Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When the Election Doesn't Go Your Way, There's Always a Coup

At least one far-right columnist is calling for the military to overthrow President Obama.

Will the day come when patriotic general and flag officers sit down with the president, or with those who control him, and work out the national equivalent of a "family intervention," with some form of limited, shared responsibility?

Imagine a bloodless coup to restore and defend the Constitution through an interim administration that would do the serious business of governing and defending the nation. Skilled, military-trained, nation-builders would replace accountability-challenged, radical-left commissars. Having bonded with his twin teleprompters, the president would be detailed for ceremonial speech-making.

Military intervention is what Obama's exponentially accelerating agenda for "fundamental change" toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America. A coup is not an ideal option, but Obama's radical ideal is not acceptable or reversible.

Unthinkable? Then think up an alternative, non-violent solution to the Obama problem. Just don't shrug and say, "We can always worry about that later."

In the 2008 election, that was the wistful, self-indulgent, indifferent reliance on abnegation of personal responsibility that has sunk the nation into this morass.

I love the implicit assumption that the rest of the country would simply roll over for this. I also like the implicit assumption that the military would even touch such an idea with a 100 foot pole. And if they did, then there is assumption that it would be the Republicans, who burned them in Iraq, would be the beneficiaries of the coup. Maybe they would have better luck enlisting Black Water and other condottieri in a coup d'etat.

It's tough being a big a Big White Daddy when the rest of the Mud People just don't see things your way, and presume to want to decide things for themselves.

Elections can be stupid things. Just ask Karzai.

More Archaeological News

The largest hoard of Anglo Saxon Gold since the Sutton Hoo treasure was discovered in 1939 was found a few weeks ago by a man with a metal detector.

Nero's Dining Room Discovered

Apparently, this was no ordinary dining room. It turned daily with a water powered mechanism. Panels of ivory in the ceiling opened to shower the guests with flowers and perfume.

It was part of his "Golden House," built on land cleared by the fire of 64 AD (the fire where Nero famously fiddled). The Colosseum was built by Emperor Vespasian on the site of a big pleasure pond that was part of the grounds. After Nero's death, the house was filled with rubble, and the Baths of Trajan were built on top of it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Sign of the Times

My! This is a long list.
Is there anyone left who's not on it? Sports nuts? What did they do?
High Fullutent Sophisticated Swine... well, I'm on the list.
Liars... that's pretty much everybody at least some of the time.
He misspelled Bahai.
At least he spelled Buddhist right, that's better than most of 'em.

We are what we hate. Misanthropy is a wonderful thing. Just ask John Calvin and DH Lawrence.

The really sad part is that there are so many people like this guy whose lives are so empty and who feel so threatened. And the really really sad part is all the ambitious strivers, religious and political, eager to use such people and their resentments as steps on the path to power.

What a squalid age we live in!

Hat tip to Toujoursdan at Culture Choc.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Are You Living In A Despotism?

America in 1946 wants to know. They may have been boring, but they weren't dumb in those days.

The very idea! "Sharing" power, respect, and resources!

Is this really all that radical, or have we just moved so far to the right over the last 60 years?

Thanks Everyone!

Thank you all for your prayers and best wishes. They speed my recovery.

I'm recovering from my long lost weekend (lost to the flu). The fever is gone. I can function now. I'm now in the Vitamin C and Mucinex hoping-to-avoid-antibiotics phase as I fight off the inevitable chest infection.

Tomorrow, I will see if I can make any progress on the insurance issue.

The big art history posts are my pleasure. You can thank my inner socialist who believes that all these things are the common possession of all humanity, and should be freely available to all.

I will wrap up the Creation of Christian Art with the Crucifixion sometime soon.


Now Michael has come down with the bug. No surprise. He's not religious, but he could use a prayer or two.

Thanks all!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sorry Folks

Comment moderation is on. Some people are just nasty.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art; The Atlantic West meets the Mediterranean West

Arles was a great port city of Roman France. It was in constant rivalry with Marseilles, but managed to hold its own as a major port between heavily cultivated and densely populated Gaul and the rest of the Roman world.

In 476, the Roman legions went home forever. The last Roman Emperor abdicated and a German, Odoacer, became king of Italy. This left large cities like Arles suddenly vulnerable and exposed. Raids began almost immediately. The city of Arles petitioned the Ostrogothic King Theodoric of Italy for protection, but to no avail. The city went through wave after wave of raids, then full scale invasions, from land and sea; raids by Franks, Vandals, Huns, Lombards, and finally sea raids by Arabs and Vikings. These raids did not finally stop until the 9th century.

Arles was once large and important enough to have an arena to rival any other in the Roman Empire. After years of decimating raids, much of the city became ruined and depopulated. The remaining citizens turned the arena into a fortress. You can see a big square tower added to the arena above. The remaining population of the city moved into the fortified arena and built houses, shops, and 2 churches. The once great sprawling city of Arles shrank to the confines of its former arena.

It is very incorrect in academic circles to use the term "Dark Ages," now considered a vestige of Enlightenment era prejudices. But I think it is hard to describe otherwise a period that saw Western Europe dramatically depopulated. Once densely populated and cultivated areas of France and Germany reverted to wilderness in this period. The almost constant invasions and mass migrations, with all the famine, disruption, and disease that went with them, destroyed almost all the institutions of years of Roman rule, institutions once taken for granted. The rule of law and the judicial system, economic life, urban life, Christianity, and even literacy, disappeared from most of formerly Roman Europe.
Perhaps it is the memory of this catastrophic collapse that is behind the preoccupation with Apocalypse and End Times in Western Christianity.

Viking helmet, 6th to 9th centuries

Who were the people who finished off the vulnerable remnants of the vanished Roman Empire?
They were nomadic warrior societies held together, not so much by law as by mutual loyalties between lord and liege. They were the descendants of hunter-gatherers who wandered across Europe going back to the last Ice Age. They may not have been civilized in the sense of settled with cities (the word "civilization" has "civil," pertaining to cities, in it); but, they had a rich culture. It was primarily an oral culture of great epic tales repeated around camp fires and in chieftain's halls. It did have art, and some very great art. But, it was not in the form of monumental painting, sculpture, or architecture. It was in the form of very small very portable things; pins, brooches, buckles, armor, and weapons.

This is a saddle bag cover from the 8th century, found in England in 1939. It's made from brass, gold, and semiprecious stones. In the center are mirror emblems of a hawk attacking a duck. On the right and the left are identical plaques that show a man between 2 attacking bears. The imagery is from the wilderness, and like so much of their literature, their art is about the hero facing down monsters and other terrors of the wild unknown.

This gold and silver Anglo Saxon buckle from the 6th century at first looks Islamic, with all of its intricate patterns upon patterns. But a closer look reveals that we are not looking at the mathematical paradise of Allah. We are looking at knots of snakes, dragons, and other monsters. This pattern is not about natural order, but natural chaos, and the strength and power necessary to survive and prevail. Like a modern day tattoo, the pattern proclaims the danger and toughness of the wearer. There may well have been some protective magic involved in these patterns, as there still is in some tattoo patterns.

Some of these objects, though small, could be magnificent, like the famous Tara Brooch made of gold, silver, and precious stones.

Here is a detail of the Tara Brooch showing the amazing intricate pattern-work on all parts.

The wearers of these objects prayed to ancestors and to the gods of the forest and the sea for protection from monsters and enemies, for success, and for strength in battle.

These were the people who chased Christianity out of Roman Europe. They would eventually replace the urban civilization of Rome with the rural culture of Feudalism, a system not of law, but of mutual obligation.

Christianity and literacy survived by clinging to the rocks at the edge of the world, literally. They survived in what was then considered the outer limits of the universe, Ireland. The world ended after Ireland, so many believed at the time. For a long time, Ireland was considered too remote and poor to be worth the attention of raiders.
Above is a distant view of Skellig Michael, a rocky island that was home to a monastery for 4 centuries.

Its very remoteness and inaccessibility made this monastery, and others like it, safe from predation and interference. Here are the steps to the monastery on Skellig Michael.

In remote monasteries like this one on Skellig Michael, where the monks lived like seabirds in beehive shaped cells of stone, Christianity and literacy were preserved. It was from places like this that Christianity would return to Western and Central Europe.

Literacy survived in the monasteries for a simple reason, the Christian religion required it. The most basic requirements of Christian worship are the ability to read and to tell time. Keep in mind that for the monks of Ireland, literacy meant being able to read Latin, an alien tongue to them. It also meant being able to reckon time without the aid of clocks or calendars. A monk had to know which day of the week was Sunday, which day of the year was Christmas or Epiphany or a Saint's day, and how to reckon the date of Easter and all the days of Lent and Holy Week related to it.
Irish Christianity was very much monastic Christianity. In a largely nomadic country like ancient Ireland, monasteries were frequently the only permanent settlements, serving as markets, law courts, inns, hospitals as well as places of prayer.

For a long time, monasteries had the monopoly on the production and ownership of books. The scriptorium was a vital part of monastic life where books were made and stored. Keep in mind that the making of a book was no small matter. Pages were made of parchment, sheepskin. Livestock was precious, so acquiring the necessary pages was no small expense. Inks and pigments had to be made. Books, especially Gospel books, were frequently gilded, or "illuminated." A supply of gold had to be on hand. Then there was the design and layout of the book. There was the work of artists and calligraphers. And finally there was the work of bookbinders making covers in every kind of material from wood to gold and ivory. The labor and expense required for an important book could be comparable to that required for an important building. The most important works of art that survive from the Irish monasteries are Gospel books. There were once scores of these books. Now, barely a dozen survive.

This is a "carpet page" from the Book of Durrow, a Gospel book made sometime between 660 and 680. St. Patrick, like all effective missionaries, used the native beliefs of the Irish to guide them to the Gospel. As was the case with the Classical world, the old gods were not so much expelled as baptized into the new religion. A lot of pre-Christian belief survives in the ornament of these Gospel books. Each Gospel in the Book of Durrow opened with a purely ornamental "carpet page" (so called because they looked like oriental carpets to later connoisseurs), and the symbol of each Evangelist. Three of the four carpet pages survive in the Book of Durrow. Certainly this was a display of magnificent craft intended to glorify God, but these patterns also were believed to have magic power. As in Islam, the written word held a place of great awe in a still largely oral culture. It is not hard to imagine that these books, as bearers of the words of the Incarnate God, had a special power for the early Irish.

Here is a man, the sign for Matthew, from the Book of Durrow. It is hard to imagine anything further from the Mediterranean world of both Classical and Christian Rome than this image. A human figure is cobbled together out of a series of abstract patterns and shapes. It looks less like a figure than a kind of magical sign.

Here is another carpet page from the Book of Durrow covered with pre-Christian magical spirals and circles. The shrunken condition of this page reminds us that these books were thought to have magical powers for many centuries. The Book of Durrow was thought to have the power to purify polluted well water. Its shrunken condition is from being dipped repeatedly in water for many centuries.

The greatest and most famous of all the surviving Irish Gospel books is the Book of Kells, probably made at the great monastery at Iona toward the end of the 8th century. It was probably sent to the small monastery of Kells for safe-keeping during the Viking raids that destroyed the monastery at Iona in the 10th century. The Book was never finished.

Here are the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew. All the ornament in the larger letters (the opening letters B from each "Beati..." have been transformed into an ornamental border) are there to glorify and to enhance the magical power of the written words.

The Book of Kells has long been celebrated for its amazing ornamental pages. This is the opening of the Gospel of Matthew. It is just 3 words, "Christi autem generatio..." The bulk of the page is taken up with the opening two letters, Chi (X) and Rho (P) from "Christi." The Chi dances like a giant bejeweled starfish through a sea of ornament. It contrasts with the smaller more architectonic Rho.

Here is a detail of that same page showing the almost maniacally obsessive ornamentation. It was probably this book, or one like it, that inspired the 12th century Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis to write:
"Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that this was the work of an angel and not a man."

Here is the opening page of the Gospel of Mark, another example of an amazing range of ornamental design, securely contained in a larger architectonic format formed by the opening letters.

Here is a detail of the opening page of Mark. The art historian James Snyder notes that the ornamentation is constantly changing from geometric to biomorphic forms, from plants to animals, from animals to humans. He compares this to the transmutations, the magical metamorphoses that form a major part of ancient Irish poetry. He quotes St. Finian's boast:
"A hawk today, a boar yesterday, Wonderful instability!... Though today I am among bird flocks; I know what will become of it: I shall be in another shape."
Surviving in the ornament of this Gospel book is the ancient pre-Christian belief in that chaotic dangerous and vital nature that is the natural environment of heroes and magicians that probably goes back to prehistory.

In the midst of the ancient Celtic splendor of the Book of Kells is this page that shows a very Mediterranean Virgin and Child awkwardly incorporated into the Celtic patterns. The Book of Kells was made at a time when the long isolated and independent Celtic Christianity of Ireland was struggling to be reconciled with Roman Christianity. Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Kent on a mission from Pope Gregory to reform the Church in the British Isles, to conform it more to Roman usages and to the Benedictine rule. He brought in his wake numerous manuscripts and panel paintings from Rome that were intended to be used as models in the scriptoria.

One of the main centers of this effort to reconcile Celtic and Roman Christianity was the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria. Here in a monastery founded by St. Aidan, Irish and Northumbrian monks produced another masterpiece of what is now known as Hiberno-Saxon art, the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospels contain carpet pages now regularized into Cross pages, but still filled end to end with that obsessive pre-Christian interlace of snakes and monsters. As magnificently Celtic as this page is, the text of the Lindisfarne Gospels is much closer to St. Jerome's Vulgate than to the old Latin text still retained by the Celtic Church.

This is another page from the Lindisfarne Gospels showing the Evangelist Matthew in a very Mediterranean format as interpreted by Celtic artists. The seated Evangelist writes while his symbol, the angel, hovers above him. A curtain is drawn so that we can look at him, a very old Classical device to transform a framing edge into a kind of window. The artist is struggling here with a foreign language of form. His handling of perspective is very shakey and uncertain. Hair and folds of cloth always hover on the brink of abstract pattern. There is no chiaroscuro. Writing appears within the picture frame just as it would on the pages of text. There is no effort to distinguish text from image.
The Celtic form sense struggles to become reconciled to the Mediterranean form sense.

On Christmas Day of the year 800, the cultures of northern and Mediterranean Europe became joined in a common effort to revive and rebuild the Roman Empire. A nomadic Frankish king named Charles arrived in Rome to pray at the shrine of St. Peter and was crowned Augustus by Pope Leo III. Whether through manipulation, or voluntarily, Charles became enlisted in the effort to bring back Rome. The Rome he was supposed to revive was Christian Rome, the Rome of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian; not the Classical Rome of Augustus, Trajan, and Hadrian; and certainly not the Republic. Pope Leo would add to the noble succession of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian the name of Charles, now Charles the Great or Charlemagne as he is known to English speakers (Gross Karl as he is known to German speakers).
Charlemagne was an illiterate nomadic chieftain who now found himself at the center of the most important political and cultural project of the age. At first, he had an itinerate court wandering about France and Germany. He then established a permanent court and palace at Aachen. He brought in legions of Irish and Irish trained clerics to run his government. He brought craftsmen and artists from Italy and Byzantine Greece to make that palace glorious.

The centerpiece of his palace city was his palace chapel which still stands and is now part of the Cathedral of Aachen in Germany.

Charlemagne's chapel is the domed octagonal structure in the center. It is still largely intact beneath many centuries worth of later accretions.

Charlemagne hired a Frankish master mason, Odo of Metz, to design and build the structure, and instructed him to look to Byzantine models for inspiration. One church in particular was used as a model for this chapel, the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, a church which Charlemagne knew. He even brought back columns and stonework from that church to be used at Aachen.
The ponderous geometric clarity of Charlemagne's tall octagon stands in contrast to the fluid complexity of San Vitale. San Vitale is built of lighter more flexible brick. The Chapel at Aachen is built from heavier quarried stone. There are passages of architecture that a Byzantine architect would find a little startling, such as the columns on the top level inexplicably supporting the arches in mid vault.

Here is a reconstruction of what Charlemagne's palace at Aachen might have looked like. The large building in the foreground was an Aula Regia or audience hall. The Chapel is the octagonal building on the upper right. The 2 towers attached to it form the first westwerk in German church architecture, a structure attached to the west ends of imperial churches to seat the Emperor. Behind that was an atrium court where the Emperor would appear to the public.

Here is Charlemagne's throne on the second level gallery. Behind this throne was once a window of appearances framed by a great arch. The Emperor would appear there in Byzantine fashion before the public assembled below in a large atrium courtyard. The throne and its place in the Chapel emphasize the sacral character of the Emperor, as Christ's secular vicar upon earth, as Defender of the Faith.

In the scriptoria of Charlemagne, the worlds of the Atlantic and Mediterranean clashed and melted together.

This is the Evangelist's portrait from the Gospel of Mark in the Coronation Gospels. This book was supposedly found by Emperor Otto III on Charlemagne's lap when he opened his tomb in 1000. This Gospel book was used in the coronation ceremonies of all the Holy Roman Emperors.
It is worlds different from the Hiberno-Saxon Gospel books. To my eye, this is almost certainly the work of Byzantine artists, perhaps unemployed by the Iconoclast regime in Constantinople. The page is dyed imperial purple (more like burgundy) in Late Roman fashion. The image is clearly set apart by a frame. Chiaroscuro is used to model light and dark in three dimensions, and very expertly. This is not to my eye the work of an imitator.

Here is the opening page of the Gospel of Mark from the Coronation Gospels. We see a very Classical distinction between text and image.
A little bit of the old Hiberno-Saxon ornament sneaks into ornamental "I" of "Initium."
The scribes and artists of the Palace School stayed very close to very Mediterranean models such as this.

Those away from the Palace felt not quite so strong an obligation to the officially sanctioned model.

Charlemagne's librarian had the good fortune to find himself appointed Bishop of Reims. Bishop Ebbo started one of the most creative and influential scriptoria in Europe there.

Here is the Evangelist Matthew from Bishop Ebbo's Gospel. At first glance, it looks like a labored imitation of the Roman style of the Coronation Gospels. But as we look at it further, it becomes extraordinary. It is as though a tremendous shock of electricity was passed through the old Coronation Gospel model. The smooth transitions of tone in the Coronation Gospel become nervous electric brush strokes in the Ebbo Gospel. The distinction between background and foreground collapses. The landscape forms in the background fall forward with the rush of a waterfall. Even the acanthus border in the frame becomes inflamed with nervous energy.

Hiberno-Saxon ornament as interlaced as anything in the Book of Kells appears on the opening page of Matthew in the Ebbo Gospels. Mediterranean clarity of form and Atlantic magical power have swallowed each other up and merged as full blown expressionism.

The most influential work from Bishop Ebbo's scriptorium in Reims was the Utrecht Psalter.

Here it is. It once belonged to the scriptorium at Canterbury which produced three surviving copies of it, and numerous variations that made their way into copies in craftsmen's pattern books around Europe.

This is the page of Psalm 12. Illustrated Psalters were nothing new. There are older Byzantine Psalters still around. The illustrations in the Byzantine Psalters tend to be more allusive. The illustrations in the Utrecht Psalter are usually very literal minded in comparison.
The Psalm is the complaint of the faithful poor of Israel feeling abandoned by God to the wicked oppressors. The artist shows the Psalmist pleading with Christ in the center while the oppressed cry out on the lower left. Some are shown working a treadmill in the lower center. On the upper right is a refiner's shop, "The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined from ore and purified seven times in the fire."
Those gathered around the circle on the left may be, "Everyone speaks falsely with his neighbor; with a smooth tongue they speak from a double heart."

"'Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up,' says the Lord, 'and give them what they long for."
The artist illustrates this in the most extraordinary way. He shows Christ, lead by St, Michael, stepping out of His mandorla of glory to come to the aid of the faithful.
These lively drawings are all gesture. The figures are hardly substantial at all. They are what they are doing in the most literal way. They are rendered in a kind of shorthand. The drawings crackle like an electric arc across the page of very clear and stable text. Their energy, inventiveness, and their ability to act out a story would have a great influence on so much art to come. The dramatic inventive gestural art of the Romanesque is foretold here.

The influence of Charlemagne's artists had to wait for many decades after his death. His empire fell apart in the hands of his squabbling heirs. It was dismembered by invading Magyars and Vikings.

Otto the Great defeated the Magyars and began the long history of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto and his 2 successors, both also named Otto, mostly remained in Rome, but actively encouraged the resumption of work on Charlemagne's cultural project to build a new Rome.
The tutor of Otto III, Bishop Bernward supervised the most ambitious project, the construction and decoration of the Imperial church of St. Michael at Hildesheim. Bernward was not only a serious scholar, but was an enthusiastic craftsman himself, and is recorded as working along side his artisans in their shops. He may have played more than a supervisory role in the creation of the most ambitious sculptural project of the early Middle Ages, the bronze doors for the new church at Hildesheim.

Each 16 foot high door was cast in a single piece of bronze, an amazing feat. They are modeled on the bronze doors of Roman temples, some of which may still have been in Rome to be seen in Bernward's time. The left door reads from top to bottom and shows the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. The right door reads from bottom to top and shows the life and death of Christ. There was almost certainly some deliberate parallelism intended between the panels on the 2 doors. The Fall of Adam and Eve is next to the Crucifixion. Adam Blaming Eve is next to Judas Betraying Christ.
For the first time we see fully realized what will be a central preoccupation of Western Christian art, salvation history. The art of the Christian East is contemplative. The art of the Christian West is narrative and didactic. It is about telling stories and teaching. The primary subject of all that story telling is not the Heavenly Hierarchy or the nature of Christ, but salvation. The stories are always about the saving power of Christ, either directly or indirectly.

The panels of the Hildesheim Doors take the gestural energetic forms of the Utrecht Psalter and invest them with drama and tragedy. The figures are in very high relief, almost fully in the round against the uneven back plane of each panel. God hammers away with an accusing finger while Adam and Even cower meekly, aware of their nakedness for the first time. Adam weakly tries to pass off the blame onto his wife, who in turn, points a finger of blame at the Serpent.

In this panel, God's accusing hand appears alone after Cain murders Abel. The sudden violence of the murder is vividly portrayed. Cain, still holding the murder weapon, cringes as God demands to know the whereabouts of his brother Abel. God's hand is in the gesture of blessing, because it is from this murderer that all humankind will descend.

Here is Bishop Bernward's great church at Hildesheim, much rebuilt after the Second World War. To the right is the large and prominent westwerk to accommodate the Emperor whenever he should visit the church. The nave terminates in the east with a T shaped transept modeled, like all churches since Charlemagne, on Constantine's great church of St. Peter's in Rome. The westwerk and the apse are highlighted with tall bell towers.

Here is the interior looking west. The blank walls below the clerestory once held murals that are now long lost.

Ottonian mural work does survive in a smaller imperial church, St. George at Reichenau-Oberzell.

Here is the interior looking west. So far as I know, these are the only large scale frescoes to survive from the 10th century Empire. Their subject is, once again, salvation.

They recall models in Roman churches, but they have some of the dramatic narrative inventiveness that we saw in the Utrecht Psalter and Bishop Bernward's Doors, if not their gestural energy.
This is Christ and the woman taken in adultery, a particularly dramatic interpretation. She is brought naked before Christ, who pardons her with a gesture of blessing.

This is a very rare subject in art, Christ and the Gerasene Demoniac. The legions of demons in a possessed man are driven into a herd of pigs who then charge into the Sea of Galilee and drown.

So much of early Christian art appears to be so triumphalist and remote. It will be in the art of Ottonian Europe that Christ will turn His gaze to earth, and not just heal the sufferings of humankind, but share in them in an image that will become central to the Christian faith, and appears surprisingly late in Christian art; the Crucifix.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Amerika Amerika

I've felt like crap all week, and now I'm finally down sick as a dog. I have a fever and I hurt everywhere, even my teeth.

Michael and I have had a wild couple of weeks dealing with both the American health insurance industry and the realities of second class citizenship.

For awhile, neither of us had health insurance, and Michael still isn't covered. We applied for the partner benefit with the college and the union back in the spring. We pulled together all kinds of documents, filled out all kinds of forms, thinking that this was taken care of. And it was for about 12 weeks. Then Michael makes a routine visit to the doctor in early September and finds out that he is not insured. Sure enough, he wasn't, and neither was I. It turns out that between August and September, my status with the college changed (I'm still finding all this stuff out) from full-time substitute to full time requiring that we apply for insurance and the partner benefit all over again, according to the rules of a certain company whose favorite color is blue. We were given no notice, no warning that anyone's insurance would be canceled. We received a letter from said insurance company on September 19. The letter was dated September 13. It said that our insurance had been canceled on August 1st. This is the only notification we've ever received from the insurance company.

So, we gathered all the documents, filled out all the forms, and filed again. It turns out that domestic partnership policies are handled not by the college, but by the City (as a CUNY professor, I am a New York City employee). The application is downtown going through Lord knows what kind of process, and in the meantime, my insurance is reinstated, but Michael's is not. And we have a $350 doctor bill hovering over our heads. I've been badgering and pleading with various college and corporate bureaucrats all week trying to get this resolved; and all that on top of managing 5 classes to teach.

Michael says (accurately I'm afraid) that we would be treated very differently if we were a hetero married couple. We've filed a complaint with the state insurance board, but I predict that it will go nowhere since the state board is probably a wholly owned subsidiary of said insurance company. I've been walking on eggshells between Michael's understandable fear and outrage, and Powers That Be at the college who I don't want to antagonize. Right now, The Insurance Company is right up there after Satan, Sin, and Death on my list.

To all you panicking white people out there afraid the gubmint gonna come in and take away your health benefits and give them to illegal brown people before they kill granny;
If you succeed in killing off health insurance reform this time, and the insurance company later on comes around and cancels your policy just because they feel like it, and you're faced with having to sell your house to pay the medical bill, then you are entitled to say only 2 words to your friend the Insurance Industry; " Thank you."

I'm going back to bed.

Sick Today

I'm down today with Cat Flu. Not much communicating today.

Maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Last Ottoman Sultan

The last heir apparent to the Ottoman Sultanate is dead at age 97. He spent the last 60 years of his life living modestly over a store here in New York. He last visited Turkey at the invitation of the Turkish government. He visited as a tourist (his insistence) with no ceremony.

His ancestors claimed the titles of "Caliph of All the Faithful" (as rulers of most of the historic territory of Islam and custodians of the shrines at Mecca and Medina), and "Augustus Caesar" (for their Christian subjects as heirs to the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire). The threat of Ottoman imperial expansion was the dominant foreign policy question in Europe for 3 centuries.

A modest end to what was once one of the most powerful dynasties on earth.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The South

"The South is everything south of the Canadian border." -- Malcolm X

The "Economic Bill of Rights"

1944 campaign button

From Franklin Roosevelt's State of the Union address to Congress, January 11, 1944

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Message From the Not So Distant Past

This has a lot of meaning for my British readers.
For my American readers, this was the poster that appeared all over London during the months of the Blitz. The Blitz was nightly air raids by the German Luftwaffe over all major British cities that killed about 41,000 in London alone.
We in New York live with the constant threat of a terror attack. London has much more experience with living under threat. Now, as ever, people are wringing their hands over the disintegration of Western Civilization (a favorite pastime of the past 2500 years). People are anxious for the future of the Republic and the world. People are deeply affected by the recession and wondering what their futures will be.

Yes, I know the poster is so British, but it is right. What else can we do but keep calm and carry on?

Hat tip to Mother Crafton at The Geranium Farm.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art: The Iconoclastic Controversy and Its Consequences

The role of imagery in Christian life and worship remains an unresolved issue. There are Byzantine rite churches that are floor to ceiling with sacred images. There are extreme Calvinist and puritanical divines whose antagonism to religious imagery is beyond Muhammad's. Christianity has produced more art playing more varied and complex roles than perhaps any other religion, even Hinduism. And yet, there were multiple episodes in Christian history where churches were sacked and their furnishings destroyed by other Christians. Christianity produced Michelangelo's Last Judgment, and at least three popes who had to be persuaded not to order it destroyed (rumor still haunts the Vatican that the last of these was Pius X, that he almost had it destroyed in 1910).

The great complication in Christian art is the Second Commandment:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.
(Exodus 20:4-5, King James version for all you Pietists).

An even bigger complication is the story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites demanded that Aaron make them a god from gold like the ones they knew in Egypt, a god they could see and worship. Aaron obliged and made them a golden calf, a god in their own image who would tell them all what they wanted to hear, whose voice was the promptings of their own imaginations.

So far it would seem that iconoclasm, the destruction of images, has won the war of the Biblical proof-texts. Then there are these passages from the opening of St. John's Gospel: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us , (and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth." (John1:14). And there is this: "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." (John1:18). And then there are the numerous Gospel stories about the Resurrection appearances, especially the ones in Luke that insist upon Christ's physical presence in the room (Thomas touching the wounds, Christ eating a piece of fish). There are theophany moments when Christ reveals His divine nature before selected disciples, most famously in the story of the Transfiguration told in 3 of the 4 Gospels. All of these passages and more would be cited by the defenders of images in the long crisis of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire.

Christian religious imagery always carries with it the taint of the pre-Christian sacrificial religions with their images of very limited and local gods of towns, tribes, springs, forests, and hills; and of sacrificial votive images offered by supplicants seeking to influence them. There are also popular magical beliefs, which are probably older than religion itself, that attach themselves to images. The early 7th century monk John Moschos records a particular example of this magical role of images:
In our times a pious woman of the region of Apamea dug a well. She spent a great deal of money and went down to a great depth, but did not strike water. So she was despondent on account both of her toil and expenditure. One day she sees a man [in a vision] who says to her: "Send for the likeness of the monk Theodosios of Skopelos, and, thanks to him, God will grant you water." Straightaway, the woman sent two men to fetch the saint's image, and she lowered it into the well. And immediately water came out so that half the hole was filled.

This is something that pre-Christian societies would definitely recognize; the magical power of an image, the influence of a benevolent spirit. And yet, John Moschos (who certainly knew the Second Commandment) describes this woman as "pious" and makes no attempt to censure her for this act. Christian images were, and still are, used in ways that could only be described as pre-Christian. Towns and cities all over the Mediterranean world keep certain revered images as a palladium, a protective image to defend the town. The world palladium comes from the ancient wooden image of Pallas Athena that supposedly protected ancient Troy.

The Madonna del' Impruneta plays the role of palladium for the city of Florence. It is a "miracle working" image surrounded by testimonials to answered prayers; not unlike similar votive testimonials that filled the ancient Roman temples.
People used Christian images as talismans to ward off harm, just as the ancient Egyptians used a wedjet eye or an image of Bes. These uses perhaps come more from human need than from any kind of doctrinal perversity.

And still, there is the Golden Calf.

The Iconoclast theologian John the Grammarian and an Iconoclast bishop whitewash an image of Christ, from a 9th century Psalter.

The long Iconoclast crisis began in 726 and ended in 843. It began not with the theological objections of a bishop or a monk, but with the complaints of a military man, the Emperor Leo III, a soldier from Syria who fought his way up the ranks. Since the death of the Emperor Justinian and the end of his ambitious campaigns of conquest, the Eastern Empire saw a long string of reversals and catastrophes. Lombard invaders drove Byzantine armies from Italy. The Persians took Jerusalem and despoiled its churches in 614. In 620, the Avars laid siege to Constantinople and the Persians invaded Asia Minor. Worst of all was the sudden rise of Islam. Byzantine armies retook Jerusalem only to lose the city 18 years later to the armies of Caliph Omar. Within a few years, the entire former heartland of the Christian religion, the Levant, Syria, and Egypt, came under Muslim rule. Pious Byzantine military men like the Emperor Leo could not help but compare the long string of Eastern Imperial reversals with the amazing lightning success of Islam. The Emperor noted that the Muslims seemed to have a much more thorough and uncomplicated understanding of the Second Commandment. Believing that the widespread and popular veneration of images encouraged by the Church had displeased God, the Emperor ordered the icon of Christ removed from the Chalke Gate to the Imperial Palace. He then ordered religious images removed and their veneration banned throughout the Empire. When the Patriarch of Constantinople objected, Leo replaced him. Leo seemed to prove the correctness of his hostility to imagery by lasting on the throne for 25 years, about 5 times longer than his predecessor. His son, Emperor Constantine V convened a church council in 754 that declared iconoclasm to be Orthodox faith. It was at this point that images were not just removed, but destroyed. Panel paintings were burned. Mosaics were modified and frescoes were whitewashed. New churches were given only the barest of decoration.

One such church was built (or rebuilt) by Iconoclast Emperor Constantine V. The church of Hagia Eirene was destroyed by an earthquake in 740. Constantine V rebuilt it and had it decorated very sparingly. The church is still there in modern Istanbul near Hagia Sophia. Like Hagia Sophia, it was secularized by the Turkish Republic.

The interior still contains the very spare iconoclast decoration from Constantine V's reign.

The one bit of clear symbolism allowed by the Iconoclasts was the Cross which dominates the apse semi-dome of Hagia Eirene. The mosaic is original to Constantine V's rebuilding.

It was a dangerous time to be an artist, or a defender of religious imagery. Artists not only were put out of business, but penalized for what was once an honest trade. Some were tattooed on their foreheads with Iconoclast teachings. Others were imprisoned and even executed. Many fled west to Italy and to the rest of Europe. Some re-appear in Germany working in the court of Charlemagne.

There was a brief respite during the reign of Constantine V's successor, his wife, the Empress Irene who was an "iconophile," (lover of icons) and an "iconodule" (a server of icons). She convened a church council in the Imperial palace at Hiereia to condemn Iconoclasm. It was during this period that the major advocates found the courage to come forward.

Christian imagery was traditionally defended as an aid to religious teaching, as a way to reach the illiterate. In the wake of the success of Islam, this argument no longer held much weight. John of Damascus argued for images using the example of Christ's Incarnation. The Iconoclasts said that an image limits and circumscribes God, as well as parodies and insults God the Creator (Muhammad's objection). John of Damascus pointed out that God the Creator had circumscribed Himself when He took on a human nature in Christ. Christ the man was so much less than Christ the God, but it was Christ the man who is our most accessible and most perfect image of God. In the end, the argument for religious imagery that prevailed was a sacramental one. The image became the visible sign for an invisible Grace; just as the bread and wine of the Sacrament became the visible sign for the real presence of Christ; just as Christ Himself in His human manifestation in history became the visible expression of the unseen God.
The Muslim hostility to images became a liability for the Iconoclasts. They were forced to defend the idea of a hostility to imagery as being particularly Christian, when clearly that antagonism was not.
The icon of Christ went back up on the Chalke Gate.

Iconoclasm returned in 815 with the reign of the Emperor Leo V. Iconophiles were removed from their offices and sent into exile. The icon came down again from the Chalke Gate. The artists closed shop.
But the Iconophile arguments were out there, if driven underground. They would be there encouraging resistance to the Iconoclast regime.

The whole crisis came to an end in 843 with the reign of Theodora and Michael III. The icon went back up on the Chalke Gate to stay. The Iconophiles won the long struggle.

Religious imagery made a triumphant comeback in church commissions to replace destroyed artworks throughout the Empire, but especially in the all important imperial church of Hagia Sophia.

The mosaics in the apse of the Great Church of Hagia Sophia were destroyed by the Iconoclasts. A magnificent new mosaic of the Theotokos with the Christ child and two archangels was dedicated in 867.
Hagia Sophia began as the world's largest church and as the most important church in the Byzantine empire, the center of religious orthodoxy. In 1453, the conquering Ottoman Turks transformed it into the most important mosque in the Ottoman Empire. When Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina, he claimed the title of Caliph of All the Faithful. Hagia Sophia returned to its former role as a center of religious orthodoxy. Today, it is a museum.

The mosaics are very large, but they appear small in the context of the immense church. The Muslim conquerors scrupulously preserved the Christian content of Hagia Sophia's decoration. The damage is not from vandalism (vandals always go for the face), but from water seepage. The walls of Hagia Sophia are notoriously porous.

At the feet of this magnificent image was once inscribed "The images which the impostors had cast down here pious emperors have again set up." Only fragments are left of this inscription, but it is recorded in numerous written sources.

Here is that magnificent archangel, the survivor of 2 that once graced the apse.

Here is a 14th century icon in the British Museum commemorating the 843 church council that ended the Iconoclastic Controversy in favor of the Iconophiles. The Empress Theodora appears at the upper left with the child Emperor Michael III. Art was here to stay in Eastern Christianity.

Art was here to stay, but under new controls and ecclesiastical regulations. Artistic invention was not encouraged. On the contrary, it was now actively discouraged. The decoration of churches, which once varied considerably from city to city and from church to church was now standardized by church regulations and theological doctrine.

Mosaics like these from the 11th century Church of the Dormition at Daphni near Athens now followed a clear traditional hierarchy. Christ Pantocrator occupied the highest vault of the dome at the center of the church. Mary as Theotokos now almost always occupied the semidome of the apse over the altar. The Incarnation became the symbolic prototype for the liturgical mystery of the Sacrament. Apostles and saints occupied semidomes, vaults, and arches in descending order of importance. Episodes, like the Transfiguration visible above in the semi-dome, were no longer parts of sustained narratives, but symbolic manifestations of Christ's divine nature in history.

This general formula remained true for churches in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but outside the realm of the Byzantine Empire, especially those in Russia. The Russians kept those traditional formulas and elaborated on them. Christ Pantocrator dominates the dome of the 15th century Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin in Moscow. He takes the form of a revered prototype, the miraculous image on St. Veronica's veil. Then there is an elaborate hierarchy of saints and symbolic stories in descending order, just as in the Daphni church in Greece from 4 centuries earlier.

An Orthodox monk paints an icon using egg tempera (pigment mixed with water and egg yolk for binder) on a panel coated with gesso (chalk mixed with rabbit skin glue). He is working on the final details with a fine brush. He uses a mahl stick with a soft bulbous top to rest his painting hand to steady it.

That highly formulaic liturgical art we associate with Byzantine Orthodoxy is a consequence of the Iconoclastic Controversy. From here on, liturgical art will almost entirely be the domain of the ordained and the religious, with priests and monks taking up the brush (the only exceptions were the Italians whose artists remained largely secular; Theophanes the Greek was the only icon painter in Russia I know of who was not ordained or under vows). The artist's materials and forms would be carefully regulated by doctrine and tradition. It took theological training to grasp the formulas as well as manual training in the craft.

Those images that commanded the most authority were those that were "uncreated," at least by human hands. There were "miraculous" images of Christ such as Veronica's Veil (The Shroud of Turin doesn't appear in the historical record until the 14th century; there were numerous other "shrouds" that claimed miraculous images). There were icons widely believed to be painted by angels. St. Luke, the author of the Gospel of that name, was believed to be an artist as well as a physician. Pious legend told how he painted the Virgin and Child directly from their miraculous appearances to him. Europe remains full of icons attributed to him by tradition from Our Lady Cambrai to Our Lady of Czectachowa. The artist was not expected to be original, but to look back to revered prototypes.

Critics of Byzantine art point to the variety and originality in surviving art from before the Controversy, and argue that the new regulations had a stifling effect. Perhaps, but they were not quite a strait-jacket. Brilliant, if not original, work continued to be done. The greatest artists were those who could breath a new life into the traditional formats; artists like Dionysus, Theophanes, and Andrei Rublev in Russia; or artists in Italy like Cavallini, Torriti, and Cimabue. The artists in the Imperial workshops of Constantinople did some of their finest work in the last 2 centuries before the Ottoman Conquest.

The image is "venerated," not "worshiped," in Eastern Christianity; a fine distinction to outsiders. The theology that came in the wake of the Iconoclastic Controversy taught that images painted according to Church teachings, and following revered prototypes, were a glimpse into the world of the spirit, a window into Heaven with its throngs of saints and angels in golden light.

This is strikingly similar to Hindu teachings about religious imagery. At first glance, the Hindu puja is a return to the ancient realm of sacrificial religion, of pleasing and trying to influence tempermental deities. But it is not. Hindus do not have anything like the Second Commandment or the story of the Golden Calf, but we would be wrong to assume that they believe that the Godhead is entirely contained in the image. The image is a means to an end, not an end in itself. One Hindu sage taught that the image is a hand pointing toward something beyond itself. Each of the thousands of gods in the Hindu pantheon contains the Godhead in its entirety. To revere any one of them, no matter how obscure, is to revere the whole Deity who is the source of them all. Like Byzantine Orthodox imagery, the making of Hindu images is tightly regulated by tradition and theology. The image is a means of communicating the worshiper's prayers, and the god's grace. The god bestows his grace on all who look at his image. The grace conferred by looking at an image is called darshan. Christian worshipers hope for a similar grace from venerating their images.
It comes as a surprise to learn how late religious imagery appears in India. There is almost no recognizably religious imagery or architecture until the reign of Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, and that is Buddhist stupas with only minimal imagery. Hindu imagery does not appear fully formed until about the 6th century of the Current Era.

The resolution of the Iconoclastic Crisis was once thought to have spared Christianity an art of pattern and calligraphy, as in Islam. That's not entirely true. Western Christianity had long before developed its own very different approach to imagery in keeping with its more secular understanding of the Faith as distinct from the Eastern Church's more theological understanding.