Friday, October 10, 2014

Fayum Friend

Lasting presence abounds in the descriptively dubbed East Mediterranean of the Roman Empire galleries. The Fayum portraits are their emblem and immediately place you in this end-of-an-era hybridity - it's the end of the Roman Empire as you know it, and at least some people are feeling fine. The Fayum portraits are this incredible encaustic decision to paint portraits of the diseased for their mummy casings. There are still masks (gold-painted not gold itself anymore, terra cotta or painted fired clay mostly) but it's the Fayum portraits that have seized the imagination in their lifelikeness, in the memory of their subjects seeming so fresh.

I had invited the kids to find a "Fayum friend," a person whose portrait would make you want to be friends with them. This was initially critiqued by Iris, who pointed out that judging the possibility of friendship by how someone looks is superficial. She's right, of course, and so made me think more about what I was going for. What is it about any one particular portrait that reaches out to a viewer? That "speaks" to us and makes us want to know more about that person? And why do the Fayum portraits do it so incredibly well? It's not just shadows and gleaming eyes and the curve of cheeks - there's something else that makes a viewer stop and connect and I don't know what it is. Once I was able to convince Iris that this was about what made her as a viewer curious (as opposed to her as a potential friend accepting), then we were good to go. Here is Eleanor with her Fayum friend, the mystery of the connection palpable.

The mystery is what remains (for me, for others, but there are experts who can explain the details) when it comes to the Mithraic cult, a mystery cult concurrent with that other, better known mystery cult, Christianity. Mystery here means underground both literally and figuratively, and also the suspicion that maybe the rituals mean more than just their act. Mithra, Persian god, is a reminder of how big and permeable the Roman empire is from the 1st to the 4th centuries C.E.. So much so that a zodiac (there's Aquarius, Pisces, Cancer) all around the sacrifice of the bull - that valiant diagonal, that murderous thrust.

Oliver was beside himself with excitement - so was I. Teaching the Mithraic materials at San Clemente in Rome (with the great teaching text by Jas Elsner) is one of my favorite moments in the survey class, and I still daydream about a "Rome 400" class (whenever the world started to go upside down for the Roman Empire and so many things were possible). Oliver loves it when I do, and we'd visited the Mithraic temple beneath San Clemente (worlds upon worlds). To find this many statues devoted to Mithra all so beautiful and complete and all positioned together like that was incredible. It was utterly unexpected and yet there they were one after another, strange creatures bedecked by their mysterious symbols, gathered in some still potent assembly.

This is a terrible photograph of a beloved icon - I've never taught it, but now I have a frame of mind for it. You find the icon, and an entire recreated room of the site of Bawit monastery where it was excavated by (the Frenchman) Jean Clédat in 1901-5. You find all this (and it's all incredible: there are shoes and chasubles, doorways of wood and stone, wall paintings, and this marvelous marvelous icon, from the 8th century, possibly the oldest Coptic icon remaining) if you just keep walking through the end-of-the-Roman-Empire galleries. Isn't that smart? It wasn't a seamless transition, of course, from the Roman Empire to the period marked by an emerging Christianity (Christian cultures, really, there were so many), and the trajectory of the rooms takes you from one time to another and actually makes room for departures from the transition, like the Mithraic material. The Coptic trajectory is brief (curtailed by the advent of Islam in Egypt in the 8th-10th centuries), more of an offshoot than an arrival, and yet the layout of the galleries is such that it comprises the final rooms of that section of the museum. Smart. Gives you pause. In this sense, the Louvre layout is more about departures and ruptures than about continuity and transition - which I like. The monastery of Bawit itself was founded in the late 4th century and continued to thrive until the 8th century. By the 10th century it was abandoned, stilled until its intersection with the mission that Clédat had been given to find Christian sites in Muslim lands (and oh my yes, there's a tale to be told there, and yes, it ultimately involves the Suez Canal). Somewhere in the monastery site (and Clédat's notes don't reveal where), this icon of Christ with his arm around Abbot Mena was found. I immediately think of Peter Brown's "friend," of Christ as companion (and oh my goodness, doesn't Brown's new book look amazing???). The stillness of this piece has always fascinated me, made me think about all sorts of stillnesses, because in this stillness is a kind of intimacy. Christ emerges (yes, seamlessly) in the 8th century to put his arm around Abbot Mena, this older man, this reigning caregiver of the monastery. Why was the portrait made? One thinks of the 8th century as a time of change, at Bewit marking the beginning of the monastery's decline, throughout Egypt as a time energized by the advent and appeal of Islam. Stillness here does not mean eternity. In that sense, this icon is very unlike the concept of icons and their transcendental stillness and eternity. In that sense, this icon is wonderfully poignant. Its stillness (I love to think about this so much I'm going to write it again) offering an image of intimacy. The painting is small (57cm x 57 cm) - you could hold it in your hands (oh!). It's painted on sycamore fig wood, a material of physical, Biblical, and even parabolic (!) availability. Was it simply part of a much greater arrangement of figures? An iconostasis? Or was it already isolated in this intimacy? The gesture of Christ marking a space around the Abbot Mena and that which, in the cliffs overlooking the Nile where his monastery lay, he held dear?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


The past two days have been of legends awakened, things vaguely known brought into experience. Fontainebleau! The forest, the palace, that painting. The forest took us in and told us it was fall now: a loamy feel to the ground, that sweet smell of things starting to rot, carpets of faded ferns. We mapped out possible paths amongst the 27,000 acres, tried to figure out what was walkable whence and how far, and found ourselves within this extended fantasy scape of green and grey and brown, of tiny groups of walkers and bikers, of paths unfolding and turning and, throughout, and knowing there were hundreds and hundreds to see, coming upon agglomerations of boulders: massive and not so massive forms that seem to clear the space around them and turn the trees into frames.

About 150km of trails were marked out by one Claude-François Denecourt, a veteran of Napoleon's armies who, in his refuge (not quite exile) and retirement from the world shaped the forest, ancient hunting ground of François Ier and other kings of France, into a Sunday in the country. Today you take the Transilien train from Gare de Lyon (or, if there's construction like there was for us, you get rerouted to the RER D platform) and you can get out at Bois le Roi (a nostalgic name) or Fontainebleau-Avon (as we  did, thereby enjoying completely unexpectedly, a really quite fantastic meal at the Buffet de la Gare!). Walking on 19th-century trails is probably something that I can do in Indiana, but knowing Denecourt was a veteran, seeing the signs venerating his trails, laughing to realize that there were rond-points and trails radiating outwards like the streets do around Charles de Gaulle Étoile, it was rather wonderful to be aware of the presence of this French wanderer, to walk in such bucolic footsteps. It was Denecourt who named things in the forest: the trails, remarkable trees, dozens and dozens of boulders, crossroads, and fountains. Legend-maker, trail-blazaer.

 This now-famous formation, for example, has been dubbed the Boulder of Hercules. We had come because of our dear friends' passion for bouldering, a world unto itself of effort and triumph, and a true passion at Fontainebleau. It's been happening since the 19th-century (did Denecourt himself have a go? I think of all those Bretons on boulders in the old postcards), this kind of incredible strategic litheness of the climber onto the rock. You figure out where to put each hand and toe and you pull yourself along, writhing along the surface - it takes incredible strength and, depending on the surface of the rock you decide to take on, can take several tries. It's. Totally. Cool.

Here is the intrepid young climber of our company taking one of the sides of the Boulder of Hercules. Past boulderers leave thin arrows to show their solutions - none of them look possible or even logical to the eye. It's the body's logic that makes the decisions here - there's this thinking time, this sizing up, and then swift motions in momentum, as though you're planning a gymnastic routine the second before you're executing it, choreographing a dance seconds before performing it. It's quite beautiful and nerve-wracking to watch. Our kids scrambled up a possible way, with assistance and encouragement and glee.

There are few places you can go that are pilgrimages for sporty folk and for art history folk (that's probably completely untrue if I think about it) and Fontainebleau gives a great deal to art. There's the palace itself and its spectacular grounds (and some day I will see the salamander on the fireplace of François Ier), and then of course the forest itself was an inspiration for countless artists (Renoir was there, there's an entire Barbizon school). Seeing a street named after Rosa Bonheur made me and Mac both so happy - I haven't figured out her association with Fontainebleau yet save that a monument to her was raised there (and then destroyed in 1942). But there she is.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Membra Disjecta Enigmatica

Oh my goodness, so serious
My time "en bibliothèque" is drawing to a close for a while (more work from home and in the field) but not before a conférence tomorrow on "Les transferts artistiques dans l'Europe gothique" - it's a "rencontre-débat" (meeting-debate) about the transfer of artistic ideas and styles within Europe during the Gothic period (here defined between the 12th and 16th centuries). I can't wait! Should be a great way to take my leave for a bit (and next time, yes, I promise lots of pictures of the splendid space that is, l'INHA!). In the meantime...

What's in a name?
... I'd like to do a quick romp through images and ideas that have flickered past and stayed in my mind, pressing to be written about. All of these deserve more, much more, but I'm feeling them slip through my fingers and so must seize what I can. First and foremost, wouldn't you like to have a species name "enigmaticus"? Oh my goodness I know I would. This little guy was signaled in one of the cooler cave passages of the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle (which will get many a blog post in the future - it is a wondrous place). I had to look it up. Well, the creature is so enigmatic that I can't even understand the first thing about any of the words used to describe Pliciloricus Enigmaticus. I'm sorry to tell you that the only sentence whose words (but, to be honest, not even whose meaning) I understood was "The anus is terminal." Does it have any other enigmatic family members, this pliciloricus enigmaticus? Is it enigmatic alone? Would it be more enigmatic in company? I hope to find out more - and also what makes a scientist, presumably in 1986, give the name "enigmaticus."

Suspended animation
How about asking that "Is it a crocodile or an alligator" question in mid-air? The MNHN has a well preserved series of enigmas, mostly from one Duke of Orléan's collection (my favorite is of a tiger attacking and climbing an elephant). Here is an enormous alligator (I think) with an enormous snake and others suspended in mid-air, poised and ready to freak you out. When Iris and I were there last, e discovered that the entire museum was shut down in 1969 because it was considered a public hazard. Over the next years, the entire place fell apart, animals were several damaged or rotted, any taxidermist's illusion wiped away. In then in 1986, the museum was reinvigorated, decisions were made to save it, and it opened again, the animals re-taxidermied, the space glittering and lucid, the exhibits splendid. But these old guys (and my other favorite, the Hall of Endangered and Extinct species) are just wonderful, hanging from the ceiling like that.

Animated suspense
 We'll stick with animals for just a bit longer - this time a fluid octopus upon an early Greek vase, Mycenaean. The kids couldn't get enough of it (it's at the Louvre) and though I know of other examples from books, seeing one up close like this was just the best. All tentacles and patterns and flow. And great big eyes to stare you down. I think of rounding my hands around the curve of this shape, gripping the handles and wielding the stilled creature (oh and if I knew my early vases better I could tell you if this was for olive oil or wine or...). It's vaguely an amphora. But definitely an octopus.

Very, very still
I've long known and loved teaching Kleobis and Biton (thanks to the brilliant writing of Nigel Spivey) and while the two statues thought to be (i.e. debated to be) Kleobis and Biton themselves are in Delphi, these beautiful examples of Archaic statuary in the Argive style at the Louvre. There's a terseness to their bodies that I dearly love - their thin waists and straight backs, their chests barely amplified by breath. They are in wait and ready and yet somehow seem incredibly vulnerable to me. They don't know that contrapposto and its heroics are coming, that Hercules and Apollo will set the standards, the bodies will be beholden to epic narratives. No, they wait, ever ready and promising and somehow (and I don't understand this visually yet) deferential. Maybe it was because the Lady of Auxerre was not so far from them, and she certainly commands deference. The ultimate enigma: how this Archaic Greek statuary found its way to a storage vault in Auxerre (Burgundy!) is a mystery. And it's almost as if these two have been given the secret to keep.

Oh blighted beast! Oh loud, groaning thing! How I love thee! And to hear the organ at Saint Sulpice is most sublime. Reputed to be amongst the most powerful, best, and best played in all the world, the organ at Saint Sulpice is musical, architectural, and sculptural. The clip starts with Oliver chomping away on his gum, drawing a gaggle of goblins that could hop around madly to the music being played. As happens during hour-long concerts in a church with a minimal hand-out, we lost our place, so this might or might not be Charles-Marie Widor - he whose "Toccata" from the Symphony No. 5 was the recessional at our wedding (still the only piece that can bring a tear to my eye instantly - check), he who was the official organist of Saint Sulpice for years and years. In any case, with the wonders of technology and a turn of the wrist, I can give you the ceiling of Saint Sulpice and its outrageously muscular stretches and throw all my membra disjecta enigmatica into perpetual echo among its vaults.