Journal: Monday, April 20

It always amazes and amuses me to see how a whole nest of unconnected obsessions can manage to circle around and overlap when you least expect it.

"Orithyia", 2015, by yours truly.

“Orithyia”, 2015, by yours truly.

I finished a painting a couple of days ago to which I gave the title “Orithyia”. The name refers to an incident in classical Greek myth in which Boreas, the god of the north wind, takes a shine to a woman (or possibly a nymph, depending on your source) named Orithyia. When his courtship — admittedly clumsy, as Boreas is the rough north wind, not the suave west wind — does not win her over, he simply carries her off in a whirlwind and has his way with her anyway.

Orithyia becomes mother to four children over the years, daughters Chione and Cleopatra (no, not that Cleopatra, although probably the source for her name) and sons Calais and Zetes. The boys take after their dad and grow wings; they eventually became Argonauts, members of Jason’s merry band of thieves determined to steal the Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis.

Now let’s skip from ancient Greece to Austria in 1914, where artist Oskar Kokoschka produces what many consider his masterpiece, “The Bride of the Wind”. The painting depicts a pair of lovers cuddled up in the midst of a violent storm, the woman asleep, the man looking harried. “Bride of the Wind” was my first choice for the title for my little painting, but then I decided it sounded a bit too sturm und drang so I opted for the more straighforward title instead. My painting does not refer to the Kokoschka picture in any way, but I knew that my first title had been used before and under what circumstances.

"Bride of the Wind", 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

“Bride of the Wind”, 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

While “Orithyia” is based on classical myth, “Bride of the Wind” is autobiographical: it depicts the stormy and destructive relationship between Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, who ultimately dumped the artist, sending him into a decades-long spiral of craziness.

If Alma’s last name looks familiar, that’s because she was by that time the widow of Gustav Mahler, in my opinion one of the greatest composers of symphonic music in the twentieth century. Like magic, we have the inevitable Mahler connection.

Interestingly enough, though, it goes even further: I have always been fascinated by the guiding principles of the Bauhaus, the design school founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. After being Gustav Mahler’s bride, but previous to becoming Oskar Kokoschka’s “Bride of the Wind”, Alma Mahler had had another lover: Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

Greek myth, Gustav Mahler, and the Bauhaus. Whirlwind, indeed.

 

The shape of words.

William Tyndale, c. 1490 - 1536.

William Tyndale, c. 1490 – 1536.

Anyone who knows me may be surprised to learn that I own three Bibles (the Revised Standard, the New English, and the King James), as well as the Book of Mormon, the Nag Hammadi Scriptures, the Apocrypha, and an English translation of the Qur’an. I know the difference between an Apostle and an Epistle, I can list the twelve sons of Jacob*, and I can whip out a quote from the four Gospels for just about any occasion.

None of which, in my case, has anything to do with religion. I am not religious: I am, however, a student of history, and as such I can hardly ignore the profound impact that organized religion has had on human culture over the last few thousand years.

I mentioned that I own three different English translations of the Bible: In fact, there exist approximately 450 English-language Bibles, ranging from partial transcriptions into Old English appearing only a couple of centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire all the way to Eugene Peterson’s The Message, completed in 2002.

Why so many?

As with any document so deeply embedded in a culture, control of one can imply control of the other: shades of meaning can support one political faction, one viewpoint, one set of social mores, over the competitors. Influence over the words translates to influence over the people. In modern times we have but to look at the vast differences between various interpretations of the second amendment to the US Constitution to see how divisive these nuances can be – an entire branch of our government exists for the sole purpose of resolving ambiguities in our written body of law.

On October 4, 1535 – 479 years ago today – William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale printed the first complete Bible in English translation. The book was published somewhere on the European continent, financed by various members of a wealthy Dutch family.

When that first edition of what came to be known as the Coverdale Bible was printed, Henry VIII was king of England, and was in the process of rearranging his own relationship to organized Christianity. The question of what language the Bible should appear in was not uppermost in Henry’s mind; an acceptable English translation was something he was prepared to deal with later. Much later.

For the Mother Church, on the other hand, these were difficult and complicated times, and any drift from official dogma was the thin end of the wedge.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 turned out to be a very good thing for much of the rest of Europe, as highly sophisticated Byzantine Greeks fled the Turks and scattered into the West. This shot in the arm stimulated thinkers like William Tyndale into examining their own cultures more objectively, and many realized that the medieval worldview had created a cultural desert in places like England and France, stifling ideas and retarding development. Tyndale — among others — began to absorb classical thought and intellectual tools and to use the lessons they learned to reorganize the clumsy and limited Middle English of their day into a newer and more responsive tongue. The fertile language of Shakespeare and Marlowe and the other writers and thinkers of England’s Renaissance was a direct result of this much-needed overhaul.

In fourteenth century England, John Wycliffe had translated chunks of scripture into Middle English, triggering a backlash by the Church against any rendition of the Biblical texts into a language other than Latin. Greek and Hebrew texts existed, of course, as sources of the Latin canon, but English and German were the languages of peasants and shopkeepers rather than scholars and priests, and were not considered acceptable vehicles for Scripture.

In 1517 Martin Luther began stirring the pot more vigorously, and the rift between Lutherans and Catholics was cemented in 1521 with the Edict of Worms. Luther’s translation of the Bible from Latin into everyday German had effectively cut out the middleman in the search for salvation. Now anyone who could read could get his religion directly from the source: the vast and expensive machinery of the Church at Rome was no longer a necessary intermediary.

By the time Tyndale and Coverdale produced their translation, Pope Paul III was not in a mood for polite discussion. To add insult to injury, Tyndale was not merely a translator: he was a scholar who had relied not only on the official Latin Bible for his source material, but also older Hebrew and Greek texts, correcting what he saw as mistakes that had crept into the Latin works.

Tyndale survived the publication of his Bible by only a year: with the ink still wet, he was arrested, tried and condemned for his efforts, and in 1536 he was strangled, then his body burned at the stake. His dying wish was that King Henry would adopt his translation for the English church and two years later Henry commissioned what would come to be known as the Great Bible, based on Tyndale’s work. In 1604 James Stuart, King of Scotland and England, the grandson of King Henry’s older sister, would commission yet another English Bible, a tweak of the Great Bible designed to appease the Puritans, a faction within the English church who had objected to what they perceived as errors in the previous versions; this is the book we now know as the King James Bible.

Since the days of James I, an enormous array of scholars, dogmatists, swindlers, mystics and true believers have revisited the job. Some translators have returned to the earliest verifiable sources to recreate something they hoped would more closely resemble the scriptures of the Church’s first centuries. Others have rewritten the King James version into a modern idiom, appealing to a less-erudite audience bewildered by the intricacies of Jacobean English. Still others have applied the filters of their own cultural outlook – discarding or obscuring some passages, amplifying others – in order to confirm the supremacy of a specific view of society.

In the end, of course, we’re all still a very long way from home. Even by Tyndale’s day, patriarchs and popes, kings and committees had all reworked and rearranged the available material to fit what they believed it was meant to say. Over time the preconceptions and assumptions of every age were imposed on the text, leaving us with a palimpsest of history, something that would be unrecognizable by the authors of the earliest contributions.

In the end, this confusion is part and parcel of both history and faith. For the scholar, the Bible is a core sample reaching down through layers of time, taking away random bits of each era and bringing them up where we can examine them with our modern eyes; for the believer, the whole process, with all its twists and turns, is part of a divine plan, resulting in a finished product that could not have come into existence any other way.

My grandfather, a Baptist minister of the old hellfire and brimstone school, saw the Bible as the divine word, replete and eternal, but he was not afraid to ask questions, to dig into the maps and the scholarly concordances in search of context and perspective.

I, on the other hand, even without the added dimension of religious faith, can still appreciate the passion and devotion of the work, and from my own perspective, I don’t think it has to be the Good Book to still be a good book.

 

*Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin

 

The price of pretty

wilgefortis

No, it’s not what you think.

Until the Church removed her from the calendar in 1969, July 20 long had the distinction of being the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis the Liberator, the protector and patroness of women suffering in relationships with abusive husbands.

As with many medieval saints, the origins of Wilgefortis are vague and contradictory. The simplest backstory makes her the young daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, promised by her father in marriage to a pagan barbarian. In her desperation to evade this trap, Wilgefortis took a sacred vow of virginity; when this by itself was not sufficient to dampen the ardor of the proposed bridegroom she then prayed for some sort of disfigurement that would make her unfit for marriage.

Her prayers were answered: the young lady grew a full beard, and her husband-to-be took his interest elsewhere.

Wilgefortis’ father was not amused. Deprived of what had promised to be a profitable and useful political alliance, he turned his anger and disappointment on his recalcitrant offspring. He had her dressed in her finest clothes, as if for a wedding, and then crucified her and left her to die.

.   .   .

In the social environment that prevailed in Europe during the late Middle Ages women had not fared well. Salic Law, introduced by the Franks during the sixth and seventh centuries and adopted widely throughout Europe, did not allow women to inherit property or titles, and in many places local customs prohibited women from owning businesses or land without male oversight.  Marriage, especially among the nobility, was a matter of political expediency, and girls were used by their male kin as a form of currency to buy alliances with other factions and families.

The incomparable Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, was married off three times in schemes to benefit the political ambitions of her father and older brother.  Her first marriage was annulled when her husband came to be of no further use to the Borgia plans; her second husband was murdered, most likely at the instigation of her brother Cesare, having likewise outlived his usefulness; her third marriage, while loveless, was a material success, and Lucrezia’s own wealth and power survived the death of both her brother and her father.

 

The rights and interests of the young women involved were irrelevant. Peasants could marry for love, because there was nothing else at stake, but the nobility had obligations to dynasty, to tradition, and to political position that trumped any other concerns. Predictably, such marriages were often little more than business arrangements; apart from the need to produce heirs, there was rarely any emotional contact between the partners. The girl was simply a means to an end, and her feelings were of no importance as long as she played her part.

.  .  .

Depictions of Saint Wilgefortis traditionally show a young woman with a beard, often wearing only one shoe, crucified on a wooden cross. Frequently there is a fiddler or a beggar at her feet: according to legend, when a starving man once came to the feet of the saint’s statue to pray, a silver shoe dropped off into his hands (a story that I would find a bit suspicious under the best of circumstances, but I guess sometimes you just have to accept things on trust.)

In different traditions Saint Wilgefortis is referred to as “The Escaper”, “The Strong Virgin”, “Grief”, “The Liberated” — in England she was called “Uncumber”, as in “unencumbered”.  As is often the case with female saints in the Catholic hagiography, Wilgefortis represented defiance, personal integrity, freedom from oppression, but the message was a mixed one: a woman could exercise her freedom, yes, but she had to be prepared to pay the price.

Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, women and girls frequently face terrible decisions and terrible consequences, decisions forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control: the victims of rape or incest dealing with the resulting pregnancy; five-year-olds dressed up like Vegas showgirls and trained to parade their bodies before adult audiences who judge their value as human beings on the basis of how effectively they mimic adult sexuality; victims of “honor killings”, genital mutilation, and acid attacks; abused wives and daughters urged by ministers or relatives to stay with their abusers — or simply unable to escape. The world today is a better place in many, many ways than that of five hundred years ago, but ancient evils persist.

I don’t know why the Church chose to remove Wilgefortis from the calendar. More than likely it was due to the confusion that surrounds her origins and the tendency to conflate her with another female saint whose feast day was also July 20. To add to the confusion, a representation of Jesus on the cross, the androgynous Volto Santo of Lucca, has sometimes been mistaken for a that of a woman due to the long dress-like tunic the figure wears.

In any event, in a church that has not always been known for its embrace of originality, the bearded lady on the cross exercises a certain side-show hilarity, while at the same time the tabloid story of her life and terrible death evokes modern echoes that are not nearly so amusing.

 

 

Journal: Friday, August 30

Anna Komnene, Empress of the East

Anna Komnene, Empress of the East

I’m in the process of reading Book One of the Lady Charlotte Guest’s collection and translation of the Mabinogion, the Welsh cultural epic, and I’ve just finished the story of Peredur of the Long Lance. (Quiet, you in the back row…)

In the course of his adventures Peredur meets (and ultimately marries) a beautiful woman known as “the Empress of Cristinobyl the Great”, who lives in “India”. This Empress is fabulously beautiful, fabulously wealthy, a sorceress, and she needs a good fighting man at her beck and call.

Now, I know that to medieval storytellers pretty much everything east of Rome was considered “India” or “Asia”, so it occurs to me that “Cristinobyl the Great” might actually be Constantinople, the city of Constantine the Great, which makes the lady one of the Byzantine Empresses.  If we imagine — and it’s not impossible — that this aspect of the story of Peredur dates back to about 1100 A.D., the Empress in question would probably be Anna Komnene, who was known for being a scholar, philosopher and physician as well as a superb political strategist, attempting to rule the Empire in her own name and actually going to war with her brother to gain control.

I could be wrong — I do have a tendency to drag either the Byzantine Empire or Bugs Bunny into just about everything, and Bugs just doesn’t fit this one — but if I’m right, how interesting that the legends of a female scholar and ruler from halfway around the world might have found their way into the story of one of King Arthur’s knights. Everything is part of everything else.

Timeless

"Aseneth"

“Aseneth” — Mixed media, 8 x 10 inches.

I’ve recently undertaken a couple of pieces of artwork that involved human faces. In both cases, the style of the piece was such that I had a lot of leeway — I wasn’t looking for some sort of photorealistic presentation, I just needed a female face. The only requirement was that the face be beautiful, and that the look not obviously belong to a particular time or place.

For one of the projects I was working on — “Andromeda“, the Greek myth of the daughter of Cassiopeia and Cepheus — I ended up using a variation of the style of illustration used on ancient Greek pottery. The style, itself remarkably timeless, suited the story, and the simplification and stylization avoids the kind of detail that dates an image. This was, however, a bit of a cop-out, since I wasn’t really solving the problem, just restating it in a way that made the question irrelevant.

 

For the other project — “Aseneth”, based on the apocryphal story of the wife of Joseph (son of Jacob) — I didn’t have a ready-made solution available. The Hebrews of Old Testament times produced little in the way of lasting visual art; unlike their more sedentary neighbors in Africa and Mesopotamia their constant warfare and nomadic lifestyle did not encourage lasting artistic monuments, and the dictates of religion (“create no graven image”) made permanent representations of people problematic. There are no paintings or figurines like those of the Minoans, no epic tales painted on stone or papyrus like those of the Egyptians.

 

Here, also, we face the differing standards of culture and race: late Egyptian sarcophagus portraits show women with carefully cultivated Frida-Kahlo-esque uni-brows. Phoenician women were depicted with large noses and tiny waists; Persian women were depicted with vanishingly small noses but hips and thighs that we would view today as almost obese. What would a beautiful woman of the book of Genesis look like?

 

In practice, this turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds. Anyone who’s watched a movie or television show that was billed as “stylish” at the time of its release knows how bizarre yesterday’s standards of beauty can look, even within a single lifetime: Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads in 1940, Joan Cusack’s teased hair in 1988; Marilyn Monroe’s curves, Mary Tyler Moore’s boyish lines; Brooke Shields’ heavy straight eyebrows, Louise Brooks’ penciled-in arches … We look at the women we once considered beautiful and today we find them jarring, unreal; the paragons of their time, alien to ours.

So, what to do when you want to specify that your subject is “beautiful”, but you don’t want her to be so much a product of one era — either ours or her own?

Throughout history artists have generally depicted the men and women of times and places remote from their own according to the styles most familiar and comfortable to them. This was often for very valid economic reasons: make your Cleopatra look like the wife of a wealthy patron and you’ve got a much better chance of finding a buyer for the painting. The influence of the Church or government could also impact fashions, and could dictate the need to reflect their concerns even in depictions of persons and scenes completely foreign to either.  During the eighteenth century, the gods and goddesses of classical mythology were presented in the fluffy, frilly world that the French monarchs enjoyed, frolicking in voluptuous but tasteful nudity; by the twentieth, those same figures were more often portrayed shrouded in drapery, lurking in a dark and dramatic pagan wilderness.

More recently, artists have sidestepped the question: Paul Klee depicts a female saint as a delicate scribble of lines; Mark Rothko’s Iphigenia is a striated black cone with a pair of stick legs and no head; Georges Braque’s canephorae are massive, lush figures, small-breasted and heavy-bodied, fleshy and androgynous.

Klee observed in his Bauhaus lectures that simplification was the key to making an image universal. A child’s stick figures are recognizable as human and timeless; only when we start to elaborate on the basics do we begin to limit the image to a particular time and place. Rothko dissected his figures, reducing them to symbolic fragments that could only be read as human by someone who had learned to “read” his visual shorthand.

But how do you define a stick figure or a symbol as “beautiful” or “terrifying” or “modest”? What makes a stick figure of Andromeda waiting to be devoured by the monster different from a stick figure of the god Poseidon ordering the monster to eat her? The answer to this question is actually fairly easy: context. Poseidon is not chained up on the rocks at the water’s edge; Andromeda is not rearing from the waves brandishing a trident.

But beauty? Can this be defined by context? I think so. When Picasso paints a wildly distorted image of his lover staring at her own reflection in a mirror, we understand that she likes what she sees, and so does he. Braque’s canephorae are massive and fleshy, but they are also luminous, ripe, like the fruit spilling from the baskets they carry; their lavish health and vigor makes us know that they are beautiful, much more than their tiny, simplified faces ever could — even further, their beauty is timeless, independent of fashion or custom.

What Klee doesn’t mention when he makes his observations about simplification is the importance of the artist’s personal commitment: like the fashionable painter with his Cleopatra, it is much harder to meet the demands of an objective art than to fall back onto a marketable adherence to current standards. In other words, it is easier to paint an Aphrodite who looks like Kiera Knightley than one represented by a mysterious map of arcane symbolism. Picasso’s images of women are not for everyone: they have to be interviewed, read, their context and their attitude deciphered; Braque’s nudes would not be welcome on a fashionable beach; and Klee’s whimsical scribbles could never even exist outside the pictures that they inhabit.

But there is something to be said for immortality, after all: when an image operates outside of current fashion its message is not so likely to be obscured by superficial considerations of taste and style. Symbols endure while trends in hair and makeup change with the seasons. Katherine Hepburn once observed that age was liberating — once she got past fifty, moviegoers lost interest in her hair and her clothes and they started paying more attention to her acting.

The projects I’m working on today are a bit more esoteric than “Andromeda” or “Aseneth”. Neither has human figures in it (at least not recognizably), so I have some time to think about all this before the question comes up again. The visual depiction of beauty that has nothing to do with appearance: this is going to be interesting.

 

Foxed.

The foxes are at it again.

It’s hard to believe something that doesn’t come from the fifth planet of Arcturus could make such a strange assortment of noises. Rattling, choking, yipping, barking, whining, screeching — It’s like my family at dinner when I was fifteen. Continue reading