Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Downton Abbey for Everybody

Downton Abbey; a glimpse of Britain's past ... and America's future.

According to the BBC this morning, you're better off being middle class in Canada now than in the USA.

As the USA makes the transition from democracy to oligarchy, we enjoy less real liberty and social mobility now than the formerly rigidly stratified societies of Europe.  If we can still do or say whatever we want, it's only because it doesn't matter.

The right complains about the USA looking like Europe these days, and they're right.  The USA does look like Europe, only it's the Europe of 100 years ago on the eve of WWI when very small ruling classes owned and ran everything for their own benefit.  Soon, our own Genius Overlords will find a way to save us all the bother of voting.

Speaking of transitions to oligarchy, Paul Krugman's discussions of Thomas Pinketty's much talked about new book are very much worth reading here and here.


There's a subway ad in New York that says "The French Aristocracy didn't see it coming either."
Maybe so, but I'm afraid that when the uprising finally happens, people will turn on each other and not on the people running the whole show.  Ours is a very easily divided -- and ruled -- people.


As Paul Krugman points out often, race is the Rosetta Stone of American politics.  So much that appears so strange and contradictory in our politics can be explained by race.

Ta-Nehisi Coates asks what would be different about the Nevada stand-off if Cliven Bundy was Black.  Here is his very instructive take on Bundy and on federal, state, and local governments seizing land.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Passenger Pigeon

Today is Earth Day, and this year marks the centennial of the death of the very last Passenger Pigeon, Martha, in captivity in 1914.

The Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America through the first half of the 19th century with huge flocks darkening the sky.  In less than 100 years, the pigeon was obliterated as a pest that devoured crops, and because it was so delicious to eat.  The flocks were said to be so dense that a hunter could bring down a bird simply by flinging a rock in any direction.

John James Audubon's watercolor of the passenger pigeon

I've never considered myself an environmental activist or a "tree hugger." I'm not an animal rights activist nor am I a vegetarian.  However, after 10 years of asthma and after my non-smoking father died in 2000 of lung cancer, I take environmental issues very seriously.

Saving the wilderness and saving species from extinction is great.  I'm all for it.  I find talk among scientists about a sixth "great extinction" with us playing the role of the asteroid very alarming.  But I think what we are really trying to save is ourselves from our own selfish excesses and from the profit motive that reduces everything to commodities (and ultimately to trash).

Part of that effort to save ourselves is a change in our relationship with the rest of life on this world.  My thoughts in this area are very unformed and unarticulated, but it seems to me that there must be an alternative beyond the misanthropy most famously expressed by DH Lawrence that says that the earth was happier before the arrival of humankind, and the dominionist view that says that nature is raw material to be exploited and nothing more.

I see a possible way past this grim choice in Charles Darwin.  The 19th century derived the wrong lesson from Darwin's work, the idea of "survival of the fittest;" a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer and mistakenly attributed to Darwin ever since.  Darwin never said any such thing and was horrified at the whole school of thought that called itself "Social Darwinism."  It was based on a complete misunderstanding of what Darwin meant by "natural selection."
I think the real moral lesson to be learned from Darwin's big idea, and from evolution, is that all life is joined together in its very substance.  And from there, life is physically joined to the material of the earth and the universe.  We are an animal among many others, though by now, a dominant animal.  We owe a certain responsibility to our neighbor animals, even to those we eat and to those who labor for us.  We are the first creature ever to have the power to destroy all life on the earth, whether through deliberate acts of war or terror, or through selfish negligence.  We've had that power only in the last 100 years.  We've been very bad neighbors to our fellow creatures.

In many respects, Charles Darwin was a typical Victorian gentleman.  He reacted with more horror than curiosity when encountering unfamiliar tribes of humankind.  He enjoyed hunting and a good steak.  And yet, when he served as a local Justice of the Peace, he enforced animal cruelty laws with remarkable zeal.


I think it is the height of irony that it is the much vilified and mocked "tree huggers" who want to preserve something of that post World War II broadly shared prosperity, the idea of a high standard of living for everyone; only now made more sustainable and responsible.  The Ayn Rand influenced libertarianism that dominates political commentary these days isn't interested in any such thing.  As far as they are concerned, us moochers should be grateful that our Genius Overlords are allowing us to live and work at all.  Theirs is a very dominionist attitude toward nature as resources and property.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter! With a Lot of Noise From Florence

Time for Lo Scoppio del Carro del Fuoco (the Explosion of the Cart of Fire).
Nobody does Easter quite like the Florentines.

This ceremony in its present form is about 400 years old.  It goes back almost a thousand years in earlier forms.  An earlier form of the ceremony from the 15th century had the New Fire ride the Carro to churches around town all day lighting their candles and then finally park in front of the Cathedral.  A mechanical dove on a wire flew out, took the flame into the Cathedral and lit all the candles on the altar, and flew back out to the Carro and ignited concealed fireworks.  Gunpowder found its way west out of China and became part of the ceremony around the end of the 14th century.

Here is the spectacular prelude.  The choir begins singing the Gloria of the Easter Mass and then a taper is lit from the Paschal candle.  And then ... La Columbina happens.

Here is the Carro being drawn by 4 oxen into position in front of the Cathedral.  The Florentines used this same Carro every Easter since the 17th century.

The procession into the huge Cathedral on Easter last year.
I saw something similar when I attended Corpus Christi mass in Florence Cathedral in 1988.  The choir did their thing in the apse while something completely different happened at the other end of the nave.  Then as now, the cathedral was jam packed with people, standing room only.
Here, the Archbishop makes his entrance followed by the city banner, and I presume the mayor.  In the Corpus Christi Mass I attended in 1988, while the choir sang Vespers in the other end of the cathedral, the city banner arrived in the nave with trumpets and drums.  The mayor followed and worked the crowds in the cathedral, waving and smiling, shaking hands, and kissing babies like politicians the world over.   The mayor that year was a Communist.  Only in Italy folks.
The mayor last year here seems much more subdued.

By local tradition, the New Fire for the Florentine Easter rites is lit from historic flints preserved in the church of Santi Apostoli, one of the city's oldest.
Priests carry the flame in procession to the Baptistery opposite the Cathedral.  From there, it is carried into the Cathedral the following morning.

Meanwhile, the Carro pulled by 4 white oxen parades through the streets of Florence followed closely by the Florentine fire department.

And this being Italy, people think nothing of stopping the procession so folks can take family photos.
I think these might be rural folk from the surrounding countryside.  Farmers from all over the region come to Florence on Easter morning to see the Scoppio.  They believe that the success of the Scoppio predicts planting and harvest for the coming year.  Like most Italian religious spectacles, there is a lot of pre-Christian content and associations.  What is now a joyful noise unto the Lord started out as light and noise to chase away harm and misfortune.

I tend to take an indulgent view of these ancient religious spectacles.  What harm do they do really?  People have a great time no matter what their religious views are.  In very secular Europe, people take their piety out of mothballs once a year and enjoy a show that they can count on every year.  It's vulgar messy fun that celebrates the return of spring, the victory of life over death.

Our age of money is filled with spectacles that are far bigger and more dazzling than anything the Florentines can stage.  And yet, they all ring as false and hollow as Justin Bieber's machismo or Donald Trump's hairpiece.  There's a reason why spectacles like the Scoppio will outlast commercial spectacles that quickly turn into yesterday's fish.  No one is out to sell us anything.  No one really cares who we are or what we believe, just that the show goes off without a hitch.

I think we should remember the Scoppio and all the fun people have with it whenever we feel tempted to regard the once-a-year church visitors with patronizing contempt.  Showing them welcome and a good time might be a good way to keep them coming every year, and maybe to come more often.

And wouldn't you know it, today's Scoppio is already posted:

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!

Fra Angelico, The Resurrection, fresco from a cell in the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence

Buona Pasqua a Tutti!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Kittredge Cherry's Meditations on the Passion Series

It is Holy Week, and time for Kittredge Cherry's magnificent meditations on The Passion series that I painted about 9 years ago.

Jesus shares his dark prison cell with a pair of older men in “The Son of Man (Human One) with Job and Isaiah.” His warm, pink flesh is bleeding. In a modern form of dehumanization, Jesus is labeled with a number, “124,” hanging on a tag around his neck. A barred window behind an arch gives him a crude halo. His queer identity is not apparent, as often happens with contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people. The title of this painting refers to Jesus as “Son of Man,” a mysterious, multi-purpose phrase that is translated as “Human One” in gender-inclusive language. Names painted on the sides of the frame identify his two companions as Job and Isaiah, prophets from the Hebrew scriptures. Their presence signals that themes of suffering and redemption will run through this series.

Her meditations on the Passion will run all this week and through Easter.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Isenheim Altarpiece

The Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France, housed in an old Dominican convent, contains one of the most dramatic and spectacular altarpieces of the Renaissance, The Isenheim Altarpiece painted in 1512 - 1516 by the mysterious painter, Mathias Grünewald on the eve of the Reformation.  It is a cycle of huge paintings full of agony and exhilaration.

This huge multi-paneled altarpiece hung in the chapel attached to the hospital ward of the Monastery of St. Anthony in the village of Isenheim, about 15 miles south of Colmar.  The painting is large so that it could be seen by patients from their beds in the hospital ward, a long hall lined with beds.

The hospital at the Isenheim monastery probably looked something like this.  This is the ward of the 15th century Hotel Dieu in Beaune in France.  At the far end of the hall is a small chapel that once contained a large altarpiece by Rogier Van Der Weyden, also intended to be seen by the bedridden patients.  The ward of the Isenheim monastery was probably not as nice as this 19th century restoration.  It was certainly messier and a lot more crowded with cots in the middle of the floor and sometimes 2 patients to a bed.

The Antonite monastery at Isenheim specialized in treating serious skin afflictions including bubonic plague and ergotism.  Ergotism today is a rare disease, but in 16th century Europe it was fairly common.  It is caused by eating bread made from grain contaminated by a fungus.  Rye is especially vulnerable to the fungus that causes ergotism, and rye bread was then and is now a staple of central Europe.  Ergotism was once known as "St. Anthony's Fire."  It causes convulsions, vivid hallucinations, psychotic episodes, fiery pains in the limbs, and can cause gangrene in the feet and hands because of its effects on blood circulation.
The monks at Isenheim were among the first to describe the disease and its symptoms.  They had a certain measure of success in treating the disease, or at least its symptoms, attracting patients and pilgrims from all over the region.
Most treatment took place in the ward in front of this altarpiece.  Treatments ranged from applying medicinal herbs which seem to have relieved pain and some symptoms, to prayer, to concoctions of sacramental wine with the relics of Saint Anthony, to amputations of gangrenous hands and feet.

The people who first gazed upon this painting were the patients in the hospital, many in excruciating pain.

This is how the painting looked most days of the week; its panels closed.  The Crucifixion occupies the center 2 panels.  Beneath it is a Pieta scene.  On the right is Saint Sebastian (a plague saint), and on the left is Saint Anthony.

The crucifixion painted on the center 2 panels is probably among the most luridly violent depictions of this subject ever painted.

A huge tormented figure of the crucified Christ hangs from the cross covered in wounds and sores against a blackened sky.  His limbs are all stretched out and disjointed.  His hands contort in pain.  His twisted feet are blackened with gangrene.   The beam of the cross bends under the weight and strain.  Christ is far and away the largest figure in the painting, a giant in torment.  The artist makes no attempt at anything like realistic scale.  Grünewald wants emotional impact above all else.
The second largest figure is John the Baptist on the right.  He was long dead by the time the events of the Crucifixion took place in the Gospel narratives.  His presence announces that this painting is far more than an illustration of a narrative.  At his feet is the Lamb of God bleeding into a chalice, a heavy-handed reference to the Eucharist on the altar.  John points to the dying Christ and says in Latin, "I must decrease that He might increase."
On the left, the Virgin Mary faints in the arms of John.  The smallest figure, Mary Magdalene, wails in grief.

The body of Christ in this painting is painful to look at.  He suffers so much violence that the pain becomes unbearable on close inspection.  On the left of His head, you can see the join between the two panels.  Opening the panels means separating His right arm from His body, perhaps a reference to the amputations suffered by some patients in the ward in front of this painting.  There is a similar join in the Pieta panel in the Predella that separates his lower legs; possibly another amputation reference.

This painting sends two messages to the suffering and dying patients who first gazed upon it.  You are lying there dying in great pain because you are a sinful mortal.  Also, Christ fully shares in your suffering and bears all the pain in the world upon his body.
There is special attention to the flesh throughout the altarpiece, but our first experience is with the flesh in great pain and so riven with injuries, sores, and bruises that it threatens to come off his body.

The feet of the crucified Christ in Grünewald's painting

Grünewald had plenty of precedents for this kind of an image in central Europe.  The art historian James Snyder  believes that the primary source for much of this imagery in all its extremity is from the Revelations to Saint Bridget, a very popular book in the 14th century in the years after the Black Death.
Another likely source for the artist is the abundance of extreme imagery carved in wood from the the decades after the Black Death such as this pestkreuz or plague cross:

Plague Crucifix from about 1390 in the Church of Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne

As in Grünewald's painting, the body of Christ is emaciated and covered with bloody sores.  Like Grünewald's crucifixion, this is an unapologetically sensational image, of a piece with the emotional preaching of the day, and with extreme devotional practices that became commonplace after the Black Death such as flagellant societies.  The cross of this crucifix may be a reference to the mystical Tree of Life (whose wood formed the Cross according to some pious legends).  Such images are part of the peculiar preoccupation with diseased and decaying flesh that we see in art for two centuries after the Black Death, during repeated visitations of the plague.

The suffering flesh appears in the flanking saints of the outside of the altarpiece.

The wounds of Saint Sebastian are blackened and bleeding like the sores of plague victims.  Since the bubonic plague can raise painful black swellings on the skin, sufferers mindful of his wounds frequently invoked Saint Sebastian in their prayers.

So many patients in the hospital at Isenheim also suffered in mind as well as body, as the figure of Saint Anthony reminds us.

Here is a striking detail of a hissing demon breaking the glass to reach Saint Anthony in his panel on the altarpiece.  The demons of the desert that constantly tormented Anthony are the creatures of diseased and disordered minds.  Anthony became a saint invoked in the treatment of madness and mental illness.


The interior of the altarpiece was opened on Sundays and high holy days, and is as deliriously joyful as the outer panels are tormented.

On the left panel is the Annunciation.  In the center is the Incarnation.  And on the right panel is the Resurrection.  These three panels are also about the flesh, but now the flesh sanctified, washed, and made whole again.

The Annunciation is a common subject on altars.  It is about the Word made Flesh, not only a reference to the Incarnation, but to the mystery of real presence of Christ that takes place on the altar.  This one is set in a Gothic chapel with a ghostly Holy Spirit conjuring itself out of ectoplasm in midair above Mary.  On the upper left is a strange figure who may or may not be a statue; the prophet Isaiah, author of the passage Mary is reading, "And a virgin shall conceive and bear a son..."
The flesh is a continuous theme in this altarpiece, and the Annunciation begins a very different and more complicated meditation on the flesh and spirit in the interior.

The Incarnation panels in the center are the most mysterious in the altarpiece.

Like the outside panels, they are a continuous scene across two panels.  But, in these, the scenes in each panel differ sharply from each other.  They are only joined together by the wooden tub at the bottom broken by the join between the panels, one of the few clues that this is a single scene.
The open altarpiece is full of brilliant colors in wild combinations, and glowing light effects.

The right hand panel shows a smiling, almost laughing, Virgin Mary with the Christ child.  God sits enthroned in golden light with the heavenly host high up on a mountain in the landscape behind her, perhaps a reference to Mount Sinai.  She sits amidst traditional Marian symbolism; the enclosed garden, the rose bush without thorns, etc.  On the bottom left across the join linking the two very different scenes is a small wooden bathtub.  She has just bathed the Child and is drying him off with a tattered cloth, probably a reminder of the torn loincloth on the crucified Christ on the outside of the altarpiece and a reminder of what awaits him.  The Christ child after a bath is also a reference to a couple of other things that would have meant a lot to the patients who saw this.  One is the diseased flesh washed clean; another is Baptism, that initiation ritual of a bath in which a convert dies to her former life and is born into a new life.  To get to the radiantly beautiful place of cleanliness and health that this painting points to, the patient is reminded that she must pass through the portals of death.

The Christ child holds a coral bead string, once considered an amulet against the Evil Eye and other spiritual perils.  He looks into the eyes of his joyous mother.

Here is a detail of the distant mountain.  The colors and their transitions from warm to cool, hot to cold, are amazing and used to great effect.

The left panel of the center is usually known as "The Angel Concert," but what it really is is anyone's guess as far as I'm concerned.  It shows a fantastic and fanciful Gothic tabernacle filled with very strange looking angels playing musical instruments.  James Snyder says that their fingering indicates that they are all playing high notes (though other musicians I know find all the angels' fingering of these instruments to be very strange).
The glowing young woman on the right crowned with flames and standing in the entrance to the pavilion is an ongoing source of controversy among scholars.  They cannot agree on who she is or what she represents.  Snyder argues that she is the Virgin Mary in the mind of God, and he refers to St. Bridget and other once popular mystical writers of the time.  I've read other scholars who argue that it is based on St. Ambrose's commentary on Ezekiel's vision of the closed door as a symbol of perpetual virginity, or Mary as the portal of God's Incarnation and human salvation.
What I find odd is that this glowing woman, whoever she is, appears to be on her knees facing the Virgin and Child on the other panel across the join.  This seems to me inconsistent with an image of Mary in heaven.

Here is a detail of the amazing Gothic tabernacle in Grünewald's painting.

Here are the very strange angel musicians with their strange instruments and even stranger colors; hot pinks and oranges abruptly turning to blazing golden yellows or ice cold blues.

Another detail of the angel musicians in the Incarnation panels with their weird colors that glow like phosphorous; greens, reds, oranges, yellows, blues all shining in unexpected combinations. These angels are so strange and so outside the conventional imagery of the time that some people speculate that these very otherworldly creatures began in some kind of hallucinatory experience by the artist, perhaps a hallucination suffered during ergotism.  It is also entirely possible that he made these images up with out the aid of any hallucinations.

The right wing panel of the altarpiece interior shows the Resurrection.  Christ flies up out of his tomb, his flesh glowing against the night sky in a radiant nimbus of color.

The once torn and bruised flesh of Christ now rises restored and glowing with light that spreads out into a golden orange nimbus with a bright blue rim that glows like an aurora borealis.  The shroud flies up with the rising Christ and seems to become chemically altered upon contact with his body.  The white cloth first turns blue and then a blazing scarlet as it rises up with Christ.

The face of Christ in the Resurrection panel almost vanishes in the light produced by his radiant body.

The soldiers charged with guarding the tomb tumble in startled surprise at the glowing apparition rising up out of the tomb.


The innermost part of the altarpiece was opened only for feast days of Saint Anthony and the Antonite order.  In the center is a gilded limewood sculpture of Saint Anthony flanked by Saints Augustine and Jerome.  They are carved by Nicolaus Hagenau who also carved the elaborate shrinework and the figures of Christ and the Apostles in the predella below.
The wings are painted by Grünewald showing the Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit in the Desert on the left; and on the right, the Temptation of Saint Anthony.

The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit in the Desert is a very striking painting, especially the landscape.  Grünewald never traveled in a desert before, and so imagined a wilderness, in this case a strange swampy landscape of dying trees covered in moss.  A deer joins the two saints.  It is remarkable that deer in many cultures indicate a kind of holy hermitage.  The Buddha's enlightenment took place in a deer park, and the grounds of Buddhist temples in Japan feature tame deer.

Here is a detail of the very bizarre and alien looking landscape.  According to pious legend, a raven delivered a loaf of bread to St. Paul the Hermit daily.  On the day of Saint Anthony's visit, the raven brought two loaves.

Here is another detail of the painting of the meeting of the two saints with all the medicinal herbs identified.   There are medicinal references throughout the altarpiece.

On the right is the panel of the Temptation of Saint Anthony.  Devils and demons assail the saint from all angles trying to force him to abandon his faith to despair.  Saint Anthony of Egypt was a founder of Western monasticism who went alone into the desert west of Alexandria.  Soon, he had a community of followers in the desert with him.  According to his biographer, St. Athanasius, the devil saw Anthony's devotion and became so angry that he sent demons to beat him unmercifully.  This is probably the episode that we see in this painting.
It is not hard to imagine that after several weeks of living alone in the desert hungry and thirsty all the time that a person would begin to see things; things that look a lot like the demons in this painting.  Much of central Europe in the 16th century was still primeval forest.  These are the creatures that some people might imagine made inexplicable noises in the pitch black of a forest at night.  Creatures like these are probably older in human imagination than religion.

The art historian James Snyder sees St. Anthony in this painting calling for help with a demon biting his hand and others pulling his hair.  I had a professor years ago (Dr. Lawrence Steefel) who had a very different understanding of the saint in this picture.  He saw Anthony as laughing at the demons, defying them to do their worst.  I tend to agree with my old prof.

The demons in this painting are horrific deformations of nature, and a little ridiculous at the same time.

Another bone of contention among scholars of this altarpiece is the figure in the lower left corner.  Whoever he is, he is clearly very sick and covered with boils and sores.  His flesh is a gangrenous green.  His belly is grotesquely distended.  Snyder argues that he is a stand-in for the patients in the hospital.  His pose echoes that of the saint as he clings to Anthony's prayer book.  Dr. Steefels pointed out the large webbed feet on this figure and argued that he is no patient, that he is one of the demons afflicted with disease, getting a taste of his own medicine as he tries to steal the prayer book.

The sculptures by Nicolaus Hagenau form the innermost part of the huge elaborate altarpiece.  Saint Anthony sits enthroned in the center.  On the left is Saint Augustine.  On the right is Saint Jerome.  Beneath in the predella is Christ with the 12 Apostles.
This is the oldest part of the altarpiece predating the paintings.  It was completed about 1505.  The small figure kneeling in front of Saint Augustine is one of the two patrons of the altarpiece.  He is either the first wealthy benefactor and head of the monastery, Jean d'Orliac who first ordered a new altarpiece for the recently rebuilt hospital chapel; or, he is his successor, the also very wealthy Sicilian Guido Guersi who probably commissioned Grünewald's work on the altar.

The name Mathias Grünewald doesn't appear anywhere until the 17th century in the writings of the artist Joachim Von Sandrart in his book The German Academy of the Noble Arts of Architecture and Painting (Teutsche Academie der Elden Bau-, Bild-, und Mahlerey-Künste).  Scholars in the late 19th century identified him as Mathis Gothardt or Nithardt, born around 1470 - 1474 in Würzburg and active in the town of Seligenstadt.  He served as court painter to two successive Archbishops of Mainz.  He died in 1528, apparently staying loyal to the Catholic Church in the midst of the Reformation upheavals.  Unlike his famous contemporary Albrecht Dürer in Nuremberg, Grünewald remains a shadowy character.

The Isenheim Altarpiece remained hidden away in the hospital monastery for most of its history.  While the painting was well-known and celebrated locally in the region, few people would willingly travel to so horrific and potentially dangerous a place as a plague hospital to see it.  In 1792, the French Revolution closed the monastery and removed the painting to a local library.  The monastery buildings were later torn down.  In 1852, the Unterlinden Museum was founded in Colmar in an old Dominican convent, and authorities moved the altarpiece there in the same year where it became the chief treasure.  The region of Alsace-Lorraine that includes Colmar became part of Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.  It was then that the painting's wider fame began.  It came to the attention of German scholars, and later to German artists of the early 20th century who traveled to Colmar just to see this altarpiece.


The Isenheim Altarpiece was never meant to be looked at and discussed dispassionately as an aesthetic object.  The monks and the artist made it to speak directly to people suffering in extreme pain and facing almost certain death.  The painting was supposed to prepare people to bear their sufferings and to meet their end with their faith intact.  Grünewald painted the Isenheim Altarpiece in an age when belief in the spirit realm was so strong that it seemed palpable to most people.  Angels and demons roamed the country lanes and the city streets in the imaginations of most people of that time.
The Isenheim Altarpiece shows a way of thinking about disease that is completely alien to us.  Disease in our age is the predations of bacteria and viruses upon our bodies, or the effects of toxins like those from the fungus that causes ergotism.  The microbes that make us sick are our predators.  We see disease in the light of a larger mechanistic vision of the world that successfully explains its workings, and provides us with means of fighting or controlling most of our tiny predators.  If disease has a religious understanding in our day, then it is as an inevitable part of of the mortal things of the world that must pass away by definition.  Pain and death are evils to be fought and overcome in the name of life.
At the time of the Isenheim Altarpiece, disease was the consequence of sin; not just any particular sin, but the sin inherited from Adam.  Disease almost always ended in death.  Full recoveries from serious illness were comparatively rare.  People entered hospitals like the one at Isenheim hoping for a cure, but realistically expecting to die.  People lived in dread that the pains and agonies of their ends might tempt them at the last moment to despair of their faith.  They believed their souls to be at stake, not just their bodies.  The monks at Isenheim likewise hoped for cures, but realistically expected their patients to die. They worked to relieve the pain and suffering of their patients and to make them comfortable as best as they could.  If anyone was cured (and there may have been some), then it was the miraculous work of God and His saints.

Meditation on the Crown of Thorns from a 15th century Swiss woodblock print

The Isenheim Altarpiece comes out of that very personal and deeply emotional piety that appeared in the 14th century, especially in the wake of the Black Death of 1348.  Instead of the deductive reasoning of the earlier Scholastics or the radiant visions of Universal salvation of the Platonic thinkers, we have very personal devotions like the Meditation on the Crown of Thorns illustrated above.  Instead of the intellectual meditations upon the meaning of Salvation or upon the Heavenly Hierarchies, we have emotional empathy; the worshipper is encouraged to somehow share in Christ's pain and suffering on his behalf.
Likewise, the Isenheim Altarpiece is an expansion upon the very dramatic and emotional late Gothic art of the 14th and 15th centuries in northern Europe.  The Isenheim Altarpiece differs so sharply in its visionary emotionalism from the work of the great pioneer of the Renaissance in Germany Albrecht Dürer (though Dürer's work has its emotional and visionary side).
It is almost too sensational for my taste.  I love this altarpiece, but the inside panels with their wild phosphorescent colors are more to my taste than the grisly exterior crucifixion.

The Isenheim Altarpiece meant a lot to early modern German painters who made the trek to Colmar to see it.  Grünewald's work echoes down through the first three decades of the 20th century in German painting.

Emil Nolde, Crucifixion, 1912

Two artists who survived the worst of the First World War found the agony in the Isenheim Altarpiece instructive for bearing witness to their own experiences in the first great catastrophe of the 20th century.

Max Beckmann, Descent From the Cross, 1917

Otto Dix, The War, 1924

A little footnote:  After all these years, I finally found the "embiggen" button for my blog images.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Archbishop of Canterbury on Gay Christians

The Archbishop addressed the issue on a recent phone in show.

"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact," Welby said. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world."

This is what I think:


The credit for the idea of using this old National Lampoon cover in this context goes to Prior Aelred of St. Gregory's Abbey in Michigan, who used it on Facebook.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


The best democracy money can buy.

Eventually our employers will save us all the trouble of voting.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mississippi Spurning

Windsor mansion ruins near Port Gibson, Mississippi
Janie Fortenberry, Photography With a Southern Accent

Jim Crow's gay brother Randy moves to Mississippi after failing to get a job in Arizona.
Despite protests to the contrary, we all know who this law is aimed at, and it ain't Zoroastrians.

I think I'll skip the azaleas in Natchez this year.