Saint Sebastian

June 18, 2018

Mantegna-049-St.Sebastian-1480-1485The unfortunate Saint Sebastian – I guess the saints are all unfortunate, since they all meet grisly deaths, but then, that’s their good fortune from the Christian point of view… -is a familiar figure to lovers of art history.  Also familiar to male lovers of men, since his image is popular as a gay icon in wildly different forms, many in the realm of kitsch, or camp, as it were.  I get that he’s a young, strapping fellow (patron saint of athletes for some reason), and the voyeuristic, masochistic, erotic aura that hangs, or can be projected about him.  (Did Oscar Wilde really say that in this image he looked a bit like a “mournful pin cushion,” or is that just something my girlfriend told me in high school?)  Once he was released from his martyrdom in Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde did adopt the pseudonym, Sebastian Melmoth, the first part for the saint? and the second a reference to the long-suffering protaganist of Maturin’s early 19th century gothic tale Melmoth the Wonderer.

This image by Mantegna is just one of the most famous showing the saint’s martyrdom by archery at the order of Diocletian, or is it?  Yes, those two fellows in the right foreground have done their duty, and tied and shot up Sebastian, a former member of the emperor’s Praetorian Guard who kept his Christianity secret so that he could give help to the persecuted Christians.  He was found out, and Diocletian ordered him killed…but is he dead?  He appears alive to me!

I know that saints are the subjects and producers of miracles all the time, but if their sainthood is based on being murdered for their faith, shouldn’t they…er…be dead?  This set me off on a little art historical research regarding the saint, and I quickly found that he did not die from the fusillade of arrows, although you can hardly accuse the archers of negligence in carrying out orders.  He did survive, miraculously, and was fetched and tended by Saint Irene.  During the middle ages, because he had survived his execution by arrows, he was invoked for help against diseases, especially the bubonic plague.

Since he was undeterred by fear of death, and since his cover was quite obviously blown, his next move after recovering from his wounds was to go to the emperor’s palace, hide in an alcove or stairwell, and furiously upbraid Diocletian for his sins when he finally happened by.  Naturally, the emperor was furious:  not only was the man not dead as he had ordered, but he returns and insults him directly!  Diocletian ordered his men to club Sebastian to death – perhaps considered a more certain technique – and then to throw his body into the sewer, sometimes noted as the cloaca maxima.  Eventually, his body was retrieved, but the scenes of his actual death, and subsequent disposal and retrieval are vastly less common in art history than the picturesque and unsuccessful first try.

Here we have the saint being pitched into the sewer, as painted by Lodovico Carraci.  His suspension in the air just as he is beginning to fall in seems awkward to me.

1200px-Lodovico_Carracci_(Italian_-_St._Sebastian_Thrown_into_the_Cloaca_Maxima_-_Google_Art_Project

The work below, by Altdorfer, shows the saint’s body being retrieved from the sewer, or at least from out of the muck, but friends who will bury him in the catacombs near the resting places of the apostles.  His body seems little the worse for his immersion in the sewer.

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Scenes of Sebastian’s actual execution by clubbing are a bit more plentiful:  here is one by Veronese.

1200px-Martyrdom_of_St_Sebastian,_glaven_korab

Josse Lieferinxe did a set of paintings of the saint for altarpiece dedicated to him, and this image shows him being beaten to death:  in the background the executioners dump his body into the sewer.

1493+-Josse Lieferinxe (Fr)-St Sebastian clubbed-- copy

Another beating, but I have not identified the painter.

057_SebastianBeaten

The three images below are from a tiny chapel dedicated to St. Sebastian in Venanson in southern France.  The chapel is not well documented on the internet, but the painter of these frescoes is identified as Giovanni Baleison.

If you need a reason to take a trip to Provence, this site, and the even less documented one in Roubion should be reason enough.  The only photos of individual panels of the frescoes I could find online are licensed, and have a copyright logo watermark.  The two below show the saint being dumped into and retrieved from the sewer.

HYH0E3

CBGMMH

This image of the chapel frescoes shows the panel of the saint’s dumping in situ.

Roubion_-_Chapelle_Saint-Sébastien_-_Peintures_murales_-1

Finally, to bring us back nearer to the present, we have an image of a studio session with Muhammad Ali posing as Saint Sebastian, part of series of famous men standing in for the saint.

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Sebastian’s head, or “skull cap” is preserved here, supposedly.

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New Orleans: Black, White, and in Color

November 29, 2013

I finally got down to New Orleans for a visit, city of levees, necropolises, music, food, and mixed races.  I understand now why people get so emotional about it – it’s quite a place, unlike any other I know in the USA, mostly in a good way. It’s also a city that is so deeply formed by the geography and hydrology of the region that for a civil engineer cum geographer, it’s a no-brainer for a great vacation.

   
Outside our B&B there was a WWI memorial arch (first in the USA they say) that lists the men killed in action. Separate plaques for White Men and Colored.  I think it was placed there because that neighborhood, Bywater, was the point of embarkation for the troop ships.

One thing that did surprise me about New Orleans was the racial segregation, or shall I say, lack of integration, visible everywhere.  Living around and working in NYC, which is one of the most residentially segregated urban areas in the USA, I still experience a dizzying mix of people while commuting, during my workday downtown, and in many entertainment venues I frequent, but in NOLA, not at all.  I wasn’t surprised that neighborhoods weren’t  integrated (this is the USA), but I didn’t expect that when I went to a jazz club, everyone in the audience would be white, but it was almost that way.  At times, I felt as if I were in a fancy college town.  I’m not sure why it is that way, but I didn’t expect it.

As everyone says, there is music everywhere, inside and out.  And these aren’t just any old street pick-up bands.  The level of the musicianship is amazing!  At the end of this post there is a brief video of this band doing their work for the crowd.

New Orleans has a unique American history of racial mixing:  the French, then the Spanish, then the Anglos ran the place.  The Creole culture of francophone colonials was not quite the same as the Anglo slave-owning society; there was a bit more nuance in the racial caste system as opposed to the “one drop” rule.  Sometimes I see statements from people from Brazil and other creole-influenced cultures about how they have no racism in their culture – they’re creole – but it’s usually just an excuse.  Nevertheless, there were historical differences, and the Anglo rule was more harsh.

Today, other cultures have been added to the mix, including a recent influx of Hispanic people, many from Mexico.  I like this food truck’s moniker, a mash-up of Mexican, Palestinian, politics, and commercialism.

multi-cult

Levee is French for raised up.  That’s the bank of the Mississippi, here reinforced with concrete on the river-facing side.  The entire lower Mississippi is controlled and channeled, and this levee is upriver of the city, next to a plantation we visited, the Laura Plantation.  The place was kept in creole hands for its entire working history as a family business, and the mansion is a functional and spare work of architecture.  The excellent tour of the place emphasized its nature as a business, a family corporation to extract wealth from the land through the labor of slaves.  None of that Gone with the Wind tripe.

levy

New Orleans shows an admirable directness in labeling its manholes, and sometimes a fine aesthetic sense.  Sometimes, they let the drainage just all hang out.

The southern latitude sometimes gives the lower density neighborhoods a lush, jungle atmosphere.  We stayed in Bywater, downriver from the French Quarter, an area that was spared flooding because it is near the river.  (More on that later.)  The area boasts a type of architecture that is reminiscent of the Caribbean islands, and that also reminded me of Kerala, South India.

jungle

 

crea creole

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In the old city, the French Quarter, in Pirates Alley, there is this house where Faulkner wrote his first novel, and which is now a small and excellent literary bookstore. The picture on the right shows a house reputedly built to house an exiled Napoleon (he never arrived) and gives a view of a typical street in that area.

faulkner boney

In the Warehouse District, where we spent our last afternoon, largely at the excellent Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the sidewalks often look like brick, but to my surprise, turned out to be blocks of wood, probably swamp cedar.

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This book, by local scholar Richard Campanella, is an excellent treatment of the history of New Orleans that focuses on geography and demographics.  The entire text and all the illustrations are available as individual PDF files online.  He is at pains to emphasize that the city of New Orleans was founded, and remained for some time, completely above sea level.  These days, one often hears expressions of wonder that anyone would be so stupid as to build a city below sea level.  Well, it wasn’t, but large parts of it, most notoriously, the Lower 9th Ward, became lower than the sea after they were surrounded by levees and pumped out for development.  The removal of water from the soil causes saturated ground to settle and compress, sometimes by as much as nine or ten feet.

This effect is seen in many places around the world:  In Bangladesh, they refer to polder areas, after the Dutch name, where they have diked agricultural fields and de-watered them.  As a result, the fields subside, and they grow less productive because they no longer are periodically flooded with life-giving nutrients from flood waters.  When there is a very big flood, the dikes sometimes break, the fields become bathtubs, and there is no way to pump them out again because equipment is lacking.  In Holland, where the practice of polder reclamation originated, they plan for this, but it costs a lot of money and requires constant engineering work.  But in Holland, they have nowhere else to go!

Oh, and a word about those cemeteries.  Historians tell us that the custom of above-ground burial was adopted when the Spanish took control of the city, not in response to soggy, water logged ground unsuitable for burial.  Remember, the city was all several feet above sea level!  Another reason for above-ground tombs is that is is an admirably efficient use of space – each tomb can hold many generations of a single family.

The image on the left below shows a typical river landscape in most of the world:  the terrain drops as you approach the river, a standard river valley.  In New Orleans, we are in a delta landscape, the end of the line for a huge drainage system (Drainage is Destiny!) and the landscape is reversed, which initially puzzled the French settlers.  The river is constrained by natural levees that form when the channel periodically, and inevitably, overflows.  The heavier sediment is deposited close to the original channel, forming, over many years, an elevated bank on either side.  New Orleans was founded on one of these naturally elevated regions, and the riverside neighborhoods fared best during the disaster of Katrina.

And on a happier note:


Learning the Lessons of Drainage, Again!

November 30, 2012
Click for Article

Click for Article

The picture is from an article in the New York Times on the havoc wrought on Nassau County’s sewage treatment plants by Hurricane Sandy.  Readers of this blog who have attended to the warnings of the original Lichanos, source of my nom de plume, will not be suprised.

A few excerpts from the Times piece describing what happened when the system went down, my emphasis:

In less than 30 minutes, engines for the plant’s main pumping system were under 12 feet of water, and sewage began to back up and overflow into low-lying homes. In one low-lying neighborhood, a plume of feces and wastewater burst through the street like a geyser.

During heavy rains, there are occasional sewage leaks, particularly in low-lying areas, residents say

For the residents of Barnes Avenue in Baldwin, a low-lying stretch about three miles from the Bay Park plant, the failure during the hurricane was the culmination of their worst fears, though hardly a surprise. …After Tropical Storm Irene sent human waste splashing onto lawns and front porches last year, residents said, the county bolted manhole covers shut to prevent them from opening.

And now, for those of you too lazy to go the source, I reproduce here the most probing and relevant section of Drainage:  The Wine of Life in which Professor Hilton Korngold summarizes The Drainage Crisis.  I have added some emphasis:

… in the probing monograph, “Towards an Interpretation of the Drainage,” . . . Hilton Korngold, describes with disturbing calm the widespread deterioration of urban drainage systems in the Western World. In this work, Korngold writes:

We must arm ourselves with all the material and spiritual forces at our disposal to ensure that this crucial epoch is one of the transcendence into unity of Drainage and Drained or else our culture is doomed to destruction. Extrapolation from our present condition along the lines of Revelation yields a vision of Busting sewer mains and all waters of the world made as wormwood, unfit to drink.  Mankind would be reduced to a primitive state of disunity, neighbor isolated from neighbor by vast surging cataracts of fluid, while the monument of our era’s accomplishments would gradually be submerged beneath festering pools of stagnant runoff. In this hell on earth all laws of sense will be overturned, men will go mad for lack of water to drink, sinks and cisterns will back up onto your floor instead of efficiently disposing of your wastes, and the Power of the Plumber will be null. Men in their frenzy of despair and disbelief will turn the evil upon themselves, building houses at the bottom of hills, in marshes, and along oozing gullys, while the Few Who Know will be the object of arrogant derision. And it is the folly of human inaction which will bring down on us this recapitulation of The Flood.


Drainage: Civilization’s Foundation

July 27, 2012

BEIJING — In the heart of the Chinese capital is the showcase neighborhood of Sanlitun, where expatriates and Chinese glitterati go to dine, drink and dance. It has gleaming curved skyscrapers, a boutique hotel where rooms list for $400 to $4,000 a night, and restaurants with cuisines like French, Persian and Mexican.

What it does not have is a modern drainage system.

Here is the fundamental text – Drainage: The Wine of Life.

And here are some other posts on various aspects of this neglected topic:  Drainage Posts.

 


Appease the Drainage Gods!

July 22, 2011

The Gods of Drainage have not been happy, and they have visited their wrath on the city of New York.  A “catastrophic fire” in the pumping station that lefts raw sewage into the North River Treatment Plant, which purifies it, and discharges it into the Hudson River, has shut down the facility completely.  Raw, that’s untreated, sewage from half of Manhattan is now pouring into the river, and will continue to do so through the weekend.  And it’s in the middle of a remarkable heat wave.  That means stay away from that beautiful riverside park all along the Hudson – it’s not going to smell too nice!

This map shows the areas that are served by the city’s fourteen sewage treatment plants:  the one that is out of action is No. 6.  Number Six!?  You can read all about the system in this NYC DEP publication.


Two Criminal Tales

March 1, 2011

Le Trou, is a film from 1948 about a prison break in Paris. Goodfellas, need I say it?, is a film from 1990 about the mob in NYC.  I watched these two films over the last two days, and it was like visiting two alternate universes.

First, let me say that Le Trou (Jacques Becker) is a fantastic movie.  Spare and incredibly suspenseful, it pulls off the amazing feat of turning the hardened criminals into …not quite the good guys, but exemplars of humanity.  Homo faber, man, the maker, with incredible ingenuity, patience, and perseverance they plan their escape from a fortress in the center of the city.  Loyalty to one another is what makes them go, and betrayal stops them. The film has virtually no music score.

Goodfellas, well…it is based on fact. (In fact, both films are based on accounts of actual events.) The reason I watched the entire flick after seeing bits of it on TV, where it is played endlessly, was because of the part about the biggest heist in American history at JFK, but that is hardly treated in the film. Many say it is realistic, and Scorsesee said he wanted to show what the mob lifestyle was really like, what the violence was really like, cold, brutal, disgusting. Oh well…the millions of young men who love the film probably have a rather different take on Martin’s masterpiece.  They love it. It’s an entertainment, giving away the store by using an endless soundtrack of contemporary music.  How seriously can you take a mob movie that has Hendrix and The Stones rocking out as guys get whacked?

Nothing in Goodfellas compares to the one scene in Le trou in which the two cons peer at a Paris street from a manhole, watch a taxi drive by – freedom! – before going back inside to retrieve their comrades for the big escape.

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Drainage – the musical

August 31, 2010

Michael Kupperman is a funny guy, and pretty weird.  His Tales Designed to Thrizzle carries on the madness, but without that vaudeville duo, Snake ‘n’ Bacon from the earlier numbers.  This one, however, rises to new heights with its appreciation of DRAINAGE!  At last, my voice in the wilderness is finding echoes!  The connection with 2001 is beautiful!

In this issue, Kupperman tells the story of a new Broadway show, all about that essential element of civilization, what makes the world go ’round, drainage.  The leading lady of the production finds out a little late that it has been reworked into a musical.  The show must flow on!