When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro

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St. John Damascene and the St. Virgin Tricherusa, Giovanni Gasparro. Here we see Gasparro depicting a legend from the Saint’s life that is particularly appropriate for an artist. The work also represents the unity of Western and Eastern visual traditions in the transcendent Divinity. (Source)

Recently there came into my newsfeed an article by Hilary White Obl.S.B. of What’s Up with Francischurch?. The piece was an extended criticism of Giovanni Gasparro, an Italian artist whose paintings inspired a few of the meditations I have written before on this blog. As someone who has long admired Mr. Gasparro’s Neo-Baroque art, I was happy to see that Rorate Caeli recently profiled one of his pieces. Ms. White was, it seems, partially responding to this attention. However, the more I read of her article, the more I found myself in stark disagreement with her analysis and broader philosophy.

While I have in the past appreciated her reporting as well as the monastic spirit she brings to her work, I confess that I was surprised at the poor quality of her post. I would not ordinarily seek out controversy, but as it seems that Ms. White’s post is making the rounds of the Tradisphere, I felt it imperative to offer a counter perspective.

There are many problems with the article. It is a textbook example of how not to write about art and theology, failing comprehensively at description, prescription, and imagination. She focuses too heavily on one work, Gasparro’s St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus. When she looks at other examples of his art, her analysis – if that is the right word for her summary denunciations – always remains far too cursory to do justice to such a talented artist. And while she notes that Gasparro is a master draughtsman, she follows up this comment with the presumptive assertion that Gasparro “is someone who still approaches sacred subjects with a distinctly modernist mindset.”

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St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

There are overarching philosophical problems with Ms. White’s argument. But I’d prefer to begin with her shoddy treatment of the material itself.

To start with a small, but, I think, a representative example; Ms. White claims that in Gasparro’s portrait of Pope St. Pius X, the light falls on the Pope’s face in a sinister way. She writes,

 

But the painting of Pius X is underlit, a type of lighting that we associate with evil. If you see horror movies, the light is often placed this way on a face to give it a frightening, even demonic effect. It’s what springs to mind: where does a light come from if it’s up from below? Still, is hell’s light this white, electric glare?

This effect, illuminating the facial structure from an odd and unnatural angle – light doesn’t usually come from the ground up, still less heavenly light – the underside of the brow ridge lit up, giving the eye sockets a sickly, sunken appearance, etc… None of that is going to be found in genuine devotional sacred art.

An interesting idea, but one that misses the mark.

For one thing, the Pope is not underlit. It would be more accurate to say that he’s side-lit. There is a striking similarity in the way the light falls in Gasparro’s piece and the photograph of St. Pius to which Ms. White compares it. Nor is side-lighting unusual in Catholic art. Zubarán’s famous St. Francis in Meditation (1635-39) uses almost exactly the same angle for a much more sinister effect.

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St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Giovanni Gasparro. In which a saint is underlit, and with good reason. (Source)

Her rather contrived interpretation requires one of two presuppositions: first, that the symbolic lexicon of sacred, or, indeed, Western art is so narrow as to entail only a very limited range of connotations in the use of light, and secondly, that Gasparro’s work is intrinsically profane, deceptive, or downright evil. Neither of these assumptions is fair to the the artwork. They obscure its meaning rather than illuminate it.

But this point is relatively minor compared to some of Ms. White’s other egregious analysis. She dismisses Gasparro’s oeuvre as “surrealist, not sacred art,” with particular attention to his common motif of multiplied hands. She takes exception to the way he depicts faces, as well. Once again, we can see this tendency on display in her take on the Pius X portrait:

Giuseppe Sarto – even in death – had a very “beatific” face, handsome and always with a very assured and calm expression. I can’t imagine him ever making a face like the one in the painting. In fact, it looks more like what you’d get if you cloned Pius X and added a few drops of Nigel Farage.

She goes on to suggest that the “lumps and bumps” on the face of Gasparro’s Pius X are unsound, and that his expression inappropriately reflects “apprehension, not adoration.”

I’ll admit, the likeness is imperfect. She’s not totally off to note the resemblance with Nigel Farage, an unfortunate quality of the painting. Nevertheless, these indignant statements reflect more on Ms. White’s failure of imagination than they do Mr. Gasparro’s art. Moreover, mightn’t the Pope’s face also convey a whole range of emotions? Instead of apprehension, couldn’t the Pope’s expression show humble supplication? Or simply the holy Fear of God that priests ought to hold in their hearts as they offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? And might not Pope Sarto have made much the same face at the altar as he spoke the sacred and secret words to the Almighty? Is she really incapable of imagining him “ever making a face like the one in the painting?” Sure it’s not that hard.

Ms. White continues in this vein at some length.

The “light” from the Eucharist isn’t actually light. It illuminates nothing, there is no reflection of it on the face or hands or vestments. The halo is equally dead as a light source, since it falls on nothing. The only light on the figure is from this lower left white source – like a stage light. The non-light from the Eucharist could be a signal; is he saying, “This is NOT the light of the world”?

One gets the impression that the message of the painting is that Eucharistic theology is deception; there is no light from the Host, the celebrant does not believe; his face says “this is all theatre & flummery”

In fact, the more you look at it, the more the feeling grows that this is actually a parody of sacred art. As a friend of mine commented, “His face in no way looks beatific.” There’s something in this hyperrealism, all the lumpiness and the harsh white lighting, that doesn’t say heavenly to me, but psychotic. They seem like subtle corruptions of reality.

What an extraordinary concatenation of assertions.

A few questions come to mind immediately. First, why must the Eucharist necessarily illumine anything? There are, of course, discernible rays of light emanating from it, and any ordinary viewer who sees the painting would probably understand what is meant spiritually. But why should that light be seen to rest on anything in particular, when it’s already an unearthly light to begin with? Secondly, why do halos need to be light sources at all? David Clayton has argued at New Liturgical Movement that:

…the art of the High Renaissance and Baroque is aiming to portray historical man (and not as with the icon eschatological man united with God in heaven), what the artists are doing might in fact be consistent with this. One might propose that because the aura of uncreated light, the nimbus, would not be as visible (to the same degree at any rate) in fallen man, even if that man is a saint. So it would seem that the artist might choose not to portray a halo very faintly, as a slight glow, or even not at all.

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The Madonna Benois, Leonard da Vinci. One of the paintings to which Clayton draws our attention – note that the halos of both are just golden circles, not lights. (Source).

Clayton’s division between iconography and art is an important, to which we will return, in a certain sense, later. For now, I’ll merely note two facts: a) it is extraordinarily commonplace in Western art to find halos that don’t function as any kind of light source, and b) the halo in Gasparro’s painting of the Pope is a diffuse but definite illumination. I can’t help but feel I am looking at an altogether different image than Ms. White, based on how badly she has described it. Instead of attempting to determine what the artist is actually communicating with what he has shown, Ms. White has given us a testimony of her own reactions.

Where she does attend to the painting as such, she uses the overly suspicious hermeneutic of a conspiracy theorist. The least probable and most malignant of interpretations come to the fore. Instead of merely asserting, as she is free to do, that Gasparro has painted a bad bit of sacred art, she instead goes so far as to accuse the artist of parodying the sacred.

There may be something grotesque, kitschy, or even campy about Gasparro’s oeuvre. But the grotesque, kitsch, and camp are three typical Catholic idioms. Look at the little prints of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts surrounded by roses of all colors, adored by angels in little white gowns. Look at the gargoyles that grow like frightful stone pimples from the corners of our Cathedral spires. Look at the contorted muscles and thorn-choked skin of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Look at the Rococo churches that dot the landscape of the old Hapsburg Lands. Look at the Spanish processions of Holy Week, with all those peaked hoods and gilt statues in the streets. Look for the buskins and buckles of the pre-conciliar clerics. Look at the huge folds of watered silk enshrouding cardinals and archbishops and all manner of monsignori in that more confident age of the Church’s triumph. Look indeed at the splendid choir dress of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest in our day! Look at Cardinal Burke in his glorious cappa magna (incidentally, Gasparro has done a charming portrait of him, too).

There is something delightfully other, delightfully weird, delightfully over-the-top about our religion. And surely, all of this is meet and right. The priest is other. The Church is other, and should appear mad in a world gone mad. Flannery O’Connor (probably) said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Whatever its actual provenance, I take this saying as a true maxim of Catholic life in the modern world. I don’t mind if our art reflects that tendency for the strange, even if it disturbs us a little. I would be more suspicious if it didn’t.

We are all of us living as strangers, both to the world and to heaven. Gasparro’s art confronts us with this quality of strangeness, throws it back in our face – and startles us. Good. The Gospel is a very startling tale indeed.

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Torculus Christi. Mystic press with St. Gabriele dell’Addolorata and St. Gemma Galgani, Giovanni Gasparro. One of his more overtly weird pieces, but one that is deeply rooted in Catholic mystical and artistic tradition. (Source)

Moving on to a few of Ms. White’s other statements, we come to her distinction between surrealist and sacred art. I happen to be working on a piece right now that will argue that surrealism is an artistic movement that, purged of its original anticlerical animus, can open up plenty of new avenues for a specifically Catholic spiritual art. Indeed, there is already quite a corpus of work that we might reasonably call Catholic surrealism, and I hope to incorporate it into that argument. In the meantime, I refute her argument thus.

Ms. White also takes exception with Gasparro’s very common use of multiplied hands in his paintings. She writes in one of her more patronizing captions,

He seems to be really big into this creepy thing with the multiple floating hands. This is what I would call “schtick” and it is common among highly trained younger artists who think that having a schtick will get them brand-recognition.

This wholesale dismissal is maybe the worst part of the essay. Once again, it evinces a refusal to engage with what Mr. Gasparro has put on the canvas for our consideration, summarizing it tidily in order to condemn it tout court.

Gasparro’s multiplication of hands – or, in some cases, other body parts – serves two functions in his art. First, it can express the passing of time. In The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (2015), the doubled set of hands represent discreet acts. Secondly, it can express numerous levels of spiritual meaning that otherwise might be missed through a more conventional image. Manipulating gesture opens up the image. This is particularly true in Gasparro’s Speculum Iustitiate (2014), St. Nicholas of Bari (2016), and his deeply moving portrait of Pius VII, Quum memoranda (Servant of God, Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti) (2014).

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The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

The doubling invites the viewer to consider each act or spiritual meaning in turn and to ponder how the subject may be acting in each case. The multiplication of hands invites us into a secondary, meditative dimension of the work. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have found his work a very fruitful spur to precisely this kind of spiritual meditation.

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Transunstanziazione, Giovanni Gasparro. This image would be perfectly at home in a church. (Source)

Take one of Gasparro’s finest pieces, Transunstanziazione (2009). I will repeat here what I wrote about it in my Corpus Christi piece:

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Every time I return to this painting, I find something deeper in it. I’ll add that the multiplication of hands is a trope that exists in the work of that most unimpeachable of Catholic Artists, the Blessed Fra Angelico, who uses it in virtually the same way as Gasparro.

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The Mocking of Christ, Fra Angelico. Here he uses hands in the same ways that Gasparro does – to telescope sequential events into one image, to provide an insight into hidden action, and to lead us into meditation. Two of my Facebook friends noticed the formal and spiritual kinship between the two artists. (Source)

Of course, I don’t expect Ms. White or anyone else to have the same approach to every work of art as I do. If she finds Gasparro “creepy,” that is her right. But it is not an argument against Gasparro’s Catholicity. It is a subjective and affective assessment of his art, and thus it lies more in the realm of taste than aesthetic theology. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having and describing a visceral reaction to a work of art. I’m perfectly happy to say de gustibus and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, Ms. White expatiates about what constitutes “sacred art,” which, she claims, is emphatically not what Mr. Gasparro is doing.

She writes,

Knowing nothing about him other than what he paints, I have no idea what this artist intends – and that right there should tell you that he’s NOT doing sacred art – but it seems that in general hyperrealism simply isn’t going to work for devotional art. It’s always going to come across as strange and parodic, because the purpose of devotional painting is not to depict ordinary earthly reality – with all its “warts” – but a supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality, that can only be occasionally glimpsed in this life by seeing the saints.

Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.

Where do I begin?

First of all, it doesn’t matter what the artist intends. We emphatically don’t need to know the artist’s intentions to appreciate what exists in the constructed world of the art-object. It can be helpful, but it really isn’t necessary. “Intention” is one of those terms that is always so heterogeneous and slippery as to be virtually meaningless. Consider the range of “intentions” that might be implicit in any work of art. Most artists of the Renaissance probably intended to produce images that would please their wealthy patrons so that they could keep eating. Moreover, it seems that a great deal of eros generated quite a lot of the Western canon. No doubt at times the souls of the artists were illuminated by the grandeur of their work. But we can’t possibly know to what extent the deeply fallible men (and they were almost all men) intended to invest their work with a consciously spiritual meaning.

What’s more, Ms. White’s dislike for “hyperrealism” as well as “surrealism” leads her to miss the fact that Gasparro’s work strikes an incarnational balance between the two. His subjects are recognizably human, but in the strange art-world he depicts, they are charged with the heavy presence of a mystery far beyond their humanity. They share our condition while pointing towards a world that stands beyond it.

It bears mentioning that her dislike of “ordinary earthly reality – with all its ‘warts'” would necessarily strike Caravaggio from the canon of Catholic masters. Of course, Gasparro resembles Caravaggio more than any other artist. Perhaps she would be glad to see him go. Who else would disappear under Ms. White’s discriminating eye? Rubens and his corpulent maidens? Matthias Grunewald and his unpleasant crucifixions? How about Carlo Crivelli and the sly, malevolent eyes he gives to his saints? What are we to do with the Mannerists and all the distended limbs that litter their canvases? And although he was no Catholic, are we to write off the value of Rembrandt’s religious work because he dares to show the uneven surface of human flesh? Would this not be precisely the least Catholic impulse of all – to fly from the corporeality of our existence, and of the way God uses it?

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Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio. This magnificent portrayal of Judith’s triumph over the wicked general is apparently not “sacred art” under Ms. White’s criteria. (Source)

Ms. White insists on idealism and devotionalism in sacred art. Anything that fails in either of these qualities must be consigned to the great heap of Modernist parody.

Yet both of these are deeply misbegotten efforts. First, when she speaks of “supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality,” she is using the language of iconography. There is indeed much to commend the hallowed iconographic traditions of the Greeks and Slavs (not to mention the Armenians). But Byzantine icons are subject to strict canons, types, and lineages. An iconographer’s process and material are, to a certain extent, determined for him. Longstanding customs surround the production and ritual use of the icons. Part of the reason that theologians can work from the icons as a source in their writing is that those customs safeguard and guarantee the orthodoxy of the images. And the spirituality they have fostered over the centuries is one I admire; it has quickened my own Christian life.

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The Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph, Giovanni Gasparro. Something nigh-unprecedented like this devotional image would be impossible if Western art followed strict canons like the Byzantines do. (Source)

Nevertheless, that’s not what we do in the West. While some artists have managed to give us glimpses of a transcendent realm of sophianic glory (one thinks of the Cusco School and some of those Catholic surrealists I was talking about), they are certainly not obliged to do so by force of tradition. One can lament the fact that we developed a much freer sense of sacred art. I don’t, both because I like statues and because I think the relative freedom of artists has been an enormous boon to civilization and the Church.

We can definitely learn from icons, in part because they remind us of where our own tradition has been. Before this year’s terrible earthquake, Ms. White’s own monastery had a wonderful fresco that captured precisely this quality of enrichment from the East that can and should be productively pursued by Catholic artists. But we ought not make the spiritual vision of the East normative in the West, just as we would decry any effort to impose Western forms on the East. And so I entirely reject her attempt to foist on Western Catholic art the strict confines of the icons.

Secondly, I’m bothered by instrumentalist approaches to art, including an assessment that rests heavily on whether the piece in question is “edifying” or “devotional.” That’s a largely meaningless standard – much more indistinct than the question of whether something is beautiful – since it places the center of the art’s meaning and quality in the affective response of the viewer rather than its own constructed reality and the way that construction interacts with transcendental standards. Namely, beauty.

The idea that specifically sacred art should be a) “devotional,” and b) in a church is a narrow, limiting, overly contextual approach to art. It is only helpful in the strict sense of guidance for church decoration. If Ms. White had limited the purview of her argument to what should count as specifically Liturgical Art, that is, what type of art should be placed in a church for the public veneration and instruction of the faithful in a ritual context, she might have a point. But she doesn’t write within that important qualifier. Instead, she uses Mr. Gasparro’s oeuvre to think about sacred art in general, and arrives at the rather flattening dictum that “Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.”

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Blessed Pius IX Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. Because artists who are really modernist heretics are drawn to depicting Pio Nono in prayer. (Source)

The conclusions she draws are totally unworkable as a Catholic approach to aesthetics. Imagine how much poetry and how much music we would have to surrender if we tried to carry the standards of idealism and devotionalism into the other arts in any kind of normative way.

Catholics should be concerned about the quality and orthodoxy of their sacred art. Insofar as Ms. White’s article represents that concern, it is an admirable effort. I’ll add that Ms. White and I probably share a similar exasperation with some of the trends in poor church art and architecture that are so maddening today. Likewise, we no doubt share a desire for a renewal of the Catholic arts. But Ms. White’s artistic philosophy smacks too much of Savonarola. While she is willing to summarily cast Gasparro’s art into the bonfire of the vanities, I contend that he is one of the Church’s most important living artists, alongside Daniel Mitsui, Matthew Alderman, Raúl Berzosa, Ken Woo, Alvin Ong, and others. I also share Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s views on the arts more broadly. We Catholics, and especially those of us who consider ourselves fairly Traditional, are sometimes too “self-referential” (if I may borrow a term favored by the Pope). As Weiss notes:

Toni Morrison, for instance, is a Catholic Nobel laureate whose works are filled with themes of community and redemption. But the Catholic critics who enthuse over Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene regard Morrison only as a controversial writer on race relations. “She’s not practicing,” they might say, as an excuse to ignore her. And yet, C.S. Lewis, who is revered in their circles, was never even Catholic at all.

Mary Karr – the keynote speaker at the conference – not only is a Catholic convert, but wrote extensively about her conversion, but is deemed by some not to be a “real” Catholic writer, because of her openness about certain sexual issues. And yet Graham Greene was a notorious womanizer who slept with over 300 prostitutes, was condemned by church spokespersons in his time, and closed The End of the Affair with the prayer: “O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

Perhaps the critics who are timid about these powerful Catholic writers working right now in our midst are waiting for someone else to “baptize” them? Perhaps they are waiting for someone else to say “I heard God there” – because they, themselves, have not learned to open the inner chambers of the ear? Because we do not have a robust Catholic arts culture that teaches us to open all the portals for reception, but instead have embraced a misnamed “Benedict Option” which is all about putting up walls and barriers, drawing those lines in the sand.

I concur, and would extend the same sort of criticism to Ms. White and those who support her view of the arts. Let us not fall into that old trap of mistaking the modern for Modernism. Christ is King over all. Let Catholic artists explore the plenitude of that Kingship over all, in all, and through all – even if looks strange to our worldly eyes.

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Christ the King, Giovanni Gasparro. May we always serve Him with ardent charity and zeal for the beauty of His house. (Source)

 

A Clericalist Alphabet

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A Clerical Alphabet. Richard Newton, 18th Century. (Source)

A is for Accompaniment, the smoth’ring embrace,
B is for Bergoglio, all over the place.
C is for Clericalism’s dark ghost.
D is for Dubia, which really means “Boast.”
E is for Everyone – Come one, Come all!
F is for Fictions, like Sin and the Fall.
G, Gelateria, Italian Cafe.
H is for Heresy, a word not to say.
I is for Internet, where priests show they’re woke.
J is for Jesuit, and Jimmy, and Joke.
K is for Kulturkampf (it’s now all the rage),
L is for Listening to the Spirit of the Age.
M is for Marty, our Lutheran Muse,
N is for Notes that divert and confuse.
O is Obloquy for the littlest waste.
P is for PrayTell, bastion of taste.
Q is for Questioning dogmas all day.
R is for Rigid, the Pharisee’s Way.
S is for Sarah, old Ratzinger’s mime.
T for Trastevere’s napkins sublime.
U is for Undead, like Cardinal Burke.
V is Vocations to Social Justice Work.
W for Words like “Pelagian Coprophile.”
X is for Knights of Malta Exile.
Y is for Youth, who crush all of our hope.
Z is for Zwingli, who should have been Pope.

Poem/Song: “On the Strange and Lamentable Tale of the Witches of Saluda”

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The Bonham House, Saluda, SC (Source).

It’s been a while since I posted any original wordcraft, so here’s a poem I wrote recently. The last part is a song. I wanted to hearken to the Scotch-Irish traditions of the poor folks who settled the Carolinas. You can hear me sing it on the embedded audio I have included.

On the Strange and Lamentable Tale of the Witches of Saluda

I. The Town

I saw them dancing at the old waterworks
with torchlight in their eyes, huge
gates to unseen countries
of the damned and dying.
Off in the woods, the fog
snaked through like a hungry hound bent
low over the scent
of some lesser beast.
The pines keep our secrets from us,
so we can forget.
Didn’t you know that even the
goats and horses have eyes, ears,
loose lips muttering imprecations
under their breath? Never
look over your shoulder
at a crossroads. Men have died,
petrified, for less.
Or else they shoot into space
and freeze in the rictus of their fathers,
grinning madly at the dead sun
below. I have drawn
salt from the shadow of your footsteps,
I have planted rows of teeth in my head.
What dragons will come
when I bring a scythe
to the harvest?

II. The Purlieu

You hardly know how dark
the young pine woods can be.
Not a patch of tall trees, mind you,
but ones that stand
just about twice your size.
Still plenty of silent life ahead of them.
You can see them at the edge of evening,
surrounding a field surrounding
a low crop of tombstones
all asunder and blurred
by the rain’s improvident hand.
The trees wait there, wordless,
dusk-bleached, lined up like so many
carious teeth. But they are not
what draws my eye
the fathomless
dark that spreads behind
like a growling and
hungry gullet.

III. The Back Yard

It will not go away.

Momma said to come to the table,
no use passing your life
by the back window
daydreaming.

But I could see it pacing the lawn as I ate.

Huge, black,
unblinking, white
of tooth.
I don’t think it ever sleeps.
The heat of the noonday and the
shadow that flies by night
do not afflict it
the stones in its shoes
and the rancid water it sips
out of our traschan lids
do not injure it—
the play of the neighbors
and the tumult of the street
do not distract it.
I have not yet seen it blink.
I have not yet seen it turn its gaze
from the house.
It watches.
I don’t think it ever sleeps.

Momma says
daddy woudn’t have tolerated
any such foolishness.
I don’t know.

It makes not a sound.
I think it knows what we talk about
in the house.
I think it knows when we rise and fall
to our prayers.
I think it listens to what we confess,
to our fights, to the whisper of the rain.

I don’t want to go out there.
I don’t want it to get it.
I don’t think it ever sleeps.

IV. Found in a Buried Notebook, Written in Red Ink

Don’t turn your back to the trees
or walk up the weed-cracked pavement
beneath the sign that reads
CAR  ASH CO N LAUNDRY
and don’t keep the pottery you dig up
in your garden
bonewhite under the red
clay and grey sand. Don’t
venture to the edge of the field that
smells like salt
and don’t keep your teeth in a shoebox
(it might become a skull)
and don’t knock on walls
where there should be a door
or take down the portraits
of the nameless.
Don’t ponder what might have
broken the sign from the fencepost
or written its replacement
in an unknown script.
Don’t let your children go to the post office alone.
Don’t let your daughter play with the dolls
she doesn’t remember receiving.

V. The Song of the Lost Daughters


The young girls singing thread silk in their hair
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Discarding the rest of the clothes that they wear
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

They join with the voices of the torchbearing throng
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
And soon they forget every other sweet song
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

Songs that illumine the queer, darkened lands
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Like the water you pour over bloody hands
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

Her lace crown covers her eyes as they lead
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Her into a thicket that smells of ripe seed
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

To hide from the angels that watch in the trees
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
And teach her the sacred rites of the bees
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

“An will ye cam back to yer mother so fine?”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
“Ah will ye return to me, daughter of mine?”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

“Ah mother, dear mother, I can’t come at all”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
“Until I’ve repeated our first mother’s fall”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

“The Sabbath is waiting, the dance oh so dear”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
“To teach us the meaning behind every fear”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

They never did see her again in the day
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
But once on a new moon, as old people say
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

Seven years waiting and seven years won
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Seven years burning, but far from the Sun
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

Beware, all me daughters, what hides in the air
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
And never thread silks so fine in your hair
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

Original Art: Some Recent Work

Here are some more of my August projects.

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“Map of Hanserat, Vosh Kyaz, and the Isles.” Photo by artist. An imaginary map I came up with a while ago and wanted to see in color.

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“Under the Sycamore Trees.” Photo by artist. We are like the dreamer…

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“Gluttony.” Photo by artist. I may do a series on the seven deadly sins.

100 Things I Would Rather Listen To at Mass than Hymns from the 70’s and 80’s, In No Particular Order

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A brilliant friend of mine pointed out that “We Are Called and Gifted By Our God,” “Gather Us In,” “On Eagle’s Wings,” etc. are basically the Catholic, musical equivalent of Thomas Kinkade: bad art enjoyed primarily by old people. (Source).

  1. Gregorian Chant
  2. Byzantine Chant
  3. Old Roman Chant
  4. Ambrosian Chant
  5. Mozarabic Chant
  6. Hildegard Von Bingen
  7. Palestrina
  8. Thomas Tallis
  9. Bruckner
  10. John Tavener
  11. John Taverner
  12. Henryk Gorecki
  13. Arvo Part
  14. Ralph Vaughan Williams
  15. Old Negro Spirituals
  16. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
  17. Appalachian Shape-Note Singing
  18. Mongolian Throat Singing
  19. Swedish Black Metal
  20. Broadway Showtunes
  21. Spanish Versions of Broadway Showtunes
  22. Esperanto Versions of Broadway Showtunes
  23. Crappy Bootlegged Esperanto Versions of Broadway Showtunes
  24. DMX
  25. Patsy Cline
  26. Irish Folk Ceol
  27. The Game of Thrones Theme Song
  28. Melanie Martinez
  29. All 7 Hours of a Castro Speech
  30. Chris Tomlin (shudder)
  31. YouTube videos about Fitness
  32. RuPaul’s Drag Race
  33. “Shall We Gather at the River?”
  34. David Lynch Cooking Quinoa
  35. Schoenberg
  36. That Weird Russian Guy Who Dances and Makes That Noise with his Lips (you know the one)
  37. The Interviews of Edward Gorey
  38. The Collected Works of Charles Dickens Played Backwards
  39. Machine Metal Music
  40. The Sound of Two Hundred Bees Copulating Simultaneously
  41. A Giant Saw Cutting Off California from the Rest of the Union
  42. Musique concrète
  43. Dissertation Defenses by Statistics Ph.D’s
  44. Mark Zuckerberg (shudder)
  45. The Sound Made by Nikita Kruschev’s Shoe on the Podium, But on Infinite Loop
  46. The Sound Made by Justin Trudeau When He Announced The Year as If It Mattered, But on Infinite Loop
  47. Cats
  48. Ayn Rand Interviews
  49. Vaporwave Remixes of Ayn Rand Interviews
  50. Vaporwave Anything, Really
  51. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!”
  52. Mr. G’s Dance from Summer Heights High
  53. A Theory of Justice: The Musical
  54. “Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person”
  55. The Ambient Sounds Recorded at the Varsity in Atlanta
  56. Twelve Germans Arguing About Philology
  57. John Oliver
  58. Ethel Merman
  59. Untranslated Korean Horror Movies
  60. Buskers in the Tube
  61. Robert Nozick Gently Asking Me to Kill 10,000 Contented Cows
  62. Gypsy Music
  63. Fleet Foxes (actually this would be pretty great and like the only good “folk mass” conceivable in any way, shape, or form)
  64. “The Sash”
  65. Ambient Noise Recorded at the Louvre
  66. The Sound of Praying Mantises Fighting Each Other
  67. The Sound of Praying Nuns Fighting Each Other
  68. The Sound of Music
  69. Oral Histories of the Tennessee Valley Authority
  70. Smash Mouth
  71. The Collected Oeuvre of Insane Clown Posse
  72. Gargling
  73. Untranslatable Russian Poetry
  74. Donald Trump (shudder)
  75. Gordon Ramsay Insulting Hell’s Kitchen Contestants
  76. Hideous Yak Noises
  77. The Broken Wind of an Unusually Flatulent Old Vicar in Surrey
  78. Lobsters
  79. Tracey Emin Talking About Her Work As If It Mattered
  80. That Flute Played by Mr. Tumnus
  81. Road Rage
  82. Chevy Chase Reciting Edward Lear
  83. “Your Mom Goes to College”
  84. Lobsters, but Fighting
  85. Gilbert Gottfried Reciting The Faerie Queene
  86. “Just You…And I…Just You…And I…”
  87. The Unrestrained Moans of Passion from the Majestic Wombat in Rut
  88. All the Burps from Arlo: The Burping Pig
  89. All the Burps from Arlo Guthrie Over His Entire Life
  90. “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” On A Day Other Than Thanksgiving
  91. This List, Recited in Swahili
  92. Little Jimmy Scott
  93. The National Anthem of the USSR
  94. “MacArthur Park” (the original, performed by Richard Harris)
  95. Cardinal Richelieu as Petula Clark
  96. A Medley from Die Dreigroschenoper
  97. Mark Gormley’s “Without You”
  98. A Headline Act from Branson
  99. Wing’s cover of “Dancing Queen”
  100. Silence

The Vampirologist: Dom Augustin Calmet OSB

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Vera Effigies Augustini Calmet Abbatis Senonensis. (Source).

I was recently asked by the administrator of Catholics from the Crypt to write a brief introduction to Dom Augustin Calmet, Abbot-General of the Congregation of St. Vanne. My qualifications for this task are minimal but, I think, sufficient. First, I know a little about Calmet, which is, sadly, more than many can say. He is an unfairly overlooked figure in our religious and cultural landscape. Secondly, I hope to write my Master’s Thesis on Calmet’s Histoire Universelle, though of course the actual process of research might change my direction. For the time being, I am glad of the challenge, and will likely turn this into the first of a series of short biographies of weird religious figures.

Dom Calmet, born on the 26th of February, 1672, in the then-Duchy of Bar (now Lorraine, France) had a long and impressive career. Entering religious life at the Benedictine Priory of Breuil, he moved around over the years to obtain his education at various abbeys. His itinerary reads like an honor roll of some of the finest establishments of the Franco-German monastic intelligentsia: St. Mansuy, St. Èvre, Munster, Mouyenmoutier, Lay-Saint-Christophe, St. Leopold. Yet the two monasteries most closely associated with his career are Senones Saint-Pierre and Vosges, where he eventually died a holy death.

He achieved widespread scholarly respect for his work in three different fields. First, Calmet distinguished himself as an Exegete. His Biblical method differed from more classical forms of exegesis by focusing entirely on the literal meaning of the text; this exposed him to criticism, even amidst the general acclaim which the book and its abridgements garnered.

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Title page of Book I of his most famous work on Vampires. (Source).

Second, he became an eminent author of sacred and profane history. While my own interest lies most heavily with his Histoire Universelle (1735-47), Calmet also devoted considerable attention to more specific topics. It should come as no surprise, given the libraries to which he had access, that he devoted special care to the region which bore him. His titles include History of the Famous Men of Lorraine (1750), Dissertation on the Highways of Lorraine (1727), Genealogical History of the House of Châtelet (1741), and posthumous histories of both Senones (1877-81) and Munster (1882).

However, Calmet achieved lasting fame for his extremely popular work on Vampires: first, Dissertations on the Apparitions of Angels, Demons, and Spirits, and on the Revenants and Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia (1746) He later expanded the text into his famous Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on the Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, of Moravia, &c. in 1752. These texts were, to the best of my knowledge, the first attempt to apply scientific rigor to the tales of the undead then current throughout Europe.

The books were a huge hit, and remain widely respected by occult writers today. To quote one source:

Re-released in 1748, with the most complete edition in 1751, this book is considered to be [the] authoritative treatment on the subject, containing an unprecedented collection of ghostly stories of revenants. It was a best seller for the period, quickly translated into German and Italian for a broader audience. Calmet’s tone considers the possibility of vampires with a certain ambiguity, possibly in light of the larger body of his publications for the church. Still, this is widely regarded as the starting point of all vampiric literature.

 

The work garnered critical attention from no less a figure than Voltaire. As that eminent source, Wikipedia, relates, Voltaire wrote of Calmet with no small astonishment:

What! It is in our 18th century that there have been vampires! It is after the reign of Locke, of Shaftesbury, of Trenchard, of Collins; it is under the reign of d’Alembert, of Diderot, of Saint-Lambert, of Duclos that one has believed in vampires, and that the Reverend Priest Dom Augustin Calmet, priest, Benedictine of the Congregation of Saint-Vannes and Saint-Hydulphe, abbot of Senones, an abbey of a hundred thousand livres of rent, neighbor of two other abbeys of the same revenue, has printed and re-printed the History of Vampires, with the approbation of the Sorbonne, signed by Marcilli!

[NB: translation is my own]

We can only imagine what conversation transpired between the two thinkers when Voltaire stayed at Senones in 1754, only a few years before the abbot’s death.

It is perhaps unusual that a monk who was, by all accounts, part of the same intellectual circles as the Maurist Enlighteners and the Philosophes would take to such a strange subject. Calmet certainly saw himself as partaking of that wider project. He writes in his preface to the Treatise,

My goal is not at all to foment superstition, nor to maintain the vain curiosity of Visionaries, and of those who believe without examination all that one tells them, as soon as they find therein the marvelous and the supernatural. I do not write but for those reasonable and unprejudiced spirits, who examine things seriously and with sang-froid; I do not speak but for those who do not give their consent to known truths but with maturity, who know to doubt things uncertain, to suspend their judgment in things doubtful, and to refute that which is manifestly false. (Calmet ii).

[NB: translation is my own]

Perhaps we should not be so surprised. After all, the religious history of Europe is peppered with eccentric and erudite men drawn to esoteric studies. And by the time that Dom Calmet died in 1757, the French monastics had not yet reached the height of their oddity. That would come later, with the well-traveled and thoroughly bizarre Swedenborgian and Martinist monk Antoine-Joseph Pernety, whom I hope to someday investigate more thoroughly.

The Revolution changed all that. No longer could monks live their lives freely, let alone attempt serious academic inquiry. It would take the genius of men like Dom Prosper Guéranger to restore the French Benedictines to their former glory.

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Senones Abbey today. The monastery was dissolved by Revolutionary forces in 1793, then later sold off as State Property and converted into a textile mill. This desecration continued until 1993, when what was left of the abbey became a Monument historique. (Source).

Twin Mashups of Twin Peaks

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“Gotta light?” (Source)

If you’re a Twin Peaks fan like me, you watched what must be the strangest hour of material ever to air on television last Sunday. There are those who are also calling it one of the greatest episodes of any tv show in history. They may be right. In any case, Season Three, Part Eight has lingered with me (as with so many others). I thought I’d play around and make some mashups using footage from the new series and sound from the old. Don’t watch either if you don’t want spoilers. And remember to mute and expand the first video in each.

Here’s one using the “Twin Peaks Theme.”

And here’s one using “Laura Palmer’s Theme.

Enjoy.

The Seven Sacraments in Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery O’Connor at her farm, Andalusia, with one of her beloved peacocks. (Source).

Flannery O’Connor’s name is synonymous with the American short story tradition. What sets her apart from her peers, besides her mastery of plot and her succinct, grotesque style, is the deep concern for issues of faith and grace that animates all of her stories. As O’Connor once put it, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.” There is a certain delicious cruelty to her work. The nasty fates she metes out to children, let alone the adults who deserve what they get, rank her with the best of the gothic writers (and a humorous one at that—we can only imagine the hysterical laughter that something like Der Struwwelpeter would have provoked in her).

Yet O’Connor never show us violence for its own sake, nor for mere moralizing, nor as a ploy for cheap entertainment. Violence is the only outlet for grace in a fallen, “Christ-haunted” world. Her pages are choked and sodden with the precious blood that flows from the Cross.

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The Seven Sacraments, Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1448. O’Connor provides us with a (southern) gothic view of the sacraments. (Source)

It is a commonplace among critics that O’Connor’s writing is deeply sacramental. But to my knowledge, no author who has made that claim has also tried to find the fullness of the sacramental system present in her work.

I maintain that all seven sacraments appear in her fiction under different guises. Very often, we are given only implicit or twisted versions. It is common in O’Connor’s dark narratives to find flashes of grace in the inverse of sacraments; the truth emerges through its own negationhence her heavy use of violence. But all seven are all there, for those who “hath ears to hear” (Matt. 13:9 KJV).

In giving short descriptions of the following stories, my effort is not to justify my choices so much as to provoke further reading. As such, I will keep my descriptions succinct and relatively spoiler-free. Those who have read them may be able to see where I’m coming from. Those who haven’there’s some summer reading for you.

Baptism“The River”

This is one of O’Connor’s more overtly sacramental stories. The young son of irreligious parents accidentally gets himself baptized by a preacher in a Southern riverwith lethal consequences.

Honorable mention: The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor thought about baptism a lot, probably because, as a rite of initiation, it is so centrally connected with questions of faith.

Confirmation“The Enduring Chill”

A sick and snobbish intellectual. A garrulous Jesuit. An overt reference to “A Simple Life” by Flaubert. Sometimes, the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel quite the way we expect.

Eucharist“A Temple of the Holy Ghost”

The only short story I know by any author that quotes the Tantum Ergo at length. There’s a good example of the “Red, Eucharistic Sun” motif that O’Connor was so fond of using. And lovers of the weird O’Connor will find her incarnational vision at a particularly grotesque note in this story.

The thinkpiece that uses “Temple” to discuss contemporary gender identity issues, sadly, has yet to be written.

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O’Connor knew how to use a Protestant idiom to communicate Catholic doctrine. (Source).

Confession“The Lame Shall Enter First”

At one point, the liberal main character’s office is compared to a confessional. In confession, however, you hope that a good priest will comfort those who need comfort and afflict those who need affliction, for the edification and sanctification of all. Not so in Sheppard’s benevolently atheist bubble.

Marriage“Parker’s Back”

In this remarkable narrative, one of O’Connor’s most Catholic stories, we read the story of a marriage broken apart by a dramatically visible expression of extraordinary grace. Theological and moral Puritans won’t be pleased by the implications.

Holy OrdersWise Blood

What happens when you really, really, really don’t want to accept your vocation? You end up like Hazel Motes, and chase after a “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” The last chapter can be read as a meditation on the Imago Dei.

Unction“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

If only for that incredible, climactic line spoken by the Misfit, “She would of been a good woman…”

I may try to expand this list into a real academic work some day. For now, take this list for what it isa few reading suggestions for those of you who, like me, enjoy O’Connor, Southern Lit generally, and Catholicism.

Also peacocks.

Lots of peacocks.

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Cover of The Complete Stories. (Source).