>On Equatorial Hobbits

>As The Courtier has rather a busy day today, I wanted to just briefly commend to you an excellent and absolutely fascinating documentary I caught on PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” series last night, entitled “The Airmen and the Headhunters”, which originally premiered back in November (the full episode is available here.) Based on the book of the same name by historian Judith Heimann, the film tells the story of U.S. airmen downed over Japanese-occupied Borneo during World War II. The local tribes, despite their fierce reputation, not only kept the men safe by hiding them deeper and deeper in the jungle, but with the help of British special forces, eventually formed themselves into guerrilla units to attack the Japanese troops who were in occupation of the island.

Among the tactics used by the Dayak people to take back their island and to defend the Allies, one of the most effective was the shooting of a poisoned dart from a blow gun. As one of the warriors explained, if you shoot an enemy with a handgun or a rifle, they might survive. On the other hand, if you even pricked the little finger of an enemy combatant with a shot from a poisoned dart blow gun, the fellow was sure to die.

As part of their efforts, the Dayaks brought back the abandoned custom of taking the heads of enemies killed in combat, smoking them over an open fire to cure them, and then distributing them among the villages. This was not done for the purpose of cannibalism, but rather as part of their cultural rituals. Dan Illerich, the only one of the airmen still with us today, was asked about what he thought of the practice; his very reasoned response was that as he was a guest in their country, and as the Dayak people were going to great lengths to protect and care for him and his fellow airmen, he was hardly in a position to criticize their practices. One of the tribesmen, who had been horribly tortured by the Japanese and permanently scarred, was pleased in 1945 to accept from his fellow tribesmen the head of the chief of the Japanese police force, who had been responsible for ordering his torture.

Despite the element of gruesomeness, the film does not dwell in any particularly gory detail on this part of the story. There are photographs of heads, yes, but not so as to be offensive to any but the most sensitive and ladylike of temperaments. Although wartime documentaries are not, in general, films which I usually find interesting, there is something very inspiring and Tolkien-esque about this relatively unknown bit of history, as the reader will readily appreciate. The supposedly unsophisticated but generous and kind-hearted Dayaks rising up for themselves, despite the overwhelming military advantage of the Japanese, cannot help but put one in mind, if even slightly, of the Hobbits.

The American B-24 Airmen who crashed in Borneo in 1944,
seven of whom survived thanks to the efforts of the Dayak tribes

>Please Don’t Hug the Houdon

>This past week Lafayette Elementary School in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, celebrated the return of its namesake to the school’s Great Hall. Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, in 1932 the school was presented by a copy of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Lafayette by the French government. The bust stood for decades in the school’s hallway, but periodically would be taken into the classrooms for teaching purposes when the children were studying American history.

The original sculpture was commissioned by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1786, and Houdon, the pre-eminent French sculptor of the 18th century, executed two of these busts in marble. One was placed in the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, and the other in Paris’ City Hall. The latter was destroyed by the Leftists during the French Revolution, along with a number of other sculptures by Houdon.

The Georgetown Current reports [N.B.: see PDF file of the April 28th issue] that recently, an over-enthusiastic Kindergartner wanted to give the Marquis a hug, and upon doing so the bust fell and was damaged. Parents of another student at the school took it upon themselves to pay for the restoration of the bust. In a ceremony this past week the city’s mayor and the French Ambassador, along with the students and faculty, marked the return of the statue to a more secure location, so that hopefully it will not be knocked over again.

One wonders what the future will hold for this young person, who was so struck by the image of Lafayette. Will he or she become a military officer? An historian? A diplomat? Regardless, the Courtier wholeheartedly encourages this child to continue to embrace art and history – albeit metaphorically speaking – from now on.

>St. Lawrence and the Royal Slag Heap

>Today is the Feast of St. Lawrence, a deacon martyred along with Pope St. Sixtus II during the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian. St. Lawrence, a native of Spain, was put to death on August 10th in 258 A.D., in the city of Rome, by being roasted alive on a gridiron. He has been a popular saint for many centuries, as anyone studying art history knows: there are dozens of churches and chapels named for him.

Of all of these structures however, the most famous and impressive is that of The Escorial, more properly The Royal Basilica and Monastery of Saint Laurence, located about half an hour outside outside of Madrid. The nickname “escorial”, or “slag-heap”, refers to the fact that it is located in an arid area of former iron mines, littered with slag and other refuse from the defunct mining operations. The complex not only includes an enormous church and monastery, but also a palace, library, art gallery, gardens, and the necropolis of the kings of Spain. Under the Hapsburgs in particular, it served as the center of imperial power within the country, until the monarchy gradually shifted the locus of power to Madrid.

El Escorial was commissioned to commemorate an important victory of Philip II over Henry II of France at the Battle of Saint Quentin on the Feast of St. Lawrence in 1557. The layout of the complex, as can be seen in the photo below, resembles a gridiron, supposedly to commemorate the manner of St. Lawrence’s martyrdom. Whether an intentional act or simply happy accident, the gridiron design provided the architects with many patios and courtyards to relieve the stark exterior facade of the building. Descriptions of the Temple of Solomon also had a significant impact on the final product.

There are many things to study and marvel at in the complex. However, one of my favorite portions of the structure is the Patio of the Kings, which serves as the entrance to the basilica itself. The rather severe classical facade features massive statues of six of the (comparatively better) Kings of Judah sculpted by Juan Bautista Monegro, including David and Solomon. It reminded the Kings of Spain, no doubt, when they came to the Basilica that they, too, would have a difficult road to travel if they were to attain Heaven, since even those kings of the Old Testament beloved by God often got themselves into trouble.