THE CHILD’S GRAVE.

I am lucky enough to have in my personal library a book entitled ‘The Mourner’s Friend or Sighs of Sympathy For Those Who Sorrow’. It is a collection of prose and verse compiled to give comfort to the grieving. Edited by J.B. Syme, published in 1852 by S.A. Howland in Worcester, Mass, USA; its contents are by American and European authors and some surprising famous names. My copy of the book has some water damage, ageing paper, and precarious binding, so before it deteriorates my project to preserve the words of the authors will find its way here on the MOLAM blog. 

 

The poem below has no attribution. It does make another appearance in a later publication entitled Sacred and household poetry, gathered from the highways and byways of 1858 also published in Massachusetts (Boston). This latter book was compiled by Elizabeth Dana (born 1811) and it is noted that she was also the compiler of Life and letters of Miss Mary C. Greenleaf: Missionary to the Chicksaw Indians. Interestingly, when one searches for the Greenleaf publication there is no attribution to Elizabeth Dana, merely to author unknown, Mary herself, or the male publishers. Mary Coombs Greenleaf was born in 1800 in Newburyport, Massechusetts, which would make Elizabeth Dana her contemporary. I wonder if they were personal friends? I wonder if Elizabeth Dana was from the well-known Dana family of Boston? Whatever interesting links there are to this work, one thing is certain, it encapsulates the Victorian ideal of a blessed death. The euphemistic use of sleep for death is an ancient one, but the Victorians were committed to it, particularly in reference to children, and particularly expressed through art. I have also written of this subject in relation to a mourning locket in the MOLAM collection and its biblical references. Perhaps we need more solace when a child is lost, ’tis easier to entrust them to a blessed everlasting sleep.

THE CHILD’S GRAVE.

IT is a place where tender thought
Its voiceless vigil keepeth :
it is a place where kneeling love
‘Mid all its hope still weepeth :
the vanished light of all a life
That tiny spot encloseth,
Where, followed by a thousand dreams,
The little one reposeth.

It is a place where thankfulness
Its tearful tribute giveth,
That one so pure hath left a world
Where so much sorrow liveth :
Where trial to the heavy heart
its constant cross presenteth,
And every hour some trace retains,
For which the soul repenteth.

It is a place for Hope to rise
When other brightness waneth ;
And, from the darkness of the grave,
to learn the gift it gaineth
from him, who wept as on the earth
Undying love still weepeth ;
from him, who spake those blessed words,–
“She is not dead, but sleepeth ! ”

Maria Halloran, cabinet card, circa 1895. courtesy The Thanatos Archive. One image of many extraordinary early post mortem and unusual photography. To learn more of this fascinating visual history see The Thantos Archive membership site and Facebook page.

Maria Halloran, cabinet card, circa 1895. 

Image courtesy The Thanatos Archive. One image of many extraordinary early post mortem and unusual photography. To learn more of this fascinating visual history see The Thanatos Archive membership site and Facebook page.

The Death of the Good. By Rev. R. L. Carpenter

I am lucky enough to have in my personal library a book entitled ‘The Mourner’s Friend or Sighs of Sympathy For Those Who Sorrow’. It is a collection of prose and verse compiled to give comfort to the grieving. Edited by J.B. Syme, published in 1852 by S.A. Howland in Worcester, Mass, USA; its contents are by American and European authors and some surprising famous names. My copy of the book has some water damage, ageing paper, and precarious binding, so before it deteriorates my project to preserve the words of the authors will find its way here on the MOLAM blog. 

There was a Reverend R. L. Carpenter who was the Minister at Northgate-End Unitarian Chapel in Halifax (UK) from 1856 – 1864, perhaps this is the same man who authored this prose? His full name was Russell Lant Carpenter and he was born in 1816 and died in 1892. As a Unitarian he would not have believed Jesus was God, but was a prophet whose life was a model for mankind to follow. Logic, reason, science, and philosophy were all subjects of great interest for a Unitarian, essential to achieve a life and good, and not in conflict with a belief in God. Very interestingly, Rev. R.L. Carpenter is mentioned in an autobiography of the remarkable American man Mr Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become a leading figure of the 19th Century. Mr Douglass was in Ireland and Britain from 1845 – 1847.

The Death of the Good
HAD Jesus remained on earth, the minds of the apostles would not have been directed heavenwards ; and so it may be with us. The presence of those who are endeared to us by the possession of every Christian grace, may only fix our hearts more strongly on this passing scene. True, they may first have taught us to love virtue. Their hallowed tones may first have carried to our hearts the conviction of a God and a Providence. Their bright examples may have shown us the possibility of excellence. Their firm constancy to duty may have convinced us that the just are strong. their gentle cheerfulness may have led us to see that piety is not austerity ; that the ways of wisdom are the ways of pleasantness, and that its paths are peace. Their teachings may have preserved us in integrity ; or, if we have departed from it, their solemn warnings may have awakened us from our dream ; or their winning virtures may have invited us back from pleasures which were too unsubstantial to last, and which were already bringing forth their harvest of corruption ! What a blessing are holy friends and kindred ! With what earnestness should we utter our thanksggivings at the trhone of grace, that their path and ours have lain side by side ; that they have ministered to us of their spiritual gifts, and led us heavenward ! We know that it is well for those who have fascinated us, and gained our hearts, to be removed, if they walk not aright with God ; for they were taking our thoughts from him to whom they they should be given. But is this the case with the good ? Yes; it is expedient that they should go away ! Where is our virtue, if it depended upon them ? Where is our wisdom, if always we applied to them for advice ? Where is our constancy, if it ws they who kept us, and not we ourselves, in the right path? Every man must bear his own burden. They taught us how to carry it ; — it was well. They soothed us under its pressure ; — let us thank God that it was so.

In Arcadia: the art of Tomislav Nikolic & uncomfortable stuff about God

Tomislav Nikolic, 1: Hear the passion in their voices see the heaven in their eyes,
2: Their hopes and schemes are waiting dreams for less than paradise, 2012
acrylic and marble dust on canvas and wood
Diptych: 190 x 220.5 x 10.5 cm each

I understand the relationship one is expected to have with art today, the intellectual’s rhetoric. Take for instance Tomislav Nikolic’s recent body of work in arcadia, a strong collection of paintings that could be described in terms of colour field, formal abstraction, colour theory, insert references to Rothko & US / European abstractionists, terms that can categorise to the point of malleability enabling us to digest but also at times coolly aloof. What I really take away with me from this show, my true experience, is less sophisticated – feelings, memories and private thoughts that I cannot articulate.

Most particularly the diptych leaves me strangely exhilarated, the combination of scale and hallucinogenic qualities of the palette produce an uncharacteristic (for me) optimism and an altogether unreasonable thrill that – sigh, I just know that something good is going to happen. The optical illusion that one is larger than the other – first the left one, then the right one – produces an anthropomorphic rhythmical breathing pulse. The colours of in arcadia are saturated, they are beaming, they are the colours of Titian, the colours of the Masters, the colours of religious art; the blue of the Virgin Mary, the gold of icons, the light of Mystics.  And that is perhaps what I’m not supposed to talk about in this day and age, in the age of the intellect. I don’t want to throw my hat in with religion and the rhetoric of new age spiritualism leaves me squirming with ill ease, but where does that leave me?

DEATH. It’s still fairly sexy right now in contemporary art. Actually, over the past 5 years or so it has become positively mainstream. You can doll yourself up from head-to-toe in skulls. What underlies this fad? Could it be that the combination of the outing of atheism, plus the witnessing to mad behaviours of religious mania, encourages us to become less afraid of death? Are we becoming more present? It would be lovely to think of it is an awakening to the fragile beauty of our mortality: “Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have.” – Dr Gordon Livingston

Or perhaps we are afraid that the true death is looming, with the effects of climate change ravaging our world emblematic of an innate self-destruction, and the cold inaction of those in power, perhaps we now see that we might bear witness to the death of us all. If we are all gone, then death is absolute. There is no remembrance; we have fallen into nothingness.

Non omnis moriar, said Horace’s Odes – I shall not wholly die. Yes, and he was right. As long as people remembered, then death was not complete. Only if there were nobody at all left to remember would death be complete.” – Alexander McCall Smith, The Charming Quirks of Others

Nicolas Poussin, The Arcadian Shepherds, c 1628-9, 101 x 82 cm, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House.

Et in Arcadia ego – Even in Arcadia there I am.

Arcadia – the pastoral idyll, the classical Utopia; at one with nature, ourselves, life itself, it is pure contentment, Heaven on Earth.  But even in Arcadia, Death exists.  As I know Nikolic painted Don’t really want to know it better, want to keep it in the land of fantasy, in response to Poussin’s The Arcadian Shepherds, c 1628-9, he too must have been thinking of death.

6:Tomislav Nikolic, Don’t really want to know it better, want to keep it in the land of fantasy, 2012
acrylic, marble dust and 22.5ct champagne leaf on canvas and wood
104 x 85.5 x 6 cm

Poussin’s first version of this work is a classic Memento Mori allegory, telling the audience that even saucy bare breasted nymphs, and partying shepherds at one with nature must succumb to death, inscribed in stone ET IN ARCADIA EGO and a skull staring down at them to boot! Today the theme has a more interesting dimension to it, we can ponder our own mortality not as a Christian did with Poussin –  do not succumb to vanities, obey God in this life to ensure your place in Heaven, etc., etc. We can ponder Memento Mori with the tiny voice of Dawkins in our ear, ‘there is no God!’. Aware of our own mortality, without responsibility to secure an afterlife of bliss, our reasoning forces us to realise we are responsible for each other. The reprieve from suffering in this world can only come from ourselves; the responsibility for the continuation of life is ours.

But it’s not quite as easy as that though is it? The conscious process of considering our own mortality is going to lead us into the unknown. It is going to lead all of us in different ways because we are bound by our own experiences, intellect, capabilities, personalities, ability to process thoughts and emotions, not to mention ye olde family and culture. Some people need religion, others only for a short time, and others not at all.

I come away from Nikolic’s work thinking about the notion of Agape.  As he, the artist, peeks into the esoteric material of Alice Bailey, the Seven Rays, and Theosophy. It reveals (to me anyway) a longing to discover the mystery of what one feels but can not explain. Love. The love that connects and overwhelms us, that identifies the energy of life as something sacred, an ancient pre-God notion where the concept of Agape was so powerful and confusing that it somehow transformed into God. God is easier. With him we don’t have to think so much, he just is, and tells us what to do.

Tomislav Nikolic, 7: a constant overlapping, a cyclic development and a process of fusion, which is most confusing, 2012
acrylic, marble dust and 24 ct gold leaf on canvas and wood
85 x 108 x 5.5 cm

Let’s return to Ancient Greece for a moment. Andrea Mantegna painted Parnassus (1497) and Triumph of the Virtues (1502) for Isabella d’Este.  500 years later Tomislav Nikolic, using Mantegna’s works for inspiration, paints Hear the passion in their voices see the heaven in their eyes and Their hopes and schemes are waiting dreams for less than paradise, for us. This is the exhilarating diptych I referred to earlier, recalling the language of the Mystics – Agape.

“What is this which shines on me and pierces my heart without hurting it? I shudder and am aflame at the same time: I shudder, because I am so dissimilar to it, and I am aflame, because I am so similar to it. It is Wisdom, Wisdom itself which shines on me, breaking up my cloudiness, which yet covers me once more as I fall away from it through the darkness and rubble of my troubles.” – St Augustine, Confessions, I I.9.

Andrea Mantegna, Parnassus, 1497, Tempera and gold on canvas, 63 x 75 1/2 inches

Andrea Mantegna, Triumph of Virtues, 1502, tempera on canvas, 63 x 75 1/2 inches. Louvre, Paris

Parnassus, home to the Muses – Goddesses who inspired knowledge in arts and sciences. It is the land of poetry, literature, and learning. Another woman, Minerva Warrior Goddess of Wisdom, ejects the Vices from the garden of Virtues. Out says she to idleness, sloth, hate, lust, avarice and ingratitude. She, the powerful symbol of Wisdom, and Protector of the arts and sciences.  How telling that Wisdom is represented by a woman. I always thought Eve’s act was not a sign of weakness, but represented an admirable and courageous intellectual curiosity.

Arts, mythology, science, they were intimately acquainted, the combination of which was believed to be the path to wisdom.  How thrilling are those conversations that twist and turn from conjecture, allegory, evidence, to build stories that can teach us so more effectively then the retelling of facts.

It is ironic that our capacity for religion is seemingly intrinsically linked to our own extraordinary survival and evolution as a species. Our human drive to discover, to find answers to this painful human existence, this extraordinary world wherein we find ourselves. Our feelings of  ‘something bigger than ourselves’ developed our minds, imagination and intellect (actually, discovering red meat was delicious to eat had quite a bit to do with that too).

Like Tomislav Nikolic who travels to Arcadia, bringing back with him a plethora of confusing emotions and ideas, and pop lyrics, will we permit ourselves to delve into this layered conversation?  I do not believe in God, but yet I find myself talking to a God that I know my kind invented, when I need to. It gives me comfort, helps me to understand, and I am the wiser for it.  Only if he starts to talk back will I begin to worry.

PS: Tomislav Nikolic is represented by Jensen Gallery, Sydney. His exhibition in arcadia is happening now until 22nd December 2012.
PPS: I saw a preview of the show in Melbourne at Greenwood Street Projects. You can find out more about the artist on his website page, and see the complete body of work on-line here.

Detail: 1: Hear the passion in their voices see the heaven in their eyes,
2: Their hopes and schemes are waiting dreams for less than paradise, 2012
acrylic and marble dust on canvas and wood
Diptych: 190 x 220.5 x 10.5 cm each

Detail: 1: Hear the passion in their voices see the heaven in their eyes,
2: Their hopes and schemes are waiting dreams for less than paradise, 2012
acrylic and marble dust on canvas and wood
Diptych: 190 x 220.5 x 10.5 cm each

Be safe my friends ’tis All Hallows’ Eve

You may have noticed that we have changed our cover photo for the week with a 17th Century Dutch Vanitas painting. This is in celebration of All Hallows’ Eve.

There is such a thrill in trick or treat, but remember this: it is a time to take care, and to be kind, for you must take heed of the moral lesson of memento mori and remember we all must die. And what awaits you then? ….

Juan de Valdes-Leal, Vanitas
Spanish, 1670-1672
Seville, Hospital de la Caridad

Caressing the Cross: A Spanish Devotional Brooch

My St Francis Xavier Devotional Brooch. Note the cross formation, note the understated decorative motifs, note the beautiful painted miniature!

There is something to say about being brought up in the Catholic tradition, well, actually there are many things to say, but one aspect in particular I am very grateful for: a world of unadulterated visual pleasure. Being schooled in Catholicism is also being schooled in art history. There is an extraordinarily rich layered history of imaginative and creative visual narrative. Writhing men and women in various forms of undress; seductive vermillion and luscious cerulean; breathtakingly gorgeous human mien of peculiarly androgynous form; blood, lots and lots of blood; death.

It informs ones imagination. It feeds ones delight for curiosity. It inspires one. However,  it never terrified me, which I suspect was the intention behind many painted tales. But then again, I love watching True Blood, so…

St Francis Xavier Preaching by Rubens 1617-18

Note the downward gaze and the caressed cross

Strange images to some make sense to me. Show me a handsome young man pierced with arrows and I’ll show you St Sebastian. Show me a wading burly bearded man  with a baby on his shoulder I’ll introduce you to St Christopher. Headless corpse, St John the Baptist. Voluptuous & often naked long-haired beauty, St Mary Magdalene. Woman in ecstasy, St Theresa (la petite mort perhaps?) . A man caressing a cross like a long-lost love, well that could be a number of Saints but in this case I believe it is St Francis Xavier – Jesuit, Missionary, and Catholic hero of the Counter Reformation.

Who was Francis? And why would you, an unknown person of circa 1700, wear him on your person in a rather lovely brooch? Born 1506, died 1552, beatified 1619, canonized 1637; Francis Jassu y Xavier was born of noble birth in his family’s castle of Xavier in Basque country, the Kingdom of Navarre, now known as  a part of Northern Spain. An intelligent child, a gifted scholar, he studied philosophy in Paris and apparently was a rather good dancer to boot. But here is where it gets interesting, within the power struggles of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation Francis shines as an important player, a personification of all that the Counter Reformation stood for and a powerful political poster boy for pro-Papal Catholics everywhere. He was St Ignatius’ right hand man, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus – those that stood for chastity, poverty, obedience to God, AND loyalty to the Pope.

With his usual attributes

Yes, a Jesuit. A smart cookie, fueled by passionate sacred love that scorned the physical but ironically kind of had to be obsessed by it to scorn it quite that much. Francis is famous for his actions in revoking his nobility and all material pleasures, living and healing the repulsively sick, and remarkable missionary accomplishments, particularly in India. The Jesuits recognised the power of story-telling through the lives of the saints, art, education, language, to spread the word of Jesus. St Francis is still buried in India now, minus one arm (the one that did the baptising) which was taken back to Rome because it was just that special (!).

St Francis Devotional Brooch from the side. Note the faceted edges, the closed & high settings, the rose cut garnets/garnet pastes. LOVE!

Note the faceted edges of this English piece dated 1704, so similar to our St Francis brooch. These faceted edges do something to me I can not explain. I adore this detail.

So it is not only a devout Christian that wears a miniature of St Francis Xavier, particularly this style of brooch –  a cross, austere and sombre use of botanical motifs, dark garnets instead of popular emeralds, a traditionally sombre palette utilised for portraiture (oh those serious Spaniards!), the cross & missionary staff attributes. It is a person who believes in the power of Saints, in the Virgin Mary as central to faith, in faith plus action, has allegiance to the power of the Pope, recognises his central authority, aligns political power with the Church. One who recognises the power of visual narrative – a noble family member, a religious figure, a political leader – in that day and age if you were one, you were probably all three!

I can see this piece, perhaps it was once a slide or pendant, maybe it was always a brooch, but I see it on heavy black fabric. The stark simplicity contrasting against the dramatic backdrop. The robes, the beard, the cross, the staff, the tender caress of absolute devotion – an unapologetic statement.

There is one little tale in the life of Francis that tickles my fancy. There is a story – when Francis was on a ship in dangerous waters travelling betwixt cannibal islands of the south east, kind of hoping he would be killed and eaten in the name of Jesus, a great storm rose. Francis took out his crucifix which he carried with him always, he dipped it into the raging waters and it immediately abated. Alas, the crucifix though was lost to him. Grief stricken, he reached the shores of Baranura and to his utmost joy he witnessed a lobster appearing from the rabid waters gallantly crawling ashore, and yes, carrying in its modest little orange claws the crucifix lost and now returned to our adventurous hero St Francis Xavier.  Now THAT would make a good painting.

This is the St Francis Devotional Brooch as it appears on reverse. Silver gilt, pinned stones, hello gorgeous engraving akin to other miniature cases of the era, almost heraldic like in this particular example.

Hello my name is simply stunning and I’m a 1680-1700 Spanish pendant in the collection of the V & A Museum. Note the abundance of botanical decorative motifs, the use of emeralds, made for a woman of means and nobility.

Note the engraved surface.