Thursday, August 26, 2010

Das Neue Jerusalem

Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!
Matthew 7:13-14.

From at least the late 14th or early 15th century, illuminated cycles of St. John's Apocalypse conventionally included images of Death, the Devil, the Fall of Babylon with shattered towers and fire from heaven, the Star of the Second Advent, the darkened Moon and Sun, angels, resurrection, the Last Judgment, the Risen Christ (often with attributes of the Passion and the symbols of the Evangelists), and the New World or New Jerusalem. In other words, the subject matter of Tarot’s highest trumps was standard stuff. Moreover, it was obviously appropriate subject matter with which to conclude a moral allegory. (As always, a sober look at the Tarot trump subjects tends to make occultist claims about the mysterious Major Arcana seem stupid; and just as dim-witted are the silly secrets “discovered” today by online Tarot enthusiasts.) Such Apocalyptic cycles are commonly associated with late-medieval and Renaissance works from Europe. However, the following devotional print with the same elements is from 19th-century Pennsylvania.

Das Neue Jerusalem
Devotional woodcut, 19th century

The Pennsylvania German print is from the Library of Congress, and appeared in Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States (1997) by Vincent Virga. Highlighted elements of the image above include a personified Death, the Devil, a Star (over the head of the Resurrected Christ, symbolizing the Second Coming), Moon and Sun, trumpeting angels of the Last Resurrection, and Christ in an aureole. The entire top panel, New Jerusalem, is cognate to the New World of Tarot. The only missing subject from the highest trumps is Fire/Lightning/Tower, which in many Apocalyptic cycles refers to the Fall of Babylon. Here instead we have the Whore of Babylon, who comes before the destruction and leads her followers to perdition. The main point of posting this print is to emphasize that these subjects were not only commonplace before Tarot was created but also remained traditional for centuries afterward, because they were taken directly from the Bible.

A number of variants were created over the many decades of the print’s popularity, and at least a half dozen versions can be found online. In its various incarnations the print was given different names, including Paths to Heaven and Hell, Roads to Heaven and Hell, Eternal Life and Eternal Damnation, New Jerusalem, Ascensions, Three Paths, and Two Paths. Most were in German, and most were printed in Pennsylvania although some were also made in Europe. The prints depicted a popular religious theme, the narrow gate and steep rocky path or stairway to Heaven as opposed to the wide gate and comfortable stroll to Hell.

A more literal and memorable depiction would be difficult to create. This was a popular subject long before this family of prints began. For example, in the 17th century Cornelis de Bie painted The Narrow Gate to Heaven and the Wide Gate to Hell (right). A more complicated allegory of the Two Gates, also from the 19th century, is shown at Getty Images. However, in general terms this is the same theme as the ancient pre-Christian Choice of Hercules. Variations on the Two Paths theme were always popular. It is the point of every illustration of the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven) or Judgment scene with Hell and Heaven. (The natural placement of Christ top-center, dressed for the Passion and in an aureole, and the conventional placement of the Devil and Hell lower-right, is reminiscent of innumerable Judgment scenes.) This idea of two paths is implicit in every contemptu mundi renunciation of this world for the next.

The most interesting aspect of this particular design may be the conflation of two different themes. The primary subject of the Narrow and Wide Gates is merged, rather awkwardly, with the Wise and Foolish Virgins. This makes the result a bit confusing, with three paths instead of two.

In some of the examples, like that shown above, the secondary motif is perfectly clear. The five figures on the steep path hold lighted lamps, while the five figures on the middle path have no oil, a direct reference to the perennially popular Wise and Foolish Virgins. As with the many variations in Tarot, some later designers failed to understand the significance of certain details, and/or inserted their own ideas. The 1924 English version of the print, (below), failed to recognize the significance of the 5/5 structure, thereby losing some of the original design integrity. Nonetheless, the basic idea of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is still apparent, and one of the figures still asks for oil, making the meaning perfectly clear although not nearly as well illustrated. (As I have argued for over ten years now, it is the conflation of two different but related themes that makes the cyclic meaning of highest trump subjects difficult to see and understand.)

Another element, however, has been added to the group on the steep and rocky path. It is a detail which indicates the social consciousness of the printmaker. The ranks of the saved include a man, a woman, and an African American. This is fascinating given the fact that race relations in the U.S. had deteriorated greatly in the decades following the Civil War, and the early 1920s, when this print was made, were arguably the low point. In any case, the English version of the print, although suffering corruptions (such as the loss of the Advent Star, which is missing from most prints), explains the design for those who don’t read Fraktur German.

Das Neue Jerusalem
©1924 J.G. Struphar, Annville, Pennsylvania

This all assumes a natural reading of the subjects, interpretations in keeping with their authentic historical context. This is a narrow approach and a demanding one, with many inherent constraints. Deconstruction and revisioning in a  false  preferred context is an endlessly more accommodating approach, where one interpretation is as valued as another. It will be left for other, more “dedicated” Tarot enthusiasts to explain the Kabbalistic secrets of these prints, their alchemical symbolism, initiatory use as tracing boards, numerological codes and geometric mysteries, their derivation from Chess, and so on ad nauseum. There are many who use that gate and follow that path, and they are welcome to it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Some Low-Lifes by Lucas van Leyden

This print by Lucas van Leyden is circa 1509. It shows two relatively well-off beggars accepting charity from a vagabond apparently more needy than they. According to The Prints of Lucas van Leyden and His Contemporaries (1983, Ellen S. Jacobowitz and Stephanie Loeb Stepanek), the two false beggars may be allegories of Sloth.

The seated man with the outstretched hand appears to be a cobbler (identified by the awl pinned to his hat). Other than the Prodigal Son, the cobbler was one of the most frequently cited examples of those tempted by and willingly accepting a dissolute life. Often he does not work; in later pictures, he wastes time playing the bagpipes. As such, he exemplifies laziness or sloth. The woman with her hand in her blouse can also be interpreted as exemplifying sloth. Susan Kozlow discusses this emblematic use of the hand-in-blouse motif concealed in a realistic guise. Among the literary sources she cites for the origin of this idea, the following proverb seems to be the most relevant to Lucas’ print: “A slothful man hideth his hand in his bosom, and will not so much as bring it to his mouth again.” It is possible that the woman represents more than sloth. There is a suggestion of erotic intent in her gestures: one hand in her blouse, the other offering an open vessel between her legs. She seems to be willing to trade favors for whatever the man offering the bowl is giving away. Lucas’ image is a condemnation of a particular segment of society. When used in this way, to comment on real life practices and attitudes, the visual arts parallel literature, particularly texts like Brant’s Ship of Fools or Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly. This mode of expression, for which Lucas is noted, might be called the moralizing genre.

Lucas van Leyden False Beggars (c.1509)

The authors add that the public was wary and distrustful of vagrants, and were often warned about their dangers. The comments regarding cobblers are suggestive, given the depiction of Tarot’s Bagatto in some later decks by Dellarocca. In discussing Explaining the Tarot, Sherryl made this comment:

I've been puzzled by the Soprafino deck's image of the Bagatto as a cobbler hoisting a wine glass with a pitcher of wine on his work table. I recall reading somewhere that Bagatto means "cobbler" in the Milanese dialect, but why the wine glass and pitcher? My personal, somewhat whimsical interpretation was that this depicts the lowest of the working class - an artisan who drinks on the job, doing shoddy work and missing his deadlines.

The source of the Milanese usage she mentions was Gertrude Moakley, and it is cited on page #3 of Tom Tadfor Little’s series, Moakley 101.

Below are two more collections of low-lifes, including beggars, cripples, and street performers. They are attributed to either Hieronymus Bosch or Brueghel the Elder. A couple entertainers dressed as fools are highlighted.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Bagatto in Context Redux

Earlier generations of occultists elevated the Fool and Magician, those lowly entertainers, to an exalted, even god-like status. (It is not that surprising a blunder, as they had the order of the trump hierarchy backwards.) Today, very few Tarot enthusiasts can bring themselves to break with those traditional beliefs. Even Tarotists who don’t know where these stupid ideas originated continue to cling to them. These figures must be something more, something better.

There are degrading depictions of the Fool on some cards. There is the rank of the Magician, the lowest of all the trumps. There are examples of fools and deceivers as people of the lowest status, or beneath/outside the classification of medieval society. There is the obvious symbolism of the Fool representing the cardinal vice of Folly, and his constant use as an illustration of the atheist of Psalms. There is the explicit judgment of the churchmen: Habent spem joculatores? Nullam; tota namque intentione sunt ministri Satanae. (“Do jongleurs have any hope [of salvation]? None, for they are the ministers of Satan.”) They were beneath consideration, so that sermons condemning them were addressed to their audience rather than the performers. There is the pervasive use of Folly as the downfall of mankind and fools as the exemplars, including the influential works by Erasmus and Brandt. There are even examples in which such subjects appear among the lowest figures in ranks-of-mankind groupings, a nearly exact parallel to their use in the trump cycle, and so on.

None of these categories of historical evidence has made much impression on Those Who Know Better, and this print will not make a whit of difference either. Tarotists will continue to seek out exceptions to the general rule. They will argue special cases—there are several—which, when taken out of the larger context, tend to support a preferred interpretation. By elevating the lowest subjects above their station, they will make hash of the overall sequence. However, for those who don’t ignore evidence, this broadsheet is directly to the point of how street magicians were perceived in Renaissance Italy. It is a 16th-century compendium of low-lifes by Girolamo (Hieronymus) Porro, and has a cups-and-balls magician prominently depicted. (There is also a fool, with his dog.) Porro’s print is a direct answer to the question, “what kind of figure was the magician in Renaissance society?”
He was one of these dirtbags.

Porro’s print is meaningful context.

Le Bararie del Mondo (c.1580)
“A satire on social parasites who make a living doing unnecessary tasks or nothing;
vignettes depicting beggars, thieves, injured or deformed people, lazy workers, prostitutes,
and street entertainers, among others, accompanied by engraved Italian legends.”