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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Music, words and pictures

Last week, I wrote about the subject of one of my recent paintings, Christina the Astonishing. This week, I want to get into my thought and creative processes in making this picture. It's one of the largest I've done recently and it occupied a good deal of time.

When I first read about Christina and her truly astonishing feats, I decided to render her in a kind of early 20th-century sideshow poster, á la the lovely tattooed ladies below.

I switched her moniker around, figuring "The Astonishing Christina" sounded more sideshowy.

I usually do small-scale watercolor work (e.g., 6"x9" up to about 11"x14"). But I saw this as a good excuse to use some huge paper from a pad I've had laying around for a while. Last Christmas I also received a nice set of woodless colored pencils as a gift and was waiting for the right project to break them out. The finished piece, atypical for me, is 19"x24" (my standard size brush is a 0, so I call that huge) and about 55% / 45%, colored pencil / acrylic paint.

I always listen to something when I work on a picture. In the early stages - when I am plotting the composition, making preliminary sketches and drafting the final outline - I often put on atmospheric music of some kind, either instrumental or with vocals in languages I do not know; this can range from classical to ambient electronic to traditional music from various places/cultures (e.g.Persian classicalRussian folkranchera).

Music with English lyrics (and sometimes German lyrics) distracts me from visual thought and pulls me into verbal thought. Especially in a phase of work where I am trying to imagine shape, layout or line and connect my mental image to the movements of my hand, words just get in the way of this intensely non-verbal process.

Once the final pencil drawing is down on the page and I'm ready to paint, I'll sometimes continue with music, but I will open up my options to anything I feel like, losing the non-verbal criteria. More frequently these days I'll listen to an audiobook. (Nearly complete sketch of Christina below as I work out a last couple details, with my omnipresent studio assistant close at hand.)

Particularly if I am painting something repetitive, where the creative decision has already been made and I just need to execute it ad nauseam, an audiobook is grand; in the case of "Christina", the canopy of the frame trees and the checkered background were particularly time consuming, verging on tedious, and it was wonderful to have a story to follow and somewhere else to send my brain while my hand was executing the work.

The first thing I painted on "Christina" was the tree canopy. I used acrylic paint in three tones of green, and one of yellow. First I laid down a flat surface of dark foresty green, then added a layer of individual leaves in a moderately lighter green, and a third layer of still lighter green. I then individuated some of the leaves by outlining them and adding veins in yellow.
Canopy detail. The middle green tone doesn't read well in this image, but it is subtle in person as well.

These steps, quick to type out, took close to 20 hours. I was listening to Roberto Bolaño's 2666 at the time.

The word "sprawling" - frequently misapplied to something merely long - truly suits 2666 which moves expansively in all directions: between times, characters, themes and events, relating a series of interrelated mysteries and plotlines that largely go unsolved and unresolved. I had begun this novel while working on a different picture; it also sprawled in that sense. It is divided into five parts and by the time I was painting the leaves on "Christina", I had reached the fourth part, "The Part About the Crimes".

One focal point of the book involves an epidemic of missing and murdered girls in the fictional Mexican border town, Santa Teresa, during the 1990s.1 "The Part About the Crimes" is essentially a catalog of each of dozens and dozens of these crimes. We read (or hear, in my case) an itemized list describing when or how each woman went missing, where her body was found, what had been done to her, how she was dressed, how her family reacted, how the local police investigated the crime, the resolution (if any) of the investigation. It was grueling and evocative listening. Such a litany weirdly suited the extreme repetition of my task at hand. It was very effective writing, but I was also glad when it was over. I can only imagine it was fairly demoralizing for Bolaño to write.

I finished 2666 while I was working on the vignette medallions that depict a variety of Christina's acts. (Medallions 1 and 2, at right, show Christina awakening from the dead; and retreating from society to pray in a tree.)

I was very ready to leave the book behind. Even while I valued its strange rambling, its darkness and literary ambition, I found Bolaño's characterization of women, though sympathetic, unfailingly and annoyingly male. He created some varied female characters, he seems to have liked many of them; but - whether they are wealthy, poor, professional, uneducated, likable or not - they are preoccupied predominantly with the same thing for which Bolaño's male characters are interested in them: sex. He struggles to make his women seem like they have complicated interiority or even continue existing after his male characters turn their attention elsewhere. If the rhythm of the novel suited the painting, this handling of gender did not.

I next started Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This "slow-" or eco-apocalypse sci fi novel was just what I (and Christina) needed in the wake of 2666. It was terrifying, funny and (in spite of VanderMeer's maleness, heterosexuality and whiteness) displayed a variety of genders, sexualities and races where everyone is equally three-dimensional. It hit the spot so well that I went on to read the sequel, Authority, which I liked even better. In fact, by the time I finished "Christina", I had listened to VanderMeer's entire Southern Reach trilogy.

These novels are so beguiling, unnerving and fun to read, I don't want to demystify them by offering anything as bland as a synopsis, but germane to the painting of my picture, I will highlight how vivid and central are their settings.

The precondition to the action in all of the novels is the appearance in the southern United States of a physical anomaly. The reasons for and mechanisms whereby this anomaly came into existence are mysterious and ominous. The anomaly is characterized by an invisible barrier enclosing hundreds of acres of land in the swamps of northern Florida. The land inside, dubbed Area X, has become pristine wilderness (i.e., the chemicals found in water and soil all over the world, testament to human industrial activity over centuries, is conspicuously absent). The Southern Reach is the governmental agency in charge of investigating Area X. Its bureaucracy is comically opaque, almost Kafka-esque, but one detail that is clear after having sent numerous expeditions into Area X, is that strange often dangerous things occur there and nobody returns precisely as they were when they entered.

VanderMeer, who lives and works in Tallahassee, Florida and clearly loves the area, has an admirable facility for description of place, plants and animals. I had the great good fortune to see him in a discussion at MIT with his frequent collaborator, Eric Schaller, a professor in Dartmouth's Department of Biological Sciences. (Schaller is both a science consultant and an illustrator for VanderMeer.)

During this talk, VanderMeer said that he did not include any description of a natural setting or wildlife unless he had personally observed it. This kind of eye for detail and accuracy, especially as regards the flora and fauna of his books, successfully evoked the verdant and sticky ambiance of a southern swamp, the hum of insects, the smells and colors.

I feel like a lot of my color choices - which decisions were not made until I came to them as the painting was underway - where influenced by VanderMeer's verbal lushness, by my own memories of the Gulf south and the resulting Area X of my imagination.

(At left, medallions 3 and 4 depict Christina feeding herself through miraculous lactation and climbing into a baking bread oven.)

In terms of the background patterns of the medallions, specifically, I also feel like my binge-watching of Warner Bros.' cartoons was highly influential.

I do not remember a time when I was not captivated by the animated shorts from this specific production company2 . And my fella Nicholas, who indulges me in this kind of thing, had just given me a giant disc set of their cartoons when I began working on "Christina".

Warner Bros. plotlines - especially ones directed by Chuck Jones or Friz Freling (often featuring stories by Warren Foster or Michael Maltese) - are just a shade more demented than those from other studios...barring perhaps Tex Avery's cartoons with MGM.

Warner Bros. pretty much cornered the market on mismatched duos tormenting each other: Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, Sylvester and Tweety. The physical comedy in these cartoons is so pitch perfect, so asinine. It takes such excellent advantage of the medium's ability to comically portray violence which, in the real world, would result in death.

Watch, for example, "Tweetie Pie" from 1947. From beginning to end it is a perfect exercise in comedic violence. The impossible gag at 6:25 especially slays me.


I believe I unintentionally channeled cartoons like this when depicting Christina's "miracles". Her deeds are themselves so hyperbolic and, especially within the context of a saint's "life", where they are conveyed with utter sincerity and literalness, it is nearly inescapable to depict her miracles like cartoon stills.

Below I pictured her immersed in a cauldron of boiling water, ladling it over herself.

For its dreadful racism, I wouldn't recommend watching the entirety of "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt" (1941). It is irredeemably offensive and tedious. It's not worth subjecting yourself to the whole thing unless you're a cartoon superfan valuing animation techniques and animation history-for-history's sake, and/or you have an academic, sociological interest in racist depictions in animation. But at minute 2 there's a good example of an oft-repeated Bugs shtick, where he enjoys a bath in a would-be pot of rabbit stew.


Pretty unsurprisingly, given my deep familiarity with this era's cartoons, it turns out when I go to paint someone taking a bath in a cauldron, I automatically do it Bugs Bunny-style.

Slap-stick violence aside, another aspect of Warner Bros. cartoons of which I am especially fond is their backgrounds. The caliber of artist who worked on Warner Bros. backgrounds is self-evident and, unsurprisingly, many of them were either fine artists or designers in their extra-Hollywood work lives.

"Birds Anonymous" (1957) provides a good example. The backgrounds of this particular cartoon were created by Boris Gorelick, a designer who worked for the WPA for many years in New York, and also had a detour in Los Angeles working in animation.

I love the abstractions in Gorelick's backgrounds; the pared down geometry, the simplified shapes with vivid texturing, the slightly skewed angles.

Apparently he did a lot of work for UPA, another cartoon production company whose backgrounds were incredibly stylized, but the handful of shorts he did for Warner Bros. show a more balanced, restrained abstraction that I particularly dig.

Paul Julian was another background artist who did some work for Warner Bros. which I particularly like. In "Kit for Cat" (1948), something as incidental as the wallpaper in Elmer Fudd's house becomes arresting for its concerted but fanciful design.


I believe the backgrounds of Christina's medallions inadvertently ended up with a similar cartoon feel, both in my use of shape and color. Below, Christina stretches herself on the rack (this is another good example of cartoonish impossibility...aren't at least 2 people required to get oneself into such a situation?) and hangs herself on the gallows.

In the case of the waterwheel medallion, my pulling from Warner Bros. cartoons was more overt.
I drew this design after watching "Scaredy Cat" (1948). Again it was wallpaper (this time Porky Pig's) that struck me. Check out minute 1:58.

Not quite a copy, but a clear antecedent.

Because I clearly love these old cartoons, I feel it only responsible and honest to address one undeniable component of them, as mentioned above regarding "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt". Alongside being funny and artistically interesting, they can be racist, generally offensive and woefully unfunny. In the best case scenarios, the physical comedy takes center stage and the ubiquitous cultural references are merely interesting historical artifacts. In the worst case scenarios, often evident in the very same cartoon, those incidental cultural references are reminders of how commonplace and socially acceptable was casual ethnic prejudice and racism, presented as humor, by the predominantly white creators and consumers of these cartoons.

For example, in "Awful Orphan" (1949), Porky Pig's apartment is decorated with then-contemporary surrealist and abstract art; simply a cultural referent worth note that will help you situate the world in which the cartoon was created and will give you some hint as to the sensibilities of the cartoon's creators. In many ways this is also what racist cultural referents give you; a touchstone for the world and attitudes that shaped these cartoons...only I wouldn't say "simply" because the result isn't neutral or harmless.

Also in "Awful Orphan" we see Charlie the Dog - having been packed off to Siberia - showing back up at Porky's door dressed as a Cossack, speaking in a bad Russian accent, performing the Hopak in order to boot Porky in the ass. This is tame as far as race/ethnicity prejudice in classic cartoons goes (and it goes far, to wit, Hiawatha above), but I use it because it occurs in the very same cartoon as the more neutral cultural reference of, for instance, surrealist art. And because it's representative of the sloppy shorthand white America used (and continues to use all too frequently) to talk about other cultures. It is humor reliant on stereotype and the mere hint of difference from WASP culture. It is xenophobic, small-minded and ungenerous humor...which means it's not very humorous at all unless you share those qualities.

Thankfully the worst kinds of racial and ethnic caricatures are disappearing from American pop culture (slowly...), but the prejudices that allowed them in the first place have deeper roots and persist, as any perusal of sociological studies and the daily news will amply demonstrate. In our globalizing world where encountering difference is increasingly commonplace, I am hopeful that folks who find alterity scary or funny-per-se are destined for extinction. I think they sense their own imminent irrelevance and that's why they're so loud and aggressive and frightened right now, at least in the United States.

Derogatory representations once considered harmless by a clueless, privileged majority, no longer fly as the political and economic clout of underrepresented populations makes their voices louder and impossible to continue ignoring. It is only too clear that expunging those overtly derogatory representations from our entertainment in no way equates to eradicating them from our culture.

For me watching these cartoons, or any old film, is partially an exercise in cultural awareness; not just awareness of the history of the culture I come from (although that too), but an awareness of how cultural expressions themselves work. They derive from the attitudes and prejudices of their creators and consumers, but they also contribute to those attitudes and prejudices. They reflect and refract harmless bits of information in the same mode as they do offensive and delegitimizing representations. To this layered, problematic cultural accretion that can be the American "Golden Era" cartoon, add their undeniable artistic merit and predominant moments of humor not dependent on stereotyping, and you have one hell of a mixed bag.

So I prefer to watch them selectively and critically, and plumb their visuals for design inspiration only. And sometimes laugh very loudly.

That's all folks!

1. Bolaño based these accounts on actual events in and around Ciudad Juàrez starting in 1993. The impression given by many news stories and casual observers is that an unusually high number of women and girls have been abducted and murdered (frequently with a sexual component to the crimes) around Juarez, and that the crimes bespeak of some inherent sexism or misogyny prevalent in Mexican culture. I think it worth noting the opinion of Molly Molloy, a scholar who has studied these crimes and more general crime rates against women in Mexico and the U.S., and who believes casting these crimes as a form of "feminicide" is inaccurate, extreme and obscures the real problems of violence and poverty faced by all residents in Mexico's largest city along its northern border.
2. I love much of the work of all of the major American production companies who put out cartoons during their "Golden Age" (e.g., Disney, MGM, Fleischer), but something about the Warner Bros. cartoons exceed all of these for me (even Disney, which are hard to beat). I've come to believe it has to do with their background artists; over the 1930s to the 60s, Warner Bros. cartoon backgrounds went from highly representational and relatively naturalistic (à la Disney), to increasingly abstract...but without completely abandoning gestures toward some vaguely realistic 3-dimensional space (unlike UPA, which went extremely abstract). There's something about these set designs that stick in my head and make me want to watch the cartoons over and over again, like revisiting an art museum full of your favorite work.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Saints, heretics and madwomen

The woman who would become known as Christina "the Astonishing" was born in the middle 12th century in Brustem, Flanders. During her lifetime (d. 1224) she was alternately considered mad, possessed and a saint, depending on the audience and moment.

Thomas of Cantimpré wrote her life in 1232 based on personal conversations with people who had known her. Christina is problematic as saints go, and particularly fascinating because her miraculous deeds are so very extreme.

She is said to have died in her 30s and then, in the middle of her own funeral, to have awoken and flown to the rafters of the church. When she could finally be coaxed down and questioned, she said that she had been sent back to her body in order to undergo suffering on behalf of souls in Purgatory. That is, she would suffer trials and tortures in her physical body that would pain her, leave no lasting mark, but would count toward time-served for those receiving punishment in Purgatory.

To this end, she would subject her body to any number of torments: she would hang by her neck on the gallows beside executed criminals, she would crawl into burning ovens, bathe in scalding water, dowse herself in freezing water in the dead of winter, she taunted dogs until they chased her into brambles, she ate very little and lived by begging.

In addition to extreme asceticism of this sort, she expressed her spirituality with no little eccentricity; fleeing the company of others and climbing into trees and high buildings in order to pray, saying she could not stand the smell of humanity and felt it improper to pray while touching the ground. She would contort her limbs when gripped by the spirit.

Today, most of us would call this behavior disturbed or crazy. Christina's own family thought she was crazy, too. Or possessed, but those were interrelated categories in the Middle Ages. As Barbara Newman's 2008 annotations of Thomas' text indicate (130, fn31), the implication of the Latin used to describe Christina's early more extreme days is that the "spirit" that "stirred" her may have been understood as a demon, and only later, once she mellowed, as the holy spirit. It was only after she did mellow, and began tending to the sick and prophesying the future, that her family and community decided her behavior evidenced holiness rather than demonic possession. Before being acknowledged as holy, Christina was on her way to being permanently locked up in a basement somewhere, and probably killed through neglect.

I think it worth pointing out here, that when I say she was acknowledged as holy, I am talking about her family, her community, possibly some clerical people in the area, seeing her as such. She would not have technically been a saint until she died. And even then, what constituted a saint rather depended on who you were speaking to. The ultimate Catholic authority, the Pope, did not corner the market on canonization until the late 12th century when Alexander III really started cracking down. Until then regional prelates (e.g., archbishops) had sometimes canonized men and women, and even more frequently a person might simply be revered as a saint out of tradition and legend, regardless of what church representatives thought or what kind of procedure they did or didn't follow to make it official.1

Despite popular conceptions about the zealousness and strangeness of the medieval church, the official party line of medieval Catholic honchos (the Pope, archbishops, bishops, abbots, etc.) tended toward the moderate for their period in many respects, expressions of spirituality being one.2 

Said honchos discouraged asceticism they deemed dangerous or too severe (e.g., Christina's self-inflicted torments), and worship they deemed too flamboyant (something like taking communion too often would fit here, but I think so would Christina's retreat into high places). The church's spiritual regulation went hand-in-hand with the rise of a new mysticism characterized by the Beguines in northern Europe and the mendicant orders in southern Europe.

Extremes of poverty, of privation, of spiritual ecstasy proved potent and intriguing for lay people in a way that correspondingly made the institutional church (with its distinct lack of poverty and privation) a little nervous. Frequently, these ecstatics teetered between being considered insane or, worse, heretics and being embraced as holy people.

Francis of Assisi and his fledgling order might have gone down, Cathar-like, as one more group of heretics were it not for the political acuity of Innocent III, who recognized their utility to the institutional church and gave his approval for the founding of the order in 1209.

Christina certainly participated in this new, extra-institutional mysticism. While she was never a Beguine, she also never took orders and was active in precisely the area of the Beguines' greatest impact, the Low Countries. In fact Thomas of Cantimpré, influenced by his mentor Jacques de Vitry, was fascinated by the spirituality of women in the Low Countries. He obviously included Christina within this group of new mystics. And some church bigwigs correspondingly criticized the popularity of Thomas' life of Christina (12 Latin manuscripts survive which, for the medieval historical record, means it was pretty widely read and copied).

My graduate advisor, a medieval historian, used to observe that the only good saint was a dead saint; which is tongue-in-cheek because in a literal way only a dead person can be a saint, but the quip also refers to the sticky uncertainty regarding sainthood. The behavior of a living person can be interpreted so many different ways. The categories of saint and heretic were always shifting and fuzzy at best.

A community might deem a living person holy and begin visiting them for guidance and revering them as a potential saint. Similarly the church hierarchy might regard one of its members as particularly pious and likely to be canonized. That is, the community or the church itself might decide a person's behavior was evidence of their holiness and not their possession, insanity or heresy; but as long as that person lived, she might overstep that slim boundary between saint and madwoman/heretic and take a whole slew of followers with her.

Certain potential saints seemed higher risk for blowing it than others. Women saints who behaved with pious modesty at all times and who - most importantly - did not challenge institutional gender ideals of a how a woman should express her piety, were on pretty solid ground. But institutional ideals for women were very narrow: first and foremost they should be chaste. They were meant to retreat from the world and to this end taking orders was best because it ensured a church- and male-regulated community - away from the secular world - in which women's piety could be restrained and monitored. Holy women, even those belonging to an order, should certainly never attempt to preach, perform a sacrament or hear confession.

St. Mary, the ur-female saint, stands as the most glaringly obvious example of the "good" type of female saint: long, long dead by the time the church, as an institution, concerned itself with the process of canonization; the mother of freaking God in a famously sexless way; she did not belong to an order because they did not exist during her lifetime, but more importantly she never preached (in any way that was recorded in the Bible or apocrypha) or really did much of anything except give birth, mourn patiently and stand as a stoic, wildly unrealistic symbol for womanhood everywhere.

Christina, in contrast, harangued folks in the streets. She did not so much beg as demand, and if she were denied she would often simply take the thing she had demanded (clothes, food, etc.). She maintained a distinct public profile in her community, never took orders, lived sometimes as a hermit, but more often moved place to place. Worse, she is said to have once heard the confession of an aristocrat who considered her his spiritual advisor. In short, her sanctity was not always a foregone conclusion and she made plenty of clerics feel uncomfortable, even after she died.

All of which makes her precisely the kind of saint I enjoy reading about. She was assertive, transgressive, more than a little strange. Given my own proclivities, it was extremely natural that I decided to paint a picture of Christina.


In my next post, I'll discuss my process and influences for this painting.



1. In The Holy Greyhound, Jean-Claude Schmitt describes a stellar example of persistent folk reverence for a "saint" that really drove church-types nuts.
2. The medieval Catholic Church generally acted, or attempted to act, as an ameliorative, moderating force on the mobs, monarchs and aristocrats of its day. The Medieval Inquisition, for example, was established in part to try and regulate the treatment of accused heretics, because the pope thought some sort of inquiry was preferable to murder-by-villagers without trial. It also generally sought reconciliation rather than death or torture...at least initially. As with most things, once the Protestant Reformation happened (and whatever sea change occurred that makes us now think of the period as Early Modern instead of medieval), the Inquisition grew steadily more aggressive and violent: think the Spanish Inquisition (established 1478), overseen by monarchs not the church, incidentally.


Friday, June 5, 2015

Flying Skulls and Dead Bodies, improving Protestant art through neurosis

The medieval Catholic church of Europe has been criticized for its repressiveness so repeatedly throughout the centuries that the word "medieval" has become shorthand for (among other equally disparaging things) narrow-minded and brutal repression.

While tricky to argue stridently against this characterization, it is only fair to remember other aspects of medieval Catholic culture which temper - or at least problematize - the popular image of the age as especially violent, intellectually backward and culturally static.1 The visual art produced in medieval Europe, often by the hands of church representatives, stands among the most clear and observable examples of the sensitivity and complexity of which medieval culture was capable.

I've been so enamored with the intricate and expressive beauty of medieval art for so long that I admittedly regard the Protestant Reformation as a woeful artistic cataclysm. Not only was the literal destruction of religious art en vogue in Reformation countries, but the religious aesthetics2 that subsequently emerged in them I find, if elegant, cold. Not only simple, but frequently dull. And very evocative of the emotional asceticism I generally dislike and distrust about Protestantism. (Physical asceticism is another matter...)

Living well after the Catholic church's western dominance, which directly precipitated the Reformation, I have the luxury of finding medieval Catholic art verdant, ornate and warm instead of decadent.
A page from the 14th-century de Lisle Psalter depicting scenes from the early life of Christ.

Its strange otherworldliness is evocative rather than lurid.
A page from the 15th-century Hours of Catherine of Cleves, depicting a hellmouth.

I am not expressly a deist, or at least not a monotheist, and so I don't emotionally identify with the concerns of the reformers who feared idolatry and, therefore, took issue with Catholic imagery. I intellectually appreciate these concerns, but can't share them. I'm all for idols.

I am rather more sympathetic with the reformers' disdain for the hypocrisy of a wealthy church. But plenty of medieval Catholics were ambivalent about money itself, let alone the church's accumulation of it. I don't see this as uniquely Protestant. The apostolic "revival" of the 13th century, typified by the mendicant orders, saw plenty of popular movements reacting against the church's wealth. Granted the papacy had a lot to do with keeping these movements Catholic and not forcing them into a position of external protest.

In any event, this is all to observe that the Reformation, at the safe distance of all these centuries, has little emotional resonance for me, whereas the Middle Ages possesses much. My interest in European art and culture drops markedly following the 15th century. And the here-relevant offshoot of that is that I tend not to get very excited about early Protestant religious art or architecture.

Living in Massachusetts, one sees some of the dourest examples of this stuff all the time. Red brick churches, white steeples or, if you're lucky maybe some gray stone. House-like with a bell tower that may or may not be crowned by a steeple. Almost completely unadorned interiors, white walls, pale wood. They are well-made and not unattractive, but they are almost uniformly blank and bland. (You may find a little ornamental glass if you are very, very lucky...or if the church dates to the 19th century or later.)

Christ Church, an Episcopal church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, built in 1760-1.

King's Chapel (built 1749-54) in downtown Boston, with its strange crouching, somewhat brooding and blockish shape, has a slightly weirder exterior than the churches I'm thinking of...

...but its interior is one of the most flavorless.

The aesthetic bleakness seems to punish me for wanting something colorful or decorative, as if this desire represented a moral failing. I feel, every time I look at it and fail to feel something transcendent or even piquing, that the early Protestant aesthetic has judged me and found me depraved.

This is probably why the Puritan cemeteries of New England - charmingly and forthrightly called "burying grounds" - surprised and beguiled me so completely when I first saw one. Below, a view of King's Chapel Burying Ground.

And of Copp's Hill Burying Ground in Boston's North End, dating to 1659.
Photo by Nicholas Paskert.

The burying grounds themselves are usually grassy but not ornately landscaped, crowded with markers tilting at  angles, some of which have been moved over the centuries. They are quite small by Victorian and modern cemetery standards. The real draw is the markers.

And the contrast between the host of boring churches up here3 and these early Puritan gravestones is utterly delightful and persistently weird. [The following gravestone photos all care of Nicholas Paskert.] The ubiquitous flying skull...

Strange garland-toting babies flanking an hourglass...

A skeleton snuffing a candle and a figure I take to be father time, holding another hourglass...

Another version of this theme...

And, a particular favorite, death-as-scythe-wielding-skeleton riding a disembodied skull with hourglass. Yeah...

These gravestones are so image-laden, so strange and otherworldly. They look so damned medieval, but they are specifically not Catholic. One could even call them anti-Catholic as they sprang precisely from a culture that, back home in England, exercised rampant iconoclasm, found Anglicanism far too Catholic, and used "popery" and "papist" as terms of abuse. Where on earth then did this horde of flying skulls come from?

I did a minor amount of scholarly (and non-scholarly but well-considered) reading to try and answer this question.

The most intriguing treatment I found was by David Stannard in The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture and Social Change. It's an older work - 1979 - so I tried to read it with some healthy skepticism. But a number of Stannard's observations seem sound to my historically semi-trained mind. I think I mostly alit on his work because of the persistent and sometimes compellingly problematic way he uses the Middle Ages as a foil for 16th-to-18th-century Puritan culture in New England.

Medieval Catholic Europe in a fairly linear and causal way (as historical antecedents go) spawned the reform movements, including Puritanism, that would cleave the European Catholic church and eventually find unique expression in North America.

As mentioned above, these reform movements were a reaction against the corruption and perceived decadence of the Catholic church and, especially for the Puritans later, the Anglican church. Protestants crafted their identity as reformers up against the identity and practices of the Catholic church which, until the Reformation, could reasonably have been called "the church" at least in Europe (though it was neither the only nor oldest Christian church by a long shot).

So it makes a certain amount of chronological and relational sense to consider Puritan funerary art alongside medieval art. However, an explanation for their resemblance to one another must be sought, because a presupposition of dissimilarity makes more intuitive sense.

Religious and funerary art comprised a defining rift line between the two cultures. One might suspect medieval religious art could be viewed as a parent-in-negative to Puritan art rather than as some sort of weird cousin. To belabor this familial metaphor, if the Puritans were rebellious children, wouldn't their art look profoundly different from that of the "parent" they were rebelling against? For most Protestants, as I bemoaned at the beginning of this essay, this was true. The staidness and non-decoration of their art is a pretty obvious consequence of the floridity of Catholic art. If the Puritans were also austere iconoclasts who rejected Catholic imagery, why on earth did they - almost immediately upon arrival in the New World - begin adorning their tombs with skulls, skeletons, hourglasses and other memento mori normally associated with medieval art?

It may be helpful first to consider these themes as they occurred in medieval art.

Memento mori motifs and their focus on bodily suffering enjoyed famous popularity in late medieval devotion, literature and visual arts. Depictions of the Man of Sorrows (Jesus in his passion, suffering in a very human way), became more popular in contrast to the Pantocrator imagery of a wide-eyed and almighty Christ, which proliferated in the early Middle Ages and in Byzantium, but fell out of style in the later Middle Ages.

Below, the 15th-century Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows) by Master Francke, followed by the 12th-century Christ Pantocrator by the Master of Cefalù.

The cult of the saints had flourished since late antiquity but its preoccupation with relics, including bodies and bones, experienced a sort of boom period in the high and late Middle Ages. A 13th-century reliquary designed to hold an arm bone, below.

Transi tombs, while never the "norm" of elite burial, came into fashion in the late Middle Ages along with stories like the legend of the three living and the three dead. Corpse sculpture from the transi (or "cadaver") tomb of Jean, Cardinal de la Grange, and a de Lisle Psalter illustration of the legend of the three living and three dead, below.

One commonly-floated explanation for this medieval leaning toward the macabre is specifically attributed to the Great Famine and Black Death, which together decimated the population of 14th-century Europe and caused such economic and demographic shifts that they fundamentally challenged centuries-old class relationships. There's no question these events had enormous ramifications.

As with any catastrophe, it's inadvisable to underestimate the effects of the "calamitous 14th century", but it is correspondingly easy to overestimate them. I am utterly unprepared to speak at length about the cultural/aesthetic consequences of comparative large-scale disasters, but it does intrigue me that no other event or set of events in western history are famously characterized as having caused morbidity.

To take a comparable event, the 6th-century Plague of Justinian - while it unarguably had massive and long-term affects on the eastern Mediterranean world - did not signal a new macabre-ness in Byzantine art or culture.

In a more tenuous, but I think still on-point comparison, artists coping with the fact of and fall-out from the Holocaust produced some disturbing and dark works of art 4, but the collective cultural response to that horror is not considered peculiarly morbid. My impression is that it is considered appropriately macabre; in other words, not unusual or to be explained, but self-evident.

This is not the case with medieval morbidity, which often gets spoken about in that weren't-they-so-very-weird-and-superstitious tone which flattens the humanity of medieval people and renders them caricatures of qualities we moderns deride and of which we claim ourselves to be devoid.

A kind of pop-culture "common sense" explanation for morbidity in medieval is sometimes propounded by more general reference to the violence, disease and short life expectancy germane to the Middle Ages. But again, why didn't these factors (common in most pre-modern and many modern civilizations) turn countless other cultures into decay-obsessed death ponderers?

I hope it's clear by now that I do not buy these simplistic explanations of any medieval (so-called) preoccupation with death. I am also not sold on the idea that, if their art was morbid (i.e., concerned with disease and death), the Middle Ages were especially death-obsessed. I believe instead we are reading their images according to our own standards, and thereby misunderstanding their emphases and intent.

While a medieval person probably felt a frisson of revulsion when regarding an image like Matthias Grünewald's "Dead Lovers", (c. 1470, Strasbourg, Musee de l'Oeuvre de Notre Dame, France), I think to equate their regard to something like we feel watching a horror movie is off base.

A medieval person would have been considerably more familiar with the sight (and smell) of decaying animals, including people. I wouldn't argue exposure led them to be desensitized to the grotesqueness of rotting flesh or the sadness of death...though perhaps more tolerant and expectant of it.

However, I would argue that we in the West today are so insulated from bodily death by our own institutions and customs that (barring wartime scenarios, from which most of us are also well-insulated) the site of an actual dead body would be, first and nearly to the exclusion of other responses, shocking. We have replaced an actual relationship with our actual dead, with...nothing really. We primarily experience death in hyperbolic film and gaming landscapes built expressly for entertainment. Moreover, those deaths are usually murder; justified in the case of action-adventure movies and video games, played for the scare in the case of horror films. Death's attendant decay we seldom experience at all, unless we are particular fans of zombie movies.

I feel safe assuming a medieval person would have looked at Grünewald's picture without this layer of unfamiliarity and also lacking the entertainment "noise" with which we have trained our responses. This is not an image of lurid horror, but perhaps one of instructional horror. Art in the Catholic Middle Ages was frequently a focus for meditation. And death was seen as a precursor to an afterlife; a crucial liminal moment for the human soul, worth meditating upon.

This is where Stannard's assessments seem most compelling to me. By his reading, medieval culture was not obsessed with death so much as it was obsessed with life after death. And the medieval proclivity for showing bodies in decay pertained in part to the idea of resurrection and concern for the state of one's body after death. All of those decaying bodies and memento moris do, to a certain extent, represent fear of death and fear for one's soul, but equally they express a recognition of the unavoidable end to all human life on earth, regardless of status while on earth.

These images also concertedly relate to the concept of contemptus mundi - or contempt for the world; a motif and idea popular during the Middle Ages which saw life on earth as a pale and corrupt imitation of the beatitude of the hereafter. Flesh rots, but the soul lives forever.

It seems sound then to regard medieval artworks that depict death as reminders of the flimsiness of life, but also as expressions of that flimsiness with a view to celebrating what is more enduring and important (according to Catholic theology): one's eternal soul.

Stannard actually describes the medieval attitude toward death as optimistic, asserting that this intense focus on the afterlife and cultural disdain for worldly things was its "principal weapon against the fear of death" (19). The increased medieval focus on the afterlife and resurrection, he argues, is what led to the rise in preoccupation with depicting the dead.

Considering these hypotheses and observations about medieval morbid art, what then do they mean to Puritan funerary art in the New World? Did 17th-century Puritans in New England think about life, death and afterlife in a similar fashion when they commissioned a deathshead for their loved one's grave? And how did they reconcile that depiction with their faith's traditional rejection of figural art in religious settings?

The Puritans of New England and the Catholics of medieval Europe did share harsh physical realities that made death omnipresent. Stannard makes quite a lot of these realities and their effects on Puritans from very young ages by studying journals, letters and didactic works for children. They also shared the distrust of worldly things and a focus on the afterlife. For him, the big divergence between Puritan and medieval theology, at least insofar as it relates to practices of death and burial, concerns specific beliefs regarding both the afterlife and the here and now.

Per Stannard, belief in predestination rendered the afterlife a stressful and emotionally fraught topic for Puritans. He observes, "At the heart of the Puritan's introspective experience - and few other experiences were so important to him - was the matter of the attainment and recognition of saving grace." (72) Stannard describes a culture of individuals who regularly racked their consciences and minutely scrutinized their thoughts and behavior to look for signs that they had been saved or, alternatively, that they were destined for Hell. He continues, "...the devout Puritan constantly examined himself and assailed all evidence of impurity, filling journals and diaries with interminable exhortation on the depravity of all men, but most importantly himself...The Puritan faith...was...marked by a never-ending, excruciating uncertainty." (75)

In contrast to this, it's small wonder that Stannard called medieval theology "optimistic". So the afterlife for Puritans was a source of individualized and internalized fear. But they apparently still retained some of the "traditional Christian rhetoric of viewing death as a release and relief for the earthbound soul." (79) He identifies this ambivalent duality in "virtually every Puritan funeral sermon or other discourse on the subject." (77) As one example, he cites a work by Cotton Mather entitled, Death Made Easie and Happy, which sounds pretty optimistic but is apparently still full of dread. As Mather writes, "Let us look upon everything as a sort of Death's-Head set before us, with a Memento mori written upon it."

Compared to the probable medieval responses to death in art that I've hypothesized above, Mather's view contains a shrinking horror of death; one possibly closer to our own. So in regard to the afterlife, even while some of the death imagery looks the same, medieval and Puritan art was likely generated by different concerns and received with different emotions.

In addition to varying relationships to the afterlife, Stannard identifies a more worldly and here-and-now set of concerns that differentiated medieval and Puritan attitudes regarding death. Essentially, the Puritans were idealists, embarked on a social and spiritual project of great ambition. The New World Puritans most especially were attempting to create a society that lived and functioned according to God's law (however they interpreted that). They used education, harsh punishments and emotional asceticism to do it.

This somewhat radical re-envisioning of society was not a component of medieval thought. Stannard calls the Middle Ages "bereft of both formal social criticism and utopian dreaming" (39). He is primarily speaking about the medieval habit of looking to precedent and tradition for solutions, which is fair enough. But he underestimates the potency of thinkers and nonconformists in the period who may have looked to the past for lessons, but who nevertheless acted and thought in quite novel ways. I think of the Cathars, the mendicant orders, of Christine de Pizan and Peter Abelard. While none of these are precisely revolutionary or utopian, they are radical and idealistic.

So I don't appreciate the way he dismisses the transformative social and intellectual currents of the Middle Ages, but his point as it pertains to Puritans is well taken. They were trying to model purity and "right" behavior on an individual and communal level and with no small amount of literal-mindedness. And they were doing this in a way that diverged from the Protestants back in Europe.

The fathers of Reformation thought, Desiderius Erasmus and John Calvin, both took issue with (among other things) contemptus mundi and the value Catholic thought placed on withdrawal from the world. Early Protestants viewed the world as God's handiwork, something to be lived in and appreciated, not withdrawn from. (25-26) But Puritans, a reform movement within a reform movement, took a dimmer view of the world based on their focus on humanity's fall from grace.

They developed a bleak vision of human history which, according to Stannard, they saw as "one long descent into ever-deepening depravity ever since the betrayal of Adam and Eve." (39-40) With that cheery regard for humankind and its world, they drifted back toward medieval contemptus mundi, but without the afterlife optimism. They denigrated the idea of Purgatory, which was gaining ground back in Europe even among Protestants, and clung more firmly to their doctrine of torment (or, charmingly, the doctrine of endless punishment) and predestination; that is, to the ideas that a person is either saved or not saved, there's nothing to be done on earth about it, and if you're not saved, you are going straight to Hell where your soul will consciously suffer torture eternally.

These healthy, life affirming beliefs obviated the need for elaborate funeral ritual. As Stannard explains it, "[T]o the Puritan the soul of the dead person had flown to its appointed fate, and the corpse that remained behind was but a meaningless husk." (100)

In England, and initially in the New World, Puritans eschewed all funerary ritual, paid very little attention to the body in death, and discouraged open displays of grief. While this accorded with the Puritan theological view of the primacy of spiritual over worldly things, in practice it proved hard to take and of little comfort to the living. Stannard asserts persuasively that the introduction of grave art (winged skulls, skeletons with scythes, et al.) constituted a kind of backlash against the meanness of Puritan burial practices.

For reasons relating to their isolation, only the New World Puritans began livening up their funeral practices. English Puritans remained anti-ritual and anti-image. While in the New World carvings on headstones, of the kind under consideration here, became popular in the 1650s. By the early 18th century, Puritan funerals had grown much more elaborate. As Stannard observes:
In virtually every respect - in the care and handling of the dead, the nature and expense of funeral and burial procedures, the timing and content of the funeral sermon, the intrusion of death into the religious sphere of their lives, and the symbolic and iconographic marking of the individual's mortal remains - the New England Puritans ritualized death as only the most non-Puritan of pre-Restoration Englishmen would have dared do. (117)
He explains this change by reference to the theories of archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, who observed that the least stable societies possess the most elaborate burial practices. And Puritan New England was indeed unstable. In 1689, British Parliament passed the Toleration Act, which allowed dissenters from the Anglican church their own places of worship in England. This fundamentally changed the dynamic of the religious struggles that had sent Puritans packing to the New World in the first place. Again, Stannard says it well, "New England became...not the vanguard of Protestantism, but an isolated remnant." (124)

This increasing irrelevance had a significant impact on a culture that was, as noted, utopian and future-focused in nature and at inception. And they were not only growing irrelevant in the context of the religious wars back "home" in England. In New England as well, Puritanism of a dogmatic and idealistic sort lost ground throughout the 18th century to mercantile interests, a disturbingly worldly concern if you were a traditionalist.

Stannard believes these destabilizing changes, challenging to traditional Puritan ways of life and thought, caused the proliferation of both grave art and funerary ritual in New England. And, as I've laid out, he argued that Puritan theological beliefs and anxieties determined the forms the art took. They surely must have influenced it, but I think a few things worth noting here.

First, is that in pondering the interiority of a medieval or Puritan person (or a living modern person, for that matter), one cannot equate elucidated, "official" belief with people's every day emotional realities or behaviors. William Gilson, author of a thoughtful piece about Puritan funerary art in the New England Review, observed:
[T]o see [Puritans] as doom-crazed extremists of predestination and intolerance - as they have often been seen - is to make caricatures. The best of their writings are rich with thoughtful probings, extended reasonings, fresh metaphoric flights, eccentric perspectives, richly original language. (87)
It's tricky, but worth the effort, to avoid making caricatures of past people based on a discrete set of artifacts: their official stated religious beliefs, their art, their writings.

Second, is that art is both a cultural and an economic activity; just as it can be seen as "representative" of a group of people, but is ultimately created by individuals. A lot of attention has been paid in this essay to the religious and broad cultural influences that might have influenced Puritan funerary art. But some regional scholarly work has also been done to identify specific stone carvers and how Puritan grave art spread around New England as an example of a commissioned commodity. Both the craftspeople and the buyers contributed to this funeral economy.

According to Gilson, the earliest identified maker of these gravestones is known as the "Charlestown Carver". He was the first professional stone carver in the Boston area (active in the late 1600s) and "seems to have been the person who transferred the basic gravestone form, as it had existed in England, to New England...He established much of the basic visual vocabulary," (94) including the skulls, creeping foliage, humanoid faces, etc. He also seems to have taught at least 3 of the region's subsequent carvers whose names are known.

There's a certain amount of idiosyncratic aesthetics and craftsmanship, as well as market demand, that would have influenced what the Charlestown Carver brought with him from England, what he might have created or innovated once here, what his customers were willing to pay for and what his apprentices carried forward from his practice.

In short, I am skeptical to what extent any of the foregoing considerations "explain" the appearance of medieval-resembling art in Puritan burial grounds, or explain the frank portrayal of the dead and dying in art of any culture.

Modes of artistic expression fit poorly into causal explanations that treat them like components of an equation:

hard physical lives + afterlife-based theology + social instability = depictions of death in art

Which is not to say these components do not have some relationship with and affect on each other, but mathematics has not devised symbols capable of discussing those relationships and affects. For that matter, language hasn't developed the vocabulary either. That's one of the "problems" with visual art; it is created in a nonverbal mode to discuss things nonverbally; and the only mathematics that play a part relate to how the artist's hand makes a form or what a viewer perceives of the form, not why the artist makes it or how the viewer feels about it.

And so I dance around these topics, I guess. Using Stannard's observations about Puritans and the Middle Ages to help explain the Puritan art of New England, while acknowledging that nothing can wholly explain the art of Puritan New England (or any other place).

I'm mostly left with my gut aesthetic response to Puritan and medieval art, which is love and fascination. I also can't escape from meditating upon the wild ease and comfort of my modern western educated middle-class lifestyle...and from being grateful that I was not raised to believe that humans and the world are inherently sinful and that, likely as not, I'll end up in a place of eternal suffering. So thanks for that, Mom. I'm pretty sure that has saved me some severe neuroses, but did not prohibit me from creating morbid art of my own.

Citations from:
Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Gilson, William. "Stone Faces." New England Review, 30:4 (2009-2010): 79-101.


1. It also does us good to question our image of our current age as some sort of medieval diametric opposite: i.e., especially non-violent, intellectually progressive or culturally dynamic. In the U.S. especially, the latter two comprise a purported national identity I think it would be wise not to take for granted. And to imagine we are especially non-violent is outright laughable.
2. I here regard religious aesthetics as separate from secular aesthetics, which is a somewhat erroneous distinction even with regard to Protestant cultures, which Westerners now regard so commonly as somehow more "secular" than other religious cultures. I intend mostly to omit the works of the Flemish Renaissance from my consideration. In this essay I am speaking primarily and broadly about religious architecture and religiously-determined (e.g., funerary) art.
3. I know, I know. Their non-adornment is intended to turn the worshiper's attention inward. They are meant to be dignified and neat, unpretentious and thereby graceful. I guess I can even agree that they are. But Boston's Old North Church, par exemple? Bo-ring
[image of Old North Church].
4. The poem "Todesfuge" by Paul Celan and Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Painted Bird both jump out to me as examples here, each containing grisly and hauntingly morbid imagery, dealing in bodily ways with themes of genocidally-motivated murder.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

More careful, more powerful than any guardian

I spent four years studying medieval history at Tulane University in the early 2000s. I spent the next seven years, also in New Orleans, making all kinds of art but mostly painting and trying to pinpoint and develop my own visual "voice". Unsurprisingly, what emerged was a style highly influenced by medieval illumination and by the lush vegetation all around me.

The observation that what an artist sees comes out through her work is quotidian in the extreme, but if you are someone who paints or makes stuff you may identify with the jolt I felt when I first really saw this in my own work, when I recognized the influence of my surroundings in my painting. 

It hit me with a jolt because painting a picture, at least for me, does not feel like this highly structured task, where every decision is an overtly conscious one. So many of the decisions I make when working on a picture amount to a gut feeling; a curve, a perspective, a color juxtaposition just looks right, or feels right (or occasionally looks wrong and feels wrong). For every detail of a painting that I have concertedly chosen, there are 3 that just happen...or at least that is how I experience them: unplanned, organic, almost possessed of a life of their own.

Which is why the realization that these things often come from pretty obvious external sources felt novel and a little thrilling.1 I began to consider my affection for medieval art in general. I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border where vividly colored Mexican and Native American patterns, often floral, adorn civic buildings, houses, restaurants, and can be found in retail stores of all kinds and on "high" and "low" art everywhere (I hate those distinctions, but you get the drift: gallery or market art v. tourist shop tchotchkes). Catholic art is also extremely common; icons, statuary, mosaics. 

Mexican Catholic iconography has obvious precursors in medieval art and, in general, the bright colors, stylized shapes and repeating patterns of Mexican (as well as southwest Indian) art resonate with medieval illumination. It is obviously unprovable, but I strongly suspect that I took the shine to medieval art that I did, in part because it echoes the art of the American southwest that I had spent so much time looking at and admiring as I grew up.

When I moved to Massachusetts, the very first thing I painted, in retrospect, was clearly a product of the intense homesickness I was feeling for Louisiana. ["Swampsquatch of St. Malo" below]
From there I completed a number of paintings on subjects ranging from Iron Age bog people...to hellmouths,..to Janelle Monáe. I continued to have a rough time settling into Cambridge, and then my father died.

Exploring and figuring out ways to live with my grief, I found myself overwhelmed with a new homesickness I hadn't felt in decades: homesickness for the southwest. And so I painted a picture attempting to capture a place from my childhood: my paternal grandparents' home in southern New Mexico.

Something about researching for and executing this painting was utterly palate cleansing for me. Making it was an act that helped me express grief, longing, fondness and nostalgia.

I continue to yearn for warm places, where life moves slower, the people are (generally) less affluent but more pleasant, where they work long hours if they have to or they love what they do, but not because being busy to the point of distraction (doing something...anything!) is considered a virtue in itself.

I am obviously in no danger of developing any deep affection for urban New England, but something about completing this desert picture allowed me to begin embracing the things here I could like.

I live down the road from Mount Auburn Cemetery, the oldest "rural" cemetery in the United States. Dedicated in 1831, Mount Auburn is big enough and landscaped enough it still feels fairly removed when you're inside of it, but it's definitely no longer rural. It does, nevertheless, contain acres and acres of hills, gullies, surprising vistas...

hidden nooks, ponds, critters...

...and, of course, graves.

Mount Auburn Cemetery is hands down my favorite place in Cambridge. I enjoy it in each of the four seasons, even my nemesis, winter. And being in it can help me forget for short stretches the suffocating population density up here. It also introduced me to my second favorite tree.

One of the sorest non-human losses I felt in leaving New Orleans was for its ubiquitous live oaks. Their roots bubble up from any attempted confinement (by concrete or brick, for instance) like something viscous. [Image care of Claudia Brooke]

Their branches curve and duck and stretch far away from trunks that can grow to astounding girths. Their waxy dark green leaves do not fade and die in the mild Louisiana winters. Everything about them conveys age, grandness, lushness and sturdiness. The live oak is definitely my favorite tree.
But now, thanks to my time in Mount Auburn Cemetery, I also have come to know the weeping beech. It shares with the live oak the appearance of molten-ness despite its extreme hardness. They are both the kind of tree that would grow around and engulf anything foolish enough to remain near them for too long - a sign nailed to the bark or maybe a fence post planted too close - and the trunks would look liquid, as though they had oozed around the object, but would be rough and hard to the touch. They are both old man trees, ents, embodying wisdom and perseverance.

But their differences are also charming. The weeping beech has pale bark that grows back from damage slightly darker. So the hearts and initials and other graffiti from decades and decades can still be read on the trunks of the weeping beeches of Mount Auburn in bubbly gray relief against the white surface, like propeller scars on the smooth skin of a sea mammal.


Their large branches depart from the trunk, twisting and dipping and winding and when they reach a certain altitude or stage of growth, they send shoots cascading straight back down toward the ground.
Photo by Nicholas Paskert

When replete with emerald green leaves, these slender "weeping" branches sheath the main trunk and the largest branches, hiding them like skin hides a skeleton.
Photo by Nicholas Paskert

And if you brush through the branches and enter the secret canopy they create, you find yourself in what looks like a cathedral, vaulted with light filtering in as though the leaves were stained glass.
Photo by Nicholas Paskert

You could hide inside a weeping beech and a passer-by would never know you were there.

And so I have great awe and affection for these trees. And I feel gratitude to Mount Auburn for introducing them to me.

Another thing I've come to like about New England, I have also found in cemeteries...although in cemeteries much older and smaller and weirder than Mount Auburn. In downtown Boston, in its North End, near Cambridge common, in Salem and in other spots around the region, I have become acquainted with the 17th- and 18th-century graves of those austere reformers, the Puritans.

Protestant art and architecture are so well known for their bareness, simplicity and unadornèdness, that the grave art of early North American Puritans - those most protestful of protestants - is quite bizarre in its frank and busy moroseness. Plumes of plants and other strange vaguely organic shapes creep along the edges of the tombstones, which are crowned with winged skulls, whole skeletons, seraphim and other flying baby-like figures, hourglasses, candles snuffed out, a whole arsenal of symbols for life cut short and the invincible march of time.



Photos by Nicholas Paskert

The figural proportions can be off, the faces crude (even though I usually loathe that word in reference to art, it seems to fit some of the blunt expressionless faces).
Photo by Nicholas Paskert

The words are abbreviated with floating superscript and a "y" is used to represent thorn (þ) 
(as in "ye"), as well as in lieu of "i" (as in "lyes").

Photo by Nicholas Paskert

The names of the departed sound both homey and exotic:Thankful Lutwych, Mercy Jones, Jabez and Lydia Sweet. The markers often speak of loss and grief in poetic but disarmingly direct terms: [epitaph below from the grave of the Sweet children]
Stay gentle reader, view this spot of Earth,
Sacred to virtue, innocence and worth.
Four infant roses, budding in the morn
Shed their sweet fragrance in life's early dawn,
Entwin'd their parent stems so fond caress'd,
Each gave one smile to glad the pensive breast,
Then dropt their odours, left the parent rose,
And dropp'd and wither'd, died. Here seek repose
Till Christ transplant them in the graves above
To bloom immortal in the joys of love.
I've had occasion before to feel ill at ease in my own culture, because really straightforward talk about death and emotional loss comforts me. I don't see why paying attention to the dead, their passing, their memorials, their affects on the living, equals morbidity when death is the indivisible corollary to life. And so I find Puritan funerary art affecting and lovely. And strange, for sure, but lovely.

Combining some of these motifs with the image of a weeping beech - especially once I'd decided it should also appear leafless and skeletal - seemed very natural. An autumnal palate also struck me as pretty obvious. I wanted to convey the melancholy of fall, of waning life, of a decomposing body returning to the earth; but also show how life persists in the tree itself, and in the burrow of a small rodent.


The Latin adage: Custode et cura natura potentior omni (roughly, Nature is more careful, more powerful than any guardian; or In guardianship and care, nature is more powerful than all) is taken from Juvenal's tenth satire, which critiques praying after vain things.

I like to think of this saying as a kind of memento mori; we will all go back where we came from and death is necessary for life, which doesn't mean it isn't sad but can reveal optimism and beauty in the life-death cycle. Isn't it good and comforting that humans participate in that cycle, like any other animal, like a leaf or a flower? We wither, we die and we decay, but something very like us grows again in our place, young and fresh and ready to do it all over again.

1. It is likely another offshoot of my sympathy with the medieval period that I find this idea thrilling and not disturbing. I think of the popular medieval conceit of reading as eating: ideas are taken in with the eyes, as food is taken in through the mouth; the process of digestion occurs which breaks down the material; metaphorical belching, gas and indigestion could occur because assimilation is never easy; and eventually the idea is absorbed by the mind as nutrients are absorbed by the body. This extremely visceral metaphor accentuates the medieval idea that one is what one reads, and the medieval reader's awareness that one has taken in the ideas of others, which in turn precludes one from feeling especially original or novel and from over-valuing or over-trusting the appearance of the new. In a sense, I guess that's how I am envisioning my surroundings: components I take in, assimilate into myself, and then express in my art. Original to me, but not in an absolute or existential sense.