All Hallow’s Eve 2014

Balmoral Castle, 1874. It was a Halloween to remember. Queen Victoria planned an elaborate party, taking charge of designing every element of the night herself. Something in the incongruity of that touches me. Victoria, living with the ghost of Prince Albert, sought to stave off the monstrous with a Halloween bash.


W.S. Stacey. Queen Victoria’s Halloween. From The Life and Times of Queen Victoria, 1897.


Diana Millay’s The Power of Halloween, is a witch-friendly potboiler that you need not bother reading. But even a bad book can have something worth plucking:

The Queen’s lavish preparations and attention to detail may have run a close second to her coronation. Masked balls were nothing new to her. Nor were holidays which she believed she was born to celebrate.

The Queen invited not only friends and royal relatives, but also her tenant farmers and castle servants to join in a torch light procession around the palace grounds. They walked while she rode in a four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage. With a fiery torch in every hand (including the Queen’s), this strange but exotic procession was only the beginning. How cleverly she had set the stage for her indoor celebration: Balmoral by candlelight. It must have been hard to tell the ghosts from the guests.

That last sentence is a bit breathy but it suits the day. More precisely, it is of a piece with what the day has become. I prefer real ghosts to the cheesy inflatable ghouls that sway on every front lawn between here and the Henry Hudson Bridge. Even the city—the Upper West Side, for heaven’s sake!—has its growing share of orange lights and fake cobwebs. The campiness of it all irks me. I prefer a good fright. Something to curdle the blood. 


Eugene Grasset. Three Women & Three Wolves (c.1900). Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.

Either that, or bring me some sign of genial accommodation with the dead. Each of us lives with ghosts. We call them saints to console ourselves for the mystery of their whereabouts. There is solace in the word saint. It deflects dread but does not erase it. Some humor brought to the unseen, to all that is concealed and goes unnamed, complements the hope we have for ourselves and for our dead.

Contemporary Halloween aims at nothing more than mocking the death-conjuring unease inherent in mortality. There is no humor in our Halloween stuffs, only inanity.



George Cruikshank. The Ghost of Mrs. Leckie (1830).


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A Domestic Annunciation

To clear the palate from all things synodal, let us go look at a painting. One in particular deserves a place of honor. Among the loveliest images of Mary that we hold as our own, none delights me more than Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation.


Henry Ossawa Tanner. The Annunciation (1898). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Tanner (1859-1937) was this country’s first major African-American artist. Within nine years of moving to Paris—a crucial destination for artists of his generation—he had become an international success. By 1900, he ranked among the leading Americans in Paris and, released there from the burdens of race, was counted the premier biblical painter of his day. He exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon, attracting even greater critical acclaim than Thomas Eakins, his friend and former mentor at the Pennsylvania Academy.

The first of Tanner’s works purchased for an American museum, The Annunciation is a marvelous blend of academic realism and abstract invention. No winged angel appears, no benedictory gesture.


Francisco de Zubarán. The Annunciation (1650). Madrid.

Feathered messengers are an ancient technology. Angels, as we are used to imagining them, are a pictorial device somehow off-kilter a mere five years before the airborne marvel of Kitty Hawk. This is Paris, 1898. Pigeon post—winged angels a variant of it—will not do today for depicting divine address to the daughter of Zion. The God-bearing word travels, as ever, at the speed of light. Tanner’s Gabriel arrives as an electromagnetic pulse, a shimmering Doppler effect that proclaims a wonder in heaven and another within the soul of a girl.

And the girl! Gone is the Lady of medieval imagining, interrupted at her psalter. Here is a dark-haired, adolescent peasant from the hills of Galilee, who never held a book. Teenaged Miriam, hands in her lap, looks into the light, weighing the message. She does not shrink back in awe, as in the Sienese version below. She makes no gesture of excessive humility. Her body language is attentive, poised. Composure in the face of the miraculous hints at something in the very nature of revelation. Gabriel’s extraordinary message bursts into the ordinary. Domesticity is no stranger to epiphany. 


Simone Martini. The Annunciation (detail), 14th C., The Uffizi, Florence.


Notice that single, sturdy bare foot peeking out from a cascade of drapery. It is a small touch but one that marks Tanner’s intentional distance from centuries of Marian typology. The Virgin might have bared one breast to suckle her baby but she was rarely, if ever, depicted barefoot. As if she never really touched the floor. But those traditional images of Mary nursing had a doctrinal purpose: to affirm the humanity of Jesus. Here, Tanner emphasizes the humanity of Mary. No need, then, for the exaggerated modesty of a shod foot.

The scene’s exaggerated drapery, however, serves purely compositional purposes. Too lavish for the historical accuracy which was crucial to Tanner, its undulating spread provides pictorial counter to the spare geometry of an otherwise austere interior. Moreover, the technical demands of that pendant droop declare Tanner’s brotherhood with Bouguereau, Meissioner, Géròme, Cabanel, Bastien-Lepage, and other prize-winning stars of the Salon. Pride in craft makes a proclamation of its own.

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King Francis

Just arrived in this morning’s email is this broadcast from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa: “Francis’ Patient Revolution.” Reading it, patience is the last quality that comes to mind: 

There was no agreement at the synod on homosexuality and divorce, but in the end it will be the pope who decides. And he already has in mind the changes he wants to introduce, or rather is already putting them into practice.




Paul Anthony McGavin writes:

It is not true that Francis was silent during the two weeks of the synod. In the morning homilies at Saint Martha’s, he hammered away every day at the zealots of tradition, those who load unbearable burdens onto men, those who have only certainties and no doubts, the same against whom he lashed out in the farewell address with the synod fathers.

He is anything but impartial, this pope. He wanted the synod to orient the Catholic hierarchy toward a new vision of divorce and homosexuality, and he has succeeded, in spite of the scanty number of votes in favor of the change of course, after two weeks of fiery discussion. 

One paragraph startled me some. In the early days of his pontificate, the romance of Francis was stoked with charming stories of his humility. He scrambled his own eggs, tied his own shoes, took the bus. An ordinary Joe, just like you and me but more so. We saw nothing in the press like this:

On communion for the divorced and remarried, it is already known how the pope thinks. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he authorized the “curas villeros,” the priests sent to the peripheries, to give communion to all, although four fifths of the couples were not even married. And as pope, by telephone or letter he is not afraid of encouraging some of the faithful who have remarried to receive communion without worrying about it, right away, even without those “penitential paths under the guidance of the diocesan bishop” projected by some at the synod, and without issuing any denials when the news of his actions comes out.

Set aside, if you can, the specific moral teachings that are in the dock. Suppress for a moment whatever conscientious sympathy you might have with Francis’ aims. What bewilders me here is the precipitous end-run being made around collegiality and subsidiarity, with scant regard for the trust of the faithful in the validity of the Church’s essential moral suasion on essential matters. If McGavin’s report is correct—what reason to think it is not?—Francis is more a covert operative than the shepherd we welcomed at the outset. 

The law of unintended consequences is inexorable. And fearsome. We already have one seditious authoritarian in the White House. To think there could be another on the Chair of Peter breaks the heart.

Read the entire essay here.

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To Go A-Christianing

Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, while the Barbary corsairs ranged freely around the Mediterranean, these pirates also sailed by the dozen up the [English] Channel and even into the Thames estuary, plundering local fishing and coastal towns. . . . The Algerians were said to have taken no fewer than 353 British ships between 1672 and 1682, which would mean that they were still picking up between 290 and 430 new British slaves every year.

—Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters


Historical truths become casualties of preferred narratives in the present. Modern scholarship, preoccupied with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, gives little more than a passing glance to the scope of corsair piracy. Yet, as historian Robert Davis reminds, the systematic enslavement of white, Christian Europeans by Muslim’s on North Africa’s Barbary Coast, is a crucial, if politically disfavored, aspect of modern slave studies. 


Moroccan Slave Market. Anonymous woodcut (17th C.).



Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 leaves no doubt that Islamic slaving was far from a minor phenomenon, not mere corsair hysteria as some would term it. In Davis’ densely documented account, white slavery in the Mahgreb was enormously consequential. In the three centuries of its flourishing, Muslim predation entrapped as many as a million victims from France and Italy to Spain, Holland, Great Britain, the Americas. Even Iceland suffered slave-hunting raids.

The diary of Thomas Baker, English consul in Tripoli from 1679 to 1685, took careful note of ship traffic in and out of the Libyan port. In addition to the usual run of European-bound merchant ships were many local vessels openly setting out “in corso.” Baker was blunt: they were “going out a-thieving,” stalking seas and coastlines for poorly defended Christian prizes. Davis notes that Libyans were particularly fond of what Baker’s contemporaries called “man-taking” or “Christian-stealing.” Their dedication prompted the consul to remark: “To steale Christians . . . is their Lawfull Vocation.”


Ransom of Catholic Slaves by a Monk in the Barbary State. (17th C.).


The Cambridge World History of Slavery estimates the attrition rate for white slaves at 20 percent a year in seventeenth century Maghreb:

Given the age of captives seized from European sailing ships, the hostile epidemiological environment of North Africa, and the harsh working and living conditions [Read Davis for these.] the crude mortality rate among whites was probably higher than among black in the Americas, even on sugar plantations.

Consequently, a steady resupply was needed to sustain existing slave populations. The seasoning of new captives could take several years, leaving half or fewer captives to survive the first five years. Read Davis for detailed descriptions of slave taking and breaking, slave life and labor, including the death-in-life of galley slaves. After examining various slave lists, he concludes that those captured by Muslim corsairs and taken off to Barbary stood a less than 50/50 chance of being ransomed: “They left their bones in unmarked plots, often in shallow graves where dogs or waves could unearth them. .  .   .  Or simply thrown into the sea.” 

Davis quotes Piero Ottoni’s 1997 essay in La Repubblica lamenting Italy’s turn inland, and inward, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: “We retired to the countryside. We lost [our] freedom and love of the sea.” In the face of corsair piracy, the people who had produced Columbus, John Cabot, and Amerigo Vespucci were no longer “a nation of navigators, although we did become a nation of bathers.”

Davis’ study offers a rein on the Church’s timorous, conciliating urge—in the wake of Nostra Aetate—to list toward accommodation with an ideology that has sought dominion over Christianity since it first burst out of the Arabian desert. Today’s Boko Haram is not an aberration. Rather, it is a portent of our likely future if we lull ourselves with a flawed understanding of Islam, one dangerously installed in the 1992 edition of the Catechism.

The Catechism refers readers back to Nostra Aetate. As the encyclical’s name suggests, the document is very much of its time. Unhappily, that time happened to be 1965, epicenter of a decade of jingle-jangle mornings and heady student rebellion against reality. “Be reasonable—think the impossible” was one of those utopian slogans that, migrating from the Sorbonne, seeped like gas into popular culture and under the door of the papal apartments as well.

The vapor of 1965 drained into the Catechism three decades later: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslim.” Those words were not intended to apply simply to the human dignity of individuals. Forgetful of how much was owed Britain’s containment of the Ottomans, the Vatican miscast itself as Ophelia, strewing herbs a-Sunday over the dogma and mandates of Islam. Official dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate by Ataturk in 1923 gave the West forty-some years to forget centuries of brutal predation. Rosemary—for remembrance—shriveled in the sun of victory and wafted away. Only rue remains.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, founded in 1964, still bears the marks of the decade of its birth. In its recent condemnation of Islamic barbarity toward the Yezidis (without whom Christians might have gone unnoticed), the Council sweetened its censure with this:

We cannot forget, however, that Christians and Muslims have lived together —it is true with ups and downs—over the centuries, building a culture of peaceful coexistence and civilization of which they are proud.

It was the Beatles all over again: “Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play.” Only that it was not. Those downs were severe and consequential. The Council, hobbled by bureaucratic courtesy, fell back on multicultural fantasy. That oblique reference to coexistence offered as history the prevailing myth of medieval convivencia, an illusion of harmony that has drawn fire from contemporary historians. David Nirenberg, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Chicago, put paid to that romance with his magisterial Communities of Violence (1996).

It is time to send members of the Pontifical Council a copy of Davis’ text—Nirenberg’s, too—before we strangle on our own good manners. Anbar province is not as far from Rome as we like to think.

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Columbus’ Day

Christopher Columbus is the patron saint of everyone who misses the turnoff and winds up in Cleveland.
                                                                —Anonymous

The finest way to spend Columbus Day weekend is to put down whatever else you are doing and sit awhile with Samuel Eliot Morison’s Christopher Columbus, Mariner. It is the popular version of his magisterial two-volume Admiral of the Ocean Sea, which won a 1942 Pulitzer. America’s pre-eminent naval historian, Morison was a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserves, a seaman himself. During World War II, he saw active duty aboard twelve battle ships, reaching the rank of Rear Admiral by the time he retired in 1951. In a lovely assessment by James Hornfischer, writing for the Smithsonian: “For Morison, fine writing required deep living.”




The man who called himself “a sea-going historiographer,” lived his subject by leaving the archives. To research the life of Columbus, Morison abandoned the safety of the stacks for five months on a three-masted sailing ship, retracing Columbus’ ten thousand mile odyssey across the Atlantic and around the Caribbean. That radical empiricism is the hearts’ blood of Morison’s narrative. No matter how many times I have read his opening salute to Columbus, it still stirs me:

At the age of twenty-four, by lucky chance he was thrown into Lisbon, center of European oceanic enterprise; and there .  .  .  he conceived the great enterprise that few but a sailor would have planned, and none but a sailor could have executed. That enterprise was simply to reach “The Indies”—Eastern Asia—by sailing west. It took him about ten years to obtain support for the idea, and he never did execute it because a vast continent stood in the way. America was discovered by Columbus purely by accident and was named for a man who had nothing to do with it; we now honor Columbus for something he never intended to do, and never knew that he had done. Yet we are right in so honoring him, because no other sailor had the persistence, the knowledge and sheer guts to sail thousands of miles into the unknown ocean until he found land.

.  .  .  Born at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he showed the qualities of both eras. He had the firm religious faith, the a priori reasoning and the close communion with the Unseen typical of the early Christian centuries. Yet he also had the scientific curiosity, the zest for life, the feeling for beauty and the striving for novelty that we associate with the advancement of learning.


Artist Unknown. Columbus Showing His Crew Guanahani Island (17th C.) 

Son of a Genoese wool weaver and a weaver’s daughter, the boy took to heart the legend of his namesake, St. Christopher:

In his name, Christopher Columbus [Christoforo Columbo] saw a sign that he was destined to bring Christ across the sea to men who knew Him not. Indeed, the oldest known map of the New World, dated A.D. 1500, dedicated to Columbus by his shipmate Juan de la Cosa, is ornamented by a vignette of Saint Christopher carrying the Infant Jesus on his shoulders.

The Roman calendar has erased the great Discover’s namesake. Contemporary academicians have erased all honor due him. Entering the past from the poisonous ambitions of the present, historians such as Kirkpatrick Sale (The Conquest of Paradise) and David Stannard (American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World) reduce his life to an excuse for moral outrage: a symptom of European egocentrism and a genocidal calamity. They would have us repent one of the most significant achievements of human history. Christopher Columbus—an imperfect man of imperfect times—has been dissolved in the acid bath of the self-flagellating ideologies of our time. 

Better to leave the last word to Morison:

He had his flaws and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great—his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty, and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities—his seamanship. As a master mariner and navigator, Columbus was supreme in his generation. Never was a title more justly bestowed than the one he most jealously guarded—Almirante del Mar Océano, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

Could Morison’s sympathy for Columbus find a publisher today? I read him and tremble for a generation raised against itself, instilled with suicidal guilt, and poised to denounce protagonists of the civilization that sustains them. 


Anonymous Woodcut. Columbus Landing at Hispaniola. Historia Baetica (1494), Basel.

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