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.

RSS Feed

A Tale of Three Centers

From Maureen Mullarkey

Transparency is more appealing in concept than in practice—at least as it applies to backstage doings at the Sheen Center.

Judging from email responses, the Sheen is a great yawn to readers of First Things. No grand Truth is at risk in the matter. No heady policy positions. The only truths in play are those gnarled and spotted ones of human designs. Besides, mention of co-founder and erstwhile director Michael Hull points to disagreeable details better left in the dark. Do we need another scandal? Let’s not feed anti-Catholicism. Please, can’t we all just stick to the smiling aspect of things?

Scene from The Way of the World (1901). Museum of the City of New York.

Yes, of course we can. And we do. The genteel tradition persists bi-weekly in Catholic New York. House organ of the New York Archdiocese, the sheet is an amiable blend of public relations and parlor talk. Reading it reminds me of Sinclair Lewis’ description of William Dean Howells: “He had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage.” If Catholic New York were really a newspaper, it would lift the fog of picturesque edifications long enough to inquire into the Sheen’s costs and—most interesting—its original intentions.

Apparently, Cardinal Dolan inherited the Sheen project from his predecessor. Cardinal Egan and his protégé Msgr. Hull purportedly collaborated on the original concept, with the chancery in the loop. If what I am told is accurate, plans initially included a permanent space for the Gianna Center for Women’s Health and Fertility.

A pro-life clinic founded in 2009 by family physician Anne Nolte, the Gianna opened under the sponsorship of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Its prenatal care programs provide medical support to the region’s crisis pregnancy centers. As its name suggests, it also aids women seeking to conceive or to practice Church-approved family planning methods..

When St. Vincent’s declared bankruptcy in 2010 the Gianna lost its angel and needed lower cost space than it already occupied in mid-town. The Sheen, still taking shape, was a likely place to house the sponsorless Gianna. No such accommodation happened.

Illustration for Theatre World (September 1927) by Bovey.

Hosting the Gianna would have been an inspired use of archdiocesan property. Why? Because the Sheen, at 18 Bleecker Street, is next door to the Margaret Sanger Center, a prominent Planned Parenthood division at 26 Bleecker.

What happened to that reputed first intention? Are reports of it accurate? Or does the truth lie in claims that the Sheen meant only to provide temporary housing for the Gianna Center? Or maybe not at all? The story gets murky. All that is clear is that the Sheen arrived strictly devoted to the performing arts. And Gianna, committed to live performances of another kind, has found a new sponsor in St. Peter’s University Hospital, New Brunswick, and is again operating at its initial location on 40th Street just off Fifth Avenue.

 This past January, Cardinal Dolan appointed Dr. Nolte to his Pro-Life Committee. Was the appointment a consolation prize of sorts? Last week, the cardinal presided over a fundraising gala at the New York Athletic Club to kick-start the Gianna’s regeneration uptown.

Illustration for Theatre World (January 1926) by Bovey.

Lord Acton was as hostile to secrecy-on-high as to the corrupting influence of power. Addressing his cautions to the Church, he descried bureaucratic secretiveness on grounds that it degenerates keepers of the secret: “Nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.” Good will—what Santayana called “the great American virtue”—is not enough.

At stake in the evolution of the Sheen Center is the way the chancery oversees and uses the monies it solicits from you and me. The archdiocese is obliged to account for its management of parishioner donations. Disclosure to donors is a moral obligation that is especially keen while parishes are being closed or merged. At the same time, transparency would help distinguish between the demands of evangelization and the ambitions of men seeking a stage.

I am caught here in futile wondering about the road not taken. Gianna’s presence within the Sheen could have placed a damper on the Sheen’s rental income. It might also have saved lives. Saved some, touched or unsettled others. It would have witnessed—in stone—to alternatives to the abortion “services” offered by the friendly, caring staff next door. (The Margaret Sanger Center has recently expanded its hours. The Sheen, meanwhile, set about re-renovating its theater space as soon as it opened.)

Transparency is its own justification. The men who instruct us in Truth cannot be slippery about lesser truths on which so much depends. Credibility is the linchpin of evangelization, now as ever. There is nothing new about it.

Hatred of the Church in Ireland

From Maureen Mullarkey

Here in my email this morning is an unhappy note from a Carmelite priest serving in a suburb of Dublin. He is terse. “Hatred of the Church in Ireland” is his only comment. No more words are needed given the accompanying article by Tim O’Brien that appeared yesterday in The Irish Times. It reports on the recent cutting down of a high steel cross erected some four decades ago on Carrountoolhil, County Kerry’s highest mountain. It had taken some one hundred people to put it in place in 1976 and had been televised as a major event at the time. Razed with an angle grinder, it was discovered recently by mountain climbers. 

The destruction is not being minimized as an random act of vandalism. It is understood as a sign of growing hostility toward the Church in Ireland.

Kerry county councillor John Joe Culloty who earlier this year proposed a crucifix be hung in the council chamber in Killarney, said the cutting of the cross was a further step in the move towards “a Godless society”.

Mr. Culloty sees Ireland moving away from its constitutionally affirmed Christian ethos in its effort to become secular:

He said he saw the removal of the cross as part of a drive to “allow what is not normal and to become normal”. He said he meant abortion, gay marriage and “assisted dying” as issues which were not normal.

Mr Culloty said it was his job to promote his faith “in a respectful way” and the special place of Christianity and Catholicism would not be removed from Irish life until the people of Ireland ever choose to change the constitution and honour “the Koran” or any other religious symbol in place of the cross.

Read the entire article here.

National Endowment for the Arts & Crafts

From Maureen Mullarkey

It has been ten years since The Onion published its spoof of controversies over NEA-funded antics. By the time it appeared in 2004, audiences were pretty well accustomed to what Hilton Kramer once termed “a jolly rape of public sensibilities.” Writing in 1996, Kramer declared it almost went without saying that the “America-as-merde” tenor of so much recognized art arrives supported by NEA grants. 

That was also the year a professor at Bates College, William Pope, received a $20.000 grant for two performance pieces: In one, he would chain himself to an ATM machine in his underwear. In the second, according to news accounts, he planned to walk around New York City wearing a six-foot long white tube as a mammoth codpiece. This, you recall, followed on the heals Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ of blessed memory and preceded the foofaraw over Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum.

Whatever your position on the benefits of a federal hand in the artsparticularly to individual artists—The Onion piece is an evergreen. It is still fun to read after so many years, so many assaults brought to us with taxpayer dollars.

KANSAS CITY, MO—Republican lawmakers and conservative religious groups blasted the National Endowment For The Arts & Crafts Tuesday, claiming that the organization has allocated federal funds for “obscene crafts.

The $15,000 grant in question was awarded last October to Detroit arts & craftsman Albert Kahle, 39, for a nine-foot macramé penis titled “Father (By Mother),” which is currently part of the Macramazement! exhibit at the prestigious National Gallery Of Arts & Crafts in Kansas City, MO.

“‘Father (By Mother)’ is neither art nor craft,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) said. “It’s trash. The fact that American taxpayers are paying for this kind of lewd handiwork is outrageous.”

The macramé-work phallus comprises three discrete elements: testicles, shaft, and head. The testicles are knotted in Double Alternating Lark’s Head style and decorated with black maple beads. The shaft of the penis, knotted of Tammy’s Hemp Cord in flesh tone, is embellished with subtle strands of Half-Knot sinnet cord in light blue and Amy’s Cord in pale lavender. The head, the most detailed portion of the work, is embellished with a spray of silver glitter.

The Onion’s burlesque description of the art work is a pitch-perfect rendition of what art criticism has been reduced to. When grounds for judgment have disappeared or are dismissed, detailed description is all that is left. Reportage continues:

When expressing the human condition through craft, the craftsman is responsible only to himself,” Sirota [fictional NEAC spokesman] said. “It takes great courage to pick up those popsicle sticks and empty dishwashing-soap bottles and bring something forth out of the ether. The creative space is outside Congress’ jurisdiction.”

The macramé penis is Kahle’s first phallic work of art & craft to receive media attention. His other major works include a shoebox diorama titled “Abe Lincoln In The Bathtub,” a 13-foot-tall newspaper and poster-paint papier-mâché penis titled “What’s Black And White And Red All Over?,” and “Pin(whee)ls,” a collection of 200 pinwheels made of construction paper, pencils, and clippings from pornographic magazines.

“If people took the time to explore ‘Father (By Mother),’ there would be no controversy,” Kahle said. “The piece is not prurient. The true meaning of the piece is located on its head, where glitter was applied with Elmer’s Glue. Every speck of glitter is a tiny mirror reflecting the observer. At end, this piece is about love, sex, birth: what we came from.”

Lurking beneath the satire, is a serious comment on the pretensions of art and the cultural exhaustion they represent. Read the entire piece here. First have fun. Then weep.

Michael Hull, Ex-Pat

From Maureen Mullarkey

Now is it official. There is no need for more speculation about the whereabouts of Michael Hull, the disappearing pastor of Manhattan’s Guardian Angel parish and director of the Sheen Center.

Charles II (Charles the Bad) Preaching to Clerics (14th C.). Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

The Scottish Episcopal Church has announced the appointment of Dr. Hull as its Director of Studies. He is currently living out his baptismal call by Skype at the Mercer School of Theology on Long Island. The former monsignor conducts classes through the ether from his conjugal home in northern Italy. Now an Episcopalian, he will assume his post in Scotland this January, after semester end at Mercer. This appears on the Church’s website:

The Rev Anne Tomlinson, Principal of SEI said “Dr Hull’s scholarship, experience, pedagogic skills and humanity will bring much to the SEI staff team as together we seek to form people as competent and confident authorized public ministers for the Church of God. I look forward enormously to welcoming him into the SEI community, to working with him and learning from him.”

The Rt Rev Kevin Pearson, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles and Convener of the Institute Council said “This is an exciting time in the development of the Scottish Episcopal Institute. Dr Hull brings a remarkable range of skills to the staff team and to the Scottish Episcopal Church.”

Dr Hull says “I am delighted for the opportunity to serve as the Director of Studies! The optimism of the Scottish Episcopal Church in its missional orientation is palpable. The chance to participate in the formation of women and men for authorised ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Institute and to share in the Church’s mission is thrilling. It is with great joy that I look forward to praying, working and growing with everyone in the SEC and SEI as we strive together to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

We know what Rev. Tomlinson means by the word humanity

The Scottish Episcopal Church, a proud celebrant of diversity, seems tailor-made for this new member of the Anglican communion. It describes itself as a denomination that “delights in its non-established status.” And its liturgies were made in heaven for an ex-priest who not long ago described himself as a card-carrying member of MoMA:

Its patterns of worship are full of drama and colour which link together the experimental and the intellectual.

In the end, Michael Hull has his Sheen Center. (The irony of it! The Center, rumored to have cost at least $20 million, no longer has him.) The only thing left to wonder about is whether Hull came to his new position with a recommendation from the New York Archdiocese. Could any of our episcopate have been that cynical or cavalier? Let us hope not.

No one begrudges Hull his ability to make a living or to continue teaching. But Director of Studies in yet another seminary? An authority intimately involved in the “formation of women and men for authorised ministry”?

Priestly formation takes place within a context of great moral seriousness. It is not the place for a man who brings to the job a middle-aged susceptibility to much younger women. And a taste for lavish digs. (It is still not known where funds came from for the high-end renovation of the Guardian Angel rectory which Hull abandoned shortly after completion.) Both inclinations are askance of the pastoral requirements incumbent on candidates for the ministerial priesthood. So is the chutzpah of a man who apparently feels no need to keep his head down after embarrassing the Church he was committed to serving.

What ever happened to the Scots’ reputation for canniness?

The Vanity of Melancholy

From Maureen Mullarkey
Since social propriety demands that wives wear mourning for their husbands, it is fair that they be reimbursed for their mourning clothes . . . . Since she is legally required to wear mourning but not pay for its cost, it the responsibility of the husband’s heir to provide her with mourning. —From a lawsuit, 1757. Quoted by Philippe Aries, The Hour of Our Death.
My mourning has been quite an inconvenience to me this summer. I had just spent all the money I could afford for my summer clothes, and was forced to spend $30 more for black dresses. —Julia Ward Howe to Louisa Terry, 1846.

Only recently has society undone it historic role and dismantled the protocols of mourning which it had designed and imposed until the twentieth century. Mourning rituals are not addressed to the dead, but to each other. They are a conversation among ourselves—an exchange between the mourner and the community from which the dead have been evacuated.

Young widow with friend at the end of the First World War (c.1918). Postcard

But community in the traditional sense has largely faded. In its place are fluid alliances of atomized individuals clustered, often in the abstract, as interest groups. Members are kin by dint of condition, practice or purpose e.g. the handicapped, transgender, and hedge fund communities. (Or, as I heard on the news some days ago in what has to be the ultimate corruption of the word: “the terrorist community.”) The gathering of witnesses toward whom the conventions of mourning are directed have dispersed. Or gone to the gym to put mortality at bay.

How, then, does a contemporary museum approach the sensibilities of a century in which death was a constant companion? One chastened by an acutely higher mortality rate and lower life expectancy than our own? Should the Metropolitan Museum of Art present mourning costumes as revelatory items of social history, tribal marks that acknowledge the scandal of death? Or can it take the Anna-Wintour-devil-wears-Prada route, and beat the drum for widow’s weeds as chic?

Fashion Plate (1824). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Reference Library.

Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire at the Met’s Costume Institute takes the gauzier route. The tenor of things is all there in the wording. “Death becomes her” is another, somewhat waspish, way of saying, “She looks good in black.” It is a calculated segue into the mentalité of vintage Vogue. On show is the vanity of melancholy, and its use as a screen between death and the living.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition features mourning dress from 1815 to 1915. Since most men of the time wore black anyway, the evolution of mourning garb concentrates on women’s clothing and accessories. Color and fabric follow the prescribed progression from the total black of early grief to the gradual introduction of grays and mauves that signaled a period of half-mourning. It is a compelling subject that angles into history through dress. Going by the posted blurbs, however, fashion trumps the history it embodies.

Gallery view ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unquestionably, garments on display offer compelling testimony to the beauty and craftsmanship of the needle arts. With the single exception of what is deemed a homemade dress, every outfit is an exquisite work from talented, high-end dressmakers or from newly emergent vendors specializing in funeral wear. (Intimate with ever-present death, the 1800s and early 1900s created a busy market for bereavement apparel analogous to today’s bridal trade.)

It is impossible to look at the cut, construction and detailing of these dresses and refuse honor to the artistry of their making. Hold for another day the debate over whether fashion is art. Here, it simply enough to recognize needlework as inherently worthy of the aesthetic attention given to what we flatter with the term fine art. In the medium of fabric, this is abstract art applied to the human figure instead of a canvas.

Detail of mourning dress (1902-04). ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Where the show stumbles is in its staging. There is a campiness to the presentation that undercuts the larger cultural value of its own subject and sets entertainment over history. The exhibit opened the last week in October. Halloween hangs over it like Casper the ghost. A-haunting we will go with projected wall texts that fade in and out, wraithlike. A shadow glides across the words for a few disconsolate seconds before one spectral quotation dissolves into another.

In the main, texts posture for audience effect. A sardonic note slips into the printed materials as if to taunt the objects they escort:

Black is becoming; and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing. —Robert De Valcourt, The Illustrated Manners Book (1855).
When we see young ladies persist in wearing sable, we are reminded of the reply a young widow made to her mother: “Don’t you see,” said she, “it saves me the expense of advertising for a husband.” —D.C. Colesworth, Hints of Common Politeness (1867).
The Scots shut themselves up in total darkness, wear veils, I know not how many folds, but so black that sitting beside them you could not tell whether it is a broomstick dressed up or what it is. —Elizabeth Stuart to Mary Baker, 1856.

Charles Henry Dana. Illustration (1900). Metropolitan Museum of Art

On Halloween night, the Costume Institute celebrated with an invitation to museum-users “to chart their own path through the galleries and join drop-in, interactive experiences with art.” (Not sure what those drop-in experiences entailed; very likely, playing dead was not one of them.) 

The doleful sound of Hildur Guonadadóttir’s cello accompanies the display. The sound track irritated me. Plaintive Icelandic hymns about death suppress recollection of the reasons mourning costumes were in such demand in the hundred years featured here. The nineteenth century was a river of blood. Europe convulsed in revolutions, wars of independence or unification. Americans suffered a Civil War that slaughtered a generation of men. Bereavement came blood-stained; widowhood, rampant. 

Ms. Guonadadóttir’s contemporary cello loops aestheticize death. They insure a detached, secular response to the crisis of mortality which required these ritual clothes in the first place. Any number of appropriate musical alternatives come to the historically minded. For starters: A Mighty Fortress is Our God or The Strife is Over. Brahms’ How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place would do nicely, as would any arrangement of the Twenty Third Psalm. So would Julia Ward Howe’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is more fitting to the time frame of this exhibition than her tart quotation on the wall.

Queen Victoria, a musician herself, loved John Henry Newman’s Lead Kindly Light. Her dress is here; her favorite hymn is not.

Currier & Ives. Departed Worth (19th C.). Museum of the City of New York.

One text makes reference to the agony of the age. But even that skips quickly to cost:

No, I do not dress in mourning. It is seldom worn now; there are so many deaths. But few put it on even when the nearest and dearest relatives die. There is probably another reason for not donning mourning; it is very expensive now. Dress goods, especially imported, are very dear. —Annie Fahs, in a letter written in 1863, during the Civil War

Trembling at the core of respect for the dead is deference toward death itself. In the end, it is ourselves we mourn for. But Ash Wednesday dampens box office.

What Is In A Name?

From Maureen Mullarkey

Every so often some wit writes to advise me of the exquisite consonance between my postings and my last name. So indulge me for a bit while I take a quick run through a complex etymology. Leave out the Gaels; pass over the Normans who anglicized Gaelic names within the Pale. I do not need too much. Just enough to illustrate how beautiful this ancient clan name appears in Gaelic: Ó Maelearchaidh. Phonetically, the Old Irish spelling is identical to the modern variant, Mullarkey. But you must pronounce it with a lilt. Do your best. Listen as you say it. The music of it fills me with regret that my husband had no interest in reclaiming the historic form of his patronymic surname.

To paraphrase Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: “I could have been a Maelearchaidh.”

Banquet of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Hotel Astor. Museum of the City of New York, NYC.

The anglicized version, Mullarkey, appears on British records in Ulster in the 1600’s. Family tradition has it that the Mullarkeys were among the Irish Catholics cleansed from Ulster by Cromwell’s 1652 Act of Settlement. The Act confiscated Catholic-owned properties and sent native Irish east of the Shannon into exile. Dispossessed, the clan was driven onto the poorer soil of Connacht and Clare. Some dispersed to the hard landscape of Mayo, where my husband’s people farmed as best they could amid rock and peat.

Charles Muller. Exile of Irish Catholic Youth (1655). Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon.

Early on in my professional life, I was encouraged to shed my married name. My maiden name was pretty; it had a sturdy British ring to it. No popular banality attached to it. Besides, women were increasingly accustomed to keeping the name they were born with. But I had not chosen my birth name nor the male line that gave it to me. I did choose my husband. I took his name as I took him, a gift. I understood it not an erasure of identity—as feminist thinking had it—but as a sign of the perfection of it. 

We were very young—too young to know that the answer to the question What’s in a name? is: More than you think.

The America Today Murals

From Maureen Mullarkey
Conservatives whaled me for “degrading” America, purists for representing things, and the radicals were mad because I didn’t put in Nikolai Lenin as an American prophet.
                                                Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America, 1983
If it’s not art, it’s at least history.
                                        Thomas Hart Benton, New York Times, 1968

But it is art. Incontestably and splendidly so. With the politics and dogmatic arguments of American modernism behind us, Benton’s first mural commission can be seen for the glory that it is. His ten-panel cross-section of American life, America Today—donated to the Metropolitan Museum and on display until next April—is an epic kaleidoscope that embodies the intimacy between visual art and United States social history in the first third of the twentieth century. Here is the restless pulse of the Jazz Age, painted just before an intoxicated nation sobered in realization of the full effects of the 1929 stock market crash. This is the mural series credited with prompting the federal mural project of the WPA in the 1930s. And it put Benton on the cover of Time, 1934.

Thomas Hart Benton, City Activities with Dance Hall (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

A bastion of progressive adult education, the New School for Social Research commissioned the mural series for its board room in 1930. José Clemente Orozco had just received a commission to paint murals for the school’s public dining room and student lounge. Uninterested in the pure fresco Orozco practiced, Benton was eager to experiment with mural techniques on large panels to be installed upon completion. So eager was he that he took no fee for the commission, asking only to be compensated for materials. (“I’ll paint you a picture in tempera if you finance the eggs.”) He was ambitious for stature; America Today achieved it.

It seemed an inspired paring, Benton and Orozco. Both artists were committed to grand themes imbued with social significance. Both counted themselves on the left. Both were the nation’s most prominent spokesmen for mural painting as the premier medium for public architecture. Their work was complementary in intention and technique. Yet Orozco’s New School murals have not aged well while Benton’s retain their persuasive power.

José Clemente Orozco. Struggle in the Orient: Slavery, Imperialism & Gandhi (1930). New School, NYC.

The Mexican painter’s sententious fresco cycle lingers as a visual correlative to the rhetoric of social revolution promoted in the 1920s by editorials in New Masses. Popular in their time, today his murals carry the weight of a blunt instrument. I cannot look at his fervid assertions of the brotherhood of man without thinking of heavy machinery and the Red Army. The sensibility inherent in them hints—despite self-conscious commiseration, devoid of warmth, with the wretched of the earth—at the inhumanity at the heart of the millenarian ideology that inflected Orozco’s art.

By contrast, Benton’s dynamic Instruments of Power, the central panel of America Today, is animated by the ebullience of a decade that witnessed the flight of Charles Lindbergh and the passenger-carrying Graf Zeppelin. Benton understood the motive sources of industrial power—water, steam, electricity, the internal combustion engine—to be, also, the prime movers of an industrial democracy. The Machine Age had no lovelier apotheosis than this. 

Thomas Hart Benton. Instruments of Power (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

While not a member of the Communist party, Benton was a Marxist himself in the early Twenties. His disenchantment with orthodox Marxism came later, as it did to his friends Max Eastman and Sidney Hook. Still, he remained a populist, his cultural leftism refined by a pragmatism that led him to tell the socially-conscious Survey in 1930: 

I realized that the supposed and much-harped-upon standardization of America was a neat descriptive formula which bore only a surface relation to fact. My experience had brought out infinite varieties of ways of living and doing which the formula did not fit.

The hero of America Today is the working man: the farmer, steel worker, construction worker, coal miner. But Benton’s enthusiasm for technology and American vitality was not naive. Coal, below, is an exquisitely rendered depiction of a bleak, back-breaking industry. The panel, aflame with social protest, is the single work that comes close to unrelieved pessimism. The stooped miners, the slag heaps, the shanties on a hill—all in service to a giant electrical plant belching smoke. The artist’s personal ambivalence toward a troubled industry in the Twenties is conveyed through formal means that maintain their aesthetic appeal even while withholding assent from their subject. It is a commanding performance that has few equals in modern painting.

Thomas Hart Benton. Coal (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Benton’s preparatory drawings for the murals are exhibited in a room adjoining the reconstructed board room setting. These are a feast in themselves. He had a firm hand, drawing with force and expressive intensity. Master of the classical essential—line—he brought to it a bold confidence that endowed with life every form he modeled, from machine parts to the human figure. His drawings obey William Morris Hunt’s dictum: “Draw firm! And be jolly!” Spend time with them. They tell us why Ingres referred to drawing as “the probity of art.”

Thomas Hart Benton. Dancer (1930). Whitney Museum, NYC.

All Hallow’s Eve 2014

From Maureen Mullarkey

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).

A Domestic Annunciation

From Maureen Mullarkey

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.

King Francis

From Maureen Mullarkey

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.