Friday, November 30, 2018

The Four Last Things

Painting by Mark Rothko

We all will die, and so will everything else; even the space that contains us. Everything we have down to our own bodies is ultimately on loan and will be paid back. Like most other gay men of my generation, I’ve seen too many people die before their time. Life is short and uncertain, and the absurd and the arbitrary happen. We never know how much time we have left, so how we spend it matters. The people we love and who love us are not forever and should be enjoyed, cared for, and cherished now.
I have no idea if there really is anything beyond the horizon of death. The afterlife may all be a big nothing. Much of the ancient world thought so. Hades, Sheol, and Abzu are all places of shadows where all the dead go regardless of virtue or wickedness; all exist in eternal darkness cut off from the living and the gods. These places seem to me not very far removed from the state of oblivion. They may be simply poetic metaphors for extinction. The Egyptians with their elaborate afterlife were the exception, not the rule in the ancient world. If the afterlife is all a big nothing, then there won’t be any conscious entity left to know it, or to regret it. Still, I treasure the hope that extinction is not our ultimate destiny.

Even so, as a friend of mine said, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not; you don’t want to lie on your death bed knowing you’re an asshole.” Somehow in some way we are accountable for our lives and how we spend them. God’s mercy is infinite, and his justice is perfect.

If there is a Heaven, then I don’t believe that anyone pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps to get in it. Heaven is the free gift of God to all of us. No one earns their way into it. No one “deserves” to go to heaven or is “worthy” of it. It’s not an apotheosis. We’re not heroes winning admission to Olympus and immortality. I’ve never believed golden harps and clouds. I don’t believe in any celestial brothel as some believe. I don’t believe in any warriors’ Valhalla either. I don’t believe in anything like that changeless realm of disembodied light that Dante described. I believe that if there is a Heaven, then it is a place where we will indeed live again; live in every sense of that word. If we go there, we go there because God wants us to be there, not because we earned it or won the lottery. Heaven is like the return of the Prodigal; no matter what reason or where or for how long we wandered, Our Parents are always there waiting and are so happy that we’ve come back. Heaven is like the Wedding at Cana; joy like the best wine anyone has ever tasted, and more of it than all the guests can possibly drink. Heaven is the Bosom of Abraham where everyone belongs and is welcome. In Heaven, no one is lonely and no one is without. As Mahalia Jackson described Heaven “It’s always ‘Howdy! Howdy!’ and never ‘good bye.’”

I’ve never believed in hell, at least that traditional concept of it as an eternal torture chamber created by God to punish the wicked. Demagogues, tyrants, oligarchs, and fanatics use the fires of hell to frighten their subjects into an infantile submission. Salvation became a protection racket, a way of staying out of hell instead of embarking on a journey to meet God. Hell was always a little too useful for keeping people in line. Hell becomes an empty threat when people lose their fear of it, and salvation becomes an empty promise. And yet, I believe in free will. The problem with universalism and its very attractive idea that everyone will ultimately see salvation is that it negates free will. Should someone who doesn’t want it see salvation? Slave and master, victim and predator automatically together in the same heaven with no reckoning is not justice. Perhaps Hell is something that we make for ourselves with great skill and industry. We go there willingly, even eagerly, and it locks from the inside. We find our bliss in our own darkness and isolation cutting ourselves off from our neighbors and from God. We put ourselves there and it is up to us to come out. I could see that for some, leaving would be too much to ask. One thing that always struck me about Dante’s Inferno; as I recall, none of the damned asks to leave. None of them ever say “get me out of here” to Dante and Virgil no matter how terrible their suffering.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month

The First World War ended a century ago today.

The Belgian countryside near Ypres, 1917

Plaster casts of injured soldiers.

Plaster casts of injured soldiers in the Museé de l'Armee in Paris.

I wrote a post about The Great War four years ago for the centennial of its beginning.

Sunday, November 4, 2018


Natural Blue

The color blue begins with the sky.   The nitrogen and oxygen that make up much of the atmosphere absorb the long light waves of red and scatter and reflect back the short light waves of blue.  We live at the bottom of a sea of blue air.  Sunlight that comes through that air at mid day is very cool and bluish in color.

At sunrise and sunset, sunlight passes over the surface of the earth at a tangent and through much more atmosphere.  The air does the opposite at this time of day absorbing the short light waves of blue and reflecting back the long waves of red.

The same effect is true of water, especially over tropical seas.

The combination of air and water make ours a blue world.

And yet, blue remains an exceptional color in the natural world of life and minerals.  Warm colors of reds, browns, umbers, and ochers dominate the colors of the land.  The colors of life are primarily greens, reds, and browns.

Chicory blossoms

A day flower

Texas bluebonnets

Texas bluebonnets in a field

Blue morning glories 

 Colorado Columbine



Blue flag iris

Eastern bluebirds

Indigo Bunting

Blue jay

Mountain bluebird

 Blue grosbeak

 Cerulean warbler

Blue Hyacinth Macaw

Siamese fighting fish

Regal Blue Tang

Blue Morpho Butterfly

Blue Sapphire

Star Sapphire, the "Star of India" in the American Museum of Natural History in New York

Blue Diamond, the Hope Diamond




Blue Tanzanite

Blue Spinel

Egyptian Blue

The Egyptians made the first synthetic color, a blue that the Romans later called Egyptian Blue.  The ingredients were simple, but the process of making it was demanding and difficult.  The Egyptians used chalk or limestone together with a blue mineral such as malachite or azurite, and sand.  These were melted together at very high temperatures.  Not only temperature, but the amount of oxygen used in the firing determined the resulting color from deep dark ultramarine blues to bright almost greenish turquoise colors.  Making this pigment required great skill.

The Egyptians loved blue associating it with the sky and the waters of the Nile.  

An Egyptian faience hippopotamus, "William," from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, circa 1961 to 1878 BCE

An ushabti

Wall tiles from the tomb of Pharaoh Zoser at Saqqara, circa 2630 - 2611 BCE

Ultramarine Blue

For many centuries, ultramarine blue was the most expensive and sought after pigment in the world.  Throughout much of history, artists made ultramarine blue out of lapis lazuli mined from Sar-e-Sang in the Hindu Kush mountains in what is now Afghanistan near the famous Buddhist site of Bamiyan along the Silk Road.  Merchants transported lapis on the backs of camels and donkeys along the silk road to sea ports in Syria.  From there, ships carried the mineral to Venice.  Ultramarine blue made from this lapis lazuli came from over ("ultra-") the sea ("-marine).

Not only was ultramarine blue made from very costly lapis lazuli imported from Central Asia, but it was extremely difficult to make.  Lapis lazuli contains numerous mineral impurities from calcite to pyrite.  Grinding up lapis lazuli makes a disappointing grey.  Cenino Cennini in his famous 14th century artists' handbook describes a lengthy process of refinement involving mixing wax, linseed oil, and mastic into the powder, soaking it in an alkaline lye solution, and pressing it repeatedly to extract the bright blue lazulite from the matrix of mineral impurities.

The material and the process were so expensive and demanding that artists required an initial down payment from patrons in order to afford the pigment.

Enrico Scrovegni, among the richest bankers in Europe in the early 14th century, contracted the artist Giotto to make liberal use of extremely expensive ultramarine blue in the Arena Chapel in Padua.  Giotto used gallons of it, applied a secco, over dry plaster so that it would not chemically react with wet plaster.  Banker that he was, Enrico Scrovegni wanted to impress God and the neighbors with how much money he could afford to set on fire for this project.

lapis lazuli

By the 19th century, industrialism created new and brilliant colors that could be sold cheaply.  In 1824, a French industrial society put out an award of 6000 francs for the first person to come up with a cheap synthetic way of producing ultramarine blue.  In 1828, two people claimed the prize, a German chemist Gmelin who claimed to have invented a synthetic process earlier, and French chemist Jean Baptiste Guimet.  Guimet walked away with the prize money and the patent rights to a process of extracting the color from coal tar.  Not only was the new ultramarine blue cheap to make in large quantities, but it was more uniform in quality than the old ultramarine made from lapis lazuli.
Some artists were not impressed.  They argued that the new industrial synthetic lacked the depth of the old blue precisely because it was so uniform.  The new synthetic color became known as French ultramarine blue to distinguish it from the older "true" ultramarine blue.

I've never tried to make the pigment, but I did try once to make my own ultramarine blue oil paint from powdered pigment.  The pigment that I bought was definitely the "French" kind and reeked of coal tar.  I ground the pigment as fine as I could, mixed it with linseed oil, and put it in a paint tube.  The paint dried out in the tube within an hour.  Ultramarine blue remains a frustrating pigment to mix for one's self.  I just buy tubes of it at the art supply store now, and thank God that I live in the 21st century.

The search for a good ultramarine blue continued into the 20th century.  The artist Yves Klein became obsessed with the color.  Like many artists, Klein noticed that the dry blue pigment lost its original intensity when it was mixed with linseed oil and other ingredients to make it into paint.  He collaborated with Edouard Adam, an art supplier to find a suitable medium that would not diminish the brilliance of the original pigment.  In 1960, Klein patented what he called International Klein Blue (IKB).  Above is a painting by Klein made with the new blue, L'accord bleu from 1960.

The Blue of the Virgin Mary

As early as the 12th century, the Church hierarchy decreed that the color associated with the Virgin Mary would be the color of Heaven, blue; and not just any blue, but the purest and most expensive of blues, ultramarine.  The growing and burgeoning cult of the Virgin Mary created a lasting demand for her image.

In the beginning, a light safe and chemically stable ultramarine blue pigment remained elusive to Western panel painters working in egg tempera on gessoed panels.  Over time, the colors in panels from the 13th and early 14th centuries frequently decayed into a greenish black as in the example above; an otherwise very fine late 13th century painting by the Badi a Isola Master.

A fine and beautifully preserved triptych by Duccio, 14th century

The Wilton Diptych famous for the brilliance of its blues; made for King Richard II who appears with his patron saints Edmund the Martyr, Edward the Confessor, and John the Baptist in the panel on the left.

Nardo di Cione, Triptych, 1360

The Frankfurt Paradise Garden from the 14th century

Detail from the Frankfurt Paradise Garden

Stefan Lochner, Virgin and Child in a Rose Garden, 15th century

Fra Angelico, The Coronation of the Virgin Mary, early 15th century

Rogier Van Der Weyden, detail from the Columba Altarpiece

Gerard David, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, late 15th century

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna of the Meadow, late 15th century

Raphael, The Alba Madonna, 1510

Titian, The Madonna and Child with St. Catherine and John the Baptist, 16th century

Sassoferrato, The Virgin Mary, 17th century

Guido Reni, The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, 17th century

I'm not a fan of Guido's work, but the brilliant luscious colors are hard to resist.

Cobalt Blue

Cobalt blue made from an oxide of cobalt has been used for centuries to color ceramics and glass first in China, and then in the West as early as the 12th century.
Cobalt blue the artist's pigment appeared in 1802 - 1807 in France, created as an alumina based pigment by Louis Jacques Thenard.

Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain jar, 15th century

Staffordshire "Willow" pattern porcelain plate, 19th century

Sevres porcelain plate, 1780

Royal Copenhagen porcelain tureen, 20th century

 Iznik ware tiles from the Rustem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul, 16th century

Iznik tile work from the Mehmet Sokollu Mosque, Istanbul, 16th century

Tile work in the dome of the Mosque of the Shah, Isfahan, Iran, 17th century

Cobalt blue Empoli glass floor decanter, 1960s

Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere window, Chartres Cathedral, late 12th century.

The South Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral, 13th century

Prussian Blue

The Berlin paint manufacturer Johann Jacob Diesbach made Prussian Blue, the first modern synthetic pigment by accident around 1704 to 1706.  He tried to make his signature brilliant lake red when something went wrong with the mixture that turned first pink, then violet, and then a deep dark blue.  Diesbach suspected his materials supplier, a chemist and pharmacist named Johann Konrad Dippel sold him some adulterated potash.  It turned out that the potash contained animal oil that transformed what was supposed to be a brilliant scarlet into ferrocyanide, or Prussian blue.
Dippel began making and selling the color as a cheap substitute for ultramarine blue that had no green in it unlike smalt, azurite, and other inexpensive blues of the time, and had great tinting strength to stand up to being mixed with other colors.

The most notable use of Prussian blue was not in oil paint, but in colored inks by the great  Ukiyo-e print makers of the early 19th century, in particular Hokusai and Hiroshige who made the color famous.
Stable light fast blue colors were very scarce in Japan, so these print makers turned to imported Prussian blue inks from the West.


Hokusai, Waves

Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the most famous of all Japanese prints

Hiroshige, The Eagle

Hiroshige, The Whirlpool

Cerulean Blue

The Swiss chemist Albrecht Höpfner first made Cerulean blue pigment in 1789, but it did not become widely available to artists as oil paint until the 1870s.
The French call the color bleu celeste, in English it is sometimes known as "sky blue."

Claude Monet was among the first artists to take advantage of the new broad range of inexpensive brilliant colors created by industrialism.  Cerulean blue forms the basis for the brilliant light filled skies in his paintings.

Claude Monet, The Four Trees (Poplars by the Canal, Evening Effect), 1891

He used those brilliant colors to make paintings based on the optical science of the day.  He created a new palette of bright colors based on the spectrum as first described by Newton.

Cerulean is the "heavenly" blue.  It colors the houses of Brahmans in the city of Rajasthan in India.

The flag of the United Nations adopted in December, 1946.  The architect Donal McLaughlin of New York designed the symbol, a projection of the entire earth from the north pole showing all of the continents.  The committee responsible for designing the flag chose cerulean blue for the color, a blue that was as far away as possible from the brilliant red so favored by the ideological tyrants of the Second World War.  Cerulean is the color of the same sky seen by all of humankind.

Artists' Blue

Hans Holbeing, Lady with a Squirrel and Starling, 16th century.  The blue in the background is made from azurite.

Ogata Korin, Blue Irises, 18th century

James Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Gold, The Old Battersea Bridge, 1872 - 1875

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

Picasso, La Vie, 1901

Henri Matisse, The Blue Window, 1913

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude II, cut out, 1952

Joan Miro, Blue II,  1961

Mark Rothko, No. 27, 1954

Barnett Newmann, Cathedra,  1951

Richard Diebenkorn, from the Ocean Park series, 1960s.

Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Curve V, 1972

Paul Jenkins, Blue Ligeance, 1961

Morris Louis, Blue Veil, 1958

Helen Frankenthaler, Blue Reach, 1974