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Pieter Bruegel
by larry silver
abbeville, 464 pages, $150

Times were hard in the Low Countries during the life of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, perhaps especially for painters of religious art. The Reformation had called into question the place of art in sacred spaces, and the political and ecclesiastical future of the region was up for grabs.

Bruegel’s distinctive approach to iconography was perfectly suited to his milieu: His sacred figures are framed by scenes of ordinary life, with all its business and bustle. By making his religious scenes more domestic, more popular, Bruegel was able to appeal to both the grandiosity of the churchmen he worked for and the new theological tastes of his Protestant patrons. William Carlos Williams captures the character of Bruegel’s portraiture well in his poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”—Bruegel places the whole range of human life before our eyes, everyone busy with his own concerns, while the true subject of the painting, “quite unnoticed” in the center, undergoes his great tragedy.

This monograph covers all of Bruegel’s major works, their development, and their artistic context. While there is a little more work by artists other than Bruegel than one would expect in a book of this title, it’s a fine collection all the same, and leaves open the most interesting questions about Bruegel’s religious allegiances.

—Elliot Milco is former deputy editor of First Things.

William Blake:
Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Complete Drawings

by sebastian schütze and maria antonietta terzoli
taschen, 464 pages, $35

One of the most effective ways to learn about a work of art is to examine how other artists have interacted with it over the centuries. Such is the approach taken in Taschen’s new edition of its 2014 monograph, William Blake: Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Complete Drawings. While art historians and literary scholars will no doubt find much to admire in the erudite introductory essays by Sebastian Schütze and Maria Antonietta Terzoli, the book’s greatest strength is also its most accessible feature. The beautifully reproduced collection of Blake’s illustrations fills hundreds of pages. Individual images often take up a whole spread, always accompanied by brief, helpful summaries by Schütze. He draws particular attention to those moments when Blake captures some of Dante’s more difficult or abstract metaphors, such as the mast-like tension in the giant Antaeus’s arm.

What emerges is as much a portrait of Blake’s spiritual aesthetic as a meditation on the enduring influence of Dante. The Dante illustrations were Blake’s last project and represent the culmination of his power and vision. We discover typical yet heightened Blakean motifs: the alternately delicate and vivid applications of color, atmospheric scenes, and the human body infused with spiritual meaning. The book is essential for any scholar or layman intent on learning more about Dante, Blake, and the relationship between these two pillars of the Western canon. 

—Rick Yoder is an M.Phil. student in theology at the University of Oxford.

Paris in the Present Tense: A Novel
by mark helprin
overlook, 400 pages, $28.95

The hero of Mark Helprin’s latest novel faces many challenges—Holocaust-survivor guilt, a grandson dying from leukemia, an infatuation with a student fifty years younger than himself—but perhaps the gravest is the rise of anti-Semitism in present-day Paris, his beloved home. When seventy-five-year-old Jewish cellist Jules Lacour stumbles upon three Arabs attacking a young Hasidic Jew in Paris’s Latin Quarter, the athletic septuagenarian joins the fight. Miraculously, he kills two of the assailants in self-defense, but soon finds himself unjustly accused of murder and on the run from the police. It’s one of many moments in the story when Jules must grapple with the possibility of “another Holocaust in Europe.” Through characters who increasingly feel “the fear and darkness of the thirties rolling in,” Helprin asks his audience to contemplate the reality of resurgent anti-Semitism in our contemporary world.

The plot moves at a leisurely pace, but this affords the reader time to linger over each clever phrase of Helprin’s prose. Jules is an eloquent protagonist, and his speeches are replete with witty remarks on music theorists and intellectuals (“Musicians work in waves—musicologists work in shards”) as well as charming declarations of love for Paris, art, and beauty (“For me, beauty is a hint, a flash, a glimpse of the divine and a promise that the world is good”). While Paris in the Present Tense tackles weighty themes, it is worth reading merely for the delights of Helprin’s pen.

Ramona Tausz is a junior fellow at First Things.

Thomas and the Thomists:
The Achievement of Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters

by romanus cessario, o.p., and cajetan cuddy, o.p.
fortress, 170 pages, $39

In the spring of 1256, a young Thomas Aquinas was appointed regent master of theology at the University of Paris. The appointment of a Dominican—a mendicant—was not without controversy; a large crowd of people gathered for his inaugural lectures, many of whom were hostile to the young mendicant. King Louis IX called forth archers to keep the unruly crowd in check.

The first three chapters of Thomas and the Thomists focus on St. Thomas himself, beginning with this moment of high drama early in his career. His roles in the mendicant controversy and, later, in grappling with Averroists on one side and anti-Aristotelian theologians on the other, are given prominent places. But St. Thomas is not reduced to a mere controversialist; his service to the papacy, his liturgical compositions, and his biblical commentaries are highlighted to show the fundamentally evangelical nature of his work.

The remaining seven chapters provide an overview of the Thomistic tradition. The authors eschew the division of Thomism into compartmentalized periods; instead, they portray the tradition in one continuous history. From the start of Thomism in defense of St. Thomas’s teachings against early opponents, to the challenges facing Thomism after the Second Vatican Council, the reader is presented with a living tradition that is remarkable in both its unicity and fecundity. Cessario and Cuddy provide an eminently readable, short guide that will attract new students to the riches of St. Thomas and the Thomistic tradition.

Joshua Kenz is a teacher in Louisville, Kentucky.

Exploring the Botanical World

by phaidon editors
phaidon, 352 pages, $59.95

Because of their delicacy, transience, apparent passivity, and vulnerability, plants are perhaps the creatures most representative of our complicated modern attitudes toward the natural world. Plant: Exploring the Botanical World gives a richly illustrated account of how this relationship has emerged and changed over the past few centuries.

A stylized fifteenth-century image of a chamomile plant, its stalks wrought like the stalks of a candelabra, is accompanied by an explanation of its contemporaneous associations and uses: as a flavoring for beer, a cure for nightmares, a salve for high fevers, and a symbol of resurrection. The description then delves more deeply into the history of the plant, reporting how it was placed in the tombs of pharaohs to ward off insects and preserve the body and soul for everlasting life.

Much of the value of Plant lies in giving new meaning to the botanical world through such accounts of plants’ historical uses and mythologies: Who knew the contents of a tea bag were once a means to immortality?

A Japanese artist’s meticulous, hyper-realistic watercolor of the wasabi plant gives us a picture, too, of the attempts of modern people to reestablish a relationship with plants that goes beyond the utilitarian. She, like most Japanese of recent generations, had never seen this popular condiment without its roots trimmed off. Her lovingly detailed rendition of its wild, extensive root system evokes a shaggy green monster, a creature brimming with vitality.

—Emily Sammon writes from Chicago.