Hooray For Hermits: Art Celebrating The Eremitic Life

While many subjects depicted by the Old Masters portray events from long-ago days, or people engaged in activities which seem incredibly remote to contemporary eyes, there is one area of human endeavor as depicted in the arts which has changed very little over the last 2,000 years: eremitic life. In Christian practice an eremitic (or “hermit” as we usually call them) is someone who has chosen to remove themselves from the world, in order to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with God. The solitary aspects of their lives have fascinated artists for centuries, but such lifestyles are not a thing of the past. In fact, many hermits still live among us today.

As regular readers know, for several years now I’ve served on the Board of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, which support the establishment of a permanent hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. At the moment we’re still raising funds for the actual hermitage, but we do have a hermit: our dear Franciscan friend, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, who is also the Chaplain of the Coming Home Network International. Brother Rex was recently interviewed by the Catholic News Agency, and I think you’ll enjoy the article – and not just for the great picture of him with a chicken.

Rex

People are often surprised to learn that, yes, there are still hermits among us in this day and age, including right here in the United States. As Brother Rex mentions in the article, he’s aware of a half-dozen or so just in Maine alone! The degree to which those called to this intense form of spiritual life interact with the world depends on various factors, such as the particular religious order which they join. There are, for example, men and women religious who live in solitude, like the wonderful Sister Veronica Paul – whom you should follow on Twitter along with Brother Rex, even if you don’t belong to any particular form of religion – who still manage to engage with the rest of us for periods of time before returning to their solitude.

In art history, there are many depictions of Christians who chose to follow the path to eremitic life. Sometimes these men and women lived in their form of isolation for their entire adult lives, while others did so only for a period of time. The degree to which they removed themselves from day-to-day concerns, and how they chose to live out their vocations, can vary greatly.

A typical example of what most of us think of, when we hear the word, “hermit”, is this work from 1670 by the Dutch Baroque artist, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), now in the National Gallery here in Washington. In it, we see an anonymous Franciscan hermit on his knees at prayer, meditating on a crucifix amidst the ruins where he has chosen to live. Dou was one of the most successful Dutch painters of the second half of the 17th century, and toward the end of his career he seems to have become somewhat enthralled by the subject of the eremitic life, for there are several other works by him depicting hermits “in action” as it were, such as this example at the MIA in Minneapolis and another at the Wallace Collection in London.

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Among the more famous women in history who lived the eremitic life is St. Mary of Egypt. (c.344-421), who simultaneously felt drawn to changing her way of life and indulging her love of sex. In fact, she is said to have made her way on pilgrimage from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Jerusalem by offering her services to others who were traveling to the Holy City as well. There, she underwent a conversion experience, and retired to the deserts in what is now modern Jordan, to spend her life in solitary fasting and prayer.

Although also revered in the West, she is particularly admired in the East. Icons such as this one, recounting the story of her life, have always been very popular in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. She has also, albeit less frequently, been the subject of Western art, such as in this copy of a 15th century Gothic sculpture at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris (the original is preserved inside the church), or in this c. 1660 painting by the Spanish Baroque artist José Claudio Antolinez (1635-1675), now in – ironically enough – the collection of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Antolinez

To close however, I want to show an example of a scene that is touching but rare in Western art. It is said that Zosimus, a monk living near the Jordan River, used to take time to wander the Judean desert by himself for 40 days during Lent. One day he stumbled across St. Mary of Egypt, who was living in a cave, and she told him her life story. She asked him to return the following year on Holy Thursday, so that she might receive the Eucharist, and he promised to do so; the painting below, by a follower of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) depicts that return visit the following year. When Zosimus returned to bring St. Mary communion the next year, he discovered that she had died in her cave, so he went about giving her a Christian burial.

Teniers

Perhaps the takeaway here is that, like all hermits who came before and after her, even though this woman gave up everything to follow her call to the eremitic life, at the end of her earthly life she lacked for nothing. We are lucky, gentle reader, that such individuals still live among us, to advocate on our behalf, and that of the whole world. Please support them, as you are able.

Thought-Pourri: Everything Old Is New Again Edition

Gentle Reader, I hope that you find these Thursday news roundups as enjoyable to read as I do in putting them together. The one snag that I continue to have is that I find the term “Thought-Pourri” a bit too clever by half. If at some point this feature were to be converted into an email newsletter, which is something I’m thinking about, I’d like to find a snappier title. So the best Christmas gift you could send me this year would be some a suggestion for a better title that both fits with the purpose of this summary of news from the art, architecture, and design worlds, and that has more of a snap to it – just use the “Contact” form located on the site. Thank you in advance!

And so, onward to some news…

New/Old Argument: Aragonese Art

As Catalonia goes to the polls today – again – on regional elections ordered by Madrid, an interesting art story has slipped under the radar amidst all of the coverage over the question of Catalan independence. The medieval Monastery of Santa Maria de Sigena is located in Aragón, the region just west of Catalonia. In the early 1980’s the nuns moved out of their decaying premises, which had been several damaged by leftists during the Spanish Civil War, and found a new home in Barcelona; as part of their move they sold some of the art from their old monastery to the Catalan government. The works – which include several spectacularly decorated Gothic sarcophagi like the one shown below – were put on display for a number of years in a museum in the Catalan city of Lleida, but a few years ago, the Aragonese government sued to try to get them back; in 2015, a trial judge ruled in their favor. The Catalan government appealed, and although the appellate case is still pending, in the wake of the Catalan independence vote and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid, the national police force was sent in and removed the disputed works from the museum.

Sigena

New/Old Building: Noxious Neo-Brutalism

Is Brutalism, a horrible abomination of architecture which has been (rightly) derided from its inception by people with good taste, making a comeback? Award-winning British starchitect Sir David Adjaye of the awful National Museum of African American History and Culture here on the National Mall, (or as I call it, the Sandcrawler from “Star Wars”) has just revealed plans for his first highrise tower in Manhattan, which will be located near the Brookyln Bridge. The 66-story structure will be clad in cast concrete, a material which no doubt will age beautifully in the filthy, polluted atmosphere of New York City, just like all of the other crumbling, horrible Brutalist-era buildings which it evokes. One of the highlights, if you can call it that, will be an interior spa and pool area which described as being inspired by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome which, I suppose if you were color-blind and morbidly depressed you could very loosely claim to be the case, but quite frankly it looks like something out of “Blade Runner”, and not in a good way. (No word on whether Harrison Ford is personally to blame for either of these awful buildings.)

Brooklyn

New/Old Fashion: Romanov Riches

As Russia marks the 100th anniversary of the bloodbath known as the Bolshevik Revolution, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has just opened a new, permanent exhibition of 130 historic costumes, most of which belonged to members of the ruling Romanov dynasty. Located at the Hermitage’s vast storage and conservation complex in the north end of the city, the new displays features suits, gowns, and other clothing from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II, among many others. Here for example is a ceremonial cloak and waistcoat worn by one of my favorite Russian oligarchs, Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825), who helped to defeat Napoleon.

Alexander

New/Old Resource: Fine Furniture

If you’ve ever been confused by the multitude of design terms used by museum curators, furniture retailers, and antique dealers when shopping or visiting museums and historic homes, you’re not alone. Even those of us who have at least some knowledge of the history of Western furniture can get a bit perplexed when, for example, a catalogue refers to a chair as “transitional” (what’s it transitioning into, a fridge?) While it won’t solve all such problems, a interesting new site (currently in beta) called British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (“BIFMO”) from the Furniture History Society and the University of London hopes to become a major online resource for those who want to learn their Thomas Chippendale from their George Hepplewhite.

cabinet

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.