramarine blue dominates the interior of the chapel in the ceiling vault and throughout the fresco cycle. Blues in general were very difficult and expensive to make, and ultramarine blue was the most difficult and expensive. Artists made ultramarine blue from ground up lapis lazuli imported from Egypt or Central Asia (“ultramarine” or from “over the sea”). The process for making the color was long and very involved and difficult (today, the exact same color can be mass-produced cheaply from a derivative of coal tar). Ultramarine blue was once worth its weight in gold, and Enrico Scrovegni had Giotto use it lavishly throughout the interior of the chapel.

The walls are frescoed with two cycles of stories, the Life of the Virgin on the top, and the bottom two rows are the Life of Christ. Giotto appears to have been inspired by a major work of art that he would have known since his childhood, the mosaics in the dome of the Florence Baptistery.

Dome mosaics, Florence Baptistery, 13th century.

Giotto's frescoes on a wall of the Arena Chapel.

. Like the Baptistery mosaic, his subject is salvation history. Like the mosaic, episodes are in narrative order, and in a kind of vertical order so that they are linked by a common theme. For example, the Resurrection panel on the bottom of the wall sets up a theme for the episodes above it. Immediately above is the Raising of Lazarus, and above that is an episode from the Life of the Virgin when a host of eligible bachelors watch to see if any of the rods they laid upon the Temple altar will sprout. Joseph’s will blossom. The sequence sets up the theme of New Life out of death, life out of non-life.
We can see all the narratives in the Baptistery mosaic in a glance as we look up into the dome. The whole grand cycle of salvation history spreads out before us in a magnificent cosmic spectacle. It is only later that we look at the individual narratives and episodes. Giotto reverses that order. As in the Bardi chapel in Santa Croce, there is no single point in the Arena chapel where we can see all of the narratives spread out before us. We are compelled to view each episode one at a time. What is more, there is a clear distinction between images and ornament, with images dominating. The biggest difference is where each cycle is located. The cycles of the Florence Baptistery mosaic take place in Heaven in the eternal present tense of the realms of light. Giotto sets salvation history on the earth. Giotto shows this history lived out by men and women in time and space instead of acted out by spiritual beings in eternity.

For the first time since ancient times, Giotto tries to paint three-dimensional experience on a flat surface. He places the Nativity of Christ in the physical world of things with mass and volume, the world we live in.

Giotto, Nativity from the Arena Chapel

Giotto, Nativity.

We can almost feel the heavy weight of sad cuckolded Joseph as he sits weeping in the foreground, refusing to help out with the childbirth. Giotto uses chiaroscuro, the play of light and dark, to describe Joseph as a physical presence. The proximity of other physical presences creates a sense of three-dimensional space. What is not ancient or medieval about this work is our awareness throughout that we are looking at the story through a very individual imagination. For the first time, an artist presents a story in a manner not dictated by tradition and convention, but by his individual imagination. Giotto, like all artists of that era, used religious texts for a guide and inspiration. In this case, the text is probably the once very popular Meditations on the Life of Christ by several anonymous authors under the name of Saint Bonaventure (the “Pseudo-Bonaventure"). These are a collection of holy folk tales, almost Midrashic tales, embellishing the Gospel narrative, probably collected by Franciscan preachers. The narrative in the Meditations is very unsqueamish about the circumstances of Christ’s birth. Joseph plays the role of miserable cuckold in the Meditations and in Giotto’s painting.
What is new is that Giotto uses the text as a point of departure for his own conception of the story. Giotto announces that to us immediately in the organization of his picture. A Byzantine icon or mosaic, or a Gothic stained glass window, would place the most important part of the story, the dramatic center, in the physical center of the picture. In the Nativity, Giotto pushes the dramatic center way over to the left, almost off the edge. In the physical center of his panel is nothing but rocks. The shepherds on the right do something for the first time in art that is the bane of every high school drama teacher. They turn their backs on us while on stage. In doing so, they direct our attention to the angels above announcing the divine birth. Giotto uses the framing edge in a way that is very modern. Figures and animals are cut off by the framing edge. This almost never happens in Byzantine art or in Western medieval art. The framing edge cuts the poor shepherd on the right in half. Giotto transforms the frame into a window or a stage proscenium implying a larger world beyond what we see in the picture.

Giotto was one of the greatest dramatists in art. He was sometimes equaled, but never excelled. He had an amazingly fine sense of emotional calibration. It is always just right, never muted to the point of chilliness, and never melodramatic. It is always convincing and in character. Giotto is the great master of the meaningful gaze.

Giotto, Nativity, detail.

The Virgin Mary lies upon the ground exhausted with the pain of childbirth, gazing into the wide open eyes of her remarkably precocious newborn. The child looks right back into his Mother’s eyes. Another woman, presumably a kind neighbor, also looks at the Child as she helps lay Him in the manger crib. The animals also look at the Child. The ox’s eye looks directly at Him.

In the Adoration of the Magi, Giotto made Halley’s comet play the role of the guiding star.

Giotto, Adoration of the Magi, from the Arena Chapel.

The comet made an appearance around the time Giotto worked on the chapel. The Child and His family look impoverished in their rude little stable, and yet regal in their bearing. The camel on the left reacts with joyous surprise, creating a dramatic foil for the nobility of the Magi and the Holy Family.

Giotto uses the meaningful gaze to great effect across a great distance in the Wedding at Cana, Christ’s first miracle.

Giotto, The Wedding at Cana, from the Arena Chapel

The wine steward takes a sip of what he anticipates will be cold water, and tastes the best wine of the whole evening. Giotto beautifully paints that moment of discovery on the wine steward’s face as he gazes across the room toward Christ.

Giotto, The Wedding at Cana, detail.

Christ returns his gaze, looking right past the servants He is instructing. In a brilliant stroke of imagination, Giotto shows the steward as a fat gourmand who clearly has enjoyed many a fine glass of wine over the course of his life.

Giotto pulls out all the stops for the Passion episodes.

Judas, whose name has become synonymous with treason, throws his cloak around Christ as he kisses him.

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ from the Arena Chapel.

That gesture repeats itself formally throughout the picture. Treason goes eye to eye with Goodness in a drama that is so intense it is almost unbearable to watch. Another figure with his back to us reaches out to grab the hem of the garment of one of the fleeing Apostles, cut off in a brilliant dramatic use of the framing edge. Peter turns around to cut off the ear of the servant of the High Priest. Another figure on the right points in the direction of Christ as if to say, “Aha!” He cringes in disgust at the betrayal. The soldiers and the mob crowd around Judas and Christ making the space between them almost claustrophobic. None of the torches or cudgels stands vertically. Most of them point to the dramatic center of the picture, the encounter between Christ and Judas.

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ, detail.

Cimabue’s great ruined Crucifixion at Assisi inspired Giotto’s version in the Arena chapel.

Giotto, The Crucifixion, from the Arena Chapel

The chorus of weeping angels flies around a figure who is not Cimabue’s giant dying God-Man linking Heaven and Earth, but a thin dying man hanging on the cross. The most striking part of the picture is the episode of the soldiers quarreling over Christ’s discarded garment. That garment has more tragic pathos than the figure of Christ Himself in the painting.

Giotto, The Crucifixion, detail.

The Gospels nowhere mention the subject known as the Pieta. Franciscan preachers made it up. It has no real theological significance. It’s there because of its popular appeal.

Giotto, The Pieta, from the Arena Chapel

The Virgin Mary holds the body of her Son as she once held Him as a child. It is wrenchingly tragic and ironic. Giotto shows Christ as a corpse, as quite dead and completely limp toward the bottom of the picture. His family and friends surround him and hold him. Two more figures turn their backs on us, shutting us out and bringing us in at the same time. Mary Magadalen with torn hair holds His feet like two small doves. John gives way to his grief. The dramatic focus of the painting is in the lower left. The contour of the hillside in the background takes us straight to it. Mary gazes into the lifeless eyes of her dead Son in a tragic inversion of their first encounter in the Nativity scene.

Giotto, The Pieta, detail

One of the women seated with their backs to us must hold up His head for her to see His face. His eyes roll up into their sockets, His mouth opens in death. He is completely lifeless and unresponsive. Her face contorts with pain, the worst pain of all, the pain of seeing one’s children die. Like Mary Magadalen, she too has torn her hair.
Giotto may be using actual experience to inform his telling of this story. It was hard to avoid the spectacle of mothers grieving over the bodies of dead sons in that violent age. In an age where law enforcement was either uncertain or brutal and capricious, where grudges were frequently settled by vendetta, mothers grieving over dead sons were a too common sight.

Giotto applies the techniques of Franciscan preaching to form. Out of that application, a new and important religious idea emerges in art, one that has been exceptional in previous art, sympathy. The Franciscan preachers, for all the vulgarity and sensationalism of their preaching, introduced into the popular imagination Gospel values of sympathy and compassion. Religious communities could be built, not only around common ideas and allegiances, but around fellow feeling. Giotto speaks to us as the best preachers did, not as members of a congregation, but to each of us individually. Giotto wants to bring the events of salvation history to life right in front of us. He presents them to us in terms of our own experience of the world. Giotto reverses the old medieval hierarchy of thought that began with the big grand scheme of salvation and gradually worked its way down to particular details. Giotto starts with the particular details and gradually works our way back up the cosmic hierarchy.

We return to that hierarchy in the two end walls of the chapel.
The top of the apse wall shows the conference in Heaven, God’s decision to intervene in history.

Apse wall of the Arena Chapel

Giotto painted God the Father on a separate wooden panel, a small door out of which would fly a mechanical dove on a wire on certain holy days.
Below that is the God’s first act in the redemption of humankind, the Annunciation. Giotto separates the angel from Mary with the arch over the altar. Clergy of the time considered the Annunciation an appropriate subject for altars, reminding congregants of the Word made flesh in the bread and wine of the Mass.
Below each of those two panels are two more panels appropriate for a devout banker. On the left is the subject of the priests paying Judas the thirty pieces of silver for his betrayal of his Master. On the right, the pregnant Virgin Mary meets the pregnant Elizabeth. At this meeting, Mary recites her most important lines in the Gospels, the Magnificat. Enrico Scrovegni would have said these lines in this chapel every evening:

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the holy;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.

Below those two panels are two remarkable trompe l’oeil chapels, painted extensions of the actual chapel space.

Giotto, Judas Collects the Thirty Pieces of Silver, and a trompe l'oeil chapel from the Arena Chapel

Giotto may have intended them to ease the transition from nave to apse. It is also likely that he is showing off the possibilities of this new painting. These are among the earliest surviving attempts at what will eventually become linear perspective.

On the opposite wall around the entrance is the Last Judgment.

Giotto, The Last Judgment, from the Arena Chapel.

Salvation history ends here. The Magnificat panel faces across to the ordered ranks of the Blessed. The Judas panel faces the chaos of hell. For transcendent subject matter, Giotto looks back to tradition, to the Baptistery mosaics, and possibly to Cavalini’s work in Rome. However, these cosmic events take place against the blue of the sky rather than the gold light of Heaven.

Giotto’s success ended the long Italo-Byzantine tradition. There were few hold-outs against the new style and its popularity. As Saint Francis brought the Gospels down out of the realm of theological abstraction and made them accessible to people, so Giotto brought Christian stories back down to earth and set them among men and women.

Giotto’s great painted cross in Santa Maria Novella proclaims the new regime of human sympathy with its very human Christ hanging with painful physical weight from the cross. It reinvents a traditional Italo-Byzantine form for new uses and to meet new expectations.

Giotto, Painted Cross from Santa Maria Novella in Florence hanging in the church today near it's original position atop the now vanished tramezzo.

Giotto, Painted Cross from Santa Maria Novella, circa 1310

The Problem is Solved

... at least for now.

Someone on the discussion board told me about a particular work-around maneuver to activate the newly purchased picture space. It involved signing out and signing back into all of my Google accounts. I would never have guessed. I'm told that Google has had a lot of complaints about this.

Vermeer, The Music Lesson.

I may be going outta business forever.

I suppose there's no way to contact Blogger or Google directly with a problem. I'm limited to pages of their pre-programmed FAQs and to their discussion board.

After 2 years of posting pictures from my computer on my blogs with no problems, I'm now getting a pop up window that says I can't, that my Picassaweb account is full, and that I need to purchase more space. I did so. I have the receipt. I was told to wait 24 hours. That was Friday. Today is Sunday and nothing has changed.
One of those blogs is for my students, and they depend on those pictures. If I can't use that function anymore, I'm closing out my accounts and shutting down both blogs.

Anyone out there have any ideas?

If there's no progress on this by tomorrow evening, I'm calling the credit card company and stopping payment on that purchase. That should get their attention.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Looks Like I'm Back Outta Business

Google is still not letting me upload pictures. Let's see if I can breach that fortified steel wall against all intrusion known as "Customer Service."

Loud 19th Century French Romantic Organ Music

I'm back in business!

So I'm celebrating!

I spent last evening at the 19th century galleries of the Met Museum helping students with an assignment.
While there, I finally read the label copy of a large painting by Henry LeRolle of an organ rehearsal in the Church of Saint Francis Xavier in Paris that I've always liked. I really should read these things more often. I might learn something.
It turns out that the organist in the painting is the composer Ernest Chausson who was LeRolle's brother-in-law.
It's too bad that I can't find a bigger reproduction than this, because on the left, LeRolle looks out at us. To the right of him is the sculptor Auguste Lenoir. To the left of LeRolle, behind him in the shadow is the young composer Claude Debussy. The women, including the singer, are all LeRolle's sisters. The elderly woman with Chausson is LeRolle's mother.

I've always loved the big clear composition, the way it conveys the idea of the singer's voice filling the vast space of the church.

So to accompany the painting, and to celebrate being back in the picture business, here is some loud spectacular French Romantic organ music in a big Parisian church.

Friday, July 23, 2010

More Blogger Problems

For some reason, I cannot upload pictures.

I do the same procedure that I've done for the last 2 years, and an ERROR message comes up. The same is true for the blog I keep for my students, which will be very awkward if this lasts.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Perils of Painted Crosses

This is a painted cross made for a small Catholic parish in Oklahoma City. Some people considered it so disturbing that they left the parish.

Look closely now.

If you still can't see it, go here.

Thanks to Lapinbizarre for sending this in.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Caravaggio, self portrait from The Death of Saint Matthew

Four hundred years ago on July 18th, 1610, the great Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio after his hometown in Lombardy, died at the age of 38 in the unremarkable town of Porto Ercole while on the run from the law. He spent the last 4 years of his life wandering from Naples to Malta to Sicily trying to escape an indictment for murder (he was guilty; he killed a young man, Ranuccio Tomassoni, in a brawl over a tennis game). He traveled to Porto Ercole on his way back to Rome after he received some assurances that he would be pardoned. Instead, he became ill with a fever and died in the town. All kinds of theories abound about the circumstances of his death, everything from heatstroke to malaria to murder. The temperamental artist made a lot of enemies in his life, including powerful ones like the Knights of Malta. However, the exact cause of his sad and sordid death remains unknown. His body was buried in an unmarked grave in a local cemetery and forgotten.

Economically hard-pressed Italy is going all out to mark the occasion with special exhibitions of Caravaggio’s work, academic and not-so-academic events, and even a ceremonial reburial of some bones which locals in Porto Ercole claim are Caravaggio’s. Hopes are high that this popular artist will help revive Italy’s suffering tourist trade.

I remember visiting the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome 20 years ago and seeing Caravaggio’s great canvases about the life and death of Saint Matthew. I remember thinking, “My! He liked really rough trade.”

The Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, built by Cardinal Cointrel (Contarelli) for his family

Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599 - 1600

Caravaggio set the Calling of Saint Matthew in a dark 17th century Roman basement. Matthew looks less like a corrupt public official than a small time chiseller running an extortion racket. Christ and Peter appear to be interrupting as Matthew and his crooked accountant count out the payroll for the hired muscle, the thugs who shake down shopkeepers and residents. They are wearing the gangster fashions of 17th century Rome, and Caravaggio is fascinated with them. They appear more prominently lit than either Matthew or Christ.

Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, detail.

. The brightest face in the whole painting is the young man with the round cheeks leaning on Matthew’s shoulder (probably Mario Minnitti, Caravaggio’s friend, companion, and sometime lover). The one in front seems startled at the intrusion and ready to either flee or draw his very conspicuous sword. Caravaggio seems much more genuinely drawn to the criminal glamour, and sex appeal, of these two thugs than to the story itself. We’d hardly know that this was a religious painting at all but for its presence in a church. Christ barely appears here.

Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, detail.

He almost vanishes in a pool of dark shadow on the right, eclipsed by Peter, who seems to be vigorously protesting his Master’s recruitment decision.

The other paintings are just as curious.

The altarpiece is the second one Caravaggio painted for this altar. Church authorities obliged Caravaggio to remove the first painting. It now survives only in black and white photos. It was destroyed in World War II.

Caravaggio, Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1602, destroyed.

The large powerful figure of Matthew looks like he is receiving remedial reading instruction from the angel. The angel looks uncomfortably close to the boy pictures Caravaggio painted for Cardinal del Monte years earlier, making his gesture look suggestive. What is more, Matthew’s big dirty foot sticks out right into the face of the celebrant at this altar.

The second painting is not that much of an improvement.

Caravaggio, Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1602 - 1603

The relation between saint and angel is no longer quite so ambivalent, but if Matthew should shift his weight, that stool will fall right off the edge, out of the picture, and splash the Sacrament.

The last painting is, to my mind, the strangest of all. It shows Matthew’s martyrdom.

Caravaggio, The Death of Saint Matthew, 1599 - 1600

According to The Golden Legend, Matthew preached in a church in Ethiopia before the king, condemning the king’s plan to seduce a virgin named Ephigenia. After the sermon, the king sent a swordsman who stabbed Matthew in the back as he prayed at the altar.
One of those thugs from across the chapel in the other painting appears again, strangely unclothed, about to finish off the wounded Matthew. The saint weakly protests, as a very boyish nude angel presents him with the palm of martyrdom. An acolyte runs screaming off to the right as pandemonium erupts in the rest of the picture. Two more of Caravaggio’s glamorous bad boys run off to the left. Caravaggio himself appears center left in the background turning to look at the violence.
Why all the man flesh on display? Scholars usually explain the three semi-naked figures in the foreground as candidates for baptism. Perhaps, but why is the swordsman semi-nude? Caravaggio seems to find him attractive and terrifying all at the same time.

Caravaggio, Death of Saint Matthew, detail

Caravaggio’s inner demons run all through his work, which is why it is so powerful and so fascinating. They are also the reason why he was so very controversial. Caravaggio was praised and blamed for bringing the 17th century Roman street into history painting.

Annibale Carracci painted the largest and most ambitious ceiling cycle since the Sistine Chapel around the idea of Amor Vincit Omnia.

Annibale Carracci, The Palazzo Farnese Ceiling, 1597 - 1601

Annibale Carracci, Jupiter and Juno from the Farnese ceiling; Jupiter appears humiliated before his domineering and jealous wife, his legs almost stepping upon the eagle; The mask on the bottom yawns with boredom at the sight of conventional married love.

He painted a series of paintings within the larger painting of stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, brilliantly recalling the complex structure of Ovid’s poem where characters in stories narrate other stories. These are all tales of the gods brought low and mortals raised high by love. The series is light hearted and full of comic moments. The learned Roman clerics for whom this was painted knew Ovid by heart, and would have immediately seen this cycle as a metaphor for Christian salvation.

Caravaggio gives us a very different version of Amor Vincit Omnia.

Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia, 1601 - 1602

A nude boy with dirty nails and unconvincing stage-prop wings straddles discarded artifacts of human enterprise in a wicked parody of Michelangelo’s Victory. He’s clearly a street kid with a smile that is inviting and threatening at the same time. He looks like he’s been in situations like this before. A feather from the wings very suggestively brushes his thigh.
This same round-cheeked auburn haired model appears in a number of other works by Caravaggio. The boy appears nude again in two identical paintings called “Saint John the Baptist,” but which show him in another seductive pose that parodies Michelangelo, making explicit the homoeroticism in the Michelangelo’s work.

Caravaggio, "Young John the Baptist," one of 2 identical pictures, 1600.

The ram in the painting seems thoroughly captivated by the boy, perhaps a surrogate for a male lover, perhaps for Caravaggio himself.

Caravaggio began as one of these street boys. He arrived in Rome on the run from the law. He fled his hometown after a brawl in which he injured a bailiff. He was very young and penniless. He went to work for the artist Giuseppe Cesare as one of many artists on an assembly line painting hackwork still lives of fruit and flowers.

Caravaggio, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, around 1595 to 1598; a marvelous painting of over-ripe fruit with no setting, no background shadow; an indication of what Caravaggio painted for Cesare and what brought him to the attention of potential patrons.

He entered the household of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, a close friend of Galileo, who seems to have recognized and valued his talent. The young Caravaggio probably played the very role of kept boy that he painted for the Cardinal. Caravaggio includes himself in a group portrait of the Cardinal’s talented pretty boys in a painting titled The Concert.

Caravaggio, The Concert, 1595

The lute player tuning his instrument in the center may be Caravaggio’s friend Mario Minnitti, who seems to have been a favorite of the Cardinal. Caravaggio himself looks out at us from behind Minnitti. An open music score and violin in the foreground suggest that we are invited to join in. The overt theme of the painting is that music is the food of love, but closer inspection may reveal something else. Minnitti appears to be weeping. We assume these are tears of longing, however they may mean something else. This was a hierarchical age of princes and peasants. Those who may, helped themselves, and those who must made the best of things. Poor parents probably saw a powerful cardinal prince lusting after their son as an opportunity to rise. Pretty boys with beautiful voices were frequently sent by their parents to barber surgeons to be made into castrati for the fiercely competitive Roman choirs. It is not hard to see an element of sorrow and protest behind the homoerotic allegory.

In fairness to the Cardinal, he used his connections to promote Caravaggio's work, to secure the painter's first major public commission in the Contarelli Chapel, and to protect the brawling young artist when his escapades landed him in trouble.

Minnitti appears to be the model for most of the boy pictures that Caravaggio painted for the Cardinal.

Caravaggio, The Lute Player, 1595

Caravaggio, Boy With A Basket Of Fruit, around 1594

Minnitti and Caravaggio seem to have remained close friends, even after Minnitti married. He sheltered Caravaggio in Sicily when he was on the run.

Caravaggio’s detractors (and there were many) accused him of dragging the sacred subjects of religion and the high and noble stories of antiquity into the gutter. His enemies accused him of taking the instructive and ennobling forms of the Grand Manner and making them tawdry and suggestive. They accused him of inability to idealize, of being too literally dependent upon his models.
There may be some truth to those accusations. There is a lot of perhaps inappropriate sexuality in his religious work. The angel in his painting of Saint Francis in ecstasy looks quite earthbound and appears to be seducing rather than inspiring the saint.

Caravaggio, The Ecstasy of Saint Francis, around 1595

Some of that sexuality can be disturbingly violent as in his painting in the Uffizi of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son.

Caravaggio, Abraham and Isaac, 1600.

And what are we to make of that marvelous and wholly inappropriate note of eroticism in the altarpiece Caravaggio painted for the chapel of the Palafrenieri, the carriers of the Pope’s sede gestatoria?

Caravaggio, Madonna dei Palafrenieri, 1605 - 1606

A too sensual looking Christ Child and His Mother step on the head of a snake whose body writhes and whiplashes so beautifully and ambiguously.

Caravaggio’s critics described his painting of the Conversion of Saint Paul in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome as looking like an accident in a blacksmith’s shop.

Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul, from the Cerasi Chapel, 1600 - 1601

Saint Paul’s large horse steps gingerly around the fallen and blinded saint. Horse and page seem oblivious to the light blinding Paul. But the painting has the compositional concentration and monumentality of the work of his more classical contemporary, Annibale Caracci (who painted the altarpiece of the Cerasi Chapel). What we like best about it is what his admirers have always loved about his work, the theatricality of the painting. Caravaggio can be credited with creating Baroque art. He is the artist, more than anyone else, who introduced that element we call “theatrical” into 17th century art.
What do we mean by “theatrical” in this painting of the Conversion of Saint Paul? I think we mean something like downtown theater, off off Broadway, the theater of very bare dark sets and dramatic lighting. Caravaggio created a new kind of chiaroscuro of screaming high contrasts of light and dark that give his dirty street people acting out sacred stories a real presence and resonance. Dramatic lighting performs the role in Caravaggio’s art that invocations of classical form play in other artists of the day. The lighting gives a sense of the momentous and profound. The unearthly light blinding Paul is the only light in the whole painting. It picks out all the forms from the darkness. The fallen Paul threatens to tumble out of the picture onto the floor in front of us. Caravaggio shows him in a daring fore-shortened pose, reaching up helplessly to the light blinding him.

A papal lawyer, Laerzio Alberti, commissioned Caravaggio to make an altarpiece of the Death of the Virgin for his family chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in the Trastevere section of Rome.

Caravaggio, The Death of the Virgin, 1601 - 1602

When it was finished, parishioners were horrified. This was probably the very last painting of the subject to show the Virgin as dead. The Assumption would not become doctrine in the Catholic Church until the 1950s, but so candid a depiction of her death deeply disturbed and offended many people. She is not lying in a bed, but laid out on a cot with feet uncovered. Her face is ashen and bloodless with lips parted in death. Her belly swells with the fluids and gasses of decay. Caravaggio’s one concession to the convention of the day is to show her as a young woman instead of an elderly matron. The critics were furious. They accused Caravaggio of using a mistress as the model. They described his dead Virgin as looking like a drowned whore. The parish authorities obliged Caravaggio to remove the painting, and Alberti to replace it with a work by another artist.
Peter Paul Rubens admired this painting enthusiastically, praising it as Caravaggio’s greatest work. He persuaded the Duke of Mantua to buy it. The Duke sold the painting to King Charles I of England, who bought it probably upon the recommendation of Rubens. What Rubens admired in this work was not simply its candor, but its power to stir our sympathy. Caravaggio makes her death seem so impoverished, instead of queenly. By doing so, he summons very unregal feelings of empathy from us, as though she was a neighbor, a friend, or a sister; one of us instead of Our Lady Queen of Heaven.

Caravaggio had his supporters as well as his critics among the clergy. More thoughtful and far-sighted clergy recognized that at last here was an art that could be useful to the cause of the Counter-Reform. It told stories clearly, vividly, simply, and memorably. Caravaggio's supporters pointed out that the legends of the Christian Testament take place among the poor and outcast, among the very people Caravaggio painted. They recognized the theatrical quality of his work and its powerful effect upon our feelings.
Other artists would long be Caravaggio's greatest fans, long after his name was forgotten by the public. Some of his admirers might come as a surprise. Rubens might be a surprise to some (it was to me). Bernini enthusiastically admired his work. Caravaggio spawned generations of imitators known in Italy as Caravaggisti. There were Caravaggesque schools of painting in France, Spain, and in the Netherlands, especially in Seville and Utrecht. Velazquez and Rembrandt would emerge out of these schools of imitators.

Caravaggio painted at a time of religious civil war, of warring schools of doctrine where one's position on all kinds of issues could be a matter of life and death. I find it amazing that so individual and personal an art could flourish at a time when things as simple as choosing what one preferred to look at or hang on one's wall could be seen as a political act announcing one's doctrinal or ideological allegiances (similar to our own time).

Caravaggio’s young John the Baptist is a lanky street kid with dirty nails and hair.

Caravaggio, Young Saint John the Baptist, around 1600.

It is the lighting that gives him his very powerful presence, that makes him seem to be about to turn to us and deliver a piercing soliloquy. It is the power of Caravaggio’s staging that makes him seem so portentious, and makes him so memorable. We can see Caravaggio’s origins as a still life painter in the vivid airless clarity of all the forms in this painting, in the the polished self-effacing brushwork.

Caravaggio was not out to supplant the Maniera Magnifica, the Grand Manner as all the textbooks claim. His relationship to classical form was much more complicated (as was the relation of all artists to that tradition). His street boys remind us of the human clay out of which classical form was shaped. The candor of his lust for them reminds us where creativity really begins, that art is human before it is divine, or as WB Yeats reminds us:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

Ottavio Leoni, Caravaggio