My wife and I have just come back from our annual trip to Kyoto, where I teach a two-week intensive course on sustainable industrial development. As usual, when I was not giving classes we were either visiting Kyoto or walking the ring of hills which surround the city. And as usual, we’ve been coming across a good many examples of this representative of the insect world.
This, dear readers, is the Nephila clavata, or the Joro spider. It is found throughout most of Japan, as well as in Korea, China and Taiwan. And this is the time of year when they spin their webs. They are everywhere! If you’re not careful, you will walk into the webs as you walk along, getting those silky threads all over your face. Here is an especially dense set of webs which we had to navigate.
I have to say, this species of spider is really quite striking. Look at those green and black markings! And that dark red stripe around its abdomen! I am definitely not a fan of the spider family, but even I have to admit that the Joro spider is beautiful, even if in a rather sinister sort of way. And it does spin lovely webs, the classic ones, a series of concentric circles with radiating spokes. My wife and I were lucky enough to catch this one in the morning sunlight when it was still wet with dew.
The Joro spider is a champion for matriarchal societies. The female is much bigger than the male, and it is she who sits, in deathly stillness, at the centre of the web, waiting for hapless insects to blunder into it and become her next meal.
As for the males, a couple of them will be found on the edges of the web, waiting anxiously for their chance to copulate with the female. After copulation, the female will spin an egg sack, fill it with anything from 400 to 1500 eggs, and then attach it to a tree or other suitable surface. After which, with the onset of winter, all the adults die, leaving the eggs to hatch the following May. The juveniles scatter through the underbrush and the cycle starts again.
And that’s all there is to say, really, about the Joro spider. I’m sure arachnothologists could natter on excitedly for hours about various aspects of the spider’s life cycle and behaviour but I’m assuming my readers are, like me, just ordinary folk with no more than a passing interest in spiders. So I will say no more about the Joro spider – except for one thing.
Readers may be interested to know that the Joro spider has over the centuries become one of Japan’s many yokai – these are the supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons that haunt Japanese folklore. I have this theory that it is the dominance of the female over the male along with her vivid colouration that has led to the Joro spider being turned into a yokai. The name in Japanese, Jorogumo, actually means “woman spider”. The name can also be written to mean more negatively “entangling bride” or even “whore spider”. The common role of the Jorogumo yokai in folk tales is to shapeshift into a beautiful woman who will set herself up in a cave, in the forest, or in an empty house in town, and will wait there for unwary men to pass by. She will seduce them, tie them up in her silken web, and then devour them. We have here several modern takes on these ancient storylines, with the second bordering on the pornographic.
A common finale to these folk tales is that one young man, more astute than the rest, will figure out that the beautiful woman who is trying to inveigle him is actually the dreaded entangling woman/whore spider and will take her out with a sword or other suitable weapon. Here we have a strapping samurai doing just that, in a 19th century woodblock by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
It is interesting that a number of folk tales from other parts of the world include wicked seducing women from the supernatural world, ready to kill or otherwise neuter healthy young men. Just off the top of my head, I can think of the enchantress Circe in the Odyssey, who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs and whose plot to visit the same fate on Odysseus was foiled by the hero.
Or in the same Odyssey, we have the (female) Sirens whose beautiful songs drove (male) sailors mad and incited them to smash their ships onto the rocks.
Without getting too anthropological about it, I have to assume that these tales are a product of the patriarchal societies in which they were developed. In a strongly male-dominated society, the worst thing that can happen to a man is to find himself dominated by a woman. The best excuse a man can give to explain why this happened is for him to say that the woman seduced him. To make it an even better excuse, give the woman supernatural powers of seduction – “if she’d been a normal woman, I could have resisted her female lures”.
As I walked along, ducking out of the way of the Joro spiders’ webs, I found myself wondering how one of these tales would have been told in a matriarchal society.
My wife and I recently spent a long weekend on Traunsee (Lake Traun), which is one of several lakes which sprinkle the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Here is an aerial photo of the lake, looking from south to north.
Readers will notice that the topography around the lake is generally mountainous other than a section of relatively gentle hills on the lake’s northwestern shore. We were staying on the edges of the village of Traunkirchen, down south on the western shore, where gentle hill meets steep mountain. This gave us the opportunity to try out both topographies for our hikes, these being the main purpose of our visit.
Traunkirchen is wonderfully located, clustered as it is around a rocky spit perched on the edge of the lake – readers with sharp eyes may notice that spit in the photo above. I add in here a closer aerial view of the village.
On the afternoon we arrived, we took advantage of a pedal boat, which our hotel kept moored at its little piece of beachfront, to pedal slowly over to the spit and admire the church built on it from the water.
We later visited the church, whose interior was the usual Baroque confection. As I have frequently mentioned, the last time no later than my last post, I am no great fan of the Baroque. But this church does have one splendid piece, the pulpit. It is built in the form a boat, into which fishermen are hauling their catch.
An apt iconography for a village by a lake, but also no doubt the artist was recalling the words of Jesus on Lake Galilee: “As he was going along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.”
Our visit to the church was part of a longer itinerary thoughtfully provided by the local tourist office to explore the village. Our next port of call was a small chapel on the highest point of the spit. Up close the chapel was no great shakes, but from afar it made for a wonderful view, as we saw the next day at the start of one of our hikes.
The local tourist office’s itinerary then carried us away from the water front and up the hill that backed the village. There, perched on a ridge, was a large house built in the early 1850s and known by the locals as the Russian Villa.
The house got its nickname from its first owner. She was the daughter of a Russian prince and went by the delightful name of Sophie Baroness Pantschoulidzeff. The name immediately evokes in me pictures of a languid lady with a Slavic cut to the cheekbones, toying with an enormously long cigarette holder and calling everyone “Daahlingh”. Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to discover anything about this Baroness on the internet. But she kept good company in her villa. Many of Vienna’s artistic elites spent time with her there.
After Baroness Pantschoulidzeff’s death, the villa passed through various hands. Whoever owns it now has a collection of Ancient Greek or Roman statues (or copies thereof) in the garden. Among these, there is one which is – how shall I put it? – particularly intriguing: it is a huge phallus. Of course I had to take a photo.
From writing which I glimpsed carved into its base, I think it also was of Graeco-Roman origin (or a copy of one such).
We saw it because the itinerary recommended by the tourist office took us along a path which passed by the gate to the villa’s garden. The path then went on to become Traunkirchen’s Via Crucis. I can only hope that anyone walking the path for religious purposes, and not – like us – to follow a tourist itinerary, will keep their eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and ignore that giant male member as they pass the villa’s garden gate.
After this glimpse of the surreal, we went on to follow the Via Crucis, which led us eventually to its final chapel in the woods.
After a look at the crucifixion scene in the chapel, we wended our way back down to the waterfront, where we sat down at the cafe outside the Hotel Post.
While we rested, we enjoyed a good cup of Earl Grey tea served to us by a very friendly waiter dressed in lederhosen – we were in Austria, after all – before we heaved ourselves back on our feet and headed back to our Pension.
I had never heard of this particular saint until my wife and I came to this part of the world, but once here we saw him repeatedly, not only in Austria but also in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, and in Hungary (and Wikipedia informs me that we could come across statues of his in Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and even further afield). Here is a photo of a typical statue of his.
This particular photo comes from a web site devoted to statues. The site has listed a little over 200 photos of statues of John of Nepomuk, mostly from the catholic lands of Central Europe but with a smattering from elsewhere, which gives some idea of the saint’s popularity in this part of Europe. The photo shows a “typical” statue of John: bearded, clothed as a priest, wearing the priest’s three-peaked biretta, holding a cross, and with a halo of five stars around his head (what is also often found, but is missing from this particular statue, is a martyr’s palm). The statues are often found on bridges or close to them, for reasons which will become clear. They often look lost and forlorn, engulfed by modern expansions of what were once little villages.
I suppose John of Nepomuk really came into focus for me when, relatively soon after our move to Vienna, my wife and I decided to visit Prague with the children. As anyone who has been to that city knows, no visit is complete without a crossing of the Charles Bridge.
The most striking thing about the bridge (apart from the fine views it affords of both the old and the less old parts of the city) is the thirty or so statues which line both parapets.
For the most part, they are of various saints who presumably were important to the city – or to the donors who paid for them. One of them – actually, the oldest of them all – is a statue of St. John of Nepomuk.
The reasons why some of the other saints got a privileged position on the bridge may not be entirely clear, but in John’s case it is crystal clear. He is the patron saint of the Czech Republic (and, before the Czech Republic existed, of Bohemia). As if that weren’t enough he was killed by being thrown off this very same bridge, which was nearing the end of its construction when he was summarily tipped over the parapet.
Well! It’s not every day that you stand on the very same spot (more or less) from which a saint was dispatched to his death. And such an interesting death! I don’t want to sound too morbid, but the way he was killed – according to my guide-book, sewn into a goatskin bag before being heaved into the river below – was considerably more quirky than most run-of-the mill deaths of saints I’ve come across. Thoroughly intrigued, I began asking myself what John of Nepomuk had done to deserve being declared a saint (being killed isn’t enough, otherwise we would have millions if not billions of saints).
After reading various accounts of his life, I’m afraid I have to conclude that he did nothing to deserve his title of saint. His sainthood was an act of pure politics.
Perhaps it is time for me to give a thumbnail sketch of John’s life and times. He was born in the 1340s in the Czech (Bohemian) town of Pomuk (later renamed Nepomuk). I would guess that his father – a burgher of the town – decided that his son should make his career in the Church. John must have been a bright lad because after the usual schooling he was sent to the University of Prague, completing his studies of theology and jurisprudence in 1374. Somehow he caught the eye of John of Jesentein, who later became archbishop of Prague. Here is a statue of the good Archbishop on the cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague (if this is a true likeness, he seems to have been a merry fellow).
John of Jesenstein became Archbishop in 1378 and made John his first secretary. Presumably the Archbishop decided that John needed to further his studies and he went off to the University of Padua in 1383, returning home in 1387 with a doctorate in canon law in his pocket. Upon his return, he received – no doubt from the Archbishop – various positions: canon in the church of St. Ægidius in Prague, canon of the cathedral in Wyschehrad in 1389, Archdeacon of Sasz and canon of the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague in 1390, president of the ecclesiastical court shortly afterwards, and finally the Archbishop’s vicar-general (a sort of deputy for administrative matters) in 1393. It all sounds like the very rapid ascent of a very able fellow in the Church hierarchy. No doubt a brilliant career beckoned.
All this was taking place against a turbulent political background. Wenceslaus IV was King of Bohemia at the time. We see him here with his wife Sophia (more of her later), in a miniature from his bible.
From what I read, he was a rather weak man. He certainly didn’t seem able to control his overweening family members, who were constantly undercutting him. His nobles, perhaps already restive but perhaps sensing his weakness, spent their time being obstreperous. He made matters worse by relying on favourites, something which nobles everywhere have always disliked; they feel that by reason of their birth they should be getting the positions being doled out to lower-born favourites. I have to say, Wencelsaus reminds me a lot of Richard II of England.
It was Wenceslaus wanting to reward a favourite which brought him on a collision course with the Church. The crisis came to a head pretty much immediately after John took up his post as the Archbishop’s vicar-general. Wenceslaus wanted to found a new bishopric for one of his favourites. His eyes fell on the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey of Kladruby, an abbey which still exists. This picture gives us an idea of what a juicy piece of real estate it must have been.
It so happened that its abbot was dying. Wenceslaus ordered that upon his death no new abbot was to be elected. Instead, the abbey’s territories were to be turned into a bishopric and his favourite installed as its bishop (his idea was that the bishop could then return the favour, using the abbey’s resources to support the King in his struggles with family and aristocracy). Now, if there was one thing the Church hierarchy really objected to, that was having Kings telling them who should fill what Church posts, especially when those posts carried with them rich benefices which would be lost to the Church. So when the old abbot finally copped it, the monks of Kladruby held an election post haste and chose one of their own monks to be the new abbot; John, as vicar-general, promptly confirmed the election.
When he heard the news, Wenceslaus blew his top; I am reminded of Henry II of England who, driven to distraction by his Archbishop Thomas à Becket, cried out “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, a cry which led four knights to travel to Canterbury and slaughter Thomas on the steps of the cathedral’s high altar. In this case, Wenceslaus had John and three other top Church officials who had played some role in the decision arrested and thrown into gaol. In good medieval fashion, they were all tortured to get them to change the decision. The three others cracked and agreed. But John of Nepomuk held firm. So finally Wenceslaus ordered that he be placed in chains, paraded through the city with a block of wood in his mouth, and thrown from the Charles Bridge into the river. His executioners added the bit about being sewn into a goatskin bag. This fateful final event in John’s story occurred in March of 1393.
I’m not quite sure what the fall-out of all this was. The Archbishop certainly hot-footed it down to Rome, accompanied by the new abbot of Kladruby, to make a formal exposition of all that had happened (thus giving us the earliest written account of John’s death). In that exposition, he wrote of John being a martyr, presumably wanting to clothe in holiness a death that was really about quarrels between Church and State and who was more powerful, swirling around what was – let’s face it – a nice juicy piece of real-estate.
Regardless of what went on in the corridors of power, John’s death caught the imagination of the “little people” of Bohemia. A cult gradually grew up around him. By 1459, so some 70 years after John’s death, a more fanciful – and somewhat more holy – story appeared about the reason for his death; I suppose grubby little arguments about power and money didn’t seem suitable. It was now said that John had been Queen Sophia’s father confessor, that Wenceslaus had pressured him to tell if the Queen had confessed to having a lover, that John had refused to spill the beans citing the secrecy of the confessional, and that the King had lost it, leading to John being tossed into the river. This story is why John is quite often shown with his finger on his lips, as in this painting in the Church of Santa Maria Anima in Rome.
When, after Emperor Ferdinand II smashed the Protestant forces of Bohemia at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and the forces of the Counter-Reformation were in full flow to forcibly turn Bohemia back into a Catholic state, it was decided to build on John’s popularity with the little people and push for his canonization. A very thick report was put together which emphasized the fanciful story of his death over the real reason for his death, and it was forwarded to the relevant authorities in Rome. The Roman Curia was happy to comply, so John was beatified in 1721 and canonized in 1729.
John’s sainthood of course drove the creation of art. Some of this was what we could call High Art. For instance, the years between his beatification and canonization saw the building of the Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk, a church that is famous in the Czech Republic and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (its rather fanciful shape is apparently based on an interpretation of the Cabbala).
My wife and I have never seen this church, although it looks like a good candidate for a visit; I shall talk to her about it. On the other hand, I am firmly of the opinion that John’s Baroque tomb in the cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague can be skipped.
Not only does it have in spadefuls all I dislike about Baroque art – all flash and no substance – I really disapprove of the fact that two tonnes of silver were used to make the tomb; the money used to purchase the silver should have been distributed to the poor.
That’s the High Art. The Low Art generated by John are all those thousands of statues of him scattered around Central Europe and beyond. As readers can imagine, based on the fanciful explanation of his death, John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of good confession, confessors and penitents. But – more interestingly, to my mind – because of the way he died, he is also believed to protect against floods and troubled waters, and so is considered a patron saint of bridges and fords. Certainly the latest statue of him that my wife and I came across was in Lilienfeld during our walk along the so-called Via Sacra between Vienna and Mariazell. The statue was situated on the bank of a river, next to a bridge.
This statue is somewhat more exciting than most statues of this type, showing John in the act of being thrown over the bridge’s parapet by a fellow who looks quite mean and nasty.
The river itself flowed quite placidly when we crossed the bridge.
But the news is often filled with stories of rivers which have flooded and killed tens or hundreds of people. Why, only a few days ago we were treated to pictures of extreme flooding in Spain.
I can imagine that the little, humble people have always had great respect for the power of rivers. They bring life-saving water to the crops, but they also unleash death and destruction when angry. I’m sure rites to propitiate the river gods are as old as civilization itself. The Greeks and Romans had their river gods and goddesses. So did the Celts. In fact, so did just about every other culture: Wikipedia has an entry on all these deities. I’m sure that the medieval Bohemians used John as a way of christianizing their age-old river gods.
Of course, if you have a saint to whom you pray to stop floods and the heavy rain which creates them, it is not a great step to also ask him to intercede in the opposite case, the case of drought. That’s why you will also find statues of John in the middle of farmland, like this one from a place called Burlo in Germany (although the field behind looks rather sodden in this case).
So there we have it. An actor in a Shakespearean drama of power and money who was, over the centuries and for various political reasons, turned into a saint. But below the official Catholic radar, a man who by chance became the means for a mostly rural population to officialize their magic to try to manage water, one of their most precious resources.
P.S. After reading this post, my wife began to see statues of John of Nepomuk everywhere we hiked. They really are common in this part of the world!
I should have written this post a long time ago, when I first went to see the Batliner collection at the Albertina Museum here in Vienna. But somehow it got left behind. I have been jogged along by the death in June of Mr. Batliner, although even then I am several months late. But hey, better late than never!
A little bit of background is in order. Herbert Batliner was a hideously rich Liechensteiner banker (he was actually half Liechensteiner, half Austrian; his mother was Austrian). It will probably come as no surprise to readers to know that his Liechensteiner father was a banker and that he himself followed his father into banking. He made millions helping seriously rich people stash their wealth away from pesky tax collectors (and others) in “family foundations”. Some of these people had iffy reputations – the son of an African dictator, the partner of an Ecuadorian drug baron, a pardoned fugitive US financier, that sort of thing. Some of his replies when he was asked about these rather grey financial dealings were quite instructive: “I’m not a Father Confessor who has to ask his clients if they have obeyed the laws of their homelands”, and “We don’t take unannounced clients, or those that show up with suitcases full of cash”. At one point, the German tax authorities started investigating him for possible involvement in illegal financial transactions by one of the country’s political parties, but he saw the danger off with the payment of a rather hefty fine. All this assistance to the filthy rich made him rich too. In 2006, his assets were estimated at about 200 million Swiss Francs.
On the plus side, Mr. Batliner, together with his wife Rita, used his millions to build up a remarkable collection of modern and contemporary art. In 2007, he transferred his collection (in the form of a foundation, of course) to the Albertina Museum as a permanent loan. The Museum was, of course, exceedingly grateful. The Director Klaus Albrecht Schröder called the donation a “key event in the history of the Albertina”. We see here Herbert and Rita, together with a beaming Schröder, in front of one of the paintings in their collection, a Monet painting of the water lilies in the pond of his garden at Giverny.
This same painting make up the background to the Albertina’s poster which publicizes the permanent exhibition.
The Albertina then cannily transferred this poster to the long flight of steps leading up to the entrance to the museum.
It has become quite a hit with the public, being a popular spot for photos and selfies.
The poster, and other material related to the exhibition, highlight the presence of paintings by Monet and Picasso, but in truth these were not the paintings that struck me the most when I visited the exhibition. I show here, in the order in which I came across them, the works that caught my attention.
Peace (1915) by Augusto Giacometti, a Swiss painter. He was related to the more well-known Alberto Giacometti, being a cousin of Alberto’s father. This is the only time I’ve ever come across any of his work. Wikpedia informs me that “he was a prominent as a painter in the Art Nouveau and Symbolism movements, for his work in stained glass, as a proponent of murals and a designer of popular posters.”
Forest (1909) by Emil Nolde. Nolde was German-Danish, being born in Schleswig. He was one of the first Expressionists, a member of the Die Brücke movement.
Moonlit Night (1914), again by Emil Nolde.
Unfortunately, Nolde is a prime example of the fact that being a great painter doesn’t mean that you are a nice person. Already in the early 1920s Nolde was a supporter of the Nazi party, expressing anti-semitic opinions about Jewish artists and considering Expressionism to be a distinctively Germanic style. But he was hoist on his own petard. Hitler rejected all forms of modern art as “degenerate”, and the Nazi regime officially condemned Nolde’s work. Over a thousand of his works were removed from museums, more than those of any other artist, and some were included in the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition. He was not allowed to paint – even in private – after 1941.
Irises in the Evening Shadows (1925) by Max Pechstein. Like Nolde, Pechstein was German and a member of the Die Brücke movement. He fell out with his fellow members, though, in 1912 and went it alone. He too fell foul of the Nazis and had a number of his works exhibited in the Degenerate Art exhibition.
Approach to Löbau Train Station (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Also German, also an Expressionist painter, also a member of the Die Brücke movement, also branded as “degenerate” and had a number of his paintings exhibited in the Degenerate Art Exhibition. He committed suicide in 1938.
Yachting on Lake Tegern (1910) by August Macke. Macke was another German Expressionist painter, but he was a founder member of another movement, the Blaue Reiter, which was based in the outskirts of Munich. He died in the first weeks of the First World War, in Champagne.
The Blue Cow (c. 1911) by Natalia Goncharova. A Russian, Goncharova was, according to her Wikipedia entry, “a founding member of both the Jack of Diamonds (1909–1911), Moscow’s first radical independent exhibiting group, the more radical Donkey’s Tail (1912–1913), and with her lifelong partner, Mikhail Larionov, invented Rayonism (1912–1914). She was also a member of the German based art movement known as Der Blaue Reiter.”
Young Girl with a Flowered Hat (1910) by Alexej Jawlensky. Another Russian, Jawlensky moved to Germany, joined the Expressionist trend, and was another founder member of the Blaue Reiter movement. I recently saw a wonderful painting of his in Munich.
Another gorgeous painting by Jawlensky, Cornfield near Carantec, from a bit earlier: 1905. Very different from the “typical” Jawlensky painting, of which the Young Girl with a Flowered Hat is an example.
A third Jawlensky, Abstract Head, from 1928/29. I suppose he felt the need to move with the times. But the colouring is still lovely.
Jawlensky is another example of a great painter but not a very nice man. Early on in his career, he shacked up with a rich woman, Marianne von Werefkin, who gave up her painting to look after him and ensure he could paint without having to work, then at some point he dumped her and married another woman, by whom he had already had a child. Marianne died alone, in poverty and obscurity in 1938.
Hungarian Fields (1919) by László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy is not normally an artist that I warm to, but this painting stopped me dead in my tracks. I had noticed this same pattern of small strips of fields in Austria around Lake Neusidl, on the border with Hungary.
On the Hungarian side of the lake, the fields were much larger. I’m sure they were just as small as the fields in Austria until World War II, but collective farming during the Communist period wiped them out.
The exhibition had a number of examples of Austrian painters who adhered to the New Objectivity movement which sprang up after World War I, as a reaction to Expressionism. One strand of New Objectivity was a return to classicism. After the horrors of the war, throughout Europe there was a “return to order” in the arts, which resulted in a turn away from abstraction by many artists towards neoclassicism. I include here one example from the exhibition, The Big Port of 1928 by Herbert von Reyel-Hanisch.
I started with Augusto Giacometti, I finish with his more famous cousin once-removed, Alberto Giacometti.
One photo doesn’t do justice to this remarkable statuette, Slender Bust on Plinth (Amenophis) from 1954. I suspect that when Giacometti refers to Amenophis he has in mind the pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten started reigning as Amenhotep IV, a name which the Greeks translated as Amenophis. As this photo attests, he did have a long thin face with pronounced features like Giacometti’s statuette.
I was certainly much struck by the statues of Akhenaten which we saw during a recent visit to Egypt. I could well imagine that Giacometti would have found his face fascinating.
Well, those were my take-aways from this exhibition. If any of my readers come to Vienna, they should really make time for this exhibition and see what they think. The rest of the Albertina Museum is also worth visiting, they normally have excellent temporary exhibitions.
Back in April, I was up in Vienna to make a presentation at a workshop on ecodesign and its role in promoting circular economies. Fascinating topic, but what I actually want to write about is the fact that at this meeting I met an old contact of mine, Wolfgang, who many years ago had run a training programme for me on ecodesign in Sri Lanka. After the workshop, we repaired to a bar to catch up on the past 15 years or so over a beer. Wolfgang first told me all about what he’s been up to in the ecodesign world, but then added, “What’s really exciting me at the moment is my production of mead.”
Mead … I don’t know what visions this conjures up in my readers, but for me I immediately see Vikings wassailing the dark Nordic nights away, drinking mead out of horns or possibly the skulls of their enemies, and preparing for the battle of tomorrow where they will die heroically and go to Valhalla. These fine fellows will stand in nicely for such a scene.
I had certainly never drunk the stuff myself; I didn’t know anyone made it anymore.
Thoroughly intrigued, I pressed Wolfgang for more information. As is the case with all enthusiasts, I didn’t have to press very hard. With a pint of beer inside him, he waxed lyrical on the subject. He had to start at the very beginning, with what mead is made from – I didn’t even know that. It’s a mixture of honey and water to which yeast is added to turn the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The relative ratios of honey to water will determine the level of sweetness of the final product. Sweetness can be further increased by the addition of fruits. On the other hand, the mix can be made dryer by adding astringent berries or herbs. Wolfgang was very dismissive about the modern trend of making sweet meads. In fact, he said, he started making mead because he was appalled at how horribly sweet most modern meads are, which in his opinion obliterates the wonderful underlying tastes of the honey. He decided he was going to swim against the current and make a dry mead. He had been at it for a couple of years, and was beginning to sell his product to other enthusiasts.
Well, this all sounded very interesting! I was definitely going to have to try this stuff. Unfortunately, I was going back down to Milan the next day. But we agreed that when my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I would contact him and we would arrange a mead-tasting event.
In the meantime, down in Milan, I did some research. Mead, it turns out, is very ancient, probably the first alcoholic drink that human beings ever quaffed. It’s also a pretty universal drink. The tribes that settled Europe certainly all drank mead. I’ve already mentioned the Vikings. They loved mead so much, they wrote a whole saga about it – Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. It’s a story that has dwarves, giants, the god Odin, thievery, murder, and various other bits and bobs. A shaggy dog story if ever I heard one, good to while away those long Nordic nights while quaffing mead. The bottom line of the saga is that mead can turn you into a poet or a scholar: a feeling that I’m sure all of us have had when we have drunk too much alcohol; a feeling we normally have just before we are sick or pass out, or both. And much of Beowulf, that Anglo-Saxon poem greatly revered by lovers of the English language, takes place in a mead hall; it was in these specially-built halls that Viking chieftains and their retinue of warriors drank mead, listened to long, long – long – sagas, and generally wassailed the nights away, before collapsing onto the benches or even onto the floor in a drunken stupor. Here is an artist’s representation of a mead hall.
And here is an excellent summary of the first part of Beowulf: “The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.”
The Vikings may be the best known quaffers of mead, but the Celts were no slouches, and nor were the Germanic tribes. There is riddle-poem in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, about honey and mead. I quote the first couple of lines:
Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden,
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte, feredon mid liste …
But since I’m sure that 99.99% of my readers are like me not able to read Anglo-Saxon, I insert here a translation of the poem into modern English:
I am valuable to men, found widely,
brought from groves and from mountain slopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day, was I carried
by feathers up high, taken skillfully
under a sheltering roof. A man then washed me
in a container. Now I am a binder and a striker;
I bring a slave to the ground, sometimes an old churl.
Immediately he discovers, he who goes against me
and contends against my strength,
that he shall meet the ground with his back,
unless he ceases from his folly early;
deprived of his strength, loud of speech, his power bound,
he has no control over his mind, his feet, or his hands.
Ask what I am called, who thus binds slaves
to the earth with blows, by the light of day.
The Anglo-Saxons clearly recognized the power of mead to bring you crashing to the floor of the mead hall or any other establishment where you drank the stuff in excess.
The Slavs also drank the stuff – they still do, with Poland having an especially developed culture of mead drinking. We have here a painting of a couple of early 19th Century Polish noblemen enjoying a flagon of mead, a scene inspired by that great nationalist Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. I don’t even bother with the Polish here, I just launch straight into an English translation, and cut out much of the saga-like talk between the two old men who are our subject:
Two old men sat outside the house, tankards
of strong mead resting on their knees; …
The old men drink their mead and dip their snuff
from a bark case, continuing their chat.
“Yes, yes, Protazy, it is true enough,”
said the Warden. “I can agree with that,”
replied Protazy the Apparitor.
“Yes,” they repeated in unison, “Yes,”
nodding their heads. …
…. The turf bench in the yard
on which they sat adjoined the kitchen wall;
from an open window, steam filled the air,
billowing like a conflagration. When all
the smoke was gone, a white chef‟s hat was there,
flitting like a dove. It was the Seneschal,
who stuck his head out through the kitchen window,
eavesdropping on this private conversation.
Finally, he handed them a plate with two
biscuits. “Have this cake with your libation,”
He said …
It wasn’t just tribes in Europe’s north who drank mead. The Ancient Greeks drank it – I read that Dionysios was the God of mead before becoming the God of wine. Greek followers of Dionysios, and Roman followers of Bacchus (same God, different name), used to hold festivals – the Dionysia or Bacchanalia – where much drinking and dancing and cavorting about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) was the key. Here is a take on a Bacchanalia by Hendrik Balen (he did the figures) and Jan Breughel the Elder (he did the landscape), painted in about 1620.
As I say, the Romans partook enthusiastically in Bacchanalia, but there were more sober Roman citizens who left us some serious commentary on mead. Here is my favourite, by the Roman naturalist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who included a recipe for making mead in his tome on agriculture, De re rustica, which he wrote in about 60 CE (again, I skip the Latin and go straight into an English translation).
Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius [ca. ½ litre] of this water with a [Roman] pound [ca. ⅓ kg] of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces [ca. ¼ kg] of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.
I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by this idea that one could take several-year old rainwater and use it to make something to drink; I suppose this was a way of inoculating the honey-water mix with natural yeasts which somehow found their way into the rainwater. I presume Columella drank his own mead and survived, so it cannot have been as deadly as it sounds.
And it wasn’t just the Europeans who drank it. The Chinese did – in fact, the oldest archaeological evidence tentatively pointing to mead drinking has been found in China: some honey, rice, and fermentation residues found on the inside of a pot 9,000 years old. The Mandaya and Manobo people in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines still drink mead, which they call bais.
In Africa, the Xhosa in South Africa have an ancient tradition of drinking mead, or iQhilika in Xhosa, and the Ethiopians have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic drinkers of mead (or tej as it’s called locally). Here we have Ethiopians enjoying a wee dram of the stuff.
And I love this picture, done in the traditional Ethiopian style, of what appears to be a priest and his acolytes getting ready to down some tej.
What I find particularly delicious in this painting is that normally the figures in Ethiopian paintings are very solemn; no-one breaks into a smile. Yet here, at the thought of the pleasures to come, we see a hint of a smile on the acolytes’ faces (while the priest looks troubled, which is perhaps how it should be: “Guys, should we be doing this? What if someone sees me drinking this stuff? I have an important position in the community.”).
Even in the Americas mead was, and still is consumed. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya made a drink called balché made by soaking the bark of a special tree in a honey-water mix and allowing it to ferment. Apparently, the Maya consumed balché in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect (just think if the Vikings had cottoned on to that …). For some reason, the Conquistadores banned the drink, but it never went away completely. Here is an Amerindian from the Chiapas region of Mexico making balché the old way: in a hollowed log, place the bark of the tree, add water and honey, cover and wait. Balché may be making a comeback, although one of the reasons the Spaniards didn’t like it is that it smelled foul to them. They popularized a variant, xtabentún, which replaced the tree bark with anise (they also added rum, which makes the drink more of a liqueur).
In a way, it’s not surprising that mead is drunk in so many parts of the world. Honey, its basic ingredient, is to be found pretty much everywhere on this planet, as this map of the global distribution of the honeybee attests (the different colours refer to sub-species of the honeybee; the pinkish colour, the most dominant, gives the range for apis mellifera).
For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the drinking of mead went into steep decline in Europe some time after the Middle Ages. Somehow, it got squeezed out by wine on one side and beer on the other. So now there are a few traditional hold-outs where mead never completely died out and enthusiasts like Wolfgang who are trying to bring mead back.
Coming back to Wolfgang, when June came around and my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I contacted him. But one thing and another – he was away, then I was away; he was busy, then I was busy – meant that we weren’t able to arrange the mead tasting until last week. But it was finally arranged! Wolfgang keeps his mead in an old wine cellar in a small village outside Vienna, so we took a bus with him one evening and sallied forth. It was a lovely cellar, very deep, at the end of which he had a table with chairs where we sat down to do our mead tasting. He got us some glasses and a bottle of his best mead. He uncorked it, poured us a generous portion, and invited us to taste. We ceremonially picked up the glass, sniffed it, swirled it around, and took a sip.
It was … interesting. I think that’s the best I can say. I don’t know if readers can imagine this, but it tasted like honey without the sweet taste. What gets left behind if you take out the honey’s sweetness is a slightly acrid, slightly “waxy” taste. If any of my readers have ever nibbled at wax, that was the predominant taste of the mead.
The first mead we tried was made with honey where the bees had been feeding on the nectar from lime-tree (linden) flowers (I have waxed lyrical about the flower of the linden tree in a past post). We then tried a mead made with honey where the bees had feasted on rhododendron nectar up in the Alps. It was much clearer in colour, but the taste did not change much. As a finale, we tried a mead to which chokeberries had been added. These turned the mead’s colour redder and made the taste smokier – but it did not change the basic facts. Well, we bought two bottles from Wolfgang. We felt we owed him that for the trouble he had gone to. We plan to take the bottles down to Milan, where we’ll try them on our son and see what he thinks.
In the meantime – but I have to hide this from Wolfgang – I think we should find some sweet mead to try. I feel that despite Wolfgang’s tut-tutting, people are not so wrong to drink their mead sweet. And that Ethiopian mead looks really interesting! I wonder if the Ethiopian restaurant we go to in Milan has any?
I left readers at the end of my last post promising to cover the rest of our stay in Munich as well as our stay in Bregenz in another post. Well, I am a man of his word, here is that post!
In truth, the post will be more of a showing of photos than anything else, the e-equivalent of having your friends round for dinner after your latest holiday and boring them with your holiday snaps. I hope my readers will not be too bored and slip away early from this post …
With that, let us begin!
Well, I can’t say that I was carried away by the overall look and feel of the city. Pleasant enough, but Vienna for instance is a much more striking city overall. So what follows is a string of individual things that stuck in my mind as we criss-crossed the city.
The Nymphenburg Palace, the little summer pad of the Dukes-Kings-Electors of Bavaria.
It was once out in the countryside but is now in the suburbs of Munich. Considerably more dramatic than the Hapsburgs’ little summer pad at Schönbrunn (now also marooned in Vienna’s suburbs).
The outside may have been dramatic, but the palace’s interiors weren’t up to much. On the other hand, the interior of Amalienburg, a little hunting lodge hidden among the trees of the Palace’s park, was quite something.
“One of the finest examples of Rococo architecture in Germany” intones the Michelin Green Guide. I’m quite ready to believe it.
A riot of colour at the city’s botanical gardens, situated on the edge of Nymphenburg Palace’s park.
A striking painting by Alexej Jawlensky (Portrait of the Dancer Sacharoff), at Villa Lenbach, one of the museums we visited.
The museum has a whole section devoted to members of the Blaue Reiter group. A worthy collection indeed, but nothing other than this painting grabbed me.
Villa Lenbach also had a room devoted to paintings from after 1945, which is where I saw this one.
The Seated Man, by Jean Hélion, a French painter whom I had never, ever heard of prior to entering the Villa Lenbach. Well, you learn something new every day …
We also visited the Modern Art Gallery (Pinakothek der Moderne). Again, a very worthy collection, but only this painting by Max Beckmann (Dance in Baden-Baden) has stayed with me.
On our wanderings, we entered the Burgersaal church by mistake (I misread the map and thought we were visiting St. Michael’s church (“the first Renaissance church built north of the Alps” the Michelin Green Guide dixit – the serendipity of tourism).
The paintings on the ceiling were a pleasingly modernized take on an old art form.
The church is dedicated to Blessed Rupert Mayer (kneeling to the left on that ceiling painting), a priest who stood up to the Nazis. He was one of the very few German Catholics who did so …
The new main Jewish synagogue in St. Jakobs Platz in the old town.
The previous main synagogue was pulled down by the Nazis in 1938. We didn’t get to visit inside, but the brooding, rugged exterior was impressive enough. It reminded me of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Jewish Museum next door was interesting, too, but more as a collection of memories of a community scythed down by the Nazis. Many were sent to Dachau, a mere 20 km to the north of Munich.
The Hofbräuhaus Beer Hall in the old town.
This was one of several such halls in Munich in which Hitler used to speak in the early days of his political career. I don’t know what I was expecting; a sense of menace or of dread in the air? No doubt I was influenced by a painting I had seen in Los Angeles’s County Museum of Art: The Orator, by Magnus Zeller.
The location of that painting could easily have been the Hofbräuhaus.
But all I saw were a lot of people enjoying a beer, and all I heard was a lot of cheerful babble.
And that’s it for Munich! Next stop:
I must confess that I was expecting more. Its location on Lake Constance, its venerable and ancient past (it was originally a Roman town by the name of Brigantium), all led me to think it would be an interesting place to visit. But no, there really wasn’t much to it, and what there was, was ruined by bad town planning: the railway station and a busy through road effectively cut the city off from the lake. So again, just a few photos of some individual places.
A view of the upper town, a charming and quiet little corner of the city.
That tower in the background with the squat onion dome is St. Martin’s Tower; this charming fresco is one of several which adorn its interior.
A view of the city and the lake from up a mountain outside the city. We discovered some beautiful walks in the mountains surrounding the city.
The spectacular set for the opera; it was the fact that our friend from Bregenz had extra tickets that brought us to the city in the first place.
The stage is a little way out in the lake, just off the shore, and the audience takes its place on seating put up along the shore. We were seeing Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the opera itself was completely overshadowed by the set. That giant head went up and down and turned this way and that, the eyes opened and closed, as did the mouth, people entered and exited the mouth, the hands moved, fluttering here and there, the tethered balloon went up and down … All this while the sun was setting over the lake and darkness came creeping up on us. It was jaw-dropping. Was the singing good? I don’t know, I was so concentrated on that head and its next move.
And that’s it for Bregenz!
I hope you’re still with me and that you enjoyed our holiday snaps. See you next time!
A couple of months ago, a friend of ours told us that he had two spare tickets for the Bregenz Opera festival and asked us if would we like to take them. It so happens that I had been meaning to go and check Bregenz out ever since, many years ago, we had driven through it one wintry day on our way to visit my parents. So my wife and I gladly took him up in his offer. A write-up on that trip, though, will have to wait for another day. What I want to write about today is our little pre-trip to Munich.
It just so happens that a couple of days after we accepted our friend’s offer to go to Bregenz we read about an exhibition in Munich of the works of the Ghanaian-Nigerian artist El Anatsui.
We had come across his work in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art some five years ago, and had been hankering to see more of his stuff ever since. It also so happens that we had passed through Munich as well as Bregenz that wintry day of many years ago – as readers will ascertain looking at a map, Munich and Bregenz are in the same general direction from Vienna. There too, I had promised myself to return some day to visit the city.
So after a little discussion and a study of bus and train timetables, my wife and I decided that we would visit Munich for a few days before going on to Bregenz for another couple of days. Thus it was that two weeks ago we disembarked from the bus at Munich’s bus station to start our visit.
Since it was the primary reason for our visiting Munich, I will focus in this post on the exhibition of El Anatui’s work. I’ll deal with the rest of Munich and Bregenz in a later post.
Anatsui is best known for these kinds of works. At first glance, they appear to be large sheets of textiles of some sort, draped on the wall. But actually, the sheets are made up of thousands of aluminum bottle tops, from bottled drinks, as well as of the aluminum bands or sheaths to which the unopened tops are attached. Anatsui was driven to experiment with these waste objects by a principle he lives by: artists should use what they have around them to create their art. He buys these discarded pieces of aluminum from the informal recyclers who collect them. His large crew of assistants then flatten them, after which Anatsui has them lay the pieces on the ground, where he shuffles them around, using the brand colours of the aluminum pieces to produce an overall large-scale abstract design. Once he is satisfied with the design, his assistants “sew” the pieces together with copper wire. When Anatsui is setting up an exhibition, he will spend much time in “draping” the sheets on the wall until he is satisfied with the effect. Here are some other pieces in the exhibition. Sometimes, Anatsui uses the aluminum pieces differently. He will have his assistants twist them into circles, which they will then sew together. This gives him semi-transparent sheets with a gauze-like effect. He had one very large work of this type in the exhibition, filling up a whole room. While Anatsui has mostly used aluminum bottle tops and their sheaths in these kinds of works, he has also used other metallic discards. This work, for instance, is made with the “Easy Open” can tops, the ones you can just pull off the cans. Personally, I find his work with the aluminum caps and sheathes more interesting. Can tops are too big, so the textile-like effect of his other works is not really there. The brand colours are absent too, so he can’t get the abstract designs he creates with the bottle tops.
I have to say, I find these pieces fascinating. Not only are they beautiful to look at, they are also a wonderful example of how, with some thought and dedication, a waste can be given a new life. And what a new life they have been given by Anatsui! His works remind me of another African artist whom I have written a post about earlier, Abdoulaye Konaté. He also takes small coloured pieces of material, in his case pieces of textile, and creates beautiful abstract designs out of them.
Although Anatsui is best known for his work with aluminum bottle caps, he actually arrived at this quite late in his career. Before that, he worked, and continues to work, with wood. His basic approach is to first take a chain-saw to the wood, gouging out lines, often criss-crossing and of varying depths and orientation, and then taking a blow torch to the surface to selectively blacken it. He may then add touches of colour. The effect can be quite striking. Here are photos of a couple of his works in the exhibition. Before that, he worked in clay. We are now at the start of his career, and as is perhaps often the case with artists this early work is good but not great. I include only one of these works here.
As I say, a really great artist. I’ve said it before, and I say it again: I think the best art today is coming out of the developing countries; In Europe especially, our art is dying on its feet. I’m afraid any readers who are interested in seeing this exhibition will no longer be able to see it in Munich. It closed at the end of July. But I think there is a chance it will go on to other places. Keep a lookout for it!
During the month of March, my wife and I went to Bologna for a short visit (I should have written up this post quite a while back; but hey, as they say, better late than never). It’s a nice little town, somewhat off the tourists’ beaten track, which makes it all the nicer. It had been decades since either of us had been back – my wife studied there for a year in the late 1970s, and I had visited her one Christmas before we went off for a little jaunt to Puglia. So it was nice to visit a few old haunts, although in truth her memories of the town were somewhat hazy and mine were almost non-existent.
But actually, what I had really been looking forward to visit was a Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Niccolò dell’Arca from 1463, which is located in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita (tucked away behind Piazza del Nettuno). I had come across it a decade or so ago when I was methodically leafing through the 1,000 pages of the book 30,000 Years of Art: the story of human creativity across time and space.
This very – very – thick book purports to summarize the best art that we humans have created ever since we started making things: the first entry in the book is from c. 28000 BC, the last is from the mid-1990s. Its entry for the year 1463 is Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation (on page 685, if anyone is interested). When I saw it, I said to myself, “One day, I must go to Bologna to see this!”
The Lamentation in question is not a painting. Rather, it is a collection of terracotta statues making up a sort of “tableau vivant” of the scene of sorrow around Jesus’s dead body, after he has been taken down from the cross and before he has been deposed in his tomb. It seems that Lamentations of this kind were quite common, at least in Italy (and not just in terracotta; I recently saw the remains of two other Lamentations made of wood, in the Pinacoteca of Milan’s castle). The statues represent a set of stock characters: Jesus, of course, lying on the ground after being taken down from the cross; Mary, the mother of Jesus (whom I shall henceforth refer to as the Madonna, to avoid confusion with the three other Marys); St. John the Evangelist; the three other Marys – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Salome; Joseph of Arimathea; and Nicodemus. Here is a typical example of the form, which we also saw in Bologna, in the cathedral, made by the artist Alfonso Lombardi between 1522 and 1526.
Very nice, very dignified, very composed.
But now consider the Lamentation which I wanted to see.
Talk about lamentation! Look at the faces of the women!
Mary, mother of Jesus, first of all
Next to her, Mary Salome, gripping her thighs frenetically in her anguish
At the feet of Jesus, Mary of Cleophas, trying to shield herself from the awful truth
Finally, next to her, Mary Magdalene, shrieking out her horror at what she sees.
The weeping, the wailing – the shrieking – going on in that circle of people is all heightened by Mary Magdalene’s clothes streaming behind her in a most dramatic fashion.
The explanation given in the church is that she was running to the scene and the artist caught her – as if in a cinematic still – at the moment when she burst into the circle around the body and saw with horror that Jesus was dead.
In contrast, the two men in the group are quite subdued. St. John’s expression can only be described as that of someone who is feeling somewhat miserable
while Joseph of Arimathea simply looks phlegmatic.
(for those of my readers who might be asking themselves this, Nicodemus was either not part of this particular group or he disappeared in the intervening 400 years)
This male-female contrast in emotions brings to mind an exchange we as a family had on WhatsApp about Theresa May’s resignation speech in late May. Our son commented that it was somewhat embarrassing to see her cry, at which our daughter leaped to her defence. I quote: “I thought her speech was pretty good. She got emotional when talking about the honour of the job and the fact that she was the second ever female UK prime minister (and not the last) – I think it’s fair to get emotional at that stage! We need to stop vilifying emotional releases such as tears. Women are physiologically more prone to crying – our tear ducts open more easily. If we see tears as a sign of weakness we are inherently disadvantaging women. Anyway, the premise that being “strong” means being unemotional I also think should be changed. We don’t need to go to the opposite extreme but her release was very appropriate.”
Well, Nicolò dell’Arca certainly seemed to think that grown men don’t cry, but that women do, and copiously!
It struck me that I could use the various Lamentations paintings created over the centuries to explore how painters felt about this gender difference in the showing of emotions, or simply about the showing of emotions at all. I should add a warning here that my personal take on this is that in real life the scene at the centre of the Lamentations would have been highly emotional: your son, or your leader, who has had you believing that he is heralding the arrival of the end of time and the start of the reign of Yahweh, has instead been shamefully put to death by the colonial authorities and now lies before you, dead. All your hopes, all your beliefs, smashed to smithereens. If I had been there I would have been a total puddle, even if I am a man. But let’s see what painters thought.
We can start this exploration some two centuries before dell’Arca’s composition, with Giotto’s Lamentation of 1303, which is to be found in the Scrovegni chapel in Padova (and on page 615 of the Very, Very Thick Book).
Here, everyone who is gathered around the dead Jesus is crying – not wailing as the women are in dell’Arco’s composition, but definitely crying. Even St. John – the person standing over the women huddled around Jesus – is crying. In fact, I would say that St. John is in transports of sorrow, more so than the women. Even the angels are in anguish. It is true that the two fellows to the right – believed to be Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – are quite composed, but one could argue that they were not close companions of Jesus and so not as committed to the cause that he represented. It could also show that Giotto thought it was OK for young men like St. John to show their emotions, but that older men should keep their upper lip well stiffened.
Jumping forward to 1440-42, we have a Lamentation by the Dominican monk Fra’ Angelico, in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence.
Here, no crying, just a gentle preparation of the body for the tomb behind, by the women and St. John (who has his back to us) (the fellow in the background is St. Dominic, seeing all this in a trance). A typical work of Fra’ Angelico, I would say, as gentle as the man himself. Maybe strong emotions frightened him. Maybe he preferred to choose a moment slightly after the tears and the wailing, when practical considerations kicked in: the dead body needed to be prepared for the grave.
We can go forward another fifty years, to Mantegna’s Lamentation of 1489, hanging on the walls of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera just up the road from where I write this (and which can be viewed on page 707 of the VVThB, by the way).
Looking at the painting, readers can see that next to Jesus there are three people – the Madonna, St. John next to her, and a third person you can just make out over the Madonna’s shoulder. They are all crying copiously. It seems that Mantegna, rather like Giotto, believed in everyone showing their emotions.
On the other hand, in Botticelli’s Lamentation of almost the same period (1490-92), now in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, the artist only has the women lamenting (although in a very stylized way, it seems to me; shades of things to come). St. John simply looks grim. So Boticcelli appears to be with dell’Arco on this one: women show emotions, men don’t.
The painting also has that stock situation, common in later times, and which I must confess to find most irritating, of the Madonna fainting from the emotion of it all. This really is the male assumption about the weakness and frailty of women: when the going gets tough, women faint. The other men, saints of various kinds, are simply there to witness the scene, like St. Dominic in Fra’ Angelico’s version, so do not show much emotion (I do think, though, that Botticelli had some cheek in including St. Peter – the fellow to the right, clutching a big key – since according to the Gospels while Jesus was being taken down from the cross and being buried he and the other – male – disciples were all cowering in a room somewhere, in fear of imminent arrest).
This next Lamentation is by Bellini, executed at the same time as Botticelli’s (1485-95). It is one of many Lamentations which he painted. This particular one is in the Uffizi in Florence. Here, everyone is even more composed: the Madonna, Mary Magdalene, and St. John seem to be sniffling a little while everyone else is looking calmly noble. Bellini does not believe in showing emotions, it would seem (although in fairness to him, some of his other Lamentations seem somewhat more emotionally charged).
On the other hand, in this Lamentation by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli, from exactly the same period (1485) (and now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), both the Madonna and St. John are in absolute agony, with the latter literally howling (it is true to say, though, that Mary Magdalene is more contained).
It would seem that Crivelli was a believer in showing strong emotions, like dell’Arca, and was quite happy with men showing such emotions.
But now look at this Lamentation by Perugino, again from the same period, 1495 (and now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence).
I mean, everyone, man and woman, looks ridiculously calm and noble! (there is one half-hearted attempt at gesticulation, by the lady in red at the back, but it’s very unconvincing). Perugino must have thought that emotions weren’t necessary to the scene.
From 50 years later, 1547, we have this Lamentation by Paolo Veronese (it seems that every artist worth his salt had a go at this theme), now in the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona.
Again, everyone looks calm and dignified. The Madonna looks a trifle pale, but that’s about it. No emotions please!
A decade on, 1560 or thereabouts, Tintoretto painted this Removal from the Cross bleeding into a Lamentation, now in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice.
This is best described as baroque, although it’s a bit early for that. We have a fainting Madonna, dramatic gesticulation, contorted clothing – but not a single tear. Drama is required, but not emotions.
The same message comes through 45 years later in Caravaggio’s Deposition of 1603-1604 (which also contains some Lamentation in it), now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.
The drama here comes from the play of light and dark and the angle from which it was painted. But the women seem quite composed in their sorrow; the gesticulation of the girl at the back feels contrived.
If real emotions seem to have drained away from the Lamentations painted in Italy, to be replaced first by Olympian calm and then by drama, there never seems to have been any real emotions at all in the Lamentations painted north of the Alps. The genre crossed the Alps at about the time that Giotto painted his Lamentation in Padova and became very popular. I have not been able to find any tears, or even much emotion, in these Northern European versions of the genre. For instance, this Lamentation from 1455-60, by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus (and now in Brussel’s Royal Museum of Fine Art) has the Madonna in a tasteful swoon, a lady to the right possibly wiping away a tear, and a woman to the left meekly wringing her hands. But everyone else is quietly going about their business.
This Lamentation by the Burgundian Early Netherlandish painter Simon Marmion is from a little later, about 1476 (and now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum).
Not a shred of emotion here. No drama, either. “Oh dear, he’s dead” is all I get from it.
Dürer, a few decades later (c. 1500), managed to include one person in his Lamentation who is gesticulating, although in a quite contained manner (you almost feel that Dürer included her because it was the done thing to do). The other women just look a little sad, while all the men are simply standing around. (This is another painting in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek)
This next Lamentation, in London’s National Gallery, is by Gerard David, another Early Netherlandish painter, and is from a few decades later still, 1515-1523.
It looks a polished work, but I still see very little emotion. A certain quiet sadness is all I get from the painting, from everyone involved.
I could add more paintings – like I say, every painter worth his salt seems to have had a crack at this one – but I think we get the gist. If there is any trend in later paintings, it’s towards the dramatic – exaggerated gestures, contorted clothing – but with only the women showing – theatrical – emotion; the men simply look stolid.
So what conclusions can we draw? – because we have to draw some conclusion. I have to say that I agree with my daughter on this one. Perhaps it is physiologically easier for women to cry than men, but I also think that European culture (and possibly all cultures) have evolved and now strongly suggest that men should have stiff upper lips while it’s OK for women’s (and children’s, male and female) upper lips to tremble. I also think that it is expected for our leaders not to cry – stern anger, for instance against the enemy is OK, but no tears. Tears imply weakness, and our leaders must not be weak. Which is why the Renaissance painters stopped showing these ordinary people around Jesus, which Christianity had turned into leaders, crying – and why our son felt a certain embarrassment at seeing May crack up at her podium in front of No. 10. But I think we men should stop trying to look strong and weep and wail when we feel the need to, especially when we have lost someone very near and dear to us.
Oh, and do go to Bologna to see dell’Arco’s Lamentation. it’s really worth the visit – and Bologna is a nice place, with very good food.
My wife and I were recently walking to the library of the Italian Alpine Club, with the idea of looking at some guide books on a walk in the Dolomites which we will be doing in a few weeks (and on which I hope to write a post or two). The walk took us through a part of Milan with which I’m not familiar, and so it was that I found myself walking for the first time through a little square. In the middle of it was this very intriguing statue.
As readers can see, it consists of a man emerging from a stone plinth, naked but for some sort of cap with ear flaps on his head, holding a lit torch in one hand, and wearing a heroic expression. The name carved into the base of the plinth was Francesco Baracca. I asked my wife who it was. She wasn’t sure – a First World War general, she hazarded? But I wasn’t convinced. The cap looked too much like those leather caps worn by the early aviators. I mean, who doesn’t remember Snoopy on his way to fight the Red Baron?
In my memory, there were also pictures of Biggles from the boys’ books of my youth.
No-one who is not British and not my age or older will know who this Biggles is. He was a fictional World War I fighter pilot about whom a series of exciting books were written. He was a very heroic figure and a Jolly Good Chap.
A bit more seriously, here is a photo of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to manage a solo crossing of the Atlantic non-stop, which he did in 1927.
Well, it turned out I was right. Francesco Baracca had indeed been an aviator. And not just any old aviator! He was Italy’s Ace of Aces during the First World War, racking up 34 recognized victories, the highest score for any Italian fighter pilot. Here we have him sitting in his plane with his flying cap on (and, contrary to his statue, with his clothes on; very sensible, it’s cold up there), ready to go and let the enemy have it.
While here we have him posing in front of one of the enemy planes he had downed.
Of course the government squeezed all the propaganda benefits they could out of his exploits. Anything heroic that could take the public’s mind off the bloody and ineffectual meat grinder of trench warfare was to be welcomed. And anyway, there was something terribly dashing about these aerial duels; it was the modern equivalent of Medieval knights jousting. As a result, he was lionized by the Italian public, who followed his every victory with enthusiasm.
It wasn’t just Italians who were enthused by the new forms of warfare in the air. On all sides of the war, the exploits of these new heroes of the air were followed avidly. But perhaps the Italians had a particular penchant for the exploits of aerial warfare. After all, it was in Italy that the Futurismo art movement was born, which had a total commitment to modern technology. To make the point, here are some key excerpts from two of the Futurist Manifestos that were published in 1910.
This is from the Futurist Painters Manifesto:
We want to fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish worship of the past … We rebel against that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time … Comrades! We declare to you that the triumphant progress of science has brought about such profound changes in humanity as to excavate an abyss between those docile slaves of past tradition and us, free, and confident in the radiant splendour of the future. … In the eyes of other countries, Italy is still a land of the dead, a vast Pompeii, whitened with sepulchres. But Italy is being reborn … In this land of illiterates, schools are multiplying; in this land of “dolce far niente” innumerable workshops now roar; in this land of traditional aesthetics are today taking flight inspirations dazzling in their novelty. Only art which draws its elements from the world around it is alive. Just as our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls, so must we inspire ourselves from the tangible miracles of contemporary life: the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, those marvelous flights which furrow our skies, the profound courage of our submarine navigators and the spasmodic struggle to conquer the unknown.
And this is from the Futurism Manifesto penned by the poet Marinetti, the “Father of Futurism”, who laid out a decalogue of futurist thought.
1. We want to sing of a love of danger, and the practice of energy and rashness.
3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt aggressive movement, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the punch.
4. We affirm that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car, which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
9. We want to glorify war – the only cleanser of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of liberals, beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.
10. We want to destroy the museums and libraries, the academies of every type, and combat moralism, feminism, and against every opportunistic and utilitarian vileness.
11. We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; we will sing of the multi-colored and polyphonic tide of revolutions in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nocturnal fervour of the arsenals and construction sites, enflamed by violent electric moons; the ravenous railway stations, devourers of smoking serpents; the workshops suspended from the clouds by the twisted threads of their smoke; the bridges which, like giant gymnasts, leap across rivers, flashing in the sun with the glitter of knives; the adventurous steamers sniffing at the horizon, and the great-breasted locomotives, pawing at the rails like enormous steel horses harnessed with pipes, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propellers flutter in the wind like a flag and seem to applaud like an enthusiastic crowd.
Pretty incendiary stuff …
Right from the start, Futurist paintings reflected this adoration of speed and power, although initially the focus was on terrestrial technology. For instance, from 1912-1913, we have Luigi Russolo’s Dynamism of an Automobile.
From 1922, we have Ivo Pannaggi’s Moving Train.
(which rather reminds me of the opening credits of the Poirot TV series)
From 1923, we have Ugo Giannattasio’s Motorcyclists
It was only in the 1930s that Futurist painter’s started painting airplanes. For instance, from 1930 we have Tato’s Flying Over the Colosseum in Spirals.
Perhaps it took a while for the painters to get into a cockpit and experience the sensation of flying.
Coming back to Baracca, he was eventually shot down, in June 1918. For propaganda purposes, the Italian government put it out that he had been hit by ground fire (to perpetuate the myth that no other aviator could shoot him down), although the Austrians claimed with good evidence that he was taken out by one of their planes. However it happened, his body was recovered and he was given a hero’s funeral. He was finally laid to rest in his home town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna. Several decades later, the Fascists erected a large statue of him in the main square (this time with his clothes on)
while his co-citizens opened a museum about him – might as well make some money off the town’s most famous son …
This story has a fascinating coda, which was really why I wrote this post. To explain it properly, I have to go back a bit and give readers a thumbnail biography of Baracca. He was, as I said, a citizen of Lugo, a small town located close to Ravenna. His parents were well-off and to some degree aristocratic – his mother was a countess. After his schooling, he chose to join the army. After studying at a military academy, in 1909 he was assigned a regiment. Given his social status, this was a cavalry regiment, the 2nd “Royal Piedmont”, a regiment created in 1692 by Duke Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy. Because of its importance to my story, I insert here the regiment’s traditional banner: a silver prancing horse on a red field.
In 1912, after watching an aerial exhibition in Rome, Baracca became wildly enthusiastic about the future of military aviation. He asked to join the newly-created aviation arm of the army, a request that was granted. He went for training in France and by the time Italy joined the War in 1915, he was trained and ready to go.
As his number of victories climbed, the High Command fawned over him. In 1917, he was given his own squadron, the 91st, and allowed to choose his own pilots. He took all the other Italian aces, so the squadron became known as “the squadron of the aces”. On the right side of his plane’s fuselage, he placed the squadron’s insignia, a rampant griffin. On the left side, he placed his personal insignia. For this, in recognition of his earlier affiliation with the 2nd cavalry regiment, he chose its prancing horse. He changed the colour scheme, though, making the horse black on a silver background. Here we see him standing in front of his plane on which we see plainly his personal insignia.
The insignia was an instant hit with the public, especially when the pilots of his squadron all adopted it in his honour after his death.
Fast forward a few years after the war, 1923 to be exact. I now introduce another character to this story, that of Enzo Ferrari, the fabled creator of the Ferrari racing team and car manufacturer. In 1923, he was just a driver for Alfa Romeo, racing their cars on various circuits. Racing was very popular in Italy, and the successful drivers were stars, rather like Baracca had been – and they wore the same leather caps as aviators.
In any event, in that year Ferrari won a race near Ravenna. On the race’s edges, he met Baracca’s father. This led to a second meeting, this time with Baracca’s mother. He must have told them how much he had admired their son. And maybe they saw the racing of cars as an honourable descendant of what their son had been doing with planes. Whatever the reason, Baracca’s mother uttered these fateful words: “Ferrari, put my son’s horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck.” And that is exactly what Ferrari did seven years later in 1930, when he created his own racing team. From then on, his cars sported Baracca’s prancing horse. The only changes he brought were to make the field behind the horse canary yellow, to honour his home town, Modena, whose coat of arms has the same yellow field, and to raise the horse’s tail.
And that is why, dear readers, Ferrari cars to this day sport a shield with a black prancing horse on a yellow field.
Yesterday, by sheer happenstance, my wife and I took in an exhibition entitled “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983)” at the Broad museum in Los Angeles. In one section, this was written on the wall: “During this period, centering the Black figure – historically marginalized in Western painting – was radical. Many artists created powerful images of Black Americans, including portraits of writers, artists, and everyday people.” It is true that the non-whites in almost all the paintings I showed in the last two posts are not centre-stage. So as a follow-up to my last two posts, I have decided to do some centering of my own, extracting the portraits of non-whites which are to be found in Art UK’s database. Here is the result: not quite all the ones I found; I chose the best.
Interesting fellow, Ira Frederick Aldridge, whose portrait this almost certainly is. An African American, he found himself constantly discriminated against as an actor in New York and so came to the UK in 1825. Thereafter, he had a very successful acting career, both in the UK as well as in the rest of Europe. There was of course a dearth of black characters in plays, so occasionally he took on roles as white European characters, for which he would be appropriately made up with greasepaint and wig. I love the idea: blackface in reverse …
After this, we have a number of portraits of anonymous people who sat as models.
Even though the model’s face is hidden in this next portrait, I thought of including it because it is the first portrait of a woman.
The next portrait is the first I found of a South Asian.
Intriguing woman, Bapsybanoo Pavry. She was born in Bombay, daughter of a Parsi Zoroastrian “Head Priest”. She came to the UK at a young age, determined to use her great beauty (and presumably great riches) to break into high society. She was about 30 when Augustus John painted her portrait. 20 years later, aged 51, she managed what she thought was a great coup: she married the Marquess of Winchester. Admittedly, he was marrying for the third time, was 90 years old, impotent, and bankrupt. But he was la crème de la crème of British aristocracy. Alas! Within weeks of marrying her, he eloped with his former fiancée Eve Fleming, mother of Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame), first to Monte Carlo and then to the Bahamas. Bapsybanoo followed them there, but was reduced to pacing up and down in front of their house and shaking her fist at them. Of course, she became a figure of ridicule in British high society, who no doubt felt that this Indian parvenue had got what she deserved. She eventually returned to India and died in 1995.
The artist who painted this last picture, Glyn Philpot, spent most of his career in the UK as a pretty conventional Edwardian portrait painter. Then in his last five years or so, he moved to Paris, his palette lightened and his style became more modern. He painted numerous paintings of people of African origin in this period, a good number of which are in Art UK’s database. This painting is of a young Jamaican, Henry Thomas, who was his lover.
I include the next painting, of Nurse Brown, to remind ourselves of the huge role non-whites played, and continue to play, in the UK’s health service. Although the painting is undated, I’m guessing it is from the immediate post-World War II period.
I include the next two paintings because they intrigue me. They are both set in what we could consider an iconic UK context, Trafalgar Square. One shows three Indian women and the other Caribbean family in the square, with white families forming a background. I wonder what the artist was trying to tell us? That non-whites were now a part of the UK landscape?
Perhaps immigrants were becoming more visible. This next painting is actually entitled “The Immigrant”.
It’s in this period that we see the first non-white councillor, the first step on the political ladder. It is David Pitt, who was councillor, the first non-white councillor ever, and later chairman of the Greater London Council. He was later made a member of the House of Lords, the pinnacle, one might say, of the British political establishment.
David Pitt tried twice to be elected as an MP. It seems that the British population was not ready for that. More or less overt racism seems to have been behind his loss both times.
As we enter the 1980s, the pace picks up, and non-white artists begin to make an appearance.
As far as I can make out, this next painting is the first by a non-white artist in this series.
This is the first portrait which I found of an Asian entering the political mainstream.
This next portrait is the first in this series to celebrate a sportsman, in this case the boxer Randy Turpin. Interestingly enough, it was painted some 40 years after his triumphs and 30 years after his death: British Middleweight champion 1950-54, World Middleweight champion 1951 and 1953. Why did it take so long to get around to painting his portrait, I wonder? I rather suspect that Warwick Town Council rather tardily remembered one of its more famous local sons.
This next painting certainly brings back memories for me, of the corner shops that were suddenly being run by South Asians. But we’re talking of the 1970s, while this portrait was only painted in 2000.
I rather like this next double portrait of mother and daughter. It captures beautifully the process of integration, from one generation to the next.
And here we arrive at the pinnacle the British political elites. Paul Boateng was able to be elected MP, he became the first non-white member of the Cabinet, and after a spell as High Commissioner to South Africa he became a member of the House of Lords.
One other pinnacle has been scaled, first black woman MP. The honour goes to Diane Abbot, Labour MP.
There is another elite, the military elite, which we have not had examples of yet. As of 2016, there wasn’t a single non-white in the British army’s top 133 positions. Perhaps it’s improved slightly since then although I doubt it. But there is also an elite of courage. Here, we have Johnson Beharry, who I believe is the first black British recipient of the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He won it during the Iraq war (there have been a good number of non-white recipients of the Victoria Cross, but they have all been Commonwealth troops).