Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
All our worship, through every season of our lives, is one unbroken celebration of this day. Easter is the ground of our hope, the pasch on which all else rests. Today we exult in the promise at the heart of the Christian mystery: a declaration that death does not have the last word.
This is not a day for art history. We can circle back to that another time. Still, this painting on a reverse panel of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, is like none other. In the entire canon of Western art, there is no more glorious image of the Risen One than this. Spend a moment with it. Luminous in conception and execution, it comes closest to making palpable the words of John Henry Newman:
. . . we are baptized and hidden anew in God’s glory, in that Shekinah of light and purity which we lost when Adam fell. We are new-created, transformed, spiritualized, glorified in the diving nature. Through the participation of Christ we receive, as through a channel, the true presence of God within and without us, imbuing us with sanctity and immortality. This, I repeat, is our justification, our ascent through Christ to God, or God’s descent through Christ to us; we may call it either of the two: we ascend into Him, he descends into us; we are in Him, He in us . . . .
This is the one great gift of God purchased by the Atonement, which is light instead of darkness and the shadow of death . . . .
Note: In Judaism, the Hebrew word Shekinah indicates the luminous cloud which envelops the divine presence. The Jewish Encyclopedia defines it in terms that fall sweetly on Christian ears: “the majestic presence or manifestation of God which has descended to ‘dwell’ among men.”
No depiction of the Crucifixion in all of Western art is as stark an image of abject suffering as Matthias Grünewald’s. Canons of beauty were never the object here. Its seeming modernity lies in its refusal to veil the grotesque. The corpus is appalling; it repels aestheticization. Christ does not appear to sleep or transcend the agony of his ordeal. No hint of ultimate tranquility shields us from suffering the sight of a body broken and torn by torment. It is the single, most harrowing image of the Crucifixion, one that implies an executioner who knew his trade.
Until recent times, it has also been the least visited. Few art-and-culture tourists traveled to the Unterlinden Museum, a former Dominican convent in Colmar, to see it.
Grünewald, a contemporary of Albrect Dürer, created the panels of the altarpiece from 1512 to 1516 in a chapel of a hospital and monastery run by Antonite monks in the town of Isenheim, a few miles south of Colmar. Stanley Meisler’s 1999 essay “A Masterpiece Born of St. Anthony’s Fire,”
published in the September, 1999 issue of Smithsonian Magazine , is a valuable synopsis of the shifting fortunes of the Isenheim altarpiece:
The monks took their name from Saint Anthony, whom they venerated as a healer and sufferer who pioneered the idea of monasticism in Christianity. The Antonite order operated the hospital in Isenheim largely for those afflicted by a disease known then as “Saint Anthony’s fire.”
That disease (now rare and called “ergotism”) struck down many in periodic epidemics during the Middle Ages. Saint Anthony’s fire set off painful skin eruptions that blackened and turned gangrenous, often requiring amputations. The eruptions were accompanied by nervous spasms and convulsions. Many victims died.
Saint Anthony’s fire came from the poison of a fungus that clung to rye and was inadvertently pounded into the flour used to make rye bread. The cause, however, was not known in Grünewald’s time. The monks treated the sick with a balm made from herbs and other plants and with prayers to Saint Anthony, who was believed to possess miraculous curing powers. The monks also tried to bolster the faith of the sick by reminding them that Christ - and Saint Anthony as well - had suffered even greater torments. Grünewald’s altarpiece played an important mystical and psychological role in the Isenheim treatment program.
All the pain of the human conditionthe God-forsaken lonelinessis in the gesture of that hand. Wretched and abandoned, it is a Good Friday image like none other. It brings us to our knees. At the same time, and after long reflection, it enables us to endure our own existence.
No, no, the eggs are not mad. I only mean the color.
Madder red is the older term for alizarin crimson, known to the pharaohs and the residents of Pompeii. A crucial coloring agent for textiles during the Industrial Revolution, it was also the first plant-derived pigment to be produced synthetically in the nineteenth century. As splendid as it was ubiquitous, it became the most popular color for Easter eggs in European folk traditions. Madder was cherished throughout the Czech regions, in Hungary, even into northwest England where eggs were dyed by being wrapped directly in the plant leaves. Madder was the traditional choice for dyeing Easter eggs in Greece, Russia, and Cyprus. A Macedonian children’s rhyme asks: “Oh when will Easter come, bringing red eggs?”
European folklore is drenched in madder red, believed to avert harm, ward off evil. History gives us the witness of one Nicholas Kirchmeyer-Naogeorgus, writing in 1553 of Alsatian parents giving their children a red egg on Easter morning to insure rosy cheeks, a promise of long life. Scandinavian and Transylvanian legends testify to madder’s more cosmic protective powers: red Easter eggs are a stay against the Antichrist who seeks the end of the world. Earthly love gets a boost from madder as well. “The Heavens are blue, The eggs they are red, And I will love thee, Until I am dead!” So goes an old German pledge.
Association between divine love and the color red existed in ancient Roman. It was said that a hen laid a red egg when Alexander Severus, last of the Severan emperors, was born. The egg signaled Alexander’s claim on divinity in death. Christian lore, with its magpie genius for appropriation, adapted the symbol to its own purposes. In parts of Austria, they say that while the Easter Hare, a famously randy little fellow, produces eggs in a promiscuous range of colors on Easter Sunday, it only lays red ones on Maundy Thursday in honor of the Passion of Christ.
But do hares lay eggs? Only a Gradgrind would ask. Stick with the program and you’ll find out that, in the old Yugoslavia, the Virgin Mary brought eggs stained at the foot of the Cross by the blood of Christ. In Russia, Mary Magdelene could be seen carrying an egg which turned red as proofa living argumentof the Resurrection. Anthony Jenkinson, traveler to Russia on behalf of the British Crown in the 1500s, noted that ordinary Russians carried red eggs at Easter, while the Better Sort had theirs gilded.
Madder red even has its own historian: Robert Chenciner. His Madder Red: A History of Luxury and Trade plucks the rainbow to tell you everything a curious person wants to know about the culturein every sense of the wordof one brilliant segment of the spectrum.
I’ve saved the best image for last. Those of you who stayed to the end of this meandering précis of Easter egg scholarship have your reward. Herewith, the loveliest Easter egg of all:
The photo was sent a few days ago by a friend who raises chickens on his property in Indiana. This egg is still in the incubator. Feathers wet with amniotic fluid, the chick has just begun to peck its way into the world. It performs its first fragile rite, the liturgy of birth repeated down the ages. I think of Hopkins: “He fathers forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.”
Are you tired of the word love ? Worn down by all the mawkish purposes that lay claim to it? Does Valentine’s Day give you a headache that lasts until Guy Fawkes Day? All those simpering red hearts (e.g. I heart New York)! Do they set you to chanting: “Remember, remember the fifth of November/ Gunpowder, treason and plot.” Do you refuse to buy any postage stamp with the L-word on it? Does the greeting card rack in your local Rite Aid give you a runny nose?
The only thing worse than a red heart is one with a white dove on it. It would take an acid bath to dissolve the treacle that clings to the loathly thing. Stamps, though, are the least of it. Syrup is everywhere. If you are allergic to all things gooey and vapid, it is especially painful to shop for cards. Or has been until now.
Meet Zeichen Press . Two women, thousands of pounds of letterpress equipment and a gorgeous old Heidelberg are the marrow of this graphically lovely, oddball stationery. The tactile quality of centuries-old letterpress is seductive all by itself. Add the mordant sensibilities of the printers and you have . . . . I am not sure how to express it. What effect might crystal meth have on talented, sweet-tempered women with the grit to keep business and family running at the same time? The answer is somewhere in their inventory.
One of themwhich?channels Raymond Chandler. The hard-boiled spirit of Philip Marlowe chaperones the one-liners. Zeichen knows what we hate to admit: even our best beloveds are not always likable. Neither are we. Next Valentine’s Day, scrap the hearts and roses. Send something bloody-minded for a change:
Do you get bored at long dinners with nice people who keep conversation away from troublesome topicsanything that is really worth the talk? Write your bread-and-butter note on this:
Zeichen keeps a wicked eye on our private Achilles’ heels. It recognizes just how petty our prayers can be. God, how we ache to be noticed:
Our friends are good to us. They hold our hands, give us counsel, feed the cat when we are away, and listen to our gripes. The list is long. Every so often a grateful word is due. But nothing soppy, please:
Then there is that candied American invention, Mother’s Day. This is probably not what Anna Jarvis had in mind back in 1908:
Guilt is good. Irish Catholics know better than anybody that there can never be enough of it. A fallen world needs all it can get. The trick is to induce it under the radar so that no one sees it coming:
In case you are wondering, no, I do not know either of the women who created Zeichen Press. They are somewhere in Minnesota. I have never been out that way and probably never will be. But if you ever get a card from me, it will very likely be from Zeichen.
This past November, Cardinal Ravasi posed in New Statesman as the Vatican’s impresario of contemporary art. At the same time, a continent away, Bishop Johnson Mutek Akio of South Sudan stood with his people under genocidal assault by the al-Bashir regime. The cardinal’s ambition to get the Church back into the contemporary art business was hailed as “a bold move.” Silence greeted the bishop’s valor in risking his life to sustain a persecuted diocese. Heroic endurance in the face of Islamic terror does not conform to the sensibilityor insensibilitythat understands culture as a kind of sauce poured like hollandaise over daily living, over thought and action. And it does not make bouncy copy.
There is a two-year wait to book “the cardinal of culture” for speaking engagements. He blogs, tweets, tells jokes, quotes Nietzche, and endorses Darwinian theory. The operative word is theory , but New Statesman failed to notice. It was too charmed by what it took for maverick behavior. “An undeniably intriguing clergyman,” it chirped.
No conference planners have been waiting to book Bishop Akio, survivor of nine assassination attempts. When he died last week of kidney failure at fifty-five, the press took no notice. Googling for an obituary, I found only a line in WikiDeaths 2013 with a link back to a hastily inserted two-line identifying note. That, and the same scant comment on the website of the Diocese of Torit, South Sudan. Hardly more than what appears on the toe tag of a body in the morgue.
Posted on Torit’s website is a brief article about the bishop’s mission, written nine years ago by David Alton of Jubilee Campaign. Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Torit, the bishop and his people are intimate with aerial bombardment, famine, massacre, and mutilation. In one two-week period in 2004, seventy two bombs reduced the bishop’s residence to ash. His compound housed a primary and secondary school that served more than two hundred children. It was obliterated. Alton wrote:
Early years’ education for South Sudan ‘s children involves learning the difference between the engines of UN relief planes and the bombersand then running for your life. One of Bishop Akio’s priests told me: “People are living like foxes in holes, just to survive.”
Torit has been forcibly Islamised; the Koran imposed; the road signs changed to Arabic and water and medicine only given to people who have changed their identities to Islamic names. One group of 180 children had been taken to Khartoum and radically indoctrinated, encouraging a hatred of their parents, and turning them into child soldiers.
At heart, the New Evangelization is no different from the old. Sanctity and courage are the dual engine of it. Art counts for far less than is thought. While it remains the lifeblood of those who make it, art is less important to the true meaning of culturesomething distinct from the culture tradethan Cardinal Ravasi and the Pontifical Council for Culture believe. W.H. Auden had it about right:
The artist, the man who makes, is less important to mankind, for good and evil, than the apostle . . . . However much the arts may mean to us, it is possible to imagine our lives without them.
Bishop Akio was such an apostle. May God welcome him home and comfort his afflicted people.
Note : My thanks to Mike Walsh of Maryknoll for bringing Bishop Akio to our attention in his comment on the previous post. And we can hope, with Archbishop Chaput, that Pope Francis will keep the Church’s eyes directed toward suffering Christians in the Middle East.
Last night I watched Homeland on my laptop, streamed in by Amazon for $1.99. It is an unconvincing potboiler implausible on too many levels to count. Last night’s storyline bent over every which way from Sunday to insure Islam’s place among the smiling aspects of life.
“And they call us terrorists,” mourns the terrorist chief whose adorable young son was just killed by a drone attack. Scriptwriters huff and puff to insure we sympathize with this grave, mild-seeming incendiary. The local (somewhere in Fairfax County VA) imam is Mother Teresa in a kufi and caftan. A lady operative chides her CIA colleague for keeping his shoes on—at a murder scene!—in a mosque. A wanted terrorist must be found, not to save American lives but to keep Americans from shooting up the Muslim community. Mosques will burn unless the plot is foiled.
No impolite misgivings allowed. It is all so self-admiring in its refusal to decide which side it is on. On those grounds alone, the show’s popularity worries me.
This is an art blog, I know. So shouldn’t we just stick to art, the stuff piling up in museums and hawked at art fairs? It is tempting, and safer, to keep the focus narrow. But art is made and viewed within a larger cultural context. That context supplies—or denies—value not only to artists and schools of art, but also to particular ideological approaches. These include images and symbols circulating outside gallery culture. Our experience of art is contingent on our grasp of larger realities. One of these is history. And history, as philosopher Jacques Ellul was fond of reminding us, is not an inoffensive discipline.
Last night’s Homeland episode dramatized the principle dear to pundit hearts: Muslims are entitled to “the benefit of the doubt.” But w hich Muslims, please? Ones you know personally? Ones who provide you with an objective reason, based in lived reality, for extending trust toward them as individuals? Or are they simply that disembodied, romanticized abstraction, Muslims-in-General? It is precisely the benefit of the doubt, granted blindly toward Muslims-in-General, that set the stage for the Fort Hood massacre.
Militant Islam is at war with its neighbors all across the globe. It is one thing to grant credence to the good will of your own Muslim neighbor, whom you meet, greet and speak with. You have some grasp of whether that person chooses to integrate or wishes to remake America in Islam’s image of the universal caliphate. You know what this individual thinks of honor killings, wife beating and the execution of homosexuals. You know his attitude toward Jews and Israel’s right to survival. You are able to ask if your neighbor believes Muslims can serve in the U.S. military or if, like Private First Class Nasser Jason Abdo
, he considers Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood murderer, a hero. You have at least some foundation for trusting your Muslim neighbor’s commitment to an egalitarian, peaceable Islam compatible with democratic principles. You can begin to gauge the sincerity, perhaps even heroism, of his rejection of efforts to use democratic processes to undermine our freedoms and democracy itself.
Love of neighbor is a function of charity. Caritas . It is not a squeamish denial of unwelcome realities in the name of manners, moral vanity, or any other guise intellectual dhimmitude might dress in. When it comes to giving assurances of good will, both history and current global realities place the burden of proof on Muslims themselves.
We do not serve ourselves—nor the ultimate well-being of our Muslim neighbors—by refusing to insist upon a self-critical attitude among Muslims. Instead of obsequious concern for Muslim sensibilities, we should seek a recasting of traditional Muslim mentalities. The desacralization of jihad is one place to start. Recognition of the secular nature of political power (“Grant unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”) and abolition of the institutionalized concept of dhimmi is another. Anything less acquiesces in an obliterating force that believes itself destined to turn our own civilization into a graveyard.
Matt Malone, S.J., lives along the Via di Santa Chiara across from Gammarelli, canonical tailor to the papacy since 1798. He has a winsome column over at America on Pope Francis’ wardrobe preferences. Much to the disappointment of Gammarelli, the new Bishop of Rome is exhibiting tastes better suited to catching a bus than strolling in a papal procession.
Excerpt below. You can finish reading “Clothing Optional?” in its entirety here.
Good day from Rome on the second day of the pontificate of Pope Francis. Style is substance in these first hours of Francis’ reign; the talk here is about all things sartorial: What is he wearing? What is he not wearing? As The New York Times reported yesterday, Pope Francis asked the cardinals to wear just a simple black cassock under their albs for yesterday’s Mass in the Sistine chapel. Meanwhile, Gamarelli’s, the official papal tailor (just a stone’s throw from my window) were disappointed to learn that the new pope has declined the use of the ermine mozetta they provided him and that he has ditched the traditional red shoes for the brown loafers he brought from Argentina.
Fr. Malone closes with: “I know; it’s all so silly. And yet . . . it isn’t.” No, it is not silly at all. While the substance of Francis’ pontificate is yet to be realized, a foreshortening of papal theatre is welcome. And suggestive. Symbols matter. The footwear of the ancient Pontifex Maximus ill fits a servant of the servants of God. We are a Church, not an empire. The Church, no less than the wayfaring world in which we find ourselves, is bent under the sign of the Cross.
As far as the fashion world interprets such things, shelving those episcopal sandals is itself a head-on statement of faith. Red is the wrong color for Francis if we take Bill Blass at his word: “When in doubt, wear red.” Francis is a confident man.
Let us leave the last line to Stendhal: “Only great minds can afford a simple style.”
The press is filled with more eloquent and informed voices than my own. It would be presumptuous of me to add to them. At the same time, this stunning and gracious election requires acknowledgment. I can do it best by observing it in silence while I reread George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest . Francis stood on the balcony and asked us to pray for him. If ever a work of fiction can be called an act of prayer, it is this one.
That profound, heart-scalding window into the agony of a true priest—and of the making of a saint—carries us close to Benedict’s resignation and Francis’ election. Closer than any press commentary can ever approach. Bernanos’s nameless priest writes in his diary:
Faith is not a thing which one “loses,” we merely cease to shape our lives by it.
We have been blessed with a pope whose life as a cardinal was shaped by humility and faith. Yes, it is true: “Grace is everywhere.”
Trivia question: Do you know this girl?
Of course you do.
But who knew just how contemporary that Mona Lisa smile could be? A stylized, stock expression in Leonardo’s day, it suddenly looks quite current removed from its Renaissance setting and inserted into a post-modern one. The bloody amputation might be a bit over the top, but the figure’s facial mienpart simper, part sneerwould do nicely in a Vogue photo shoot. Not quite as enigmatic as it has been deemed down the centuries. What a difference placement makes. And the right haircut.
If you are a Photoshop freak, you already know about FreakingNews.com
. If you are not, you have fun to look forward to. It specializes, as you can guess, in wacky, doctored photos. This is art, too. It gives the lie to that motto on her hat. Art is not dead at all, thank you. Whether it is good or bad art is always another question. But dead it is not. What Photoshop mavens produce is simply collage, just without the mess of scissors and paste.
The vamped up image above has all the wit of Eduardo Paolozzi, a favorite of mine. Born in Edinburgh to an Italian immigrant family, Paolozzi was co-founder of the “Independent Group” that functioned in London in 1952/53. Members hunkered down to discuss ways of introducing low-brow, trivial items of quotidian culture into mainstream art. The group was a decisive impulse behind the development of British Pop-Art, which predated the better known American species. Paolozzi’s clever fracturings are lighter in spirit than the anonymous illustration above. Their visual intelligence amuses, seduces, but without biting. Color lends buoyancy.
Back to Photoshop. Among the oddball tournaments run by Freaking News is the annual Funny Kids Masterpiece contest. What would famous paintings look like if their famous artists created these pieces when they were still kids. Contestants can recreate the art pieces in someone else’s style from scratch or edit known images down to kids’ level. Here’s work by the young Magritte. Even then, he was a careful draftsman:
Leonardo was just a tyke when he drew this version of Vitruvian Man :
Here is the Freaking News on Rand Paul’s filibuster:
For all the furrowed brows that turn out socio-political art by the carload for gallery and museum installation, none cut to the chase as pointedly and economically as a good cartoonist. The venue might be downscale but the visual wit is not. And now, at least, you know that what most people take for grantedthat Pop Art sprang like a giddy mushroom from American soiljust ain’t so. Andy Warhol & Co. did not invent it. It had its prehistory in Britain. It was in the air.
You do not have to be a communicant to adopt one of Milan Cathedral’s one hundred thirty five gargoyles. Any cosmopolitan aesthete with a spare $123,000 can help restore the Duomo’s medieval downspouts. Splendid in its ecumenicity, the archdiocese’s fundraising scheme invites “citizens of the world” to earn an engraved plaque under their very own adoptee.
Citizens of the world a utopian term that has taken on a certain ugliness over time. It runs counter to the principle of subsidiarity that is a core precept of Catholic social thought. But let that pass. For simplicity’s sake, let us stick with the gargoyles. If Fendi, Prada or Dolce & Grabbana decline to pony up, there is always a Saudi prince or World Passport type with an eye for historic monuments. Good-will adoptions from entrepreneurs in the hospitality and tourist industry are sure to come.
Six hundred years of labor by countless anonymous craftsmen contributed to a cathedral built ad majorem Dei gloriam . Today, in the seconds needed to write a check, any deep pockets can have their names bolted to the work of centuries. It takes brass.
Meantime, down in the Duomo’s crypt, ruin of a different order is on display. Since September 22, 2005, the citizens of Milan have had their own chapel to contemporary art alongside the relics of St. Charles Borromeo. On that day, a video installation by English artist Mark Wallinger was dedicated in a small room in the cathedral treasury. Formalities began with a fusion liturgy: a ceremonial press conference yoked to a Benediction.
Mt. Hera did not come to Mohammed but the Blessed Sacrament came to Wallinger’s projection screen. And what was the image that carried such power of compulsion? Hardly anything, really. Shrewdly entitled “Via Dolorosa,” the piece is a tour de force playing in a room dim as a crack den. Gloom signals the contemplative mode, don’t you know. Besides, they always turn lights out at the movies. Here, though, the movie Jesus of Nazareth , Franco Zeffirelli’s Christ for the Family Channelis blocked by a large black rectangle. Only a scant fringe around the border of the screen gives any hint of a film playing behind the black-out. There is no sound track. As far as you can tell, you are watching the periphery of Charlie Chan’s Secret or a spaghetti Western. The project is a jarring incongruity in a building begun in fidelity to the belief that life was ordered by Revelation, not technology. Not technique.
According to Monsignor Luigi Manganini, archpriest of the cathedral, the Church has to court the Third Millennium with its latest upscale accessory: video art. The perfect embodiment of postmodernism, video entered the cathedral, he chirruped, “with the same force as the entire history of great painting and sculpture.” His second in command, Fr. Luigi Garbini, upped the promo: “The blocking of ninety percent of the view brings the visitor into a cloud of unknowing, in which he finally faces the free decision: to believe or not to believe.”
Park benches and bar stools exist for that sort of brief, bantam-weight brooding. Ditherers can muse gainfully over a few Rogue Dead Guy ales. It is a serious mistake to suggest equivalence between the dark night of the pilgrim soul and a night spent staring at a test pattern on widescreen HDTV. The long and daunting via negativa of Christian mysticism is cheapened by comparison to eighteen minutes (if anyone stays that long) in front of flickering incoherence. Like so much conceptual art, Via Dolorosa is a parasite upon its title.
It is easy to proclaim the absence of God. It is harder to proclaim His presence. A cathedral, though, is just that: a proclamation in stone. The Duomo’s shrine to digital technology reminds us that the open and candid skepticism of a secular culture is less worrisome than the unconscious skepticism of our own ecclesiasts toward the Church’s traditional patrimony. The latter risks disfiguring the Church into a superficial appendix to contemporary culture.
Raising a monstrance over video paraphernalia is a confession that the object of veneration has shifted. Installations like this fail to distinguish the Church from the secular ethos it seeks to engage. The words of Henri de Lubac apply here: “The great minds that have spoken about God are all our contemporaries.” So, too, our heritage of sublime religious art, a cultural deposit which anxiety must not displace.