Thursday, June 30, 2011

Happy Canada Day!

Maybe The USA Finally Has Its Own Peter Tatchell, and His Name is Dan Savage

Here is a web only interview with Keith Olberman that is supposedly about the new musical "The Book of Mormon," but covers a lot of other things. I love Savage's dare to Bryan Fischer to "choose to be gay" and to "be gay on him." Assuming that gayness is a switch in the back of the head that can be turned on or off, Dan Savage dares Fischer to turn on that switch and have sex with him. Love it!

I'm sorry fellow religious folks, but I agree with the sentiment, if not always with the letter, of Savage's comments. I think he is being scrupulously fair here, and insightful. I think the word that he uses to describe what gay kids go through in religious upbringings, "spiritual abuse" as opposed to spirituality, is spot on, and he is very careful to draw that distinction between the two. I think he already gets it that we and him are on the same side. I agree that we should stop whispering in his ear, and start shouting at all the candidates for Caiaphas out there (which indeed a lot of us have been doing for a long time). I think we're wasting our time complaining to him that not all Christians endorse this crap. Rather, I think we should think of him, and others like Savage as living in the State of Missouri whose motto is "Show Me."

Bless me Mother Superior for I have sinned.
"How have you sinned my child?"
Back in my retail store days, I was a huge fan of "Savage Love." Us bookstore clerks used to read it aloud in the break room and howl with laughter. Loved it!

My Position on The Covenant

If The Episcopal Church signs on to the Covenant, I'm out.
I did not join in 1982 to be part of another Rome, yet another Christian imperium ruled by a curia of bishops, and especially a Calvinist one.
As a gay man, I refuse to be a part of any organization where I am not a full and equal member, where I must accommodate and submit to those who refuse to recognize my full humanity for reasons that are arbitrary and discredited.
I refuse to be part of any organization, especially a religious one, that declares that membership in The Family of Humankind comes with qualifications.
I refuse to be part of any "Christian" organization whose fundamental guiding principle is "God loves those who deserve it."

I'd feel the same way about anyone else who was also arbitrarily excluded or accepted "with conditions," say women for example.

If Anglicanism becomes a "Rome Lite," then why not just save the subway fare and head down the street to St. Cecilia's? Why not? There wouldn't be any difference, or any that would mean anything to me anymore. Or even better, why not have brunch more often with my husband (soon to be legal here in New York)?

And besides, here in Williamsburg Brooklyn, within a few blocks from me is The Revolution Church for when I really need that Christian fellowship as well as any number of house churches where I would be fully welcome.

Until the unlikely event that the Episcopal Church self destructs so our bishops can continue to have tea with the Queen and Archbishop every ten years, I will continue to think of myself as Episcopalian, perhaps the only church in Christendom that says bluntly, "No, we don't have all the answers. No one does. We're trying to find our way through this life in the dark with the sputtering lamp of imperfect faith just like everyone else (whether they admit it or not). Let's travel together."


Just to be clear, I LOVE the Episcopal Church, and have since I joined it in 1982. Since 2003 with the consecration of Bishop Robinson, and since the consecration of Bishop Glasspool, and all the grief that the church has taken for both of those actions, that love has only intensified. The whole church has not only taken up my cause, but actually come over to where I live and joined me in the exile and suffering that have always been facts of life for me and people like me. My church shares in the scorn I bear. How could I not love it for that? I hope and pray that this experience will inspire me to go and do likewise for others unjustly scorned and dwelling in exile.

The whole point of the Covenant is to punish the Episcopal Church for acting on its collective conscience, for doing what it saw was so clearly right and urgent. I can't imagine this church would willingly acquiesce to so transparently punitive a document which would fundamentally alter its nature, and end its uniquely democratic polity based on the conviction that the Holy Spirit dwells in and speaks through ALL of the Church and not just in its designated officers. After suffering so much grief, and prevailing by simply surviving and continuing to grow and evolve, why should this church sign a document which essentially demands its capitulation?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


From James at Three Legged Stool by way of Grandmere Mimi at Wounded Bird:

Our very beloved brother, Göran, has been on hospice for a week. He has an aggressive form of prostate cancer. According to his niece, the does not have a lot of time before he joins the Communion of Saints. Please keep him in your prayers as he graduates from mortality. And remember his blood family and his adopted family one of whom I am privileged to be.

Growing up in the shadow of a Swedish Lutheran Church, I learned Children of the Heavenly Father at a very young age. It was always sung in times of distress and for funerals. The last verse of the English translation says:

Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord, His children sever.
His the loving purpose solely,
To preserve them, pure and holy.

I remember a great and devoted friend of this blog and of my work, and even though we never met in person, I consider him a dear friend. Please remember Göran Koch-Swahne as he comes to the end of his life.

So Let's Put Gay Rights Up For A Vote ...

... Sure! As long as I get to vote on YOUR rights, including your right to marry, your right to fair employment and housing, your right to be treated fairly in public businesses, and your right to vote!

"Democracy is the worst form of tyranny." -- John Adams.

A Little Discovery

This is an 1861 Republican Party campaign poster announcing Lincoln's election. Look very closely at the inscription on the scroll around the eagle. Remember that this is a Republican poster. Can you imagine any Republican from the last 100 years saying any such thing? Well, other than Teddy Roosevelt.

My! How things have changed!

This is the only image of this I could find online and would dearly love to find a book with this poster to scan so I can make a larger image. I'd love to use that eagle in my sidebar.

Monday, June 27, 2011

So Who Would You Really Rather Spend Time With?

These people?

Or this guy?

Thanks to all of our enemies for advancing our cause so very far just by being their own spiteful churlish selves.

You should see the Like/Dislike bar graph on the second video.


God was so angry with New York yesterday that He gave us perfect parade weather. A little overcast and not too hot.

BIG turnout for the parade. The local press estimates a crowd of more than a million, both marchers and watchers.

And wouldn't ya know it, they put us Piskies at the very end of the parade. Fifth Avenue was still very crowded even that late in the parade, and the crowds were very friendly to us this year. The hater contingents apparently gave up and went home before we got there, because I didn't see any this year. I missed Governor Cuomo's triumphal strut down the parade route, but I saw lots and lots of "Thank You Governor Cuomo!" signs. I didn't get to see the Governor, but I did get to see the Brazilian contingent who never disappoint when it comes to putting on a show.
Very very happy crowds this year. Our normally very staid and stately Episcopal contingent was practically dancing down the street this year joined by a spectacularly magnificent and scantily clad dancer who did everything from splits to handstands to wig-changes. Saw a Sarah Palin look-alike working the crowd. Saw Wonder Woman and Super Woman walking hand in hand. Saw a group of trannies all dressed like the royals at Will and Kate's wedding with one of them wearing a spoof of That One Hat made out of a toilet seat.

Favorite signs at the parade:

--"Jesus had two daddies and look how he turned out."

--from a group of rent-boys demanding the legalization of prostitution, "Andrew Cuomo gets a freebie!"

--"Fuck Normality!"

Packed house at St. Luke's Pride Day evensong. Delighted to meet Patrick Cheng and to get a signed copy of his book! LOVED his sermon.

Tired today, and have to teach. See you kids later.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Happy Gay Day Everybody!

"Up on top of a rainbow, sweeping the clouds away!"

Last Night In Sheridan Square

... in front of the old Stonewall Bar, almost exactly 42 years after the start of the riots there, a huge crowd gathered for a very different reason, to celebrate and not to fight.

Some revelers in the exact same spot on a hot summer night 42 years ago this weekend.

And so far, my favorite comment on last night from a straight guy:

"As I've said before, I get abortion opponents sort of, but the people who devote themselves to fighting gay marriage...get a life, assholes. " --Atrios (aka blogger economist Duncan Black)

I LOVE New York!

It's cloudy and gloomy out, Betty puked her Friskies up all over the kitchen floor, Michael has to go to work early and is grumpy, but this is probably one of the brightest mornings I've ever seen in 20 years living in New York.

The New York State Senate passed a bill legalizing same sex marriage 33 yay to 29 nay. America's most dysfunctional state legislature (New Jersey and Texas are close contenders for that title) with a Republican controlled senate just granted marriage equality to the city with the largest LGBT population (numerically, though not proportionally) in the USA. The gay population in the USA with full access to marriage rights doubled as of last night.

And it's been a long long road.

Even though the Stonewall riots happened in New York City 42 years ago, this was one of the last major cities to grant even basic civil rights protections in employment and housing to its LGBT citizens. A civil rights bill for LGBTs was first introduced into the City Council in 1970, and it wasn't passed until 1986. For 16 years, the bill died in committee or was quickly voted down on the floor. The New York Archdiocese through its surrogates on the City Council and in the police and firefighter's unions made sure basic civil rights protections for gays and lesbians never saw the light of day. Mayor Koch didn't get behind the bill and push for its passage until his last term as mayor. The state government in Albany was an even longer ordeal. It was a struggle just to get LGBTs included in the state's hate crimes legislation.

And now this from a legislature where the Republicans controlled the senate for almost 50 years. Who woulda thunk it? Happily, I was completely wrong about what would happen with this bill. Despite the aggressive push by Governor Cuomo II, despite repeated passage in the state Assembly every session the bill has been introduced, despite being just a few votes shy of a majority in the Senate for so long, I was convinced that the Republicans would scuttle it at the last minute. I think they tried, but this time they failed. The Governor kept all the Dems on board except Ruben Diaz, and 4 of the Republicans decided to switch for a variety of reasons from conscience to narrow wins in largely Democratic districts in upstate cities ( I suspect that some of them did not take kindly to being threatened).

So thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo for really pushing for this legislation and making it a priority. Your father certainly didn't support it when it came up 20 years ago. Thanks for not walking in his footsteps. Thanks to the Assembly, thanks to all but one of the Senate Dems, and thanks especially to the 4 Republicans who crossed the aisle on this issue. Special thanks to Senator Tom Duane who worked on this legislation for many years in the face of so much disappointment and frustration. Thanks to Evan Wolfson, and to all the organizations and activists, folks doing everything from lobbying to just showing up to see that this bill finally passed. Thanks also to our enemies for being so obsessed, so unhinged, and for being so repulsive. Above all, I'm so glad this was done through legislation rather than through a court order.

I think what really made the difference here and in all the successes in the advance of LGBT freedom and dignity is rank and file gays, lesbians, bis, and transgenders. Ours was never a leader-driven movement. If anything, gay politics tends to devour its leaders and be ferociously factional, divided along every kind of line you can think of. And despite all that, we've had some amazing successes and this is the latest one. The dramatic and continuing shift in public opinion is certainly not the work of HRC or Empire Pride, or Lambda Legal or the Log Cabins, and certainly not GOProud (Gaydom's own little Vichy that opposes marriage rights). This tidal shift in opinion was not inevitable like the tide. It is the creation of every gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender who has ever come out of the closet, now, then, and always. Every single person who comes out is a leader with at least 10 more behind. Every person who comes out puts a face on an "issue," and turns an abstract ideological argument into a concrete personal struggle in which everyone around that person becomes involved and has a personal stake. An "issue" turns out to be a son or daughter, a parent, a relative, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, an acquaintance, and then it's no longer abstract. That's why our hetero friends have stayed there with us in the trenches, because they've figured out that our fight is their fight too, and it's personal. All of those individual steps out of closetdom, in all of their infinite variety, add up to a huge shift in the historical tide. And now, it really is making history.

So far in New York, Love Conquers All.

Today New York, tomorrow California, and someday soon (gasp!), Texas!

Sorry folks, I just couldn't make up my mind which version of this song to post, so I posted them all.

**A note about the song. According to Ira Gershwin, this was the last song George ever wrote. They wrote it together in 1937 for Sam Goldwyn's attempt to remake himself as a new Flo Ziegfeld in The Goldwyn Follies which opened after George Gershwin's death. George knew he was dying of brain cancer when he wrote this song. But I think it has a power and poignancy all its own even without that knowledge. He was a masterful songwriter and musician all the way to the end.

Michael and I in a photo from about 5 years ago that I keep in my wallet.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Florence: Disaster and Reaction, Art After the Black Death

Andrea da Firenze, The Resurrection, from the "Spanish Chapel," Santa Maria Novella

Florence in the 14th century saw catastrophes and transformations that challenged the most bedrock assumptions that people lived by for generations. Fires, a solar eclipse, the Flood of 1333, economic collapse and famine, labor struggles, and worst of all, the Black Death of 1348 which killed half of the city’s population in a single summer, shook the faith of many people across class lines. Most serious of all, the rise of early capitalism challenged the old feudal order, and all of the ideas upon which that order rested.
Radical thinkers (even by our standards) flourished in this century. The Fraticelli, the extreme followers of Saint Francis, challenged the hierarchies of both the old feudal order and the new capitalist order. Some of their number, anticipating a lot of radical socialist thought by centuries, called into question the very idea of private property. As we have seen, the Ciompi Revolt of 1378 was probably history’s first uprising of industrial labor, when the city’s textile workers briefly seized power in the republic. The followers of Giacomo di Fiore extended this radical egalitarianism into the realm of the spirit challenging the Church’s distinctions between laity and clergy, and its hierarchical claims to authority. Mystical visionaries, mostly women, from Julian of Norwich to Catherine of Siena, presented highly personal experiences of the spiritual through eloquent and poetic writings that had a tremendous influence on the broad public, and threatened the Church’s claim to be the sole recipient of divine revelation.

The Keepers of the Mysteries, the Powers That Be, saw all of this burgeoning political and spiritual creativity in the wake of these disasters as anarchy. They decided to re-establish orthodoxy and tradition through the force of argument, or failing that, just through force. Art played a large role in the long reaction of the later 14th century.

In 1951, Millard Meiss published a groundbreaking book, Painting in Florence and Siena After the Black Death in which he argued that the dramatic formal changes in painting from those cities in the second half of the Trecento were a direct consequence of the Black Death and its aftermath. Meiss’ book continues to shape the study and the debate over art from the last half of the Trecento. Earlier authors attributed the flattened form and linearity of the art from this time to exhaustion and decline after the first half and the revolution produced by Giotto and his followers. Meiss argued that these formal changes were a deliberate and conservative reaction against the humanism and naturalism of Giotto and his school. Meiss, a man who lived through the dark catastrophes of the early 20th century, saw the trauma and anxiety created by earlier catastrophes in this work. Where others once saw decline, Meiss saw anguished expressionism and a deliberate regress into traditional anti-naturalism echoing the hardening religious conservatism, and even fundamentalism, in the decades that followed the Black Death of 1348.

Art in Florence in the wake of the Black Death and other catastrophes of the 14th century hardly went into decline. Contrary to our expectations, not only did artistic production actually increase after the disaster, but the scale and ambition of works of art became vast. The disaster accelerated construction of Florence’s cathedral while ending construction on the expansion of Siena’s cathedral. The Plague created a boom in painting and sculpture, even after the deaths of major artists like Andrea Pisano and the Lorenzetti brothers.

Some of the largest and most spectacular painting projects in Trecento Florence were produced after the Black Death in the second half of the 14th century. Two of them can be found in the great Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella on the west side of the city center.
Tommaso Strozzi, the founder of the Strozzi family fortune, commissioned two painters, both brothers, Andrea di Cione (called Orcagna) and Nardo di Cione to decorate a tall family chapel in the south transept of the great church.

Interior of Santa Maria Novella, the transepts; The Strozzi Chapel is in the background to the left; the Strozzi family owned another large chapel, the one on the right, that was frescoed by Fillipino Lippi in the late 15th century.

The Strozzi Chapel with frescoes by Nardo di Cione, and an altarpiece by his brother, Andrea di Cione, known as Orcagna. Frescoes and altarpiece completed 1357.

The Strozzi Chapel with Orcagna's altarpiece

Instead of narratives told in a series of compartments that covered the walls of chapels painted by Giotto and his followers, we are overwhelmed by a single immense catastrophic spectacle that covers all three walls from floor to ceiling, a height of almost 50 feet. All three walls of the chapel form a single subject, The Last Judgment. A painted cast of thousands acts out the final doom of humankind across these three high walls. Individuals become mere faces in a huge crowd of people. Some of them high up on the walls of the tall narrow chapel are almost invisible to us. On the center wall is the window with glass designed by both brothers showing the Madonna and Child above, and the patron saint of the chapel, St. Thomas Aquinas. In the single immense fresco painting around the window, Christ divides the elect from the damned. Perhaps inspired by the slightly earlier painting of The Last Judgment in the Camposanto in Pisa, Christ at the very top turns with great fury to cast the wicked into hell. As in that earlier fresco in Pisa, the doomed go into contortions of despair and anguish.

Detail from Nardo di Cione's Last Judgment in the Strozzi Chapel, the damned.

Hell covers the wall to our right (Christ’s left in the painting). Painted in dreary murky earth colors, the vision of hell modeled on the one described by Dante in the Inferno shows sinners assigned to their appropriate eternal torments.

Nardo di Cione, Hell, from the Strozzi Chapel

Detail from Nardo's Hell showing torment described in Dante's Inferno.

Nardo di Cione appears not to have read very far in the Divine Comedy because the Paradise that covers the wall to our left is a traditional image of the saints in orderly rows before the enthroned Christ and Madonna, only now on a colossal scale and in beautiful colors.

Nardo di Cione, Paradise, from the Strozzi Chapel

These paintings don’t tell a story so much as overwhelm us with spectacle. The lives and feelings of the individuals caught up in the events shrink to the merest of incidents in all of the apocalyptic pageantry.

The scariest painting in the chapel is not on the walls, but on the altar.

Orcagna, Christ Giving the Keys to Peter and the Book of Doctrine to Thomas Aquinas, altarpiece from the Strozzi Chapel

Orcagna (Andrea di Cione) painted what should be a straightforward altarpiece subject, Christ enthroned in majesty, attended by saints, gives the Keys to kneeling Saint Peter, and the book of True Doctrine to kneeling Saint Thomas Aquinas. Christ sits in the center of the painting in a by now very archaic mandorla of seraphim.

Orcagna, Christ from the Strozzi Chapel altarpiece.

He stares right out at us with a ferocious threatening stare that practically shoots lightning bolts out of His eyes. This figure is closer in spirit to the Terrible Final Judge from whom there is no appeal who dominates 11th century tympanum sculptures than He is to anything by Giotto, or his followers, or Duccio, or even Cimabue. The figure of John the Baptist to the right echoes that ferocious and threatening stare. There is a visionary anti-naturalism in this painting (and in the surrounding frescoes) which Meiss called a revival of Italo-Byzantine tradition. It’s not quite a revival. This painting is something very original. The naturalism of the earlier generation hasn’t been forgotten or entirely discarded. The saints are as distinctly French Gothic as the frame. Chiaroscuro still shapes three dimensional form in the figures convincingly. Those things that were once the whole rhyme and reason for Giotto’s art are now subordinated to a visionary and transcendent effect. Figures now play symbolic roles rather than act out meaning through drama. Faces on the saints are bland and inexpressive, except for the angry stares of Christ and The Baptist. The old flat gold background of the Italo-Byzantine style is back. Chiaroscuro, while present, is minimized flattening out the pictorial space. The ground plane shows this flattening out of space most dramatically. It is a single uninflected bright red color with gold pattern that in no way is made to look anything like a perspective recession. None of the figures casts a shadow on it. They float before the red floor rather than stand on it.

The so-called “Spanish Chapel” stands a few yards from the Strozzi Chapel, attached to the Chiostro Verde or “Green Cloister” of Santa Maria Novella. Grand Duke Cosimo I purchased it as a burial chapel for the family of his wife, Eleanora of Toledo in the 16th century, thus the name “Spanish Chapel.” This very large and grand room, one of the most spectacular in Florence still to this day, was originally the chapter hall of the very large and very important Dominican monastery of Santa Maria Novella. Here the friars met daily for the reading of a chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict (hence the name “chapter hall”), to discuss business and administrative matters, and to hold inquisitorial tribunals. Saint Catherine of Siena faced just such a tribunal in this room underneath these frescoes in 1374.

The "Spanish Chapel," the former chapter hall of the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella; built by Fra Jacopo Talenti, and frescoed by Andrea da Firenze (Andrea di Bonaiuto) 1365, funds for the frescoes given by the merchant Buonamico di Lapo Guidalotti.

Another view of the "Spanish Chapel" in Santa Maria Novella's Green Cloister

Construction began on this very large vaulted room in 1343 before the outbreak of the Black Death, and was completed in 1355. An artist known as Andrea da Firenze or Andrea di Bonaiuto frescoed the whole room in 1365. This is his only identified, or surviving, work. It is one of the largest and most spectacular fresco cycles surviving from 14th century Florence.

This entire grand complex allegorical cycle revolves around a single theme, which I find extremely unattractive, the idea of salvation by sound doctrine. If we all believe correctly as we are told, and pass the exam, then we can avoid hell and enter heaven. Andrea da Firenze painted this fresco cycle for very learned, well-read, intelligent men who saw themselves as the Church’s enforcers, as its spiritual police, defending the innocent, and the Church, from soul-imperiling heresies. They described themselves in a pun on their name (which Andrea da Firenze painted), the “Domini Canes,” the “Hounds of the Lord.” Part of the greatness of Andrea da Firenze’s frescoes lies in how well he knew his intended audience.

The cycle is allegorical and not narrative. This is not about telling stories, but teaching lessons. Like Nardo di Cione’s frescoes in the nearby Strozzi Chapel, nothing is separated into narrative compartments. Each wall is a single immense composition, a spectacle involving casts of hundreds if not quite thousands. The main wall containing a small chapel with an altar tells the story of Christ’s Passion in a single undivided (and anti-naturalistic) scene beginning with the Road to Calvary on the left, culminating in the Crucifixion at the top, and ending in the Descent Into Limbo on the right. In a small separate scene up in the ribbed vault above is The Resurrection.

Andrea da Firenze, The Passion of Christ, altar wall of the "Spanish Chapel"

Another photo of the same fresco, this time taken by a tourist; this picture is not as clear as the professional photo above, but it is closer to the actual experience of seeing it. The woman before the altar gives some idea of the enormous size of these frescoes.

The ceiling vault of the "Spanish Chapel," on the bottom above the window on the entrance wall is the Ascension; immediately above it, and above the altar wall is The Resurrection; to the right is Pentecost; to the left is a subject known in Italy as the Navicella, Christ Walking On Water.

On the entrance wall is a very badly damaged fresco of the life of St. Peter Martyr, an enforcer who died in the line of duty, killed either by Cathari conspirators or by a man avenging his brother’s death at the hands of the Inquisition depending on which version of the story you read. Above that on the vaulted ceiling is the Ascension.

A surviving portion of the entrance wall fresco, showing St. Peter Martyr preaching

On the left wall as you enter the room is a huge allegorical fresco praising another hero of the order, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

View of the Chapel toward the Triumph of Thomas Aquinas

Andrea da Firenze, The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas

He sits enthroned in glory in a composition as clearly and logically spelled out as one of his arguments. The arch-heretics, Averroes, Arius, and Nestor (or Sabellius) cringe at his feet. Aquinas sits flanked by evangelists and prophets. Below him on the left are The Sacred Sciences, each represented by a personification, and below each is an exemplary saint. The Liberal Arts arrange themselves in similar fashion to the right.

The Seven Liberal Arts from the Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas

Above Aquinas fly the 4 Cardinal Virtues and the 3 Sacred Virtues with Caritas at the top. Above that wall in the vault is a fresco of Pentecost. Are you following all of the thematic connections between these paintings? Rest assured that the friars certainly were.

On the left wall is a large fresco that makes explicit the implicit theme of Salvation Through Sound Doctrine. It is usually known by the apocryphal title of The Church Militant and The Church Triumphant.

Andrea da Firenze, "The Church Militant and Triumphant"

It is the upward path to salvation through correct belief very carefully mapped out for us. On the lowest level is the Church Militant on earth. To the left is orthodox religious teaching about politics, Church and State, Pope and Emperor together engaged in the project of saving souls.

Detail from "The Church Militant and Triumphant,' The Church Militant on earth showing Pope and Emperor enthroned with their ministers in the foreground; The church in the background is based on the design proposed for Florence Cathedral by Arnolfo di Cambio, almost certainly modified by Andrea da Firenze.

Behind Pope and Emperor, their ministers, and the gathered populace, is an early vision of the then incomplete Florence Cathedral representing the Church as institution. To the right, Dominican heroes confront the pagans and heretics.

Detail from "The Church Militant and Triumphant," showing St. Peter Martyr preaching to the heretics on the left, and Thomas Aquinas converting the heathens on the right; below, the black and white "Domini Canes" (Hounds of God) attack the wolves of heresy

. Saint Dominic appears immediately to the right of the church unleashing the literal black and white “Domini Canes,” (Hounds of the Lord) who immediately attack the wolves of heresy all across the bottom of the picture. To his right, Peter Martyr confronts jeering heretics, and Thomas Aquinas, holding the open Gospel book, successfully converts the pagans. Above those heroes of the order, groups of elegant fashionable young people joylessly go through the motions of earthly pleasure, and then find penitence, followed by a welcome to the Church Triumphant in Heaven that looks more like a first day at school.
Above this in the vault panel is Christ Walking on Water with Peter unsuccessfully going out to meet Him, about to disappear beneath the waves because of the weakness of his faith.

The Navicella in the vault above "The Church Militant and Triumphant."

The fisherman on shore watching is a rare touch of story-telling appeal with no obvious allegorical function. This is a subject that the Italians call the Navicella.
The whole splendid cycle is magnificent in an overwhelming way, impersonal, and very intellectual. It is also deliberately anti-naturalistic. While it has its visionary moments, it has none of the emotional expressionism of the work of the Cione brothers (although the emotion in their work is hardly warm and friendly). I’ve visited this room twice, and I find it very admirable, magnificent, and even stirring, but not exactly lovable.

The experience of the Black Death intensified the veneration of miraculous images, a practice that the Church had very mixed feelings about, but the general population apparently didn’t. The Christian saints, and especially the Virgin Mary, found themselves drafted into the ancient pre-Christian role of protector deities. While certainly not doctrinally sound, this practice met genuine human needs. The cult of Our Lady of Orsanmichele in Florence burgeoned in the wake of the Black Death. The cult focused upon a miracle-working image of the Virgin and Child in the city’s grain market, first built in the 13th century on the site of a small 9th century church of Saint Michael (San Michele del ‘Orto, St. Michael of the Garden, thus the contraction in Florentine dialect, Orsanmichele).


Distribution of Grain at Orsanmichele from ca.1335 - 1340; note the Orsanmichele Madonna in a tabernacle presiding over the grain distribution.

That original image was probably nothing more than a crude devotional image nailed up on one of the brick piers holding up the wooden market roof. The painting quickly began to acquire a reputation for working miracles, and soon the veneration of Our Lady of Orsanmichele began to crowd the activities of the grain market. In 1304, fire destroyed both the original market and the miracle working painting, though the veneration continued. What mattered was not the painting, but the Virgin Mary who for some mysterious reason chose the city grain market as a place to heal the sick and comfort the afflicted. In 1337, Florence built a new larger grain market on the site, designed by a team of architects including two men who were also working on the city’s cathedral, Francesco Talenti and Andrea Pisano. The new market was built out of fireproof stone and brick with upper floors for the city’s grain stores. The contingencies of medieval agriculture compelled many cities to keep public grain supplies in case of shortages (the specter of bread riots kept many a burgomaster awake at night). The ground floor was originally an open loggia where the buying and selling of grain took place. Two of the piers holding up the rest of the building are hollow and contain a staircase, and a kind of early freight elevator for moving large quantities of grain back and forth between the market below and the granaries above.
In 1347, the artist Bernardo Daddi painted a replacement for the original miracle-working image, which hung on a pier of the new market, very much as the original image did in the old market. In true Renaissance fashion, the very medieval worship of a miracle-working image coexisted with a very modern pragmatic matter of food distribution.
The Black Death in 1348 dramatically expanded the veneration of the Madonna del’ Orsanmichele to the point where her worshippers were beginning to crowd out the activities in the market. In 1349, Orcagna designed and built an enormous lavish new marble tabernacle to house the image. In 1380, her worship had so crowded out the grain market that the city decided to move the market elsewhere and turn the whole ground floor into a church dedicated to her worship, walling in the old loggia.

Interior of the Church of Orsanmichele on the ground floor

Orcagna, tabernacle in Orsanmichele containing Bernardo Daddi's painting of the Orsanmichele Madonna

Another view of Orcagna's tabernacle

Bernardo Daddi's remaking of the miraculous image of the Madonna of Orsanmichele

This is the same Orcagna (Andrea di Cione) who painted that ferocious altarpiece in the Strozzi Chapel. The Orsanmichele tabernacle is his only surviving work of architecture and sculpture. To my eye, it is just as ferocious as the Strozzi altarpiece only without the staring Christ. It is an amazingly lavish structure covered in inlays of glass and semi-precious stones. Beneath all the ornament, it is a very foursquare simple structure. Four solid piers support a vaulted ceiling topped by a melon-shaped octagonal dome that is another foretaste of the as yet unbuilt dome of the Florence cathedral. The dome is partially obscured by tall pediments made from equilateral triangles. As John White points out, it is very much a painter’s building, a series of highly decorated flat planes joined together, making the building look like lace.
On the back of the tabernacle, facing us as we enter a door behind it is a huge relief sculpture of the Assumption of the Virgin. To my mind, he’s a fine sculptor, but his painting is much more powerful.

Orcagna, Assumption of the Virgin, relief sculpture on the back of the Tabernacle in Orsanmichele

It appears to me that the remarkable size and splendor of this art is about the enforcement of a newly threatened orthodoxy; that size and spectacle could somehow compensate where argument and experience fail. Florentine art remained in this very conservative mode for 50 years (for over 70 years in the case of painting). This was a time, like our own, when some people wanted to start the whole world over again in the wake of multiple disasters, but most others beat a frightened retreat back into orthodoxy and the conventional. Historical events that dramatically changed the way that Florentines thought about themselves and their state, and changes in thought and letters in these years would create the demand for an entirely new art that speaks more truly to experience in a greatly changed world.

The Great Master of the Standard Issue Jesus

That would be the 19th century German painter Heinrich Hofmann who painted one of the world's most famous and frequently copied pictures, Christ in Gethsemane, now housed here in New York in Riverside Church.

I know almost nothing about this artist other than he had some kind of connection to the "Nazarenes," a group of German Catholic artists living in Rome in the early 19th century. They called themselves the Lucasbund, the Brotherhood of Saint Luke, taking vows of celibacy and poverty. They wanted to restore a kind of late medieval, early Renaissance "purity" to religious art. They were very similar in many respects to the PreRaphaelites. Like the PreRaphaelites, they liked to work with archaic media like egg-tempera.
Hofmann's work looks nothing like the Nazarenes to my eye. It's much closer to Italian Baroque painting like Guido Reni and Carlo Dolci. If he knew any of the Nazarenes, it would have to be from the later generations of the movement, someone like Peter Von Cornelius. I don't think Hofmann was Catholic, but any artist working on religious subject matter in 19th century Germany would have had some experience with Cornelius.

Hoffman created the soulful, earnest, cleaned up Aryan Jesus that is still the favorite of institutional imagery for both Protestants and Catholics. I had to copy this guy's work when I worked briefly for a stained glass company. Hofmann's Jesus is the nice clean young man made for bourgeois tastes, who says or does nothing to disturb the sensibilities of bankers and shopkeepers.

I will say one thing for Hofmann, he was a far better painter than Warner Sallman, the other master of the Standard Issue Jesus, the one I knew in Methodist Sunday school.

Here are a couple of other examples of Hofmann's work.

I could be wrong, but I believe that the originals for all of the above are currently in Riverside Church.

Hofmann's work, more than any other artist's, represents established tradition for so many people. It's probably his paintings that spring to most people's minds when they hear the word "Jesus." His paintings are what people grew up with. It seems to me that so much traditional religious imagery Once Received By All the Saints began in the 19th century.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Today is the Solstice. I wonder if they were able to see the sunrise at Stonehenge this year. They had a clear day last year.

All Fraternal Nations Rejoice Together!

All are listening to Chairman Meow's earth-shaking proclamation, "Counterlight's Peculiars is 3 years old today! Time for Chinese Revolutionary Opera!"

And here is The Great Helmsman himself, Comrade Meow Say Willy, proclaiming the People's Republic of Counterlight's Peculiars. In honor of this Great Leap Forward out of the capitalist-roader reactionary litterbox (seen behind him), Chairman Meow requests that you stand and sing with him the Internationale at the end of the last clip. He sings it for us every morning at 6AM.

I began this blog with The East Is Red, and I play it every year for the blog birthday.

High Praise Indeed

One of my paintings is getting the supreme left-handed compliment of being featured on a right-wing Christianist website. I'm flattered.

The Queering the Church post for Easter Sunday had a very homoerotic image of "Christ" by an artist called Douglas Blanchard. This painting seemed to depict Our Lord as a muscle-boy (or "gym-bunny"?), surrounded by other muscle-men who look like members of the Village People (are they meant to represent the disciples?). Terry Weldon explained this image by posting something from The Queer Bible Commentary by Thomas Bonhache. This book quotes a "queer theologian", called Robert Goss, who said: “On Easter, God made Jesus queer in his solidarity with us. In other words, Jesus came out of the closet and became the ‘queer Christ”.

"Our Lord as a muscle boy (or gym-bunny)" aren't these guys the ones who are always complaining about the demise of "muscular" Christianity? Besides, Rubens' Jesus could beat up my Christ boy anytime. Although mine could beat the crap out of Rembrandt's Jesus, but then, so could most other Jesuses. Nineteenth Century Victorian Jesuses, now there's a collection of nancy-boys right there.

And there's still more high praise in the comments section of this other right-wing site.

In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, "I welcome their hatred."

Offending the very brittle sensibilities of the right is about as much sport as dynamiting fish. But, it is kinda fun to rattle their self-made cages sometimes.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Larger Issues Than Underwear

While the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples pre-occupy themselves with crotch issues, sniffing out everyone's sheets for gayness and uppity femaleness, far bigger and more consequential matters stir the world right now that may well drive us all to kiss our crotches good bye.

In the crisis gripping Greece, and threatening to spread into Portugal, Spain, Italy, and beyond, I smell a whiff of the late 1920s and early 1930s when broad economic hardship exacerbated by government austerity measures to balance budgets radicalized the politics of Europe and Asia. I remain surprised and puzzled that this aspect of the crisis remains undiscussed in much of the commentariat. There is every reason to believe that a radical government may emerge in Greece that might tell the IMF and the EU to go to hell, and send the Euro into an even bigger crisis.
The politics of the United States are undergoing a similar transformation that may have far graver consequences. As class divisions widen and harden, and as class mobility turns primarily in the downward direction for many people, as unemployment and under-employment show no signs of diminishing, and the governing classes show no sign of interest, our politics too are beginning to radicalize. They are radicalizing most visibly on the right with positions that even 15 years ago seemed extreme now become conventional and are being turned into law and policy. The notion that there will be no similar radicalization in the other direction is foolish. The right may have all the money and corporate support, but it doesn't take a lot of money to throw monkey wrenches into the whole works and bring everything to a halt. In reaction against the long cultural and political hegemony of evangelical Christianity in the USA, we are already seeing a ferocious and even militant secular reaction whose attitude toward the very idea of religious pluralism is every bit as absolutist and scorched earth as their fundamentalist antagonists'. Those divisions are only part of the widening class and cultural divisions that could well break apart the United States, not in two as in 1861, but into 5 or 6 or more separate countries. And when it is gone, it is gone forever.

No one will do anything serious about climate change until Florida is underwater. The money is very much against it, and so are people convinced that their livelihoods would be threatened by any serious effort to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. We are indeed invested deeply into petroleum, and the internal combustion technology it sustains despite our silicon chips. With the burgeoning economies of China and India and other parts of the emerging world, the demand for oil may have met the peak in supply. Oil is a finite resource, and its end is not out of the question.
Coastal cities around the world are already dealing with rising sea levels, including New York with all of its tunnels and underground apparatus. Extremes in seasonal weather and in the strength and ferocity of storms may well become more and more frequent until they become a new normal. Devastating droughts in one region and floods in another are already affecting food supply and prices. Last year's drought and heat wave in Russia have already affected grain markets and supplies around the world. There have already been food riots in various parts of the world. Just because our teevee networks ignore it and don't send some news babe with his/her entourage in to cover it doesn't mean that it's not happening.
It would be foolish to assume that these issues will not have any effect on politics, both internal politics within countries and international politics between countries. Expect competition for dwindling resources, especially drinking water, to become front and center in matters of war and peace.

I'm a cranky middle aged codger who thinks that in the end, Aristotle was right. We are political animals. The older I get, the more I think that the idea that we are economic animals, as declared by both Marx and the Classical Economists of capitalism, is bollocks. The current Arab Spring is impossible to explain in purely economic terms, as was the break-up of Yugoslavia, and as are the various fundamentalist revivals around the world, as are the international women's movements in all their variety from Japan to Saudi Arabia. The Achilles Heel of economic thought is the assumption that people always act rationally in their own self interest. Anyone who has read 2 pages of history or sat through 2 minutes of a psychology course knows that isn't true. And yet, so much economic thought from right to left is predicated on that idea. We are in thrall to an actuarial way of looking at life that may not describe reality truthfully. I remain amazed at the dearth of conversation among the official commentariat about the political consequences of imposing austerity measures and of demanding that populations settle for progressively less and less in terms of security and material well-being. Economics certainly does matter. It is vitally important. But money, production, and trade are a means, not an end.

In light of all of this, the spectacle of priests sniffing underwear is sad and ridiculous.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Margaret Bradley

Michael's grandmother died today.

She was born 91 years ago on a farm outside of Galway in Ireland. She worked in a factory in London during the Blitz literally dodging bombs on her way to and from work with a few near misses. She remembered the War in London as the happiest days of her life. She remembered working all day and then partying all night with anyone and everyone like there was no tomorrow (literally).
After the War, she used her savings of about $24 to buy a ticket to the States on the original Queen Mary. She married, and was widowed after about 12 years of marriage with 3 young children. She raised them herself, a single mom, and a working mom, in the 1950s and 60s. She never married again. She lived the rest of her life in a small house in Elmhurst, Queens.
All her life, she kept a shillelagh behind the door, and kept her Irish brogue to the end.

May she rest in peace.

And she might appreciate this little reminder of her happy youth in a dangerous and exciting time:

The Painting is Finished

The painting is finished. I will title it The Mountain Pass. I took these pictures myself, as you can tell. You will have to wait for Steven Bates to photograph them if you want perfect reproductions.