Results Are In: More Capes, No Pancakes

Thanks to everyone who participated in this week’s poll, regarding what to put in the new Photos section of this site.

The three most popular vote-getters were “Pictures of Objects the Author Likes”, “Pictures of Places the Author Has Visited”, and a fill-in “Other”, which I’ll explain in a moment.  As to objects I like, I probably could have defined that better.  Argyle socks, for example: would you really want to see my extensive sock collection, rivalled only by that of President George H.W. Bush?  And as far as places are concerned, right now I’m not traveling a whole lot, but perhaps that could be built up over time.

Among the “Other” category entries, I left a blank space for people to offer suggestions.  Quite a few want to see more comic pics of yours truly dressed up as “Superman Around the House”, a series of photos I did on Twitter last year.  Although that was a fun project, it was also time-consuming. Using a self-timer to take a dozen or more pictures until one without the top of my head being cut off appeared was not the easiest thing in the world.  However I’ll consider it, provided I can find a photographer friend to do it for free [hint, hint.]

Several very good suggestions I received involved the art I often feature in the posts.  Many of you like the images I choose to illustrate the posts on the blog, particularly if they are paintings, sculptures, etc. that you have never seen previously.  Since that ties in nicely with the idea of this project serving as a tool to encourage you to go out and learn more about Western culture, I’ll run with it.  I’m going to choose one image from each week’s posts, and place it in a section on the Photos page, along with title and description information, and link that back to the original post in which it featured. That way, you can either enjoy the image on its own, or see the post it came from if you happen to have missed it.

Other suggestions I received were less helpful.  Some were admittedly amusing, e.g., “bunnies with pancakes on their heads”.  And apparently no one wants to see pictures of “Grumpy Cat”, although I can’t promise I’ll always stay meme-free.

In any case, thanks again for your votes, your readership, and support – and remember that if you have any suggestions on making this site better, please feel free to use the Contact form any time.

Oolong Bunny Pancake Head

Oolang’s one and only appearance on this site

Creating a Habsburg Comic Book

The careful student of history knows that so much of what we think makes us unique or special in contemporary society has far more ancient origins than most of us realize.  For example, human beings love a good story, particularly one about heroic deeds.  People have been telling triumphal tales in many different ways for many centuries, and one such way is through the creation of images.  Now, a newly restored masterpiece from 16th-century Austria gives us a chance to think about how these earlier efforts had a surprising, perhaps unexpected impact on our culture today.

In the past, among the most effective methods of describing adventures and victories was by the use of the tableaux or processional image, featuring an unfolding narrative told through a series of figures and scenes.  Sometimes these efforts were truly massive in scale.  Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, depicts victories of the Emperor Trajan and his processing armies in a carved scroll rising nearly 100 feet high, while the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy is a 230-foot long cloth depicting the Norman conquest of Britain.  Such was the case as well with the massive “Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I”, which has recently been restored and put on display at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

Created for the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I between 1512-1519, the Triumphal Procession was originally more than 300 feet long, though today only a little more than half of it survives.  It is a series of hand-colored, woodblock prints on parchment, which depict a procession of people, events, and symbols associated with the reign of Maximilian.  The piece symbolized both the power of the crown and celebrated the triumphs of Maximilian’s momentous reign, but unfortunately the Emperor himself died before the project was fully completed.

The importance of Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession to our contemporary culture should not escape the reader’s notice, for in a sense it is both the first comic book, and possibly an early motion picture as well.  The piece  is composed of colored pictures which were bound together end to end, so that the story unfolds as one unrolls the parchments.  Scholars believe that, given its state of preservation, it may have been unrolled in sections, to be read and admired sequentially.  Interestingly, it may even have been attached to some sort of device which allowed it to turn onto a spool – which is the same basic, mechanical principle behind motion picture film projectors, for example.

Because these images were printed, rather than a one-off creation like a sculptural column or an embroidered tapestry, they could be re-produced again and again for as long as the original printing block lasted.  This is why several different printings of the Triumphal Procession are known to still exist, in portions, in other European museums.  Gradually, as printing technology improved and the cost of creating these images decreased, it became possible for a series of related images which tell a story to be created and bound together in sequence, and thereafter distributed relatively cheaply.  Eventually, this led to all sorts of developments, including picture books and illustrated how-to manuals.

Admittedly, I am compressing enormous amounts of time, but we can see how the idea of using multiple, cheaply produced images to tell a story eventually led to the creation of characters like Superman (let alone my experience attempting to adopt his persona/appearance), who have had a tremendous influence on our popular culture.  And with the creation of these popular figures, we later on get the work of artists fascinated by the stories told and the techniques used in the creation of these images, such as American Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein, and contemporary British portraitist and painter Julian Opie.  Meanwhile in a separate, parallel development, the idea of a connected strip of images eventually led to the creation of motion pictures, television, and the like.

As stated at the outset, often we do not take the time to appreciate how many contemporary things are conceptually very ancient.  Indeed, in one blog post I cannot touch on everything that led to that something which seems, at least at first glance, to be a modern idea.  Its antecedents can be spotted not just in this important piece of Western art, but also in the art of many other cultures, from Japanese paneled screens to Egyptian tomb paintings.

Yet this single object reminds us that simply because something does not, at first glance, seem very relevant to today, does not mean it should be ignored.  Take the time to be curious about the past, and ask yourself what such objects and concepts meant to people of their time.  By taking the time to learn and study, and to be curious about the world around you, the long-gone Emperor Maximilian’s efforts to memorialize himself may have more relevance to you today, than it did even to the contemporaries of his own time.

Detail from “The Triumphal Procession” by various artists (c. 1512-1519)
Albertina Museum, Vienna

A Consideration of Imagery

Yesterday I was pleased to read that the crowns and orb which had been stolen from the much-beloved statue of Our Lady of Fuencisla, which depicts the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus, in the city of Segovia, Spain, had been recovered by police, and that suspects were very close to being apprehended.  In the process of stealing these items, the thieves broke the hand of the Baby Jesus, and so some restoration will have to take place which is expected to be completed in March of this year.  Today, the city’s mayor has proposed that the official ceremony to re-crown the image when it is repaired take place not in the small church where the statue is displayed, which can only hold a couple of hundred people at the most, but rather in the Plaza Mayor, the large and beautiful main square of the city, which can hold several thousand people.  This gives me an opportunity to write about  two topics which I hope my readers may find worthy of consideration: the Catholic position on images, which is often completely misunderstood or misrepresented, and also the significance of this forthcoming ceremony, itself.

For my readers who are not Catholic Christians, a bit of explanation is in order.  We do not, whatever you may have heard or read to the contrary, worship images of Jesus, saints, angels, and so on.  We use these things as aids to prayer, and visible reminders of our Christian faith, much as having photographs or portraits of your family and friends around your home help you to remember those people whenever you see those images.

Yet just as you do not need a photograph of Grandma to remember that you loved her when she was alive, for Catholics, religious images are not in any way necessary for the practice of the faith.  If a painting or a statue is damaged or destroyed in some way, we regret the loss, but our faith is not damaged or destroyed along with it.  We do not believe that such objects are magical talismans in and of themselves.  Just as your love for Grandma would in no way diminish if, heaven forbid, your photograph of her was lost or ruined, though of course you would be sad not to have it any more, if the Catholic community in Segovia had lost their statue as a result of theft or vandalism,  they would be sad to have lost it, but that would not mean they would stop loving God or practicing their faith.

Let us shift our consideration slightly to the secular world. Suppose that tomorrow, the famous marble statue of Abraham Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial here in Washington were to be destroyed in some horrible natural disaster, like a flood or an earthquake.  Would we forget who Lincoln was, or the great things he did for this country, simply because we had lost an image of him? Of course not: we built the Memorial to honor him, and a beautiful object it is, but the Memorial itself is not why we honor him, nor is it necessary in order for us to be able to honor him.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that Lincoln did not command his memorial to be built.  I would suggest that this is the inverse of what the pagans, such as the Egyptian Pharaohs, thought.  If they built a temple to honor themselves, putting a giant statue of themselves inside, it was because they expected the people would, to paraphrase Lord Byron, look upon their works and despair.  A man who was so powerful that he could build gigantic memorials to himself was a man to be respected, and feared, by a people who had no other choice.   It was true in Luxor then, as (arguably) it is today in places like Pyongyang.

Turning back to the news story that sparked this post, the reason Segovia’s mayor thought it would be fitting to have the images of Jesus and Mary publicly re-crowned in the city’s main square, is because that is where they were originally crowned, in a public celebration held back in 1916.  The restoration of this sculpture, which means a great deal to the people of Segovia, is certainly worthy of celebration among the people of that ancient city, which among its many features possesses the most perfectly preserved Roman aqueduct from antiquity.  Hopefully the diocese will agree with the mayor’s proposal.

For all that we hear about the secularization of Europe, and the de-Christianization of formerly ultra-Catholic Spain in particular, I must tell you that this idea, coming from a politician rather than from a bishop, struck a note of joy for me, that all is not lost.  One can speculate on political motives for the mayor acting as he is doing, or commercial motives for businesses that support his plans, but the fact that ultimately it is God who is being honored, in an imperfect way by imperfect human beings, will not be lost on the participants if this event comes off well.  I for one will be very interested to see how this proposal proceeds.

Procession of the Virgen de Fuencisla passing
under the Roman Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain last year