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Coronavirus meets religion #5 – the arts and pestilence

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — — what novelist, poet, painter, composer or film maker will create the great works of our present plague? — with two quotes on pestilence ]
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I owe much to the Guardian for Jonathan Jones‘ article Plague visionaries: how Rembrandt, Titian and Caravaggio tackled pestilence, which provided me with the classic western exemplars here — and then there are those two quotes. But read on —

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Pilgrims, penitents, flagellants, corpse-bearers, gargoyles, vultures — the whole ghastly crew populate the first chapter of Carlos Fuentes‘ great novel Terra Nostra. It is a time of plague, and the river Seine is boiling.

Great artists not infrequently tackle subjects of death, decay and destruction, the antechambers of hell, as they do works of beauty, mercy and grace, the antechamber of paradise. Today’s edition of “Coronavirus meets religion” features a small cluster of the greatest works of European art, painted in time of plague — to ward it off, to beg God for his mercy, to instruct the faithful in the path of heaven, to petition God on behalf of oneself or one’s family..

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Titian: Pieta

This detail of a painting by the great color master Titian shows from left to right the virgin Mary holding her son Jesus, who has just been brought down from the cross, dead, his hand held by a an old and weathered figure half-clothed in rad, believed by art historians to be a self-portrait by Titian, and representing St Jerome. and bottom right, an image of himself and his son as they’d be represented in a peasant’s ex voto or prayer plaque.

Jonathan Jones notes:

Titian painted this twilit image when Venice was being ravaged by plague. He portrays himself half-naked, prostrated before the image of Mary cradling the dead Christ. To make his message clear, he includes a picture within this picture: a crudely daubed popular ex-voto panel you might see in a church, depicting him and his son Orazio in prayer. This most sophisticated of artists is offering this great ashen canvas in the same simple spirit as an offering any peasant might make. It didn’t work. Titian and Orazio both died in the 1576 plague.

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Mary Shelley:

Want a shiver down the spine? Mary Shelley gave us Frankenstein – here she is on pestilence, from this month’s Back Matter on Lapham’s:

Have any of you, my readers, observed the ruins of an anthill immediately after its destruction? At first it appears entirely deserted of its former inhabitants; in a little time you see an ant struggling through the upturned mold; they reappear by twos and threes, running hither and thither in search of their lost companions. Such were we upon the earth, wondering aghast at the effects of pestilence. Our empty habitations remained, but the dwellers were gathered to the shades of the tomb.

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Caravaggio: The Seven Works of Mercy

St Matthew‘s gospel gives the standard set of “works of bodily mercy” (Matt. 25: 35-36:

I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me

Various artists have depicted what are now known as the Works of Corporal Mercy, Bruegel the Elder painted them in pen and ink, Bruegel the Younger painted them in color, but nobody had brought all seven together combined in such a single image as Caravaggio‘s. From Caravaggio.ogr:

He set the Acts described in Matthew 25 : 35-36 in a little piazza, perhaps in front of the same Taverna del Cerriglio where three years later he was attacked. It is night, and the padrone is directing three men to his inn (“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me”). One is hardly visible. The second is recognizable as a pilgrim by his staff, Saint James Major’s shell, and Saint Peter’s crossed keys on his hat; perhaps he can be identified as Saint Roch but more likely, following the Gospel, he is Christ in disguise. The third, a young bravo, is Saint Martin c utting his cloak to share it with the naked beggar in the foreground (“I was naked, and you clothed me”). In the shadow behind the blade is a youth whose legs seem to be twisted (“I was sick, and you visited me”). The group of loiterers is completed by a husky man, Samson, in the desert of Lechi (Judges 15 : 19), pouring water into his mouth from the jawbone of an ass (“I was thirsty, and you gave me drink”). Opposite this group, on the right, is Pero breast-feeding her aged father, Ci-mon, through the bars of his prison (“I was hungry, and you gave me food” and “I was in prison, and you came to me”). And in the background, a vested priest holds a torch to illuminate the hasty transport of a corpse, perhaps recalling the plagues that periodically decimated the city’s population (burial of the dead, the seventh Act, not mentioned in the Gospel). Above the scene hover the Madonna and Child with two angels, as if to warrant divine acknowledgment of human charity, particularly of the protagonists in the painting, who may portray members of the confraternity.

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Susan Sontag:

Sontag on pestilence, in Disease as Political Metaphor — courtesy the New York Review of Books:

From pestilence (bubonic plague) came “pestilent,” whose figurative meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “injurious to religion, morals, or public peace—1513”; and “pestilential,” meaning “morally baneful or pernicious—1531.”

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Albrecht Dürer: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

Most beloved of the most famous set of illustrations of the Book of Revelation is this work by Albrecht Durer. The Met explains:

[T]he Four Horsemen presents a dramatically distilled version of the passage from the Book of Revelation (6:1–8): “And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in his hand; … When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given great power over a fourth of the earth; to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” Transforming what was a relatively staid and unthreatening image in earlier illustrated Bibles, Dürer injects motion and danger into this climactic moment through his subtle manipulation of the woodcut..

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But as the Book of Revelation shows, better things eternally await us:–

Durer again, illustrating the Madonna portrayed as the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” in Revelation 12.1

May you each and all receive a blizzard of blessings in these hard times.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis.

Coronavirus meets religion #4

Saturday, March 21st, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — this one’s fine, with popes, patriarchs, confessions, hindutva and all — but i’ll have something special for you in #5 ]
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I just ran across an Italian site, DIRESOM, that monitors matters of the virus, religion and law, and am going to drop in some of the more potent notices here.

Hindutva:

Around mid-February 2020, Chakrapani Maharaj, who is the President of the Indian fundamentalist party “All India Hindu Mahasabha”, asserted that “corona is not a virus, but an angry avatar [divine embodiment] who came into the world to punish those who eat meat and to protect poor people”

The thuing is, religion allied to nationalism all too easily turns into bigotry, persecution, torture, massacres, whatever..

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Orthodoxy:

ECUMENICAL PATRIARCH ANNOUNCES HALT OF ALL ORTHODOX CHURCH SERVICES GLOBALLY DUE TO CORONAVIRUS
18 MARCH 2020

Brother Hierarchs and beloved children in the Lord,

From the Phanar, from the heart of the Queen of Cities, from the City of the Great Church and of Haghia Sophia, we are communicating with each and every one of you – women, men, and children – because of the unprecedented conditions and tribulation that we are facing as a human race as a result of the global threat posed by the pandemic of the new coronavirus, called Covid-19.

The voice of the Church, of the Mother Church, cannot be silent in such times. Our words, then, take the form we have learned through the ages: through the liturgy and through instruction, with encouragement and consolation.

Church of England:

Same thing in the UK..

As the challenge of the coronavirus grips the world, and as the Government asks every individual and every organisation to rethink its life, we are now asking the Church of England in all its parishes, chaplaincies and ministries to serve all people in a new way. Public worship will have to stop for a season. Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid-week gatherings must be put on hold. But this does not mean that the Church of England has shut up shop

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Catholicism:

The issue of the sacrament of confession — traditionally a face-to-face practice (albeit often conducted through a grille or veil) — may, a Vatican authority on canon law argues, legitimately be conducted via telephone, in sufficiently urgent, exigent circumstances.

  • Note on the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the current pandemic situation, by the Vatican’s Grand Penitentiary, Cardinal Piacenza [Italian]
  • .

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    Pope Francis, pray for us

    Coronavirus meets religion #3

    Thursday, March 19th, 2020

    [ by Charles Cameron — third in a series — mostly about locusts ]
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    Eye-grabbing but not helpful:

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    The image comes from Prophecy News Watch, where it heads up today’s article, Is Coronavirus Connected To Bible Prophecy?. The answer:

    I believe what we are witnessing with COVID-19 is part of the birth pains Jesus talked about in the Olivet Discourse. In fact, I think it is a major birth pain; as is the locust plague that is ravaging Africa and the Mideast; as is the large number of social uprisings in countries around he world; as is the increase in earthquake activity; as were the record-breaking Australian wild fires; as is…you get the picture. Birth pains increase in frequency and intensity, and they only increase until the moment of delivery

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    Plague of locusts? From the Times of Israel, courtesy Richard Landes:

    Notice the subtitle: the locusts will ” skip Holy Land”. In the story of the Biblical plagues, the locusts were the eighth out of ten plagues of increasing severity meted out by the Lord against Pharaoh and his Egypt. There was worse to come, but the locust plague itself would be worse than any other locus plague before or since. As Moses prophesies to Pharaoh:

    Exodus 10. 3:Thus saith the Lord God of the Hebrews, How long wilt thou refuse to humble thyself before me? let my people go, that they may serve me.

    4 Else, if thou refuse to let my people go, behold, to morrow will I bring the locusts into thy coast:

    5 And they shall cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the earth: and they shall eat the residue of that which is escaped, which remaineth unto you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field:

    6 And they shall fill thy houses, and the houses of all thy servants, and the houses of all the Egyptians; which neither thy fathers, nor thy fathers’ fathers have seen, since the day that they were upon the earth unto this day.

    It was the tenth and worst plague– the death of the firstborn — that afflicted the Egyptians and which “passed over” the Israelites — compare the eerie echo here of the plage that will “skip Holy Land”.

    Worlds within the world: studio of Kiefer, mind of Vollmann

    Monday, February 24th, 2020

    [ by Charles Cameron — the worlds within this world are to be found in the workshops of Anselm Kiefer and William Vollmann ]
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    Artist one of two: Anselm Kiefer:

    Kiefer devoted himself to investigating the interwoven patterns of German mythology and history and the way they contributed to the rise of Fascism. He confronted these issues by violating aesthetic taboos and resurrecting sublimated icons. For example, in his 1969 Occupations series, Kiefer photographed himself striking the “Sieg Heil” pose. Subsequent paintings—immense landscapes and architectural interiors, often encrusted with sand and straw—invoke Germany’s literary and political heritage. References abound to the Nibelungen and Wagner, Albert Speer’s architecture, and Adolf Hitler.

    Interwoven patterns? The Nibelungen? Albert Speer?

    Seraphim? Jacob’s ladder, on which angels travel up and down? And in this time of nuclear and gas chamber holocausts, have they abandoned the ladder?

    Seraphim is part of Kiefer’s Angel series, which treats the theme of spiritual salvation by fire, an ancient belief perverted by the Nazis in their quest for an exclusively Aryan nation.

    Spiritual salvation by fire?

    Okay, This fellow has the kind of dark mythological intensity that interests me. Let’s take a stroll through this man’s world — a deeper dive into his studio.

    In we go:–

    It was like a world inside the world. Huge metal slabs were leaning against the walls. Helter-skelter around them, on racks with wheels, stood large paintings of oceans and beaches, rivers and meadows, mountains and forests, some covered with corroded ravines of lead. Vitrines in every size were standing everywhere, filled with the strangest things: the roots of trees, rusty hammers, little clay pigs. Shelves that ran the length of the hall were stacked with balance scales, hooks, rifles, stoves, snakes, torpedoes, piles of bricks, heaps of dried flowers, even whole trees. There were more full-size fighter jets and a cage that was maybe 300 square feet that was filled with golden wheat and what appeared to be the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant with a bicycle dangling down the side.

    Torpedoes! Whole fighter jets! Whole trees!

    Kiefer‘s paintings, we learn, are overwhelming, dark and vast — Seraphim‘s a good example — enforcing silence before their enormous intensity. And then, suddenly — watercolors, “brimming with color — sparkling blues and brilliant reds” as bright as the moments of a life, and thus as intensely personal as the dark vast paintings had been impersonal and overbearing — as is, one is forced to admit, our century.

    He’s an artist — exhibit number one.

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    Here’s exhibit number two: the mind of William Vollmann..

    Deep dive number two:

    Bill greeted me warmly and showed me around the art-making area of his bunker, where he has a power engraver—he was working on a suite of Norse block prints when I visited—and where he prints his Dolores photographs using an arcane 19th century method called gum bichromate, which takes up to 28 days to produce a single print. Then he led me to the walk-in.

    What’s in here?

    This is the meat locker, where Dolores’s parts are. When the electrician wired it up, he asked, “What do you use this for?” I said, “Oh, that’s just where I keep my victims.” There was a long silence….She’s got her dresses here and I have my bulletproof helmet and various stuff from my journalism in there

    Lecter, Hannibal? “That’s just where I keep my victims”?

    Vollmann, like Kiefer, is possessed of a world both dark and sparkling bright. The sheer extent of his variety, too, is impressive, overwhelming.

    I have in my room at the Pine Creek Care Center only two smallish bookshelves, and in them one book of Vollmann‘s: Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater. I mean, how not?

    Kissing the Mask is so packed with beauty, understatement — erotics, Japan, Noh, Vollmann himself, Noh backstage, behind-the-scenes, photographs — ” a string ball of thoughts” — I’d like to say “torpedoes .. even whole trees” but Vollmann‘s world within the world is other than Kiefer’s, as though there were room for two worlds within our world — three perhaps — though I’ve yet to encounter the third — “with Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses. porn queens, poets, housewives, makeup artists, geishas, valkyries, and Venus figurines” Vollmann addsall this in small print at the bottom of the book’s cover.

    And Valkyries!

    It takes my reading glasses and a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass to read these days, and my copy of the abridged, one-volume Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means is in storage — a book fate which I both mourn and feel intense gratitude for.

    When Vollmann turns to consider violence — “to establish a moral calculus to consider the causes, effects, and ethics of violence” as Wikipedia has it — he spends twenty and more years on the task.

    The abridgment, Vollmann says, he made in half an hour, for the money. Truth to the work’s title is to be found in the $700, seven-volume original set, 3,500 copies. Even with dollar-store glasses and Holmes’ magnifying glass — enhanced with the option of bright light the better to read by — seven volumes is beyond me, as 700 pages of the condensed would be.

    And there are yet other Vollmanns, with other worlds..

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    Oh but let Van Gogh have the last word, eh, Vollmann?

    Vincent Van Gogh, Japonoiserie, The Courtesan

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    Sources

  • Guggenheim, Kiefer, Seraphim
  • NYT, Into the Black Forest With the Greatest Living Artist

  • 3 am, becoming dolores: william t. vollmann exposes his female alter ego
  • Wikipedia, William T. Vollmann

  • Metropolitan Publications, Van Gogh in Arles
  • Doing without, a new wave?

    Sunday, February 23rd, 2020

    [ by Charles Cameron — intuitive and counter-intuitive redefined, no politicians, no borders, no traffic lights ]]
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    Consider these two titles, both of which I ran across today:

    Sources:

  • The Nation, What Would an Open-Borders World Actually Look Like?
  • New Yorker, Politics Without Politicians
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    Consider: doing without traffic lights:

    The original example is Drachten, a town in Holland of 50,000 people. It is home to exactly zero traffic lights. Even in areas of the town with a traffic volume of 22,000 cars per day, traffic lights have been replaced by roundabouts, extended cycle paths and improved pedestrian areas. The town saw accidents at one intersection fall from 36 over a four-year period to just two in the last two years since the lights were removed in 2006.

    The counter-intuitive finding is that streets without traffic signals mean that cars drive more slowly and carefully because the rules of the road are ambiguous—there’s no red, green or yellow to tell drivers precisely what to do.

    Counter-intuitive. eh? Highly intuitive, and counter to popular assumption, I’d say. Out of the box from one-two-three to zero.


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