Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Renaissance Crucifixion

Lorenzo Lotto: Crucifixion, 1531. Santa Maria in Telusiano, Monte San Giusto, Macerata, Marche. (oil on wood, 450x250 cm). Click on image to enlarge.

Italian Renaissance master Lorenzo Lotto was born in Venice around 1480 but spent most of his long career working in provincial towns. Perhaps this is why he is not as well known as Giorgione and Titian, both of whom were born outside of Venice but did most of their work there.

Lotto’s most powerful and dramatic work was a Crucifixion that still stands in its original site in the little church of Santa Maria in Telusiano in the small out of the way hill town of Monte San Giusto located in that part of Italy known as the Marche. The town is not too far from Loreto, the religious center where Lotto eventually spent the last years of his life.

Lotto’s Crucifixion shows that he could hold his own with the greatest of Renaissance masters. My wife and I saw the painting a few years ago as we traveled down the Adriatic coast. Our old guidebook mentioned the painting in Monte San Giusto and we decided to take a side trip out of our way in hope of finding it.  Although we are very thankful for the wonderful works of art preserved today in Italian museums, it is always special to see a work “in situ”, where it was originally meant to be seen.

It was not easy to find the church and we finally had to go into a local bank where a patron kindly offered to lead us there through the curvy narrow streets of the town. We parked outside a long stone staircase that went up and up between stone buildings packed closely together on each side.

It was hard to immediately recognize the church but we finally found a door that led into what was no more than a large chapel. It was dark inside and the church was empty except for a couple of ladies who seemed to be cleaning. We could hardly see the painting behind the only altar but one of the ladies pointed to a little box. We put a coin in and immediately the huge magnificent painting (450x250cm) that took up almost the whole back wall was revealed.

Revealed is an understatement. The light, color, movement, physicality, and dramatic intensity virtually jumped out at us. In the foreground, the disciple John, robed in green, seems to lead the grieving Mother right out of the picture. Behind them red-haired Mary Magdalene dressed in blue stretches out her arms in grief. A crowd of guards and onlookers stand beneath and around the three crosses that reach high into a dark sky. Jesus is in the middle flanked by the two thieves.

Standing in Santa Maria it is hard to examine the huge painting closely because the impression is so overwhelming. But on reflection we can see that Lotto has depicted the moment right after the death of Jesus. We can see the Roman centurion Longinus on his white horse immediately after he has placed the point of his lance in the side of Jesus to verify his death. He has released the lance and it is about to fall. He reaches both hands toward Jesus in the act of shouting, “truly, this man was the Son of God.”

The death of Jesus is also marked by a great wind that causes the loin cloths of Jesus and the thieves to billow as well as the Roman banner on the right where one can just make our the first letters of the name of Caesar Augustus. It would appear then that John is taking the Mother of Jesus away from the scene of horror.

Today, it is hard to imagine what churchgoers back in an obscure provincial town must have thought when they beheld this magnificent painting. They could never have seen anything like it before and must have known that a great master had done it. Going to Mass in Santa Maria in Telusiano would never be the same. At the Consecration as the priest at the altar raised high the consecrated host, their eyes would behold the sacrificial victim raised high on Calvary in the dramatic and breathtaking altarpiece behind.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ukraine and U.S. Foreign Policy


In March of this year I wrote the following about the situation in the Ukraine.
"We cannot and should not be the world’s policeman. When we have tried we have often done more harm than good. We deposed a dictator in Iraq but does anyone know how many Iraqi lives were lost in the process of liberating them? You could even argue that despite their obvious political differences, our last two Presidents have de-stabilized the entire Middle East. Do we want to do the same in the great borderland between Europe and Asia?" 
Subsequent events, even last week’s tragic downing of a Malaysian airliner, have only reinforced my opinion that the United States should not get involved in the current conflict. When I refer to recent events, I am not just thinking of the Ukraine.
Consider the new developments in Iraq where we fought for ten years to remove a brutal dictator, and then establish a new government based on democratic principles. It turns out that a Shiite minority dominated the new government and excluded important elements in the population from participation. We even trained and armed an Iraqi army of over 200000 men that seems to have just withered away in the past few weeks in the face of a heavily armed Sunni insurgency.

In Afghanistan I fear the same result and the inevitable return of the Taliban. A recent election drew immediate cries of fraud. At the same time our involvement in Afghanistan has de-stabilized neighboring Pakistan. What would it take for insurgents in Pakistan to gain control of that country’s nuclear arsenal?

The Ukraine has the potential to be even more serious than Iraq or Afghanistan. But do we really know what is going on there? A year ago the Ukraine was in a bidding war between the European Union and Russia, its major supplier of oil and gas. Only a decade before the Ukraine had been separated from Russia after the downfall of the Soviet Empire. Although initially leaning toward the EU, the Ukrainian President eventually took the Russian offer of billions in aid and a renewed energy promise. His decision sparked a revolution that forced him to flee the country. He was replaced by a new government that renewed the overtures to the West. Russian President Putin reacted by occupying the Crimea and now supporting a separatist movement in the eastern Ukraine.

After the downing of the Malaysian airliner Western politicians and influential news organs like the Wall St, Journal have renewed calls for even harsher economic sanctions against Russia. At the same time as they insist on calling President Putin a dictator, they believe that he will succumb to the pleas of Russian plutocrats, the “new nobility”,  when the sanctions hit them in their pocketbooks. Thankfully, no one seems to be calling for an escalation of the arms race in the Ukraine.

I believe that there is a much larger issue involved in the conflict in the Ukraine. American foreign policy must ultimately be based on what is in the best interests of the United States. In both the short and the long run, the real question is whether it is in the best interest of the United States to have a strong or a weak Russia. I would argue that since we cannot police the world by ourselves, a strong Russia is better for us than a weak, strife torn, economically depressed, and fragmented Russia.

The Russian economy today is primarily based on its huge reserves of oil and gas. Energy exports have created the Russian plutocracy who have been forced to send their fortunes out of the country for want of a safe place to keep them in Russia. They are buying Western real estate, sports teams, and masterworks of art. Just the other day Russians were among the major players at Sotheby’s record-breaking sale of Old Master paintings. Russia is one of the leading suppliers of energy to Western Europe including neighboring Ukraine, which has been notoriously bad at paying.

Politically, practically all of Russia’s southern frontier is threatened by Moslem extremists. If we have a problem with terrorism, the threat faced by Russia is much greater. In the east Russia faces the growing economic and military power of China with which it has just concluded a huge energy deal. Is it any wonder that President Putin might be alarmed at the thought of the Ukraine being part of the European Union and even allied with NATO? How far does a country have to be from the North Atlantic not to be part of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance?

For centuries the Ukraine has been within the Russian sphere of influence. The break up of the Soviet Union created a new state where none had ever existed before. Just look at a map of Europe in 1914 on the eve of the First World War and see if you can find the Ukraine. Why should we be surprised if President Putin objects to the presence of NATO forces as close to Russia as Canada is to the USA? If the new Ukrainian revolutionary government has any sense, they will cut a deal with Russia whose energy assistance they so desperately need.

One hundred years ago, in August 1914, a great World War erupted over an assassination in Serbia in central Europe. Over four years millions and millions of combatants and non-combatants lost their lives. The social and economic disorder that followed was even more devastating. If anyone of the leaders who made the decision to go to war in 1914 could have seen the catastrophe that ensued, I’m sure they would not have been so rash. In a modern nuclear war as many millions could be lost in four hours.

A strong Russia would be in the best interests of the United States. Even if there is no war, do we want economic sanctions to collapse the fragile Russian economy and create the kind of political disorder we now witness in the Middle East?  The break up of the Turkish Empire after 1914 has led to a century of chaos and devastation that just goes on and on.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Albrecht Durer in California

Last week my wife and I went to California to visit two of our daughters and to witness the Baptism of our sixteenth grandchild. One daughter lives near the magnificent Huntington Library in San Marino just outside of Pasadena. Whenever we visit we like to go to the Huntington for its beautiful setting, lovely gardens, and incredible collection. 

The Huntington was largely the work  of Henry Huntington, a wealthy railroad  magnate, and his wife Arabella. Actually, Arabella was first the wife of Henry’s uncle but after he passed away, Henry pursued the wealthy widow until she finally agreed to marry again. All three were avid collectors. 

Arabella Huntington, 1924

On entering the main gallery one is struck by a portrait of a very formidable Arabella done in 1924 the year of her death. At the time she was perhaps the richest woman in the world and  she must have accepted the portrait as a way of showing the world that she had not been a silly or frivolous woman. Despite her formidable aspect in old age, the portrait made me wonder what she might have been like as a young girl of about the same age as “Pinkie”, the young girl in one of the Huntington’s most prized possessions.

We went to the Huntington this visit to see a small exhibition devoted to some of Albrecht Durer’s most famous prints. A guard at the Museum told us that the Huntington had well over 100000 prints in its collection but none can be as remarkable as the Durer’s on display this summer. The exhibition is called Albrecht Durer: Master of the Black line.

The development of movable type and the printing press by Gutenberg coincided with a equally important development in the world of illustration. Engraving on wood, copper, or silver began about the same time as the printing press, and the new technique allowed works of illustration to be copied and reproduced with relative ease. Durer was not the first but by the time the Renaissance was in full swing, he had brought the art of engraving to a height that has never been equaled.

Durer: Vision of St. Eustace
click image to enlarge

Altogether there arte 33 prints in the Huntington exhibition four of the larger ones will give an idea of Durer’s mastery of his craft. St. Eustace venerating a cross appearing between the antlers of a stag, is featured in the Huntington’s online introduction to the exhibit. Durer depicts the legendary apparition with incredible detail. If interested, click on this link from the Clark Museum to see how an art historian examines the details and the meaning of this masterwork.   

Like most Renaissance greats, Durer worked mainly on religious subjects but used his inventiveness to bring out many levels of meaning. Three of his most famous engravings are also part of the exhibition and they are placed side by side for maximum effect. First is the mounted knight accompanied by Death and Satan. Scholars have noed that the Knight symbolizes the active Christian soldier. Second is St. Jerome working in his study. Jerome, a hermit as well as the translator of the Bible into Latin, symbolizes the contemplative life. Finally, a work that Durer himself entitled “Melencholia” represents the artist himself, a brooding sensitive genius. 

The image of the Knight accompanied by Death and Satan reminded me of a classic film by famed Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The film is "the Seventh Seal" and tells the story of a knight returning home after years on a Crusade only to find that Death wants him. He is only able to delay the inevitable by challenging Death to a game of Chess. Click on this link or see the brief video below. Like most Chess players Death cannot refuse a chance to play his favorite game.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Declaration of Independence


Every July 4 we celebrate Independence Day, the anniversary of the promulgation of our famed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Most of us have heard the famous opening lines of the document,
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
However, few have ever read the entire Declaration and even fewer have any understanding of the nature of the actual grievances that led the colonists to sever their ties with England and seek independence. Most readers don’t get past the following words.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
Even though King George III of England was one of the nicest, most benevolent rulers that England ever had, the colonists portrayed him as a tyrannical despot. No one was a more determined supporter of representative government than this young King, who though descended from German ancestors prided himself on being an Englishman.

The real conflict between England and her American colonies was not between Monarchy and Democracy but between the rights of the British people represented as they were by their own Parliament, and the rights of the American colonists represented as they were by their own colonial assemblies. In this conflict no one was a greater supporter of the rights and authority of the British Parliament than the King.

For the most part the Declaration of Independence does not complain about violations of individual human rights but concentrates on what it claims has been a systematic attempt on the part of the government in England to violate the rights and privileges of colonial representative assemblies.

The founding fathers believed that these assemblies that represented the leading citizens and property owners in the various colonies were the sole bulwark against monarchical tyranny on the one hand, and democratic anarchy on the other. They claimed that the King and his colonial governors have repeatedly refused to put into operation laws passed by these assemblies.
He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. 
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
In some cases the English government has even gone so far as to dissolve some of these representative assemblies and leave particular colonies without any form of self-government. The legal system, military defense, and tax collection have been taken out of the hands of the colonial representatives.

He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly for opposing with manly firmness his invasions of the rights of the people. 
He has refused for a longtime, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected… 
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers. 
•He has made the judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries. 

•He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance. 

•He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures. 

• He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operations till his assent should be obtained;
He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature,…
In the end the Declaration claimed that it came down to a contest between their own local representative assemblies and a faraway legislature that did not represent them. Because they had come to deny the authority of the British Parliament, they never used the word Parliament in the document but the following words are unmistakable.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation.

There are elements in the Declaration that might seem offensive to modern ears. Jefferson and others in America opposed the efforts of a reforming British government to permit religious toleration of the large Catholic population in newly conquered Canada. For them Catholicism went hand in hand with despotism.

The Declaration also complained about attempts on the part of the British government to prevent colonization of Indian territory. Indeed, it claimed that England was encouraging the native tribes.
And has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.
Nevertheless, the leaders assembled in Congress insisted on their rights as Englishmen to govern themselves. They wanted government to be as close to home as possible. They would make their own laws, vote their own taxes when necessary, and be responsible for their own legal and military systems. They did not want to be governed by a faraway government that had little concern for their interests or welfare.

It was true that the founders were men of property and status. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin were not common men. Democracy would come later. For the present they wanted to protect their right to self-government. The British government had declared itself “invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” To resist, they were prepared to risk all that they held dear.
And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
Jonathan Trumbull: Signing of the Declaration