There be dragons!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ragnarok and Camelot

A connection btwn the Arthur mythos and the Norse story of Ragnarok.
http://www.rawbw.com/~svw/superman.html
Glastonbury Tor where (at the Cathedral of Glastonbury) the body of Arthur and Guinevere were allegedly buried.








Some pictures.

God the Kangaroo


My fbf (FaceBookFriend), Glenn Fairman, recently wrote at his page:

The nagging truth (if such a thing can exist existentially) is that no matter which labor I set my hand to from the existentialist perspective, I am confronted with a fundamental absurdity that stands in direct contradiction to my commitment. If the universe is (as they say) as cold and as deaf to my cries and strivings as a stone, then whether I commit myself to the bedding of 10,000 women or seek to succor the starving in foreign lands, ultimately my efforts are for naught -- and they are for naught because the moral “ought” has no lasting currency in a meaningless universe.

Within the worldview of such a philosophy, my actions only accrue value subjectively through eyes which are sympathetic to my vision; and whether I slit the jugular of a child or nourish him back from cholera, ultimately I am less than an electron in the night sky. Interpreting life from beneath the lamp of existentialist reason: there is no ultimate justice, no abiding love that we can view as enduring in the metaphysical sense, and benevolence is patently absurd – albeit it is perhaps noteworthy from some foundationally unexplainable moral perspective. When the ideations of good and evil, justice and transgression or noble and base are cut loose from their perpetual moorings, what actions or judgments can escape the entropy of utter meaninglessness?

This called to mind something I have been thinking about for some time.  

Thomas Aquinas makes the point in Summa Q2 A1, refuting Anselm's ontological proof of God, that atheists (deniers of God's existence) cannot be persuaded of the self-evidence of His existence by argument alone.

Perhaps not everyone who hears this word "God" understands it to signify something than which nothing greater can be thought, seeing that some have believed God to be a body. Yet, granted that everyone understands that by this word "God" is signified something than which nothing greater can be thought, nevertheless, it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally. Nor can it be argued that it actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.

Faith, I realized, is a language; just as math, or Spanish, or symbolism is a language. Like those others, Faith provides a terminology for understanding and talking about the Quiddity, the Something, the Incomprehensible, the Kangaroo (even if the popular legend is false, it's a fun story that illustrates the "Idon'tknowwhatitisness" of God.  He is Qadosh "otherness", what the Jewish mystics called the "Ein Sof", that is, "God unending".  To name Him, though, is to limit him and thus He ceases to be, in that instance of naming, the Ein Sof.  In Buddhist philosophy this is expressed by the great maxim that the Tao that is named is not the true Tao.  




The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao

The name that can be named is not the eternal name

The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth

The named is the mother of myriad things

Thus, constantly free of desire

One observes its wonders

Constantly filled with desire

One observes its manifestations


These two emerge together but differ in name

The unity is said to be the mystery

Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders


There is A SOMETHING which we don't understand beyond the physical world which, in order to talk about it, needs some language.  Whether that language is math, or German, or painting, or music, or religious terminology, the experience of, or encounter with that somethingwhichIdon'tknowwhatitis is the main point.



We can debate the nature of this Ein Sof; is it human intellect?  is it a being in another dimension?  is it a pattern?  is it a perception or perspective?  But to deny its existence leads into utter absurdity.  For this reason the Psalm says that "the fool in his heart..."; not b/c the psalmist is condemning atheists as an "us vs. them" or "they are not part of our tribe" but b/c to deny the encounter with the Ein Sof, or to deny the Ein Sof existing makes it impossible to discuss anything with anyone.  We can't search for the answer if we deny that there is an answer to be sought.

Either our symbols (math, music, painting, linguae such as French or Hebrew) signify something or they do not signify.  If they do not signify then all discussion is foolishness ("Papa Satan, papa Satan, aleppe!") and all enterprise without point; life itself becomes meaningless - no point, meaning, no purpose, no telos.  There is no merit or worth to anything b/c nothing signifies, so there is equal worth to crafting a polyphonic mass as there is to gunning down civilians from a moving car.



To claim, finally, that there is "nothing out there" - or that we are only chemicals shooting in the skull - or that there is no such thing as Providential guidance, only our own choices - is, therefore, the height of foolishness and the acme of arrogance.  Such a claim also betrays a tremendous lack of understanding about what the debate consists of.  If there is "nothing out there" then there is also "nothing in here" and the very statement emerging from the whited sepulchre of the head is meaningless noise made by the lips, the tongue, and the vibrations of the vocal chords.  If it is merely chemicals shooting in the skull there is no conversation, merely parallel chemicals shooting in each individual skull.  If there is no Providential guidance then there can be no such thing as free will and so there are no choices, merely being driven around by the gods of our synapses and libido.  Again, this is b/c to deny the language of the Quiddity is to deny the ability to deny the Quiddity itself.  We are left retreating further and further into a cave of darkness, chained to the earth, where we can merely crouch in the dark and ogle each passing thaumatapoioi that twerks on the stage in front of us in order to be elected to office.


IF however, we embrace the language, then we can have a healthy and intense discussion about what the Ein Sof really is; is the Ein Sof the unutterable?  is it a He or a She or a HeShe tumbling down the hill until it hits a rock and breaks in twain? is the Ein Sof the still point from which emerges the zygote of Euclid's Dyadic beginnings?  or is the Ein Sof the Tehom or the Abyss out of which emerge the generations of gods and Darkness and Thick Night?  or is the Ein Sof really US?  

"I Am (the Son of the Living God)" says Our Lord


 "Then I beheld, and lo, a form that had the appearance of a man," says Ezekiel

et vidi et ecce similitudo quasi aspectus ignis 

"One with the visage of a man," says Dante.  

Dentro da sé, del suo colore stesso,
mi parve pinta de la nostra effige
per che 'l mio viso in lei tutto era messo.



Perhaps we are the Ein Sof.  The only way to discover whether such a blasphemous concept is the reality is to accept that there is a reality against which to blaspheme.  Even if it may seem there is only the electrical interplay of synaptic conduits, this interplay itself is so miraculous and infinite as to give us ecstatic pause in which we ponder it in wondrous bliss (thaumata) and then search for some language to express that fractal we have beheld.

In that abyss
Of radiance, clear and lofty, seem'd methought,
Three orbs of triple hue clipt in one bound:
And, from another, one reflected seem'd,
As rainbow is from rainbow: and the third
Seem'd fire, breath'd equally from both.  Oh speech
How feeble and how faint art thou, to give
Conception birth!  Yet this to what I saw
Is less than little.  Oh eternal light!
Sole in thyself that dwellst; and of thyself
Sole understood, past, present, or to come!
Thou smiledst; on that circling, which in thee
Seem'd as reflected splendour, while I mus'd;
For I therein, methought, in its own hue
Beheld our image painted: steadfastly
I therefore por'd upon the view.  As one
Who vers'd in geometric lore, would fain
Measure the circle; and, though pondering long
And deeply, that beginning, which he needs,
Finds not; e'en such was I, intent to scan
The novel wonder, and trace out the form,
How to the circle fitted, and therein
How plac'd: but the flight was not for my wing;
Had not a flash darted athwart my mind,
And in the spleen unfolded what it sought.

     Here vigour fail'd the tow'ring fantasy:
But yet the will roll'd onward, like a wheel
In even motion, by the Love impell'd,
That moves the sun in heav'n and all the stars.



Thursday, May 19, 2016

The School of Athens vs. The Last Judgment

This image is "The School of Athens" by Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, painted between 1509 and 1511.  


This image is "The Last Judgement" fresco by Michaelengelo Buonorotti, painted over four years time between 1536 to 1541.



The first image is during the apex of the High Renaissance when man was the measure of all things, the Classical worlds of Greece and Rome was being revived by the neo-Platonists, human achievement was glorified and all things seemed possible.  Man could accomplish anything.  



Note in the first order, structure, straight lines, clean streets, and magnificent examples of the male world of thought standing around debating great ideas or working together on some project or another.  Particularly note in the center Plato and Aristotle debating the nature of the world; friends, one his hand pointing into the air espouses the metaphysical theoretic, the other beckoning to the earth emphasizes the earthly practical.  They are unified.



The second image is chaotic, terrifying, like a whirlwind of bodies thrown about in the storm; the damned torn down to hell, one damned soul looking out in despair at the world of the living (us), Saint Bartholomew with his skin (Michelangelo's self-portrait) draped over his arm, even the heaven above being little more than naked or half-naked people floating about on clouds.  No industry, no discussion, no discovery - all eyes riveted on the central figure of Christ.  And note the posture, one hand gesturing in power and menace, ready to smite the damned and banish the wicked, but also gesturing toward the metaphysical, the other at rest below, consoling perhaps, but also gesturing down to the earthly.  It is Plato and Aristotle now fused into one figure, but no longer individuals, no longer friends, no longer benign - rather judgmental, dangerous, threatening.

I sometimes think of these two frescoes as hanging on opposite ends of the same room - bookends for the Renaissance.  What began in such freshness of thought, an open window letting in the breeze, seems to have ended with the storms of conflict, despair, doubt, and violence.  The great letters of Petrarch became the "words, words, words" of Hamlet.  The wonderful sketches of da Vinci became the siege engines and torture devices of the religious wars.  The beautiful bucolic scene of Boticelli's Primavera became the Blinding of Sampson by Rembrandt van Rijn.

In between the two ends of the room occurred the posting of the 95 theses in 1517 by Luther - a legitimate critique that threw down the gauntlet against Rome, despite Erasmus' warnings to the contrary; the sack of Rome in 1527 by the forces of Charles V in which 40000 people perished and Pope Clement was forced to hunker down in Castel San Angelo whilst the city burned; the Act of Supremacy in England which separated a syphilitic Henry VIII from Christendom; and the publication of Machiavelli's The Prince in 1537 which burned like acid against the hegemony of Europe.  It's no wonder that what started as a brotherly enterprise of thought, art, and culture ends with a violent apocalypse by a fed up Christ.  Do we ever have a chance as a race to get it right?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Caravaggio vs. Baglione - a smackdown

Wow. I didn't know any of this story of Caravaggio vs. Baglione:


The name "Baglione" reminds me of the character from the Hawthorne story whose rivalry with Rappaccini ends in the death of the daughter, Beatrice. 

Caravaggio was, apparently, somewhat of a libertine - but, I suppose, of the bisexual sort. Baglione certainly accused him of this in the libel trial against he brought against the other artist, at the end of which the defendant was found guilty and did jail time:

Baglione accused Caravaggio and his friends of writing and distributing scurrilous doggerel attacking him; the pamphlets, according to Baglione's friend and witness Mao Salini, had been distributed by a certain Caravaggio and his friend Onorio Longhi. Caravaggio denied knowing any young Giovanni Battista, a bardassa, or boy prostitute, shared by boy of that name, and the allegation was not followed up. 

The art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon has summarised the debate: A lot has been made of Caravaggio's presumed homosexuality, which has in more than one previous account of his life been presented as the single key that explains everything, both the power of his art and the misfortunes of his life. There is no absolute proof of it, only strong circumstantial evidence and much rumour. The balance of probability suggests that Caravaggio did indeed have sexual relations with men. But he certainly had female lovers. Throughout the years that he spent in Rome he kept close company with a number of prostitutes. The truth is that Caravaggio was as uneasy in his relationships as he was in most other aspects of life. He likely slept with men. He did sleep with women. He settled with no one... [but] the idea that he was an early martyr to the drives of an unconventional sexuality is an anachronistic fiction. 

So, was Hawthorne aware of this? Certainly in his story he is making reference to Dante through the character names such as Beatrice (like Dante's paramour) and sets the story in Italian setting. Certainly Hawthorne would have been privy to certain works of Renaissance art and perhaps he saw in Baglione's "Sacred Love and Profane Love" a possible source for a story about the tension between the two. 


Or perhaps in the painting by Caravaggio, "Amor vincit omnia", to which Baglione's painting is a satirical riposte, Hawthorne saw a visual and theological lie which he sought to expose in his story about lovers, influenced by their superiors, destroying each other. 


Truth to tell, I've also somewhat despised Caravaggio so I'm inclined to side with Baglione.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Theotokos and the Madonna and Child



In use as early as the 3rd century AD (the official proclamation of Mary as "God Bearer" was at the council of Ephesus in 431) the Theotokos is the typical Orthodox depiction of the Virgin and her son.  A combination of two Greek words, Θεός "god" and τόκος "childbirth", the image conveys primarily the theological doctrine of the hypostatic union; Jesus as both god and man.  The general formula for the artwork consists of a regally seated woman, clothed in black, dark blue, or dark red, holding, not a child, but a little prince or king on her lap.  Normally the figures are surrounded by the uniform golden background of the celestial illumination. The Madonna and Child is a later, Renaissance depiction, the title stemming from the Italian word for "My Lady" (ma donna).  This formula for depicting the Virgin and her son normally involves a naked or lightly clothed baby, more relaxed posture of the figures, softer colors, and a heightened sense of realism in figure and background.  Though both forms of artwork are depicting the Virgin and Child, there is a great chasm of difference between the two forms of art.



The Theotokos has the Virgin Mary looking directly at the viewer. Her eyes are penetrating and imperial and the viewer is put in the position of vassal or servant appealing to a Queen (a Regina, or Βασίλισσα, in Greek).  Moreover, the Theotokos forces the viewer to look upon a certain truth, not just the regal nature of the mother of god but the "otherness" of the divine realm (Kadosh, in Jewish, or Άγιος, in Greek) .  

Both she and the child Jesus are very stylized, rigid, as though presenting a reality that is idyllic but very removed from common human toil and suffering.  Yet the depictions are beautiful.  They glow with gold and light, a static gold patina suffusing the background and reminding us of the eternal brilliance of the divine realm.  
Both theotokos and child are also direct representations of the geometry that organizes their composition.  The three circles of earth, heaven, and enlightenment; the golden rectangle surrounding them; the golden spiral emanating out from her eye to her halo to his little body.  The whole work isn't just based on geometry, it is geometry; as though the pure world of mathematics and the complex world of the physical are separated only by a thin veil. 

Nor is the theology of the composition without meaning.  Not only does the Theotokos depict the intense doctrine of the hypostatic union, so clearly laid out at the council of Nicea in 325, it also embodies the relationship of Christ to the Earth Mother, and thus the metaphysical to the physical world.  The deep black of the Virgin's robe indicates that she is a form, a trope, of the ancient image of the chaos mother; Tiamat.  In the ancient world this figure was not "evil" but was darkness and chaos, Tehom, the deep, out of which life emerges and by which life is eventually engulfed.  

Yet in the Theotokos the Tehom (Tiamat) has been transformed into the mother of god.  She is our queen, our Vasilissa, but is herself the being out of which the salvific form of the incarnate word emerges - surrounding him, engulfing him, yet also enthroning him.  Just as the old formula of the sun god defeating the Tiamat dragon, the Christos "walks" as it were through the middle of the defeated/converted darkness.  

What does this say about our suffering and the darkness (The Chaos) that begins and ends life?  Is it made holy by Christ?  Is her true nature revealed as no longer sinister and horrific as much as imperial?  


The Theotokos stands in powerful contrast to the Madonna and Child of the Renaissance.  Early Frankish and medieval depictions of the Virgin and child frequently parallel the Orthodox Theotokos, employing a stylized posture, exaggerated features, imperial stance, and adult, ruling baby.  By the time of the Renaissance artists of the 15th and 16th centuries, however, a rather new image emerges in Europe.  
Here the eyes of the Virgin are frequently averted from the viewer of the painting - looking at the child, off into the distance, or down in modesty.  The viewer stands not as suppliant to a Regina but as onlooker or witness to some miraculous reality.  Yet the viewer could just as easily be looking at his own wife and child, or sister and nephew.

Both mother and child are much softer, chubbier, more human; sometimes even painted with flaws or distinguishing marks.  The Theotokos could have been any woman and no woman but the Madonna seems to be a woman one could meet in the market or street; the model for each one is almost identifiable as a particular woman known to the artist.  As the Theotokos is a universal ideal, the Madonna is a particular; this woman, this baby.  

In contrast to the uniform background of brilliance in the Orthodox depictions, the background of the Madonna & Child is frequently an actual scene from Italy or Germany or France which, although highly symbolic, still could be the scene out anyone's back door.  Again, the scene is focused on the particular rather than oriented toward the universal. 

The colors of deep black and brilliant gold in the Eastern depictions are often changed to deep blue, red, and white, or even diaphanous material; no longer the colors of the mysterious deeps, but the night or evening sky (with stars even), the dawn, and the sunset.  Halos which in the Theotokos image are remarkably pronounced even if blending with the gold background, almost disappear in the Renaissance depictions becoming thin, wispy hints of holiness that ornament the heads of the characters.  Again, it would seem that the distinguishing mark of sanctity cannot be seen in the natural world, and similarly is barely seen in these paintings, creating a far less universal and more particular rendition.


Madonna and child might be smiling or playing with each other, looking at a book or bauble, or greeting visitors; actions which could be engaged by anyone on earth and which seem to show that in the daily commonplace activities lies a hidden mystery.  

In almost every Renaissance painting there is an underlying geometry which, once noted, determines the composition of the piece. Yet the geometry is not so readily apparent as in the Theotokos. The geometry of the Madonna paintings is not so noticeable, though still present as though it had gone deeper into the incarnate flesh - embedded and not so obvious.  Again, this is similar to the everyday experience of the individual who does not immediately see geometry ruling the physical world.  The paintings, though governed by geometry, do not immediately display the universal language of geometry but rather the particular language of the world of things around us.

In the Madonna paintings, the baby is a fat little baby - not the "little man" (homunculus) that rules imperially from the lap of the Regina.  One can see the little fellow, a putto in Italian, making the sign of peace to the viewer, looking directly out of the painting, or doing an activity beyond his age level (such as reading a book), but his interaction is normally with the Virgin herself - leaning against her, suckling from her breast, chin-chucking her or playing with her hair.  He acts not as a regent but as a normal, playful, baby might act with his mother.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the Child frequently is naked, lightly clothed, or nude - his little man parts hanging out for all to see.  As Leo Steinberg so accurately notes in "The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion" this detail is of remarkable significance as it shows not only the "maleness" of the incarnate being but his ability to sire children and eventual desire to "impregnate" all the world with his image (metaphorically speaking).  Such a thing is inconceivable in the Theotokos image which so vividly proclaims the "otherness" of the little man - or perhaps more accurately, is attempting to show both the otherness of his divinity and the intimacy of his humanity.
Therein, perhaps, lies the real distinction between the two forms.  The Theotokos attempts to show the hypostatic union, but in so doing sacrifices the familiarity of the commonplace, physical world in lieu of an unfamiliar eternal divinity.  The Madonna & Child, attempting to depict the immediacy of the incarnation almost loses the perfection of the eternal divinity.  Both forms of artwork are attempting to depict a paradox, namely, how can Christ be both god and man?  If he is man does he not lose the god part in the gritty, flawed, particulars of daily existence?  If he is god, is there any room for knowing  mortal suffering in the midst of his divine, beautiful and terrifying eternity?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thracian Horsemen, Bellerophon, Saint George

I've been pondering the study of changes in artistic imagery.  Not so much what changes are made in imagery as the repetition of similar images throughout time.  It isn't that people just repeat earlier patterns (though they do) so much as that they employ patterns they have learned and have in their memory (phantasmagoria) in order to express a thought or insight similar to what the earlier pattern tried to express.  So not that "we do this b/c we always do this" (even though tradition is frequently the motivating factor) but rather "we're doing it this way b/c it expresses what we want to express"... "but with this alteration".  The alteration Bernard Batto successfully calls "mythopoeic speculation" - the change or alteration in a traditionally mythic image to express a new idea or insight.  What, then, is the study of these similarities called?  I want to coin the term "archetypal morphology" - not b/c I think Jung was correct with his definition of archetypes as "a collectively-inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., that is universally present in individual psyches" but rather as "a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, or mythology".

So for instance, the Thracian hero

which is repeated in the character of Bellerophon

and in Christian art as Saint George

seems to be an example of mythopoeic speculation on the part of the artists.  I, looking at these things and knowing that they had cultural interconnectivity, would be examining archetypal morphology between the three pieces; what is similar? what changed? what are the artists trying similarly to express in each? what is the underlying principle involved?  what is the mathematics governing the composition of all three pieces?  or perhaps, can their be an interrelatedness between works that are attempting to express the same notion such as this:
Osiris in the Underworld (note the flail and the crozier)
The ChiRo - symbol of Christ as Lord of the Resurrection



or this

Horus on the left; Osiris in the Underworld; the Ogdoad 
(Eight gods of creation; male/female, brother/sister, husband/wife pairs = four major powers)
The Tetragrammaton; sacred word of the creating deity in Jewish mythos
Iesus Nazareneus Rex Iudaeorum; posted over the head of the recreating god about to enter the Underworld

or this

Apollo (god of the Sun, Art and Reason) with the four-horse (Ogdoad) chariot

Dionysus at leisure surrounded with the fructifaction of Nature

Christus Invictus; Roman tile mosaic depicting Christ driving a four-horse chariot, rays of the sun emerging from his brow, surrounded by the fructifaction of Nature (grape vines)