Friday, February 25, 2011

Aesthetics of Amplification

It's that time of the semester, when upper-level students are starting to pull together the arguments they'll be making in their research papers (and I realize that I need to finally give some time to my own wee ideas for upcoming papers and conferences). In asking them to map out and amplify their arguments (my favorite is the student whose central space simply asked "Why?"), I realized that it was high time that I engaged with the aesthetics of amplification witnessed in Israel.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The Holy Sepulcher completely unnerved the students.  Almost 1700 years of accretion on a holy site can do that to most anyone, I suppose, but their reaction was vehement: this is wrong, not as Christ intended (?!?), this can't possibly be right, this isn't how it was, how can this be? It was crowded, it was hot, there were competing incense burners from the competing chapels of the competing Christianities (six in total) there, it was loud, it was shiny. It's not at all that I wanted them to accept that this really truly was the site where Christ was crucified, buried and whence he resurrected, it's that I hoped that they would marvel at the continuity, at the accretion itself, at the multiple amplifications of the human voice as it seeks the divine.  Every candle, ever incense burner, every chant amplifies that searching voice, makes it noticeable to God. But for the American aesthetic of my students, it was just crowded and tacky.  Their seeking was for authenticity (an authenticity, I would argue, honed by Hollywood, which deserves its own exploration).

The Unction Stone of the Holy Sepulcher
The Holy Sepulcher is probably one of the messiest archaeological sites one can ever hope to map or understand. The British tried during their mandate, of course, but even they were crowded out by the continuous (non-stop, never-ending, every day, every way) flow of pilgrims who come.  It is a tense and intense place, and the seriousness of purpose is almost crushing. That seriousness, that intense intent doesn't allow for a careful separation of the layers of history - for a leisurely contemplation of building campaigns (begun in 330 by the Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena), destructions (1009 by al-Hakim; the Muslims of Jerusalem thought he had gone mad), constructions (during a lull in the fighting in the late 1140s, the Crusaders gave it a memorable portal), and fires (the latest in 1810).  Here, now, always, the amplification muffles out history.   

The Unction Stone
There's too much to do to worry about history!  I stood fascinated by these men who were somehow all business, and all fervor at the same time. They had dozens and dozens of candles, which they methodically took out of one set of bags, rolled across the unction stone (where Christ was annointed for burial by Joseph of Arimethaea), and then, once sanctified, put into another set of bags. An incredible (and efficient) example of touch relics - portable holiness.  Never mind that the unction stone was placed there only after the 1810 fire. It had been somewhere in the church for a very long time.  It was on a site revered since 330 A.D. - 1681 years of continuous reverence for this place!  But it was hard to get my students away from some empirical proof of the divine, no matter how oxymoronic "divine proof" may be.

doorway capitals of the Holy Sepulcher
The Holy Sepulcher contains many lasting surprises.  For me, to be in the presence of Crusader building project was key.  To see, to look so closely at these capitals carved in the late 1140s - capitals fairly writhing with Corinthian leafage, marking the entrance into the Holy Sepulcher.  What were they trying to amplify? The Holy Sepulcher was a quieter site in the 1140s - not quite the stiff competition for ownership of the site as reigns today between Syrian Orthodox, Copts, Greek Orthodox and more.  That battle had been won in 1099 when the Crusaders bloodily took over Jerusalem.  These are pretty standard Romanesque capitals, for being so wondrous - it's their place that makes them so.

Lintel of the Holy Sepulcher
That, and this: the lintel of the Holy Sepulcher.  The Rockerfeller Museum has it now - took it right off of the church!  The left lintel had scenes from the Passion of Christ, but it's the right one that makes me wonder about why they took it down: interlaced throughout thick, sinewy vine scrolls are naked men pointing to their genitalia - they struggle, they writhe, the vines tighten; there's a wild visual logic here. And it's relentless, stretching out across the entire width of the lintel.  Pictures are strictly forbidden at the Rockerfeller Museum (an oddly beleaguered place), and so I was grateful for the students' distraction of the guards as I took as many pictures as I could (these are never published - now I know why!).  The glare is making me nuts, but you can still the details really very well.  There are centaurs and sirens and other monsters in the vine scroll next to this one. Why this amplification? Why this muscular unfurling just enough to hold the monsters and the maligned? These creatures struggle and sway on the threshold of the holiest site in Christendom - what are they proclaiming?

Crusader facade of the Al-Aqsa Mosque
 While we're on the subject of liminal amplifications (and we could think more about all the things we do to thresholds to make them more noticeable, to make the passage from outside to inside more remarkable), we can look upon the fa├žade that the Crusaders put upon the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Haram al-Sharif, after they took it over, and made it the Templars' living quarters (and the space below the stables for their horses).  There are tropes of colonialization (they adopt the broken arch of the Middle East, the decorations mimic the stucco work of Islamic art) and of globalization (it's a tripartite doorway, just like at home in the West).  And an amplification big enough to be preserved.

Dome of the Rock
Which is really pretty amazing when you consider what else is housed on the Haram al-Sharif.  The Dome of the Rock amplifies the human desire for the divine purely through geometry, multiplied and divided out until it is amplified in color, shape, form itself (the Dome of the Rock is an octagon).  There is no content here but beauty itself - it's the frames that are complicated.

Dome of the Rock

The arches whose capitals are from the Herodian construction of the Temple Mount, which the Muslims had taken over in the 680s for the construction of the Dome of the Rock to be completed in 691.  The unbelievable politics of this site during the Six Day War in 1967 (Jewish forces were on the Temple Mount, had it, possessed it, and gave it back to Muslim control). Many frames. But the Dome of the Rock amplifies itself - you see from almost anywhere in Jerusalem, it makes whatever shot you're taking, whatever view you're trying to remember, instantly iconic.

Dome with Suleiman's Fountain

The entire site is ringed with smaller sites of proximity and devotion - smaller voices who wanted to be close.  The Dome of the Rock is so magnificent that even Suleiman the Magnificent (son of the Ottoman ruler who conquered Jerusalem in 1517) represented himself only with a fountain.  The amplifications here don't encroach upon the object of devotion - it's too solid and unchangeable in its geometric form, in its relative centrality. Pity the Holy Sepulcher's messy architectural lay-out and urban setting - its amplifications accrete.

Church of the Dormition

There were smaller sites of amplification, too.  The Church of the Dormition (Mary went to sleep at the end of her life, she didn't die) has the requisite incense holders and candles and altars (and the requisite Greek Orthodox monk hurrying my students past their fleeting authentic moments, clearing the way for the next batch of pilgrims).  The Crusaders built a wonderful staircase here. But the addition I stood before for a long time was a mihrab on the northern wall - the niche in the wall that faces Mecca towards which Muslims pray.  It was dark and partially covered by a board and so there is no picture.  But you have to think of a place amplified by another religion as pretty special.

Stone of the Ascension

Amplification isn't about knowing, or truth, or authenticity. It's about flux, and extrapolation, and reaching.  The benefit is that you're unbounded - you go as far as imagination (yours or someone else's) takes you.  The church of the Ascension, also a mosque, has preserved the indentation of Christ's foot onto stone, his right foot specifically, as he alighted into heaven.  The one thing, in a strange way now that I think about, that amplification isn't about is intimacy.  Students expecting to feel a closely to Christ by gazing upon his footprint were shaken - it wasn't there. Amplification alights over the empirical.

Saint Anne's
This last amplification, I present sheepishly.  Not at first: at first, we revel in the 19th century French take-over of the decrepit Crusader church, which itself had been built atop an older church, which itself had been built atop healing springs of use in antiquity.  They cleaned up the site, made it into an archaeological wonderful of cisterns and foundations, and then completely restored the church itself.  It's right inside the city wall, in the Muslim quarter, at the very beginning of the Via Dolorosa.  And it is unspeakably beautiful.  I was there with Rebecca and Simon and Oliver only (this was the students' one day on their own), and we had been joined by the marvelous Shani, of the adventurous life in Tel Aviv, of the wondrous voice, of the glad heart.  We couldn't resist: the acoustics in there are so tremendous that we sang the one song that called for harmony that we both knew, "Dona Nobis Pacem." Rebecca recorded the last few seconds on her iPhone, and even on that little hand-held machine, the sound is amazing.   I have lots of caveats about what a complete dork I am (keeping time?!?!) and how totally goofy I look, but here goes. Please close your eyes when listening to it - way better!  Here, the amplification has been purified to just sound - there are almost no visuals, just this deep-reaching emptiness. More peaceful, yes, in all its French modernity.

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