Monday, August 31, 2009

Reconsidering The Four Freedoms

I'm not at all fond of Norman Rockwell's famous paintings based on Roosevelt's speech. They omit an awful lot, such as dissenting opinions, secularists who do not believe in God, and anyone of color. The biggest omission is urban America which, for all its messy vitality, is every bit as old and authentic as "small town" America.

I think the idea of the Four Freedoms is maybe one we should consider bringing back. Roosevelt's original idea (and even Norman Rockwell's idea) is not the freedom of the isolated self-reliant individualist cleaning his gun out in the wilderness. It is what the Greeks called the freedom of the city, the freedom created by a social compact, a mutual agreement to respect the consciences and liberties of individuals, while at the same time cooperating to protect all the members of the community from the tyrannies of poverty and insecurity.

Something to think about as health insurance reform eventually peters out.

Here are some samples from Roosevelt's speech, the State of the Union address, January 6, 1941:

"We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests."

"The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment -- The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples:

We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it."

"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb."

The Senate of Trusts

Thomas Nast, The Senate of Trusts

I wonder if my late lifelong Republican father would recognize today's GOP.
His old center-right, chamber-of-commerce Republican Party has morphed into a far right national front party of armed militias, apocalyptic fanatics, conspiracy theorists, and people who keep sheets on hangers in their closets.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, the party of Roosevelt, The New Deal, and The Four Freedoms, has morphed into a conservative center-right party, very friendly with the chamber-of-commerce and the financial industry.

Progressive voices are confined to a single caucus in the House, and to the political and social margins (where most of the rest of the recession punished American population lives right now).

Health Insurance Reform, the most important piece of domestic legislation since the Civil Rights Act and the most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act, is now in the hands of legislators who are either batshit crazy paranoids pandering to other crazier paranoids, or legislators who are deeply corrupt openly doing the bidding of the health insurance industry. The White House is no better, making secret deals with the pharmaceutical industry. In this country, corruption and bribery are legal and referred to as "influence" and "campaign contributions".
Republicans and Democrats are but shadow puppets played by the industries. They are engaged in a meaningless slapstick toward the same end, to kill any effort to substantially reform the health insurance system in the United States.

We expect a hopelessly dysfunctional political system to fix a hopelessly dysfunctional health insurance system.

I am expecting little to nothing out of the whole thing. The bill that emerges will be weak and riddled with loopholes. I expect this political toxic waste factory either to completely squash any meaningful health insurance reform, or make something that's worse than nothing; such as requiring everyone to buy into the current system with (maybe) a token tax cut to subsidize the legions who couldn't possibly afford such legally mandated coverage. Health Insurance Reform would be transformed from relief for the general public from a terrible burden to a legally mandated bonanza for the industry. Such a bill would cripple an already overburdened populace and amount to another windfall for our tax-payer funded publicly subsidized corporate oligarchy.

There is only one solution that is staring everyone in the face, and no one (no one who "matters" anyway) wants to look at it.
Make Medicare available to everyone. Make the insurance industry compete with Medicare.

There Will Always Be an England

Check out this athletic event, gravy wrestling.

Who Is This Man?

This conversation over the binary electronic ether would not be possible without this man's work.

Without his work, there would be no computers and no Internet.

This man played a role almost as big as "The Few" and Churchill himself in saving the British bacon in World War II.

His work at Bletchley Park cracked the German codes and allowed the Allies to listen in on the secret communications of the Nazi high command.

And yet, after the War, his identity was kept secret. He was arrested on a "morals" charge for having a sexual relationship with another man. He was imprisoned, and forcibly "treated" with a chemical castration. He committed suicide soon after he was released.

There is now a campaign for a formal apology by the British government for the way it treated Alan Turing, a man who served his country much better than it ever served him.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Letter from Ted Kennedy to the Pope

This letter was read by Cardinal McCarrick at the Senator's burial in Arlington National Cemetery:
I want you to know, your Holiness, that in my nearly 50 years of elective office I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I've worked to welcome the immigrant, to fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. I've opposed the death penalty and fought to end war. Those are the issues that have motivated me and have been the focus of my work as a United States Senator.

I also want you to know that even though I am ill, I am committed to do everything I can to get access to health care for everyone in my country.
This has been the political cause of my life. I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field and will continue to advocate for it as my colleagues in the Senate and I work to develop an overall national policy that guarantees health care for everyone.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Guardian Interviews Bishop Gene Robinson

You can read the whole article here.

There is a lot more biographical detail in this article on Robinson than I've seen in most American press reports. He ain't exactly royalty. He's the son of Kentucky share-croppers. I think they do a very good job on reporting on his social and political views (very liberal/ progressive), and his religious views (actually quite conservative, certainly not the kooky-spooky "innovator" "heretic" he's made out to be by his detractors).

Here is +Robinson's response to ++Williams' "two tier" Communion proposal.

"I can't imagine anything that would be more abhorrent to Jesus than a two-tier church. Either we are children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, or we aren't. There are not preferred children and second-class children. There are just children of God."

" But I Want to Keep What I Have;" Grandmere Mimi Goes to Town Hall Debate.

June Butler, the eponymous "Grandmere Mimi," of Thibodaux, Louisiana, gets my vote for America's bravest grandma.

She went to Senator Mary Landrieu's town hall meeting on the health care bill. She went, not as a reporter, but as an activist in support of healthcare reform. Her first hand reporting of the event is first rate and makes for very instructive reading. Here is her whole post.

Here is her account of an encounter that I think sums up the whole issue:
I asked her if she thought health care was a moral issue, and she told me that she did and that her husband made quite a lot of money and why should her tax money go to pay for the health care of others, including deadbeats? That was the moral of her story. I tried to explain about what insurance was for, that it was about spreading cost and risk, but that got nowhere. She continued to get angrier and angrier and more and more in my face, until she was screaming and waving her sign so close that I thought she would hit me.

I'm very saddened by this, but I'm not surprised. I've had similar conversations with my own family for many years. That's why we don't speak much anymore, and when we do, it rarely ventures into anything more controversial than the weather.

The saddest thing about it all is the poverty of spirit such an outlook reveals. Morality boils down to "I've got mine and the hell with everyone else." It is a fearful and hopeless view of life. It is also deeply misanthropic; "Humanity is a pack of thieves, I stole what I have, I cling to it tightly, and I'm not going to let anyone else steal it away from me." Like all hopeless misanthropy, it is self-fulfilling. If you sow hate and suspicion, then don't expect any love and trust in return.

Thomas Hobbes must be smiling in his grave.

My friend David Kaplan always said that America at its best is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness for all guaranteed by Equal Justice Under Law. America at its worst, he said, is a plea bargain with history for the white middle class.

Thomas Jefferson always admonished that we are never to despair of our Republic. But, there are days when it is so hard not to.

Thanks June, for your bravery and your reporting.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ueber Adonis

Leni Rieffenstahl was famous as a brilliant film maker and enthusiastic Nazi collaborator. She also had a great eye for man-flesh. Here it is on brilliant display in the opening of the second half of Olympia, her great film about the 1936 Olympics. Enjoy the skinny dipping athletes in the opening sequence.

She seems to have had a thing for American athletes. Her camera dwells lovingly at length on Jesse Owens and Glenn Morris. She claimed to have had an affair with Morris. She said that at one point, he grabbed her and tore off her blouse and kissed her breasts in front of thousands of people in the Olympiastadion.
Like all of Rieffenstahl's stories (especially the whopper about her ignorance of Nazi policies), the story of the affair with Morris should be taken with several large grains of salt.

Christian Charity

In God's Own America, nobody should get any health care because no one deserves it.

As Jeezus said, "You're on your own, Jack!"

As it says in the Bible in Paul's Letter to the Anesthesians, "God helps those who help themselves."

You lazy reprobate pigs, all 300 million of you, don't DESERVE healthcare!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Adonis Farted

There's a furious argument going on at Elizabeth Kaeton's blog over feminism and standards of female beauty.

So how about men? It seems to me that it's only on teevee cartoon shows that fat slobs like Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin could expect to be married to righteous babes like Marge and Lois. Homer and Peter are both fat, disgusting, lazy, selfish, stupid, and confoundedly lucky (just like Americans in the Italian proverb about God always looking after fools and Yanks). They both have a common ancestor in Ralph Kramden, the fat loudmouth Bensonhurst, Brooklyn bus driver mysteriously married to the ever so much smarter and more attractive Alice (what was she thinking?).
I recently saw an ad where a lovely young woman walked by a fat young man eating pizza while sitting on a park bench and she (very improbably) flirted with him. I suspect a certain measure of male entitlement still lives on the small screen.

I've noticed that Queer As Folk, a soap opera about young gay men set in Pittsburgh, has a huge audience of straight women. A friend of mine explained that straight porn is for straight men and not for straight women. Gay porn is all about attractive sexy men, which is why some straight women love it. Straight men don't want attractive men in their porn because that would raise all sorts of complicating issues. I've noticed that straight men never imagine that their girlfriends might have the same fantasies they do. Just as some straight men like watching girl on girl action, there are women out there who'd love to see their boyfriends in a little boy on boy action.
Believe this gay man. I've said no to that request from drunken girlfriends twice.

Well guess what guys, you're sex objects now! Men in advertising are baring even more skin and casting just as many smoldering come-hither glances as women ever did. The scantily clad young man is just as effective a come-on as the scantily clad young woman. Anorexia and bulimia are now problems for men as they have their own impossible commercial ideal to live up to. Just as its hard for 40 year old women to look like childless teenagers, so it's hard for 40 year old men to look like college athletes, especially if they never were very athletic.
I'm all for looking young, athletic, and sexy; but, where's the line between wanting to show the goods and putting them on sale? How much of one's soul and resources can and should be invested in that successful passegiata on the beach? When is it appropriate to finally leave behind the things of youth and get on with the rest of life? It's a hard thing to figure in a culture that pathologically fixates on youth and says that all flesh is not grass but silicone.

When are we working to be attractive and make a splash, and when are we just making commercially viable product out of ourselves?

No guys, the world isn't going gay. You just can't expect the girls to like you "just as you are" anymore. You have to hose yourselves off, lose weight, go to the gym, and throw away the golf pants. If you want a pretty girl, you have to be pretty yourselves. If you're worried about attracting men as well as women, just remember that "a boy always like to feel attractive." If you decide to look like a troll, then you better have Bill Gates' money or Henry Kissinger's power if you want to attract anyone.

I remember years ago listening on the radio to an interview with a female naval officer about the prospect of openly gay soldiers (this must have been back in the early days of the Clinton Administration). What did she think of the loud expressions of anxiety over male soldiers having to share close quarters with "known" homosexuals? "Now you know what we live with all the time," she replied, "Get used to it!"

The Christ-Apollo Lives

Davis sent this picture of a statue of a very young beardless Christ made by the late Walter Erlebacher in Philadelphia in the 1970s. I never knew Walter, but I studied drawing with his widow, Martha Erlebacher, herself an accomplished artist.
I remember seeing pictures of this statue when it was new. I had since forgotten about it, and now, I will have to make a trip to Philly to see the original. From the pictures, it looks very impressive.

Thanks Davis, for reminding me of this wonderful work.

"The Dream Will Never Die" Sign This Petition

Senator Kennedy described health insurance reform, including universal coverage with a public option, as his life's work. He saw access to health care as a human right. He saw providing universal access to health care as a moral obligation of civilized societies.

Don't let real health care reform die with him. Sign this petition to name his own Senate bill after him, a bill that contains a strong public option, and to get it passed in the Congress.

PETITION TO THE SENATE: "Ted Kennedy was a courageous champion for health care reform his entire life. In his honor, name the reform bill that passed Kennedy's health committee 'The Kennedy Bill' -- then pass it, and nothing less, through the Senate."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sword and Sandal Music

Since I've been spending a lot of time in ancient Rome on this blog, I thought some music might be in order. Here is the best gladiator film score never written for a movie, the finale from The Pines of Rome by Resphighi. Herbert Von Karajan conducts in Osaka in 1984:

A very guilty pleasure of mine.

I strolled down the Via Appia Antica only once in my life. Instead of encountering the ghosts of the Roman legions, I encountered the Roman traffic.

Senator Edward Moore Kennedy, 1932 - 2009

Thank You

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art; The Origins of Byzantine Form part 1

Art of the Later Roman Empire

Both of these are major works of art ordered by 2 different emperors who each thought of themselves as "Roman" and rulers of the Roman Empire. At the top is a detail of the sculpted frieze from the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace commissioned by the Emperor Augustus to commemorate a successful political journey to Gaul, and the first year of "peace" (ie, no armed conflict) within the imperial domain. It shows members of the imperial family and court participating in the religious ceremony of the altar's dedication. Below that is a famous mosaic from the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna showing the Emperor Justinian front and center with some of his bishops, ministers, and generals participating in the Christian Eucharist.
To our eyes, these are sharply different images. The Middle Ages considered them to be both "Roman." The "Roman" art that the Medieval world referred to and sought to imitate was usually what we would call early Byzantine. The distinction that mattered to the Middle Ages was between "Pagan" Rome and "Christian" Rome. It wasn't until the Renaissance that the two were seperated out ("La Maniera Greca"). The term "Byzantine" is a modern invention. Emperor Justininian and all of his successors considered themselves to be "Roman" emperors, and called their empire "Rome" (the Ottoman Sultans who took over Constantinople also took over the title "Caesar").

And yet the Emperor Augustus would have hardly recognized the Rome of Justinian. The capital was now in the East in a new city of Constantinople. The language of the court was not Latin, but Greek. The religion was no longer the old state sacrificial religion, but Christianity. Most profound of all was a difference of culture. The old Classical culture that Augustus knew was focused on this world and this life. It was a humanistic culture about the possibilities of human life in this world. The culture of Justinian's time was religious. It was focused on the next life, on the realm of the spirit.

We see that difference in the 2 works of art above. The figures on the Ara Pacis are all vividly alive and carefully individualized. They stand squarely upon the ground. They move and act independently. Drapery realistically falls over bodies that are solid and movable. The work is a sculpture and the forms are emphatically sculptural. They are all independent beings who voluntarily participate together in the ceremony. The image of Justinian and his court is not a sculpture but a picture. Not only is sculptural form rejected, but the role of sculpture itself in this later Rome is greatly diminished. The Emperor dominates the center and faces us, as do his officials behind him. They do not appear to move and act independently, but only as part of a larger ceremony. The form is anti-naturalistic. The chiaroscuro, light and dark intended to create the effect of sculptural form on a flat surface, is minimized, especially in the drapery. We do not have much of a sense of solid bodies at all underneath those increasingly abstracted draperies. The ground plane is reduced to a field of green, and the feet seem to dangle there as an afterthought, whereas in the Ara Pacis relief their role as support is crucial to each figure.

Above is a detail of the Justinian mosaic.
The mosaic technique itself helps to defeat the naturalism of the image. The joins between the pieces or tesserae create a network of lines that flatten the image. The gold background is gold leaf on the back of glass pieces set into the wall at angles to catch the sunlight and sparkle. Whenever anything shiny or sparkly is applied to a picture, it immediately brings the image back to the surface and flattens it.

Where did this anti-optical form language that we associate with the transcendent liturgical art of Byzantium come from? How did that dramatic transformation from classical form to symbolic form that we see between the 2 works above take place?

In large part, it was a creation of later Imperial Rome, long before the Empire became Christian. The seeds of what were to become fully Medieval civilization were already sown long before Constantine legalized Christianity, and certainly long before the Roman Empire in the West officially fell in 476.

The Classical culture of Rome ended in the Crisis of the Third Century that began with the assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus by his own troops in 235, and ended almost 50 years later with the ascension of Diocletian to the the Imperial throne. This was a period of almost unrelenting catastrophe with invasions from the north and from Sassanian Persia in the east. There was almost constant civil war with the Empire breaking apart into 3 separate and warring states at one point. There was devastating economic collapse throughout the Empire that impoverished millions of people. Famine struck areas that were formerly prosperous. A plague of smallpox killed hundreds of thousands of people including the Emperor Claudius Gothicus. When it was over, Rome emerged badly shaken and substantially weakened. The old Classical culture that Rome had inherited from Greece and made its own, and made the center of its imperial mission, was gone.

We can see that old Classical culture disappearing before our eyes in the art of the Third Century.

This is the portrait bust of the Emperor Phillip the Arab, one of a succession of about 25 "Soldier Emperors" who came and went very quickly and very violently during the 3rd Century Crisis. Phillip was indeed from what was then called Arabia. He was the head of the Praetorian Guard under his predecessor, Emperor Gordian III. He murdered the emperor and claimed the throne for himself. He, in turn, was murdered 5 years later by his successor. The artists of the 3rd century showed these brutal ruthless men who took over the political life of the Empire with astonishing candor. Phillip wears a scowl of intimidation, with more than a little hint of the frightened animal underneath. Gone is the civilized clemency, curly classical hair, and philosopher's beard of a philhellene emperor like Marcus Aurelius. Phillip is a man who spent his entire life in the army as can be seen in his short military style hair and short stubble beard. The carving is still Classical naturalism at its best, though the carving is beginning to get a little rough. There is none of the old Antonine dynasty polish, and the hair is more suggested with chisel strokes than actually rendered and fully carved.

Here is Phillip's murderer, the Emperor Trajanus Decius who likewise would be murdered in short order by his successor. The naturalism and remarkable psychological realism are still there, but the carving is getting even rougher with sharper and less natural planes between the lines around the mouth and around the eyes and brows. Again the hair is more suggested than carved. There is already a resort to pattern in the carving of the lines in the forehead.

Thoughtful and conscientious people of the time abandoned politics and public responsibility to the soldiers who had made such a bloody mess of it. They felt overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the disasters coming down on them from all sides. Philosophers turned to mysticism. Mystery religions and various forms of Gnosticism flourished in this time. It is no accident that the affluent Romans responsible for the first Christian art in the catacombs begin converting in large numbers. Citizens turned their backs on the world to look for that transcendent escape hatch out of the madness. The head above is sometimes identified as the philosopher Plotinus, the last great NeoPlatonist of the Ancient World. Whoever he is, he has an ascetic's hollow cheeks. The eyes become larger and play an ever more expressive role in 3rd century sculpture. They look out in this portrait in what to my mind is a 3rd century version of what was called the "thousand yard stare" in World War II, the faraway stare of the traumatized. It is an image of a man looking beyond the here and now for that escape hatch into something better than this.

The Crisis came to an end with the reign of the Emperor Diocletian who radically remade the Empire into something that the generations before the Crisis would have hardly recognized as Roman. He remade it according to older Eastern models with a divine ruler at the top. The first Emperor, Augustus went to great pains to assure Roman public opinion that this new alien Asiatic title of "emperor" was not an innovation, but a restoration of traditional Roman values. Augustus went to great pains to have himself portrayed as a primus inter pares, a first among equals, a responsible Roman citizen assuming the burdens of power. The statue above of Diocletian and his 3 co-rulers (the Tetrarchs), now part of a corner of Saint Mark's in Venice, is hardly recognizable as a Roman statue. The old Classical form centered on the independent living human figure is completely gone. We have full-fledged symbolic form here, long before the Empire has become Christian.
The first thing that's symbolic is the choice of material. Instead of marble or bronze, the sculpture group is carved from porphyry, the "purple" stone, associated with royalty ever afterwards because of its deep maroon to dark violet color, just like the Imperial Purple. The figures are short and stumpy. The embrace between each Augustus and Caesar is more emblematic than credibly naturalistic. The uniforms and weapons count for more than the figures themselves.

These heads certainly are not portraits. It is hard, if not impossible to identify exactly who is who among the Tetrarchs here. They are no longer independent individuals. They have no life and no meaning apart from the roles they play. Likewise, their forms are reduced to emblematic patterns. None of these 4 figures could conceivably stand alone from the group. They already look like Romanesque carvings almost 800 years too early. In their original state, they may have looked even more Eastern and exotic. The crowns and weapons were probably gilded and bejeweled. The eyes and the hair may have been painted.

The Emperor Constantine decided to celebrate his victory over his rival Maxentius, and the return to rule by a single emperor by building the last great triumphal arch in Rome near the Colosseum.

He decorated it by taking crowbars to the monuments of his much earlier predecessors from before the 3rd Century Crisis, stealing the sculpture off of them and putting it up on his own monument. This arch is decorated with sculpture pried off of monuments to Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. He had the heads of some of the emperors recarved into his own likeness. Above are 2 round reliefs from a monument to the Emperor Hadrian. In the round panel on the left showing Hadrian hunting a boar, Constantine had Hadrian recarved to look like himself. Now Constantine rides in the hunt with Antinous, Hadrian's deified boyfriend, looking off to the left behind.
The other sculptures in this picture were carved for this arch in Constantine's reign. They are a major bone of contention among scholars. What to make of them and how to evaluate them? I will take the very incorrect position and say that I see a manifest decline in the quality of these sculptures when compared to the earlier sculptures looted from Hadrian's monument. The carving is much shallower and more tentative than on those earlier sculptures. The figures in the spandrels around the arch look like a very bad pattern book for beginners version of earlier Classical sculpture. The figures in the long relief above that have the same short stumpy features of the Venice Tetrarchs. Is this evidence of decline or transition? I would answer yes. The old humanist convictions that drove and sustained classical form died in the Third Century Crisis. The spandrel figures are attempts to imitate a form language that is already almost forgotten, and that no one really believes in anymore. The sculptors have forgotten how to make Classcal figurative sculpture. They also don't care anymore and are more interested in creating a new form language for the other-worldly culture that is emerging out of the Third Century Crisis. The long carved frieze above the arch has a symmetry and emblematic pattern that looks forward to the religious art to come.

There is another very specific source for Byzantine form that comes not from Rome, but from Roman Egypt.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeologists began finding the cemeteries of Roman Egyptians, at first in the Faiyum and later throughout Egypt. They found scores of mummies with the heads covered not by the traditional mummy mask, but by painted portraits of widely varying quality. Many were of remarkable quality like the one illustrated above still attached to some of the mummy cartonage of a woman named Artemidora. Some of these paintings are amazing and raise the question of what came first. Was the sitter alive when the portrait was painted, or already dead?

These beautiful and haunting portraits were painted in encaustic, pigment mixed with melted beeswax, creating effects very similar to later oil painting. Most, but not all, of the sitters in these portraits are young. The remains of the deceased found with some of these portraits turned out to be close in age to the sitters in the paintings. Mortality among the young was high, even among these privileged folk. These paintings give us a very tantalizing glimpse into the lost world of ancient Classical painting. What we have left of that long tradition is almost nothing. What if all that was left of the last 500 years of Western painting was a few scraps of wallpaper? That's what we have of ancient Classical painting along with the literary accounts of Pliny and Pausanias, and these portraits from Egypt.

Like all Egyptian funerary art, these portraits were seen on the day of the funeral and then buried never to be seen again. These are images that had a sacral function. In these paintings, the ancient Egyptian belief that the soul needs a form and a name to return to meets the Classical need to remember and commemorate the life of the individual. They may have played some role in the funeral rites, as did ancient Egyptian mummy masks, and the death masks used in Roman funerals.

Almost all of these portraits appear to have been cut down to fit the mummy bindings, suggesting that at least some of them were painted while the sitter was still alive. Gold crowns like the one worn by the young man above, and by Artemidora further up, appear to have been added later, perhaps for the funeral. Some of these portraits, like the one above, had a lot of gilding added to them at a later date, again possibly for the funeral. Crowns and gilding had some kind of religious function, and the act of applying them may have been part of the funeral rites. These were images not only intended for the grieving of the bereaved, but for the rituals of aiding the dead in their transition to the next life. These were not intended to be memorials kept in the home. Remember, these portraits were seen once at the funeral, and then buried with the dead never to be seen again.

It is possible that these mummy portraits were the direct ancestors of the Orthodox icon. Above is a magnificent 7th century icon of St. Peter preserved in St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai. It too is painted in encaustic in technique and form that is very similar to those Roman Egyptian portraits. It too is a picture with a ritual function, not to be buried, but adored. As in the Egyptian portraits, the form of the painting is determined by its ritual uses.

Even before the Roman Empire became Christianized, the symbolic form that we associate with the Early Church and with Byzantine liturgical art was already largely formed.

The Real Death Panels

We already have death panels determining who lives and who dies. Read about it here. They are run by the insurance companies, and whether you live or die depends on your ability to pay. This is current reality for millions of people in the USA, a common fact of life for our permanent underclass. Wouldn't you know, it's a UK paper that did the investigative reporting on this.

Hat tip to Digby.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Little After Dinner Music

"My head make reeling..."

It's Good to be a Health Industry CEO

Toujoursdan has a list of the salaries of the CEO's of all the major healthcare industry corporations in the USA. Over the last 5 years, those salaries alone add up to $15 billion; yes that's right, $15 billion with a B.

And remember, that's where your premium money is going.

No wonder the peasants are restless! Post Modern feudalism indeed.

"Sire, the peasants are revolting!"

"You said it, they stink on ice!"

Digby and others suggest that the biggest political conflicts in the near future will be within the 2 parties rather than between them. The establishments of both parties want nothing more than to preserve the status quo. They are both on corporate payrolls and the last thing that either side wants to do is to piss off the people who sign the checks. Both parties are facing increasingly angry bases who can no longer be bought off with anodyne warm fuzzies from expensive public relations firms. She writes in part;
As average folks without a lot of institutional juice, we citizens don't have a whole lot of options. So we do what we can. But there is one thing we should all probably recognize and deal with: the president, the congress and the media of both parties are all in agreement about one thing: they do not like the rabble at both ends of the spectrum making demands. Remember, it's their town.
And I include the president in that for a reason. It's not a matter of him "miscalculating" or failing to understand the nature of the opposition. He, like all establishment politicians, has an interest in maintaining the status quo, and I would imagine that the fear among all establishment politicians is that this phenomenon might actually bring about real change (as opposed to the fluffy, Madison Avenue version they like to sell.) After all, the president has large majorities and a huge amount of power. It's hard to believe that if he wanted to get real health care reform passed that he couldn't do it. It's not 1994 and the Republicans aren't in ascendance and dominating the discourse. It's not outrageous to make the obvious assumption that he's not doing it for the simple reason that he doesn't want to. And it's not ridiculous to think that one of the reasons for that is that it would empower the base of the Democratic Party and inflame the base of the GOP. At this moment that particular problem appears to be the biggest threat to the permanent political establishment of both parties there is.

If Obama is not going to lead and his promise of "change" is nothing more than political valium, then perhaps we should all consider taking matters into our own hands. I'm not calling for armed revolution. I leave that to the right wing crazies. Rather, I think we should begin to think and act independently of party establishments and create our own "facts on the ground."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art; Constantine and the Creation of the Basilican Church

When the Emperor Constantine issued the carefully worded Edict of Milan in 313 legalizing Christianity, 4 months after defeating his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge under the sign of the Christian cross, Christianity changed profoundly. It changed from a disparate underground spiritual movement into a religion. Just 11 years before, Christianity faced its last and worst persecution, an empire wide campaign by the Emperor Diocletian to wipe it out utterly. He saw Christianity as a mortal threat to his effort to hold the Empire together in a religious cult of the Divine Emperor. Thousands died in that campaign. Now, this battered remnant of an underground movement woke up one morning to find itself the Establishment. Constantine not only legalized Christianity, but gave it imperial sponsorship. Public money and government power and policy would be used to propagate and support the new religion.

On the one hand, this must have seemed to be a miraculous salvation to Christians at the time. On the other hand, it created enormous and unanticipated problems for the early Church. The state patronage and support came with a very high price. The fortunes of the Church became bound up with the fortunes of the Roman Imperial state. There was enormous pressure on the Church by the State to speak with one mind and voice in matters of belief. Constantine was determined to make Christianity into an ideological force for holding the Empire together. He needed its universal and exclusive claims for the State. What Constantine got was a mischegoss of quarreling congregations and widely disparate claims and beliefs. There was no central authority that everyone could agree on, and at this time, there was no Bible in any form that we would recognize.
Thousands of people began pouring into a Christian community that was unprepared to accommodate them. The intimate and largely informal rituals of the house church, where probably no more than 30 gathered at a time, were no longer practical for gatherings of hundreds and thousands of people. There was very little in the way of church governance prepared to meet the needs of so many people.

Constantine's first big project was to begin the rationalization of Christian belief into "orthodoxy." He convened the first great Council at Nicea to begin this process. The new Christian religion was to be codified into a series of credal and doctrinal statements that had the consensus of church leaders and the imprimatur of the State. Christian texts were likewise to be organized into a Scriptural canon. The Church as an institution was to be organized into a hierarchy of teachers, presbyters, and pastors.

Architecture was an instrument of state policy in Rome. The Romans used architecture to organize and direct vast masses of people in a huge state that spanned 3 continents. The Roman military was not only a highly efficient fighting force, it was a highly efficient construction force. Most public building was done under the direction of the military. They built the enormous empire-wide road system, water supply and drainage systems, public buildings, monuments, temples, even entire cities were built to order quickly and efficiently. This was true since the days of the Roman Republic, and now this force was at the disposal of the Christian religion. Constantine and his successors used art and architecture to spread the Christian religion, and to identify it ever more closely with the Imperial establishment.

Constantine built a number of great churches in Rome and in Palestine beginning with the Lateran Church, the first ecclesia cathedralis, the first cathedral, for the Bishop of Rome. Most of these great churches were built beyond the Roman city center so as not to offend the conservative sensibilities of the Roman Senate. The even larger Saint Peter's was built on a slope of the Vatican hill outside the city walls over the grave of Peter, the first such great church to be built directly over a saint's tomb instead of next to it. Leveling and stabilizing the slope to accommodate the great church was a major engineering feat. Constantine built the great churches of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem over the traditional locations of the central events in Christ's life.

Nothing of those original churches by Constantine remains. St. Peter's and the Lateran church were completely rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries. The churches in Palestine were destroyed and rebuilt several times over down to the 20th century.

There is only one church from Constantine's reign that survives relatively intact. That is the Church of Santa Costanza, the mausoleum he built for his sainted daughter near the entrance of the now ruined Church of St. Agnes.

The building is a round martyrium church originally containing Costanza's tomb in the center. It was built for a once common ritual in the Mediterranean world, circumambulation, walking around a holy site. Once, every religion did this. Now, only the Muslims do this as far as I know.
The building, like most early Christian architecture, is built around its interior, turning plain brick walls to the rest of the world. The columns are recycled from earlier structures. Pillaging earlier building parts was already commonplace before Constantine became emperor. The practice saved time and money, and added the luster of the glorious classical past to the crisis-ridden and uncertain present.

This is the ambulatory of Santa Costanza built for those circumambulating crowds come to pray at the imperial daughter's tomb. The ceiling mosaics above are original to Constantine's time, and they present a little problem.

The mosaic decoration is very charming and beautiful in places, but it is not very obviously Christian. It looks like the floor decoration of an expensive Roman house moved to the ceiling. Christian imagery is still unformed at this time. The artists who made these mosaics probably were not Christian. And there is still a very syncretic aspect to these pictures. The grape harvest once associated with Bacchus is now in a Christian context and can be associated with any number of vineyard and wine metaphors in Christian Scripture. It is not likely that the artists were aware of those associations.

As mentioned earlier, a consequence of the legalization of Christianity was a huge population of new Christians. The old house church rituals were obsolete, but even those throngs wanted something of their old participatory nature even if the intimacy was no longer available. A new type of building had to be created to meet this need.

The old Roman temple was not available. It was too closely associated with the old religion, and was impractical anyway for public ceremonies. There was a type of secular building that was built for large gatherings of people, the basilica. The basilica is where the Emperor and city and provincial officials held public audience. It's where law courts met and balloting took place for certain public offices.

These are the ruins of what was once the largest and finest of all Roman basilicas, the Basilica Ulpia built by the Emperor Trajan for his forum and designed by the great Syrian architect Apollodorus of Damascus. As you can see, there is very little left of it.

Here is the latest in a series of conjectural reconstructions of this once great building based on what remains and on literary descriptions. The Basilica Ulpia, like most Roman basilicas, was a long hall topped with a flat wooden roof. It was a large interior for large public gatherings. In the days before electric lighting, people had to be able to see. That problem was solved by a row of openings or windows just under the ceiling called the clerestory. These lit the interior with the light of the sun so that His Divine Majesty could read his speech and the lawyers, clerks, and magistrates could read their briefs.

The Constantinian Church took this building type and transformed it for religious purposes. The first thing the Christians did was to give this design a focus, a center point. That focus was the altar where the sacraments took place. Christians redesigned the basilica to focus people's attention and allow them to see and to participate in the Eucharist taking place. The altar dominated the end of a long hall perfectly suited for the processional liturgies of the Latin Church. The new basilican church was very hierarchical; clergy occupied the apse around the altar and a tribune usually separated by a balustrade. The baptized communicants thronged the long hall of the nave to watch and to participate in the Mass. Catechumens and postulants occupied the narthex, and an exterior courtyard that was a feature of some early churches. The church was designed around proximity and approach to the altar.

None of the basilican churches from Constantine's time survive, but there are a number of later ones from about the time of the reigns of the Emperors Theodosius and Honorius that do survive in Rome. One of them is pictured above, Santa Sabina. It's a relatively small church built by Bishop Peter the Illyrian for pilgrims and residents in Rome from the Balkans. It has all the features of the old Roman basilica with the new focus upon the altar in the apse.

The columns in the nave of Santa Sabina are, once again, recycled from earlier buildings. After Christianity was made the state religion in the reign of Theodosius, and church attendance became mandatory, the old temples were closed and began their long careers as quarries of readily available building material. You can see here the clerestory and wooden roof that are holdovers from the pre-Christian secular building type.

There is one church in Rome where we can get some sense of the grandeur and splendor of the old Constantinian basilican churches. The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore is the first major church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was built following the Council of Ephesus clarifying her role in the Incarnation as "God Bearer" and "Mother of God." The church has been modified and augmented a lot in its history, but much of its original magnificence survives. It is the only one to retain its original 5th century mosaic decoration.

It is a huge church that gives us some idea of the lost splendor of the original St. Peter's and the Lateran Church. The altar is built over a shrine that holds a relic that was claimed to be the manger of Christ's birth.

At this time, there were no set rules on the mosaic decoration of these churches. Like the old synagogue at Dura Europos, the purpose of these images was to teach, to aid in the instruction of the faithful through Scriptural readings and sermons. The arch over the apse faced into the congregation, and became referred to as a "triumphal arch" recalling the victory monuments of pre-Christian Rome. Usually the subject matter on these, and around main portals into the church, was apocalyptic, the triumphant Second Coming in glory. In the Latin church, apocalyptic subject matter became associated with doors and arches perhaps influenced by this passage from Revelations, "After this I looked, and there before my eyes was a door opened in heaven; and the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said,'Come up here and I will show you what must happen hereafter.'"

The triumphal arch in Santa Maria Maggiore is an exception. It shows not the Second Coming of Christ, but His First Coming, as would be appropriate for a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin Mary in these mosaics is definitely not the working class teenage mother of the Gospel accounts, but appears garbed and crowned like an empress with angels serving as retainers and servants. The top register in this picture shows the visit of the Magi. Christ sits enthroned like a little emperor on a huge jeweled throne. The Virgin Mary is not the woman in the dark shawl to Christ's left, but the crowned empress on her own throne to Christ's right. Poor Joseph must stand behind one of the visiting Magi to the far left. The angels stand behind Christ like officials at a public audience for the reception of foreign princes. This is a none-too-subtle attempt to conflate Divine and secular authority, to incorporate Church teaching into state ideology.

The squares just above the colonnade contain the original mosaics from the nave of the church, the only ones to survive in a late Roman basilican church. The nave mosaic cycles are the creation of the historical and narrative nature of Latin Christianity. The mosaic panels in the nave that we pass as we walk toward the altar tell stories. Latin Christian thought always placed Christian teachings within the context of history; both larger history and individual history. We experience history as a kind of procession through time. The processional liturgies of the Latin Church were meant to be an image of the Church moving forward through time toward fulfillment in the Second Coming. The nave and its decorations were built around that processional concept of history. Again, there were no definite rules about what stories should be in the nave. According to accounts of cycles in other basilican churches, they were each unique. The cycles in St. Peter's told the story of Moses on one side and of Christ on the other side of the nave. The stories in the nave mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore are all from the Old Testament, again as would be appropriate for the Virgin Mary, the last manifestation of Israel before the New Covenant and the living link with the Old Covenant.

This mosaic panel from Santa Maria Maggiore shows Abraham entertaining the Three Strangers who turn out to be angels. This is the earliest of all surviving depictions of this subject. It is a vivid piece of storytelling in bright colors with lots of figures. Abraham and the Three appear twice in the same scene. We see Sarah laying out refreshments and caught laughing at the idea that she could still bear children at her great age. This is also one of the earliest uses in art of the Christian practice of treating Old Testament stories as prophetic prototypes for the New Covenant. The Three Angels were meant to be seen as a prophetic manifestation of the Trinity. The artist makes this clear in the upper group where the three are joined together in the first mandorla to appear in Christian art.
These brightly colored storytelling pictures resemble very closely the swarming figures on the Column of Trajan that tell the story of Trajan's conquest of Dacia, and the illustrations from the very few surviving books from late Imperial Rome.

The apse mosaic was the largest and most prominent mosaic of all in the church. Right over the altar, it presented a glorious image of the Heavenly Court, a theophany, a splendid and miraculous vision of the Divine. This was appropriate to the altar where Christ was believed to be made present in the Eucharistic mystery.
The original apse mosaic of Santa Maria Maggiore was replaced in the 13th century with Jacopo Torriti's splendid masterpiece of Italo-Byzantine art showing the very un-Byzantine subject of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary in Heaven at the right hand of Christ.

We've already seen the earliest surviving of these apse mosaics from the church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome.

Here is the 6th century apse mosaic of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome. Christ is shown in a dual role as Great Teacher and coming down from the sky in the Second Coming. On the left is St. Paul with the martyred Saint Cosmas. On the far left is Pope Felix IV. On the right is St. Peter with Saint Damian and another martyr saint, Theodorus Tiro. The row of sheep on the frieze below refer to the "flock" of believers in the care of the Church and the saints. The almost symetrical composition, the bright flat colors, look forward to Byzantine art to come soon after this mosaic is completed.

The basilican church invented during the reign of the Emperor Constantine is still the basic format used by a lot of churches down to the present day. Above is a Roman Catholic Mass in a new church still using a basilican format with apse and nave. As can be seen here, it is designed around and for the processional liturgies of the Western Latin tradition.