The Cats Are Alright: Historic Tails From Russia To Florida

Whenever a disaster affects a country, city, or even a single building, we naturally – and correctly – think first about the effect on human lives. But almost inevitably, we come across terrible stories about how people deliberately abandon their pets in cruel circumstances, such as leaving them chained up outside as a gigantic storm rolls in. So I wanted to share with you some good news for a change, involving two sets of my favorite species of domesticated animal, the felis catus, who live at two very important historic sites that recently came under threat.

On Friday, a small fire in the basement of the Winter Palace, one of the buildings that make up the legendary Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, got very little press in this country. This was partly because no works of art were damaged, and also because coverage of the impending strike of Hurricane Irma dominated American media. For art, history, and cat lovers however, the news was of immediate concern because, famously, the basement of the Hermitage is where the museum’s resident cats hole up, when they are not patrolling the vast corridors of the former Imperial palace looking for rodents.

Fortunately, despite reports that four of the Hermitage’s resident cats had been killed in the fire, it appears that all of the museum’s feline guardians are doing fine. First responders initially believed that four of the cats were dead, but it quickly turned out that they suffered severe smoke inhalation and needed medical care. They were taken to a veterinary hospital, and all are expected to recover. Here you can see one of the museum’s curators and a fireman taking one of the cats away for treatment.

Hermitage

The cats themselves are not a new phenomenon at the Hermitage, although they are not the descendants of the original fluffy residents. In 1745, the Empress Elizabeth specially commissioned that cats with good mousing skills be imported from the city of Kazan in Tatarstan, which was famous for the breeding of such felines. These cats throve in the cellars of the palace for the next 300 years, outlasting even the Romanov Dynasty itself, until they were lost or killed during Hitler’s siege of the city during World War II.

After the war, a new feline family was brought in to the Hermitage, and the offspring of these cats continue to live in the museum today. Like their cousins, the palace’s previous residents, they too have seen dramatic historic changes taking place in the world around them, such as the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Unimpressed by human overexertion, as cats usually are, they simply continue go about their business of napping in sunbeams, looking for people to pet them, and keeping one of the world’s greatest collections of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts free from pests.

Closer to home, authorities in charge of Hemingway House, the beautiful tropical villa of writer Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida, have announced that not only did the historic home withstand the impact of Hurricane Irma, but the property’s cats are all safe and accounted for. Although I don’t care for much of his work, I appreciate the fact that Papa H was a fellow cat fancier, as you can see below. The cats who presently live at the house are the descendants of the original felines which sauntered about the property during the author’s lifetime.

PapaH

Famously, Hemingway’s furry friends are not just ordinary balls of floof, but genetic curiosities known as polydactyl cats. Polydactyls, as the name implies, suffer from an unusual abnormality known as polydactylism – from the Greek “poly” meaning “many, and “daktylos” meaning “finger”. Many of the cats on the property have six or even seven toes on each paw, instead of the usual five on each of the front paws and four on each of the hind paws.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this story is the fact that, before Irma hit, the museum’s authorities called in reinforcements – in the form of the local Catholic priest:

On Thursday, after mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic church in Key West, the Rev. John Baker blessed the house, the Hemingway Home staff and the cats. Gonzales told our correspondent, Francisco Alvarado, that he felt sure no cat would lose any of its nine lives.

Who knows: perhaps St. Gertrude of Nivelles – patroness of cat owners and their purring charges – was looking out for these historic and unusual animals.

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Cleaning House: The Intellectual Challenge Of A Restored Chartres

Last week I shared with you the sad state of affairs at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, where an enormous amount of funds need to be raised to save the famous French Gothic church. Today I want to direct you to developments in an ongoing story which I’ve shared with you before, concerning the controversial restoration of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres. As (arguably) France’s most important Gothic cathedral, Chartres has always attracted a great deal of attention from architects, historians, and scholars – and of course, from pilgrims and tourists as well. With the latest phase of restoration completed and more still to come, some of the changes to what most people think of as the quintessential “Gothic” building are going to be quite shocking.

I’ll let the lengthy NYT piece speak for itself, but I particularly wanted to point out how the “Black Madonna of Chartres” is no longer: she’s back to her original white. In fact as the article points out at the end, she was originally the “White Madonna of Chartres”, as “White Madonnas” made of materials such as ivory, alabaster, or white marble were beloved in both Medieval France and Spain – hence the popularity of the names “Blanche” or “Blanca”. Over centuries of soot from candles, incense, and dust accumulating on their surfaces, these statue often developed a dark patina, turning their skin to a black or grayish color. You can see from these before and after images of Our Lady of Chartres, just how dirty this particular statue had become:

neg

blanc

Regarding the overall controversy in the art press of the restoration work underway at Chartres, I certainly admit to having a personal perspective – or bias, if you prefer. As someone who has not only studied and appreciated sacred art and architecture for most of my life, but who is also a practicing Catholic, I’ve always found commentary from non-Catholic historians and experts on Catholic art and Catholic buildings to be automatically suspect. In fact, many such highly-regarded commentators, when you dig a bit into their background and writings, are not only not Catholics, they openly hate the Catholic Church, or reject all religion generally.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that you have to believe in God in order to understand Catholic art and architecture. But any Catholic with an art or architecture background can share horror stories of visiting an exhibition, or watching a television documentary, and reacting in horror to the complete misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation of Catholicism by those involved.

Sometimes, the cause of this is simple ignorance. Just two weeks ago for example, I had to correct an international art dealer who had misidentified a late Renaissance painting of Saint Matthew as Saint Peter, when the image was so clearly of the former and not the latter that the error could have been corrected by a 6th-grader in a parochial school. At other times however, one gets the impression that many art experts class Catholicism as being no different from the now-dead worship of Ishtar or Zeus, conveniently forgetting or downplaying the fact that today, in 2017, over one billion people living around the world are members of the Catholic Church.

As Chartres becomes less of a dark, moody place, and returns to something more like its original appearance, there are legitimate concerns that should be considered, from those who want to make certain that the building is not being harmed in any way. But as a Harvard art professor quoted in the Times piece points out, there is “no reason to be nostalgic or romantic about the dirt,” because buildings like Chartres were “not monuments to melancholy.” These were places filled with light, color, and music, built to honor God, and to give believers a preview of the Heaven they are meant to strive for, as Catholics. These are functions which these structures still carry out, many centuries later.

Perhaps the real question we should be asking then, is whether a beautifully restored church poses an uncomfortable challenge to those who prefer to portray Catholicism as something dark, ruinous, and sinister in nature.

TBT: Ancient Edition

As curated link posts have been the thing of late, and I received a number of positive comments in response to my most recent iteration of same, here are a few topics that have piqued my interest in the area of ancient art over the last few days:

More Problems At The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York continues to reel from one disaster to another of late. The latest kerfuffle involves two works from antiquity which the museum has had to hand over to authorities. On Monday, the news leaked that the Manhattan District Attorney had seized a magnificent Greek vase decorated with scenes of Dionysus from the 4th century BC, which had been on display at The Met since 1989. Authorities believe the object was looted from a tomb sometime in the 1970’s.

The following day it was revealed that, a month earlier, the Manhattan D.A. had also seized another object of Ancient Greek origin from The Met. This time the art in question was a fragmentary Greek marble sculpture of a bull’s head, which may have been looted from Lebanon during the long civil war which that country suffered through for much of the 1980’s. The sculpture was on long-term loan to The Met from collectors in Colorado, who have unwittingly been drawn into an international dispute while ownership of the sculpture is sorted out.

Bulgarian Baptism

Archaeologists have recently discovered an ancient baptismal font dating from around the 5th century A.D. at a dig in the very ancient city of Plovdiv – at one time it was known as Philippopolis, a wealthy and luxurious town named for the father of Alexander the Great. The font was donated by a Bishop Makedonii to the Christian basilica which once stood on the site, and which seems to have been the largest Christian church in the country at one time. The city was burned to the ground by the Huns in the mid-5th century, so this new basilica replaced the old one, remnants of which have also been found. You can see the font, as well as the magnificent mosaic floors of the church, by following the link.

France’s “Little Pompeii”

Meanwhile in France, the excavation of a new housing construction site in Sainte-Columbe, a town outside the city of modern-day Vienne, has uncovered the most important archaeological site to be found in that country in the last 50 years. A series of houses and public buildings dating from the time of Christ are being excavated, and because so much of it is well-preserved, archaeologists are referring to it as a “Little Pompeii”. It is believed that a series of fires eventually caused the residents to abandon the town and move elsewhere, but as in any disaster scenario it means that many things were left behind, as-is. While the beautiful mosaic floors will be moved to a nearby museum, scientists may be able to reconstruct what one of the houses looked like, from top to bottom, since during the blaze it collapsed on itself like a stack of cards.

A Brassiere Fit For A Queen

Finally, there are lots of interesting stories about the Queen of late – such as this piece about the sort of tipple which she enjoys at various times of day – but this one is quite something. In 1953, on the occasion of the Queen’s coronation, the then-President of Panama sent a rather unusual gift: a large gold Pre-Columbian-style breastplate. It’s something that Queen Boadicea or even Wonder Woman would appreciate, but I don’t imagine HM tried it on for size when she received it.

For unknown reasons it went into storage and was forgotten about, until curators sorting through the royal basements and attics came across it, and realized its significance. Although originally dated to sometime around 1300, experts now believe that the piece could date from as early as 700 A.D. If you happen to be in London, you can toddle along to see it in the “Royal Gifts” exhibition, taking place at Buck House now through January 10th.
Vase