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:

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

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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:

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“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.”

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“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.

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

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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.

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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.

The Christian Fish

Everybody has seen the Christian fish sign on the backs of motor vehicles, and the various parodies of it (the Darwin fish, a Truth fish eating a Darwin fish, the Gefilte fish, etc.). Some illustrations courtesy the Wikimedia foundation:

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There is plenty of fish imagery in the New Testament (fishers of men, the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fish, cast down your nets, etc.) but this is different – Jesus not as a fisherman or ichthyphage, but as a fish himself (a parallel situation to his portrayal both as a shepherd and as a lamb). How did this happen? Putting aside pagan-holdover theories of fish representing primordial life, the standard line is that fish, in Greek, is ΙΧΘΥΣ (“ichthys”), and forms an acronym for “Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ” (i.e. “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”).

ichthys_c-class

The movie Quo Vadis (1951) depicts Christians recognizing each other through the use of the sign: one would draw a semi-circle, and the other would complete the fish with another semi-circle. According to Wikipedia, the Jesus fish was revived in the 1970s as a symbol of contemporary Christianity. Also according to Wikipedia, in the early days of Christianity, ΙΧΘΥΣ could be rendered as an eight-spoked wheel, if one lays all the letters on top of each other.

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It would be great to revive this as a Christian symbol, although it might conflict with the Buddhist symbol of the Dharma Wheel, representing the noble eightfold path.

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Abstraction and Representation

One of the reasons that many artists turned away from representation over the course of the late nineteenth century, such that you have Wassily Kandinsky painting in a purely abstract fashion (“on or about December, 1910”) was the advent of the camera – all the skills needed to represent things accurately (perspective, foreshortening, shading, anatomy, etc.) were suddenly redundant. But another was that artists were reacting to the bourgeoisification of Europe. The soulless bourgeoisie were held to need things spelled out for them – they needed “reality”, and an uplifting reality at that – so artists started breaking rules and constructing elaborate new theories about what art could be and do, to stick it to the bourgeoisie. It only makes sense that the great anti-bourgeois revolution in Russia in 1917 should employ an abstract style, constructivism, as its quasi-official one.

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El Lissitzky, “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge” (1920) (Wikipedia)

One problem with this sort of modern art, however, is its elitism. As much as artists wanted to stick it to the bourgeoisie, they stuck it to everyone else at the same time; it’s not likely that peasants and proles should naturally be attracted to constructivist (or cubist, or expressionist, or synchronist, or futurist) art. Even less than the bourgeois did they have the time, education, or inclination to get into it. Stalin therefore decreed, some time in the late 1920s, that there should be no more abstract art, that the official style of the Soviet Union should be “Socialist Realism.” Thus the commie art with which we are familiar.

socialistrealism

From an article at the American Thinker.

As much as I hate to agree with the mass-murdering tyrant, I think he was right. This sort of thing really is more accessible to the masses, although I wager it got rather boring after a while.

The funny thing is that socialist realism may have been one of the reasons why the New York school of abstract expressionism ended up receiving so much attention. If the commies were going to be literal, well then we were going to be abstract! We inherited all the moral superiority of the pre-WWI anti-bourgeois critique. Jackson Pollack, as an American, is free to decide where the paint goes. The CIA certainly agreed!

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Jackson Pollock, No. 5, 1948 (1948) (Wikipedia)

So the bourgeois Americans ended up with abstraction, and the anti-bourgeois Soviets with representation.

Tom Wolfe talks about a similar phenomenon in From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). The stripped-down workers’-housing aesthetic of modern architecture (which is another example of modernist elitism: no one ever asked the workers who had to live in them whether they liked it or not) ended up the style of choice for the headquarters of capitalist enterprises across the world.

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Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building, New York (1958) (Wikipedia)

Le Sacre du Printemps

It’s over three years old now, but I missed it at the time: a significant anniversary noticed in The Verge:

100 years ago today, ‘The Rite of Spring’ incited a riot in a Paris theater

It began with a bassoon and ended in a brawl.

One hundred years ago today, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring before a packed theater in Paris, with a ballet performance that would go down as one of the most important — and violent — in modern history.

Today, The Rite is widely regarded as a seminal work of modernism — a frenetic, jagged orchestral ballet that boldly rejected the ordered harmonies and comfort of traditional composition. The piece would go on to leave an indelible mark on jazz, minimalism, and other contemporary movements, but to many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.

Details surrounding the events of May 29th, 1913 remain hazy. Official records are scarce, and most of what is known is based on eyewitness accounts or newspaper reports. To this day, experts debate over what exactly sparked the incident — was it music or dance? publicity stunt or social warfare? — though most agree on at least one thing: Stravinsky’s grand debut ended in mayhem and chaos.

The tumult began not long after the ballet’s opening notes — a meandering and eerily high-pitched bassoon solo that elicited laughter and derision from many in the audience. The jeers became louder as the orchestra progressed into more cacophonous territory, with its pounding percussion and jarring rhythms escalating in tandem with the tensions inside the recently opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Things reached a near-fever pitch by the time the dancers took the stage, under the direction of famed choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes. Dressed in whimsical costumes, the dancers performed bizarre and violent moves, eschewing grace and fluidity for convulsive jerks that mirrored the work’s strange narrative of pagan sacrifice. Onstage in Paris, the crowd’s catcalls became so loud that the ballerinas could no longer hear the orchestra, forcing Nijinsky to shout out commands from backstage.

A scuffle eventually broke out between two factions in the audience, and the orchestra soon found itself under siege, as angry Parisians hurled vegetables and other objects toward the stage. It’s not clear whether the police were ever dispatched to the theater, though 40 people were reportedly ejected. Remarkably, the performance continued to completion, though the fallout was swift and brutal.

More at the link and, if you’re interested, in Modris Eksteins’s wonderful book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989).