A worn monument

At the back of the ambulatory in Lausanne Cathedral, in Switzerland, set into the floor, is this very old un-named memorial to someone who appears to have been a senior cleric, judging by his mitre hat and his staff.

It didn’t look to me as if it had always been inset into this particular bit of floor, and it seemed like a strange place to put it, anyway, all alone and jutting out into the circular walkway behind the altar.  But the most puzzling thing about it is the fact that it is so worn down that the facial features are completely smooth and well… featureless.

Lausanne slab

How could this have happened?  The feet of countless pilgrims over the centuries, you might say?  But why would they step on it, and not walk around it?  It’s someone’s grave, or at least their memorial, surely they deserved more respect than that, whoever they were.  And if that is indeed how it became worn it means that thousands of people must have trampled all over it when it was new and freshly carved and not yet worn down.  That would have been a lot harder to do when it wasn’t nearly as flattened as it is now, and considerably more disrespectful.  Even if it was set into a busy path, so you had to step over it and you couldn’t walk round it, you wouldn’t carelessly scuffle across the poor dead man’s face, would you?

If anyone has any other ideas about how this funeral sculpture might have become so worn down, and worn down so smoothly, I’d love to hear them.

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An unconventional celestial maiden

Of the 1,796 bas-relief sculptures at Angkor Wat in Cambodia of apsaras and devatas, the celestial dancers of Hindu mythology, one of them defies convention, and is probably a sculptor’s private joke.

This is the only celestial maiden in any of the Khmer temples – so I was told by my very knowledgeable guide – who is depicted with her mouth open, revealing her teeth.

This is the only apsara out of nearly 2000 at Angkor Wat whose lips are parted, showing her teeth.

This is the only apsara out of 1,796 at Angkor Wat whose lips are parted, showing her teeth.

It's possible that the site construction supervisor never noticed that this apsara's face had been carved in this unconventional way.  The teeth are more noticeable now, from being touched by the greasy fingers of countless visitors to Angkor Wat.

It’s possible that the 12th century site decoration supervisor never noticed that this one apsara’s face had been carved in this unconventional way. Her teeth are more noticeable now, darkened from being touched by the fingers of countless visitors to Angkor Wat.

You might have noticed that her earlobes are elongated from the heavy jewellery they carry.  Curiously, pierced and elongated lobes are also seen on all the Khmer warriors in the many battle scenes depicted on other walls at Angkor Wat, even though the men aren’t shown wearing anything dangling from their ears as they go into battle .  I’m pleased to say that this body modification is no longer a fashion for either the young men or the young women of modern Cambodia.

You can click this picture to enlarge it and see the details.

Khmer warriors charging into battle, trampling the dead bodies of their Cham (Vietnamese) enemies.  Their generals ride on battle elephants behind.

Khmer warriors charging into battle, trampling over the dead bodies of their Cham (Vietnamese) enemies. Their generals ride on battle elephants behind.

A fine entrance

The relatively small church of St Pierre inside the old city walls of Avignon in Provence, southern France, is hemmed in by cafés and apartments and narrow winding streets, and faces onto the small cobblestoned Place de St Pierre.  The façade is described as ‘Provençal Gothic’, which I think is meant to mean the ‘Flamboyant’ decorative style more common towards the end of the Gothic period, as this church was not completed until 1385 AD.

The church of St Pierre, Avignon, Provence

The church of St Pierre, Avignon, Provence

The entrance is certainly flamboyant, with two beautifully carved doors and a lovely life-sized sculpture of the madonna and child on a canopied pier between them.  The sculpture is attributed to Jean Péru, and the 4 metre high doors were made by a woodworker named Antoine Volard. They were commissioned and paid for by a wealthy local merchant, who apparently coughed up “60 gold crowns with the king’s hallmark” for them.

What a bargain.

The solid walnut doors of St Pierre, Avignon, open directly into the nave of the church.

The solid walnut doors of St Pierre, Avignon, open directly into the nave of the church.

Modonna and child between the two doors at the entrance to the church of St Pierre, Avignon

Modonna and child between the two doors at the entrance to the church of St Pierre, Avignon

Putting up a good front

To me, it’s a little disappointing when you find out that an artist or architect has presented you with a really good front view of something, but didn’t take the same care with the reverse view.

Here is the quite impressive freestanding arch that greets you at the main entrance to the Basilica in Toulouse.  Ornately carved, of fine materials.

The entrance arch to the Basilica in Toulouse, France.

The entrance arch to the Basilica in Toulouse, France.

And here is how the same thing looks as you leave the church.  If they ran out of money when the thing was only half completed, then whoever built it was guilty only of very bad planning.  But if it was intentional, then shame on them.  Whatever respect and positive feelings you might have had on the way in disappear as soon as you step back outside the door of the church.  It’s like seeing the everyday face of a clown without any makeup, they’re just not a clown any more.

the much more prosaic rear of the entrance arch at the Basilica in Toulouse, France

The much more prosaic rear of the entrance arch at the Basilica in Toulouse, France

St Peter’s in Rome has a very large number of lifesize stone figures, mostly by Bernini, along the front of the cathedral and right round the Piazza in front of it.  These figures are made to be seen from a distance, never close up, so there is not the same fine detailed finish that he might have put into some of his other sculptures.  Not only would that be a pointless effort, it would actually be counterproductive, as John Ruskin noted in his examination of the art and architecture of Venice.  He observed that the visual impression created by a very detailed carving when seen from a distance was actually less convincing than a sculpture that was intended only to be seen from a distance and was deliberately carved with a coarser level of detail.

A few of the decorative sculptures over the entrance to St Peter's Cathedral in Rome

A few of the decorative sculptures over the entrance to St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

Seen from above and behind, though, from the top of the dome, we can see that Bernini has left the backs of his sculptures more crudely finished than the fronts, but we can forgive him for that.  The sculptor probably surmised that many fewer people would ever see his work from that angle, and in the 16th century he also didn’t expect anybody to be looking at them through telephoto lenses.

The rear view of the decorative figures on the front of St Peter's in Rome

The rear view of the decorative figures on the front of St Peter’s in Rome

Bernini didn’t treat the occasional rear-viewer of his figures with the contempt shown in this much harder to justify example, though, which is nothing but front.  It’s possible that when this sculpture was commissioned for St Paul’s cathedral in London there was no intention of ever letting the public climb up into the dome so that they could look down on this piece from behind, but even so…

A very unhappy rear view of one of the sculpted decorations of St Paul's cathedral in London

A very unhappy rear view of one of the sculpted decorations of St Paul’s cathedral in London

The judgement of Paris (yes, Aphrodite again)

According to Greek mythology, the great god Zeus once held a banquet.  Angry at not being invited, Eris, the goddess of discord, turned up anyway, bringing a golden apple inscribed ‘for the fairest one’.  Three of the goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, immediately tried to claim it as theirs, each believing they were the most beautiful goddess of them all, and they turned to Zeus for him to adjudicate.  Wisely, Zeus declined that dubious honour, and appointed as their judge instead, Paris, a mortal human.

In turn, each of the beautiful goddesses paraded for Paris for him to assess their relative beauty, and each offered him the sort of bribe only gods can deliver, like wealth and power, or wisdom and skill in war, to induce him to choose her ahead of the others.  Paris, the prince of Troy and son of King Priam, chose Aphrodite because she offered to give him what he most wanted, which was the most beautiful human woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, the wife of King Menelaus.  According to Homer, the Trojan Wars were subsequently fought as a result, with the Greeks trying to get Helen back.

We know that this lovely sculpture is of Aphrodite, in the process of putting her clothes back on after winning the beauty contest, because she is holding the golden apple in her left hand.  She is wearing a simple floor-length shift known as a chiton, fastened on only one shoulder in the ‘exomis’ fashion, and with the other hand she is wrapping herself in her outer garment, a cloak known as a himation.

Ancient Greek clothing is very simple.  The chiton is a loose shift often worn fastened only at one shoulder, leaving the other shoulder and breast bare.

Ancient Greek clothing is very simple. The chiton is a loose shift often worn fastened only at one shoulder, leaving the other shoulder and breast bare.

The chiton consisted of one piece of rectangular fabric, folded in half and joine with a seam to make a wide tube, which was then draped round the body and fastened at one or both shoulders,

The chiton consists of one piece of rectangular fabric, folded in half and joined with a seam to make a loose tube around the body, and fastened at one or both shoulders to hold it up.

The chiton consisted of one piece of rectangular fabric, folded in half and joine with a seam to make a wide tube, which was then draped round the body and fastened at one or both shoulders,

The himation is a simple cloak, made of a heavier fabric, which wraps round the wearer over the top of the chiton.

There is a theory that this beautiful statue, a Roman copy of a lost Greek original, was commissioned by Julius Caesar because he wanted to install it in the temple of Venus Genetrix (Venus was the Roman name for the goddess) as part of an attempt to establish himself as a direct descendant of the gods.

The pantheon of pagan gods and goddesses in the Greek and Roman worlds were at the core of the main religion of that time, but the myths and legends that surrounded them have often been used for more secular rather than purely religious purposes. The myth that inspired this particular sculpture and many others like it, has, for several thousand years, given artists of all kinds the excuse to present three beautiful nudes all at the same time, parading themselves in front of a (usually) clothed male.  It’s been a popular theme.

Goddess of beauty and love

To the ancient Egyptians, she was known as Hathor.  To the Mesopotamians, she was Ishtar.  The Romans called her Venus.  To the Greeks she was Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation.

The Greeks, who knew a thing or two about beauty, produced more marble versions of Aphrodite than of any other deity, if the number of them I have seen in museums around the world is anything to go by.  And why not?  Her realm of responsibility has always been the most universally fascinating subject for all humans everywhere, ancient or modern.

This fine sculpture, although it is probably a Roman copy of a Greek original, is of Aphrodite being surprised in the act of bathing, according to the British Museum label next to it.

Whether this statue was ever installed in a temple devoted to that goddess, or to what extent this object was used in any kind of religious worship or ceremony is impossible to know, but it seems unlikely that it ever was.  This is no impossibly idealised symbolic version of ‘beauty’, this is a sensitive work of art derived from a particularly well observed instance of that ephemeral concept. It was based on a real person, a young woman who lived and breathed as she posed for the sculptor, becoming the goddess of beauty under his chisel.

Aphrodite, surprised in the act of bathing: Roman copy of a Greek original. 2nd century AD

Aphrodite, surprised in the act of bathing: Roman copy of a Greek original. 2nd century AD

Aphrodite, surprised in the act of bathing: Roman copy of a Greek original. 2nd century AD

Aphrodite, surprised in the act of bathing: Roman copy of a Greek original. 2nd century AD

Aphrodite, surprised in the act of bathing: Roman copy of a Greek original. 2nd century AD

Aphrodite, surprised in the act of bathing: Roman copy of a Greek original. 2nd century AD

Aphrodite, surprised in the act of bathing: Roman copy of a Greek original. 2nd century AD

Aphrodite, surprised in the act of bathing: Roman copy of a Greek original. 2nd century AD

Apparently, this very old and very beautiful stone carving is owned by the Queen of England, who has loaned it to the British Museum so that we can all admire and enjoy it.  Thanks, your majesty.

A puzzling god

The first shrine that was built at the hot springs in Bath, England, was dedicated to Sulis, a life-giving mother goddess figure of the Celts.  The Romans associated Sulis with Minerva, and when they built their own temple and spa baths round the hot springs, they still called the waters ‘Aquae Sulis’, the ‘Waters of Sulis’.

I had always assumed that this wonderful stone head from the centre of the pediment of the Roman temple at Bath was an image of Sol Invictus, the official Roman sun god of around 250-300AD when the Romans were still expanding their bathing complex, but apparently not.  Nobody really knows who he is, but some sources say he could be a representation of the Roman water god Oceanus, or perhaps an older Celtic sun god.  He is sometimes described as a gorgon, although I am not convinced of that: his wild and shaggy hair doesn’t look to me like it is meant to be snakes, and anyway, gorgons are usually female.

Whatever, he’s very old and he’s some sort of Celtic or Roman god.

This stone carving of a head was part of the central pediment of the pagan temple at the Roman Baths in Bath, England.

This stone carving of a head was part of the central pediment of the pagan temple at the Roman Baths in Bath, England.

I like him because he looks so worried and puzzled and surprised.

Come to think of it, suddenly realising you had a head full of snakes would be a bit startling, so perhaps he is a gorgon, after all.

Evangelical symbols

Speaking of the winged creatures symbolically associated with the four gospel writers (see yesterday’s post), you don’t often see them used outside of churches specifically dedicated to one or other of them, and frequently not even then.  Venice has made a very visible multi-formed logo for itself out of the winged Lion of St Mark, but the others are less well known.

Matthew’s symbol is a winged man – not an angel – symbolising the human nature of Christ.  Mark, of course, has the winged lion, symbolising Christ as King.  Luke is represented by a winged bull or calf, symbolising the sacrifice of Christ.  And John’s symbol is an eagle, symbolising the omnipotent all-seeing eye of God.

Unusually shown together, here are all four evangelistic symbols as they are represented on oval lozenge panels set up high on the four columns surrounding the altar inside architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece in Barcelona, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.

Matthew's symbol is a winged man - the humanity of Christ

Matthew’s symbol is a winged man – the humanity of Christ

Mark's symbol is the winged lion - Christ as King

Mark’s symbol is the winged lion – Christ as King

Luke is represented by a winged calf - the sacrifice of Christ

Luke is represented by a winged calf – the sacrifice of Christ

John's symbol is an eagle - the omnipotent eye of God

John’s symbol is an eagle – the omnipotent eye of God

The Lion of St Mark

St Mark the Evangelist was the Bishop of Alexandria when he died there, and his corpse became one of the most sacred of Christian relics.  In 828AD Alexandria was under Saracen control, and the church fathers there was very concerned about the safety of this priceless relic.  Two Venetian merchants came to their rescue, offering to protect this priceless relic by smuggling it out of the city on their ship for ‘temporary’ safekeeping.  They immediately hot-footed it back to their home city of Venice with their prize, from whence it never returned.

Possessing the whole decomposing body of one of the four gospel writers (even if it was stolen) lifted Venice into the Premier League of ecclesiastical prestige, boosting it up into second place behind Rome, which had the remains of St Peter himself.  St Mark has ever since been the symbol of the city, the protector and patron saint of Venice.

The Gospel according to St Mark describes John the Baptist preaching “like a lion roaring”.  Perhaps because of this, the evangelical symbol for St Mark is a lion, representing Christ as King.  Traditionally, the symbols for all four evangelists are winged creatures, which explains why winged lions can be found all over Venice, not just as monumental sculptures, but even on doorknobs and restaurant menus.

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

Many of the representations of the Lion of St Mark show him with a paw resting on an open book, on which are inscribed the words ‘Pax tibi Marce, evangelista mea”.  “Peace be unto you, O Mark my evangelist”.

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

The Lion of St Mark on top of this column in the Piazetta, next to the Doge’s Palace, is the most recognisable symbol of Venice, and it has sat there for around 800 years.  Venice was never democratic, the common people never had any say in how they were governed.  Yet, this lion has never been toppled by rebellion or revolution, or even threatened by it, which suggests that Venice’s very convoluted oligarchical system of government actually worked quite well for the benefit of all its citizens, and not just for the aristocracy who ruled the nation state for so long.

The symbol of the city, this winged lion has stood atop this column in the Piazetta for around 800 years

The symbol of the city, this winged lion has stood atop this column in the Piazetta for around 800 years

Pietà

I consider myself very fortunate to have seen this stunning sculpture by Michelangelo before it was attacked by a maniac with a hammer in 1972.  Now, with the damage restored, the Pietà is kept behind bulletproof glass, it can only be seen from some distance away, and it can only be photographed with a telephoto lens.  In the early 60s, it was possible to walk right up to it and around it, to get close enough to touch it if you wanted (although I don’t recall that I actually did that obviously forbidden thing).

This famous statue of a crucified Jesus, lying dead on his mother's lap, was created by Michelangelo in 1488-89, and is now in St Peter's in the Vatican City in Rome

This famous statue of a crucified Jesus, lying dead on his mother’s lap, was created by Michelangelo in 1488-89, and is now in St Peter’s in the Vatican City in Rome

There is no doubt that it is a masterful and powerful piece of work, and deservedly much loved.  But the older I get, the more I can’t help noticing some of its incongruities, which are to me, on reflection, a large part of the reason why the whole piece works as well as it does.

Christ was supposedly in his mid-thirties when he was allegedly crucified, which means that Mary, his mother, who this female figure is supposed to represent, should be a woman of at least 50 years old.  Yet the figure depicted here is a very young woman of striking beauty, probably not more than about 18 years old, which makes her look more likely to be Jesus’ daughter than his own mother.  There are two common theological apologetics countering this fairly obvious observation.  Firstly, that Mary the Virgin was of such incorruptible perfection that she did not ever age as other, sinful, women did.  Secondly, that because Jesus is part of the Holy Trinity, the three-in-one, the source of all life, Mary was in that sense his daughter, and as he was as much responsible for Mary’s immaculate pregnancy as the Holy Spirit, he was also his own father.  Both of these arguments are more than a little creepy.

There are other practical problems with this sculpture.  The body of Christ is very much a corpse, a dead weight, as can be seen from the convincing compression of his armpit against Mary’s hand.  She appears to be holding him calmly and easily, yet the whole weight of his torso is being held up only by this young girl’s extended right arm, a not insignificant feat of strength.  Also, the relative proportions of the two figures are out of whack.  If they were both to stand up, Mary would be easily the taller of the two figures, and her shoulders – even allowing for her voluminous garments – are half as wide again as Christ’s.

In 1972, this marble carving sustained substantial damage when a man called Laszlo Toth walked into the cathedral and attacked it with a hammer.

In 1972, this marble carving sustained substantial damage when a man called Laszlo Toth walked into the cathedral and attacked it with a hammer.

But here then, is Michelangelo’s genius at work.  The mismatches in the apparent ages of the figures, and in their proportions, are no error or accident.  The artist has produced a grouping sublime in its subtlety, and deeply moving.  Had their physical depictions been more consistent, more realistic, this pose, this juxtaposition of figures would not only have been impossible to believe, it would have been demeaning.  With a full-sized Christ, a middle-aged and more diminutive Mary would have seemed pathetic, overwhelmed by the impossible task of trying to hold up the slumping dead body of a larger fully grown man this way.

Instead, Michelangelo shows us that Christ, in the form of an incarnated man, is now only a discarded husk of a body that has been diminished by death.  But Mary, the ageless eternal virgin, still holding and nursing the Christ-child as if he was newly-born, not newly-dead, almost anticipating his resurrection, has become much greater with the strength she demonstrates in her quiet acceptance of his tragic sacrifice.

Even a godless heathen like me finds it hard not to be moved by the beautiful depiction of those mythic ideas.