Art History

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in.

The Pusillanimous Art of Lucien Smith Burns the Bronx

Artist Lucien Smith misses an opportunity and simply creates novelty art for the 1%. 

How did the Bronx become the poster child for urban decay in the 1970’s and 1980’s?

Generally speaking, individuals like Robert Moses siphoned monetary resources out of New York City to build up the surrounding suburbs while concurrently fostering the automobile and neglecting mass transit. The Cross-Bronx Expressway has NEVER benefited the Bronx and actually contributed greatly to the destruction: people once lived where this roadway now stands. And then the 3rd Avenue El, which had played a significant role in the creation of entire neighborhoods, was razed, leaving many isolated from public transportation and further devaluing real estate. Industry fled for various reasons that included moving to southern states that outlawed unions via “right to work” laws. The middle class tax base moved away and the poor and people of color moved into their former neighborhoods, which were subsequently redlined by banks and investors (Harlem, for example, had been red lined since the 1920’s). The media portrayed people of color as gun totting, drug-using savages who burn and vandalize their neighborhoods. They are bad for real estate, a stigma that has had an almost mythic impact. The fact is that the landlords of these redlined areas paid arsons so that they could collect insurance. I am fairly certain that artist Lucien Smith or his recent benefactors, Somerset Partners, are cognizant of these facts or bothered with any research.

On October 29th, in a former South Bronx piano factory, a rave took place that was hosted by real estate developers Somerset Partners. The rave was to launch the re-branding of the South Bronx as the “Piano District” in the tradition of DUMBO, Hudson Heights, iTri and East Willamsburg. The event, which was curated (or decorated, depending on your source) by Mr. Smith, included flaming garbage cans and bullet-riddled cars. From the photographs I have seen, it was essentially disaster porn.

Much has been written about the rave and perhaps the best source is Ed García Conde’s oft quoted blog Welcome2TheBronx. As a fellow artist who works in the Bronx, I found myself wondering why Mr. Smith would produce something so utterly jejune.

Earlier this year, The New York Times Style Magazine interviewed Mr. Smith where he noted:

“I reached a point when I was independent financially and I was able to take a step back. I was producing work like a madman—I wanted to be this “superartist,” and I saw artists going down that road, and I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to find a more honest approach to making art.”

When asked about future shows he responded:

“As far as future shows, I don’t have anything on my plate. I’m being very careful about what I do now.”

This interview was published in July of 2015. If Mr. Smith was being truthful, he was not working on the rave yet — an indication that it was simply thrown together. In response to the criticism, Mr. Smith noted:

“…people are always going to have their own interpretation. Let’s just remember New York, in its entirety, is a city that has and still struggles with violence and poverty, not just the Bronx.”

Mr. Smith, of all people, should understand the mythic power that images can have and missed an opportunity to use his fame to elevate those who struggle with violence and poverty. It was also an opportunity to convey how struggle creates great art. The late, distinguished CCNY Professor of Political Science, Marshall Berman, once said:

“Grace Paley, one of the great New York writers, has a story written early-’70s South Bronx. And one of the characters, who’s like a community organizer there, says, “The buildings are burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to put something together on the other.” And this could be a parable of one of the great achievements of that period from a lot of the neighborhoods that were most devastated in New York. The earliest form in which most people who weren’t part of that neighborhood saw it were the graffiti that appeared on the subways in the ’70s. And this was on a very rickety, decaying generation of gray trains, they painted enormously exuberant, colored names and reliefs and mottoes. And you can see many films now: a gray day, a gray neighborhood, an El train. And suddenly, the El train, it’s like a rainbow! And it’s thrilling. The next incarnation was rap. The earliest form that people saw would be there would be one kid rapping with small speakers and a drum track in the subway, you know, with a hat open for money. And, you know, these are parables of a city that’s being ruined, that’s being destroyed, and that’s saying, “We can rise again. We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined.” And, I mean, in 15 years, it’s become the basic form of world music. So it’s a thrill, but it’s important to understand that it came from totally burnt-out, ruined districts, and that’s where it was born. And that it was born out of this suffering and misery, and that a lot of the creativity that New York has always had has come from the cellars, from the ruins, from how the other half lives.”

Picasso’s Guernica was painted as a reaction to the Nazi bombing on the unarmed Basque town during Spanish Civil War. It has since become a symbol for peace. Columbia University Art History professor, Simon Schama, once said that Picasso with Guernica “…rescued modern art from the curse of it’s own cleverness, from the curse of novelty. Guernica has always been bigger than art, uncontainable by mere museum walls. It is one of those rare creations that gets into the blood stream of common culture.” In other words, it does what great art should: communicate to everyone regardless of education or economic status.

In August of 2014, Mr. Smith gave a TEDx talk at Columbia College where he discussed how discovering his father cheating on his mother created a fear of failing that has fostered his career. His father responded to this by calling his son a “gold digging bitch” and noting “My ex-wife, who shares his lust for superficiality and materialism, raised him.”

What Mr. Smith has done with this show in the South Bronx is to further foster gentrification by creating novelty art that is exclusively for the 1%: it is their view of the Bronx and is nothing short of pusillanimous.

—–

Please note that the featured image of this blog entry was not part of the South Bronx re-branding event. I discovered it on Mr. Smith’s website while doing some research and have been wondering why, as a man of color, he felt compelled to paint this.

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in. http://www.luciensmithstudio.com/?s=ls-581-racist-cartoon

Stereoscopic Views Documenting the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (Part Two of Three)

Stereoscopic Views Documenting the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (Part Two of Three)

Stereoscopic photography is a technique for creating the illusion of depth in an image via binocular vision. This three-part blog looks at the stereoscopic photographs taken during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Part one may be found here: https://theartistworks.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/stereoscopic-views-documenting-the-building-of-the-brooklyn-bridge-part-one-of-three/

Part Two: Stereoscopic Photography

The first line in the prologue of Alan Trachtenberg’s vivacious study on the Brooklyn Bridge states, “Brooklyn Bridge belongs first to the eye.” Trachtenberg further goes on to describe the experience of walking over the bridge; how the stone towers “seem to frame the irregular lines of Manhattan” and how the steel “cable compels the eye.”

The Brooklyn Bridge also belongs to, and is a colleague of, the camera: modern structural engineering and photography both evolved simultaneously and explored new ways of looking at the organization of space and visual representation. Equally significant is the role that both played in America’s industrial growth.

“As photography bespoke the influence of new technology-new ways of seeing and experiencing-its practitioners rushed to the nation’s burgeoning cities. From Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes’s early daguerreotypes of Boston, through George R. Fardon and Eadweard Muybridge’s San Francisco panorama’s and Robert Newell and John Moran’s cityscapes, to the urban images of Henry R. Koopman in Chicago and George Francois Magnier in New Orleans, photographers strove to capture and present the new modern environment. Nowhere was this mission more keenly felt than in New York City. As the city marched uptown, as buildings and neighborhoods were created and demolished at a staggering rate, the camera was there to document every stage and each new detail.” – Richard Haw

Stereoscopic views were perhaps the most effectual method of documentation because of their three-dimensional quality. Stereoscopic photography began in England when Sir Charles Wheatstone published “Contributions to the physiology of Vision-on Some Remarkable, and Hitherto Unobserved, Phenomena of Binocular Vision,” a paper he presented to the British Royal Society in 1838. Wheatstone demonstrated that the mind perceives an object in three dimensions because each eye receives a somewhat different view. To define this phenomenon, he devised the word stereograph, from the Greek words stereo (solid) and graph (I look at). Wheatstone prepared drawings of single objects seen by each eye and devised a viewing instrument of angled mirrors called the stereoscope. After the announcement of Daguerre’s and Talbot’s photographic processes in 1839, Wheatstone commissioned Talbot and Henry Collen to make stereo daguerreotypes and calotypes. Research by Sir David Brewster resulted in the a stereoscope that duplicated the normal 2 ½ inch separation between the eyes by placing a pair of lenses side by side in a small box with a lid at the top to admit light and a slot at the opposite end for inserting the mounted pair of stereoscopic images. A version made by French optician Louis-Jules Duboscq was presented to Queen Victoria after she admired the invention at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

William and Frederick Langenheim introduced stereoscopic photography in America in 1854 and within four years, numerous local photographers and major publishers were creating scenes for a very enthusiastic public. Initially, most stereoscopic collectors were professional men who had returned from trips to Europe with groups of views. One of these men was poet and physician, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was fascinated with the new phenomena and saw infinite possibilities for its uses. Holmes’s zeal for the stereoscope’s possibilities surpassed mere praise for the stunning representation of the visible world. Through the means of the photograph and the stereograph, he explained, form had become an intellectual entity-distinct from physical objects-in the same way that the printing press had liberated thought. Holmes recognized the need for a more affordable stereoscope and created a hand-held stereoscope from scraps of wood and showed his design to several people in Boston. Holmes eventually met Joseph L. Bates, who had a small business selling stereoscopes and views. Bates refined the Holmes design by adding the sliding focus stage with wire holders for the view. The stereoscope was a success and the lower cost brought stereoscopic photographs to the masses.

Early stereoscopic photographers referred to themselves as artists. Like painters, stereoscopic photographers were equally concerned with composition, a factor crucial to producing a fine stereoscopic image. Equally critical was a print with rich, even tones much like mixing paint on a palette. And like the first time one views a stunning painting, the experience of looking at a stereoscopic view was unmistakable:

“Everyone who views a good stereoscopic image is immediately enthralled. I have noted a level of excitement and involvement unmatched by two-dimensional visuals, other factors being equal. The strong emotional and esthetic reaction observed and reported by many artists throughout the stereoscopy’s 130-year history raises the interesting speculation that we may be imprinted with specific responses to fundamental or archetypal spatial stimuli in our visual world, in addition to many shapes, patterns and colors.” -Robert Silverman

As a twenty-first century American living in the digital age, I did not expect to be very taken with stereoviews. The contrary proved to be true-I was nothing short of enthralled. I didn’t just see the tallest structure in New York; I stood on the tallest structure and concur with Holmes reaction to stereoscopic photography: “Every conceivable object of nature and art will soon scale off its surface for us.”Every angle, steel wire, and cut stone of the bridge was there for me to experience. The Dennis Collection of stereoviews at the New York Public Library allowed to me feel as if I was witness to the construction.

Sources:

McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972

Haw, Richard. The Brooklyn Bridge: a cultural history. New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 2005

Bowers, Brian, Wilson, Margaret. Sir Charles Wheatstone Frs 1802-1875 (I E E History of Technology Series). London: Institution of Electrical Engineer, 2001

Ferragallo, Roger. “On Stereoscopic Painting.” Leonardo. 7.2 (1974); 97-101.

Waldsmith, John. Stereo views: an illustrated history and price guide. Rador, PA: Wallace-Homestead Bk. Co., 1991

Silverman, Robert. “The Stereoscope and Photographic Depiction in the 19th Century.” Technology and Culture. 34.4 (1993); 729-756.

A page of stereoscopic parts in Wheatstone’s paper of 1838

A page of stereoscopic parts in Wheatstone’s paper of 1838

Brewster’s stereoscope

Brewster’s Stereoscope

Patent Drawing of the Holmes-Bates Stereoscope

Patent Drawing of the Holmes-Bates Stereoscope

Joshua Beal, “Panoramic View of NYC, Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Tower” 1876

Joshua Beal, “Panoramic View of NYC, Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Tower” 1876

View of the Footbridge from the Brooklyn Tower, created by Albert J. Fisher

View of the Footbridge from the Brooklyn Tower, created by Albert J. Fisher

Brooklyn Bridge Tower One Plans

Stereoscopic Views Documenting the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (Part One of Three)

Stereoscopic photography is a technique for creating the illusion of depth in an image via binocular vision.

This three-part blog looks at the stereoscopic photographs taken during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The history of the construction of the bridge as well as the history of stereoscopic photography will also be explored.

PART ONE: From Agrarian to Industrial Nation

The day before the Brooklyn Bridge opened, merchants, in the then City of Brooklyn, prominently displayed a sign in their windows that read:

Babylon had her hanging gardens, Egypt her pyramid, Athens her Acropolis, Rome her Athenaeum; so Brooklyn has her bridge.

Juxtaposing the Brooklyn Bridge with these structural engineering marvels was not premature: the bridge is more than just a span over water because of its innovative design and functionality. The bridge also represents America’s transition from agrarian to industrial society, fostered by the nation’s greatest resource: immigrants. Perhaps the bridge’s greatest achievements are in its visually collective aesthetic qualities: those that anyone, regardless of education or economic status, can understand and appreciate.

The idea for a bridge spanning over the East River was first proposed in 1800 by General Jeremiah Johnson (who would later serve as mayor of Brooklyn), in a pamphlet that examined the topography of Brooklyn:

It has been suggested that a bridge should be constructed across the East River to New York. This idea has been treated a chimerical from the magnitude of the design; but whosoever takes it into their serious consideration will find more weight in the practicability of the scheme than at first sight he imagined.

In other words, the builder of a successful bridge over the East River will have to conceptualize something new and never before attempted. The bridge would have to be able to withstand the elements and not interfere with the busy maritime traffic. Johnson went on to convey, “Every objection to the building of the bridge could be refuted.” A bridge of this magnitude would require vast industrial resources. Industry was something many Americans did not envision for the young nation. This sentiment was echoed, one year after Johnson’s pamphlet was published, when President Thomas Jefferson, in his inaugural speech, conveyed that America’s best defense against the corruption of the old world (crowded fuming cities) was to remain an agrarian society:

“Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.”

Rousseau theorized that democracy has “natural limits.” The concept of a republic had been realized in smaller nations, but could it survive on the large scale that America presented? Jefferson realized that in order to assure the Union and benefit from the land, a national system of roads and canals would have to be built. Interestingly, one argument for a bridge over the East River had to do with national security and a safe, viable connection to the nation’s largest city. America had to become an industrial nation in order to survive. Industry breeds technology and technology breeds industry. The day the bridge opened, one article from the New York Times declared, “With the towers and anchorages completed, the stone age, as it may be conveniently called, gave way to the period of steel.” Stone and steel, the materials that comprise the Brooklyn Bridge, also make it a factual, visual representation of the nation’s shift to industry.

SOURCES:

McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972

Trachtenberg, Alan. Brooklyn Bridge, fact and symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965

Jefferson, Thomas, Koch, Adrienne, and Peden, William. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Modern Library, 1998

Barnett, Clive, Low, Murray. Spaces of Democracy: Geographical Perspectives on Citizenship, Participation and Representation. London: Sage, 2004

“Making The Big Cables” New York Times 24 May 1883

Early Plans for the Brooklyn Bridge, 1857

Early Plans for the Brooklyn Bridge, 1857

Allegorical Animals: The Connection Between Paganism and Early Christian Art (Part Three)

PART THREE: FANTASTIC CREATURES INSCRIBED AND ILLUSTRATED

The third and final part of my detailed (well, detailed for a blog) look at the connection between paganism and early art.  If you haven’t read the first two parts, here are the links:

Part One: https://theartistworks.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/allegorical-animals-the-connection-between-paganism-and-early-christian-art-part-one/

Part Two: https://theartistworks.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/allegorical-animals-the-connection-between-paganism-and-early-christian-art-part-two/

Saint Augustine writes that what is important is not whether the animals existed, but what they meant: the focus is clearly on doctrine. The Bible is filled with an assortment of stories involving animals, fantastic and real. In Joel 2, an army of locusts resembling horses appears, they shake the earth, darken the sky, and shoot out flames that burn everything in their path. In Revelation 5, a dead lamb with seven horns and seven eyes comes back to life. In Revelation 9:17, fire-breathing horses with the heads of lions appear wearing breastplates of jacinth and brimstone. In Revelation 13:1-3, a seven headed beast with ten horns comes out of the sea wearing ten crowns on each horn: it resembles a leopard but has the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion. One of his heads dies, but it comes back to life. In Revelation 13:11, a beast with horns like a lamb and a voice like a dragon comes out of the earth. In Revelation 16:13, unclean spirits in the shape of frogs come out of the mouth of a dragon, a beast, and a false prophet.

Ezekiel, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is acknowledged as a prophet. Ezekiel has visions of four living creatures coming out of a cloud. Each creature shaped like a man, but each had four faces: the front face was human; the right was that of a lion; the left was that of an ox; and the back was that of an eagle (Ezekiel 1.4–14). Saint Jerome, translator of the bible, interpreted the human face as representing the rational part of man, the lion as the emotional, the ox as the appetitive, and the eagle as the spark of conscience by which we discern that we sin.

The Griffin

The griffin is a legendary creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature because it combined the lion, considered the king of the beasts, and the eagle, the king of the birds. In antiquity it was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine. George Chase noted that the Greeks borrowed the griffin from Asian art, but that the Greek griffins present a much livelier appearance than their Asian prototypes. The photograph on the right shows the head of a griffin from a Greek cauldron from the third quarter of 7th century BCE.

Head of a griffin from a cauldron, third quarter of 7th century BCE. Greek (from Olympia) Bronze On Display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Head of a griffin from a cauldron, third quarter of 7th century BCE. Greek (from Olympia) Bronze
On Display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Griffins, in the ancient world, were symbols of royalty and protectors of the dead. They continued to play these roles for Christians. A popular legend in the Byzantine era told of griffins carrying Alexander the Great through the sky so that he could view his empire. The second photograph on the right shows carved griffins found on Byzantine tombs, where they may have been placed to identify the dead of royal status and to afford them protection. The design of the relief is similar to patterns on Byzantine and Islamic silks.

Panel with a Griffin, 1250–1300 Byzantine; Possibly from Greece or the Balkans Marble On Display at the Metropolitan Museum of Ar

Panel with a Griffin, 1250–1300
Byzantine; Possibly from Greece or the Balkans
Marble
On Display at the Metropolitan Museum of Ar

The Physiologus

Between the second and fifth centuries19 CE an unidentified Christian writer compiled a book about animals, some of them fantastic, drawing on the work of pagan predecessors, but adding allegory. The Physiologus was comprised of fifty allegories in which each entry began with a biblical quotation, followed by a description of the animal which might be whimsical, followed in turn by an analogy or moral which would instruct the reader in some Christian truth.

The Physiologus was condemned as heretical in 469 A.D. by Pope Gelasius, but his ban had no real effect, as later Christian writers quoted from and even added to it. The photo below is of the Bern Physiologus, which is a 9th century copy of a 5th century manuscript of the Latin translation of the Physiologus. Many of its miniatures are set, unframed, into the text block, which was a characteristic of late-antique manuscripts. It is one of the oldest existing illustrated copies of the Physiologus. In the later Middle Ages, three works stand out as noteworthy in animal lore: De proprietatibus rerum by Bartholomaeus Anglicus; De apibus by Thomas of Cantempre’; and the Speculum aturale by Vincent of Beauvais.

The Bern Physiologus is a 9th century illuminated copy of the Latin translation of the Physiologus. About 825-850.

The Bern Physiologus is a 9th century illuminated copy of the Latin translation of the Physiologus. About 825-850.

Conclusion

A terrific book for anyone interested in New York City history is Top Cats: The Life and Times of The New York Public Library Lions, by Susan G. Larkin. The book surveys the two lion sculptures that sit in front of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue. Specifically, Larkin notes that the two lions have had several nicknames over the decades. First they were called Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after The New York Public Library founders John Jacob Astor and James Lenox. Later, they were known as Lady Astor and Lord Lenox — even though they are both male lions (female lions do not have manes). During the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named the two lions in front of the Public Library on 5th Avenue, Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression. These two names are still used today.

From books like Charlotte’s Web (an allegory for true friendship) to films like Godzilla (an allegory against the use of nuclear weapons) and Over the Hedge (an allegory about the effects of deforestation) animals play a part in telling mankind’s story: they stand in for humans in allegories and take the place of people in morality stories. The personification of animals is so common that we inherently accept animals as representatives for human behavior. Mankind, as the dominant species on the planet, should take better care of their cohabitants.

In Animals in Art and Thought, Francis Klingender writes, “neither the real relationship between men and beasts, nor the symbolic meanings attached at various times to beasts should be neglected to interpret the ever-changing forms of animal art.”

Sources:

Brett, Gerard. “The Mosaic of the Great Palace in Constantinople.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 5, (1942), pp. 34-43

St. Augustine, the Literal Meaning of Genesis. vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers., vol. 41. Translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J. New York: Paulist Press, 1982

Chase, George H. “Three Griffins’ Heads.” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Vol. 48, No. 272 (Jun., 1950), pp. 33-37

Evans, Helen C., Melanie Holcomb, and Robert Hallman. “The Arts of Byzantium.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 58, no. 4 (Spring, 2001).

19  Scott, Alan. “The Date of the Physiologus.” Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Nov., 1998), pp. 430-441

20  Diekstra, F. N. M., “The Physiologus, the Bestiaries and Medieval Animal Lore,” Neophilologus, LXIX (1985), 142-55

Supplemental Videos:

From The Met’s video series, 82nd and Fifth, “Bricks”: http://82nd-and-fifth.metmuseum.org/bricks

From The Met’s video series, 82nd and Fifth, “Drama”: http://82nd-and-fifth.metmuseum.org/drama

Allegorical Animals: The Connection Between Paganism and Early Christian Art (Part Two)

PART TWO: CHRISTIANITY CONNECTS WITH PAGAN MOTIFS

One of the most vexing aspects of the contemporary holiday season are the careless commentators who preach more commercialism to commemorate the birth of Jesus: calling for boycotts on retailers for not using the words “Merry Christmas”, while they concurrently drum up divisive fear with the bogus “war” on Christmas. If there was a “war” on Christmas, then what in Dante’s Inferno is “Black Friday” all about? The last time I looked, it was to BUY Christmas presents…

I can’t help but wonder if those careless commentators know that Puritans banned Christmas from 1659 to 1681 because the date, December 25, derives from the Saturnalia, the Roman heathen’s wintertime celebration and can not be found in the Bible as the actual birthday of Jesus. A lot of Christian customs have very strong pagan roots and depictions of animals were a part of this.  

Kenneth Clark, in Animals and Men, explored the spiritual connection between man and animal through sacrifice. Clark noted that men have sacrificed animals for thousands of years and that communion was the first basis of sacrifice: the more that the gods had to be appeased to secure success or advert disaster, the more sacrifices they required. Eventually, sacrifices became an assertion of a royal or priestly authority, with the priest as mediator between the people and the deity.

Interestingly, Edwin A. Judge asserted that early Christianity was not a religion when seen in the context of other cults in the Roman Empire: “Without temple, cult statue or ritual, they lacked the time-honoured and reassuring routine of sacrifice that would have been necessary to link them religion.”

Prior to the legalization of Christianity, early Christians provoked animosity because they refused to accept the divinity of the Roman emperors and were persecuted. In 312, Constantine the Great was commanding an army in combat and because he saw a cross in a dream, he put crosses on his army’s weaponry and his soldiers were victorious. Constantine, in due course, made Christianity the state religion. Early Byzantium is, in part, exemplified by the integration of old and new. Christian churches, for example, were often founded on the ruins of pagan temples. Similarly, earlier symbolic images of animals made their way into Christian iconography.

“But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee: and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee. Speak to the earth, and it shall answer thee: and the fishes of the sea shall tell. Who is ignorant that the hand of the Lord hath made all these things?” -Job 12:7-9

Animals appear with great frequency in both the old and new testaments. Animals, in Genesis, originated on the fifth day of creation when God created an assortment of fish and birds, urging them to be fruitful and multiply. On the sixth day, God created wild beasts, reptiles and finally human beings to rule over the animals.

Plaque made of ivory with God Creating the Animals, ca. 1084 CE South Italian; modern Amalfi (Campania)

Plaque made of ivory with God Creating the Animals, ca. 1084 CE; South Italian; modern Amalfi (Campania)

The four Gospels also detail the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove from heaven (Matt. 3:16, Matt 1:10, Luke 3:21, John 1:32). The apostle Paul denounced the worship of animals and remarked, in a passage in Romans 1:23: “…immoral men exchanged the glory of the imperishable God for the likeness of an image of mortal man, birds, quadrupeds and reptiles.”

Animal motifs, in spite of Paul, are prominent in the religious iconography of Byzantium. Early Christian thinkers found the animal lore they inherited from antiquity suited for their purposes since their focus was on their adaptability to the teaching of Christianity. The peacock, for example, embodies the Christian concept of immortality. The Bible notes that the peacock was a commodity exported to the Holy Land in ancient times (Kings 10:22). Peacocks have mythological connections to ancient Greece as the symbol for the goddess Hera, who placed the 100 eyes of the giant Argus into the tail of peacock to honor his service9. The peacock, in Byzantium, was also used to represent paradise, renewal, and spring because its elaborate feathers grew each spring. The picture below is a mosaic that depicts a peacock among flowers.

Mosaic with a Peacock and Flowers, 3rd–4th century Roman or Byzantine; Probably from North Africa Tesserae

Mosaic with a Peacock and Flowers, 3rd–4th century, Roman or Byzantine; Probably from North Africa Tesserae

The Good Shepherd

One prominent example of a recycled motif is of the shepherd, which stems from Greek Kriophoros iconography. The shepherd, in both Christian and pagan cultures, is seen as a representation of the good life. However, it was Christians who gave the motif greater allegorical weight. In the legend of the Kriophoros, Hermes raced to aid of the city of Tanagra, carrying on his shoulders a sacrificial lamb, to prevent a plague, earning him the title of Kriophoros or ram bearer. One noteworthy fact is that Rams are defenders of the flock and a biblical foreshadowing of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In the book of John 10:14-15, Jesus Christ asserts,

Hermes Kriophoros, Statuette made of terracotta and polychrome, Greece, Crete, 7th century BCE. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Hermes Kriophoros, Statuette made of terracotta and polychrome, Greece, Crete, 7th century BCE.
The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Hermes Kriophoros, around 146-44 BCE from the Roman Forum of Corinth

Hermes Kriophoros, around 146-44 BCE from the Roman Forum of Corinth.

“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knowth me, even so know I the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Among the most striking artifacts that demonstrate how pagan themes evolved into depictions of Christianity are mosaics. The “Personification of the Month of April,” a mosaic that once formed part of a floor, portrays a shepherd caring for his flock.

Part of a mosaic pavement with the personification of the month of April, Early 6th century CE From Thebes Chalkis, 23rd Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities

Part of a mosaic pavement with the personification of the month of April, Early 6th century CE
From Thebes Chalkis, 23rd Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities

Snakes and Eagles

Snakes have played a prominent role in the religions of many cultures, both as good and evil. Some have considered the snake as sacred while others have given them a divine status worthy of worship. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks had many representations of snakes in their religious manifestations: the Egyptian god Apep was represented as a serpent as well as the Greek god Typhon. In Judeo-Christian tradition, the most prominent reference to a snake is in the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Novara Cathedral, Detail of Choir Pavement Mosaic, 1125 CE, Novara, Italy

Novara Cathedral, Detail of Choir Pavement Mosaic, 1125 CE, Novara, Italy

The snake is used as an instrument of Satan to tempt Eve to disobey God. The image on the right is a mosaic pavement in the choir of Novara’s cathedral that dates to around 1125, but has been restored. The mosaic, which is rendered in black and white marble tesserae design is a square with five circles within: the central circle depicts Adam and Eve and is surrounded by four circles drawn in the corners of the square that contain human representations of the four rivers of paradise: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates. Water birds are represented in the spandrels.

The eagle, in Classical Greece and Rome, was considered divine as a bird of light and a bird of magic. These two ideas are reflected in Greek literature in the fight between the eagle and the snake that occurs in the Iliad (XII, 200 f.). An eagle with a snake in its beak appears above the heads of the Trojans during an assault on Greek ships. The snake escapes from the claws of the bird, and falls into the Trojan lines, which is taken as a bad omen, and, the attack on the ships fails.

In early Byzantine art, images of eagles had special symbolic interpretation. Eagles were often portrayed either fighting with or carrying off snakes and early Christian writers gave symbolic interpretations to both these images. The eagle fighting the snake was interpreted by Saint Jerome as a symbol of God protecting his children from the devil. Similarly, an interpretation by the Anastasius Sinaites says that the eagles that crush snakes in their talons represent the blessed in paradise, where the serpents represent the devil. The motif of the eagle carrying off the snake, as opposed to fighting it, had various interpretations by early Christian commentators. According to Saint Ambrose, the eagle is Christ, who by his resurrection, snatched man from the jaws of the devil and flew back to his father. The picture below shows a fragment from an ambo found in Kavala that depicts an eagle grasping a snake.

Fragment from an ambo found in Kavala. Archeological Museum, Kavala. Dated between the middle of the fifth and the middle of the sixth centuries.

Fragment from an ambo found in Kavala. Archeological Museum, Kavala. Dated between the middle of the fifth and the middle of the sixth centuries.

Great Palace Mosaics

The Great Palace was built during the reign of Constantine (306 – 337). After being partially destroyed during the Nika Revolt (532 CE), the complex was rebuilt by Justinian (527 – 565). The battle between the snake and eagle is a typical motif, symbolizing the victory of light over darkness. It also appears frequently on funerary slabs and on Roman standards.

British scientists from the University of St. Andrews in Edinburg made extensive excavations at the Great Palace from 1935-38 and then after World War Two from 1951-5415. On surviving parts of the mosaic, there are 90 different themes populated by 150 human and animal figures. The main field of the composition is a little more than 19 feet in width. On either side of its edge is an arranged border of foliage that is dominated by a naturalistic leafy, acanthus scroll that is filled with masked heads, exotic fruit or animals. The pictures depict open-air scenes, herdsmen, and hunters. Scenes of grazing animals alternate with mythological motifs animal fables and fantastic creatures.

  snake eagle mosaic

feeding horse mosaic fighting tiger mosaic

Next time in Part Three: Fantastic Creatures Inscribed and Illustrated; and the conclusion of this three part blog entry. 

SOURCES:

Clark, Kenneth. Animals and Men. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1977
Judge, Edwin. “The Social Identity of the First Christians: A Question of Method in Religious History.” Journal of Religious History. 1980

Grimal, Pierre. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. NY: Blackwell Reference, 1986.

“Mosaic with a Peacock and Flowers [Roman or Byzantine; Probably from North Africa] (26.68)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/26.68 (October 2006)

Faulkner, R. O. “The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus: III: D. The Book of Overthrowing ‘Apep.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. Vol. 23, No. 2 (Dec., 1937), pp. 166-185
Cioffi, Paul L. “Novara Cathedral Choir Pavement Mosaic.” The Rev. Paul L. Cioffi, S.J. Images Collection. July 1991. http://www1.georgetown.edu/centers/liturgy/envisionchurch/17545.html

Maguire, E. & Maguire, H. Other Icons: Art and Power in Byzantine Secular Culture. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 2007.

Brett, Gerard. “The Mosaic of the Great Palace in Constantinople.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 5, (1942), pp. 34-43

Allegorical Animals: The Connection Between Paganism and Early Christian Art (Part One)

PART ONE: FROM CAVE PAINTINGS TO CHARIOT RACES 

Animal Farm, published in 1945, is an allegory of Soviet Communism. The story follows a group of oppressed farm animals who rebel against their cruel master, Farmer Jones. At the outset, all is well: led by Snowball (stand-in for Leon Trotsky), an intelligent and idealistic pig, the animals establish a utopian government based on self-governance and equal sharing of food and work. Eventually, the pigs grow arrogant with power and change the rules to favor themselves. Snowball is ousted and another pig, Napoleon (stand-in for Joseph Stalin), takes over as dictator, backed by a “secret police” of dogs (stand-in for the KGB). Soon the other animals are near starvation, fearing for their lives and ultimately no better off than they were under humans.

Orwell’s casting of the animals is a curious commentary of sorts on human views of animals: the physically strongest and the most democratic animal on the farm is Boxer, a horse (stand-in for the faithful workers), yet he selects the most unhygienic and perceived sloth-like animal to become the most corrupted.

From ancient myths and folk tales to modern books such as Animal Farm, animals have always been a component of human storytelling. The earliest surviving examples of human artistic expression are the cave paintings near Lascaux, France, dated between 28,000 and 10,000 BCE (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lasc/hd_lasc.htm).  The Stone Age artists used the contours of the rock to imply volume and painted vivid representations of animals that included cows, bulls, horses, bison, and deer. Kenneth Clark disagreed with the idea that these paintings were intended to give humans power over animals: he notes the difference in size and detail between the animals and humans in the depiction and concludes that the paintings were actually rooted in admiration. Clark deduces that this admiration leads to the next stage in man’s relationship with animals, which were as sacred symbols or as totems.

Totemism is a complex system of ideas, symbols, and practices based on an assumed relationship between a social group and a natural object known as a totem. The totem may be an animal or several animals. Totemism has existed all over the world, but it is in Egypt that totemism evolved into religion.

Camille Paglia conjectured that the cat was the model for the Egyptian aesthetic. According to Paglia, cats have personality and are priest and god of its own cult, following a purity ritual by cleaning itself religiously (the cat character in Animal Farm, never works — not really part of the ‘team’— and is absent for long periods). Paglia briefly compares the cat to the gorilla, finding the former far more sophisticated: the gorilla is more human, but less beautiful, “bumptious vulgarians lurching up the evolutionary road.” Paglia notes that in Egypt it was the cat; in Greece it was the horse. The male centric Greeks did not care for the feminine cat, they admired the athletic horse. The cat is a law unto itself while the horse is a serviceable, but proud animal (i.e. Boxer in Animal Farm).

“Trojans, trust not the horse. Whatever it be, I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts.” – Laocoon to the Trojans. Virgil, Aeneid 2.48

Parthenon: A section of the west frieze showing a rearing horse with a dismounted rider

Parthenon: A section of the west frieze showing a rearing horse with a dismounted rider, 438 BCE, Acropolis Museum, Athens.

The Greeks believed that Poseidon, god of the sea, created horses and occasionally they were sacrificed to the god by drowning. Horses were first domesticated in Europe during the Neolithic period and were important to the Greeks for battle, racing, traveling, and hunting. Treatises instructed horse owners on the correct treatment of their animals. The oldest one still surviving today is The Art of Horsemanship by the Greek writer Xenophon, which details the proper care and training of horses. The picture on the right is of a section from the west frieze of the Parthenon showing a rearing horse with a dismounted rider.

Mosaic of the Circus at Carthage

Mosaic of the Circus at Carthage, Early 3rd century CE, Bardo Museum, Tunis

Roman chariot horse races date back at least to the sixth century BCE. Races were associated with religion, particularly to the chariot-driving deities Sol (the sun) and Luna (the moon), and to a god called Consus, an agricultural deity. Originally, chariot races were held only on religious festivals like the Consualia, but later they would also be held on non-feast days when sponsored by magistrates and other Roman dignitaries. Pictured on the left is an early third century CE mosaic of the circus at Carthage that depicts a hortator on horseback and a sparsor holding an amphora and a whip. The mosaic is unique because it shows both the interior of the arena and the exterior façade as well as two temple-like structures above the seating.

The Christian Apologist, Tertullian, who was from Carthage, was not so enthusiastic about the chariot races and wrote in De Spectaculis (IX): “Equestrian skill was a simple thing in the past, mere horseback riding; in any case there was no guilt in the ordinary use of the horse. But when the horse was brought into the games, it passed from being God’s gift into the service of demons.”

Next time in Part Two: Christianity Connects with Pagan Motifs.

Sources:

Kenneth Clark. Animals and Men. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1977

E. Washburn Hopkins. “The Background of Totemism.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 38 (1918), pp. 145-159; https://archive.org/stream/jstor-592599/592599#page/n0/mode/2up

Camille Paglia. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York. Vintage Books, 1991

Harold B Barclay. The Role of the Horse in Man’s Culture. London. J.A. Allen. 1980

Roland Auguet. Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games. London. Allen and Unwin. 1972

Tertullian. Minucius, Felix (Author). T. R. Glover (Translator). Rendall, Gerald H. (Translator). Tertullian: Apology and De Spectaculis. Minucius Felix: Octavius. Loeb Classical Library. 1931 http://archive.org/stream/apologydespectac00tertuoft/apologydespectac00tertuoft_djvu.txt