Friday, July 5, 2013

The supposed "heresy" of "All men are born equal" part 1

Polish Medieval coins with inscriptions in Hebrew
Yesterday was 4th of July celebrations in US. This time I am moving away from my chronological plan, and move in the next entry about this subject into 16th and 17th century Poland,  some "heretics" there dared to declare that "all men are born free." This included women too. Those people ideas influenced thinking in Europe, and then found it bloom in American Constitution. Do you know that Newton, Locke, Founding Fathers and other influential thinkers had their writings  in their libraries, or knew some of the thinkers in person?

The story of Socinians, Arians, or Polish Brethren as they were called, is the history of religious tolerance becoming persecuted fro freedom of conscience and pacifism. About them in the second part. Before I will write about them specifically, I need to explain a little bit more why I am doing it, about roots, and liberties  protected and abused.

This Summer I will write more about Poland, as there are interesting subjects you normally will not encounter easily. I hope I will not appear like Gus from My Big Fat Greek Wedding who promotes Greece such way that whatever is good it must be Greek. I will be writing about Poland, good and bad, also about roots of ideas, not only about Polish  Brethren who influenced Enlightenment in Europe and American Constitution, but also about Bogomils who influenced Cathars, Czech Brethren who were before Luther, and Arabs who influenced science and courtly love.

Poland once was a very unique country in Europe; had religious freedom guarantied by law.  There is a reason that there are Polish legends which talk about people escaping from other countries and finding safe haven in Poland. It was once called "a country without burning stakes." This is only partially true. And also the story of Polish Brethren, quite unique about whose ideas I was thinking yesterday in relation to American Constitution. Their story is story of intolerance in a country which was supposed to be tolerant,as declared to be so. Freedom can be very fragile, and needs to be protected. I will one time write more about burning stakes in Poland, but Polish Brethren were expelled form Poland. It was a tragedy because tolerance was guarantied by law.

Other people were not as fortunate to be "only" banished. Just some idea about it: Jews came to Poland because there were prosecuted in other countries. Many came from Spain. In Poland it was a unique situation Chapter of Jewish Liberties, known as Statute of Kalisz. It created a Jewish nation inside Polish nation. Please, take time to read this document, it is from 13th century, as it is very interesting, on English wikipedia are only some points out of original 36 , but still interesting.

Sounds good, right? For example the chapter forbade accusations of blood libel. Once world world's largest Jewish population lived in Poland, because they came there, escaped, looking for protection. Yet one Jew in Krakow was accused of desecration of the host, and he was burned on the stake. In Silesia 50 Jews were burned on the stake because they were accused of blood libel. Were such accusations forbidden by law?  Their freedom was supposed to be guaranteed by law, and I don't buy the argument " that it was unusually few casualties in comparison to the rest of Europe."  No, such comparison simply doesn't make it better, less tragic.  No need to ignore the problem, because the victims deserve better.  Even this one person in Krakow who was burned because he was accused of desecration, this is one human life too many.

There was also hysteria during epidemics, riots etc. No person should have been even harassed because of differences in creed, ethnicity etc. Those people came to Poland because they wanted protection. It is no need to be lured by numbers and compare it to other countries in Europe which were much worse. Comparing to even worse isn't ethically sound at all. In relation to  human lives and dignity. Even one victim is one too many, period. 

Wojciech Gerson, Reception of Jews by Casimir the Great, painting from 1874

History of Jews in Poland article can tell you more details, about riots, blaming Jews for black death and so on. It was not only freedom of religion and freedom profession on equal level with Christians. There were also abuses of freedom and human rights.

How strange is the contrast of Statutes of Kalisz in comparison to WWII. Non-Jewish victims in Poland were 3 millions, which was 20% of Polish population killed. Three million Polish Jews killed counted for 90% of Jewish population in Poland. We humans were we not supposed to be  "more civilized" during XX c?  After the era of Enlightenment people less enlightened than during Medieval times?  Antisemitism was than sponsored by the communist regime. Freedom need to be protected, always.

In comparison to those XXc. prosecutors, the king on the picture above was more enligthened. He not only reconfirmed the favorable laws of his predecessor who lived century earlier, but added additional protections. Freedom need to be protected, always.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Beuatiful Madonnas style in International Gothic and topoi of courtly love

Today i want to show some Madonnas in style which was a branch of International Gothic. Those depictions of Virgin Mary are called in Beautiful Madonnas. This iconographic type emerged in Bohemia (Czech Republic today), and spread to neighbouring states: Holy Roman Empire including Silesia, Poland, Teutonic Knights Crusader State, Burgundy, Austria and France. Not surprising that in the Teutonic Knights' state,   the domain of militant order with their strong devotion to Virgin Mary this style spread rapidly.

Madonna of Kruzlowa, by Ludwig Schneider/Wikimedia
Beautiful Madonnas were mostly stone sculptures, but sometimes were made wood, sometimes of terracotta fully three dimensional, no reliefs sculptures.

This type was a re-edition of images of Madonna with child, which started already in Byzantium, but this time Madonna was depicted as a very young woman, with delicate hands and small head, beautiful and lyrical. There is a lot of charm in Beautiful Madonnas, it is very sublime style with gentle gestures, cascades of fabrics, emotions showed realistically also the was strong attention to detail as the artists wanted to depict her very realistically, in a less stylized manner. It is all very refined in comparison to the previous styles of representation of her.

Characteristic pose of Madonnas is so called S pose, where the person stands slightly slouching, belly forward, the spine is bend, not straight. This was also a common pose in International Gothic, or High Gothic in general. It was considered very elegant those days.

The example on the left Madonna from Kruzlowa is obviously very young, she looks like an ideal lady of the court culture of her times. About an ideal of beauty in Gothic another time, in a separate entry. Yes, the baby looking as if he was going bald was one of the beauty ideals, also women had very high foreheads, which gave them balding looks. It was a fashion once.

Here the Madonna of Kruzlowa and her child are represented as New Adam and New Eve. This maybe confusing for today's audiences, but there was a lot of theological disputes in the Middle Ages about Mary's role in  redemption of humanity. Medieval allegories and symbols can be strange, but they also can be explained in a simple manner, I hope I can do it without making things complicated: Virgin Mary and her son are the new humanity, both were new people born without original sin. Adam and Eve were the people of old times, before the redemptive powers of the Messiah appeared in human form. Both Virgin and child are human, but also are divine, closer to perfection as born without original sin.  In Catholic doctrine Mary is the co-Savior, and Jesus is Savior of the world. Both take part in salvation of fallen  humanity. Here we see the apple in baby Jesus hand, it has double nature: it is an apple from Eden, but also an apple as globe, part of royal regalia, showing him as the ruler of humanity.

Beautiful Madonna of Wroclaw, Anonymous of Wroclaw or Prague, via wikicommons/ Burgher S

You can view a gallery of Beautiful Madonnas on wikipedia article (which i sin Polish only, but has quite nice visuals.) Those Madonnas represented ideal beauty, those ladies are equivalent of  models of today.  This type of representation was not a stylized Madonna anymore, but one that looked like a woman from real world, dressed like her, standing, gesturing like her, interacting with her child like a real mother from real world.

Also they would be cherished as court ladies, their about their virtues troubadours would sing. Just she wouldn't be so real, as the ladies who were the subject of courtly love were supposed to be extremely virtuous, extremely good.Knight would fall in love just by hearing of their virtues, before seeing them in person. Love of such lady was supposed to transform the lover who worshiped her.

 Even though in secular world the poetry of courtly love also included erotic elements, there was also an element of total sublimation, spread by the philosophy of Neo-platonism. Certain ideas overlapped, for example the idea of total devotion which echoes in mystical writings among others in those by Bernard of Clairveau who adored Virgin Mary, not a lady in earthly form. The lady is so adored, that she becomes unreal, she becomes totally divine. An ideal lady in secular world was of course a queen, and often the Virgin is wearing a royal crown.

Bust of a Virgin, terreacota, Bohemia, XIVc, wikimedia/ Mieow Mieow

The love of the Virgin is similar to courtly love, but of course is platonic, totally mystical, often has symbolic forms, like the Song of Songs was interpreted symbolically. Medieval mysticism, or Mariology in general, can be confusing. Social context and a little bit of social history is needed in order to make more sense of it.

Certain elements of devotion to Virgin Mary have common points in the idea of courtly love, it is strong selfless adoration of a chosen woman. With time an earthly court lady was replaced by Madonna, the Heavenly Lady. When the times of courtly love, fin'amor, (fine love), came to an end, and new era came:  XIII c was time of strong devotion to the Virgin Mary and mystical experience of sublimated love which broke any connections to sensuality.

For example Daude de Pradas who was also a troubadour, wrote that God was ultimate ":fine love and truth," and who loves God is loved back perfectly by him. He used the term fin'amor  referring to God, the term which was used usually in connection with courtly love. Lanfranc Cigala, another troubadour, also wrote about fine love in his religious poems. In his Gloriosa sainta Maria he wrote that he now is praising Virgin Mary as his lady in his songs, as the earthly love gave him only disappointment and pain.

Was this the search for ultimate virtue which gave new characteristics to Mariology? Probably. But also more troubadours than before were admonished not to sing sensual songs after the Albigensian Crusade. At once the culture of Southern France, home of prominent troubadours, became "worse than of the Saracens."  This  is a typical excuse of the colonisers, to talk with contempt about the culture they conquered. It happened later, in cases of XIX c. colonisation as well, putting down on India, Africa, Indochina, etc. But sometimes the conquerors adopted certain things for themselves, "to pity to destroy," as one of my art history teachers said. Troubadours were not only there, but Occitan culture was the culture of troubadours like for example Germany has culture of philosophy and good engineering.

But ardent songs of earthly love had topoi which were easily translated and adopted into mystical experience of platonic love. Song of Songs was symbolic also. Metaphors of religious love included love of parents for their children, love of spouses and also love of siblings. It seems that we humans need things earthly to express things the most abstract but very real at the same time. Mystical experiences belong to such realm of strong abstraction and reality.

The Madonnas included in this article here you can see  in order of appearance in two museums in Poland  Madonna of Kruzlowa is in Krakow,  Wroclaw Madonna is in Warsaw,  and in Bohemian Madonna in New York.Article about courtly love from wikipedia

Monday, July 1, 2013

Saints who once were crooks, criminals and bad people in general

St Christopher, dog-headed saint,  icon
This entry will be not a light read partially, for it is about bad people who changed their ways and became saints, were reformed individuals.

 I was writing about Mary Magdalene and I see from my statistics that entries about her are quite popular. She was also an extremely popular saint, also in Catholicism which described her as a reformed prostitute for over a millennium.There is a disbelief, in general, regarding her alleged former profession and her super star status. It seems that branding someone as a prostitute would be a social death, and it was, normally. And here the logic of old days and logic of today clash: we talk today about erasing Mary Magdalene through smear campaign, all very upsetting. Logical point, not much to dispute from today's view point. After all we live in a society  in which  we can for example discredit a politician for marital infidelity. But she was a saint and she was worshiped by a society different than ours. She wasn't an average person: she was a saint.

We can't always apply our today logic to societies of days gone. Mary Magdalene was described as a  former prostitute, but also was called no less than Apostle to the Apostles. She was also the second most depicted saint: Virgin Mary was first. I know that modern day people struggle deeply with this paradox. Which is logical, of course. But keep in mind that societies of old were in some regards very, very different than ours, their beliefs, social mores, social system, in general their culture was different.

This maybe come as a surprise, but Mary Magdalene was not the only saint who "was a great sinner," as those saints were described relating to the phases in their lives before changing their ways. In her alleged status as a former sinner she wasn't even the worst one. There is over thirty saints who were very ungodly before they changed and after some time achieved saintly characters. (There were saints who had human lives on their conscience, for example). Hard to grasp? Maybe. If we don't know the cultural attitude toward transformation in earlier days, yes, those issues become incompatible, and it is surely  understandable that they are incompatible.

 Yet people during Medieval times,  Renaissance, and Baroque had different views. Actually as late as until Victorian times people were not shy about retelling the sins of the saints. Not at all. They told that St Olga had lots of blood on her hands, as she decided that revenge against murderers of her husband should be bloody and no ones life should be spared. St Paul, the one who authored parts of New Testament was forgiven prosecutor of Christians.  St Mary the Egyptian was a street prostitute. Margaret of Cortona was a sex addict. The first saint of all was the Good Thief:  he was one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus. St. Callixtus of Rome was convicted twice for felony, in addition embezzlement wasn't something he shied away from. St Moses the Egyptian was  boss of a violent gang, those men were killing people. St Camillus de Lellis was a con man, a mercenary, and card player for profit.And so on,this  list is not complete, and I don't see the reason to make it complete in this blog. You see the point anyway.

St Mary of Egypt, Russian icon, XVII c.
But Christianity isn't the only religion which has converted criminals as saints: Tibetan Buddhism has one such a person: Milarepa. He killed 35 people before he repented and became an example of goodness. Role of religious changes which emerged during  Axial Age was to tranform human ethics deeply on individual level.

So, not every saint was a paragon of virtue from early on. Some were examples of evil who later changed in the process of true alchemy of the soul. One of the last examples, from XX c. is a man who killed a policeman, and was the last person guillotined for his crime in France. He experienced conversion in prison and become unusually good and a shining example to others, his name was   Jaques Fesch. And here is the controversy for and against Jaques Fesch's case for sainthood as seen by the Catholics themselves.

Oscar Wild once said: "Evey saint has a past, every sinner has a future." For sure not every saint had "a past"  in sense of bad past, as there were some individuals who very immaculate from the beginning. But for sure path to sainthood wasn't excluding anyone. Mary Magdalene in her alleged profession was not paragon of virtue, but she was quite innocent in comparison to the others. So was another beloved saint,  Francis of Assisi, who according to  hagiography  was a bad boy who matured gradually to sainthood.Early on he wasn't a pacifist as he lived as a soldier, lead decadent life of revelry financed by his wealthy father. It was later when he changed his ways, and also married  "Lady Poverty." Word marriage symbolized his commitment to life in poverty.

Dog-Headed Cannibals, woodcut from Cartha Marina,  1530
What about the icon above, the saint with the head of a dog, adorning this post in a way so strange for us, the modern people? It is St Christopher, who was believed to belong to a cruel kind of people who were born with dog heads, and were extremely violent. In fact cannibals were depicted as dog-headed. Cane was Latin name for dog. St Christopher was such terrible man who after he met Jesus became a very good person, and one day he became saintly.

 Sainthood was and still is considered to be the life as most human and humane as it possibly can be. It was believed that every person without exception can become a saint, and the true miracles of transformation of a soul are possible. Miracle of changing water into wine was a miracle of transformation, and such transformation was considered possible for human soul with divine intervention and openness combined with willingness from the side of the sinner.

Today those things may appear difficult to grasp, but were quite simple for people of earlier days:  those saints were illustrations of great workings of divine grace. They were miracles in action and  embodiments of  hope given to every person, however imperfect a human being was, for sure there was hope. The hope was the promise that perfect transformation was possible because perfect forgiveness was possible, that God's love was all inclusive. If one abandoned for good the path of evil, the person could even become sanctified if the transformation was complete. The person was forgiven, and you didn't question divine forgiveness. To do so it would be to dwell on peoples' sins who were forgiven already, washed totally clean, no-existing. People went to confession and believed that their sins were forgiven also, that they were cleansed also.Accepting that this happened to others as well wasn't a big deal for them.It was the world in which confession and repentance was a sacrament of reconciliation, of giving freedom from sin.

Forgiveness as a concept and mystical experience is very prominent in Christianity. It makes transformation possible. Transformation into what? Into purity, life in sanctified grace.Mary Magdalene was considered completely transformed, and as someone who was pure she was also depicted as ascending to heaven. Those things need to be understood in relation to saints, specially those of them who had difficult past, who were not from the beginning like Mother Theresa. They had bad past but grew so far beyond it,that  they were not soiled by it anymore. Bad past was the memory of a  battle won, not something which was supposed to be held against them, as it showed the severe spiritual obstacles they overcame. You couldn't slander a saint, as the sins forgiven were considered erased forever, sins of any person, and not an object of discussion or doubt after they were removed.

 Holding their past against them would be like not accepting God's verdict of forgiveness, to be unforgiving against God's will, and people were warned that those who are unforgiving can't expect much forgiveness themselves. It was much deeper matter than we think about it today from our perspective, "oh, this saint had bad past, therefore was discredited." They couldn't be discredited, as their sins were considered forgiven, what was forgiven wasn't existing anymore.

Assumption of Mary Magdalene by Jose Claudio Vicente Antolinez, XVII c.
Mary Magdalene has black hair here, not red. This is Spanish painting. Spanish artists depicted her with black hair, not as  a redhead.

As you see Mary Magdalene wasn't the only saint in Catholicism who had bad past, and who was sanctified in spite of it. Yes, early Christianity tried to figure out what to do with women, if they were allowed to be for example priests or not, etc. Misogyny was there. According to comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong as long as Christianity was a secret and forbidden religion, when Christians met in catacombs or private homes, women were prominent. When Christianity became state religion, power was regarded as right  of men. And I say, no wonder, Mediterranean cultures were very misogynistic those days. People are very surprised when they read for example about position of women in Greece of Antiquity. And gender was not considered polarized, as we believe today. It was a different, kind of evolutionary concept which dealt with the belief what every thing was developing in nature. In this system which was linear and not polarized as today, man was the highest sentient being in the  hierarchy of life, woman was below him.She was the link between humans and animals. Yes, it was "really so bad." Religions as systems often adopt a lot of surrounding culture. Early Christianity maybe was socially very different at the beginning, but than normative  cultural prescriptions started to settle in. And for that no conspiracy was needed. People are not only products of their religions, but also of their cultures, and their times.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Forgoten Patron-Abbot Suger

If you are interested in art history, specially if you are interested in Medieval art, sooner or later you will run in your conversation, or books people recommend to you, into stories about Templars, how they introduced and built Gothic cathedrals, and so on. One name is never mentioned in such conversations,  or books: Abbot Suger's. It seems he disappeared from popular culture as contributor to Gothic art, or maybe he was never accepted. Pity, as he did as much for the development of Gothic architecture as the Medici's family did for the Renaissance. Of course, he is known to people who are serious about art history, but doesn't he deserve his place in the pantheon of movers and shakers and patrons who fueled new forms?

Chapel of the Virgin, St Denis basilica, via wiki commons by Myrabella
Abbot Suger was a man of many talents: he was a politician, statesman who served as regent of France when king was on crusade, he was a historian, art theorist, theologian and of course manager of a big and influential Abbey of Saint Denis. Not to idealise him: as many people of his times, he was sometimes opposing crusades, but sometimes he was in favor of them. Basilica of St Denis on wikipedia article

He was friend and confidant of the kings, and patron of artists and builders who had new ideas but were not given proper chance to bloom.

Sometimes, however, another situation happens: Abbot Suger is talked about as a single inventor of a Gothic style. This is not completely true: he wrote about aesthetics, wanted the walls to be higher, lighter, windows big and colorful, designed himself, introduced new features, loved things ornate and precious. But he collaborated with people who wanted to do things in a different way.Redesigning of St Denis wasn't his and only his project. He was very engaged, but didn't handle projects and firmly said: "build exactly what I drew." He was giving ideas, he accepted ideas, he was the project manager. Through him was possible to introduce large windows with pointed arches, ribbed vaults, clusters of columns, flying buttress, ambulatory with chapels radiating form it, and lots of light.

As you see on the picture above some features are still Carolingian, like for example columns, they still look like those from Antiquity. But arches are pointed already, vault is more complex, and windows are big.

Gothic style was a natural development of Romanesque style: what happens the newer style tended to make the building more spread in smaller part, branching out, more differentiated in forms, less compact, in comparison to the solid mass of Romanesque churches. The style was adopted fast, specially in royal domain of Ille de France, but still a lot of experimentation was going on. It happened that not all architectural ideas worked perfectly, talking about Europe now in general, not only France. There were instances when parts of cathedrals collapsed, or bad accidents happened. But with time building science was catching up with new aesthetics of creating higher and higher churches with bigger and bigger windows.

Rosette window in St Denis, North side,via wiki commons by Amirwiki
About Zodiac, see my blog entry about Charters and Zodiac
A lot of enthusiasm was involved in such projects, specially in France. France was the cradle of Gothic style and from here the style radiated to other countries. More stones were moved in France during the era of building Gothic cathedrals than in old Egypt in construction of pyramids, and cathedral builders were properly compensated. People who helped were volunteers, no slave work involved.

Volunteers were amazing enthusiasts.They were religious, of course, those people were products of their times like we often are products of our times. Haimon, abbot of Saint Pierre sur Dives wrote in his letter from 1145 about the wave of building enthusiasm among people in France. He wrote about building of Chartres cathedral. According to him even princes and nobility together with those of humble origin were pulling carts full of olive, wood, crops, stones, and anything which was needed for fulfilling the needs of the people working on the construction, or for the building of the church. Often a thousand or more people were pulling a cart full of stones, in great silence, in spirit of forgiveness of each other imperfections and in spirit of universal brotherhood and sisterhood. If you could hear anything at all , those were only prayers, or confessions of wrong doings and words of forgiveness among them. It was like a contemplative movement of peace among people for whom at such times differences among humans were not important, they worked in the spirit of brotherly and sisterly love. So wrote Haimon.

 Suger's ideas of the new style spread fast, but it doesn't mean that they were widely accepted without criticism: some churchmen said that ornate and rich style shouldn't be part of church buildings, church interiors, or church services. Cystersians were proponents of such ideas of humbleness and actually during Medieval times there was ongoing controversy about humbleness versus showing things divine through color, gold, light   and all things which could inspire awe. A little about Cystersian aesthetics in my other entry. I am not saying one approach was better than the other,but  they were competing.

 Abbot Suger not only broke frames of Carolingian building, (the abbey was built in this style) when he commissioned the rebuilding, but also asserted that awe is important part of religious experience.

Cystersian were more for soft quiet focus and contemplation, were against appeal to senses in churches. Colors, sumptuous decorations, music, incense, this was not important, they viewed it as distracting form the experience of closeness to God. Suger said the divine manifests in beauty, light an d color. He wasn't alone: this idea was well and alive because of monastery in Cluny. Founder of the Cystersian order, St. Bernard of Clairveaux simply opposed Cluniac theories. But Suger was on the side of Cluny: to him the stained glass windows were like a vision,  gold reminded of divine wisdom, soaring heights of church ceilings were leading thoughts to heaven. For sure churches were sanctuaries of beauty and space in European, not only French cities, which were dirty, conditions were crowded, as for example width of a room was the width of a bed, etc. But people could just step in a church building  and were transported into another, more beautiful world.