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 sainted martyrdom 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.

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The work below, by Altdorfer, shows the saint’s body being retrieved from the sewer, or at least from out of the muck, by 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.

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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.

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Another beating, but I have not identified the painter.

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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.

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

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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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Concrete and Reliquaries

January 16, 2018

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I have been reading this book because I am fascinated by medieval art, and I see a lot of reliquaries.  The book is sort of rambling, and it jumps around thematically, but it has focused my attention on these objects lately, so I took another trip to The Cloisters to see a few.  I drove in, and decided to park and walk around Washington Heights with my camera a bit before going to the museum.

First off, again, the Port Authority Bus Terminal with that fantastic reinforced concrete roof by Pier Luigi Nervi.  I was struck by this view from my car, and walked back to capture it.  It conveys, for me, the creepily attractive monumental and oppressive nature of some modernist architecture.  The tower in the background, one of four known to traffic alert listeners simply as “The Towers,” gives the view a Futurist look.

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Once in the museum, I went to see the three little ladies, reliquaries purportedly containing the skulls of martyred women, three of the 11,000 killed with Saint Ursula.

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Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it made me think of this final scene from Mystery of the Organism.vlcsnap-694373


Upper Manhattan Jaunt

January 7, 2018

I revisited one of my favorite buildings in Manhattan; the multi-storey sub-basement of an old apartment building in Washington Heights, amidst the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital Complex.

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It really does seem like a dungeon to me.

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It’s barely visible from this perspective amidst the hospital behemoths that recall to my mind the fantasies of Saint Elia.

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Manhattan Schist, so it’s called, is prominent up here, and from such soil, great structures grow.

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Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, we had barely two seasons:  I love the winter!love winter II

After all this gawking at icy splendor, I retreated to The Cloisters.

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Son of Clovis?

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Saint Lawrence Being Roasted:  The story goes that after grilling for a while, he declared, “I’m well-done, turn me over!”  Thus, he is the patron saint of cooks.

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Speaking of dreams…

May 15, 2014

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Constantine dreams, “With this sign, you conquer.”  At The Morgan.


Little Big Apple

March 31, 2014

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Enough said about him…

And about this capital, down below, I like the way the  corner is turned with one beast that has two bodies, maybe a good side and a bad side, depending on where you stand.

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A bit of Nature/Nurture.

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Behold the Lamb

October 15, 2013

Cloisters Apocalypse

Altered States: Ken Russell

 


Castle of Love Besieged

December 25, 2012

Trebuchet – lower left

A common secular theme in medieval artifacts, often in beautifully wrought ivory cases for whatnots and mirrors.    Knights attack the castle of love, defended by maidens who have only buckets of roses with which to repel the attackers.  Sometimes Cupid lends a hand…to whom?  The knights use the usual run of siege tactics, and sometimes a trebuchet is present.

Another view of the one above

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Lower left – another trebuchet

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Trebuchet on the right

For a change of pace, the two left-hand panels on the case below show the story of that lovable old coot, Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great, being humiliated by Phyllis.  The ones on the right tell the tale of Pyramus an Thisbe, from Ovid, and known to most through its later incarnations, such as Romeo and Juliet and The Fantasticks.

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More siege craft and love below.

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Cloistered

March 21, 2011

Another visit to The Cloisters, the museum at my doorstep.  Above, the face of a full-length figure from a portal, clearly showing the stylistic  influence of Chartres.  (It would have been painted.)  The naturalism is clear, but it’s a far cry still from the naturalizing style of the Italian Renaissance which shows up in a panel from Milan that is included in the collection:  Medieval by chronology, but not style.

 

These faces, blurred because I obeyed the injunction against the use of flash, see more like collective dream images of what a king and queen should look like.

Some capital ideas, showing just how much drama can be squeezed into a small space at the top of an arcade column.  The ape-man theme, wrought in precious metal, is in evidence elsewhere in the museum as well.

This tomb effigy shows the ideal of the Christian knight.  His feet rest on a crouching lion, indicating his strength and courage.  Many tomb effigies have such animal features, often small dogs, which I believe indicate the person’s faithfulness or loyalty.

No visit here is complete without a glimpse of the End of Days, provided in The Treasury, where an illuminated manuscript of The Apocalypse is on display. 

        

A strange grotesque in the margin seems to be the equivalent of Monty Python’s “and now this…

This volume from a Spanish translation of Saint Augustine’s City of God is what got me started reading that very long book.

 


Belles Heures

March 27, 2010

Yesterday evening, I took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the new exhibit of the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry.

I find it hard not to confuse this manuscript with the perhaps more famous, Très Riches Heures, which is known for its beautiful scenes illustrating the progression of the seasons on a medieval estate.  This manuscript, also a prayer book, features illuminations of The Passion, St. Jerome, and St. Catherine, who refused to be broken, on the wheel or otherwise.

The manuscript has been disassembled for restoration, and before putting it back together, it is being exhibited as individual pages, so you can see both sides in upright glass holders – magnifying glasses are available!  Soon, it will return to its bound state, and visitors will be able to view only two pages, chosen by the curator, at time.

Aside from the dazzling ornamentation of the pages, the pictures are alternately dramatic, poignant, and even humorous.  Viewing them all is totally exhausting, and of course, they were not meant to be viewed this way at all.  The books were meditative/prayer aids, intended to be read one page at a time, a few each day, year after year.

Among my favorite images, with links:

A lovely image showing a crescent moon, and an almost 3-D effect of some angels in reddish hues.

St. Jerome tempted by some dancing girls.

A fanatical Christian, accosted by a loose woman who fondles his thigh.  Rather than be seduced, he bites off his tongue so that the pain will drive away temptation.

St. Jerome listening to a scholar discourse on the classics.  Jerome was torn by his love of Greek and Latin literature and its conflicts with his Christian faith.

St. Jerome is tricked by his colleagues into wearing a woman’s dress.  He is so absorbed in meditation, he puts it on without realizing that his fellow monks have switched his clothing.

There is also a current exhibit of a series of small statues in alabaster depicting a procession of mourners at the funerals of two Burgundian noblemen, the same ones who commissioned the books of hours, I believe.  This figures are placed around the base of two elaborate raised platforms, inside a series of ornately carved gothic niches.

They are displayed in two parallel rows on a simple base in the Metropolitan while their home museum in France is restored.  This means that they are visible completely in the round.  They display a wide variety of costumes and physical manifestations of their grief, all with great realism.  You can view each figure at this link.  The figures have been digitally scanned in the round, so you can actually rotate each virtual figure in your web brower – fantastic!

After leaving the museum, I took a bus downtown to Penn Station, and stopped to look at the new pedestrian mall that has taken over Broadway around 34th street.  Even on a cold night, it is wonderful.  To stand in the middle of a street in Manhattan, with the view that affords, and not have to dodge traffic!

A view of a mysterious moon near the Deco spire of the Empire State Building from the Broadway mall.

Nowadays, we have our own form of illuminations, as followers of Walter Benjamin might say.  A store window advertisement got a felicitous double effect from the reflection in the back of a chromium chair.  And a snap of a hard working artist, creating the dazzling festivals of desire along the street scape.

T0urists doing what they do, recording their ephemeral presence in my phenomenal world.