>Some Thoughts from a Semi-Light Supper

>Last evening I dropped by the Georgetown home of a local blogger and threw together a fairly simple dinner for him and a couple of friends, using ingredients picked up at two of our local markets, Scheele’s and Sara’s. The first course was garlic toasts with shredded cheese in a chicken stock, and the second a sort of pre-Thanksgiving casserole of turkey and stuffing with sliced pears. Everything took a total of one hour to prepare and cook, and as seconds were taken I can only assume were reasonably satisfactory.

The combination of fruit with poultry and wild game is something typical of Catalan cooking, particularly in autumn and winter, but also something which brings to mind great groaning boards in Medieval and Renaissance times. As one of the dinner guests remarked, Charlemagne was considered particularly abstemious from drink in his time because he only drank about three glasses of wine a day. When one considers that drinking water back then was akin to playing Russian roulette, from a microbial standpoint, it is no surprise that in earlier times people simply ate a great deal more in order to absorb all of the fermented beverages they were forced to consume.

In addition, in the days before refrigeration, things tended to develop a bit of a pong in the larder, and spices were often very heavy to cover up the taste of things which might have been considered a bit “off” by our standards. For Americans, the heavy sensory overload of Thanksgiving, with its liberal use of things like cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, is probably the closest most of us come to a sense of this overwhelming combination of flavors. The sheer amount of food, in combination with the chemicals in turkey, send us off to sleep rather quickly since we are simply unaccustomed to eating in a Tudor fashion.

The description of a famous meal hosted by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, on February 17, 1454 in Lille, Belgium, gives us some impression of dinner parties in this earlier age. Known as “The Banquet of the Pheasant”, because guests made oaths to a live pheasant that they would retake Constantinople from the Turks, numerous accounts exist of what happened at this famous meal, though it is hard to imagine a giant pie with an orchestra playing inside. Unlike our Thanksgiving turkeys, however, the pheasant in this case survived the meal.

A little over fifty years later, when Castiglione began writing “The Book of the Courtier”, perceptions about how to dine were changing. In the book Castiglione’s characters do not describe what they have dined on before beginning their discussion. He does, however, have one of them make the point of avoiding excess when eating, something that many of those of an earlier generation would have found untenable. Castiglione has Cardinal Bibbiena tell the story of how Federico de Mantua was at dinner with a number of other gentlemen, and “one of them said after eating an entire bowl of stew: ‘Pardon me, my lord Marquess,” and so saying he began to gulp down the broth that remained. Then the Marquess said quickly, ‘Ask pardon of the swine, for you do me no wrong at all.'”

>Hospital de Sant Pau: Repurpose or Loss?

>Barcelona’s Hospital de Sant Pau (St. Paul’s Hospital) was founded in 1401 upon the merger of six of the city’s medieval hospitals into a central institution. There are other hospitals in the city, some of equally ancient origin, but Sant Pau has always been the most prestigious health care facility in Catalonia. This prestige is reflected in the uniquely beautiful buildings that make up the central campus of the hospital, which were designed and built by the great Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner between 1901 and 1930. The complex was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Apparently the hospital has decided to move into newer, modern digs, and vacate the historic complex. As Barcelona was recently selected to be the seat of the emerging Mediterranean Union, the city plans to turn over the old hospital campus for use by bureaucrats of that organization. This is a very sad turn of events.

The genius of Domènech i Montaner’s design back in the day was that the patient was able to mentally “escape” from his illness. He was surrounded with fairy-tale like structures of turrets, domes, arches, mosaics, sculptures, and plant-filled courtyards. The campus features lush Mediterranean landscaping, and patient rooms lined with balconies, sun rooms, and enormous windows to let in both light and the scents from the flowers and herbs in the gardens below. It was, for the early part of the last century, an uniquely “holistic” approach to medicine and certainly a nod to Medieval monastic apothecary/herbalist gardens.

A sequence of important scenes in director Whit Stillman’s terrific indie film “Barcelona” were shot in and around the old hospital. If you can get your hands on the DVD, you’ll see how the combination of working hospital, dream-like buildings, plenty of sunlight and beautiful gardens, were truly ahead of their time. It is a shame that the experience will be lost in the interest of government expansionism and profit-based efficiency.

The Pantocrator in Catalan Art

I recently finished a marvelous old book, “The Tastemakers” by Russell Lynes, who for many years was the Editor-in-Chief of Harpers Magazine. The book is a survey of American taste over the centuries, but particularly focusing on the stratification of American class and the influence of technology, industrialization, communication and transportation on all aspects of American taste, from art to furniture, cars to homes. On page 260, in his chapter on the nature of the art world as it existed in his day (the 1950’s), Lynes writes:

By training the museum director considers himself primarily a man of taste. He has been schooled in connoisseurship at the Fogg Museum of Harvard University, or as a medievalist at Princeton, or in the Kunsthistorische atmosphere of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, to which so many celebrated German art historians were brought from Hitler’s clutches in the 1930’s. He has written his thesis on Catalonian [sic] altar frontals, or on Byzantine ivories, or on the Master of the Female Half-length, so he is a scholar as well.

An interesting area I have been studying in my leisure time for some years is Catalan Romanesque painting, including the aforementioned altar frontals but also wall frescoes, both of which mediums are usually among the prizes of any museum’s medieval collection. The richness of colour, the unusual mixture of Western and Eastern themes, and the remarkable state of preservation of many Catalan pieces give light to a time very stupidly referred to by many as the “Dark Ages”. There are numerous areas of study that draw my interest, but one in particular involves the Catalan interest in the concept of Christ Pantocrator, i.e. Jesus as judge of the world.

Referring to Christ as the “Pantocrator” or “Pantokrator” comes from Ancient Greek (and I am not going to pretend that I speak the language.) It is a title usually translated as meaning “Almighty” or “All-Powerful”, and was found beginning in the early Church and then continuing more commonly in the Eastern Churches than the Western. Presumably because of the varying degrees of iconoclasm present in Protestant theology, I am not familiar with any Protestant representations of the Pantocrator, though I am happy to be corrected on this point.

In artistic representation, the Pantocrator is a conceptual image of Jesus as a stern but fair judge. Christ is usually depicted with his right hand raised in blessing, and carrying the Book of the Gospels in his left hand. He is portrayed frontally to the viewer, sometimes from the waist up and sometimes seated on a throne, bearing a serious but not angry expression.

Famous and ancient versions of the Pantocrator exist in many places, particularly in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and parts of Italy where the Byzantines held some artistic influence. Eventually the Western Churches began to move away from this representation and toward that of the “Christ in Majesty” with its own iconography, although representations of the “Last Judgment” in the West continued to reflect on the idea of Christ as the all-powerful judge of the world.

Getting back to the Catalans, there are a number of interesting images of Christ as the Pantocrator that are found in Catalan Romanesque art, as reproduced below. All of these pieces can be found in the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona, which has probably the best collection of Romanesque Art in the world, from paintings to sculpture to liturgical objects. They also show a transition from an Eastern iconography to a Western one.

The first of the three images selected, and arguably the most famous of the Museum’s entire collection, is that of the Pantocrator from the church of Saint Clement in Taüll, a town high in the Catalan Pyrenees. The fresco was painted around 1123 for the apse of the church, and shows Christ seated with His right hand raised in blessing, the left holding open the Gospels to the Latin text of the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 8 Verse 12, “I Am the Light of the World,” – an unusual feature not in keeping with the traditional Eastern iconography. Here, Christ is surrounded by angels, and appears above a row of the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin.

The second image is one which my father likes to call the”blasé Jesus”, given the somewhat languid expression on Jesus’ face. This is an altar frontal dating from sometime in the 12th century, contemporaneous with the previous fresco painting. It came from the town of La Seu d’Urgell, also in the Catalan Pyrenees. In this image, Christ is again seated, with His right hand raised in blessing, but the Book of the Gospels in His left hand is closed, as per the standard iconographic programme. He is flanked on both sides by the Twelve Apostles, in a very pleasing, symmetrical pyramidal composition.

Finally we have a panel dating from around 1200, that formed the underside of a baldachin at the church of Saint Martin in Tost, another town in the Pyrenees. This image is not as accomplished as the previous two, but perhaps this was because only those serving at the altar would have seen it: this underside or “tester” would have been suspended upside down between the supports of the baldachin, with the image facing toward the altar and the floor. Here again we see Christ, this time seated on a more obvious judge’s bench (complete with emroidered cushion), blessing with His right hand and holding open the Book of the Gospels in His left. This time Christ is accompanied by the Four Winged Creatures from the Book of Ezekiel, who represent the Four Evangelists.

These are only three examples of the popularity of the image of Christ as Judge that comes from the Catalan medieval world. There are others, in various states of preservation, but all with slight variations and interesting modifications of the ancient Eastern iconography to a Western sensibility. Certainly these lively and colourful images should dispel, even for the casual reader, the notion that all aspects of life in the “Dark Ages” in Europe were so very dark.