Saturday, February 28, 2009

Helinand's Les Vers de la Mort

One of the most famous early examples of the macabre in art and literature comes from the middle 1190s, the Verses on Death by the Cistercian monk Helinand of Froidmont. These have been translated into English by Jenny Lind Porter in The Verses on Death of Helinand of Froidmont, 1999. William D. Paden, who also translated the verses into English ("The Verses on Death by Helinant de Froidmont", Allegorica 3 (1978), 62-103), provides an introduction which includes the following explanation of the emphasis on death.

The Rule of Benedict provides, in the fourth chapter, a list of 'tools of good works'. After three maxims on eternal life and before a long series of recommendations on attitudes to take during life on earth, the Rule gives this principle regarding the point of transition, which is death: 'Mortem cotidie ante oculos suspectam habere' (4:47). This statement has been translated by the monks of Glenstal Abbey rather freely as 'To look death daily in the eye'. The crux of the translation is 'suspectam', literally, 'mistrusted, suspected, that excites suspicion. Literally, then, the rule means 'To have death, that excites suspicion, daily before one's eyes'. Aldalbert de Vogué has explained the key term in this context as 'soupçonnée de vouloir suvenir le jour même', that is, 'imminent, threatening'. As an instrument of good works the monk must daily think of death as though it were imminent, because the thought of death will keep him from sin. Thus Ecclesiasticus: 'In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis'; 'In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin'.

Helinand's poems were originally published anonymously. One reason for this may be that Helinand includes corrupt clerics among the many victims of Death. Just as Dante had a special reward in Hell for the simonists, Helinand is not subtle in his condemnation. Among his attacks, "Helinand traced the etymology of Rome's name to the Latin word to gnaw, to eat up, to torment, and nibble upon, in Old French, rongier, modern French ronger."

Death, who from apple bite have come
That Eve and Adam might succumb,
You hammer on a curtain frail.
Now hail the Seat of Christendom!
(Rome gnaws and nibbles, tooth and gum,
That's how she got her name)—All hail!
She weaves for simony a veil
So cardinal and pope walk hale.
Rome is the mallet strikes us numb,
Rome's tallow candles blaze and fail;
Her legate, like a star grown pale,
A dying taper has become.
Saddle your horses, Death, and ride!
Let cardinals canter at your side,
Those dying firecoals, once aflame,
Those luminaries meant to guide.
Tell them the strictest law's applied:
They want no crown of thorns, but fame?
They long for luxuries and game?
Then stick them with the thistle's name!
Rome sends false money far and wide,
Worn slugs and clinkers, free of shame,
And silver coinage—who can claim
He spots the leaden heart inside?

The leveling of estates, a key aspect of Death's own sovereignty, is addressed in another stanza. In Stanza XX the great kings Richard I (the Lionheart) and Philip Augustus of France are reminded of their precarious lives. They can fall from their high station as easily as birds are captured in a trap. In Stanza XXI Helinand makes the direct comparison between prince and pauper, who must both settle a "kingly debt".

Death, O Death, who never tire
Of making low things out of higher:
To both kings gladly I would wend
And daily, could I nerve acquire,
Remind them how your razor dire
The richly bearded will offend.
Death, who to monarch say, 'Descend!'
Who kingly hearts to ashes blend,
The nets are yours, the snares, the wire
Before that strong man to suspend
Who would, his power to extend,
Over his shadow leap and gyre.
Death, your single blow makes cower
The king within his vaulted tower,
The poor man, with a roof of thatch,
And roaming all the earth to scour,
You summon each one to that hour
He must a kingly debt dispatch.
Death, to our mortal bonds you match
The soul until she can detach
And leave what all the debts devour.
Soul mortgages, a fool might hatch,
But she has nothing to attach,
All naked in the joust for power.

Another perennial aspect of Death is the devaluation of worldly wealth, power, beauty, etc. In Stanza XXVIII Death is virtually Nemesis, making the jester weep and pairing rich garments with sackcloth, undoing every worldly gain. Stanza XXIX states plainly the folly of ambition—he who dares to climb high will be the first to be brought down. Death is the ultimate turn of Fortune's Wheel.

What good is all the worldings makes?
Death will upon the hour break
Past all remaking, all our share.
What good is all that greed can rake?
Death in an hour wins the stake—
The faultless player, fortuned fair,
Death robs the talker of his air,
The jester, sets to weep and swear,
Fine weather into foul can wake.
Sackcloth and ashes Death will pair
With purple and with ermine wear;
Death will the stand against us take.
What good is Beauty, or is Ease,
Honor, what is it, if you please,
Since death can bring in his own time
Tempest or sunshine, rain or breeze,
Since he with universal squeeze
Grips the unworthy and sublime?
He who, not fearing Death, will climb,
It's he who rouses Death to crime;
He is the first one death will tease.
Fat paunches and the skin's soft prime
He coats with fire and worms and slime:
The most contented, most he sees.

Stanzas XXXI, XXXII, and XXXIII begin most lines with Morz, and they list powers and accomplishments of Death.

Death can our equal rights insure,
Death takes all measures just and pure,
Death's scales in honesty excel,
Death can avenge each wrong obscure,
Death gives the proud up to manure,
Death may a king in war repel.
Death seals decrees and laws full well,
Death usary and and gain may quell;
Death hardens up the epicure,
Death in the beets and peas may dwell
By just a bitt of seasoning fell
In cloisters fearing lust and lure.

In the closing stanzas, Helinand naturally restates the memento mori argument: think about death because, although inevitable, it is usually unpredictable and judgment ("doom") follows—primes mort et puis jugement.

For all a common fate must loom,
First death and then the day of doom:
Against them we have one resort—
We must repent before the tomb
And purity again resume
And purge what conscience may report.
Who waits until his life's cut short
Will wrongly with his grief consort
When summoned to the judgment room.
Before the vessel sails from port,
If you have caulked her, she will thwart
The waves from bringing her to gloom.

Death is always the final turn of Fortune's Wheel, the passage from her temporal world to the eternal. In the trump cycle, all the ranks of man from the lowest Fool and Mountebank to Emperor and Pope, regardless of their success in love or war, will ultimately fall to Time and Fortune, downfall, Death, and Doom.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

L’Epitaphe Villon: Ballade Des Pendus

The French poet François Villon (François de Montcorbier, François Des Loges, c.1431–1463) was a thief, a murderer, and a moralist. A famous poem, known as Villon's Epitaph or The Ballad of the Hanged Men, was written while awaiting execution. It captures a bit of the macabre sensibility of late-medieval meditations on death, speaking in the voice of the dead. Here are two translations, the first from Humour of France, (1893), by Elizabeth Lee, Paul Frenzeny.

In ballad form that Villon made for himself and his companions,
expecting no better than to be hanged in their company.
BROTHERS that after us on life remain,
    Let not your hearts towards us be of stone;
For if to pity us poor wights you're fain,
    God shall the rather grant you benison.
    You see us six, the gibbet hereupon:
As to the flesh that we too well have fed,
Tis all devoured and rotted, shred by shred.
    Let none make merry of our piteous case,
Whose crumbling bones the life long since hath fled:
    The rather pray, God grant us of His grace!
Yea, we conjure you, look not with disdain,
    Brothers, on us, that we to death were done
By justice. Well you know, the saving grain
    Of sense springs not in every mother's son:
    Wherefore, pray for us, now that we're undone,
To Christ, the son of Mary's maidenhead,
That He leave not His grace on us to shed,
    And save us from the nether torture-place.
Let none work woe on us : we are well sped:
    The rather pray, God grant us of His grace!
We are all blanched and soddened of the rain,
    And eke dried up and blackened of the sun:
Corbies and pyets have our eyes out-ta'en,
    And plucked our beard and hair out, one by one.
    Whether by night or day, rest have we none:
Now here, now there, as the wind shifts its stead,
We swing and creak and rattle overhead,
    No thimble dinted like our bird-pecked face.
Folk, mock us not that are forspent and dead:
    The rather pray, God grant us of His grace!
Prince Jesus, that o'er all art Lord and Head,
Let us not fall into the Place of Dread;
    But all our reckoning with the Fiend efface.
Brothers, be warned, and shun the life we led:
    The rather pray, God grant us of His grace!

L’Epitaphe Villon: Ballade Des Pendus
Translated by Tony Kline

My brothers who live after us,
Don’t harden you hearts against us too,
If you have mercy now on us,
God may have mercy upon you.
Five, six, you see us, hung out to view.
When the flesh that nourished us well
Is eaten piecemeal, ah, see it swell,
And we, the bones, are dust and gall,
Let no one make fun of our ill,
But pray that God absolves us all.
No need, if we cry out to you, brothers,
To show disdain, if we’re in suspense
For justice’s sake. How few of the others,
Are men equipped with common sense.
Pray for us, now beyond violence,
To the Son of the Virgin Mary,
So of grace to us she’s not chary,
Shields us from Hell’s lightning fall.
We’re dead: the souls let no man harry,
But pray that God absolves us all.
The rain has soaked us, washed us: skies
Of hot suns blacken us, scorch us: crows
And magpies have gouged out our eyes,
Plucked at our beards, and our eyebrows.
There’s never a moment’s rest allowed:
Now here, now there, the changing breeze
Swings us, as it wishes, ceaselessly,
Beaks pricking us more than a cobbler’s awl.
So don’t you join our fraternity,
But pray that God absolves us all.
Prince Jesus, who has all sovereignty,
Preserve us from Hell’s mastery.
We’ve no business down there at all.
Men, you’ve no time for mockery.
But pray to God to absolve us all.

Tarot's own Hanged Man, Le Pendu in the French decks, was hung by one foot. This was a method of execution by which 15th-century Italians sometimes dispatched particularly notorious criminals, principally traitors. (Hence the common Italian name for the card, Il Traditore.) The depiction of a traitor was an allegory, a personification of Betrayal. As such, it symbolized the downfall of a great man, so often caused by that crime. If we were to write an epitaph for the figure, it might be much like that of Villon.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Illustrated Vado Mori

The excellent Death in Art site by Patrick Pollefeys includes this comment about Vado Mori poems.

Before the first Dance of Death was created, there was a literary genre called Vado Mori (I prepare myself to die): poem written in Latin, of French origin, which went back to the 13th century. In these writings, representatives of various social classes complain, mostly in two verses, about the fact that they will soon have to die. In the oldest texts of that kind, there was a prologue underlining the certainty of death and, following this prologue, the last verses of eleven dying men (the king, the pope, the bishop, the knight, the physicist, the logician, the young man, the old man, the rich, the poor and the insane). In the most recent versions, the prologue was abolished and the number of characters increased significantly. The Vado Mori and the Dance of Death thus share some characteristics: the lament of a dying man, characters representing their social class, and a clear separation between the laic people and the clerks. However, death does not appear in the Vado Mori and nobody answers the laments of the dying ones. Consequently, the Vado Mori cannot be considered as a direct ancestor of the Dance of Death, nor the medieval superstitions, and nor either the mysteries, medieval theatre plays with religious theme.

Vado Mori was a prominent, early, and widespread example of the macabre genres. (The Latin vado mori or Middle English "I wende to dede" means "I go to die".) Although it is strikingly similar to the Dance of Death, Death personified is absent. There is another way in which it generally differs: whereas the Dance of Death works almost always combined text and image, Vado Mori were almost never illustrated. There are, however, three 15th-century English manuscripts that contain a version of the Vado Mori notable for being both brief and illustrated. Each of these volumes, (Additional 37049, Cotton Faustina B.VI, and Stowe 39) contains the longer Desert of Religion, and other works. Jessica Brantley has published a study, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England, (2007), which examines the relation between text and image in such works, primarily Additional 37049. She refers to texts with such integrated pictures as "imagetexts". (It sounds better than "medieval comic books".) The term was promoted by W.J.T. Mitchell, and it is intended to emphasize the multi-media nature of certain works which foreshadow aspects of the later emblem book tradition.

Although the relationship among the three manuscripts of the Desert of Religion cannot be traced precisely, the question is made all the more intriguing by their common witness to several other text-and-image combinations. Two other imagetexts travel with the Desert of Religion in all three extant copies, linking the manuscripts still more closely together. All three include an illustrated English version of what are known as Vado Mori verses, extant also often in Latin. Although these verses are commonly found in several languages, illustrations accompany them in no other manuscript apart from these three. The text is spoken by a king, a bishop, and a knight, as they relate their individual encounters with Death:
I wende to dede knight stithe in stoure:
thurghe fyght in felde I wane the flour.
Na fightes me taght the dede to quell.
I weend to dede soth I ghow tell.

I weende to dede a kynge iwisse.
What helpis honor or werldis blysse?
Dede is to mane the kynde wai:
I wende to be clade in clay.

I wende to dede clerk ful of skill,
that couth wt worde men more and dill.
Sone has me made the dede ane ende
beese ware wt me to dede I wende.
The point of these verses—that Death levels all traces of worldy station—is made implicitly by the human speakers, but in the Stowe version, the figure of Death himself speaks further lines that make the point explicit:
Be ghe wele now warr wt me:
My name then is ded.
May ther none fro me fle
That any lyfe gun led.
Kynge Kaser then no knyght,
Ne clerke that can on boke rede,
Beest ne foghel ne other wyght,
Bot I sal make tham dedde.
The Stowe manuscript, then, offers a more fully elaborated variant of the Vado Mori texts and images than Additional and Cotton, but the substance of all three versions is recognizably the same. They offer a double memento mori that capitalizes on the rememorative function of visual art so commonly cited by medieval theorists of the image.

As best I can make it out, the final lines of Death's verse read something like this: There is no kaiser, king, knight, nor cleric who can read from books, nor beast nor bird nor other creature but I shall make them dead. In addition to Death's appearance and dialog, the illustration for the Stowe manuscript shows another variation -- the Bishop is replaced with the Pope. With the mention of Kaiser and the depiction of Pope, we have the traditional highest-ranking figures from many Dance of Death and Triumph of Death works.

Brantley's central thesis is that private devotional reading, especially of works with dialog and illustrations, tended to have a performative character. As such it created in the mind of the reader an experience akin to witnessing a drama or pageant. Like today's cartoons and comic books, this image above shows action and dialog and virtually comes to life before the mind's eye. The dominance of certain recurrent themes in the most popular art, literature, and drama of the late Middle Ages would accentuate this transference of experience. (Cf. Gerard NeCastro's From Stage to Page - Medieval and Renaissance Drama for examples of early English drama.)

The idea that dramatic enactments, powerful tableaux vivants like those seen in liturgical tropes, mystery and miracle plays, and especially morality plays, would come to life for readers has an obvious application to the design and reception of Tarot. The trumps are a hierarchy of allegorical triumphs, reminiscent of similar works in art, literature, and dramatic pageants. Petrarch's Trionfi were the archetypal expression, but many subsequent works depict allegorical personifications triumphing over both individuals and other allegorical figures. During cardplay, every time one trump was outplayed by another a mini-tableaux was created for the players.

Each trick that involves at least two trumps creates a dramatic scene, an allegorical triumph of the higher-ranking figure over the lower. It does so in a striking manner, with one figure played after the other, literally placed on top of the other, defeating the lower-ranking subject. This is as vivid and participatory as a child playing with toy soldiers. In a culture where artistic, literary, and dramatic works, including outdoor pageants, represented this same kind of allegorical triumph, echoes of those other triumphs would be inevitable. As Brantley said of imagetexts, it reproduces not just the spiritual and moral message of popular dramatic performances, but also the experiential effects. (The best survey of all the medieval genres related to the moral allegory of Tarot is Willard Farnham's 1936 The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Addenda et corrigenda to Lacroix

There are a few points to add to Michael’s discussion of the 19th century precursors to his interpretation of the trump sequence as a Dance of Death, in "Tarot and the Dance of Death (January 10). Paul Lacroix (pseudonym “P.L. Jacob” or “Bibliophile Jacob”) published a slightly more detailed analysis of his 1835 insight (the one in Michael’s post) in 1858.
The following is from “Recherches sur les cartes à jouer”, in P.L. Jacob, Curiosités de l’histoire des arts, Paris, 1858, pp. 34-36, 60.

The tarots, that is to say the atouts (atutti) of this pack, offering a philosophical representation of life from the Christian point of view, were not pleasing, without a doubt, at the court of Charles VI and his successor, a frivolous and corrupt court, where, despite the tumult of the riots and the civil discord that ripped cruelly through society, they were only busy with pleasure, feasts, masquerades and tournaments, under the influence of a romantic and voluptuous chivalry. In this brilliant and refined court, which sought to deafen itself to the gravity of political events, and believed it had shut out, by the joyful noise of instruments, dances and singing, the ferocious cries of the population in the food markets, surely one worried little about playing with cards among which one happened to see the Sun and Fate, the Hanged Man, the Devil, DeathDeath above all! – the House of God, the Last Judgment; it was good enough to encounter these gloomy allegories on the stained glass and in the sculptures in churches, in the miniatures of Books of Hours, in preachers’ sermons, in the writings of moralist poets and religious writers, without having again before the eyes the same teachings depicted, the same sinister and menacing images, in the middle of a game invented to distract and refresh the spirit.

We think that, if Tarot served as a pastime for the poor King Charles during these sad years of dark and furious madness, they were never very much in fashion at the Hôtel Barbette, in the orgies of Queen Isabelle of Bavaria; in the Château of Vincestre (Bicêtre), in the literary gatherings of the Duke de Berri; at the Hôtel du Petit-Musc, in the jousts and pas d’armes of the Duke of Bourbon; in the séjour d’Orléans, and in the halls of other princes and their favorites, who dreamed only of amusing themselves and to frolic, while war, famine and the plague took hold of the realm.

On the other hand, the tarots did not fail to strike vividly the naïve and melancholy imagination of the good people of Paris: for them, fully prepared for the mystical and religious allegory, this was the game of Life or Death; the moral idea of the inventor found itself suddenly understood, explained and discussed. This game represented Man in the different estates which birth assigns to him and in the diverse conditions where nature places him: here, the Fool and the Lover; there the Pope and the Emperor. Man, whatever social rank he might be, has to flee the Devil, heed religion (the Hermit) and practice the virtues: Fortitude, Justice and Temperance, in pursuing Fortune, for, one day or the next, Death could come, Death which seizes the living on a gallows (the Hanged Man) as if on a triumphal Chariot, Death which brings Judgment to souls and who opens the House of God to the just.

Perhaps this was the origin of the famous Danse Macabre, that awful and philosophical morality which was at first a poem, an allegory in prose or verse, and which soon became a pious spectacle, a scenic representation, accompanied by music and dance, before furnishing images and emblems to all the plastic arts. According to Fabricius (Bibl. lat. med. et inf. Latinitatis. Hamb., 1736, 6 vol. in-8°, t. V, p. 2), the first Dance of the Dead, represented in painting, was executed in Minden in Westphalia, in the year 1383: it was thus contemporary with the first playing cards or tarots. According to the Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris, sous le règne de Charles VI, the Danse Macabre was performed or painted in the cemetery of the Innocents in Paris in 1424. Since that time, all over Europe, every cemetery, every church, every convent wanted to have its own Dance of the Dead, in painting, sculpture, or tapestry. This subject, funereal and burlesque at the same time, with which the eyes and the spirits of the masses familiarized themselves, terrified the rich and the great, consoled and distracted the poor: artists in every medium thus did not cease to reproduce it constantly and in every form; it has been found even in the chiseled lines of a woman’s jewelry... It was definitely found in a pack of cards!

Playing cards and the Dance of the Dead were certainly mixed at the invention of xylography.

Later in the same essay (on page 60), Lacroix offered another broader interpretation of the whole pack of cards, including the trumps, postulating that it was a story of war and the glory of the afterlife (perhaps of dead warriors?). I can’t tell whether he thought this contradicted his earlier opinion, or was just another way of looking at the Dance of Death.

The atouts or allegorical cards, which Court de Gébelin tried to explain with the help of the Egyptian theogony, in making them go back to the epoch of the Pharaohs, are merely rather clear emblems of war itself: one sees the virtues necessary for the head of the army, the gods and goddesses which he should invoke, the chariot of triumph, death, the voyage of the soul in the celestial spheres, its judgment and its entry into the next life. As for the kings, the knights, and the knaves or squires, these are those who give themselves to the battle, in the presence of these depicted teachings that the game offers to all, a tutti, as the Italians say to designate the allegorical cards in tarocchi.

Additionally, Lacroix’s 1835 account, quoted by Michael, contains two statements which require clarification. The first is that Breitkopf sought the origins of tarot in Siberia. This is really what the text says:

Breitkopf est allé chercher les premiers tarots en Sibérie, où les paysans jouent le trappola avec des cartes semblables à celles dites de Charles VI.

Despite finding it hard to believe Breitkopf reported that, and not being able to find it in Breitkopf's dense fraktur text, I didn’t know what to make of it until rereading Gabriel Peignot (1767-1849) a few days ago. Peignot had set himself the task of summarizing the historical writers on playing cards up to his time, and in his lengthy account of Breitkopf he writes in a note that

“This game of trappola, says Breitkopf in a note, is still in use among the peasants of Silesia…”

(Gabriel Peignot, Recherches historiques et littéraires sur les Danses des Morts et sur l’origine des Cartes à Jouer (Dijon/Paris, 1826), p. 246 note 1.)

So it seems that Lacroix’s “Sibérie” is either the result of sloppy writing or sloppy editing. Breitkopf does in fact report that peasants in Silesia (Schlesien) play trappola (page 25, note “y”).

Lacroix's other statement is that “Peignot was wiser than he knew” when he brought his studies of the Dance of Death together with his historiography of playing cards. Lacroix says this because Peignot explicitly denied any such relationship, in his note explaining why he published the study of playing cards in combination with his study on the Danse Macabre:

Notice regarding the “Recherches sur l’origine et l’histoire des cartes à jouer".

When putting our “Recherches sur les Danses des Morts” to press, we thought that the manuscript would furnish a volume which, by its pleasing proportion, would be worthy of a place in an amateur’s cabinet; but the printing being nearly finished, we saw that the number of pages containing this research would not satisfy our intention. Thus we believed we should add to our first work a piece of erudition, chosen from among the different literary studies that we have still in our briefcase. This new subject, in truth, has nothing in common with the former, except for the obscurity of its origin; but from the historical and technological points of view, it offers no less complexity for the discussion to be full of interest, and curious details, tending to pique one’s curiosity. We would be speaking of playing cards, which have acquired such great importance among all modern peoples, whether as an object for relaxation, whether an object for serious occupation, and, we should say, unfortunately as an object of foolish passion, whose results are sometimes so disastrous. But here we consider cards not at all as a moralist: we are viewing them from the perspective of their origin, history and the speed with which they spread all over Europe and even overseas. Above all we are interested in the difficulty of dating this unique invention, which has floated about in a very uncertain way in the space of the two or three centuries already past.” (ibid. pp. lvii-lviii.)

As I noted above, Gabriel Peignot was not offering a new and independent account of the history of playing cards – he was merely summarizing the historiography up to his day, which included the following eleven authors: Menestrier, Daniel, Bullet, Heineken, Bettinelli, Rive, Court de Gébelin, Breitkopf, Jansen, Ottley and Singer. An account of each one is given in chronological order, so that, as Peignot says, “the progress of erudtion” in this study can be followed.

Peignot does not therefore offer much in the way of his own insights. When it comes to the trump sequence, he is content to summarize Court de Gébelin, while parenthetically rejecting his attribution of them to ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, Peignot does offer a “contrasting” interpretation of the sequence in a footnote, which he seems to give tongue-in-cheek:

“Such is the explanation of the 22 atouts given by Court de Gébelin. Here is another which is doubtless much less learned and much less illustrious, but which I place on the same level, as far as for the confidence it inspires. I do not know the author of it; but his little story can stand on par with the tall tales of Gébelin.

Pagad or Paguai who, in looking for Fortune, would run around the World, and often sleep at the lovely Star, saw, one beautiful evening, by the light of the Moon, the Empress, who was going about on her Chariot; he immediately fell hopelessly In Love, and resolved to take her by Force. The Emperor, who was not amused by this event, swore by Jupiter and Juno that Death should be his punishment. Therefore he gave the guilty over to Justice; but the tribunal, indulgently, used Temperance, and in Judgment, condemned him to a simple seclusion in the House of God, where they made him take the habit of a Capucin. The poor Devil became Mad, as if he had received a Sun stroke on the forehead, and a little afterwards he was found Hanged in his cell.’ Such is the origin of the Tarot pack according to an anonymous, who has dared to enter into competition with Gébelin.” (pp. 231-232, note 1)

I think it is likely that Peignot was himself the author of this “interpretation”, which, probably unbeknownst to him, is actually in the old tradition of tarocchi appropriati.

Frontespiece to "Recherches historiques et littéraires sur les Danses des Morts et sur l’origine des Cartes à Jouer", 1826

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Triumph of Superstition

In a comment to yesterday's post, Ross mentioned the polling data and the frightening backwardness of the U.S. population on matters of science and religion. A comment relating that to Tarot seems in order. The numbers and charts below are from a Gallup poll taken in mid 2008.

The upshot is that less than 1/20th of Republicans actually believe in evolution, while less than 1/5th of Democrats and Independents actually believe in evolution. The rest are invested in the supernatural. Considering this overwhelming rejection of rationalism in the general public, it is embarrassing to admit my naivete in being disappointed in Tarot enthusiasts for wallowing in bullshit. They constitute a sub-culture self-selected for extreme gullibility and lack of critical thinking skills.

Ignoring political affiliation, the relative size of the three groups, (rationalists, believers in the supernatural, and primitive believers in the supernatural), is amazing. As of that survey, about 1/7th of the 21st-century U.S. population qualify as rationalists, a mere 14%. More than 2½ times that number believe that "God did it", 36%. And more than 3 times(!) that number, 44%, believe in the literal truth of medieval interpretations of bronze-age mythology!

I guess I'll never grow sufficiently cynical about humanity that I'm not surprised anew each time I encounter such facts... like other true believers, there are some truths I just don't want to learn.

Friday, February 13, 2009

St. Charles the Skeptic

This should have been posted yesterday... but that whole
Friday the 13th thing had me soooo freaked out.

Know Thyself
  Alexander Pope
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
  The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
  A being darkly wise and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
  With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest,
  In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast,
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
  Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such
  Whether he thinks too little or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
  Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
  Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
  The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Remember, extinction happens.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sisoes and Alexander

An interesting Greek Orthodox hermit legend, related to the macabre genres, arose in the late-15th or perhaps even the 16th century. Sisoes the Great was one of the Desert Fathers, a follower of St. Anthony. (The frescoes below come from Greek monasteries: Agia Triada, Varlaam, and Hosios Loukas.) Athanasios N. Papathanasiou described the newly-created "ancient" legend and its significance this way:

I should like to comment on an icon of a 5th-century saint which is to be found in a number of churches around Greece. It depicts the Egyptian Abbas Sisoes (died ca. 429) standing before the open tomb of Alexander the Great, mourning as he stares at the skeleton of the king in its depths. An inscription on the painted surface explains the scene:
Sisoes, the great ascetic, before the tomb of Alexander, King of the Greeks, who was once covered in glory. Astonished, he mourns for the vicissitudes of time and the transience of glory, and tearfully declaims thus:

The mere sight of you, tomb, dismays me
and causes my heart to shed tears,
as I contemplate the debt we, all men, owe.
How can I possibly stand it?
Oh, death! Who can evade you?
The icon, profoundly humane and philosophical as it is, is also of interest for the historical circumstances that gave rise to its creation. It is noteworthy that it first appeared after the sack of Constantinople by the Muslim Turks (1453). It may be argued that the icon actually records the collective trauma caused by the collapse of the once mighty Roman empire and, most importantly, represents a viewpoint different from the one that was dominant before the fall of the Eastern capital.

From as early as the reign of Constantine the Great, the Byzantines had looked to Alexander as a symbol of exemplary world leadership and a predecessor of Byzantine universality. The figure of the Macedonian had gone through a process of Christianization and had acquired almost saintly dimensions. Numerous legends about his exploits relate how wisely he prepared himself for his death and how gloriously his burial was carried out. Nevertheless, popular consciousness was gradually (and especially after the fall of Constantinople) preoccupied with the idea that Alexander remained alive in a mystical way. Either literally dead or mystically alive, he consistently occupied an extraordinary place, as characteristically confessed by Augustus in Roman times. The historian Dion Cassius (155-235 AD) reports that after Augustus had visited the body of Alexander, he was asked if he also wanted to visit the tombs of the Ptolemies, the sovereigns of Hellenistic Egypt. He refused, saying: "I came to see a king and not dead men".

All these fit within the frame of a certain ideology. The Roman concept (that had, to a great extent, already permeated the Christian world) held that the empire covering the length and breadth of the known world was the highest and final stage in the history of humankind. The Byzantine people perceived Christian globalization as an eternal reality. It was believed that the empire was actually imperishable but, should it chance to be destroyed, history would come to an end, and with it the entire world. Thus Alexander, now an integral part of the imperial ideology, was seen as the living symbol of the perpetuation of the empire in spite of all its vicissitudes. He certainly was not seen as a common human decaying in his tomb.

Although this image of Alexander bathed in everlasting glory became a moving image of crucial importance to a nation's self-confidence and survival, it nevertheless threatened to eclipse the church's teaching that all creatures (even the most noble and most glorious) are merely transient, and that only the future kingdom of God is eternal. In the theological perspective of "inaugurated eschatology", the kingdom will be fulfilled at the end of history, so it cannot be identified with any particular stage of history. In stark contrast with the imperial ideology mentioned above, the unthinkable happened and Constantinople fell; nevertheless, history did not come to an end. Thus, when the "humble icon painters at work during the period of Turkish rule" painted the icon in question depicting Alexander neither as a paragon of the glorious dead nor as a living demigod, but as a decomposed body in the tomb, they were reasserting the major theological conviction long held in abeyance. In so far as Sisoes, the ascetic, dares to declare what Augustus could not conceive and captures the truth of all creation, he is infinitely more ecumenical than the conquering Macedonian, whose campaigns had taken him to the very edges of the known world and beyond.
(Athanasios N. Papathanasioum, "Anchored in the future: globalization and church consciousness: an Orthodox perspective", in The Ecumenical Review.)

This legend of Sisoes viewing of Alexander's tomb, including the explanatory ubi sunt text, was apparently well known in both frescoes and icons. The story appears to have no connection with any earlier anecdote concerning Sisoes. It arose during the same period in which such macabre subjects were very commonly depicted in Western churches, a fashion that had begun a century earlier and would continue for centuries.

Another aspect of the legend concerns Alexander's tomb itself. Andrew Michael Chugg writes books on the "Lost Tomb" of Alexandar.

It was the most renowned and respected shrine in the Roman Empire, the object of veneration by Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Octavian, Caligula, Hadrian, Severus, Caracalla and a host of other luminaries. It stood for centuries within a sacred precinct the size of a large town at the heart of the greatest Greek city in the world. Yet at the end of the 4th century AD, when the Christian emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism, it disappeared without trace, creating the greatest archaeological enigma of the ancient world. What became of the tomb of Alexander the Great? Does any part of it still survive? This site is dedicated to Alexander and the mysteries of his lost corpse and vanished mausoleum.
Ammianus Marcellinus relates an incident which took place in about AD361. The Patriarch (Christian Archbishop) Georgius is said to have posed a rhetorical question to the Alexandrian mob concerning a tall and splendid temple of the Genius of Alexandria: "How long shall this tomb stand?" he enquired. By "Genius" Ammianus meant the tutelary deity of the city and this could well mean Alexander. Certainly, Alexander is the only figure to whom this expression might apply whose tomb also lay within the city. A few years later in AD365, Alexandria was struck by a phenomenal earthquake followed by a gigantic tsunami, which is reported to have wrought havoc in coastal regions and port cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Alexandria is reported to have been particularly hard hit with ships being lifted onto the roofs of surviving buildings. This is the most probable occasion of the destruction of the Soma Mausoleum.

A quarter of a century later, in a newly recognised reference, Libanius of Antioch mentioned in an oration addressed to the emperor Theodosius that Alexander's corpse was on display in Alexandria. This would fit with the tomb chamber having eventually been excavated from beneath the rubble of the ruins. It also provides an occasion upon which the corpse might have been removed and separated from the sarcophagus, which would explain why the latter was found in a vacant state by Napoleon's expedition. A year or so later, Theodosius issued a series of decrees outlawing the worship of pagan gods, among whom Alexander was to the fore. In Alexandria, the Christians rioted and destroyed the Serapeum, the leading pagan temple. This is the point where the continued worship of the founder's corpse would have become unconscionable to the Alexandrian authorities. This is the time that Alexander's remains finally disappear from history. At the very end of the 4th century or early in the 5th, John Chrysostom was able to assert in a sermon that Alexander's tomb was then "unknown to his own people", that is to say, to the pagans of Alexandria. A few decades later Theodoret listed Alexander among famous men whose tombs were unknown.
(Andrew Michael Chugg, The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great.)

Two points worth noting in regard to the tomb itself: At the time of Sisoes it appears that Alexander's tomb was a great shrine in Alexandria. The almost certainly apocryphal legend is therefore not unimaginable. More strikingly, this Lost Tomb mystique—the great shrine of the great Alexander in Alexandria gone missing—gives a monumental emphasis to the ubi sunt message of Sisoes' legend.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Christian Heathens in Siena

Some of the art in the Siena Cathedral ties into both the Stoic-Christian theme of this series of posts and also the connotations of Tarot's Old Man card. One of these works, Hermes Trismegistus, also provides another example of the importance of context in assessing a figure's meaning. Patron of the city, the Virgin was the de-facto "Queen of Siena" and "a special kind of civic monarch". This image (right) is from the cover of an account book, 1482, depicting the keys to the city being given to her in the Cathedral. The Duomo itself was "dedicated from its earliest days as a Roman Catholic Marian church and now to Santa Maria Assunta (Most Holy Mary of Assumption)", and yet the floor is covered with non-Christian figures, even giving a place of honor to the legendary magus Hermes. WTF?

Inside the church, the marble pavement bears no image of her divine son, whose rightful place is high above on walls and ceiling. The floor is the bottom of the church, too low a place for real divinity, but it is also the whole building's foundation and therefore an honorable location for the Gentile and Jewish subjects that fill the pavement through the transept. Like the Marian prophecies outside the church, these marbles on the floor inside tell a sacred future, but now it points toward Mary's son.

The Hermes inlay is the first of five in the nave, flanked by two other groups of five in the aisles; the subjects of all fifteen are non-Christian. Most of the named figures on this rear part of the floor are women, as the holiest of all women reigns on the facade. The four images that follow Hermes in the nave are mythological or secular however; first the she-wolf suckling Ascius and Senius, sons of Remus and eponymous heroes of Siena; then the Roman eagle as center of the world. The originals of these two marbles were in place more than a century before Hermes, but the next came almost twenty years after him, Pinturicchio's memorable allegory of the hill of knowledge, showing at the op of an island a chastely clothed Scientia awarding a palm to Socrates and a book to Crates, at the bottom a striking nude Fortuna with sail, shipwreck, sphere, and horn of plenty. Last of the central five, and closet to the alter, is the oldest marble, dating originally to 1372, a wheel of fortune with portraits of Aristotle, Euripides, Seneca, and Epictetis. In the side aisles are ten Sibyls, carved a few years before Hermes in 1482-1483 and bearing prophecies of Christ's divine sonship, incarnation, miracles, passion, resurrection, and second coming in judgment....

Hermes is farthest from the altar in the center of the church, guarded by the Sibyls of Delphi and Libya. He is the first pagan to announce the Christian future, and his panel identifies him as a contemporary of Moses. From Hermetic Egypt, through Socratic Greece, the Rome of Remus, and the scattered African, Asian, and European lands of the sibyls, the floor of the nave sweeps through great reaches of heathen time and space as pagans make straight the way of the Lord. This is the role of the splendid Sienese Hermes. He is a heathen prophet of Christian truth well placed in a thoughtful iconic program of pre-biblical scripture. He is an ancient theologian, not a magus.
Brian P. Copenhaver, "Hermes Theologus", in the 1993 Humanity and Divinity in Renaissance and Reformation: Essays in Honor of Charles Trinkaus.

The five scenes highlighted in the floorplan (above-right) represent 1) Hermes, 2) Siena and the "Allied Cities" of ancient Etruria (Arezzo, Florence, Lucca, Pisa, Viterbo, Perugia, Rome, and Orvieto), 3) Rome itself, 4) a complex allegory of Fortune, Renunciation, and Wisdom, and 5) the Wheel of Fortune and four ancient commentators on Fortune's significance. The latter two deserve some commentary in the current context.

The fourth scene, swarming with figures, has many colors of the many types of marble employed in the inlay. It was commissioned by Alberto Aringhieri, the rector most involved in the pavement decoration, and designed by Bernardino di Betto da Perugia, known as Pintoricchio, who was paid for his Allegory of the Hill of Knowledge on March 13h (or 15th), 1505. ... The panel, in which the massive bulk of the hill predominates, depicts Fortune leading a group of wise men to an island. Fortune is naked and holds a wind-blown sail above her head with one hand, and a cornucopia, the horn of plenty, in her other. She has one foot resting upon a sphere, in accordance with traditional iconography, and the other on the small shipwrecked boat that served to carry the wise men to the island. The wise men ascend a pathway strewn with stones, snakes, and weeds to the top of the rocky cliff, where Knowledge sits, with a palm in one hand and a book in the other. To either side of her are the philosophers, Socrates, to whom she offers the palm, and Crates, shown emptying a basketful of jewels symbolizing the vanity of wealth into the sea below, who will receive the book. All around the island is a stormy sea. The meaning of the allegory is clear: virtue may be attained, but with great labor. The call to virtue and her rewards are described in the couplet inscribed on the scroll above the figure of Knowledge: Huc properate viri: salebrosum scandite montem Pulchra laboris erunt premia palma quies. Thus, the wise man who has attained virtue will receive serenity as his prize.
Bruno Santi, The Marble Pavement of the Cathedral of Siena.

The figure of Crates symbolizes ascetic renunciation of worldly goods, the rejection of Fortune's gifts, and is an embodiment of contemptu mundi. We'll return to him in the next post.

The series of allegories in the nave ends with the Wheel of Fortune, for which—according to Ohly—the previous panel served as "a commentary of sorts." Its present appearance dates back to the total restoration of 1864-65, by Leopoldo Maccari, which may have been preceded by an even earlier, 18th-century reconstruction, mentioned by Faluschi, who, however, probably confused the Pintoricchio panel with this one. The Sienese historian, Tizio, notes that a Wheel of Fortune was executed in November of 1372. This would make it one of the oldest designs of the entire Cathedral pavement. Closely bound up with medieval tradition, which used the roundel shape in windows set in church facades, the Whee, in this portrait, has a dignified, puristic form, with the King enthroned at its summit, and three other figures clasping it at opposing points. Four philosophers of antiquity are portrayed in hexagons placed at the four corners of the panel: Epictetis, Aristotle, Euripides, and Seneca, each with an unwound scroll inscribed with sayings about fortune.
Bruno Santi, The Marble Pavement of the Cathedral of Siena.

The line from Seneca may seem familiar from the previous post. Magna servitus est magna fortuna: great fortune entails great obligation. Some translate servitus in this passage as burden, servitude, or even slavery, but the essential meaning is that good fortune is not all it's cracked up to be. This comes from Ad Polybium de Consolatione. It is reminiscent of sidunt ipso pondere magna ceditque oneri fortuna suo: greatness sinks by its very weight, good fortune is a burden that crushes itself. Another way of saying this is to note that Fortuna's Wheel isn't going to stop just because you get to the top.

A good map of the floorplan is at Planetware. A lot more descriptive detail is provided by Robert Henry Hobart Cust's 1906 The Pavement Masters of Siena (1369-1562). It is available on Google Books either to read online or download as a PDF file. It has (marginally) adequate images of quite a few works.