Engineering, symbolism, or art?

What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic… and then interpreted.

Stone Celtic high cross at Iona. Own photo.
At Mesa Verde National Park, a line of shallow circular holes marches across a flat stone patio in front of an ancient pueblo. I sat through a ranger’s talk about their religious significance. I asked him if they might, instead, be footers for a wooden structure, now gone. “Impossible!” he exclaimed.
We moderns see things through our own cultural biases. One of these is that we are more rational than our ancestors, who lived in a world dominated by superstition.
Iona in the Hebrides is notable for its cluster of Celtic crosses; historians debate whether they or those at Ahenny in Ireland are the oldest. The design is certainly Anglo-Irish in origin. Columba, the founder of Iona Abbey, was an Irishman.
Pictish Kirkyard stone, Aberlemno, Angus, Scotland, UK. Here the circle is motif, not structure.
Christianity was first introduced into the British Isles by the Romans. By 200 AD the British Christian church was flourishing. However, with the end of Roman influences, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others overran England, driving out the Celts. Christianity survived (with them) in the wild outposts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. By the time Augustinelanded at Canterbury to found the English church, there was a well-established tradition of stone high crosses in the areas converted by the Hiberno-Scottish mission.
They may reflect the lack of trees in the northern islands, or that stone lasts longer than wood. Or, the stones may have been a fusion of wooden crosses and the earlier pagan tradition of standing stones.
Cloncha cross and church near Culdaff, County Donegal, Ireland. Without the circles, the arms must be squatter and shorter. Photo courtesy Radosław Botev
Much ink has been spilled over the question of what the ring of the Celtic cross means. Ringed crosses were seen in the Byzantine Empire by the 5th century. The circle itself has represented many things worldwide, including the celestial sphere. The early Irish Christians were certainly familiar with this iconography, and with the Coptic tradition of a cross based on the Egyptian ankh.
On the other hand, the circle gave an engineering advantage. A cross with a circle can have larger arms. This is true in wood, but it’s critical in stone. The more workable the stone, the softer it is, and the more support is needed.

When these stone crosses were made, there was no deep division between engineering and art; for stone masons, the question still doesn’t exist. Therein lies a problem with leaving art analysis in the hands of people whose education is overwhelmingly one-sided. They may know myth, but they have no idea what holds up a building.
“What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic…” muttered my companion as we stood at the foot of an ancient Celtic cross. She then added, “and then interpreted.” The circle of the Celtic cross was intended to give strength, but became a symbol in its own right, a product of the mid-19th century Celtic revival. It’s beautiful and potent to modern man, but it means something different than it did to the person who carved it. His primary goal was to cut the Gospel into rock.
Liam Emmery’s Celtic cross in the Irish hills. Photo courtesy Ken Finlay.
Forester Liam Emmery passed away in 2010 after suffering a traumatic brain injury. A few years later, a Celtic cross appeared in his former patch. It’s made of a patchwork of larches among evergreens, meaning that as autumn approaches, the cross turns gold.  It won’t last as long as those stone crosses—maybe a century if all goes well—but the impulse was the same.
“He just loved things to be perfect, and I think the Celtic cross is perfect for him,” said his widow.

Why were gargoyles so hideous?

The medieval churchgoer was laughing at devils and spirits that he knew were vanquished. Today we chuckle nervously at devils we’re not quite sure aren’t real.

A comic demon gargoyle at Visby Cathedral, Sweden. Courtesy Alexandru Baboş Albabos
After last week’s post on Notre-Dame, a reader asked, “I just learned that gargoyles are functional art. Any idea why they tend to be hideous?”
The word gargoylecomes from Medieval Latin and Old French, and means ‘throat’ or ‘gullet.’ It’s certainly more poetic than ‘downspout,’ which is what a gargoyle actually is. In English, gargoyle has come to be used for what are more properly known as chimeras or grotesques. These are the fantastic or mythical figures used for decoration in architecture.
Gargoyles are usually elongated to divert water from the wall. That’s why they’re the most visible of all the grotesques. We think of them as medieval, but water deflection has been a part of architecture forever, as has whimsy. The Egyptians and Greeks both used lions’ heads as gargoyles.
Waterspouts and other sculptured figures on the Freiburger Münster, Germany. The top waterspout is defecating. Courtesy Rebecca Kennison
But it was with medieval Catholic architecture that the gargoyle reached its highest art form. Sculptors of the Gothic cathedrals were expected to be ‘preachers in stone’ to the mostly-illiterate population of the time. They told the stories of the Bible, but also portrayed the animals and beings of popular imagination. Since their society was earthy, these figures can sometimes be doing things we think aren’t appropriate for church, like defecating.
Grotesques were not universally popular. Abbot Bernard of Clairvauxrailed against them in his monastery:
“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent’s head, there a fish with a quadruped’s head, then again an animal half horse, half goat… Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.”
Le Stryge is a 19thcentury Gothic Revival strix on the North Tower at Notre-Dame and reflects Victorian sensibilities. Courtesy Prosthetic Head
One of the most famous grotesques at Notre-Dame is not medieval at all, but Victorian. Le Stryge is a brooding demon who (until last week, at least) perched atop a buttress on the north tower. Nineteenth century Paris was obsessed with occultism; the grotesques added to Notre-Dame during its renovation reflect that.
Medieval society was less preoccupied with sin. “Whatever they may have lacked, the Middle Ages were a time when fun was ‘fast and furious,’ certainly in no respect behind our own day,” wrote architect Ralph Adams Cram in 1930. “Just because they were sincerely religious people and involved in the sacraments… of their religion from the day of birth to that of death—and after—it is assumed they… must have been sad, terror-stricken and morose.”
This dear little reading monkey grotesque is Bavarian. Courtesy )o(Medousa)o(.
It’s been theorized that the grotesques of medieval architecture were to ward off sin or were pagan representations slipped into Christian art. That theory would have seemed absurd to the churchmen who oversaw construction of these churches. They were, in general, far more sophisticated theologians than we are today.
What they had that we don’t, is an ability to laugh at cosmic jokes. The greatest of these is the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ, which puts Satan firmly in thrall. The medieval churchgoer was laughing at devils and spirits that he knew were vanquished. Today we chuckle nervously at devils we’re not quite sure are real.

Symbol and subconscious

Leonardo da Vinci painted two Madonnas set in caves. Why?

Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1483-86, courtesy of the Louvre.

We moderns are very good at seeing subconscious imagery in everything. In contrast, our ancestors communicated with universally-understood symbols. These represented an idea, a person, or even a relationship. Earlier this week, I came across a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci’snotebook, in which the distinction between symbol and subconscious gets a little fuzzy:

 “Having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the mouth of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished,” he recalled. “Bending back and forth, I tried to see whether I could discover anything inside, but the darkness within prevented that. Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions, fear and desire—fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within.”
Madonna of the Rocks, c. 1503-06, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy National Gallery
Leonardo painted two versions of The Madonna of the Rocks, twenty years apart. These are based on a legend of the time. The Holy Family, on the flight to Egypt, encounters a toddler John the Baptist, who then worships (adores) his savior cousin.
Artists before and after Leonardo regularly placed nativities in caves. This made historical sense, as Jesus’ birthplace was assumed to be the grotto under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (Natural caves were used as homes and barns in Bible-era Israel.)

Leonardo also painted St. Jerome in a cave, but everyone did that. Jerome translated his Bible into Latin in the cave where Jesus was born.

St Jerome, c. 1480, unfinished, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy the Vatican
But Leonardo stepped out into new territory when he painted his adoration scene. What did he mean by painting what is essentially an idyll framed by something he found terrifying?
Back to his own narrative. Desire won out over fear, and Leonardo entered the cave. He found a great, fossilized whale. “O mighty and once living instrument of formative nature. Incapable of availing thyself of thy vast strength thou hast to abandon a life of stillness and to obey the law which God and time gave to procreative nature…
“You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships. Now destroyed by time thou liest patiently in this confined space with bones stripped and bare; serving as a support and prop for the superimposed mountain.”
Madonna of the Carnation, 1478, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Alte Pinakothek. Isn’t this just a more stylized version of the same traps and dark passages as in the cave paintings?
There are those who assume his maudlin meanderings are metaphorical, a sort of picture of what lies before us all. But Leonardo was more an earnest student of nature than a poet, and whale fossils are indeed found in Tuscany. Real or imagined, he read a lot into the experience.
Apocalyptic scenes from da Vinci’s notebooks, c. 1517-18, Royal Collection Trust
Leonardo went on to describe the end of existence as we know it. “The rivers will be deprived of their waters, the earth will no longer put forth her greenery; the fields will no more be decked with waving corn; all the animals, finding no fresh grass for pasture, will die. In this way the fertile and fruitful earth will be forced to end with the element of fire; and then its surface will be left burnt up to cinder and this will be the end of all earthly nature.” He went on to illustrate these dark, apocalyptic scenes.
Biographer Walter Isaacson described these pages as a sort of existential crisis. That’s a very modern mindset. I’d first be inclined to look for religious imagery—leviathan, Jonah and the whale, Resurrection, Revelation. Was he was setting the Adoration of the Christ Child against his own deepest fears, or those of the culture in which he lived?

A short history of being offensive

Shocking the bourgeoisie is so old-fashioned.
A Decadent Girl captures the ennui of the movement. 1899, Ramón Casas, courtesy Museum of Montserrat.
The Aristocrats is a very old dirty joke. A family—not the Kardashians—pitches their act to a talent agent. It is a long list of obscene sex acts, none of which I’m prepared to repeat in print. When they finish, the agent asks what their act is called. The father proudly responds “the Aristocrats!”
A tag line is sometimes added:
“Is that all you got?” the agent responds.
Pornocrates, etching and aquatint, 1878, Félicien Rops 
Épater la bourgeoisiewas the slogan of the Decadent poets of fin de siècle France. It meant “Shock the bourgeoisie.” In other words, they weren’t just interested in the sensual experience of breaking taboos; they wanted to be sure to offend the middle class while doing so.
Decadents focused on pleasure, sex, and the bizarre. Their overriding aesthetic was, simply, excess. Of course, the movement was fascinated by drugs: opium, hashish and absinthe (the hallucinogenic properties of which were probably mostly in the drinker’s mind).
Green Muse (absinthe),1895, Albert Maignan, courtesy Musée de Picardie d’Amiens. 
The seminal Decadent work is the now-forgotten À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Its hero, Jean des Esseintes, is the last member of a great noble family. Disgusted with human society, he retreats to the countryside, where he contemplates literature and art, punctuated, of course, with his own erotic fantasies.
French Decadence was more than just a rejection of middle-class values, however; it was an obsession with sensuality, death, exotic beauty, fantasy and beautiful language.
Like the closely-related Symbolists, the Decadents were disillusioned with the meaning and truth offered by Nature. There can be no doubt about it,” Hysmans had his hero say. “This eternal, driveling, old woman is no longer admired by true artists, and the moment has come to replace her by artifice.”
La Mort et le Fossoyeur, c. 1895, Carlos Schwabe
While the Decadents were a French movement, they exported their transgressive spirit to other European nations. In England, they were mimicked by the Aesthetes, including Oscar Wilde, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Aubrey Beardsley.
The movement gained little foothold in the bustling, religious United States, however. We strongly resisted the spirit of declining culture emanating from Europe. Less than a century later, however, shock art, shock literature, shock TV, shock movies and shock music were all the rage here. French Decadence was just ahead of its time.

Merry Christmas!

Winter Landscape, 1811, Caspar David Friedrich
Our celebration of Christmas is heavily Germanic in origin, marrying the gift-giving and merrymaking of Saturnalia with Yule logs, Christmas trees, greenery, mistletoe and other northern European traditions.
Fir Trees in the Snow, 1828, Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich seems like a fitting painter for today. Born in the last years of the Enlightenment, he was a profound romantic, a German landscape painter who saw allegory and symbolism in everything. He was anti-classical and moody—in short the polar opposite of the Age of Reason. Yet if you look at his superb drafting and paint handling, you see that he was a technician of great skill.
Passage Grave in the Snow, 1808, Caspar David Friedrich
A strict adherence to rationalism shortchanges the human capacity for thought. We have blinding intuition, we have emotional response, and we have gut reactions. To deny any of these processes is crippling. A strictly linear thinker can’t make the leaps of creativity necessary to be inventive. A strictly intuitive thinker hasn’t got enough grounding in reality to be productive. A strictly emotional thinker is, often, just plain crazy.
Christmas itself commemorates something profoundly non-rational: the idea that God would come down to share our suffering, and lift the price of sin from our shoulders.
Early Snow, undated, Caspar David Friedrich
But critics of Christianity make a mistake in thinking that it is anti-rational. From the initial question of whether the universe had a cause, to the faith’s remarkable endurance, to the stunning internal logic within its books, the Bible is a complex and coherent document. I’ve just been reading the Books of Chronicles. On the one hand, they are the historical record of a series of kings. On the other hand, they set the stage for a great restoration that augurs the concept of grace. There are too many examples of this to even list.  If the Bible was the work of obscure sheep-wranglers from a two-bit kingdom in the Middle East, as its critics say, it represents a literary accomplishment with no parallel in history.
Trees in the Snow, 1828, Caspar David Friedrich
 Five people can read the Bible, and one of them will be struck dumb by it, and the other four will think, well, they can cross that off their list. For that one person, the Word becomes the organizing principle of his life, and he admits a relationship to the Living God that will change him forever.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!