medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Actually, Sts. Cosmo & Damian
I wonder if this is how we might have appeared to her, two still strange creatures - high up, transfixed, similarly bedecked, the one on the right making hesitating gestures, the one on the left more sure. She worked around us in a long, absolutely not leisurely arc, stomping her front leg, never taking her eyes off of us, then huffing at her two spring deer who, following, leapt with unnecessary grace. She could have taken her cue from their oblivious abandon, because my guide had no intention of shooting a doe. Had a buck not been so coy, had it made an appearance, it would not have been so lucky. That is one of the many things that hunting late in the season means: the rut (what a word!), which renders the deer stupid with sex and initiates the hunting season, is drawing to a close - along with the fall that had signaled it was time to rut to the deer in the first place; most of the hunting for meat (does and spring deer) is at its end, and now hunting is for trophy (bucks). And in our measured democracy, everyone (not just the lord of the land) has the right to kill a buck, but just one (and only one). Hunting late in the season and early in the day came to mean a series of observations, a stilling of the brutal spectacle of the medieval hunt, and a slowing of the blunt narrative of the modern one. This now was never about killing a deer or shooting a gun (I don't have a license for either, so really, that was never the point), it was about the tremendous other goings-on.
the view from up here
It turns out the forest has its own dawn. Or the forest as it starts to thin into a field, a glade, a clearing. The Middle Ages kept coming up with words for this space, defining and refining what it could mean to whom. We moderns woke up early, in long tradition with Lord Bertilak (but without the squires and the mass), and traipsed through dark forest, each step crazy loud. It's my guide's land, so he knows it very well, takes turns, a path through a shallow creek, no pause up an unexpected hill, a sure kick where a huge branch had fallen in last week's storms. For me, it's trust and hurry. All greys and then suddenly a climb up a ladder (15'? 20'? I'm notoriously bad at measurements, but it was enough to be dizzying), a tiny platform for our feet, and a simple parallelogram platform for our seats. I sit. I'm exhilarated but my body's puzzled: isn't this the part where we keep going, where the momentum builds? Hunting is about waiting. But it turns out it's the dawn, an hour later, that's first going to take my breath away. I took the picture above long after (I didn't want to have the camera's clicks and whirs bother things, I was a still still Byzantine icon, remember) this marvelous dawn, this stealing of pale peach fingers on the forest floor, this crinkling of bark into high relief, this matter of branches being recognized as such and swiftly redrawing the entire landscape from hues to lines. It was incredibly trippy, this little moment of time speeding up when everything had been so still. How alarming and resolute it must be when the sun withdraws at dusk.
yep, same spot
If this shot looks pretty much the same or closely related to you then you're like me, and you're not like my guide, the perceptive and magnanimous Virgil to my utterly ridiculous but really sincere Dante eager to traipse through the long memory of the hunt so much do I love this medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As I sat in the spreading pool of silence, I could absolutely let myself imagine the crash and tumult of Bertilak's first hunt, I could even pretend to see ghostly forms as "Deer dashed through the dale, dazed with dread" (l.1151, Marie Borroff's translation from the Norton Critical edition, 2010). What I could not see was what my guide saw: deer; legs and elegant necks moving in gliding parallel with the lines of the trees. He kept seeing them many minutes before I could. A connoisseurship that left me marveling every time the deer would materialize from between the trees. Looking at the image above, you'd wonder that I couldn't see them before. But the lines are not so clearly delineated, there's a good deal of confusion in the stillness.
the edge of the forest, of the clearing
I had come out here to think along the lines of Gawain (ll. 1126-1178 and 1319-1364 were the ones I read and reread - translation is below the late-14th-century English) and the Saint Eustache legend, and even just line 29 from The Dream of the Rood. And I did, I newly understood the desire for the rush of life in sylvan silence: the plenitude of the deer herd that excited Bertilak's dogs so, the stag filling the glade with its resplendent antlers in which Saint Eustache saw a brilliant crucifix, the tree that would become the cross of the crucifixion remembering its original place at the forest's edge before the men came to cut it down. Despite this attempt to write, I still don't know why place, or rather being there (forest, glade, clearing, tree place) meant so much here. It wasn't re-enactment certainly, it wasn't medieval authenticity (I live in Indiana for crying out loud), it wasn't hunting ( a big part of life where I live which I now understand completely differently and still hardly). (There is a long caveat to be written about hunting, its mixed status around here as both sport and food, the ethics (oh yes) of thinning herds so fewer deer starve to death, but i want to think more about that in relation to the ethics and aesthetics (and class!) of the medieval hunt before I write it). I think that there is this idea of resonance, of trees and deer present and past; but even more so, there is this idea of stretching out these texts in a place other than the classroom or the study, of letting them mingle with the brief (whispered) interruptions of silence my guide and I exchanged, human commonalities in mundane moments of extraordinary circumstances: talk of looking after our fathers, kids today, our kids, of meeting our spouses, our friends, of doing our work. Talk of revelation and adventure, of plenitude and respite.