Audubon’s Seeing Hand

This weblog began as First Things’ art page, so to speak. Yet I have a hazy suspicion that you are not all that interested in art. Certainly not art in the lower case. Upper case Art, yes; ART in ten point caps, yes. Art as a cover for theological and philosophical reflection, or flights of creative writing, yes, yes. Then there is art as Exhibit A in the case against contemporary culture. That is always fun. But art as the work of a hand and an eye? Not so much.

It is a great loss.

But one thing cannot wait any longer. Before it is too late, let me satisfy a nagging ache to post John James Audubon’s glorious study for his print of a Great Blue Heron. It is on view until September 7th at the Morgan Library in A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany.

John James Audubon. Study for Great Blue Heron. New York Historical Society, NY.

In the main, Romantic landscapes tire me. My foot worries the accelerator going past idylls, sententious ruins, and visionary sunsets. The pastoral mood is as alien to me as obligatory appreciation. This exhibition drew me in simply to see what was on show by Samuel Palmer, a British painter and etcher highly admired in the Victorian era but neglected since.

My heart stopped in front of the Audubon. I had not expected to see it. In the instant of meeting it, everything else—Palmer, too—fell away. Here is the genius of Audubon fully realized in this stunning composition. It is an exquisite conversation between meticulous observation and pure invention. In abstract terms, the image is a masterpiece—no other word will do—of graphic beauty and virtuosic design.

The Italian word disegno, common in Renaissance texts, makes no distinction between drawing and composition. The character of line itself and the rhythmic patterning of its placement on the page is understood as a unit, the single yield of a seeing hand. Audubon, largely self-taught, was gifted with such a hand.

Any standing figure—bird or man, no matter—carries the burden of stasis. But Audubon’s heron is infused with a dynamic sense of movement and immediacy. The scene gives the illusion of having been captured in the moment. Look at the tilt of the bird’s body and the arc of those wings. The bird is standing solidly on the ground poised to make a lethal strike at food. Yet the lift and billow of the wings suggests flight, as if the feet had descended to grab rock while the body was still partially alight.

That double-winged congruence, so suggestive of the bird’s aerodynamic fluency, is an imaginative device that Audubon used in other compositions. He understood that verisimilitude, untransfigured by a fertilizing intelligence, is not enough to breathe life into a subject.

The crisp silhouette of the heron’s upraised left wing echoes the curvature of its neck. The straight line of the avian leg angles in harmony with the double lines of the open beak. Marsh grass bends gently in the direction of the leg’s medial joint. Throughout, crescents and lines sing in counterpoint with each other. So much calculation; such superb illusion of spontaneous nature.

Field naturalist that he was, Audubon puts the viewer on eye level with the heron. We are there in the mire, witness to a predator intent on prey. Alert with energy, the down on the bird’s neck signals the excitement of the hunt. It would be unwise to get closer. The marsh is his, not ours.

Running through the world’s long history of bird painting is use of a bird as symbol of the soul, the Holy Ghost of things. Audubon’s birds, kissed with life, have souls of their own.

Note: The Morgan bills the image, accurately, as a study. But the word study is misleading here. This is a fully realized painting in an arresting range of techniques: pastel, watercolor, pencil, oil paint, and gouache. Even a bit of collage appears in an effort to correct the tip of a single feather. It is a study only in the sense that it was created to be rendered ultimately as a hand-colored print, sent to press in collaboration with Robert Havell, a master of acquatint.

The Havell Edition of Audubon’s The Birds of America is among the most beautiful books ever published.

A Brief Thought

Writing in 1956, Romano Guardini reflected on man’s place in a world hurtling toward what we call today postmodernism. The End of the Modern World is a bleak reflection but a necessary one. Guardini, professor of philosophy and theology that he was, leaped beyond abstractions here to enter the battle for souls that theoretical formulas deflect.

Nicolas Bataille. Dragons Vomiting Frogs (14th C). Apocalypse of Angers, Tapestry Museum, Angers, F.

One stark passage alone is worth volumes of academic theology written by court theologians for fellow courtiers. He is speaking of the eschatological conditions under which modern man lives and the religious temper of his self-created future:

With these words I proclaim no facile apocalyptic. No man has the right to say that the End is here, for Christ Himself has declared that only the Father knows the day and the hour. (Matthew xxiv, 36). If we speak here of the nearness of the End, we do not mean nearness in the sense of time, but nearness as it pertains to the essence of the End, for in essence man’s existence is now nearing an absolute decision. Each and every consequence of that decision bears within it the greatest potentiality and the most extreme danger. 

Nearness as it pertains to the essence of the End. 

The Triumph of Death (15th C). Catalan fresco. National Gallery of Sicily, Palermo.

Poland Spring & The Miseries of Matter

Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.
                                       —Inspector Mortimer, in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori

What does our mania for bottled water have to do with memento mori? More than a little, I think. Stay with me, please, while I work this out.

Tomb in Arcadia. Illustration for manuscript by René d’Anjou (1457).

A bottle of one’s own is a token of our times. We are all hydrophiliacs now. It used to be that bottled water was the sensible alternative to tap in tourist meccas with precarious hygiene. Today, no one walks out the door to the library or the corner newsstand without their personal water bottle. Clothing, carry-alls, bikes, and belts come with loops, slings, pockets, or clips for your PBA-free, twenty-ounce promise of eternal life.

Gear junkies can even order a bottle for the terrier. Dogs need their ions charged, too. The trumpet call of perpetual hydration sounds for us all.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego (1638). Louvre, Paris.

On the subway not long ago, I sat catti-corner to a woman holding one of those ergonomically contoured, insulated, spill-proof bottles made for runners and jostled commuters. It was a Amphipod Hydraform Handheld Therma Lite, a full-service gizmo equipped with an expandable zipper pouch for an iPod, phone, energy bar, keys, and MetroCard. Essential whatnots.

This one had a lime green nipple. Its owner took a sip every so often. I could not take my eyes off her. Here was a grown woman with a nipple in her mouth. She was nursing her electrolytes, protecting the circuitry from drying out on the local between 86th Street and Grand Central. Analogies to infancy, regression, and enfeeblement rushed to mind. Self-absorption, too, raised its hand to be counted. So did consumerism.

But those commonplaces are ready-made for so many things nowadays that the words are almost as banal as their applications. None were up to the job of capturing just what it was about this particular grotesquerie that set it apart from its cousins. There must be something else.

Egon Schiele, Death and Man (1911). Leopold Museum, Vienna.

And there was. The analogy I was groping for leapfrogged over facile correspondences and headed straight to the heart of what Jean Mouroux termed “the miseries of matter.” It was this: Our obsession with methodical hydration is sign and symbol of a sidling, furtive apprehension that mortality is a peril. 

If our toted water bottles can be said to reveal one hidden thing, one disguised tension, it is anxiety over the terrible truth that each of us is a frail cluster of cells poised for dispersion. The sorrow of our condition is felt in the carnal pull of mortality. The new mysticism of hydration keeps open the sphincters of denial.

What better badge, however cloaked, of our wayfaring state than bottled water, a thing we are accustomed to associating with travel. We are all earth-bound, all en route to a Final End that we know we must enter too soon. Always, too soon. And with no foretaste of the accounting required of us. In the instant I grasped that, the woman across from me with her hi-tech bottle transformed. Suddenly, she was no longer absurd, the bottle no longer grotesque. Something lifted. I saw only a fellow sojourner staving off the dark. 

Note: Poussin’s painting, above, might be difficult to see in a small jpg. Three shepherds and a shepherdess examine a tombstone with the legend: Et in Arcadia, ego. Death announces itself even here, in the Arcadian paradise (no less than on the Lexington Avenue line).  It is the pictorial equivalent, centuries earlier, of the words of Muriel Spark’s anonymous caller: Remember you must die.

A Reader Responds

Among the many thoughtful letters that came in response to the previous post, one in particular articulated thoughts that you yourselves might have. The one below comes from a man familiar with the founding of an Anglican Mission for Aborigines in North Queensland. Herewith: 

Animal Sacrifice. Tomb of Iti-Ibi-Iger (2190-1976 BC), Egypt. Museo Egizo, Turin.

Dear Maureen:

I have often wanted to reply to your articles, but until I read the one on why you do not allow comments at the bottom of your articles on First Things, I had never noticed your email address . . . . When I read your explanation - that you welcomed responses, but that you wanted any response to be to what you said rather than to third party interpretations of what you said - I was impressed!

So, to the topic of this week’s edition of First Things: “Lessons from Haiti”.

. . . I have a reasonable grasp of the historical dilemma faced by the church as it pushed into East Asia, and the war between the Jesuits and the Franciscans over adapting Christianity to Chinese culture. It might be argued that the Franciscan victory in this matter saved the church from “a syncretic, creole Christianity more congenial to animism than Thomism.” On the other hand it might have set the church on a trajectory that could only yield its eventual eclipse in Europe. Unfaithful in Asia to the spirit which enabled it to absorb pagan practices in Europe, it lost its resilience and failed to adapt in its own heartland to the challenge of (what would become known as) modernism from the twelfth century onwards.

I hear the concern expressed in your article. To it I reply, if you believe that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, can you not trust the outcome of its ongoing metamorphosis? Originating as a form of Judaism, it was transformed through Hellenisation, and diverged into its Eastern and Western manifestations of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, survived Protestantism, and now we are witness to, in Walbert Buhlmann’s words, The Coming of the Third Church. Are the words of Gamaliel relevant here: “If this endeavour is of human origin it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God you will not be able to destroy it. You may even find yourself fighting against God.” Perhaps. But I expect that you might say that we cannot presume that anything in which we are engaged is guaranteed to be from God. Your scathing criticism of the changes within in the church since the Second Vatican Council would suggest that you see that particular trajectory as not merely flawed but something akin to apostasy. As someone who was a novice in a religious order that responded vigorously to the documents of the Second Vatican Council I have dwelt ever since in the experience of what we understood at the time to be a New Pentecost.

I make these points not to argue against your concern, but to absorb it into my sense of what it means to be church. Though I don’t flinch for a moment at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Johannesburg I hear your question: “where this ritual blood was to come from, where to be drawn.” But I do not let that question suggest that people embedded in that situation cannot answer that question. I am glad the question has been asked. It enlarges my sense of the task of being church in a diverse world. 


Antonio de Bellis. Sacrifice of Noah (17th C.). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Dear Paul:

Your observation about the Church’s history in Asia raises a valuable point in evaluating the wisdom or recklessness in adapting certain African practices to the liturgy of the Mass. Did Franciscan victory set the Church on a trajectory toward eventual eclipse in Europe? Possibly. Still, that is a very big might-have. Several tentative thoughts come to mind.

Straightaway, history offers us no way to know if Jesuit accommodation would have resulted in a regnant or enduring Christianity among Asians. Nor any guidance on whether a stronger presence in Asia would have provided a stay against decline in Europe. Retrospective conjecture remains just that: conjecture. Better to stay with what we can say with some degree of assurance.

Is it fair to say that in China and Japan, the Church faced more developed religious systems—a more sophisticated paganism, so to speak—than that of the Gauls, Franks, Visigoths, Celts, Norsemen, and other cultures than were subsumed under the aegis of Christendom? That shelter was reinforced by Christian powers not extant in Asia. The post-Constantinian Church was militant in Europe; the Counter Reformation Church was supplicant in East Asia.

That the Church lost resilience against the challenges of Modernism in its own heartland is undeniable. Unhappily, any exploration of paralysis is inseparable from dissection of the politics of Vatican I, the personality of Pius IX, the consequences of the declaration of papal infallibility on the papacy itself, and its etherizing effect on Catholic clergy and laity alike. That, Paul, is beyond the scope—if not the sympathies—of an artist’s weblog.

I very much like your quote from Gamaliel. Quotations are wonderful devices. The most useful—and endearing—are ones that can support either side of an argument, depending on the situation. In this context, let me offer in exchange Jeremiah 10:2-3 “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen...For the customs of the people are vain.”

Please know that apostasy-spotting is not a pastime of mine. I simply have a serviceable eye for gall and wormwood. And an ear for cant. Nothing more.

Like you, I am not opposed to incorporating another culture’s sacred gestures into the liturgy. But which ones? So many of our rituals, from Christmas trees to cherished “smells and bells,” had their origins in non-Christian practices. Let African liturgies choreograph an offertory procession in dance if the people “embedded” in that tradition choose. Play drums, rattles, mbiras, and maracas. But an impassable line needs to to fall somewhere. If that border admits creaturely blood into the liturgy, is not the meaning of the Mass up for grabs? On every Catholic altar is sacrificed, for all peoples in all ages, the Lamb slain from the beginning of time. Adding goats and chickens waffles the tidings. The Third Church must not obscure the First.

Anonymous. Christ Crucified (16th C.). Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis, Porto, Portugal.

You are right: I would say that we cannot presume our choices come with a guarantee from the mountain top. Yes, we trust that the Spirit guides. But we are bound to speak and act on behalf of that trust with the deepest humility. The Spirit is not a magician, not a fixer. And we are wondrously inventive in discerning His breath on our own druthers. Every generation detects Him descending—with, ah, bright wings!—on its own fine programs, ambitions, and understandings. 

We have been cautioned that the Spirit breathes where He will, even in places we would rather He did not. Transcending our chronologies—guiding all the while—the eternal Spirit grants us, in our freedom, the time to hang ourselves.

Lessons From Haiti

At this point, it seems opportune to recall all the primitive religions, the Animist type of religion, which puts first emphasis on the worship of their ancestors. It seems that those who practice it are particularly close to Christianity. Among them the missionaries of the Church more easily find a common language.
                                           —John Paul II, Passing the Threshold of Hope
To serve the loa [spirits], you have to be a Catholic.
                                          —Haitian peasant

The future of the Church in Europe is bleak. By Philip Jenkins’ reckoning, quoted in a 2002 interview for Atlantic: “Christianity is largely a dead issue.” But we can take heart from the explosive growth of the Church in Africa, or what is buoyantly termed the Global South.

Ram decorated for sacrifice (1950s), Senegal.Quai Branly Museum, Paris.

Or can we? When the Church’s center of gravity has completed its transit to the Southern Hemisphere, would any Catholic alive today still recognize it? It is hazardous to predict the full effect of that demographic shift on the historical practices of Christianity. Still, we ought not discount the chance that this tectonic shift could yield a syncretic, creole Christianity more congenial to animism than Thomism.

In 2000, Buti Joseph Tihagale, currently Archbishop of Johannesburg, gave an interview to The Southern Cross, a South African weekly. In it, he suggested incorporating blood libations into liturgies celebrated by African Catholics:

Sacrifice to the ancestors continues to be a very common practice among Africans. The slaughtering of an animal—cow or sheep—takes place wherever there is a funeral or a marriage feast, or in times of illness, unemployment, family feuds, or the birth of a child.

He recommended that the practice be considered within the approved orbit of Vatican invitation to adapt a culture’s special customs: “Is there a way to integrate this custom with their Christian belief as a step toward meaningful inculturation?” Disavowing any reversion to Old Testament animal sacrifices, the then-bishop begged the question of where this ritual blood was to come from, where to be drawn. Tihagale discreetly left others with the sticky issue of when and by what means fresh blood would be introduced into the liturgy.

Animal sacrifice (c. 1900), Vietnam. Adoc-Photos.

The Archbishop’s nod to animist ritual brings to mind the mix of African rites and Christian observances at the heart of Voodoo (alternately, Vodun or Vodou). A slantwise glimpse into the temper of this Catholicism aborning in the Global South can be had in Alfred Métraux’s Voodoo in Haiti, originally published by Oxford University Press in 1959. More that a half century on, it remains a stellar text—methodical, prudent, free of theoretical axe-grinding—on the transplanting of the cult of vodú from West Africa to Haiti.

A grasp of Voodoo’s beliefs, liturgies, social function, and ties with Christianity are a sobering brace against good-willed complacency and incautious optimism:

The peasant who sacrifices to the loa, who is possessed by them, who every Saturday answers the call of the drums, does not believe . . . that he is behaving like a pagan and offending the Church. On the contrary, he likes to think of himself as a good Catholic and contributes to the salary of his curé without hesitation. This “idolater” would be wretched if he were excluded from Communion or if he were forbidden to marry or baptize his children in church.

Medicine bundle wrapped around a monkey skull. Benin. Werner Forman, NY.

Anticipating Archbishop Tihagale, Métraux wrote:

Once when I asked a fervent Catholic whether he had finally finished with Voodoo, he replied that he would always be faithful to the Catholic Church but nothing could make him give up the worship of loa who had always protected his family.

Métraux continued:

The hunsi [assistant to a Voodoo priest] .  .  .  saw nothing wrong in attending Mass after dancing all night for the loa. It takes a white man’s mentality to be shocked that a hungan or mambo [priest or priestess] can march beside a curé at the head of a procession without a trace of shame.

Numerical growth tells us nothing about the blurring of religious distinctions among African congregations or among clergy themselves. A priest might preach Christianity by day and, under cover of the communion of saints, visit an animist divine at night to consult his forefathers.

S.E. Bottox. Fall of Man (20th C.), Haiti. Collection of Manu Sassoomian, New York.

Animists live in an enchanted world. It is a gyre of spirits, genies, demons, and the ritual magic to appease, bridle, or steer them:

A wood cutter about to chop down a tree will give the trunk a few taps with the reverse of his axe, so as to warn the resident soul and give it time to get out. To be on the safe side, he will even recite a prayer and invoke the Holy Spirit.

Poets, romantics, and Third World fanciers smile on enchantment. Modernity’s flawed, sometimes illusory, attachment to rationality is never enough to conjure away the realities of living and dying in the shadow of the Cross. Now comes the next Christendom, with its bewitchments, charisma, and ecstasies Christ-tinted to soothe the uneasy.

What price for this emergent re-enchantment? Who can say? Or perhaps it has already been said and we have only to remember the words. Commenting on nostalgia for the ideals of pagan nature worship—to which ancestor worship is aligned—Chesterton wrote:

He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull’s blood, as did Julian the Apostate.