>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.

>Making History

>When I was in high school, I remember my sister referring to what was then called The History Channel (now re-branded simply as “History”) as “The War Channel”. It seemed that the vast majority of the programming had to do with Twentieth Century wars in which the United States had taken part, such as World War II and Vietnam. Over time, the channel moved away from its primarily bellicose focus to include a wider variety of shows. The more apt re-branding would have been to call it “The Crackpot Channel”, based on the type of programming it now largely features.

Last evening for example, as part of its ongoing fascination with all things Dan Brown and his woeful fictionalization of history and theology, History presented a “documentary” about the masons who built the Medieval cathedrals. One particularly laughable section featured an “expert” who revealed that the figures of the Four Winged Creatures in the tympanum of Notre Dame de Paris are actually references to the Maya prediction of the world ending in 2012. No mention of course, of their actual origin in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel.

And this is not the end of the nonsense. Even the New York Times has questioned the History Channel’s pop-event planned with respect to the discovery of a fossilized lemur which may or may not be an ancestor of modern primates (calling it “the missing link” is typical sensationalism engaged in primarily by MSNBC.) The Times reports:

On Tuesday morning, researchers will unveil a 47-million-year-old fossil they say could revolutionize the understanding of human evolution at a ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History.

But the event, which will coincide with the publishing of a peer-reviewed article about the find, is the first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel, including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

If these were isolated examples, one could at least give them a pass. Unfortunately, they are part of a slew of shows that trot out all sorts of nonsense which seems to have, at its core, to cheapen history and science, to undermine the Catholic Church, or simply to present myth and urban legend as fact. The supposed experts which it trots out to speak about the Church, for example, are usually not Catholic theologians or historians, but individuals whose biographies usually reveal that they have sociological axes to grind. The few Catholics that do appear in their “documentaries” on Church subjects are individuals such as John Dominic Crossan or Father Richard McBrien, who are not exactly trustworthy.

When we add this to programming about suburban monster cats, ghosts and apparition, and blatant movie tie-ins, the end picture is one of a channel based largely on the presentation of nonsense. For every interesting show like “Modern Marvels” or documentary engaging in at least a semi-serious analysis of the historical record, there are three more that are, at best, a type of light popular history that could just as easily be found in the pages of the National Enquirer. Anyone seriously interested in historical subjects would be better served by spending the weekend watching C-Span’s Book TV which, while admittedly somewhat dull, actually brings to the camera historians writing on areas of interesting, legitimate historical inquiry.