Friday, September 21, 2012

Early Christian Art: The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

Before I start explaining the artwork I should give a little context to the form itself which is a sarcophagus.  This was the preferred type of funeral box among Romans and before them among their Etruscan ancestors.  The word "sarcophagus" actually means "eater of flesh" and was a stone box chosen because of the stone's mineral ability to hasten decay, much like the spreading of lye and lime would do.  So, a sarcophagus has similarities to an ossuary but it also has similarities to permanent monuments, which is ironic considering the less than permanent approach to the encased remains.  That said, the image below is the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

Junius Bassus died around the year A.D. 359.  The sarcophagus may have been prepared by the family before his death.  It was known to have been placed in Old St. Peter's basilica sometime between the years 400 and 600 and was rediscovered and subsequently venerated after 1509.  Stylistically it looks somewhat awkward after reviewing centuries of classical Greek and Hellene Roman art, but is actually one of the finest and most sophisticated examples of Early Christian art.

Perhaps a little more contextual history is in order.  Christianity was an outlawed religion in its first three centuries -- more so than to merely say that it was not a lawful and recognized religion, it was the subject of intense persecution.  The previous three emperors had crucified Christians by the hundreds perhaps thousands, enslaved and imprisoned others, martyrdom and torture were common, and it was so politically vilified that a politician such as Junius Bassus probably kept his conversion secret until his death.  Christianity only became legal and somewhat safer in A.D. 312 when Constantine signed The Edict of Milan declaring Christianity to be his religion and a lawful Roman religion.

That would have occurred around the time that Junius Bassus was born into a political family of high aspirations.  Such people were often recognized in Rome with sculpture busts, many lining the Appian Way and the Roman Forum, and he would have expected a public memorial after death placed on view somewhere such as an atrium or in the senate.  That is why his sarcophagus is so elaborately sculpted and that is why it is remarkable.

What Junius Bassus chose to do was to write large his beliefs for public viewing at a time when such things did not exist.  A.D. 359 was only 30 years after the first Nicean Council and the beginnings of codifying Christian beliefs, and centuries before churches and cathedrals would become covered with such carvings and imagery.  The artist may or may not have been a Christian but was certainly a Roman and acquainted only with Greek and Roman symbols and means of telling a story.

Yet the sculptor and Junius Bassus chose to tell us some of the foundational beliefs and Bible stories in a remarkably articulate way.  Adam and Eve in the Garden and their Fall to Original Sin, Jesus entering Jerusalem for the Passion Week of His crucifixion, Daniel in the Lions' Den, Christ transfigured glorified and enthroned, Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac, and other Bible stories and doctrines that Junius Bassus chose to declare to the public in stone, at a time when many of those doctrines had not yet been rendered in universities and seminaries.  Yet he knew and understood them, and the sculptor conveyed them so clearly that we can easily parse through them nearly two millennia later.

One of the most striking images is that of Christ Enthroned.  How was a Roman artist to depict that subject?  It is not the same as showing Apollo, or substituting Sol Invictus, the image of Apollo in his chariot as a secret symbol appropriated for Christ.  The artist had to convey the concepts of "son of God", the son in power, the transfiguration and glory as described in the gospels, and the sense that the two prophets flanking Jesus worship Him and respect His authority.  And the only way a Roman sculptor could visualize God was as Zeus, father to the Roman deities.

You can see Zeus thus depicted on the breastplate of Caesar Augustus in the Primaporta statue (yes, that is the same Augustus mentioned in Luke's gospel account of Jesus's birth, the one who declared that all the world should be taxed):

Zeus is shown as a bearded old man holding the canopy of Heaven over his head.  Thus we know that he is master of the universe.

The sculptor for Junius Bassus used that same symbolism, and put Jesus's feet on His head as much as to say, "the son is now superior" or that He is empowered.  To get across "son", a younger man, the sculptor made Jesus beardless and adolescent.  On either side of Him are Moses and Elijah, dutifully listening as if receiving orders from their emperor, and Jesus sits on the same kind of bench that Roman Caesars used as thrones.

One has to remember that all the detailing -- all of the detailing preceded such decoration in churches.  The columns, dentils, etc., were features of Roman temples, triumphal arches, and monuments of governmental power at the time that these sculptures were carved.

One also has to remember that this was done for a largely literate public, one prone to discourse and debate, at a time when Greco-Roman culture flourished and dominated the known world.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Monster's Nesting Block

I had always thought of Henry Jekyll as a good person whose flaws caused him to err and whose inner demons came to light.  Isn't that the way the motion pictures portray him, more or less?  You sort of feel sorry for him, but not as sympathetically sorry as you feel for Frankenstein's monster.  You never feel all that sorry for Jekyll because he is such an arrogant self-righteous vain twit.

But it was my son Nathan who, at a remarkably young age, maybe even just 12 or so, made me realize that the monster was in the mirror all along.  Hyde wasn't something hidden inside Jekyll or merely a part of Jekyll, the monster was Jekyll himself.  In his own self-righteousness and superiority and elite self-confidence Jekyll, judging and looking down on others, convinced of his own moral worth was the monster.  The monster nested in him, yes, because he himself was always the monster.

I can't precisely recall what conversation brought this out, but I think that we were talking about the 1931 Fredric March / Rouben Mamoulian film, one of my all-time favorites.  At some point the Hays Office had removed the scene where Jekyll sitting in a park sees a cat attack and kill a bird and Jekyll's rage over it transforms him into Hyde without taking the formula, his final and ultimate transformation.  Restored versions of the film have the scene.  It reveals Jekyll's hidden hypocrisy that he would be outraged at the death of a bird yet guilty of his own atrocities against his fellow creatures.

But, Nathan pointed out that this is not the scene in the book.  In Robert Louis Stevenson's book Jekyll is sitting in the park, yes, but he is judging the people that he sees pass by as shallower and vainer and morally inferior to himself and it is in the midst of his judgmentalism that he transforms fully and finally into Hyde.  The point being that he does not become the devil incarnate, in his self-righteousness he was always the devil incarnate.

To quote, "There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; and this brief condescension to my evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul. And yet I was not alarmed; the fall seemed natural, like a return to the old days before I had made my discovery. It was a fine, clear January day, wet under foot where the frost had melted, but cloudless overhead; and the Regents Park was full of winter chirrupings and sweet with Spring odours. I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin. After all, I reflected, I was like my neighbours; and then I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect. And at the very moment of that vainglorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and the most deadly shuddering. These passed away, and left me faint; and then as in its turn the faintness subsided, I began to be aware of a change in the temper of my thoughts, a greater boldness, a contempt of danger, a solution of the bonds of obligation. I looked down; my clothes hung formlessly on my shrunken limbs; the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde. A moment before I had been safe of all men's respect, wealthy, beloved - the cloth laying for me in the dining-room at home; and now I was the common quarry of mankind, hunted, houseless, a known murderer, thrall to the gallows."

The Hollywood version interprets Jekyll one of two ways, either he is a nice man with a monster nesting in him or he is a monster with a good man inside him trying to get out.  As Hyde eerily shouts in the film, "Free!  Free at last!"  But in Stevenson's book Jekyll was a monster all along, Hyde is part and parcel of the man himself, and in Jekyll's own self-absorbed vanity he pities himself and fails to see that he judges others not from moral superiority but from a shadow of degradation.

The monster is not within the nesting block nor is the good man, the creature is one flawed and arrogant whole, self-righteously condemning others for petty flaws and vanity while he himself is a murderer unable to see the man in the mirror and condemn his own flaws. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

You Are Supposed to hate Modern Art

You are supposed to hate Modern Art, it is one of the internal proofs that Modernism is Modern and that an art style has in effect succeeded.  As critics such as Clement Greenberg said and artists such as Jackson Pollock said, for any artwork to be considered Modern it had to be hated at first.

This began with Manet's Luncheon on the Grass, Le Dejeuner Sur L'herbe, which was art about art.  No one could have nude picnics in the park.  The nude is not a snapshot of 1870's urban liberty, she is a commentary on the required classical subjects of the Paris Academy.  The Academies defined what could be considered as "good art" or "fine art" or even worthy art.  Manet was not really a Modern, he did not revolutionize art and break free from the Academy and neoclassicism but his work shows the trend toward "art for art's sake", the impulse to break free from the confining rules of The Academy and to find a "pure" art, as music was able to find some freedom in "pure" music.

Rules were replaced by theories.  Overall composition and a grid took the place of continuous contour and trompe l'oiel.  Color became more important than form.  Color came to define form.  Process became more important than subject and subjects did not have to be the "eternal" or "sublime" subjects of the classical world.  But, such changes moved away from the established judges, the masters of the Academy, and moved away from established definitions of "good art" and "fine art".

Subsequently, decades of "bad art" were born.  The Fauvists, such as Matisse, were ridiculed in the newspapers and threatened with lawsuits and jail for painting like "wild pigs", hence their name of Fauvists.  James Abbott McNeill Whistler entered into lengthy lawsuits against John Ruskin, master of the British National Academy, because Ruskin accused Whistler of flinging paint in the public's face.  More than a century of finger-pointing followed with many scholars regularly bemoaning "the death of culture" and "the destruction of western civilization".

But, the definition of Western Civilization is rooted in the Greeks and therefore anchored to classicism and was thus the baileywick of the Academies.  A diverse population that seeks any change in culture would have to break away from the domination of the Greeks.  What had flourished once as a Renaissance had become centuries of servile repetition.  One need look no further than a toga-clad George Washington and a marble nude of Pocahontas to see this.

Therefore Modernism was defined by revolution and theory and radical change.  It consequently ushered in "bad art" because anything that was good and causing real change had to be hated at first.  This inherently means a bit of self-righteous idealism and it wasn't long before Modernism became the kind of dogmatic authoritarian institution it sought to bring down.  The culmination of that was either The New York School after World War II or not much later as theory broke down into minimalism and hard-edge abstraction.  There is only just so much reduction that reductionism can do.  Perhaps Conceptual Art where there wasn't even art at all only an idea ended Modernism.

When PBS ran a series about The New York School this was the mantra that every artist and critic repeated, everyone hated it.  There was never any style that people hated more than Abstract Expressionism, and all of those people said that with a smile.

So, for Modern Art to be Modern Art you have to hate it, otherwise the Trojan Horse of the Greeks comes back and freedom fails.  Or so would say a true Modernist.