Medieval Porn

From El Pais:

Deciphering the sex scenes in Spain’s medieval churches

Experts meet to discuss the meaning of highly explicit sculptures made 1,000 years ago

Why is that man showing off his enormous phallus, which seems to be pointing straight at us? What about that other bearded fellow who is apparently masturbating? And what is the meaning of that woman who is exhibiting her vulva? And is that couple really in the middle of intercourse?

These figures have all been there for nearly 1,000 years, sculpted into churches in northern Spain. They are in plain view on the façades, on the corbels that hold up the cornices, on the capitals crowning the columns, and even on the baptismal fonts.

But why did the stonemasons of the Middle Ages craft this cheeky iconography? What was the Roman Catholic Church trying to convey? A group of experts gathered inside the monastery of Santa María la Real in Aguilar de Campoo (Palencia) tried to answer that question last weekend at a seminar called “Art and sexuality in the Romanesque centuries.”

Unfortunately, there seem to be no clear answers….

You’ll have to click the link to see any images.

Saint Louie

We’ve been to and from St. Louis many times, and we always try to see something new en route or while we’re there (along with McKay’s in Nashville, of course – that is a staple!).

This time we stopped at the George Dickel Distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee. I had visited the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland and was keen to learn how American whiskey was different from Irish. (Answers: the composition of the mash, the state of the aging barrels, and in Tennessee, the Lincoln County Process.)

In St. Louis itself we got to see the refurbished and newly-reopened Museum at the Gateway Arch. It’s larger than the previous one, and deals with westward expansion in more detail and from a greater variety of perspectives. There’s also some good background on the arch itself, and no longer an animatronic Red Cloud.

The City Museum is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It occupies the former International Shoe Company building and is constantly colonizing new areas of it. The “museum” aspect consists largely of architectural detailing (I was pleased to discover the St. George pictured above), recovered nineteenth-century trash, a large insect collection, and other found objects; these are interspersed throughout an artificial cave system, a ten-story spiral slide, a ferris wheel on the roof, giant ball pits, skateboard ramps, a miniature train for people to ride, a space for circus performers, welded creations to climb on, and much, much more, all eccentrically decorated. As you can probably surmise, the museum appeals mostly to children, although it is fun for anyone to visit; what I like about it is that it’s dark and mysterious, even slightly sinister, an exciting contrast to much of the pabulum served up to kids these days.

Our event took place at the Contemporary Art Center, which we had never before seen. It’s what you’d expect: a brutalist building, with installation art like that depicted above (Jacob Stanley, TIME). It’s worth a visit, and it’s free.

At the St. Louis Science Center we saw a traveling Smithsonian exhibition entitled “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission.” The showpiece is the actual Columbia capsule that took Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the Moon and back; this was accompanied by Aldrin’s helmet, a part of one of the Saturn V engines that Jeff Bezos fished out of the Atlantic, and other such objects. I especially liked all the Space Race newspaper headlines, videos of Kennedy speaking to Congress and giving his “We choose to go to the Moon” speech at Rice, and the midcentury-modern living room that you entered through (although I doubt that the television depicted above was all that common in middle America!).

On our way back, we stopped at something called the Arant Confederate Memorial Park, an SCV project situated beside I-24 just outside Paducah, Kentucky. This has appeared recently, and advertises itself, like a car dealership, with a massive flag. But the Battle Flag is not the only one on display: as you can see in the photo above, there are other ones, including all three national flags of the CSA, and the Bonnie Blue Flag.

The flag I was most curious about (as I had never seen it before): the flag of the Orphan Brigade, a Confederate brigade recruited in Kentucky (so-called as Kentucky was not really a member state of the Confederacy).

The flea market next door was festooned with American flags, and I can’t help but think this was some sort of a riposte to Arant Park.

Saint Georges Galore

I cannot pass an image of my patron saint George without snapping a photo. A two week trip to Ireland and London, from which I have just returned, netted me a bunch. Lucky reader, I share them with you!

At Bunratty Castle, Co. Clare, Republic of Ireland. Bunratty was built in the fifteenth century for the MacNamara family, who were local grandees. By the early twentieth century it was in disrepair; in 1956 it was purchased and restored by Viscount Gort with the help of Ireland’s Office of Public Works. Its proximity to Shannon Airport has made it one of Ireland’s tourist success stories, and a number of humbler historic buildings have been moved there, producing a Colonial Williamsburg-style “folk park.” None of the furnishings is original, so I can’t link this carving to any particular owner of the castle. But it makes sense that the warrior saint George should be there.

My loving wife snapped this one for me. It is etched into a window of the modernist Coventry Cathedral in England (the church is actually dedicated to St. Michael).

In St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Dingle, Co. Kerry. Note that neither his shield nor his banner portrays a red cross, the symbol of England.

But this one does! I found this in the baptistry of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. Christ Church is the seat of the Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough in the Church of Ireland, i.e. the “Protestant” church in communion with the Church of England.

Also from Christ Church: “St George the dragon-slayer, from a mid-16th century prototype in the Historical Museum of Moscow, Russia.” I was pleased to see the pitcher-bearing boy here.

Another St. George in stained glass. This one may be see in the Guildhall in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The crown, shamrocks, and roses at the top indicate this is a strong statement of unionism. The oak leaves are a symbol of Londonderry – “Doire” is “oak grove” in Irish.

St. Dunstan-in-the-West is a church on Fleet Street, one of many in the City of London, where I found the icon above. Note the script, standing for “Sfântul Mare Mucenic Gheorghe” – that’s because the church is one of three in England shared with the Romanian Orthodox community.

Another very handsome Romanian icon in St. Dunstan-in-the-West.

St. George’s Hanover Square (City of Westminster) is a fine eighteenth-century neoclassical structure, and perhaps fittingly did not have any images of its patron saint. It did, however, have an embroidered kneeler featuring the arms of the Royal Society of St. George. St. George kills a dragon on the crest.

I foolishly did not record the artist of this painting in the National Gallery.

But this one, also in the National Gallery, is a very famous image of St. George killing the dragon, by Paolo Ucello of Florence, c. 1456. Ucello is not as scrupulous with chronology as later Renaissance artists were. In the legend, St. George wounds the dragon, and then instructs the maiden to tie her girdle around its neck. By depicting these two things happening at once, the painting prompts the question: “Why is that bad man hurting the nice lady’s pet dragon?” I’ve always been puzzled by the strange cloud formation behind St. George, but I love the RAF roundels on the dragon’s wings.

This tableau goes by the name of the Valencia Altarpiece, and you can see it on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington. It was produced in Valencia, Spain around 1410, and depicts, in addition to the usual image of St. George killing the dragon (below), numerous tortures endured by the saint during his martyrdom.

Elsewhere in the V&A: some pre-Raphaelite stained glass of the saint…

…and a decorated table.

This is Benedetto Pistrucci’s rendition of St. George and the dragon, which was produced in 1817 and appeared on gold sovereigns throughout the nineteenth century. That George is buck naked and has his foot waving in front of the dragon’s mouth has been puzzling to some people, but this was a very popular image and was reproduced elsewhere, in this case on a large gold plate.

Also in the V&A: “Casket, wood and brass, stamped Catalonia (Spain), fourteenth century. Inscribed AMOR MERCE SUIS PLAV. Decorated with scenes inspired by medieval romances. Note the lady arming a knight, a man hawking and St George killing the dragon [pictured].”

For sale at the Tower of London: a £5 coin commemorating the fifth birthday of Prince George, featuring St. George, naturally.

Paducah

Stopped by Paducah, Kentucky on our way to St. Louis on Saturday. We thought we would visit the National Quilt Museum, which was very nice. We then stayed for lunch and ended up discovering Paducah’s flood wall murals. Paducah is on the Ohio River, which drains close to 200,000 square miles of United States territory and is thus prone to occasional flooding. As a result of a particularly devastating flood in 1937, the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed floodwalls to protect the city from the river; they seem to have worked. What is most interesting is that since 1996 the walls have been decorated with mural paintings illustrating Paducah’s history. What a great idea! You’ve got a flat surface – why not use it to burnish local pride? Unfortunately none of my photographs turned out, but you can see examples on the Internet. Chief artist Robert Dafford has produced a series of paintings that are interesting, edifying, accessible, and professionally done. It’s worth a look if you’re ever passing through.

Although river traffic isn’t what it once was, the Ohio is still a major transportation thoroughfare, as you can notice from the numerous barges on it. If you want to learn more about the industry, visit the River Discovery Center.

Paducah seems to be thriving, it its way. What I would like to know is why Cairo, Illinois is not. We pass through there from time to time; the place looks like a miniature Detroit.

Angel Roofs

From my friend Tim Emmett, pastor of the Waleska UMC, an interesting gallery on BBC Travel of photographs of angel roofs, which were a regular feature of late medieval English church architecture. The first caption reads:

Think of medieval England’s finest gems, and castles probably come to mind first. But the country has another type of treasure that few people know about: angel roofs. Built between 1395 and the English Reformation of the mid-1500s, these roofs are decorated with intricately carved wooden angels. Only 170 survive today. Because so little of the art from England’s medieval churches survived the Reformation, that still makes these cherubim “the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture”, writes photographer and expert Michael Rimmer in his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages.

Click the link to see a collection of Rimmer’s photographs. I had no idea these were a thing, nor that the Reformation had such a problem with them (after all, angels were biblical – unlike saints!).

Icons

The icon (from Greek εἰκών, meaning “image”) is a distinctive feature of Orthodox Christianity (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.). The classic icon is a frontal portrait of Jesus, Mary, or some other saint, although icons illustrating a scene are also common. You know them when you see them: the style is unmistakable. They tend to be flat and richly ornamented, giving a deliberately otherworldly appearance to their subjects. There are also many rules that one must follow in the making [sic – not “painting”] of an icon. Bishops hold a bible in their left hand and give a blessing with their right. Jesus wears a red tunic and a blue cloak, and his halo has a cross on it. And so on. Here are two examples from my collection:

George1

The original image of St. George, as a young, beardless man with tightly curled hair, in armor and carrying a shield and lance.

George2

St. George “the trophy-bearer” in action – riding a white horse and spearing the dragon through its mouth.

Why the particular style? Why are they so important to Orthodox worship? One must realize that these are not just pictures for the edification of the faithful, of the sort that might appear in The Bible Story, The Watchtower, or the Book of Mormon. Orthodox icons have power. You could pray to a saint near his image, and he would be much more likely to hear your petition. Particular icons are even thaumaturgic, such as the icons of the Virgin Mary on Mount Athos in Greece – one of which is formally appointed the abbot of a monastery, and has two feast days. In other words, in the east, icons function like saints’ relics. (I like the theory that it is on account of relics that icons acquired their special purpose. No one is going to keep the bone of a saint just lying around, but is going to house it in a nice reliquary. A picture of the saint on the top of the reliquary would tell you whose relic it was; as long as you made an accurate copy of the picture, the miraculous qualities of the relic would be transferred to the new image.)

But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? Christian practice evolves, of course, but seldom to the point where it is completely at odds with an important dictum from scripture, in this case the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

Now, only the most eccentric Christians would interpret this to mean that all representational art, or even just religious art, should be forbidden (Martin Luther: “If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”) And given that this rule is found in the Old Testament, has it not been trumped by the New, and to be cast aside like kashrut or the prohibition against sowing different crops in the same field? Perhaps – but surely of all that we find in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments are still binding. And praying to (a saint through) an icon sure looks like “bowing down” and “worshiping” an image, doesn’t it, thereby violating the real spirit of this law?

Thus did Byzantine Emperor Leo III, in the 720s, order the removal and destruction of icons from the lands under his control. Was this spurred by a genuine religious feeling, prompted by recent natural disasters and military losses? Or was there something more political to it? (The theory I’ve heard is that the monasteries that produced icons were growing too powerful, and Leo wanted to undercut them – apparently there may have been a “class struggle” aspect to it as well). This iconoclastic movement survived Leo and did not fully end until 842, at which time Theodora, regent for the young Michael III, called it off. Ever since then the first Sunday in Lent is designated the Feast of Orthodoxy and celebrates the return of icons to their rightful place in Orthodox worship. At the time, though, all it succeeded in doing was driving the Greek and Roman Christianity further apart and may have had a role to play in the pope’s consecration of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in AD 800. The Catholic Church did not venerate icons as such, but they were fully behind religious images and were appalled at how the Byzantines had apparently gone insane. As far as they were concerned, Jesus himself invalidated the Second Commandment – when he came to Earth, he became an “image” of something in heaven. Thus to reject images is to reject the Incarnation.

The Confederacy in the National Cathedral

I wanted to attend the 9:00 service at Washington National Cathedral. Unfortunately, and contrary to the cathedral’s website, there was no 9:00 service this Sunday. However, I did get to sing the last hymn of the 8:00 service! It was a good hymn, and I enjoyed exploring the place afterwards. It is immense, with all sorts of details to notice. I confess that I was particularly keen to see what had happened to the Confederate stained glass windows. A parishioner named Jared kindly showed me where they were. One was dedicated to Robert E. Lee, and the other to Stonewall Jackson. I reproduce the windows, and their inscriptions:

robertlee

“To the Glory of God, all righteous and all merciful and in undying tribute to the life and witness of Robert Edward Lee, servant of God, leader of men, general-in-chief of the armies of the confederate states whose compelling sense of duty serene faith and unfailing courtesy mark him for all ages as a Christian soldier without fear and without reproach this memorial bay is gratefully built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”

stonewall

“To the glory of the Lord Jesus whom he so zealously served and in honored memory of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, Lieutenant General C.S.A. Like a stone wall in his steadfastness, swift as lightning, and mighty in battle, he walked humbly before his creator whose word was his guide this bay is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and his admirers from south and north.”

The sharp-eyed reader will notice that some Confederate flags remain in the windows above: there are two instances of the Stars and Bars, and one of Hardee’s Battle Flag (the blue one with a white circle in the center). Other flags include the U.S. flag, the flag of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (red field, white castle) and the flag the U.S. Army Field Artillery (red field, crossed cannons).

But you’ll notice that no Confederate Battle Flags are in evidence. These were replaced with blank flags, a blue one in the Robert E. Lee window, and a red one in the Stonewall Jackson window.

blueflagredflag

For reference, from NPR.org, here are what they looked like in 2015, before the Charleston shooting:

conflag1 conflag2

What to say? In general I am not in favor of the Confederacy, but I am not in favor of Jacobinism either. And yet, monuments like these express endorsement of their subjects – it’s a little bit more than a case of acknowledging “our heritage,” as supporters would have it. Apparently the former dean wanted to get rid of the entire stained glass display, and the inscriptions, on the principle that no Confederates should be memorialized, certainly not in the National Cathedral. But then people raised the usual objections – near these windows, for instance, is the tomb of Woodrow Wilson. Should we dig him up and bury him elsewhere, on account of his unfortunate racial views? Should we not celebrate important people, warts and all, particularly when reincorporating the defeated southern states was at one point a major priority, and if that meant honoring Confederates, so be it? On a practical level, does the Cathedral not have better things to worry about, particularly the $34 million dollars worth of damage caused by an earthquake in 2011?

Frankly it does seem like the choice here should have been all or nothing. Either leave the windows alone, or get rid of all traces of them. Blanking out the one “offensive” image seems somewhat faint-hearted.

Failing that, why not replace the Battle Flags with other, proper flags, and not just blank spaces?

In the meantime, note that the Cathedral displays the flag of Mississippi, with its canton of the Battle Flag, in the nave.

flags

Some Links

• From TheProvince.com: Evidence that Greeks settled in China in the 200s BC and may have helped to construct the Terra Cotta Army.

• From Curbed.com: “Definitive proof that no one did costume parties like the Bauhaus”

• From the Telegraph: “The Norman Conquest was a disaster for England. We should celebrate Naseby, not Hastings”

Ghent Altarpiece

From the Guardian:

It has been called “the most influential painting ever” and “the world’s most coveted masterpiece”. It is also the most frequently stolen. And now, after a four-year restoration to clean away six centuries of dirt and varnish, the Ghent Altarpiece looks the way it did originally – electric, radiant, gorgeous and glorious.

The altarpiece, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was unveiled in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, today. The work, in its entirety or just in part, has been stolen six times, and found itself at the centre of no fewer than 13 crimes and mysteries, several of which remain unsolved – until now, that is, thanks to the restoration.

The altarpiece was likely begun by Hubert van Eyck in 1426, but he died that year so there has always been a question over whether any of his hand survives in the work. It was completed by his younger brother, Jan, and rapidly became one of the most famous artworks in the world, a point of pilgrimage for educated tourists and artists, something it continues to be today.

More, including illustrations, at the link.