Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Nativity in Paintings II (Re-post)

Meister von Hohenfurth 002

This painting, by the Master of Hohenfurth, also known as the Master of Vyšší Brod, dates to the fourteenth century and originally was part of an altarpiece devoted to the life of Christ. The painting is a mix of Eastern and Western styles. The posture of the Virgin, lying in bed with the newly born Christ Child rather than kneeling before a manger is (at least in the late medieval and Renassiance period in the West) usually a sign of Byzantine influence, which often came by way of Byzantine communities in Italy. In general this attitude, associating the Nativity with more standard birthing practices, emphasizes the humanity of Christ, while the genuflecting attitude emphasizes the divinity of Christ; naturally, the more realistic the style of painting the more one would want to do to represent the divinity of Christ by symbolism, while in a more stylized style one might well prefer to emphasize the humanity of Christ.

Notice the ox and the ass, which are very nicely painted here in the background. They were there in the previous painting, as well, although there the ass is a little difficult to see. The two animals are not found in either Matthew or Luke, but are pretty much ubiquitous. They come from another Bible verse, Isaiah 1:3, in which the prophet says, "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib." Indeed, the ox and the ass pre-date almost all other artistic conventions regarding the representation of the Nativity; it is possible to find very early representations of the Nativity consisting entirely of Christ in swaddling clothes with an ox on one side and an ass on the other, nothing else in sight. That particular representation seems to owe itself to another prophet, Habakkuk 3:2, at least in the Septuagint:

O Lord, I have heard thy report, and was afraid: I considered thy works, and was amazed: thou shalt be known between the two living creatures, thou shalt be acknowledged when the years draw nigh; thou shalt be manifested when the time is come; when my soul is troubled, thou wilt in wrath remember mercy.

Thus in those artistic representations Christ is known between the two living creatures, ox and donkey. The two animals gain more significance in that they they are sometimes seen as symbolic of the faithful children of Israel (the ox) and the just Gentiles (the ass); in that way, the placing of the Christ Child in the manger of the ox and the ass serves as a metaphor for the Incarnation itself, for we are the ox and the ass, and He has come among us. It is really rather remarkable how constant the imagery of the ox and the ass has been; we're talking about an artistic tradition that's only just short of two millenia old. It probably helps that the ox and the ass are a free detail: since the conventions for how one represents the ox and the ass are not very elaborate, an artist can do almost anything with them, and thus contribute something unique to the depiction of the scene. It's always interesting, when looking at a painting of the Nativity, to ask yourself: What is the artist doing with the ox and the ass? It's usually not anything theologically profound, but there are times when it really adds some nice touches to the painting.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Nativity in Paintings I (Re-post)

Geertgen tot Sint Jans - Nativity, at Night - WGA08514

This is one of the most famous Nativity paintings, called Nativity at Night. It is a fairly small oil painting on oak panel that was made in the late 15th century by Geertgen van Haarlem; it was probably for private devotional use. It is actually an adaptation of an earlier painting by Hugo van der Goes which no longer survives; from descriptions and other versions (the most famous of which is Michael Sittow's early 16th-century version) we know that Geertgen's version shrinks and simplifies the original, and also reverses the orientation. The effect of the simplification, however, is quite striking, and I think makes for much of the attraction of the painting: it is all light and darkness.

All major Nativity scenes in painting are mediated versions of the original stories, much as all Christmas pageant plays are mediated versions of the originals. In this case the mediation is by way of St. Birgitta of Sweden's vision of the Nativity, which still exercises its influence. It is to Birgitta that we owe the image of the Virgin kneeling before the manger; on the basis of the striking description she gives of this in her Revelations, this became a popular scene in paintings, and thus a common part of Nativity scenes in any medium. And the brilliant light radiating from the Christ Child, which makes this painting so striking, is a Bridgettine detail, as well.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Links of Note

* Metallica concert in Antarctica

* Stephanie Anne Golberg on Miguel de Unamuno

* Joshua Berman has finished his series on Orthodox Judaism and Biblical criticism (you can find links to the whole series at the link).

* I've seen several people recently recommend The Pulp Magazines Project

* The political significance of the Regina Mundi cathedral in South Africa

* Thony Christie discusses Bl. Nicholas Steno

* Nobel Prize winner Randy Shekman criticizes the top-tier science journals

* Todd Gooch on Ludwig Feuerbach at the SEP

* A good website on Ramon Llull

* At the Constitute Project you can read and compare constitutions from all over the world

* Former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson reflects on the importance of reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

* There have been rumors recently that Heidegger's schwarze Hefte, or 'black notebooks', which are soon to be published, are likely to contain very explicit anti-semitic comments. Whatever turns out to be the case, it will change nothing, of course; people will just find new arguments to maintain whatever their evaluation already is. But we'll see how people respond.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Fortnightly Books Index

There will be a brief pause in fortnightly books, to be back after various holiday things. We're about forty-two or so books in, so it seemed good to give an index to it all. A lot of them have been re-reads, but of those that were first-times, the most pleasant surprises, I think, were Njal's Saga and Death Comes for the Archbishop, and perhaps also The Song of Bernadette. The biggest disappointment is still The Red and the Black.

November 24: Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange& Mr Norrell
Introduction; Review

November 10: Charles Williams, Many Dimensions
Introduction; Review

October 27: Bram Stoker, Dracula
Introduction; Review

October 13: Jane Austen, Lady Susan
Introduction; Review

September 29: Rudyard Kipling, Kim
Introduction; Review

September 15: Tim Powers, Declare
Introduction; Review

September 1: Mac Hyman, No Time for Sergeants
Introduction; Review

August 18: Booth Tarkington, Monsieur Beaucaire
Introduction; Review

August 4: J.R.R. Tolkien, Roverandom
Introduction; Review

July 14: Mark Twain, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
Introduction; Review; Background Timeline

June 23: Franz Werfel, The Song of Bernadette
Introduction; Review; Background Timeline

June 9: Frank Herbert, The Santaroga Barrier
Introduction; Review

May 26: Dale Brown, Storming Heaven; Dale Brown, Shadows of Steel
Introduction; Review

April 28: John P. Marquand, Think Fast, Mr. Moto
Introduction; Review

April 14: Roger Donlon (as told to Warren Rogers), Outpost of Freedom
Introduction; Review

March 31: George Bernard Shaw, Two Plays for Puritans; George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
Introduction; Review

March 10: Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland's Daughter
Introduction; Review

February 24: Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
Introduction; Review

February 10: J. Harvey Howells, The Big Company Look
Introduction; Review

January 27: Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Introduction; Review

January 13: George B. Markle IV, The Teka Stone
Introduction; Review


November 25: Njal's Saga
Introduction; Review

November 11: J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrén
Introduction; Review

October 28: The Kalevala
Introduction; Review

October 14: C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
Introduction; Review

September 30: Kenneth Dodson, Away All Boats
Introduction; Review

September 16: James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer
Introduction; Review

September 2: Edna Ferber, Cimarron
Introduction; Review

August 19: Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson
Introduction; Review

Prior to August 19, the series was 'Book a Week'; it was changed to 'Fortnightly Book' to make it a bit more manageable in busy times.

August 12: George MacDonald, Lilith
Introduction; Review

August 5: Noél Coward, Future Indefinite
Introduction; Review

July 29: Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin
Introduction; Review

July 22: Ernest Haycox, The Adventurers
Introduction; Review

July 15: Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Introduction; Review

July 8: Stendhal, The Red and the Black
Introduction; Review; Background Timeline

June 24: Jane Austen, Sanditon; Jane Austen, The Watsons
Introduction; Review

June 17: Theodore Morrison, The Devious Way
Introduction; Review

June 10: Joseph Conrad, Nostromo
Introduction; Review

June 3: Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Introduction; Review

May 27: Norman Douglas, South Wind
Introduction; Review

May 20: Frank G. Slaughter, Sword and Scalpel
Introduction; Review

May 13: Magdalen King-Hall, The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765
Introduction; Review

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Radio Greats: Christmas at Mission San Gabriel (Romance of the Ranchos)

The Title Insurance and Trust Company of Los Angeles put out a little book, called The Romance of the Ranchos, as a promotion. The book discussed some of the rich history of the Southern Californian land the company was selling. The stories were popular, so they turned it into a local radio program from 1941 to 1942. That's a brief time, and it only ran on the West Coast, but the program has lasted as one of the great programs of the period. Usually an episode will narrate the history of some particular region of land in Southern California through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with little vignettes to bind it together. Sometimes the format will be a little different and it will focus on some local celebrity and his relations to the local landmarks. There's always a fictionalized aspect to it -- the stories are Romance rather than History -- but they are remarkably well researched, and the fictionalization is itself well chosen, being used mostly for atmosphere as we try to imagine what the land and towns might have been like in those times.

Each episode is introduced by The Wandering Vaquero, played by Frank Graham, a very talented radio star and voice actor who would commit suicide at the age of 35. He was known as the man of 1000 voices and considered one of the best of the best -- some would even say second only to Mel Blanc, which goes far beyond just 'one of the best of the best' into 'better than almost all of even the best'. We don't get his full range of talents here, but he does make a sometimes striking host and narrator.

The episode I've selected is a charming and seasonal one -- not perfect, but very memorable -- called "Christmas as Mission San Gabriel". It's a little different from most of the others in that it involves more fictionalization than most. However, the story about the Beautiful Lady that it builds on is not mere fiction but a local legend. According to that story, shortly after the Mission San Gabriel was founded, the local Tongva natives gathered together to chase the newcomers away. The Franciscan fathers, faced with the immediate danger, responded by unfurling a large painting of Our Lady of Sorrows in front of them. The Tongva were so impressed by the beauty of the picture that they made peace with the Franciscan fathers. Of course, it's a legend; how much it connects with history is hard to say. But the painting that was supposed to have had such an effect is, from what I've read, still hanging in the chapel at Mission San Gabriel, over two centuries later.

You can listen to the episode at the Internet Archive (it's number 16), as a Christmas reminder of the power of goodness working through a human heart -- any human heart.

Notice, incidentally, that 'Los Angeles' is consistently pronounced with a hard 'g'. It was standard pronunciation at the time.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell


Opening Passage:
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic -- nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one's head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

Summary: In 1803, or thereabouts, a man named John Segundus happened to encounter a vagabond and street magician who claimed that he would tell him a great secret for a sum of money; Segundus paid, and the vagabond prophesied that one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians. Musing on this leads him to propose to the York society the question of why magic was no longer done in England, which, magicians being as argumentative as academics, led to a ferocious argument. One of the other magicians, however, suggested that he and Mr Segundus consult with a reclusive magician who was rumored to have an excellent library. This they do, and thus we meet Gilbert Norrell, who, it turns out, has been a practicing magician for some time. This touches off a chain of events that brings Mr Norrell to London with the great aim of restoring English magic.

By 'restoring English magic' Mr Norrell means, 'the magic of Mr Norrell', for he is in fact rather fearful of even the possibility of another magician. They might do it wrong, you see. And one of the reasons why Mr Norrell has such a magnificent library of magic, the best in England, besides the fact that he loves books on magic, is that he wants to make sure that he is the one who has them. Books of magic in the wrong hands, which is almost anyone else's hands, are potentially dangerous.

In trying to convince people of the importance of his project, however, Norrell makes a fateful move. Faced with the possibility of winning a powerful patron by raising his wife from the dead, Norrell does a kind of magic he thinks should not be done: he summons a fairy, a gentleman with hair like thistledown, and strikes a bargain. This will have terrible results; but it is itself the act that begins the ball rolling toward the restoration of English magic.

A couple of years later, Norrell meets Jonathan Strange, who has been trying to learn magic on his own -- and succeeded. This, of course, is Mr Norrell's great fear. But he asks Strange to demonstrate what he can do, and Strange does a kind of magic that Norrell had never come across in his reading, and for the first, and if I recall correctly, the only time in the book, laughs with delight at it. Magicians are very much like academics you see; they want all the credit, but can't help be elated at something new and remarkable and their own fields. Thus starts the curious partnership that makes up the bulk and charm of the book.

It is curious because Norrell and Strange are in many ways opposites. Norrell is retiring and cautious; Strange is bold and daring. Norrell barely fits into London society; Strange has no difficulty doing so. Norrell's actions give him a reputation for being dry and petty; not so Strange. But it is possible to overstate the difference. For they are both at root magicians, England's only two, and they share more in common than might be thought; equally presumptuous, equally absorbed in the study of magic to the point of utter selfishness, and equally caught up in something they have not even begun to understand.

Part of what makes the pairing work is that Clarke doesn't take the lazy way with it. It would be easy to make Norrell the uptight conservative impediment to progress and Strange the likable progressive hero. But this is not it at all; you misunderstand both if you read them this way. Norrell is the progressive. He wants to break with the past, the old stories of England's prior magic age about the mysterious figure of the Raven King, building a magic for the modern age, suitable to a modern England, erasing his own dependence on the very things he repudiates. Strange is the traditionalist, coming to think that the only way forward is to go back to the roots, and ultimately the Raven King himself, but more dependent on Norrell's way than he recognizes. Norrell is constantly trying to exclude the possibility of other magicians precisely because he is concerned with the progress of magic; he cannot trust other magicians actually to contribute to the progress. It is an acute case of Enlightenment despotism. Strange ends up wanting to broaden magic precisely because he wants a return to the magic of a prior day. To oversimplify massively, Norrell is the Enlightenment magician, extending into the nineteenth century, insisting upon progress, but progress done his way, while Strange is the Romantic magician, just thought-up by the nineteenth century, romanticizing the medieval golden age but at the same time attempting to impose his will on it. There's a reason the restoration of English magic requires them both. And it is inevitable that they are both wrong.

A great deal of the novel is taken up with the question of the 'English' in the phrase 'English magic'; and the book explores the intersection between the unEnglish and the uncanny. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it explores the way in which the unEnglish is itself uncanny. We certainly get an entire parade of the unEnglish, to the extent that only by dint of being an interesting story with interesting characters does the book avoid collapsing into a near-parodic white Englishwoman's checklist for diversity. But the book explores also the fact that the border between English and unEnglish is highly permeable, and has always been; the English has always been constructed out of the unEnglish, layers and layers of things once uncanny now grown canny -- or, sometimes, still uncanny in secret. For, though no one may notice, the old alliances are still in place.

Favorite Passage:
Strange shrugged. "Well," he said. "I have nothing better to suggest. Where is your copy of The Language of the Birds?"

He looked about the room. Every book lay where it had fallen the moment it had ceased to be a raven. "How many books are there?" he asked.

"Four or five thousand," said Norrell.

The magicians took a candle each and began to search.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. It's one of those books that everyone should read at least once; and it gets better on the re-reading.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Known, Served, Loved, and Honored

The Ave Maria of Ramon Llull
(from Blanquerna, LXI)
by Bl. Ramon Llull

Hail Mary!
Your servant salutes you on the part of the angels,
of the patriarchs, of the prophets, of the martyrs,
of the confessors, of the virginal youths and maids:
and I salute you for all the saints of glory.

Hail Mary!
Salutations I bring you from all Christians, both righteous and sinners;
the righteous salute you because you are worthy of salutation
and because you are the hope of their salvation;
the sinners salute you to beg you for pardon.

Hail Mary!
Salutations I bring you from Saracens, Jews, Greeks, Mongols, Tartars;
all of them, and many other peoples, salute you through me,
who am their channel. For them salutation I bring to you
so that your Son might remember them.

Hail Mary!
You are worthy that, through all people and in all lands,
you might be known, served, loved, and honored. They salute you!
And they beg for your help and grace and blessing through me.

(My translation.) The intercession of Mary is quite important in the theological thought of Ramon Llull, although given the range of his interests it only comes up explicitly on occasion; the importance of it is mostly in terms of the relative significance it has to have in his overall thought. One of his names for the Holy Virgin is "Mother of Many Ends", which I've always thought rather striking.