In his 1949 book Vom Ursprung und Ziel des Geschichte (translated in 1953 as The Origin and Goal of History), Karl Jaspers proposed that the millennium before the time of Christ (or more specifically 800-200 BCE) could be considered an Achsenzeit or “Axial Age.” During this period, in five isolated regions of the world (China, India, Persia, Israel/Palestine, and Greece), human society and thought changed radically and irreversibly. A world that had until then been understood in terms of legends (mythos) was now examined in the light of reason (logos). During this time, “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated.” A multiplicity of gods and demons ceded their power to one universal god or life force. Sages, prophets and philosophers proposed rules for how we should behave. Though the axial age passed long ago, we still return to these teachings for moral guidance.
Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)
Jaspers trained in medicine and spent his early years as a psychiatrist. Due to his chronic lung disease, he found the demands of the clinic exhausting, and switched his interest to psychology and philosophy. Since he was married to a Jew, he lost his teaching position at Heidelberg University in 1937, and barely survived World War II without being arrested. After the war he moved to Basel, Switzerland, and presented an influential set of lectures on The Question of German Guilt in 1947.
Though he disliked the term, Jaspers became one of the existentialists. Confronted with the reality of a world that is beyond our powers of understanding, we have no recourse but to proclaim our own existence and connect with that which transcends reality. The following two quotations (via Walraff, 1970) from Jaspers’ Philosophie, originally published in 1932, are noteworthy since they foreshadow his later thinking on the Axial Age:
Every limit encountered by scientific investigation provides an opportunity to transcend. There are two kinds of limits. On the negative side appears the irrationality of the incalculable—the unintelligibility manifested by physical “constants,” atomic movements, and the so-called contingency of natural laws. On this side we are confronted by matter—the other that is not permeated by Logos. On the positive side it is freedom that appears as a limit. The sort of independently existing being that, because of its resistance, physical science could determine, though only negatively [as an unknown and unknowable thing-in-itself], now is assuredly present. The natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) undertake to capture the cognitively impenetrable with their laws and theories; the humanistic disciplines (Geisteswissenschaften) submit the results and appearances of freedom to interpretation in terms of their own laws, norms, and meanings. But the final boundary is, for the natural sciences, the dark absolutely other, and for the humanistic disciplines the freedom of Existenz as a source of communication. This latter leads me to myself.
If everything that cognitive orientation yields in the form of universally and necessarily valid knowledge is to be called “world,” then the question arises as to whether being extends beyond the world, and thought beyond orientation within the world. The soul and God—or Existenz and Transcendence as we say when we exchange the language of mythology for that of philosophy—lie outside of the world. We cannot know them in the sense in which we know things within the world. . . . Although they are not known, they are not nothing, and while they are not accessible to science they can still be thought of.
The Origin and Goal of History (1949/1953)
Jasper devoted the first section of his book on history to the Achsenzeit or Axial Age (which was also considered in a brief paper for Commentary in 1948). The German word Achse can mean “axis” (a reference line about which a vector can rotate, or which serves as a basis for measurement), “axle” (about which wheels rotate), or “pivot” (a point about which something turns). Jasper was likely using all of these meanings, though the idea of the pivot seems most salient.
This axis would be situated at the point in history which gave birth to everything which, since then, man has been able to be, the point most overwhelmingly fruitful in fashioning humanity (p 1)
The Axial Age gave birth both to our modern rational way of thinking and to the major world religions:
What is new about this age, in all three areas of the world, is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognising his limits he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence. (p 2)
In comparison Pre-Axial cultures appear unawakened – “as though man had not really come of himself” (p 7). Mythical narratives that were part of the pre-axial culture were sometimes maintained, but these were interpreted as parables rather than as fact.
Jaspers identified five cultures as participating in the Axial Age: China with the teachings of Confucius and Lao Tze, India with the Upanishads and the Buddha, Iran/Persia with Zoroaster/Zarathustra, Israel/Palestine with the prophets Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and Greece with their philosophers and tragedians. These regions developed the new Axial way of thinking synchronously and independently. The changes likely resulted from the fact that these societies were in a state of war and turmoil, and people were avidly seeking respite from the chaos (pp 17-18).
According to Jaspers the importance of the Axial Age (pp18-20) was that
a) it was related to humanity in general rather than to specific groups:
It is one thing to see the unity of history from one’s own ground and in the light of one’s own faith, another to think of it in communication with every other human ground, linking one’s own consciousness to the alien consciousness (p 19)
b) it promoted communication and discussion, with an acknowledgement that no one has an exclusive grasp of the truth.
c) it was pre-eminent in its creativity – the writings of the sages of this period have become a yardstick against which all later creations are measured:
Until today mankind has lived by what happened during the Axial Period, by what was thought and created during that period. In each new upward flight it returns in recollection to this period and is fired anew by it. (p 7)
The Axial Age was essential to Jaspers’ schema of human history (pp 24-26) which proposed with three main stages in human development:
(i) the foundation of the major ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Northern India (valley of the Indus River) and Northern China (valley of the Huang-Ho/YellowRiver)
(ii) the Axial Age in five particular regions (China, India, Persia, Palestine, Greece) wherein civilization was allowed to grow spiritually
(iii) the age of science and technology initiated and developed in the West (Europe and North America) and then transferred (dashed lines) to other regions of the globe
Jaspers’ thinking about the Axial Age was far from precise, and has been criticized extensively (see Mullins et al, 2018). His characterization of Axial thinking appears more of a post hoc description of the cultures that he chose to include in his survey than any defining criteria for Axiality.
It is unclear why the cultures of Egypt under Akhenaten (14th Century BCE), or of Mesopotamia in the time of Hammurabi (18th Century BCE) were not considered Axial. Perhaps these cultures were too transient to be considered Axial. However, as Jaspers points out, the cultures that he included in his Axial Age also did not last.
Among the cultures that he does include, some definitely predate his Axial Period. Although the life of Zarathustra is impossible to date, his teachings appear to come from the Second Millennium BCE (Boyce, 1984; Rose, 2011). Jewish thought may have been formally written down during the Axial period but its basic ideas originated before the time of Solomon (10th Century BCE).
Although Jaspers stresses the importance of the 1st Millennium BCE to the origin of the major world religions, Christianity and Islam – the two religions with the most adherents in the modern world – began after the Axial Period. The interpretation that
Christianity and Islam fall outside the axial age chronologically, but are historically intelligible only as developments of Israel’s axial breakthrough (Bellah, 2072)
inappropriately discounts their clear origins in the 1st and 7th Centuries CE.
Nevertheless, Jaspers’ concept of an Axial Age was enthusiastically taken up by many scholars of religion (Armstrong, 2004, 2005, 2006; Bellah, 2005, 2011; Eisenstadt, 1986; Schwartz, 1975). The period has been given several other names: the Moral Revolution (Halton, 2014); the Great Transformation (Armstrong, 2006); the Age of Transcendence (Schwartz, 1975), and the theoretic age (Donald, 1991).
Extension of the Idea of Axiality
Each of those who followed Jasper fleshed out the description of the Axial Age to include some defining features:
a) the formulation of an ethical rather than coercive morality. People should do what is right and not what those in power demand. Leaders may be necessary but their powers must not be absolute. Every person should have equal opportunities for success in life.
b) the idea of a “moralizing god,” a supreme force who (or which) requires human beings to live a good life, rewards virtuous behavior, punishes the sinful (typically in an afterlife), and always knows when laws are being transgressed.
c) the replacement of the ritual of animal (or human) sacrifice by the life of religious devotion. The divine does not require the sacrifice of animals but rather the dedication of a believer’s life to compassion and service.
d) the creation of concepts not immediately related to the external world. The Axial Age addressed questions such as what happens after death and whether the world was exactly how it appears. As Schwartz (1975) stated this “transcendent” type of thinking was “a kind of standing back and looking beyond – a kind of critical, reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond.”
e) the use of external memory devices such as written records (Donald, 1991). This allowed culture and technology to be transmitted from one generation to another without the need for their continual rediscovery.
Seshat History of the Axial Age (2019)
The Seshat (Turchin, 2015) is a data bank of global history, founded in 2011 and used by many different investigators to examine questions about human cultural evolution, economic development and sociological change. These studies support the new field of “cliodynamics” – the science of historical change – a term deriving from the Greek Goddess of History. The data bank itself is named after Seshat, the Egyptian Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge. Seshat is usually depicted holding a palm stem on which she notches the passage of time. She wears a leopard skin, the pattern of which denotes the stars and eternity. Above her head is a seven-pointed emblem, the meaning of which is not known, but may signify enlightenment.
In 2019, Hoyer and Reddish edited the results of a Seshat History of the Axial Age. The study looked at societies in multiple regions of the world and at multiple times in order to determine when the characteristics of the Axial Age became apparent. Because it is relatively easy to document, the study focussed on the origins of defined moral principles, such as the definition of moral norms often in terms of a legal code, the setting of punishments for the violation of moral rules, the conceptualization of an omniscient and omnipotent supernatural force or being that required obedience to the law, and constraints on the power of social leaders. The study confirmed that these principles began during the 1st millennium BCE in the regions named in Jaspers’ book. However, the principles also became evident in other regions at other times.
The conclusion was therefore that axiality was not an age but rather a “stage” in the evolution of a complex society:
the initial rise of archaic states led to the distortion and repression of at least some components of natural morality and that axiality provided a way of restoring those principles, and especially their cohesion-building effects, under the guise of a more benevolent regime of supernatural enforcement in ways that applied equally to rich and poor, the powerful and the meek. Such a restoration, we have argued, was necessary for political systems to evolve beyond the megasociety threshold. (pp 406-7)
Turchin (2018) has proposed that as states or empires reach a particular size (in terms of population) and level of complexity (in terms of the different factions within that population) dissension arises between those who lead the state and those who are its subjects. The state may then fail, either through external forces taking advantage of the internal divisions in the state, or through the rebellion of its constituent parts. Developing a sense of “group feeling” or “collective solidarity” can prevent the internal dissension and help fight against external forces. This group felling was present in early small bands of human beings, but needed to be reinstated when the groups became larger and more susceptible to despotic rule. Turchin names this solidarity asabiya – a word used by the Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) in his studies of the peoples of the Maghreb (Northern Africa). A bust of Ibn Khaldun on the right is located at the Casbah of Bejaia in Algeria.
The Seshat data bank has allowed scholars to relate the rise of such moral principles as “moralizing high gods” and “broad supernatural punishment” (heaven and hell) to the level of social complexity, as measured using the principal component of an analysis of 51 measurements of government levels, infrastructure, written records, religious texts, financial instruments, etc. Whitehouse et al. (2019) examined 30 different regions of the world and found that these moral principles only occurred after a significant increase in social complexity.
powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established.
The authors therefore suggest that
if moralizing gods do not cause the evolution of complex societies, they may represent a cultural adaptation that is necessary to maintain cooperation in such societies once they have exceeded a certain size, perhaps owing to the need to subject diverse populations in multi-ethnic empires to a common higher-level power.
A map of the 30 different regions that they evaluated shows that the first occurrence of moralizing high gods (MHG) was in ancient Egypt when the idea of maat – universal justice – was first proposed 4.8 ka (thousand years before the present). The size of the circles represents the relative complexity of the society in that region.
Jaspers’ axial societies are represented by Confucianism in Northern China 3 ka, Zoroastrianism in Persia 2.5 ka and Buddhism in India 2.3 ka. This particular Seshat survey did not include Jaspers’ other two axial regions – Greece and Palestine. Although Christianity was and is one of the great religions with a moralizing high God and broad supernatural punishment (BSP), regions of Europe (early Rome and Celtic France) developed such ideas prior to their actual conversion to Christianity. Although large societies developed in the Americas, these were not characterized by moralizing high gods and this (in addition to their technological inferiority) may have rendered them susceptible to colonization by the Christian countries.
Modern religions are characterized by a moral code that promotes the social virtues of compassion and temperance and a concept of justice administered either by an omnipotent deity or by a universal force. These religions originated when societies became sufficiently complex that they needed their citizens to feel solidarity with each other. A sense of morality was a tool for survival when humans lived in small groups. Codified and intensified by the sages and prophets of more complex societies, morality then became the glue that held together empires. Several of our modern religions originated in the 1st Millennium BCE in what Jaspers described as the Axial Age. However, others originated at other times and we must consider axiality as a stage in the development of any human society rather than as a particular age
Armstrong, K. (2004). A history of God: The 4000-year quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Armstrong, K. (2005). A short history of myth. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Armstrong, K. (2006). The great transformation: The beginning of our religious traditions. New York: Knopf.
Bellah, R. N. (2005). What is Axial about the Axial Age? Archives of European Sociology, 46, 69-87.
Bellah, R. N. (2011). Religion in human evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Belknap).
Boyce, M. (1984). Zoroastrians, their religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge & K. Paul.
Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the modern mind: three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Eisenstadt, S.N. (ed.) (1986). The origins and diversity of axial age civilizations. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Halton, E. (2014). From the axial age to the moral revolution: John Stuart-Glennie, Karl
Jaspers, and a new understanding of the idea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hoyer, D. & Reddish, J. (eds) (2019). Seshat history of the axial age. Chaplin, CT, USA: Beresta Books.
Jaspers, K. (translated by Manheim, R., 1948). The axial age of human history. Commentary, 6, 430-435.
Jaspers, K. (1949, translated by Bullock, M., 1953). The Origin and Goal of History, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jaspers, K. (1947, reprinted 1965). The question of German guilt. Fordham University Press.
Mullins, D. A., Hoyer, D., Collins, C., Currie, T., Feeney, K, François, P., Savage1, P. E., Whitehouse, H., & Turchin, P. (2018). A systematic assessment of ‘Axial Age’ proposals using global comparative historical evidence. American Sociological Review, 83, 596–626
Rose, J. (2011). Zoroastrianism: An Introduction. I. B. Tauris & Company.
Schwartz, B. I. (ed) (1975). Wisdom, revelation, and doubt: Perspectives on the First Millennium B.C. Daedalus, 104, Special Issue, 1-172.
Turchin, P. (2018). Historical Dynamics : Why States Rise and Fall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Turchin, P., Brennan, R., Currie, T., Feeney, K., Francois, P. et al. (2015). Seshat: The Global History Databank. Cliodynamics 6: 77–107
Wallraff, C. (1970). Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to His Philosophy. Princeton University Press.
Whitehouse, H., François, P., Savage, P., Currie, T., Feeney, K., Cioni, E., Purcell, R., Ross, R., Larson, J., Baines, J., Ter Haar, B., Covey, A., & Turchin, P. (2019). Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history. Nature, 568(7751), 226–229.
The Rise of Ravenna
The Disintegration of the Roman Empire
Constantine the Great (reign 306-337) re-unified the Roman Empire and promoted Christianity as the imperial religion. For several decades after Constantine, the Empire remained stable. However, after the death of Theodosius I (reigned 379-395), the Empire fractured into Eastern and Western regions, each ruled by one of his sons.
In the 5th Century CE, the westward migration of the Huns into regions previously controlled by the Germanic tribes resulted in those tribes moving into the Roman Empire (Jordanes, 551; Heather, 1991, 1996; Todd, 1997; see map below). The Roman Empire often used warriors from the Germanic tribes as mercenary soldiers to help in thee defense of the Empire from attack. However, it soon became impossible to integrate them into the empire, or to prevent them from establishing their own independent kingdoms. The Vandals moved through the Iberian Peninsula and settled in North Africa. The Visigoths (western Goths) occupied Northern Spain and Southern France. The Ostrogoths (eastern Goths) occupied the Balkans and the Dalmatian coast. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410, and by the Vandals in 455.
During this time, the capital of the Western Empire moved to Ravenna, a city more easily defensible than Rome. This city grew rapidly in size, and became adorned with beautiful new buildings (Bovini, 1956; Bustachinni, 1984; Herrin, 2020). The two most important leaders during this growth period were the Empress Galla Placidia and the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. Both were able to meld the best characteristics of the Roman and the Gothic cultures. Both left magnificent monuments lavishly decorated with mosaics.
With the new Christian religion, religious architecture changed from temple to basilica. The inside of the basilica became a place for believers to congregate rather than for priests to consecrate. A whole new type of art arose to teach and to impress the faithful (Kiecol, 2019). Mosaics had previously been used to decorate floors but these had to be made of stone to support the tread of feet. Now mosaics were used to decorate the walls and the vaults of the churches:
Liberated from the scuffing of floors, mosaic could now include a wide range of fragile materials: colored glass cubes of saturated red and deep blue, iridescent fragments of mother-of-pearl, even gold and silver foil sandwiched in glass. Such reflective materials achieved a brilliance previously unknown … The iridescent medium seemed actually to contain light in itself. A radically new aesthetic was in the making, a pointillism of glass. In so far as each cube had a slightly different cut to it, the play of light was endlessly varied …. In addition, the introduction of gold into the palette radically altered the balance of colors. Gold was at once the strongest and most spiritual color. Its possibilities fascinated the artist, and by the sixth century backgrounds of solid gold became common. Used as a sky zone behind the figures, gold created a timeless space that negated the succession of hours and seasons in our earthly skyscapes. By day it enveloped the figures in a haze of warm brilliance. By night, reflecting from innumerable oil lamps and candles, it blazed like a furnace in which the figures moved in unsubstantial silhouettes. (Mathews, 1993, p 95)
Galla Placidia (392-450), the daughter of Theodosius I, and sister to the two Emperors, Arcadius of the East and Honorius of the West, was captured by Alaric, King of the Visigoths, during the sack of Rome in 410. A year later Alaric died in Southern Italy from a fever (perhaps malaria) and was succeeded by Ataulf. The Visigoths then moved to Southern France, and Ataulf married Galla Placidia in 412. They lived briefly together in Northern Spain, and had a child called Theodosius (after his grandfather) in 414. The child only lived a year, and infighting among the Visigothic leaders led to Ataulf’s murder in 415. Famine led to the Visigoths negotiating with the Romans to become foederati (bound by treaty – foedus) within the empire. Galla Placidia was returned to Rome and married to Constantius III with whom she had a son Valentinian III in 419. Constantius III died in 421 and Galla Placidia became Empress Regent of the Western Empire until her son reached maturity. The gold solidus coin illustrated on the right identifies D[omina] N[ostra] Galla Placidia P[ia] F[elix] Aug[usta] (“our lady Galla Placidia, dutiful, fortunate empress”). Galla Placidia reigned as regent for 18 years from 425 to 437, and remained a force in the Western Empire until her death.
Galla Placidia built two new churches in Ravenna: the Church of St John the Evangelist and the Church of the Sacred Cross. In the last years of her life, she also built a special chapel off the narthex (western entrance) of the latter church as a mausoleum. The Church of the Sacred Cross went into ruin but the mausoleum remained. There has been much debate about the purpose of the chapel. Since Galla Placidia was ultimately interred in Rome, it is often termed the “So-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.” Mackie (1995) has suggested that the Emperor may have used it as a memorial chapel for her first-born son Theodosius, whose body she had transferred in a small silver coffin from Spain to Ravenna, although this was also sent on to Rome after the Empress died.
On the outside, the mausoleum is an unassuming brick building in the shape of a cross, though the corners deviate a little from right angles (see illustration below).
Inside, the mausoleum is decorated with some of the most beautiful mosaics ever created. The ceiling dome shows a star-filled sky with a central cross. The four evangelists are represented in the corners of the dome by winged symbols: Matthew as a man, because he talks of Christ as the Son of Man, Mark as a lion because he begins his gospel with the roaring of John the Baptist, Luke as an ox because he described Christ’s life in terms of a sacrifice, and John as an eagle because of the height of his rhetoric on the Logos:
Above the north entrance is a representation of Christ as the Good Shepherd. On the southern is a mosaic arranged around the window to show the gospels on one side and St Lawrence on the other. Beneath the window is the grill upon which St Lawrence was martyred.
The decorative work between the representative mosaics is gorgeously evocative. The blue ceiling work (see the above illustration of the Good Shepherd mosaic) has been described as suggesting the Garden of Eden, and the wall-like arch decoration is a marvel of light and geometry:
Theodoric the Great
When the Ostrogoths threatened Constantinople in 461, the Empire negotiated a peace the Barbarians. In return for gold the Ostrogoths would retreat to their lands; in order to guarantee their compliance Theodoric, the seven-year-old son of the Ostrogothic king was sent as hostage to the court of the Byzantine Emperor Leo I. Theodoric was educated in Greek and Roman and taught the ways of War and Politics.
After returning to his people in 470, Theodoric and the Ostrogoths spent a decade fighting against other Germanic tribes who were threatening the Empire. In 475 Theodoric became King of the Ostrogoths and the Ostrogoths became foederati of the Empire. In 479 Theodoric became the military commander of the Eastern Empire. The Goths were Christian but followed the beliefs of Arius, who had proposed that God the Father existed before God the Son. This differed from the Trinitarian concept espoused by the mainstream Catholicism of the Empire. However, the Arians were tolerated if they defended the Empire against the Pagans.
At this time Italy was in disarray. In 476 Odoacer, a warrior of uncertain Barbarian background, led a rebellion of the foederati in the Western army, deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus, and installed himself in Ravenna as King of Italy. Most historians consider this to be the end of the Roman Empire in the West.
By 488 Odoacer had begun to threaten the Eastern Empire, and Emperor Zeno negotiated with Theodoric. In return for deposing Odoacer, Theodoric would be able to grant his people land in Italy. Over several years Theodoric moved his people into Northern Italy and fought against Odoacer. In 493, Ravenna was finally taken and Theodoric personally killed Odoacer. Theodoric became King of Italy, and effectively Emperor of the West. The large gold (triple-solidus) coin on the right shows Rex Theodericus Pius Princ[eps] I[nvictus] S[emper] (King Theodoric, pious ruler, forever invincible). He has a gothic moustache, and in his left hand he holds a winged victory. Theodoric arranged alliances with the Visigoths in France and the Vandals in North Africa. In this way he was able to maintain the Western Empire as a unified entity. He ruled justly without prejudice to either Roman or Barbarian.
During his 33-year reign, Theodoric was responsible for several wonderful buildings in Ravenna. He first built an imposing palace, no part of which now remains, although a façade was later built in imitation of what it might have looked like. Adjacent to the palace he built his magnificent Church of Christ the Redeemer, which was dedicated in 504. The mosaics in the nave of this church are among the most important in the ancient world. Wikipedia has high-resolutions panoramic images of both north and south walls taken by Chester Wood, from which the following illustration was derived:
The small uppermost mosaics above the windows were the first set of mosaics in history to depict a sequence of scenes from the life of Christ (Cristo, 1975). The north wall shows Christ’s miracles and teachings, and the south wall shows the events of the passion. Christ is clean-shaven on the north and bearded on the south. Although the image of Christ has varied between these two versions, the general tendency in the Byzantine Empire was to portray Christ as a theios aner (divine man) fully equivalent to the bearded God the Father. The beardless Christ on the north may be more Arian in its imagery (Mathews, 1993; Chavannes-Mazel, 2003). The following illustrations show the parable of the sheep and the goats (with perhaps the first visual representation of Satan in blue), the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the Last Supper, and the betrayal of Christ in Gethsemane.
Between the windows are the figures of individual saints or prophets, portrayed in a classical (Hellenic) style. Each figure holds a scrolls or codex. Most of the mosaics on the lower level of mosaics (below the windows and above the columns) were executed after the reign of Theodoric and are in Byzantine style. These show processions of saints and martyrs in a ravishing gold background, female on the north and male on the south, moving from Ravenna toward Mary on the north and Christ on the south. The following illustration is derived from photographs by Roger Culos on Wikipedia (north, south)
These processions are likely the source of what Yeats described in Sailing to Byzantium (1927):
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
The Mausoleum of Theodoric
In the last years of his life, Theodoric’s hold on the Western Empire weakened. The Roman Senate attempted to revitalize relations with Constantinople; the Church in Rome wanted to eradicate the heresy of Arianism from Italy; the Vandals and Visigoths ceased their alliances with Ravenna. During this time, Boethius a onetime friend and counselor of Theodoric was accused of treason, imprisoned and ultimately executed (Bark, 1944). While in prison he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy (524).
Sensing his own death, Theodoric built a tomb for himself just outside the walls of Ravenna. Unlike the brick buildings of the city, the tomb was constructed of marble blocks from the Istrian Peninsula in the Northern Adriatic. The walls were made of squared block of marble kept in place without mortar using the Roman technique of opus quadratum whereby higher stones are centered over the joints between lower stones. A typical pattern is shown on the right.
The mausoleum has a decagonal shape. The lower storey was likely used for memorial rites. The upper story contained a porphyry tub which served as a sarcophagus for the emperor’s remains. The roof is made of a single circular slab of Istrian marble with a diameter of 10 meters and a weight of 230 tons. No one knows how this huge stone was erected over the walls. Some have suggested that this recalled the Neolithic dolmen monuments, in which a large table stone was supported vertical megaliths, but these date from millennia before the Goths.
The mausoleum is remarkably austere. Unlike the chapel of Galla Placidia, the tomb has no internal decoration. The upper chamber (illustrated on the right has only the sarcophagus, oriented toward a small altar superimposed by a cross-shaped aperture. The roof has twelve spurs are with the names of the apostles. A simple geometric pattern (shown below), likely of Gothic origin, is incised around its edge:
The Goths had been converted to Christianity in the 4th Century by Bishop Ulfilas (Gothic Wulfila, little wolf). A Greek who had grown up among the Goths, Ulfilas was baptised in 341 by Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had also baptised Constantine the Great. Ulfila created an alphabet for the Gothic language and translated the Bible. Eusebius, Ulfila and the Goths followed the teachings of Arius (256-336), who conceived of Christ as subordinate to the Father, created by Him and not co-eternal with Him. When the Council of Nicaea, convened by Constantine the Great in 325, settled on the essential beliefs of Christianity and wrote the Nicene Creed, Christ was proclaimed consubstantial or homoousian (homos same, ousia essence) with the Father. The homoiousian (homoi similar) view of Arius was thenceforth considered heretical. However, many Christians and even some of the early Byzantine Emperors, such as Constantius II (reign 337-361) persisted in their Arian beliefs. When Theodosius I (reign 379-395), the father of Galla Placidia, came to power, he held a Second Ecumenical Council in 381 to revise the Nicene Creed and make it unambiguously homoousian. Arian beliefs were eliminated from Roman and Greek Churches, but they persisted among the Goths.
After the death of Theodoric, the Byzantine Emperors exerted more and more influence on Ravenna. From 535-554 the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great (reign 527-565) conducted a war against the Goths. Ravenna was occupied by the Byzantine Army and Theodoric’s bones were removed from his tomb and scattered in the dust. The Roman Bishop Agnellus was placed in charge of the churches of Ravenna from 557 until 570. He proceeded to erase all evidence of Arianism in Ravenna. He reconsecrated Theodoric’s Church of the Redeemer in 561 and renamed it after Saint Martin. (Years later in 856, the name was again changed to the Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo).
It is generally assumed that Agnellus was responsible for changing the mosaics of the lower level in the church. The processional mosaics date from his time. It is not known what images they might have replaced. Most strikingly Agnellus altered the initial mosaics near the entrance of the church. On the south the mosaic of Theodoric’s Palace likely contained portraits of Theodoric and his court. These portraits were replaced by curtains. On the north was a representation of the nearby port of Classe. No one knows who was portrayed in front of the port. That part of the mosaic was replaced by golden bricks.
These changes to Theodoric’s Church were part of a damnatio memoriae:
the modifications made to the space of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo can be considered an act of damnatio memoriae executed by a Byzantine administration that was eager to plant its hold in the West. Property was confiscated, images were destroyed, and the memory of Theoderic and his associates and successors was condemned. (Urbano, 2005)
However, the memory was not completely expunged. If one looks closely, one can see the hands of some of the courtiers on the arches of the façade (illustrated on the right). Theodoric’s reign was not forgotten. And the goal of the Byzantines to reconsolidate the Roman Empire failed: the West devolved into multiple separate kingdoms and principalities. Ravenna persisted as a center of art and learning although not as an imperial capital.
Bark, W. (1944). Theodoric vs. Boethius: Vindication and apology. American Historical Review, 49(3), 410- 426.
Bovini, G. (1956). Ravenna mosaics: The so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Baptistery of the Cathedral, the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Baptistery of the Arians, the Basilica Sant’Apollinare nuovo, the Church of San Vitale, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society.
Bustacchini, G. (1984). Ravenna: Mosaics, monuments, and environment. Ravenna: Cartolibreria Salbaroli.
Chavannes-Mazel, C. A. (2003). Popular belief and the image of the beardless Christ. Visual Resources, 19(1), 27-42.
Cristo, S. (1975). The art of Ravenna in late antiquity. Classical Journal, 70, (3), 17-29.
Deliyannis, D. M. (2010). Ravenna in late antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heather, P. J. (1991). Goths and Romans, 332-489. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Heather, P. J. (1996). The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Herrin, J. (2020). Ravenna: Capital of empire, crucible of Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Jordanes (551, translated Mierow, C. C., 1915). The Gothic history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Kiecol, D. (2019). Mosaic. Cologne: Koenemann.
Mackie, G. (1995). The mausoleum of Galla Placidia: a possible occupant. Byzantion, 65(2), 396-404.
Mathews, T. F. (1993). The clash of gods: A reinterpretation of early Christian art. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Mathews, T. F. (1998). Byzantium: From antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Prentice Hall.
Todd, M. (1997). The Germanic peoples. In A. Cameron & P. Garnsey (Eds.) The Cambridge Ancient History (pp. 461-486). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Norwich, J. J. (1988). Byzantium: the early centuries. London: Viking.
Urbano, A. (2005). Donation, dedication, and damnatio memoriae: TBohe Catholic reconciliation of Ravenna and the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. Journal of Early Christian Studies, 13(1), 71-110.
Intimations of Mortality
We have been here before. The coronavirus pandemic has many precedents. Over the centuries various plagues have swept over our world. Many millions of people have died before their time. From 1347 to 1351 the Black Death killed about 30 million people in Medieval Europe: over a third of the population. From 1918 to 1920 the Great Influenza killed about 50 million people: about 2.5% of the world’s population. Each of these pandemics was as deadly as World War I (about 20 million) or World War II (about 70 million). Pandemics are more worrisome than wars: we cannot sue for peace with a virus. Most of us survived even the worst of past infections. Our systems of immunity will likely once again become victorious in this present pandemic. But just like after a war, we shall be severely chastened. How close we will have come to death will change the way we think. Everything will be seen through the mirror of our own mortality and the transience of our species. The nearness of an ending will distort our thinking. We shall have strange dreams and frightening visions.
John of Patmos
Such dreams and visions came to a man named John almost two millennia ago. In the second half of the 1st Century CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, the Christians of the Roman Empire were severely persecuted, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Roman Empire was shaken by attacks from without and rebellions from within. There was no pandemic but life was just as uncertain.
On the island of Patmos just off the west coast of what is now Turkey, a Christian named John experienced disturbing visions of the future. He described these in a manuscript that began with the word apokalypsis (Greek for “unveiling”). This became Revelation, the last book in the Christian New Testament (Koester, 2014; Quispel, 1979). The illustration on the right, from the Bamberg Apocalypse, an illuminated manuscript from the 11th Century, shows an angel telling John what he should write:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John (Revelation 1:1)
For many years, Christian scholars assumed that John the Apostle, the youngest of Christ’s disciples, was the author of Revelation, the Gospel of John and the three Epistles of John. Most modern scholars consider it unlikely that he wrote any of these works. They suggest three separate authors one for the gospel, one for the three epistles, and one for the apocalypse. One telling point is that each author describes the end-times very differently. For example, the Antichrist is mentioned in the epistles (e.g. 1 John 2:18), but not in the apocalypse. The author of Revelation was probably a Jewish-Christian prophet living in Asia Minor – John of Patmos. He may have written the book over many years. One suggestion is that he began writing as a Jew and later converted to Christianity (Koester, 2014, pp 68-71).
The visions described by John are stunning in their force and detail. The Whore of Babylon, the Seven-Headed Beast, and the Four Horsemen have become part of our collective consciousness.
Revelation is the most interpreted and least understood book of the Christian Bible (Quispel, 1979; Koester, 2014). Some have interpreted the visions as describing the troubled time in which they were experienced. The Seven-Headed Beast could then represent Rome (with its seven hills, or its seven emperors), and the Rider on the White Horse could represent the Parthians who threatened the peace of the Middle East. Others have considered the visions as prophesying the later history of the Christian Church. The Whore of Babylon was the papacy of Rome for Protestants and the heresies of the Reformation for Catholics. Others believe that Revelation foretells the Last Days, that are yet to come, when Christ will judge both the quick and the dead.
John’s first vision was of the Lord seated upon a throne in Heaven. This is illustrated below in the 11th-Century Bamberg Apocalypse, and in the 1498 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. Around the throne were four beasts in the form of Man, Lion, Ox and Eagle, probably representing the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Around them were four and twenty elders, clothed in white and wearing crowns of gold. In the Lord’s right hand was a book “sealed with seven seals.” The structure of this book is not clear. Perhaps it is made up of seven scrolls one rolled up within the other (Quispel, 1979, p 51). A mystical lamb appears and proceeds to open each of the seals.
The Four Horsemen
As the first four seals are opened four horsemen appear:
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:1-8)
Only the fourth horseman is clearly identified by John as Death. The color of his horse has been interpreted as “pale,” although the Greek chloros is actually better translated as “green.” Perhaps John envisioned a sickly pale green color. The identity of the other three is unknown (reviewed by Koester, 2014, pp 392-398; and in Wikipedia). The rider of the black horse with his scales for weighing and pricing food was almost certainly Famine. The rider of the Red Horse was probably War. The first horsemen has been interpreted in many ways. Perhaps he is Christ, perhaps the Antichrist. Some have considered him as Conquest though this seems to overlap with the rider of the Red Horse. Pestilence or plague seems the most reasonable interpretation. His arrows could then represent the transmission of infection.
The most famous depiction of the Four Horsemen is the 1498 woodcut of Albrecht Dürer, illustrated on the right. The first three horsemen look like mercenary warriors from the Hundred Year War. Death is a skeletal figure riding an emaciated horse. He clears the world of those who die from pestilence, war and famine.
The 1865 wood-engraving by Héliodore Pelan based on a drawing by Gustave Doré gives Death a more majestic appearance, and grants him the scythe that has become his symbol. The scythe refers the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels that consider the final harvest of human souls. Doré also depicts the dark shades of Hades that John saw following after Death.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider
In 1918 Katherine Anne Porter almost died from the Great Influenza while she was in Denver working as a journalist (Barry, 1963). In 1939 she published Pale Horse, Pale Rider a short novel about that experience. In the novel she calls herself Miranda (from the Latin, “to be wondered at”). Pale Horse, Pale Rider was published together with two other stories – Old Mortality and Noon Wine – and gave its title to the collection.
The novel opens with a dream. Miranda is about to go riding, but she cannot decide which horse to borrow for a journey she does not wish to take. She decides against Miss Lucy “with the long nose and the wicked eye,” and Fiddler “who can jump ditches in the dark,” and choses Graylie “because he is not afraid of bridges.” These horses are those that were ridden long ago by Amy, the wife of Miranda’s Uncle Gabriel. Amy was a beautiful and spirited young woman, who committed suicide before Miranda was born. Her story was told in Old Mortality, one of several Miranda stories.
In the dream Miranda must go riding with a stranger who has been hanging about the place. She mounts Graylie, and urges him on. They fly off, over the hedge and the ditch and down the lane:
The stranger rode beside her, easily, lightly, his reins loose in his half-closed hand, straight and elegant in dark shabby garments that flapped upon his bones. (Porter, 1939, p 181)
Suddenly, she pulls Graylie up, the stranger rides on, and Miranda wakes up.
She remembers the events of the day before, particularly her visit to the infirmary at the army camp, and her tryst with her new boyfriend Adam, a young and handsome soldier about to be sent to France. She is not feeling well, but goes to work and once again meets Adam.
The next day she feels quite ill, and is seen by a doctor who prescribes some medications and says he will check on her later. Adam comes to see her and comforts her. They talk of their love for each other, about the war and about old songs they had heard when they were younger. One of these is a spiritual that began “Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my lover away.” The doctor returns and arranges for Miranda to be admitted to hospital. She has contracted influenza, perhaps from her visit to the infirmary.
While in hospital Miranda comes close to death but survives
Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely with-drawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself com-posed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. (pp 252-3).
She has a vision of a place reached by crossing a rainbow bridge. Graylie was not afraid of bridges. There Miranda sees in the shimmering air “a great company of human beings,” all the people she had known in life. From this apparent heaven she returns to the reality of the hospital. She has miraculously comeback from the dead. She lives up to her name – someone to be wondered at.
In her convalescence she learns that Adam had also became ill, probably having caught the disease from her. However, though Miranda had survived, Adam had died.
Outside the bells are ringing to celebrate the end of the war. As Miranda prepares to leave the hospital, she requests some essentials to begin her new life:
One lipstick, medium, one ounce flask Bois d’Hiver perfume, one pair gray suede gauntlets without straps, two pairs gray sheer stockings without clocks … one walking stick of silvery wood with a silver knob. (p 262).
She will be pale and elegant like the rider she dreamed about at the beginning of her illness, the rider that done take her love away. She has been irretrievably marked by death. As she leaves the hospital Miranda thinks
No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything. (p 264)
Life is now defined by what it is not – no war, no plague, no noise, no light. Porter’s words recall Wilfred Owen’s 1917 poem Anthem for Doomed Youth which begins with the “monstrous anger of the guns” and ends with “each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds” (Owen, 1985, p 76). Much poetry was written about the terrible loss of life in the Great War. Very little is concerned with the great epidemic of influenza that marked its ending (Crosby, 1989; Fisher, 2012).
Miranda’s final claim “Now there would be time for everything” is the tragedy of the book. She is now free to do as she wishes but there is nothing that she wishes to do.
Porter spent many years before she fully recovered from her experience in Denver. She did not publish her first stories until 1930, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider did not come out until 1939. Some sense of Miranda’s feelings at the end of that book is perhaps present in the 1942 portrait drawing of Porter by Paul Cadmus.
The Great Influenza
The influenza that almost killed Katherine Anne Porter swept across the world between 1918 and 1921 (Barry, 2004; Crosby, 1989; Spinney, 2017; Taubenberger & Morens, 2006). No one is sure where it began. The first cases were seen in Kansas, and the disease spread rapidly through the US army camps where young men were being trained before going to fight in France.
The following is the iconic image of the epidemic: the make-shift infirmary at Camp Funston, Kansas. The photograph is strangely still. It should be accompanied by the sound of intermittent coughing. The light rakes across the camp cots, randomly selecting one soldier or another, much as the disease would select those who would die. There was no treatment: oxygen would not be used for pneumonia until after the war (Heffner, 2013). About a quarter of the young men in this photo likely died of influenza. More US soldiers died of influenza than during battle.
The disease quickly spread to the battlefields of Europe. None of the combatant-countries wished to acknowledge that their troops were ill. Since the first officially reported cases occurred when the disease spread to Spain, the pandemic was thereafter miscalled the Spanish Flu. In this posting it is called the Great Influenza.
The 1918 pandemic was unusual in that it the young and healthy were more susceptible to the disease than the elderly. This may have been related to the close quartering of the young soldiers. Or it might have been caused by an overly reactive immune system.
Coronavirus COVID-19 acts similarly to the influenza virus in terms of its spread through airborne droplets, and in terms of how its major morbidity is due to a viral pneumonia. The coronavirus differs from the Great Influenza in that it affects the elderly more than the young. Nevertheless, we should look to the Great Influenza in terms of what might happen in our current pandemic.
A pandemic is characterized by two main parameters. The contagiousness of the disease is measured by the basic reproduction number (R0). This is the number of new people that will become infected from one individual patient. If R0 is less than 1 the disease dies out; if it is greater than 1 the disease spreads exponentially through the population. The virulence of the disease is assessed by the case fatality rate (CFR). This measures the proportion of infected patients that die.
For the Great Influenza R0 was about 2 (Ferguson et al. 2006), and the CFR was about 2.5% (Taubenberger & Morens, 2006). We do not yet know for sure how the present coronavirus COVID-19 compares. Early data from China suggest that R0 is about 2, and the CFR about 5% (Wu et al., 2020). Since we have not yet done sufficient testing to be sure of the number of cases in the population, the CFR is likely overestimated. Most of the tested cases are patients who have been severely symptomatic. If there is a significant number of asymptomatic (and untested) cases, the CFR will be lower (discussed extensively on the World in Data website). It might approach the CFR estimated for the Great Influenza, but it will be at least an order of magnitude greater than seasonal flu (<0.1%).
For those who wish to consider all the other great epidemics of human history, Wikipedia has listed their estimated values for R0and CFR.
The numbers for COVID-19 Pandemic indicate we must be extremely cautious so as not to endure a repeat of the Great Influenza. Since stories are often more convincing than numbers, we can briefly consider the effect of the Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan Parade on September 23, 1918. Despite warnings about the influenza, the city went ahead with a huge parade to drum up support for the US war effort. A few days after the parade, hundreds of people became ill. Soon the number of ill patients increased. Hospitals rapidly became overcrowded and unable to take new cases. By the end of the years the number of cases exceeded 100,000 and the number of dead approached 13,000, over 1% of the city’s population (Barry, 2004, pp 220-227; Kopp & McGovern, 2018)). In contrast after the first recorded cases of influenza in St Louis, that city quickly instituted measures against the spread of the disease, such as closing schools and banning public gatherings. The number of deaths in St Louis per 100,000 population during the epidemic was less than half that in Philadelphia (Hatchett et al, 2007).
In Philadelphia and across the world morticians and gravediggers rapidly became overwhelmed and bodies began to pile up in the streets. In Rio de Janeiro, Jamanta, a famous carnival reveller, commandeered a tram and a luggage car and swept through the city picking up bodies and delivering them to the cemetery (Spinney, 2017, p. 54-55).
Despite its death toll, the Great Influenza was largely ignored by historians until the possibility of new influenza pandemics became real toward the end of the 20th Century. Thousands of monuments memorializing those who died in the Great War exist all over the world. Monuments to those who died of influenza are scarce, even though those who died of the disease outnumbered those who died in battle. The soldiers at Camp Fenton erected their own memorial to their colleagues who had died of the influenza (illustrated on the right, with its designer Henry Hardy). The monument was a simple pyramid of piled up stones with the names of the victims written in smaller stones on the grass. The camp and its monument have been long ago abandoned.
One of the reasons for the lack of attention that the Great Influenza received may have been that it did not fit with any overarching narrative. Though many died, they did not die for some noble cause. The disease was largely random it its killing.
The Black Death
Even though it did not kill so many, the Black Death had a far greater impact on our history. It shattered the society of the Middle Ages, disrupting the feudal system, and questioning the power of the Church. Part of this impact was due to the Bubonic Plague being far more virulent than either the influenza or the coronavirus. The Case Fatality Rate during the Black Death was over 30%. The disease was caused by a bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is endemic in rats and transmitted to human beings by fleas. The infected rats and their fleas came to Europe from the East on merchant ships. The plague began in port cities such as Naples, Venice and Genoa, are rapidly spread throughout Europe (McMillen, 2016; Snowden, 2019).
Nowadays we have antibiotics that can kill the bacteria that causes the Bubonic Plague. Furthermore, we understand how it is transmitted and can prevent this by controlling human exposure to rats and fleas. In the 14th Century there was nothing to do but flee. This flight actually increased the spread of the disease, which was carried by the fleas on all those who ran away.
The Black Death bequeathed us with our most potent image of death as a skeletal figure, often clad in a shroud or black cloak and carrying scythe – the “grim reaper.” Such figures were often portrayed leading various people from all stations of life in a “dance of death.” The statue illustrated on the right is from the tomb in Trier Cathedral of Johann Philipp von Wallerdorff who died in 1768.
Many considered the Black Death as God’s punishment for humanity’s sins, and decided that a great return to God was necessary. Yet the plague had randomly killed both saint and sinner. Others thought that the plague was God’s demonstration that the Church had gone astray and needed to be reformed. Yet both priests and parishioners were equally affected.
And so, a few came to the idea that perhaps there was no God. The only justice in the world was at the hand of human beings. And their only recourse was themselves. And if they could ultimately survive the plague, they could perhaps settle on a different world, where reason ruled instead of faith.
The Seventh Seal
In Revelation after the four horsemen, the fifth and sixth seals are opened. These bring forth to John a vision of the Christian Martyrs, and then a vision of all those who had been saved by faith in Christ. Finally, the last seal is opened:
And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. (Revelation 8:1)
Christians interpret the silence as representing the awe that occurs when one realizes the greatness of God and his program for the future. Ingmar Bergman considered it differently. Much of his work is concerned with the silence of God. All our prayers no matter how fervent are met with silence. He made this the subject of a trilogy of films: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963).
The idea is also at the heart of his earlier 1957 film The Seventh Seal. The quotation from Revelation about the opening of the seventh seal and the silence in heaven begins the film. A knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) has just returned to Sweden from the Crusades. He has brought with him a game of chess that he learned in Palestine. All of Europe is in the grip of the Black Death. On a beach Antonius prays to God. After his prayer, Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears. Antonius challenges Death to a game of Chess to decide his fate. The following is a clip from the movie. The sound of the waves goes silent when Death appears.
Bergman based the idea of the game of chess from a 1480 fresco (right) painted by Albertus Pictor in the Täby Church near Stockholm. As the film proceeds, Death ultimately wins the game, and leads Antonius and his family off in a dance of death. The film is not accurate historically: the crusades ended long before the Black Death. However, it is one of our most vivid depictions of human mortality.
Playing Chess with Death
Death is now among us. Not in as the dark figure portrayed by Bengt Ekerot, but in the form of a coronavirus epidemic. The disease is not as virulent as the Black Death. However, it is likely just as contagious and just as virulent as the virus that caused the Great Influenza. How do we prevent what happened in 1918 when Death took millions of people before their time?
How do we play our game of chess with Death? We still have no specific treatment, and there is as yet no vaccine. Unlike in 1918, however, we now have oxygen therapy and, if necessary, artificial ventilation. These procedures can help patients with pneumonia survive until their immune systems can finally destroy the virus. Furthermore, we have monitors such as finger oximeters that can determine when oxygen therapy is needed.
What is most important is to inhibit the spread of the disease in the population. The most powerful means to do this involves identifying all patients with the disease, tracing all people who have come in contact with these patients, testing these contacts, and quarantining both the patients and their contacts (whether or not they are infected) until they are no longer contagious. Since we have tests that are reasonably specific for the virus, this approach is definitely possible, and is being used successfully in China and in South Korea.
In the absence of contact tracing, we can limit the spread of the disease by staying away from our fellows beyond the distance that airborne drops can travel: “physical distancing” (a more appropriate term than “social distancing”). Physical distancing can certainly slow down the spread of the disease so that hospital facilities for treating those patients that develop pneumonia do not become overwhelmed. However, it will ultimately have to be replaced with contact tracing. Or the Dance of Death will continue.
Despite our best efforts many people will die in the pandemic. Though we know we have to die sometime, we generally believe that this will not be tomorrow. Nowadays death is closer. We need to come to terms with it. Through whatever stories, dreams and visions we can muster. We cannot play chess well without equanimity.
Barry, J. M. (2004). The great influenza: The epic story of the deadliest plague in history. New York: Viking.
Crosby, A. W. (1989/2003). America’s forgotten pandemic: The influenza of 1918. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press.
Ferguson NM; Cummings DA; Fraser C; et al. (2006). Strategies for mitigating an influenza pandemic. Nature, 442 (7101), 448–452.
Fisher, J. E. (2012). Envisioning disease, gender, and war: Women’s narratives of the 1918 influenza pandemic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
McMillen, C. W. (2016). Pandemics: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Owen, W. (Edited by Stallworthy, J., 1985). The poems of Wilfred Owen. London: Hogarth Press.
Porter, K. A. (1939). Pale horse, pale rider: Three short novels. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Quispel, G. (1979). The secret Book of Revelation: The last book of the Bible. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Snowden, F. M. (2019). Epidemics and society: From the Black Death to the present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Spinney, L. (2017). Pale rider: The Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. London: Johnathan Cape.
Taubenberger, J. K., & Morens, D. M. (2006) 1918 Influenza: the mother of all pandemics Emerging Infectious Diseases, 12, 15-22.
West, R. B. (1963). Katherine Anne Porter: American Writers 28. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wu, J.T., Leung, K., Bushman, M. et al. (2020). Estimating clinical severity of COVID-19 from the transmission dynamics in Wuhan, China. Nature Medicine26, 506–510.
Hatred is directed anger. Though we can claim metaphorically to hate
unconscious objects or abstractions, hatred is typically directed at another person or persons. Hatred is evoked by suffering that we perceive they caused. Since it leads to actions against these persons, hatred can also be described as “ill
Emotions can overwhelm reason. Passion is not logical. We often hate
without any justification. Hatred must then be maintained by fictions that describe the evil nature of those we hate.
Antisemitism is the most enduring and most unjustified of human hatreds.
The ill will suffered by the Jewish people has lasted for thousands of years, and has led to countless crimes, the most terrible of which was the Holocaust wherein 6 million Jews were put to death by the Nazi Government of Germany (Bauer, 2001; Marrus, 1987). ;
Antisemitism has been inspired by many fictions. This posting considers the unfortunate power of some of the stories that paved the way to the Holocaust.
Some Simple Psychology
Anger arises when we experience suffering, especially when we believe it
to be unwarranted, and when we are thwarted from achieving what we desire,
especially when we believe that we entitled to it. Anger seeks to attack these causes: to hit out at those who strike us; to break those who obstruct us.
We tend to think of events as caused by persons. Even when forces of
nature act against us we may attribute them to a divinity or a devil, or to
those who worship them. Only in that way can anger find a target for its
Sometimes the causes of our anger are too complicated to understand or too powerful to fight against. In these cases, we may vent our anger elsewhere and attack other human beings, while inventing plausible (though fictional) reasons for so doing.
…every instance of suffering, every feeling of displeasure, by whomsoever and in whatsoever way it may have been caused, whether it arises from the guilt or from the lawful activity of another person, or through the sufferer’s own fault, or without any fault, or even without any human influence, tends to transform itself into a feeling of enmity, to direct itself against fellow-humans and if possible to express itself against them. (Bernstein, 1951, p 85)
As we were growing up during childhood, we realized – at about the age
of three – that we can exert some control over our environment. We therefore created a self as the agent of this control. At about the same time we realized that the world contains other agents. These could either help us or hinder us. We became comfortable with those that helped and learned to cooperate with them. We feared the others.
The group appears to be a curious form of extension of the individual. It seems as if under the influence of the necessities of human communal life, human beings who need love and produce hate combine into new, collective and collectively selfish individualities of a higher order; directing their love inwards, their hate outward, their social instincts towards the insider, their anti-social tendencies toward the outsider. (Bernstein, 1951, p 109-110)
Those who cooperated in groups came to have similar desires and modes of
behavior. They followed the same rules and sought the same goals. Those who
were different became isolated. These “others” challenge our group-identification (Chanes, 2004, p 3). In our search for where to vent our anger, we often light upon those that are different from us. Especially if these people are small in number and not inclined to violence.
While for normal group enmity a certain regularity in the mutual expression of enmity is characteristic, the antagonism between a powerful majority and a powerless minority is characterised by a onesidedness of hostile actions which is fatal for the minority. For the latter is exposed to continual attacks and must confine itself to laborious attempts to maintain its existence, without a chance to resist actively to any extent; even its passive means of defense are totally inadequate and its existence often has to rely on nothing but periodical flight from place to place. This onesided relation of
permanent attack and failing defense is called persecution. Weak minority
groups are usually persecuted more or less emphatically. (Bernstein, 1951, p 224)
The actual psychological mechanisms that lead to antisemitism are not
really understood. Some believe that there are personality-types that are more easily convinced to vent their hatred on minorities. The role of authority and power is undoubtedly a factor (Morse & Allport, 1952; Milgram, 1974). Those who seek power or wish to maintain it gain great support by fomenting hatred. Propaganda – invented stories – have a tremendous power. For some reason the more incredible the story the more easily it is believed (Baum, 2012). Dehumanization of the victims serves to attenuate our inherent tendency to help our fellows. (Bandura et al., 1975)
For millennia the Jewish people have allowed us to vent our hatred. For
millennia we have invented reasons for our violence.
The hostility toward a minority exacerbates the feelings that initially triggered. When persecuted, a minority does not fare well in society and often comes to appear even more deserving of denigration and oppression (Beller, 2007, p 5).
Antisemitism is not caused by the Jews but by the inadequacy of those who need to hate them.
…two psychological characteristics are present in the individual antisemite: excessive hostility and the need (and a capacity) to project one’s aggression on other groups. Persons who have these traits generally suffer from feelings of inadequacy and from the feeling that their own personal borders, psychologically speaking, are easily invaded by others (Chanes, 2004, p 7)
We can perhaps conclude this section with two epigrams from Jean-Paul Sartre (1948):
If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him (p 13)
Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem: it is our problem. (p 152)
The People of the Covenant
The Jews consider themselves God’s chosen people. In the Hebrew
scripture Yahweh made a covenant with Abraham, and then renewed the covenant with Jacob and with Moses. The Jews were to worship Yahweh as the one true God and to follow his commandments. The Jews would then serve as an example for the rest of humanity
I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles (Isaiah
In return, the Jews would be considered special
For thou art an holy people unto the Lord
thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto
himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
And were promised as their home the land containing what is now the country of Israel
In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates (Genesis 15:18)
God’s covenant with the Jews was based on their keeping the commandments that he revealed to Moses. Rembrandt’s 1659 painting Moses with the Tablets of the Law shows Moses holding aloft the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been written. These were engraved on two separate stones (Exodus 31:18, 32:15). In the painting, only the second tablet is completely visible giving the 6th to 10th commandments (Exodus 20:13-17). These begin with: “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal:” (Hebrew illustrated on the right).
No one is sure what moment in the story of the tablets Rembrandt is representing. Is it when he first displays these to the Hebrews? or when he is about to shatter them on the ground because the Hebrews had been worshipping the Golden Calf while he had been on Mount Sinai with God (Exodus 32:19)? or is it when he returns to God and brings a second set of tablets back to the chastised Hebrews (Exodus 34:1). Moses’ face is shining with revelation rather than angry. Perhaps, Rembrandt has painted the moment when Moses first displays the commandments.
No group of people is perfect. However, the Jews have contributed more than their share to the human endeavor – in philosophy, science, medicine, politics, art, music, literature. And for the most part the, laws that they accepted as part of their covenant with God have served them well. They are indeed an example to other people.
So why were and are they so often reviled? It is unlikely a reaction to their chutzpah in claiming to be God’s chosen. In the Middle Ages this was called the Insolentia Judaeorum. Yet every one of the world’s many religions claims to be just as special.
One defining aspect of the Jewish religion is that it is monotheistic. The first commandments state that a Jew must obey Jehovah and not even pay lip-service to any other god or idol:
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them (Exodus 20:2-5).
The Jewish religion thus combines the worship of one god with strict obedience to his commandments. As Prager and Telushkin (2003) have suggested, this ethical monotheism may have offended those who followed other gods. Jews refused to follow the proverbial injunction that when in Rome do as the Romans do. For example, the outburst of violence against the Jews in Alexandria in 38 CE (then part of the Roman Empire) was triggered by their refusal to place statues of the Emperor Caligula in their temples (Goldstein, 2012).
One should respect the beliefs of others. However, respect does not mean obeying rules that go against one’s own moral principles. The Jewish people’s refusal to acknowledge or worship other gods has continued to the present. In particular Jews do not recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ.
In addition to the Ten Commandments, Yahweh’s covenant with the Jewish people involved numerous other rules of behavior. These included strict stipulations about the types of food that they might eat and the methods in which this food should be prepared. Over the ages observant Jews have thus been unable to share meals with those of other faiths. And although some of the ancient Jewish philosophers – Hillel and Maimonides for example – were open to ideas beyond the Covenant, strict Judaism limited itself to the study of the Torah and its interpretations.
The Covenant with Yahweh thus isolated the Jewish people from the rest of humanity. They could not share the beliefs, the food or the thoughts of others. They antagonized others by their claim to be the chosen people.
So we have the idea that antisemitism is in part caused by the very character of the Jewish religion. This would explain why the Jews have been reviled by so many different people in so many different countries. The following was written Bernard Lazare in 1894. He was a Jewish polemicist who wrote the first defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Yet even he thought that the Jews were partly to blame for antisemitism.
Inasmuch as the enemies of the Jews belonged to divers races; as they dwelled far apart from one another, were ruled by different laws and governed by opposite principles; as they had not the same customs and differed in spirit from one another, so that they could not possibly judge alike of any subject, it must needs be that the general causes of antisemitism have always resided in Israel itself, and not in those who antagonized it…. Which virtues or which vices have earned for the Jew this universal enmity? Why was he ill-treated and hated alike and in turn by the Alexandrians and the Romans, by the Persians and the Arabs, by the Turks and the Christian nations? Because, everywhere up to our own days the Jew was an unsociable being. (Lazare, 1894/1903, pp 8-9)
This seems so reasonable. Yet it is false. It does not explain the cause of antisemitism. It is just an excuse. It blames the victim for the crime.
The Crucifixion of Christ
In the early decades of the Common Era, Jesus, a Jewish teacher from Nazareth, brought new insight to the interpretation of Jewish law. He simplified the commandments by expressing them as the need to love the Lord and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He criticized the rigid adherence to the Sabbath, and the commercialization of the Temple. He proclaimed the idea of a Kingdom of Heaven. Many of the more observant Jews were disconcerted by his teachings. The Romans were upset that he was proposing a new kingdom. Jesus was arraigned before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, condemned and crucified.
A few days after his death and burial, the tomb of Jesus was found empty. Many of his followers claimed that they afterwards saw him in person. They therefore believed that he had been resurrected. They continued to meet and discuss his teachings. They were either tolerated by other Jews or condemned as heretics.
A learned Jew named Saul was one of those that persecuted the followers of Jesus. However, on the road to Damascus he had a vision of Jesus that completely altered his thinking. He changed his name to Paul, and began to provide an over-arching theory about the death and resurrection of Jesus. His main ideas were that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah prophesied in the scriptures, that he died to release us from our sins, and that we shall all be saved from death by having faith in Jesus called Christ (the “anointed”).
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3-4)
Paul’s major teaching was that one could never attain salvation by following the Mosaic laws. No one is perfect. Everyone breaks the law. However, Christ offers salvation if we repent our sins and have faith in him.
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16).
Paul’s letters describing these ideas are the earliest of the Christian scriptures. Written in the years 50-60 CE these predate by 20 to 50 years the four gospels, which describe the life and teachings of Jesus.
The followers of Jesus in the 1st Century CE differed in their opinion about his relationship to the Jews. Some thought that the message of Jesus was for the Jews; others that it was for both Jews and Gentiles. Most of Paul’s teaching was directed to the Gentiles. In some of his letters he laments the inability of many of his Jewish colleagues to understand God’s new covenant.
For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost. (I Thessalonians 2:14-16)
Some of the gospels continued this criticism of the Jews (Crossan, 1995). This is perhaps most evident in the gospel of Matthew. He describes how the Jews forced Pilate to crucify Jesus, and willingly accepted the responsibility for his death:
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. (Matthew 27: 24-25)
The major event in Jewish history of the 1st Century CE was the Great Revolt of the Jews against Roman rule. This began in 66 CE and culminated in the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The illustration below shows a representation in the Arch of Titus of the Romans carrying the spoils from the temple. Among the spoils is the great Menorah that once gave light to the Tabernacle.
At this time many Jews fled their homeland and settled in other countries. The Jewish people have been exiled at many times in its history – the Assyrian conquest (733 BCE), the Babylonian captivity (597 BCE), the Great Revolt (70 CE), the later Bar Kokhba Rebellion (132 CE). Though some Jews remained in Israel, most lived in the Diaspora (“scattering”) – far from the land that from the days of Moses they had considered their God-given home.
The Destruction of the Temple seemed to many Christians a divine response to the action of the Jews in crucifying their Lord. Though the Romans crucified Jesus, some of the early Christians considered the Jews responsible. The Jews were thus guilty of deicide and should be reviled and cast out from Christian society. Even if they were not guilty, they should be chastised for not recognizing the salvation offered by Christ – for staying with the old dispensation rather than following the new.
These ideas have long permeated the thinking of the Christian Church. Many of the cathedrals illustrate these concepts by contrasting sculptures of Ecclesia and Synagoga. The statues on the south portail of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg from the 13th Century CE are particularly impressive. Legend has it that these were created by a female sculptor Sabina von Steinbach, though there is no real evidence for this. Ecclesia with her crown, holds in her hands the cross and the chalice. She looks with pity on Synagoga, who is blindfolded and cannot see the truth. She holds in her hands the tablets of the law and the lance that the centurion used to bring the crucifixion to an end. The lance was shattered by the resurrection.
The following illustration shows the complete portail. Ecclesia and Synagoga are on the left and right sides. In the center sits Solomon in judgement between the old covenant and the new. Above him is Christ, Salvator Mundi (savior of the world). The carvings in the tympanums represent the dormition, assumption and coronation of the Virgin Mary.
The statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga are impressive examples of gothic art. Though superficially beautiful, they obscure rather than convey the truth. The feelings against the Jews that they evoke are a complete betrayal of Jesus, a Jew who taught in the synagogues of Palestine.
One might have hoped that the antisemitism of the Christian Church would have been excised by the Reformation. But this was not to be. Martin Luther was virulently antisemitic. In his The Jews and Their Lies (1543, pp 39-42) he advises Christians to burn their synagogues of the Jews, their houses, and their books, prohibit their Rabbis from teaching, not allow them to travel on the highways, and prohibit them from lending money. Luther was a harbinger of Kristallnacht.
During the Middle Ages people could not understand why life was so often brutal. An easy way to explain the various disasters was to attribute them to the Jews. If the Jews could kill God, there was no telling what other crimes they were capable of.
On Good Friday in 1144 the body of a child called William was discovered in the woods near Norwich in England. The Jews were accused of murdering the child. No credible evidence was ever found. However, a monk who had just converted from Judaism to Christianity claimed that the Jews had decided to sacrifice a Christian child to re-enact the death of Christ. Several Jews were slaughtered. William was declared a martyr. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb. Miracles occurred.
William of Norwich was the first documented case of Jews being accused of ritual murder. As the years went by similar accusations arose in multiple different regions of Europe (Goldstein, 2012). Many of these cases included the idea that the Jews used the blood of their victims to make the unleavened bread used in the celebration of Passover. This particular accusation was called the “blood libel.” It makes no sense. Kosher regulations require that observant Jews never eat food contaminated with blood. Jews go to great lengths to remove blood from meat before it can be eaten.
The Christian Bible contains the Hebrew scriptures in what it calls the Old Testament. Some of these writings described how the blood of sacrificed animals played an important role in the ceremonies of the ancient Hebrews, e.g.
And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Leviticus 1:5).
Other ancient Hebrew writings are even more disconcerting. One of the foundational stories of Judaism is the Akedah (“binding”), wherein the Patriarch Abraham, at the request of Jehovah, takes his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him (Genesis 22). Although an angel stays Abraham’s hand at the last moment, this fails to attenuate the story’s horror. The illustration below shows Rembrandt’s 1655 etching.
The Old Testament contains other stories wherein children were sacrificed. To defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah promised the Lord that he would sacrifice whatever came out of his house when he returned from battle. Jehovah gave the victory to the Israelites. When Jephthah returned home, his daughter came to greet him, dancing and playing the tambourine (Judges 11).
There is also a suggestion that King Manasseh sacrificed his son – the wording is “he made his son pass through the fire” (2 Kings 21:6). These events and the idea that the terrible place near Jerusalem called Gehenna or Tophet was actually a site of human sacrifice are discussed at length by Stavrakopoulou (2004). The practice was banned by Yahweh speaking through his prophet Jeremiah:
And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not; neither came it into my heart. (Jeremiah 7:31).
One can perhaps imagine how such stories from the Old Testament might have allowed credulous people to accept the idea that the Jews might sacrifice Christian children and use their blood for their ceremonies. When one’s faith requires a belief in miracles, wild rumors are not easily contradicted.
The main sacrament of the Christian Church is the Eucharist, wherein the congregation partakes of bread and wine that have been especially blessed. According to the church, these had been miraculously “transubstantiated” to the body of Jesus, who was sacrificed to save the world. The sacramental bread is called the host (from the Latin hostia for sacrificial victim). In many places and at many times the Jews were accused of “desecrating” the host. The following illustration shows a 1469 sequence of paintings by Paolo Uccello that tell the story of the Miracle of the Desecrated Host. Both the full sequence and the particular panels illustrating the second and fifth episodes are shown. The paintings were on the predella to the altar in the Corpus Domin church in Urbino. The retable painting above the predella by Justus van Gent presented the Institution of the Eucharist.
The six episodes in the predella show
a woman sells a portion of the consecrated host to a Jewish merchant
when the Jew tries to burn the host, it starts to bleed, alerting the city guards
a holy procession is needed to re-consecrate the host
the woman is burned at the stake; she repents and an angel descends from heaven to save her
the Jew and his family are burned at the stake; no angel intervenes
two angels and two devils argue over the woman’s body
As the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) spread across Europe in the 14th Century, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the disease. Many Jews were condemned to death by fire fort these crimes. No one noticed that Jews died from the pandemic just as frequently as their Christian neighbors. Nor that burning Jews at the stake had no effect on the spread of the disease. A half century later, Jacob von Königshofen wrote a critical history of these times. The following is his description of the massacre of the Jews in Strasbourg at the height of the Black Death in 1349:
In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells – that is what they were accused of – and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there. On Saturday-that was St. Valentine’s Day, they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the direct cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors. Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg. (quoted in Marcus, 1938, p.47)
Forces other than the plague were at play. Debt caused as much suffering as disease. As the historian notes, “The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews.”
The Old Testament contains several injunctions against usury. Originally “usury” was simply any interest charged on loans. The meaning of the term has changed as the relations between religion and commerce have developed. At present, usury is generally limited to exorbitant interest.
In one of the earliest mentions of usury in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people are forbidden to charge interest on loans to fellow-Jews although they may so charge strangers:
Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury (Deuteronomy 23:20).
In the New Testament usury is only occasionally considered:
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again (Luke 6:35).
Nevertheless, the Christian Church decided early in its history that usury was a sin (Moehlman, 1934). In the council of Nicaea of 327 CE it forbade clergy to collect interest on any debts. In the Third Lateran Council of 1179, it decreed
Since in almost every place the crime of usury has become so prevalent that many persons give up all other business and become usurers, as if it were permitted, regarding not its prohibition in both testaments, we ordain that manifest usurers shall not be admitted to communion, nor, if they die in their sin, receive Christian burial, and that no priest shall accept their alms. (Moehlman, 1934, pp 6-7)
Thus for most of the middle ages it was difficult for people in business to obtain financial support for their enterprises. Jewish merchants, untrammeled by Christian prohibitions, unable to own land, and often prevented from practicing trades because of exclusively Christian guilds, gradually assume the responsibility for lending money in return for interest (Foxman, 2010). Some kings and princes found the linguistic abilities and financial connections of the Jews appealing and appointed them to their courts. However, most Jews remained poor and unrecognized – traders, shopkeepers, pawnbrokers and minor moneylenders.
In later years the Catholic Church found itself in need of capital to build its churches, and revised its doctrine on usury, founding its own lending organizations called Mounts of Piety (Monte de Pieta). The oldest bank in the world, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, derives from one of these lenders. After the Reformation, Protestants re-interpreted the scriptures and established their own investment banks.
Jewish lenders prospered and some of our current banks have Jewish roots, the Rothschild banks and Goldman-Sachs being two of the biggest. However, almost all of the world’s largest banks were actually founded by Gentiles. The idea that the Jews control international banking is ludicrous. Why one should only consider the religion of a banker when he is Jewish is invidious (Foxman, 2010). One never mentions the Roman Catholic origins of the Bank of America or the Presbyterian origins of Wells Fargo. Yet Jewish bankers have long been game for hateful cartoons. The depiction of “King Rothschild” by Charles Lucien Léandre shown on the right is from the cover of Le Rire, April 16, 1898. Above Rothschild is the Golden Calf that was worshipped by the the idea of Mammon, the idol of wealth condemned in the New Testament:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24).
The myth of Jewish greed has become a mainstay of antisemitic thought. Richard Wagner (1850) cannot get away from it even though he is supposed to be writing about music.
According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipate: he rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force.
Even Jewish writers have been convinced of the myth
Thus, by himself and by those around him; by his own laws and by those imposed upon him; by his artificial nature and circumstances, the Jew was directed to gold. He was prepared to be changer, lender, usurer, one who strives after the metal, first for the pleasures it could afford and then afterwards for the sole happiness of possessing it; one who greedily seizes gold and avariciously immobilizes it. (Lazare, 1903, p 110).
The Pale of Settlement
As the Middle Ages progressed, the Jews were expelled from many European countries: England, 1290; France, 1306; Hungary, 1349; Austria, 1421; Spain, 1492; Portugal, 1497 (Baum 2012, p. 18). Other countries required that the Jews live apart from Christians in regions that came to be known as ghettos, from the Venetian dialect word for “foundry” located near where the first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. Other ghettos were later set up throughout Italy, and then in Germany and in Poland (Goldstein, 2012, p 130)
Many of the expelled Jews moved to Eastern Europe. They settled in the regions that now form the countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Much of this area was then part of the Kingdom of Poland. Polish nobles welcomed the new immigrants. Many Jews were used as tax-collectors. This did sit well with some of the Eastern Orthodox Slavic people who chafed under the control of Catholic Poland. In 1648, the Cossacks in Ukraine rebelled under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. During this war, tens of thousands of Poles and Jews were massacred (Bacon 2003). The Eastern Orthodox Church was every bit as antisemitic as the Roman Catholic Church. Ukraine became independent of Poland and soon became part of the Russian Empire. Later Poland itself would be partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia and cease to exist as an independent kingdom.
The “Pale of Settlement” was set up in 1791 by Catherine the Great. This was an area in the Western regions of the Russian Empire wherein Jews were allowed to live. The term “pale” refers to the stakes that delineated the area – the word was originally used to describe an area in Ireland under the control of the English crown. Over the years many of the Jews in central Russia were exiled to the Pale of Settlement. As shown in the map (adapted from Wikipedia, originally created by Thomas Gun) the Jewish percentage of the population in these regions was significant. Around 1900, the Jews in the Pale of Settlement numbered almost 5 million (about half the total number of Jews in the world), and formed about 10% of the general population of the area.
The ghettos and the Pale of Settlement separated the Jews from their neighbors. Their resultant isolation of the Jews increased their “unlikeness” or “otherness.” By closing them off in localized areas beyond the reach of normal civil authorities, it also made them more susceptible to random violence.
In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg by a group of revolutionaries. The group Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) was composed of Russian-born anarchists, but one young woman was Jewish. The new Tsar Alexander III believed that the Jews were behind the assassination and unleashed a series of pogroms in the Pale of Settlement to avenge his father’s death.
The word “pogrom” derives from a Russian word for storm or devastation. Christians in a community were encouraged to murder their Jewish neighbors – killers of Christ and assassins of the Emperor. The police were ordered not to intervene. These pogroms continued into for several years. Thousands of Jews were killed.
The pogroms returned in 1903-1906 during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. These appear to have been instigated by members of the Tsar’s secret police. One political rationale for these actions against the Jews was to rally the Russian people around the Tsar and against all those that were promoting the modernization of Russia.
The first pogrom of the 20th Century began in Kishinev, Moldava (then known as Bessarabia), on Easter Sunday in 1903. A child had been found murdered, and city leaders accused the Jews of his murder. Patriotism, blood libel and deicide worked together to create a rampaging and murderous mob (Penkower, 2004). The following is an illustration from the French Journal L’Assiette de Beurre of April, 1903, depicting the aftermath of the Easter pogrom.
The novel The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon (2008), which tells the story of a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom who immigrated to the United States, provides a vivid description of the violence and its far-reaching consequents. The epic poem City of the Killings written in 1903 by the Jewish poet Chaim Bialik to commemorate the massacre begins:
Rise and go to the town of the killings and you’ll come to the yards and with your eyes and your own hand feel the fence and on the trees and on the stones and plaster of the walls the congealed blood and hardened brains of the dead.
At about this time there appeared the first traces of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Nilus, 1906/1922). This document purported to be the secret plans of Jewish Leaders to take over the world. The protocols describe how these elders will sow dissension and confusion amidst the goyim and ultimately step in to rule:
In order to put public opinion into our hands we must bring it into a state of bewilderment by giving expression from all sides to so many contradictory opinions and for such length of time as will suffice to make the goyim lose their heads in the labyrinth and come to see that the best thing is to have no opinion of any kind in matters political, which it is not given to the public to understand because they are understood only by him who guides the public. This is the first secret. The second secret requisite for the success of our government is comprised in the following; To multiply to such an extent national railings, habits, passions, conditions of civil life, that it will be impossible for anyone to know where he is in the resulting chaos, so that the people in consequence will fail to understand one another. This measure will also serve us in another way, namely, to sow discord in all parties, to dislocate all collective forces which are still unwilling to submit to us, and to discourage any kind of personal initiative which might in any degree hinder our affair. There is nothing more dangerous than personal initiative; if it has genius behind it, such initiative can do more than can be done by millions of people among whom we have sown discord. We most so direct the education of the goyim communities that whenever they come upon a matter requiring initiative they may drop their hands in despairing impotence. The strain which results from freedom of action saps the forces when it meets with the freedom of another. From this collision arise grave moral shocks, disenchantment, failures. By all these means we shall so wear down the goyim that they will be compelled to offer us international power of a nature that by its position will enable us without any violence gradually to absorb all the State forces of the world and to form a Super-Government. (Protocol 5)
The reader easily recognizes the confusions of the modern world. Our natural paranoia quickly attributes this to outside agents rather than to the simple complexity of political forces. Human beings have long imagined that our lives are controlled by secret societies such as the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Illuminati, the Masons, and the New World Order (Eco, 1994, pp 132-139). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion identified these clandestine agents as the Jews.
The protocols are a complete fiction (Eisner, 2005; Hagemeister, 2008). They were largely plagiarized from a satire against the French Emperor Napoleon II written by Maurice Joly in 1864 entitled The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (Graves, 1921). The most widely accepted story is that a Russian exile living in France, Mathieu Golovinski, adapted Joly’s satire into an antisemitic tract at the instigation of the Tsar’s secret police, who wished to impugn the forces of modernization in Russia, and to whip up hatred of the Jews as a distraction from the government’s problems.
Despite being proven a fiction, the Protocols have been republished over and over again. The illustration at the right shows the cover of a French Version published in 1934. The design is loosely based on Léandre’s 1898 cartoon depiction of Rothschild. The cover artist goes by the alias ‘Christian Goy.” In the 20th Century the Protocols are widely published in Muslim countries, where they serve to foster animus against Israel. Why do people still believe that this tract represents the truth? It is easier to believe in a simple fiction than in complex facts. The confusion of the modern world is caused by the interactions of many different political forces. It is simpler to believe it is caused by the Jews than to try to understand the real causes.
During the 18th and 19th Century nationalism became one of the main forces in European politics. As the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution undermined the legitimacy of divinely ordained dynasties, the people developed the idea of a nation – a community conceived or “imagined” in three ways: shared culture, limited geographic extent, and governance by the people (Anderson, 2016). Inherent in the concept of a nation was the idea that all its citizens should have equal rights. Nationalism gained its greatest impetus from the revolutions in the United States and France in the 18th century, and from the later Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.
According to the ideals of nationalism, no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their religion. As part of this movement Jewish citizens began therefore to be accepted as equal participants in the new nations (Mendes-Flohr, 1996; Barnavi, 2003, pp 158-9). This emancipation occurred slowly: France in 1791; Prussia in 1812; Belgium in 1830; the Netherlands in 1834 the United Kingdom in 1858; Austria 1867; the United States in 1877 (reviewed in Wikipedia).
Although nationalism wants all its citizens, regardless of their beliefs or background to be equal, it would prefer them to be homogeneous, all believing in the same national ideals. Yet no nation is homogeneous. The success of a nation depends on how it comes together despite its differences.
As nationalism progressed, suspicions about the Jewish people remained. This worry was presaged by the Conte de Clermont‑Tonnere in a speech to France’s new National Assembly in 1789. He initially proposed the principle “that the profession, or manner of worship of a man, can never be motives for depriving him of the Rights of Election.” He then listed some of the arguments against giving citizenship to the Jews and declared them invalid:
It is here I am at tacked by the adversaries of the Jews. That people, say they, are unsociable; usury is enjoined them; they cannot be united with us, either by marriage, or habitual intercourse; they are forbidden our meats, and interdicted our tables. Our armies will never be recruited by Jews; they will never take up arms for the defense of their country. The weightiest of these reproaches is unjust, the others are but specious.
However, he then recognized that Jews may have commitments outside of the nation in which they would be granted full citizenship. They have religious and financial ties to colleagues in other nations. They may wish to be governed by their own laws and judged according to their scriptures. They could thus be a nation within a nation. So he suggested that
you should deny the Jews every thing as a distinct nation, and grant them every thing as individuals.
This idea that Jews were still different from other citizens persisted. The very fact of the diaspora worked against them. With their allegiances to other Jewish communities in other countries, they seemed “cosmopolitan” rather than patriotic. They interfered with a nation’s sense of itself. In the Middle Ages the Jew was assailed because he was not Christian. In the Modern Age he was assailed because he was not truly French or German or Russian. In both cases he was not “one of us.”
The idea of the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” was (and is) one of the main tenets of Russian antisemitism. It was basic to the foundation of the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist times and it continued in the socialist regime that followed the Russian Revolution. The following is a description of cosmopolitans from Vissarion Belinsky, a 19th century literary critic who promoted the idea of a truly Russian literature:
The cosmopolitan is a false, senseless, strange and incomprehensive phenomenon, a manifestation in which there is something insipid and vague. He is a corrupt, unfeeling creature, totally unworthy of being called by the holy name of man (quoted in Pinkus, 1988, pp 153-154).
Despite Soviet Russia’s professed goal of the brotherhood of man, the idea of the Jew as a “rootless cosmopolitan” persisted after the Revolution. It came to a frightening culmination in the accusations against the Jewish doctors in 1952-3 (Carfield, 2002). It is frightening to note the similarity between Communist thought and the Fascist idea of Bodenlosigkeit (lack of “ground” in the sense of a place to have roots).
The ideas of nationhood radically changed the lives of many Jews (Arendt, 1951). Intent on proving themselves good citizens of the new nations, they relinquished some of their religious beliefs and behaviors. They became secular. Some even converted to the state religion, hoping to become “assimilated” into general society. Despite all these efforts to become involved as a citizen, the Jews continued to be considered alien. Rather than being welcomed as a compatriots they reviled as pretentious upstarts.
And so many Jews began to think that the only solution was to return to Palestine to found their own new nation of Israel. No longer cosmopolitan they would reclaim their homeland. Zionism would provide Jews with a nation wherein they were not alien (Miller& Ury, 2010).
These new developments made it even more difficult for the Jews who remained in the countries of their birth. Would a Jew support Israel against the interests of the country in which he lives? Zionism raised fears about the allegiance of the Jews, and provided an excuse to exile them from the nations they could not be part of.
So arose the idea that the Jews could never really be part of any non-Jewish nation. This concept was presented by T. S. Eliot (1934) in a series of talks about literary traditions. He describes “tradition:”
What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place.’ (p 18)
He goes on to suggest how tradition should be established and maintained:
What we can do is to use our minds, remembering that a tradition without intelligence is not worth having, to discover what is the best life for us not as a political abstraction, but as a particular people in a particular place; what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected; and what conditions, within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desired. (p. 19)
And then he brings up something that is essential to any great tradition:
The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. There must be a proper balance between urban and rural, industrial and gricultural development. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.
The remarks about the free-thinking Jews are strange and terrifying. They are completely out of context in a discussion of the literary traditions of the American South. They clearly reflect the antisemitism of the writer and of his time. In the years subsequent to Eliot’s book, the great liberal democracies of the world refused to accept Jews fleeing from the Nazi regime in Germany for fear that they would pollute their national identities.
Although nationalism fostered the idea of governance by the people, it also promoted war in the pursuit of a nation’s destiny. As Anderson (2016) has pointed out, one of the measures of nationalism’s success is how easily a people will lay down their lives to defend their country. Surely cosmopolitanism is a better ideal.
Human beings unfortunately seem to need to hate. We make an enemy of any one who is different from us. And so we revile those who gave us the Ten Commandments. We need to stop this senseless behavior. The main way forward is to learn abou those who are not us. This will broaden our understanding. With understanding will come tolerance and cooperation. And we should follow ideals that refuse to be limited to one faith or to one nation.
Anderson, B. R. O’G. (1983/2016). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Revised Edition. London: Verso.
Arendt, H. (1951, reprinted 1973). The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.
Bacon, G. (2003). “The House of Hannover”: Gezeirot Tah in modern Jewish historical writing. Jewish History, 17, 179-206.
Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9, 253–269.
Barnavi, E. (2003). A historical atlas of the Jewish people: From the time of the patriarchs to the present. New York: Schocken.
Bauer, Y. (2001). A history of the Holocaust. Revised edition. New York: Franklin Watts.
Baum, S. K. (2012). Antisemitism Explained. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Beck, A. T. (2002). Prisoners of hate. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 209-216.
Beller, S. (2007). Antisemitism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Bernstein, P. (1951). Jew-hate as a sociological problem. New York: Philosophical Library.
Brewer, M. B. (1999). The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love or outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55, 429–435.
Chanes, J. A. (2004). Introduction and Overview. In Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO
Clermont Tonnerre, S. (1790) Translation of a speech, spoken by the Count Clermont Tonnere, Christmas-eve last: on the subject of admitting non-Catholics, comedians, and Jews, to all the privileges of citizens, according to the Declaration of rights. Available at Hathi Trust.
Crossan, J. D. (1995). Who killed Jesus? Exposing the roots of anti-semitism in the Gospel story of the death of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper
Eco, U. (1994). Six walks in the fictional woods. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Eisner, W. (2005). The plot: The secret story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York: W.W. Norton.
Penkower, M. N. (2004). The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903: A turning point in Jewish history. Modern Judaism, 24, 187–225,
Pinkus, B. (1988). The Jews of the Soviet Union: The history of a national minority. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prager, D., & Telushkin, J. (1981, reprinted 2003). Why the Jews? The reason for antisemitism. Touchstone Books.
Sartre, J.-P. (translated by Becker, G. J., 1948). Anti-Semite and Jew. New York: Schocken.
Stavrakopoulou, F. (2004). King Manasseh and child sacrifice: Biblical distortions of historical realities. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Sternberg, R. J. (2003). A duplex theory of hate: Development and application to terrorism, massacres, and genocide. Review of General Psychology 7, 299-328.
Wagner, R. (1850, translated by William Ashton Ellis, 1894). Jews in Music.
Station Island is an island in Lough Derg in County Donegal in the northwest part of the Republic of Ireland, very near the border with Northern Ireland. Lough Derg is a small shallow lake set amid low hills. Drainage from the surrounding bogs often gives its waters a russet hue, accounting for its name, “Red Lake” in Irish. Legend attributes the color to the blood of a monster serpent killed by St Patrick. Station Island has long been a place of Catholic Pilgrimage. This post presents some history of the pilgrims and of those who have written about them. Particular attention is paid to Seamus Heaney’s sequence of poems entitled Station Island (1984). The posting is long – like the pilgrimage.
The following illustration presents an annotated view of Lough Derg from Google Earth. The view is toward the north and the scale is approximate. The ferry to Station Island leaves from Ballymacavany.
A monastic community has existed on Station Island since the 5th Century CE. The initial inhabitants were likely anchorites (from the Greek anachoreo, withdraw), believers who underwent a rite of consecration similar to the funeral rite. They then considered themselves dead to the world and never moved from their one place of worship. Station Island has six low circular stone structures that probably are the remains of the anchorites’ clochans (“beehive cells”). Such ancient structures are common in western Ireland. The following illustration shows a clochan from the Dingle Peninsula. Those on the Island of Skellig Michael have become famous after being used in the movie Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).
St Patrick, the Romano-British missionary, may have visited Station Island during his time in Ireland during the 5th Century CE. St Dabheog, a Welsh disciple of St Patrick, is generally recognized as the first abbot of Station Island. As we shall see, in the early Middle Ages the island was considered one of the locations of Purgatory. The island soon became a place of pilgrimage, where believers came to repent their sins and renew their faith. The remains of the clochans became “penitential beds” where the pilgrims prayed.
A Short History of Purgatory
Early Christian teachings proposed two possible afterlives. Those who believed in Christ and repented their sins went to Heaven; those who did not went to Hell. The scriptures provide extensive support for both Heaven and Hell. However, there was some uncertainty about when these afterlives began. Was it immediately after death, or did the deceased have to wait until the Second Coming and the Resurrection of the Dead? If the latter, what happened in the meantime? Or is the idea of time after death without meaning?
The New Testament contains occasional references to being tested by fire after death:
That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:7).
In addition, another scriptural verse suggested that prayers could facilitate removal of sin from those who have died:
It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins. (2 Maccabees 12:46).
During the early Middle Ages, Christian theologians such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas began to consider a third afterlife in addition to Heaven and Hell (Le Goff, 1984; Greenblatt, 2001). Perhaps there was a place or state where believers were cleansed or purged of their sins. Christ died to wash away the sins of the believers, but perhaps there was still some taint of sin that needed to be removed before entry into Heaven. After much discussion the Catholic Church accepted this idea at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 (Denzinger et al., 2012, p. 283):
Those who after baptism lapse into sin must not be rebaptized but must obtain pardon for their sins through true penance. If, being truly repentant, they die in charity before having satisfied by worthy fruits of penance for their sins of commission and omission, their souls are cleansed after death by purgatorial and purifying penalties … and to alleviate such penalties the acts of intercession of the living faithful benefit them, namely, the sacrifices of the Mass, prayers, alms, and other works of piety that the faithful are wont to do for the other faithful according to the Church’s institutions.
The concept of purgatory was quickly taken up as an essential part of Christian culture. Dante’s Divine Comedy completed in 1320 vividly imagined the tripartite afterlife: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Many aspects of Purgatory remained unclear. Could mortal sins be removed or just venial sins? What was the nature of the purification process? Dante had the souls pass through fire only at the end of their ascent of Mount Purgatory. Others proposed that the fires of Purgatory were similar to those of Hell. However, the fires of Purgatory served to purify rather than to punish, and were limited in time rather than eternal. A terrifying description of Purgatory is given by the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Greenblatt, 2001):
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. (Hamlet I: 5)
This is Brian Blessed as the Ghost in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 movie of Hamlet:
The idea of Purgatory and the belief that prayers and alms could help reduce the suffering of souls in Purgatory soon led to corruption. In the later Middle Ages the church began to raise money from the faithful by selling “indulgences” as a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo in purgatory. These could be purchased for the benefit of either the dead or the living. The abuse of this process was one of the main factors leading to the Protestant Revolution. None of the Protestant churches recognize Purgatory. For example, the Articles of Religion of the Church of England state that the doctrine of Purgatory is “a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”
St Patrick’s Purgatory
Legend states that while St Patrick was on Station Island he had a vision of the afterlife in a cave on the island. In 1184 a monk who signed himself “H” at the monastery of Saltrey near Cambridge wrote about the experiences of the Irish knight Owein during his visit to Loug Derg: the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii. (Le Goff, 1984). Some forty years before H penned his story, Owein was allowed to enter the cave on the island and soon found himself surrounded by demons and cast into the fire. He was delivered by calling on the name of Christ. After multiple periods of torture, the knight finally made his way across a narrow bridge over Hell and entered an Earthly Paradise, where souls await their entry into heaven. Owein returned to the world to tell others of his ordeal. Various versions and translations of the story became widely read across Europe.
No one knows the source of Owein’s visions. One possibility is that medicinal (“purgative”) herbs were burned in the cave. Some of these could have led to hallucinations. Ireland has evidence of ancient “sweathouses” that were likely used in this way. (Anthony Weir website).
The idea of St Patrick’s Purgatory became famous, and Lough Derg soon became a popular place of pilgrimage. The following illustration, showing a pilgrim entering the cave, is from La tres noble et tres merveilleuse Histoire du purgatoire saint Patrice (14th Century), a manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris.
One of the earliest depictions of Purgatory is a fresco in the Convent of San Francisco in Todi, Umbria, Italy (MacTreinfhir, 1986). Whitewashed long ago, this fresco was only restored in 1976. The painter was likely Jacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio, and the date of the fresco is around 1345. Purgatory is shown as a rocky hill filled with separate openings into its hollow center. Above the mountain St Patrick introduces the prayers of the faithful that can help attenuate the sufferings of the souls undergoing purification. In each opening, sinners are tormented by demons and by fire. Each of the seven deadly sins – avarice, envy, sloth, pride, anger, lust, and gluttony – has its own region of purgatory and its own appropriate tortures. For example, in the central upper opening – luxuria (lust) – naked souls lie burning in flames while demons dance upon them. And in the lower right – invidia (envy) – souls are boiled in a seething cauldron.
The purified souls exit Purgatory in the center of the fresco where they are greeted by the Virgin Mary. She places a garland of white flowers upon their heads and passes them to St Philip Benizi (1233 –1285). The building was a monastery for the Order of the Servites before it became a convent and the fresco was clearly painted to glorify Benizi, who had founded this monastic order. The souls are then taken by St Peter into the New Jerusalem to join Christ and his angels. Above the arch are St Matthew on the left and Isaiah on the right. They each have scrolls quoting from their writings:
Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34)
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God (Isaiah 40:1).
The Lough Derg Pilgrimage
Pilgrims have visited Lough Derg since the time of St. Patrick. In the early years of the pilgrimage much was made of the experience of Purgatory. However, the church moved away from the idea that Purgatory was an actual place that could be visited, preferring to consider it as a state of existence. Nevertheless, the idea of a pilgrimage to Station Island, as a sacred place conducive of faith and repentance was maintained.
During the subjugation of Ireland by the English in the 17th Century the monastic buildings on Station Island and Saints Island were raised, and the pilgrimage suppressed. Today the only medieval remnants on Station Island are the column supporting St Patrick’s Cross (illustrated on the right) and St. Brigid’s cross, incised in a stone now located in the wall of the modern Basilica. The new Church of St Mary of Angels was built in 1763. In 1790 the cave was filled in and a bell-tower constructed over its remains. The pilgrimage flourished. Various dormitory buildings were built to house the pilgrims. In 1929 St Patrick’s Basilica was constructed: a large octagonal neo-gothic building with extensive stained-glass windows. The illustration below shows a view of the basilica taken from the labyrinth. The following illustration shows the modern island from the air:
The modern pilgrimage to Station Island follows a set course (Good, 2003). The usual visit lasts for 3 days and 2 nights. Pilgrims fast from the midnight before their visit. During their time on the island they partake each day of only one meal, composed of oatcakes or toast with tea or coffee. On their arrival on island, pilgrims give up their shoes and stay barefoot until they leave. On their first night on the island, they remain awake in a vigil in the Basilica of St Patrick. On the second night they sleep in the dormitories.
Services are conducted in the basilica. Mass is celebrated 4 times. In addition, a Sacrament of Reconciliation is conducted. Much of the pilgrims’ time on the island involves a sequence of prayers at various locations (“stations”) on the island. The prayers are Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Nicene Creed. Pilgrims begin by praying at St Patrick’s Cross., and then stand at St Brigid’s Cross and renounce the world, the flesh and the devil. After circumambulating the basilica, they then proceed to the “penitential beds,” the remains of the clochans of the original monks on the island. They walk around the beds and then pray at the cross in the center of each bed. Finally, the pilgrims go to the edge of the water to pray and meditate on their baptism and its meaning. The sequence of stations is repeated nine times during the pilgrimage. The following illustrations show pilgrims at the end of the 19th Century in a photograph from the National Library of Ireland and pilgrims from the 21st Century:
Many different writers have described their experience at Lough Derg (O’Brien, 2006). Since participating in the pilgrimage effectively requires that you be Catholic, these writers have all been brought up in the Catholic tradition, and have tried to portray their experience sympathetically. Yet each found that their pilgrimage did not fit easily with their ideals. I shall consider three writers: William Carleton and Patrick Kavanagh briefly, and Seamus Heaney in greater detail.
William Carleton (1794-1869)
William Carleton was born near Clogher in what is now the county Tyrone of Northern Ireland. A monastery was founded there in the 5th Century CE, and the town has long been the seat of a Catholic Bishopric. The youngest of 14 children (8 of whom survived their infancy) of a Catholic tenant farmer, Carleton was taught to read and write in hedge schools. In Ireland at that time the only schools allowed by the government were for children of the Anglican faith. Hedge schools were small illegal schools operated secretly in private houses and barns. They provided a rudimentary education for Catholic children.
In 1813, Carleton made the pilgrimage to Lough Derg. He found the experience oppressive. Soon thereafter gave up his idea of entering the priesthood, and decided to become a writer. His first publication described the pilgrimage. This was initially published in an evangelical Protestant journal and later collected in his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. Carleton’s first view of Station Island was dismal:
In the lake itself, about half a mile from the edge next us, was to be seen the “Island”, with two or three slated houses on it, naked and unplastered, as desolate-looking almost as the mountains. A little range of exceeding low hovels, which a dwarf could scarcely enter without stooping, appeared to the left; and the eye could rest on nothing more, except a living mass of human beings crawling slowly about.
He found the vigil and the stations painful and depressing. They provided no release from sin but only intensified one’s self-loathing. He felt no nearness to God.
As for that solemn, humble, and heartfelt sense of God’s presence, which Christian prayer demands, its existence in the mind would not only be a moral but a physical impossibility in Lough Derg. I verily think that if mortification of the body, without conversion of the life or heart — if penance and not repentance could save the soul, no wretch who performed a pilgrimage here could with a good grace be damned. Out of hell the place is matchless, and if there be a purgatory in the other world, it may very well be said there is a fair rehearsal of it in the county of Donegal in Ireland.
Carleton described the lack of Christian charity in the priests of Lough Derg, one of whom insisted on taking the last pennies of a poor pilgrim and his son for a ticket to confession. At the beginning of his pilgrimage Carleton had taken up with two strangely dressed women. At the end these fellow pilgrims stole his coat and his money. Carleton’s experience at Lough Derg challenged his belief in both the Christian Church and his fellow man.
Carleton soon relinquished his Catholicism, travelled to Dublin, studied at Trinity College, and became a Protestant. His conversion is only briefly mentioned in his autobiography (Carleton, 1896, pp 214-5):
One doctrine of the Catholic Church I had sent to the winds long before that period. I allude to exclusive salvation. Neither logic nor reasoning was required to enable me to discard it. Common feeling—the plain principle of simple humanity—was sufficient. This, indeed, was the doctrine which first taught me to feel the justice of thinking for myself; and from that moment I felt that I could not much longer hold the doctrines of a Catholic. This course of thought was not suggested to me by a human being, and to confess the truth, I was a Protestant at least twelve months before the change was known to a human being.
The doctrine of exclusive salvation proposes that only those who believe in Christ can go to heaven; everyone else is damned to Hell. Carleton’s new religion allowed him to become successful, to publish extensively and to marry a Protestant wife. His portrait (illustrated on the left) was painted by John Slattery in the 1850s. Carleton’s pragmatic apostasy has made him a controversial figure in Ireland. However, his approach to religion was probably far more nuanced than his detractors propose. At the end of his life, Carleton was on friendly terms with both priests and preachers. He was offered the last rites of the Catholic Church but respectfully declined (Brown, 1970; Sloan, 2019).
Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967)
Patrick Kavanagh was born in Inniskeen in County Monaghan, which is now just south of the border with Northern Ireland. He was the 4th of 10 children of a cobbler and farmer. At the age of 27 he left his work as a cobbler with his father and went to Dublin, where he was encouraged by George William Russell, a leader of the Irish Literary Revival. His first book of poems came out in 1936. The photograph on the right was taken by Elinor Wiltshire in 1951 (National Library of Ireland).
In 1942 Kavanagh wrote a long poem describing his experiences during a pilgrimage to Lough Derg. This poem, characterized by verse both free and constrained, was not published until 1978. His pilgrimage became more an exercise in compassion than in penitence (Welch, 1983). At the beginning he is scornful of his fellow pilgrims who are unable to appreciate the beauty of either art or nature:
From Cavan and from Leitrim and from Mayo,
From all the thin-faced parishes where hills
Are perished noses running peaty water,
They come to Lough Derg to fast and pray and beg
With all the bitterness of nonentities, and the envy
Of the inarticulate when dealing with an artist.
Their hands push closed the doors that God holds open.
Love-sunlit is an enchanter in June’s hours
And flowers and light. These to shopkeepers and small lawyers
Are heresies up beauty’s sleeve.
Yet over the course of his poem and his pilgrimage he develops an intense sympathy for the pilgrims. For the generations that they have been exploited by their Protestant landlords. To the extent that they are no longer a who but a what.
‘And who are you?’ said the poet speaking to
The old Leitrim man.
He said, ‘I can tell you
What I am.
Servant girls bred my servility:
When I stoop It is my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother
Each one in turn being called in to spread —
“Wider with your legs,” the master of the house said.
Domestic servants taken back and front.
That’s why I’m servile. It is not the poverty
Of soil in Leitrim that makes me raise my hat
To fools with fifty pounds in a paper bank.
Domestic servants, no one has told
Their generations as it is, as I
Show the cowardice of the man whose mothers were whored
By five generations of capitalist and lord.’
And Kavanagh realized that the grinding poverty of their lives that prevents any hope of gentleness or freedom. One of several sonnets describing the prayers of the pilgrims:
St Anne, I am a young girl from Castleblayney,
One of a farmer’s six grown daughters.
Our little farm, when the season’s rainy,
Is putty spread on stones. The surface waters
Soak all the fields of this north-looking townland.
Last year we lost our acre of potatoes;
And my mother with unmarried daughters round her
Is soaked like our soil in savage natures.
She tries to be as kind as any mother
But what can a mother be in such a house
With arguments going on and such a bother
About the half-boiled pots and unmilked cows.
O Patron of the pure woman who lacks a man,
Let me be free I beg of you, St Anne.
Ford (2011) has suggested that Kavanagh is presenting a God’s-eye view of the pilgrims
The poet’s view of the pilgrims might be seen as an attempt to see them theologically, as God sees them. It is a striking, often paradoxical, mixture of realism and compassion. Again and again the whole group and its individual members are described in their pettiness, selfishness, mediocrity and small-mindedness, their vices of envy, jealousy, greed, smugness, hypocrisy, cold-heartedness and so on, with a special poet’s emphasis on their insensitivity to beauty. Yet again and again there are also glimpses of grace, transcendence, beauty, delight, love, generosity, laughter, compassion and wisdom
Kavanagh ends his poem quietly as the pilgrims depart on the train:
The turnips were a-sowing in the fields around Pettigo
As our train passed through.
A horse-cart stopped near the eye of the railway bridge.
By Monaghan and Cavan and Dundalk
By Bundoran and by Omagh the pilgrims went;
And three sad people had found the key to the lock
Of God’s delight in disillusionment.
Kavanagh realized that he had not changed greatly as a result of the pilgrimage. Nor had his fellows. They had found no greater understanding of God. But perhaps some greater sympathy for each other.
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
Seamus Heaney was born near Castledawson, County Derry, in Northern Ireland, the first of nine children in his family. His father was a farmer and cattle-dealer. At age 12 Heaney won a scholarship to attend St Coulomb’s College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Derry. From there he went on to Queen’s University Dublin. His first book of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, was published by Faber and Faber in 1966. Heaney and his family moved to a country cottage in Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland in 1972, and later to Dublin. Heaney spent time teaching at the universities of Berkeley and Harvard in the United States and at Oxford in England. The portrait on the right by Jerry Bauer was taken during one of his sojourns in the United States. In 1995 Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 2013; his final words texted to his wife Marie were Noli timere (“Fear not”). Heaney .is buried in St Mary’s Church in the village of Bellaghy near his birthplace. His epitaph quotes from the poem ‘The Gravel Walks’ in The Spirit Level (1996): “Walk on air against your better judgement.”
In 1984 Heaney published a sequence of poems based on an imagined pilgrimage to Station Island in Lough Derg. He had participated in the actual pilgrimage several times when he was a student at Queen’s University (Mulrooney, 2018; O’Driscoll, 2008). As he grew older, however, he became less observant. He found that poetry could provide access to understanding that was more profound and less constrained than religion (Duffy, 2013). In his Nobel lecture Crediting Poetry (1996), he remarked
… for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect, but constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture. Blowing up sparks for meagre heat. Forgetting faith, straining towards good works. Attending insufficiently to the diamond absolutes, among which must be counted the sufficiency of that which is absolutely imagined. Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in despite of them, I straightened up. I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous.
When he was writing the Station Island poems, Heaney was considering Dante and his Divine Comedy (Heaney, 1985). In the Middle Ages Lough Derg had been considered the site of Purgatory. And so Heaney’s Station Island poems are similar in many ways to Dante’s Purgatorio (Fumagalli, 1996; Hawlin 1992). During his imagined pilgrimage the poet sees and talks to various people from his life and from his reading. These visions occur at the prayer stations of the pilgrimage, just like the shades that Dante sees as he ascends through the levels of Mount Purgatory. As in Dante the visions portray the people of his time. Vendler (1998) has suggested that they describe the lives that Heaney might have led given his background. What might have been. Heaney could have become a priest or a teacher; he may have been a victim or a perpetrator of the sectarian violence that permeated Northern Ireland during The Troubles; he may have renounced his religion or accepted it. I shall comment only on some of the poems. More extensive notes are available at the website of David Fawbert, and in critical books (Tobin, 1999; Vendler, 1998) and articles (Conniff, 1999).
The poem begins with the sound of church bells after rain:
A hurry of bell-notes
flew over morning hush
and water-blistered cornfields,
an escaped ringing
that stopped as quickly
as it started. Sunday,
the silence breathed
The bells cease and the first of Heaney’s visions appears: Sweeney, one of the Irish Travellers who camped out near his childhood farm. Sweeney carries a bow-saw to cut firewood from the hedges. His saw appears like a lyre and gives the opening a touch of pagan poetry. But Heaney is soon surrounded and carried away by women on their pilgrimage to Lough Derg.
The next vision comes upon him as he is parked on the road from Pettigo to Lough Derg. The poem has now assumed a form that is a loose version of Dante’s terza rima. He realizes that the “aggravated man” he sees is the ghost of William Carleton, who is upset that nothing has changed: Orangemen and Fenians still hate each other and pilgrims still go to Station Island. He tells Heaney “to try to make sense of what comes,” and leaves with a final piece of wisdom
We are earthworms of the earth, and all
that has gone through us is what will be our trace.’
In the 4th poem Heaney meets with the ghost of Terry Keenan, whom Heaney had known when he was a child and Keenan was a seminarian “doomed to the decent thing.” Keenan had done missionary work in the tropics, contracted a chronic illness, and become disillusioned with his vocation. He had tried to give relief to others but had failed. He asks Heaney what possessed him to take the pilgrimage.
`And you,’ he faltered, ‘what are you doing here
but the same thing? What possessed you?
I at least was young and unaware
that what I thought was chosen was convention.
But all this you were clear of you walked into
over again. And the god has, as they say, withdrawn.
What are you doing, going through these motions?
Unless . . . Unless . . .’ Again he was short of breath
and his whole fevered body yellowed and shook.
`Unless you are here taking the last look.’
Then where he stood was empty as the roads
we both grew up beside, where the sick man
had taken his last look one drizzly evening
when the tarmac steamed with first breath of spring,
a knee-deep mist I waded silently
behind him, on his circuits, visiting.
The poem is in triplets but rhymes only occasionally and not according to the terza rima convention of ABA BCB. The form fits the feeling. The outline of the church’s teaching is there but the words fail.
In the seventh poem, Heaney is visited by the ghost of William Strathearn, an old friend from school. They had played together on the same football team. Strathearn had become a shopkeeper. One night in 1977, he was callously murdered by John Weir and Billy McCaughey, two off-duty members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who incorrectly thought he was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The terza rima form has returned though the rhyme is more often slant than perfect. The poem begins as Heaney comes to the station near the water’s edge. This is illustrated on right by Anne Cassidy (Good, 2003).
I had come to the edge of the water,
soothed by just looking, idling over it
as if it were a clear barometer
or a mirror, when his reflection
did not appear but I sensed a presence
entering into my concentration
on not being concentrated as he spoke
my name. And though I was reluctant
I turned to meet his face and the shock
is still in me at what I saw. His brow
was blown open above the eye and blood
had dried on his neck and cheek. ‘Easy now,’
he said, ‘it’s only me. You’ve seen men as raw
after a football match . . . What time it was
when I was wakened up I still don’t know
but I heard this knocking, knocking, and it
scared me, like the phone in the small hours,
so I had the sense not to put on the light
but looked out from behind the curtain. I
saw two customers on the doorstep
and an old landrover with the doors open
parked on the street so I let the curtain drop;
but they must have been waiting for it to move
for they shouted to come down into the shop.
She started to cry then and roll round the bed,
lamenting and lamenting to herself,
not even asking who it was. “Is your head
astray, or what’s come over you?” I roared, more
to bring myself to my senses
than out of any real anger at her
for the knocking shook me, the way they kept it up,
and her whingeing and half-screeching made it worse.
All the time they were shouting, “Shop!
Shop!” so I pulled on my shoes and a sportscoat
and went back to the window and called out,
“What do you want? Could you quieten the racket
or I’ll not come down at all.” “There’s a child not well.
Open up and see what you have got — pills
or a powder or something in a bottle,”
one of them said. He stepped back off the footpath
so I could see his face in the street lamp
and when the other moved I knew them both.
But bad and all as the knocking was, the quiet
hit me worse. She was quiet herself now,
lying dead still, whispering to watch out.
At the bedroom door I switched on the light.
“It’s odd they didn’t look for a chemist.
Who are they anyway at this time of the night?”
she asked me, with the eyes standing in her head.
“I know them to see,” I said, but something
made me reach and squeeze her hand across the bed
before I went downstairs into the aisle
of the shop. I stood there, going weak
in the legs. I remember the stale smell
of cooked meat or something coming through
as I went to open up. From then on
you know as much about it as I do.’
`Did they say nothing?’ ‘Nothing. What would they say?’
`Were they in uniform? Not masked in any way?’
`They were barefaced as they would be in the day,
shites thinking they were the be-all and the end-all.’
`Not that it is any consolation
but they were caught,’ I told him, ‘and got jail.’
Big-limbed, decent, open-faced, he stood
forgetful of everything now except
whatever was welling up in his spoiled head,
beginning to smile. ‘You’ve put on weight
since you did your courting in that big Austin
you got the loan of on a Sunday night.’
Through life and death he had hardly aged.
There always was an athlete’s cleanliness
shining off him and except for the ravaged
forehead and the blood, he was still that same
rangy midfielder in a blue jersey
and starched pants, the one stylist on the team,
the perfect, clean, unthinkable victim.
`Forgive the way I have lived indifferent —
forgive my timid circumspect involvement,’
I surprised myself by saying. ‘Forgive my eye,’
he said, ‘all that’s above my head.’
And then a stun of pain seemed to go through him
and he trembled like a heatwave and faded.
In the next poem Heaney is chided by his cousin Colum McCartney, who died in 1975 as another victim of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Heaney had written a eulogy The Strand at Lough Beg and published this in Fieldwork (1979). The poem quoted from the first canto of Dante’s Purgatorio. Colum is upset that this poem had inappropriately aestheticized the ugliness of his assassination – “saccharined my death with morning due.” Poetry is a way to memorialize what happens but it must not attenuate reality.
The 9th poem begins with a composite of two of the ten IRA prisoners who died in the hunger strike at the Maze Prison in Belfast in 1981. Francis Hughes, the second of the strikers to die, and Thomas McElwee, the ninth, were both from the village of Bellaghy, close to Heaney’s childhood home. Heaney attended McElwee’s wake. The photograph shows McElwee’s coffin carried by his sisters and attended by an IRA honor guard.
The poem is composed of a sequence of sonnets, of which the first two follow:
`My brain dried like spread turf, my stomach
Shrank to a cinder and tightened and cracked.
Often I was dogs on my own track
Of blood on wet grass that I could have licked.
Under the prison blanket, an ambush
Stillness I felt safe in settled round me.
Street lights came on in small towns, the bomb flash
Came before the sound, I saw country
I knew from Glenshane down to Toome
And heard a car I could make out years away
With me in the back of it like a white-faced groom,
A hit-man on the brink, emptied and deadly.
When the police yielded my coffin, I was light
As my head when I took aim.’
This voice from blight
And hunger died through the black dorm:
There he was, laid out with a drift of mass cards
At his shrouded feet. Then the firing party’s
Volley in the yard. I saw woodworm
In gate posts and door jambs, smelt mildew
From the byre loft where he watched and hid
From fields his draped coffin would raft through.
Unquiet soul, they should have buried you
In the bog where you threw your first grenade,
Where only helicopters and curlews
Make their maimed music, and sphagnum moss
Could teach you its medicinal repose
Until, when the weasel whistles on its tail,
No other weasel will obey its call.
The weasel whistle mentioned at the end is an alarm signal. IRA agents used similar-sounding whistle to warn their colleagues.
The penultimate poem of the sequence presents a translation of a poem by the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz, 1542-1591). St John was from a converso family, that had earlier renounced their Judaism for Christianity. After becoming a priest, he had worked with Saint Teresa of Avila. The posthumous portrait is attributed to Zurbarán (1656). St John’s most famous work is The Dark Night of the Soul, a poem which describes the ascent of the soul to mystical union with God through renunciation of the world.
The translation of the poem Cantar del alma que se huelga de conocer a Dios por fe (“Song of the soul that rejoices in knowing God through faith”) is triggered by the ghost of a monk who had spent time in Spain and who had once served as Heaney’s confessor. We do not know what Heaney had confessed but we sense that it was likely some increasing doubts about his religion. He had become more concerned with poetry than with God. The monk told him to “Read poems as prayers” and “for your penance translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.
The following provides the beginning of the poem in Spanish (Kavanaugh & Rodriguez, 1991) and in Heaney’s translation. Heaney keeps the rhyming of the original though most of his rhymes are slant:
Qué bien sé yo la fonte que inane y corre,
aunque es de noche.
Aquella eterna fonte está escondida,
que bien sé yo do tiene su manida,
aunque es de noche.
Su origen no lo sé, pues no le tiene,
mas sé que todo origen de ella tiene,
aunque es de noche.
Sé que no puede ser cosa tan bella,
y que cielos y tierra beben de ella,
aunque es de noche.
How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.
But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.
No other thing can be so beautiful.
Here the earth and heaven drink their fill
although it is the night.
This poem thus presents the idea that there is something behind the reality of the world, something that can be grasped by religious faith. In Heaney’s thinking it might also be understood through the poetic imagination. In the Coda to Stepping Stones (O’Driscoll, 2008, p 471) he states
Poetry is a ratification of the impulse towards transcendence. You can lose your belief in the afterlife, in the particular judgement at the moment of death, in the eternal separation of the good from the evil ones in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, but it’s harder to lose the sense of an ordained structure, beyond all this fuddle. Poetry represents the need for an ultimate court of appeal. The infinite spaces may be silent, but the human response is to say that this is not good enough, that there has to be more to it than neuter absence. Admittedly we now know that the spaces are far from silent, that they are continuously alive and fluent in their own wordless language, but if you stand out in the country under a starry sky, you can still feel a primitive awe at the muteness of the vault.
In the twelfth and final poem of the sequence, the ghost of James Joyce appears as Heaney is getting out of the ferry from Station Island and returning to his life. Joyce tells him of his love of words, and how this this gave him freedom (Crowley, 2010). He tells Heaney to forget everything except his writing:
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.
The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’
It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
already. Raindrops blew in my face
as I came to and heard the harangue and jeers
going on and on. ‘The English language belongs to us.
You are raking at dead fires,
rehearsing the old whinges at your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,
infantile, like this peasant pilgrimage.
You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.’
The shower broke in a cloudburst, the tarmac
fumed and sizzled. As he moved off quickly
the downpour loosed its screens round his straight walk.
And so the poems end. Through his imagined pilgrimage to Station Island, Heaney has gained his freedom from Catholicism and from the Troubles. He has been granted the right to his poetry.
Brown, T. (1970). The death of William Carleton 1869. Hermathena, 110, 81-85.
Carleton, W. (1834). The Lough Derg pilgrim. From Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry Vol. III. Available at ricorso.net
Carleton, W. (edited and supplemented by D. J. O’Donaghue, 1896). The Life of William Carleton. Volume I. London: Downey & Co. Available at Internet Archive
Conniff, B. (1999). Talking ghosts, living traditions: political violence, Catholicism, and Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island.” Logos, 2, 118-145
Crowley, T. (2010). James Joyce and lexicography: “I must look that word up. Upon my word I must” (Logodaedalus ‘one who is cunning in words’, 1611). Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, 31, 87-96.
Denzinger, H., Hoping, H., Hünermann, P., Fastiggi, R. L., & Nash, A. E. (2012). Compendium of creeds, definitions, and declarations on matters of faith and morals. 43rd Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press
Duffy, E. (2013). Seamus Heaney and Catholicism. In Walker, J. (2013). The present word: Culture, society and the site of literature: Essays in honour of Nicholas Boyle. (pp. 167-183). London: Legenda
O’Brien, P. (2006). Writing Lough Derg: From William Carleton to Seamus Heaney. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press.
O’Driscoll, D. (2008). Stepping stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney. London: Faber & Faber.
Sloan, B. (2019). The dilemma of William Carleton, regional writer and subject of empire. Romance, Revolution and Reform, 1, 92-105.
Tobin, D. (1999). Passage to the center: Imagination and the sacred in the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
Vendler, H. (1998). Seamus Heaney. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Welch, R. (1983), Language as pilgrimage: Lough Derg Poems of Patrick Kavanagh and Denis Devlin. Irish University Review, 13, 54-66
“Death is Nothing to Us”
Death is inevitable. What it entails is largely unknown. Some believe that it permanently ends an individual’s existence; others that it simply provides a transition to another form of life. Most people fear it, but some consider it with equanimity. Among the latter are the followers of Epicurus, who claimed
Death is nothing to us. For what has been dissolved has no sense-experience, and what has no sense-experience is nothing to us. (Epicurus, reported by Diogenes Laertius, translated by Inwood and Gerson, 1997, p 32; another translation is by Yonge, 1983, p. 474).
that human beings are made of complex compounds of atoms. At death these
compounds dissolve, releasing the atoms to form other things. The body decays
and the soul evaporates. Once we are dead, we are no more. We cannot feel what
it is like to be dead. And the dead certainly cannot experience pain. Death should
therefore not be feared.
popular during the Roman period. A common Latin epitaph summarized the life of
the Epicurean as a brief interlude between the nothingness preceding birth and
the nothingness following death:
Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care).
As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Epicureanism faded into obscurity. Dante placed the Epicureans in the Sixth Circle of his Inferno (1320, Canto X). Those who did not believe in the afterlife were forced to spend eternity in graves that were completely closed just as in life their tenants’ obstinacy kept them from the truth. The graves were filled with fired graves just as in life the Epicureans were consumed by their heresy.
As the Western world
moved away from the dogmatism of the Middle Ages, the idea that man was not immortal
was once again considered. Those who now reject any belief in an afterlife sometimes
adopt the bravado of the Epicurean epitaph. But more often than not they care
deeply about death as the defining event in a life. It is not nothing.
Atoms and the Void
The philosophy of
Epicurus derives from the atomism of Democritus (460-370 BCE). Democritus was
born and lived in Abdera, a city in Northern Greece, at about the same time as
Socrates was active in Athens. Democritus maintained that everything was made
of tiny indestructible atoms (Berryman, 2016). He claimed to have learned this
from Leucippus, about whom little is known, and who may be more mythical than
Democritus was called the “laughing philosopher” to distinguish him from Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), the “crying philosopher,” who believed that nothing was indestructible and that everything is forever changing. The cheerful and the tearful.
Of the many
writings of Democritus, we now have only fragments, the most famous of which
By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void (translation by Will Durant, 1939, p 393).
The concepts of
the atom and the void were derived from a combination of observation and logic.
Everyone perceives that the world contains objects and that these objects move:
matter and motion. Objects can be broken down into smaller pieces, and these
pieces can themselves be broken down into even tinier particles. But this
breaking down can only proceed so far, or all objects would by now have been
broken down to nothing. There must therefore be some indivisible particle
beyond which matter cannot be further broken. These atoms (from the Greek atomos,
uncuttable) are so tiny that they are cannot be seen by the eye: invisible and indivisible.
The void is necessary to explain how things move. How could something change
its location unless there were empty space for it to move into?
Atoms are infinite
in number but of a finite number of types. Moving atoms collide with one
another and join to form compounds. These compounds interact with each other to
create all that exists in the world. Combining atoms is like forming words with
the letters of the alphabet. From a few letters come a myriad words.
Though atoms are
eternal, the compounds that they form are transient. Rock erodes to sand, which
under pressure becomes stone again. Water evaporates and then condenses. Living
things develop, become mature and then die. At death, the components of the
body break apart, releasing its atoms for making other compounds.
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away (Hamlet, V:1)
The soul is
composed of atoms just like everything else. The atoms of the soul are extremely
fine, perhaps similar to the atoms of fire. They permeate the body, giving it a
conscious spirit. When the body dies, the atoms of the soul dissolve back into
the void like all the other atoms of the body. The soul does not persist beyond
death. There is no afterlife. We are transient like everything else, mortal
like all other living things.
Democritus’ absolute materialism differed from the philosophy of Plato, who proposed the primacy of ideas. Indeed, Plato was so upset with his rival’s teachings that he reportedly urged that all the books of Democritus should be burned (Diogenes Laertius, p 393). So much for freedom of thought in a republic governed by philosophers.
The Garden of Epicurus
The ideas of
Democritus were extended by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who was born on the Greek
island of Samos off the west coast of Turkey. In 306 BCE Epicurus established a
school of philosophy in Athens that met in a garden below the Acropolis (Jones,
1989; Konstan, 2018; O’Keefe, 2010; Wilson, 2015).
He wrote extensively though none of his books survived the anti-heretical campaigns of the Christian Church. Most of what we know about Epicurus is preserved in the biography written by Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century CE), which includes some of the letters written by the philosopher to his colleagues, and a listing of his Principle Doctrines (Kyriai Doxai). The philosophy of Epicurus was popular in the Roman Empire, and several statues of Epicurus have survived in Roman copies (see right).
Among the lost books
of Epicurus was the Kanon (Rule, Criterion) which discussed how true knowledge
could be obtained. Epicurus proposed that sensation is the most dependable
criterion of truth – the world is what we perceive. Ideas derive from rather
than precede the analysis of sensory information. This seems to have differed
from the ideas of Democritus, who believed that our perceptions were as much
convention as reality.
In the lost Peri
Physis (On Nature) Epicurus presented and extended the atomism of
Democritus. He acknowledged that there are only atoms and the void. The body
and the soul are made of atoms that fall apart when the corporeal body dies and
the conscious soul ceases. We do not live forever.
Epicurus appears to have deviated from the fixed determinism of Democritus byproposing the idea of the clinamen (swerve). Atoms falling through the void would never collide to form compounds unless some atoms at some time swerved from their predetermined path. Democritus also suggested that this unpredictable random movement was the basis of our free will, when we act according to what is desired of the future rather than what has been ordained by the past. In recent years similar ideas based on the uncertain behavior of atoms in the brain have been used to explain free will. Unfortunately, these ideas have little explanatory value. My actions are no more free when determined by random events in the present than when determined by the fixed events of the past.
Free will was
important to Epicurus because he wished us to choose the good life. This depended
on maximizing our happiness. Although maligned by Christian polemicists as a decadent
libertine, Epicurus actually practiced an ascetic hedonism. He valued most the
simple sensory pleasures of his garden and the friendship of his colleagues. He
eschewed any participation in politics as causing too much anxiety. His goal
was ataraxia (tranquility, peace of mind, from a- not and tarasso,
Although he was
described as an atheist, Epicurus thought that the gods were real because our
ideas of them were just too clear to be ignored. However, he argued that the
gods were not in any way concerned with human affairs. Like true Epicurean, the
gods enjoy themselves and refuse to be bothered by human politics.
that we should not be frightened of death. Since our consciousness ceases when
we die, death is not painful. Since the gods are not concerned with human
beings, they have not provided an afterlife of punishment for all that we have
done wrong. If we attain a life of ataraxia, it matters not how long we
live (Lesses, 2002; Mitsis, 2002). Death is the natural and inevitable end to
life. The following is from the Letter to Monoeceus:
Get used to
believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in
sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience. Hence, a
correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality
of life a matter for contentment, not by adding a limitless time to life but by
removing the longing for immortality. For there is nothing fearful in life for
one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life. Thus,
he is a fool who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when
present but because it is painful when it is still to come. For that which
while present causes no distress causes unnecessary pain when merely
anticipated. So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us;
since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then
we do not exist. (Inwood & Gerson, 1997, p 29)
what he preached. He died from an attack of kidney stones. Despite severe and
prolonged pain, he maintained his ataraxia. His cheerfulness of mind and
his memory of philosophy counterbalanced his afflictions.
De Rerum Natura
In about 50 BCE
Titus Lucretius Carus published a long Latin poem about the Nature of Things.
The poem probably derives from the Peri Physis of Epicurus. Little is
known about the poet. In his Chronicon (circa 380 CE), written some 400
years later, Saint Jerome included an entry for the year 94 BCE:
poet, is born. After a love-philtre had turned him mad, and he had written, in
the intervals of his insanity, several books which Cicero revised, he killed
himself by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age. (translation by
Santayana, 1910, p 19)
Saint Jerome was a
devout Christian, completely opposed to the beliefs of Epicurus, who claimed
that the gods had nothing to do with human life, and who denied the immortality
of the soul. Most critics feel that Jerome was simply trying to belittle the
poet and to cast his work as nonsense: be not seduced by Epicureanism, since madness
and suicide follow from such heresies (e.g., Sedley, 2018, and Smith, 1992 in
his introduction to the Loeb edition of De Rerum Natura). However, the
biography may contain some threads of truth:
The love-philtre in this report sounds apocryphal; and the story of the madness and suicide attributes too edifying an end to an atheist and Epicurean not to be suspected. If anything lends colour to the story it is a certain consonance which we may feel between its tragic incidents and the genius of the poet as revealed in his work, where we find a strange scorn of love, a strange vehemence, and a high melancholy. It is by no means incredible that the author of such a poem should have been at some time the slave of a pathological passion, that his vehemence and inspiration should have passed into mania, and that he should have taken his own life. (Santayana, 1910, pp 19-20).
Natura is like no other
poem: a scientific treatise expressed in verse. The poetry is characterized by
brilliant language and intense imagery. Most impressive is the ongoing energy
of the argument as Lucretius moves from atoms to death, from the soul to the
cosmos, from the weather to the plague.
The poem begins
with a beautiful invocation of Venus as the mother of Aeneas, founder of Rome,
as the patron of all the creative forces in the world, and as the
personification of Epicurean pleasure:
Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome, Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth And the ship-freighted sea — for every species comes to birth Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light. The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers, For you, the oceans laugh, the skies grow peaceful after showers, Awash with light. (I: 1-10 Stalling translation)
On the right is the first page of a 1483 manuscript copy of the poem made for Pope Sixtus IV by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris. The Latin text begins
Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas, Alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa Quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentis
The beginning of
the poem immediately questions the Epicurean view that the gods are not
involved with the human world. Why should Lucretius invoke Venus as a partner
in his poetry? The gods are a problem for Epicureanism: if they are real, they
must be made of atoms and, if so, they cannot be immortal; yet, if they are
mortal, they are not gods. Lucretius probably considered the gods more as
metaphors than as real beings. Later in the poem (II: 646-660) he remarks that it
is customary to call the sea Neptune, the corn Ceres and the wine Bacchus
without actually meaning that these things are divine.
Lucretius quickly indicates that superstitious belief in the gods can lead to terrible wrongs by recounting the story of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who was sacrificed at Aulis to propitiate the anger of the goddess Artemis, and obtain fair winds to send the Greek ships to Troy. The illustration at the left shows a fresco in the House of Tragic Poet in Pompeii from about the same time as Lucretius. Iphigenia is carried by Achilles and Ulysses to be sacrificed by Calchas the priest, while her father on the left refuses to observe her death. Above, the goddess Artemis arranges for a stag to be substituted for Iphigenia, who will be spirited away. However, this will be done without any of the Greeks realizing that Iphigenia was not actually sacrificed. Human sacrifice is also part of the Hebrew Bible, which recounts the attempted sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis22 and the actual sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges11. As Lucretius clearly states, Iphigenia was
An innocent girl betrayed to a sort of incest To be struck down by the piety of her father Who hoped in that way to get a good start for his fleet. That is the sort of horror religion produces. (I: 98-101, Sisson translation).
Natura recounts the
principles of atomism espoused by Epicurus. Lucretius describes the clinamen
or swerve, and notes its importance for free will. We are not completely
determined by our past:
Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order in-variable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this free will in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? (II: 252-260, Rouse translation).
Lucretius considers death in many ways. The following passage provides the principal Epicurean argument:
So death is nothing, and matters nothing to us Once it is clear that the mind is mortal stuff. … So when we are dead and when our body and soul Which together make us one, have come apart, Nothing can happen to us, we shall not be there, Nothing whatever will have the power to move us, Not even if earth and sea got mixed into one. (III: 830-1, 838-842, Sisson translation)
adds the analogy of the mirror to the Epicurean comparison of the time before
birth to the time after death. If we are not concerned with what occurred
before we are born, why should we be afraid of its mirror-image: the time after
we have died and once again do not exist:
Now look back: all the time that ever existed Before we were born, was nothing at all to us. It is a mirror which nature holds up for us To show us what it will be like after our death. Is it very horrible? Is there anything sad in it? Is it any different from sleep? It is more untroubled. (III: 972-977, Sisson translation)
The poem goes on
to consider many natural phenomena. Some of the explanations that Lucretius
offers are good, and some are similar to those proposed in modern science.
However, most of the explanations are wrong. Science and poetry are not well
suited: poetry attempts to say things that will last forever, whereas science is
At the end of the
VI Book of De Rerum Natura Lucretius vividly describes the great Plague
of Athens that began in 430 BCE during the Peloponnesian War. There is great
debate about the nature of the plague, which was perhaps caused by an
Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever.
The symptom first to strike was fiery fever in the head, And both eyes, burning hectic bright, were all shot through with red. The throat as well would sweat with blood, all black within. And stung With sores, the pathway of the voice would clog and choke. The tongue, Interpreter of the mind, oozed pus, and, made limp with the smart, Was too heavy to move, and rough. Thence the disease would start, Passing the gullet, to fill the chest, and flood the heavy heart Of the afflicted, and then, indeed, all of the gates of Life Began to give. From the open mouth, there would exhale a rife Stink, like the stench of rank unburied corpses left to rot. And then all of the powers of the mind and body, brought To the very brink of doom, began to flicker. Mental strain Ever danced attendance on intolerable pain; Pleas mingled with moans. Ceaseless retching, lasting day And night, was ever causing seizure and cramp, and wasting away The strength of men already racked with suffering and worn out. (VI: 1145-1161, Stallings translation)
Death was everywhere. Below is a detail of an engraving (from the Wellcome Library) from a 1654 painting by Michael Sweerts, once thought to represent the plague of Athens:
The prevalence of
death tore at the moral fabric of the city:
The present grief was overwhelming. No one any more Observed the rites of burial they had observed before, For the whole populace was thrown in disarray and cowed. Each mourner buried his dead just as the time and means allowed. Squalid Poverty and Sudden Disaster would conspire To drive men on to desperate deeds — so they’d place on a pyre Constructed by another their own loved-ones, and set fire To it with wails and lamentation. And often they would shed Much blood in the struggle rather than desert their dead. (VI: 1278-1286, Stallings translation)
Natura ends here. Most
critics feel that Lucretius died before he could finish his poem, and that he
probably intended to explain how philosophy could help one face the horrors of
such a plague with equanimity. But he did not. And one wonders if he could not.
At the time of
Epicurus, Athens was home to several other schools of philosophy. The most
important of these were the Skeptics who refused to believe in anything, and
the Stoics who differed from the Epicureans mainly in their promotions of
virtue rather than pleasure as the goal of human life (Baltzly, 2019; Long, 1986).
The Stoics proposed that the universe proceeded according to its own Logos, and
that human benefit was not necessarily part of this determined path. One had to
accept one’s fate and do the best that one could. The Stoical idea of the Logos
goes back to Heraclitus. Indeed, Stoics and Epicureans can trace their
emotional origins to tearful Heraclitus and cheerful Democritus.
The Stoics also differed from the Epicureans in their approach to death. While the Epicureans tried to ignore death, the Stoics paid it constant attention. Death brings one’s life to an end, and therefore settles the sum of one’s virtues and achievements. Life should therefore be lived as if death were imminent. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the 175 CE statue of whom is illustrated on the left, voiced these Stoical precepts in his Meditations:
Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man, to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thy self relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.
Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good
(Marcus Aurelius, 180 CE, II: 5 and III: 17, translation by Long)
more popular with the Romans than Epicureanism. And Stoicism fitted more easily
to the doctrines of Christianity, which accepted and transformed the Stoic idea
of Logos, making Christ its personification.
Epicurus and Modernity
The works of Democritus
and Epicurus did not survive beyond Roman times. However, a manuscript of De
Rerum Natura by Lucretius was diligently copied and re-copied by Christian monks,
and finally discovered in a German monastery in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini (Greenblatt, 2011). The
first printed publication of De Rerum Natura was in 1473.
The rediscovered book
brought the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus to the attention of the
philosophers and scientists of Europe. Pierre Gassendi (1592-1665) in France
and Robert Boyle (1627-1691) in England were attracted to the explanatory power
of atoms and developed a “corpuscular philosophy” (Wilson, 2008). They tried
but failed to reconcile this atomism with Christian beliefs in the immortal
soul and a beneficent God.
As science progressed, corpuscular philosophy developed into modern chemistry. Atoms of different types combine to form molecules of various chemical compounds. The pressure of a gas depends on the force exerted by the continual movement of its molecules. This is illustrated on the right, in which five of the molecules are colored red to make their motion easier to follow. The molecules move like the motes of dust in the sunlight that were described in De Rerum Natura (Book II:62-79). Science now knows that atoms are not indivisible, but modern science owes much to Lucretius.
As the Enlightenment
progressed, some thinkers decided to reject God and immortality and to accept
Epicurus’ views of death. Of these perhaps the most famous is David Hume
(1711-1776) who, when dying of cancer, was interviewed by James Boswell
(1740-1795). Boswell was disconcerted by Hume’s refusal to believe in the
afterlife, and by his cheerfulness in the face of death (Miller, 1995):
I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. (Boswell, 1776).
Fear of Death
cheerfulness with which Epicurus and Hume faced death, Epicurean logic fails to
convince most human beings not to fear death. Since death before maturity
prevents us from reproducing, evolution must clearly have given preference to
those whose fear of death made them avoid potentially fatal situations.
pleasure as the goal of life, but had difficulty handling its relation to time.
Common sense definitely presumes that pleasure is greater when it lasts longer.
A death that shortens a potentially pleasurable life should therefore be
feared. Epicurus proposed that ataraxia is the same regardless of the
duration, but his argument is unconvincing:
Epicurus holds that pleasure is the supreme good, and yet claims that there is no greater pleasure to be had in an infinite period than in a brief and limited one. Now one who regards good as entirely a matter of virtue is entitled to say that one has a completely happy life when completely virtuous. Here it is denied that time adds anything to the supreme good. But if one believes that the happy life is constituted by pleasure, then one cannot consistently maintain that pleasure does not increase with duration, or else the same will apply to pain. Or are we to say that the longer one is in pain the more miserable one is, but deny that duration has any bearing on the desirability of pleasure. (Cicero, 45 BCE, II: 88)
Nagel (1990) makes
a similar point:
Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural lifespan and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man’s sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future, containing the usual mixture of goods and evils that he has found so tolerable in the past. Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents, he finds himself the subject of a life, with an indeterminate and not essentially limited future. Viewed in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods. Normality seems to have nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to live longer.
Most people feel
that death comes before their lives have been properly completed. Some things
have not yet been experienced, others have not yet been atoned for; their
achievement is not enough, their legacy not sufficient. As Cicero (44 BCE)
remarked “No one is so old that he does not expect to live a year longer.”
The Makropulos Case
How much longer should
one then wish to live? Forever may be as frightening as tomorrow. This idea was
considered in an important paper by Bernard Williams (1973) that took as its
point of origin a play by Karel Capek that premiered in Prague in 1922 – The
Makropulos Case. Leos Janacek’s operatic version of the play was produced
in Brno in 1925.
In the play Emilia
Marty, a beautiful and successful opera singer, turns out to be Elina
Makropulos, a young Greek woman who was given an elixir of longevity by her
physician-father in 1601. Having lived over 300 years without aging she has
returned to Prague to find the elixir’s formula so that she can further prolong
her youth. The following photograph from the San Francisco Opera (2016) shows
Nadja Michael in the role of Emilia in the first act of the opera (which takes
place in a law office):
In the end Emilia
decides that she does not want to live longer. She explains to the others:
Oh, life should not last so long! If you only realized how easy life is for you! You are so close to everything! For you, everything makes sense! For you, everything has value! – for the trivial chance reason that you are going to die soon. … It’s all in vain whether you sing or keep silent – no pleasure in being good no pleasure in being bad. No pleasure on earth, No pleasure in heaven. And one comes to learn that the soul has died inside one. (Janacek version)
Williams (1973) agrees
with Emilia. After a while immortality will become tedious. Human desires are
designed for shorter periods. Evolution has made us long to live longer. Yet
the usual span of human life gives us about the right amount of time to
experience what we can, and to accomplish what we should.
Another aspect of
death not considered in Epicurean philosophy is that it is the end of the
“person.” Each individual spends a lifetime developing a collection of
experiences and achievements, out of which are derived a set of values and an
accumulated knowledge. Warren (2004, chapter 4) considers these as the personal
“narrative.” At death the story ends. The person vanishes. Some traces will be
preserved in the memories of others but these are but faint copies of the
This is the reason
why Lucretius’ analogy of the mirror does not work. We are not concerned with
the time before we were born because we did not exist then. However, this is
not the mirror image of the time after our death when we again do not exist.
Because in the meantime we have existed. Time only goes one way.
Personal annihilation is perhaps the most frightening part of death. On December 23, 1977, Philip Larkin published a poem about death in the Times Literary Supplement. (The full text is available at this link). In a letter to a friend he called it “a real infusion of Christmas cheer” (Larkin, Burnett, 2012, p 495). Fletcher (2007) provides some discussion of the poem and its relation to one of John Betjeman’s. An aubade is typically the dawn song of a lover as he leaves his mistress. Larkin’s poem is a death song about leaving his life. He is intensely afraid:
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse —The good not done, the love not given, time Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because An only life can take so long to climb Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never; But at the total emptiness for ever, The sure extinction that we travel to And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, Not to be anywhere, And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
He laments the
inability of religious faith or philosophical reason to provide any comfort:
Religion used to try, That vast moth-eaten musical brocade Created to pretend we never die, And specious stuff that says No rational being Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anaesthetic from which none come round.
Larkin provides us with no resolution of this fear. In the final lines of the poem he watches as the dawn breaks and people get ready for work. Phones will ring and letters will be delivered. Communication is perhaps our only comfort. The following is Larkin’s recitation of the poem.
So we come to the
end of this essay on endings. Though death is not desired, it is inevitable.
Epicurus was right about there being nothing after death, but death itself is
not nothing. It marks the transition of a life from the individual
consciousness to the memory of others. Henry James noted in 1916 when his final
stroke began, “So here it is, the distinguished thing” (Edel, 1968, Callahan, 2005).
Baltzly, D. (2019). Stoicism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Berryman, S. (2016). Democritus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Boswell, J. (1776, reprinted 1970). An account of my last interview with David Hume. In Weis C. M. and Pottle F. A. (Eds) Boswell in Extremes. 1776-1778. New York: McGraw Hill. (pp 11-15). Also available at PhilosophyTalk website.
D. (2005). Death: ‘The Distinguished Thing,’ Hastings Center Report, 35, S5-S8.
K., (translated and introduced by Majer, P., & Porter, C., 1999). Four
plays. London: Methuen Drama.
Cicero, M. T. (45 BCE, translated by Woolf, R., and edited by Annas, J., 2001). On Moral Ends. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Available at Archive.org
Cicero, M. T. (44 BCE, translated by A. P. Peabody, 1884). Cicero de Senectute (on old age). Little Brown, Boston. Available at Archive.org
Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century CE, translated by Yonge, C. D., 1853). The lives and opinions of eminent philosophers. London: Henry G. Bohn. Available at Archive.org
Durant, W. (1939). The story of civilization: Part II: The life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster. Available at Archive.org
Fletcher, C. (2007). John Betjeman’s ‘Before the Anaesthetic, orA Real Fright’: A Source for Philip
Larkin’s ‘Aubade’. Notes and Queries, 54, 179-181
Greenblatt, S. (2011). The swerve: How the
world became modern. New York: W.W. Norton.
Inwood, B., & Gerson, L. P. (1997). Hellenistic
philosophy: Introductory readings. 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Jones, H. (1989). The Epicurean tradition.
Konstan, D. (2018). Epicurus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Larkin, P. (edited by A. Burnett, 2012). The
complete poems of Philip Larkin. London: Faber and Faber.
Lesses, G. (2002).
Happiness, completeness, and indifference to death in Epicurean ethical theory. Apeiron, 35 (4), 57–68.
Long, A. A. (1986). Hellenistic philosophy: Stoics,
Epicureans, Sceptics. 2nd Edition
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lucretius, C. T. (~50BCE, translated by W. H.
D. Rouse, 1924, with introduction and revisions by M. F. Smith, 1992). De
rerum natura. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical
Library). (Latin with English prose translation)
Lucretius, C. T. (translated by C. H. Sisson,
1976). De rerum natura: The poem on nature; a translation. Manchester:
Carcanet New Press. (Blank verse translation)
Lucretius, C. T. (translated by A.E. Stallings, 2007). The nature of things. London: Penguin Classics. (Translation in rhyming couplets)
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (180 CE, translated by G. Long, 1862). Meditations. New York: F. M. Lupton. Available at Archive.org.
Miller, S. (1995). The death of Hume. Wilson Quarterly, 19 (3). 30-39
Mitsis, P. (2002).
Happiness and death in Epicurean ethics. Apeiron, 35 (4), 41–55.
Nagel. T. (1970). Death. Nous, 4,
73-80. Reprinted in Nagel, T. (1979). Mortal Questions (pp 1-10)
Cambridge UK; Cambridge University Press.
O’Keefe, T. (2010). Epicureanism.
Durham, UK: Acumen.
Sedley, D. (2018). Lucretius. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Warren, J. (2004). Facing death:
Epicurus and his critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Williams, B. (1973). The
Makropoulos case: Reflections on the tedium of immortality. Reprinted in his Problems
of the Self. (pp 82-100). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, C. (2015). Epicureanism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, C. (2008). Epicureanism at the
origins of modernity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The wheel has been around since about 4000 BCE (Bulliet, 2016). The first wheels used for transportation may have derived from potters’ wheels used for moulding cups and bowls. Some early wheels were made of stone, but these were soon replaced by wood which was lighter and faster. Around 3000 BCE spokes were invented, and for several thousand years fast-moving chariots with spoked wheels often decided ancient battles.
By the middle of the nineteenth century wooden wheels for carts and carriages had become fully developed (see figure). The rim was made by bending ash to form curved felloes. These were attached to the hub by strong oak spokes, and held in place by a steel tire.
In the last two hundred years the wheel has changed dramatically. Some changes have made the wheels more efficient (working well) and some made them more attractive (looking lovely). The forces driving the changes are thus similar to those that occur during evolution with its survival of the fittest and its sexual selection. However, wheel innovation is controlled by human design rather than random mutation, and the changes have occurred much more rapidly. And, as in evolution, some innovations do not survive: hubcaps and whitewall tires have become extinct.
The new velocipedes (after 1820) and pedal-driven bicycles (after 1860) were powered by human beings rather than horses or oxen. This forced the development of lightweight wheels (Brandt, 1993; Herlihy, 2004). The first change was to make spokes of wire rather than wood. Initially these wires were arrayed radially from the hub to the rim. Spokes generally alternated between the two sides of the hub, giving the wheel a triangular cross-section, and thereby increasing the wheel resistance to compression (illustrated on the right). When a free-wheel system (invented in 1869 by William van Anden) was added to the rear wheel, the length of the spokes on the side of the free-wheel was shortened to maintain the wheel’s balance. This was called “dishing” the wheel, i.e. making it more like a dish than a plate. Ball-bearings were first used to facilitate the rotation of the bicycle wheel around the fixed axle in 1869.
In 1874, John Kemp Starley invented a tangential approach to lacing the spokes of a wheel. The spokes were attached to the hub at an angle and crossed over each other on their way to the rim. This improved the ability of the wheel to resist the rotational forces (torque) involved when changing speed. Various levels of cross-over (from 1 to 4) are possible. Typical road bikes have 3-cross (3X) spokes. The spoke crosses another almost immediately upon leaving the hub, a second about an inch or so away from the hub, and a third about one third of the way out toward the rim. The following figure shows the lacing pattern of a 3-cross wheel (Litt, 2010; Brown & Allen, 2011). The left shows half the set of spokes from one side of the hub; the middle shows all the spokes on that side of the hub; the right shows all the 36 spokes from both sides of the hub.
The 3-cross spoke pattern is present in the famous Rover Safety Bicycle marketed by Starley in the 1880s:
In 1889 John Boyd Dunlop made the first commercially successful pneumatic tires for bicycles. The idea had been patented some forty years before, but had not been followed into production.
The first automobiles used bicycle wheels. As the automobile became heavier, the wheels had to become more robust. Although wire wheels were still used in racing cars and motorcycles, the most common automobile wheels were made of two pieces: a drum (barrel or rim) upon which the tire was mounted, and a wheel disk that was welded (or bolted) to the drum (see right). The joining occurred on the outer edge of the wheel. The complete wheel was therefore deeply dished to allow space for the brakes, which initially worked by pushing against the inside of the drum. Nowadays, these have largely been replaced by disk-brakes which operate on a disk attached to the axle within the dished wheel. A major difference between automobile and bicycle wheels is that the automobile wheel is fixed to the axle.
Initially the automobile wheel-disk was made of solid steel, but holes were soon inserted (Reif, 2011; Duffy, 2014). These lightened the wheels without significant loss in strength, and provided ventilation to prevent the brakes from over-heating. Unfortunately, the wheel was visually unattractive. To overcome this, whitewall tires were invented, but this still left a dark and dirty inner wheel. One could paint the wheel, but a more common approach was to cover the wheel with a shiny cover made of aluminum or plastic. This hubcap or wheel-cover also protected the lug-bolts that held the wheel to the axle-hub. The following figure shows examples of the exposed wheel (1 – unpainted, 2 – painted), two simple hubcaps (3 – baby moon; 4 – full moon), a simple decorative hubcap (5), and finally a very complicated decorative hubcap (6) imitating wire spokes (note the steel wheel behind the wires).
When a tire needed changing the hubcap had to be removed to access the lug bolts. The hubcap was therefore spring-clipped to the wheel so that it could be easily popped off with a tire-iron. Unfortunately, potholes and bumps often had the same effect, and hubcaps became a common sight at the edge of the road (see right). Businesses sprang up to collect and resell lost hubcaps. One way to prevent this was to fix the hubcap more permanently to the wheel and to leave holes to access the lug bolts. Ultimately this led to there being two wheels: the sturdy steel wheel that supported the rim and the light wheel-cover that made the wheel look more appealing.
This redundancy can be prevented if the supporting wheel could be made more visually attractive (Newton, 2007). Then it would provide both the strength and the shine. The advent of new magnesium and aluminum alloys and improved casting techniques led to wheels that no longer needed to be covered to look good. The following illustration shows an early aluminum wheel (Style 5) from BMW with a mesh pattern that pays homage to wire-spokes (1), a classic Mercedes star wheel (3) and an elegantly simple alloy wheel from Lexus (3):
Recently the rim, spokes and center disk are typically forged in one piece. The following illustration compares an old two-piece welded steel wheel to two new one-piece forged wheels from Bayern and from Konig:
With the bright new wheel designs there is no longer need for whitewalls. Hubcaps are now restricted to the center hole of the wheel where they display the company logo. The most famous of these “center caps” is made by Rolls Royce to rotate in the opposite direction to the wheel, making the double-R legible at any speed.
Primes and Patterns
Most wheels on passenger cars are attached using 5 lug-bolts. Smaller cars can use 4 or even 3 and larger cars and SUVs often use 6. Fivefold symmetry makes it difficult to generate resonance vibrations between different parts of the wheel since 5 is a prime number. The other advantage is that the openings between the spokes approximate an equilateral triangle, the strongest triangle design. Five-sided shapes (pentagons and pentacles) are aesthetically pleasing, perhaps because they have some symmetry but not too much.
Although the spoke design is generally based on 5, the spokes may be paired or tripled, and spoke patterns based on 3 , 4, 6 or 7 are also possible (following illustration). The combination of 5 lug-bolts and 7 spokes seems to fulfil the idea of “prime” wheels.
With the new alloys and finishes, various patterns can be designed. Shiny surfaces can highlight the basic structure (1). Rotationally asymmetrical wheels (2) look like they are meant to go in one direction. This leads to the problem that the wheels on the two sides of the car want to go in opposite directions. On the right, the wheel from the Lexus (3) shows a pattern that alludes to the tangential spokes initially developed for bicycle wheels.
Wheels have developed to satisfy both function and fashion. They are an essential part of both the operation and attractiveness of the modern bicycle and automobile. Wheels define a vehicle’s “street presence.”
Brandt, J. (1993). The bicycle wheel. 3rd Edition. Palo Alto, CA: Avocet.
Newton, R. (2007). Wheel and tire performance handbook. St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks.
Reif, K. (Ed.) (2011). Bosch Automotive Handbook. 8th Edition. Chichester, UK: John Wiley
Music of the Viola
The viola is much under-rated. The instrument is difficult to play and its sound box is not optimal for its range of notes. Violists are the butt of numerous jokes maligning their tuning and their timing. Nevertheless, in the hands of a master, the viola has a wonderfully rich sound, melancholy in its low register and silvery in the high. Of all the strings it is perhaps most similar to the normal human voice.
The modern viola
first appeared in the late 16th century (Riley, 1991). Until then
string music had been played on viols of various sizes. These had evolved from
guitar-like instruments, but were played with a bow rather than plucked. Most viols
were held between the legs (da gamba),
although the smaller ones were occasionally played on the arm (da braccio). Viols typically had 6
In the 16th
and 17th centuries, the luthiers in Cremona, Northern Italy – Andrea
Amati and his sons, Antonio Stradivari, Andrea Guarneri, and others – produced
a new kind of stringed instrument with 4 strings. They used four sizes to fit
the normal vocal ranges: violin (soprano), viola (tenor, alto), cello (baritone)
and bass (bass). Different sized violas were initially made for the tenor and
alto ranges, but as time passed one viola was used for both. Music for the
viola is written in the alto clef.
The viola is
larger than the violin, with a length that varies between 38cm and 43 cm compared to the
violin’s 35.5 cm. The viola bow is a little heavier than that of the violin. The
viola’s sound box is smaller than it should be for its range of notes. This can
be seen by comparing the sizes of violin, viola, cello and bass – the viola is
closer in size to the violin than to the cello rather than intermediate between
the two. This is necessary if the instrument is to be played on the arm:
Because it was
difficult to play and largely used to complete the middle notes of the harmony
rather than to play the melody, the viola was not popular with string players.
The viola section of the symphony orchestra often came to be filled with failed
violinists. The following is a comment from 1766:
The viola is
commonly regarded as of little importance in the musical establishment. The
reason may well be that it is often played by persons who are either still
beginners in the ensemble or have no particular gifts with which to distinguish
themselves on the violin, or that the instrument yields all too few advantages
to its players, so that able people are not easily persuaded to take it up.
(Quantz, 1766, quoted by Boyden and Woodward, 2001)
In recent years several luthiers have tried to make the viola more resonant and easier to play. An intriguing modern viola is the Viola Pellegrina of David Ravinus, which accentuates the volume of the sound box by using a novel shape and tilts the board and neck to facilitate the fingering. Rudolf Haken has recorded using a Viola Pellegrina. The following figure compares it to a Stradivari violin named after one of its first owners, the Count of Archinto:
Early Viola Music
The viola serves
to play the middle notes in the harmony. Most early string music used it simply
for this purpose. Themes were introduced and carried by the violins or the
cellos. Several pieces of classical chamber music, such as Mozart’s viola
quintets, benefit immensely form the subtle harmonizing of the viola, but for
the most part the viola is not heard separately from the ensemble. Concertos
written for the viola, e.g. by Carl Stamitz, Alessandro Rolla and Franz Anton
Hoffmeister, were few and are unfortunately now rarely played.
The most important piece of classical music for the viola is Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante forviolin and viola in E-flat major K.364/320d, composed in 1779, The following is an excerpt from the Andante movement played by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, with Zubin Mehta conducting theIsrael Philharmonic Orchestra, Huberman Festival, Tel Aviv, 1982:
Harold in Italy
In the early
1830’s the great violinist Niccolo Paganini was very impressed by the Symphonie fantastique of Hector Berlioz.
Having just acquired a Stradivari viola he commissioned Berlioz to write a
concerto for the viola. Berlioz was not familiar with the viola but included it
in his Harold en Italie, Symphonie
avec un alto principal, Op. 16, loosely based on Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Paganini admired the work but found
that the sections for the solo viola were not really sufficient to justify his
playing it (Kawabata, 2004). He was right. The work is wonderfully tuneful but
the solo viola, playing the part of Harold, makes only occasional comments on
the orchestral action. The cor anglais
plays almost as prominent a solo part in the work as the viola. The following excerpt
is the ending to the third movement (Sérénade
d’un montagnard des Abruzzes), with Harold (Gérard Caussé) meditating on
Cinderella no More
(1876-1975) was the first modern viola virtuoso (Tertis, 1953, 1974; White,
2006). Initially trained in the violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London,
he took up the viola toward the end of his studies. He quickly taught himself
techniques to enhance the sound of the viola and decided to become the
instrument’s champion, setting out to challenge the violin’s dominance in
string music. Interestingly, Pablo Casals who was to become the champion of the
cello was born in the same year as Tertis.
At the end of the 19th century, Tertis was widely heard in chamber music concerts, and by1903 he was the first viola in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. He was popular, and provided his fans with souvenir postcards signed “Yours very sincerely, Lionel Tertis” (see illustration on the right). At the Royal Academy, he taught many new viola students, among them Rebecca Clarke. At the Royal Academy he also interacted with York Bowen, Benjamin Dale and Arnold Bax, all of whom composed works for the viola. Full of enthusiasm and talent, Tertis quickly brought the viola out of obscurity and made it recognized as a solo instrument. This striking change gave him the title of his first autobiography: Cinderella no more (1953).
Tertis concertized widely in Britain. Europe and America. In Berlin in 1907, together with York Bowen he played Brahms Sonata for Viola in E-flat major Opus 120, No 2, Dale’s Suite for Viola, and York Bowen’s Viola Sonata Opus 18 to great applause(White, 2006, p 18). Brahms’ viola sonatas were initially written for clarinet but were adapted by Brahms himself for the viola. To give some sense of the Berlin program the following is an excerpts from the beginning of the third movement of the Brahms sonata (Andante con moto) as played by William Primrose with Gerald Moore on piano (a 1937 recording). Primrose was Tertis’s successor as the world’s leading violist:
The beginning of
the Bowen Sonata (Allegro moderato) as
played by Matthew Jones (viola) and Michael Hampton follows:
In Paris in 1920 Tertis
found a viola made in 1717 by Domenico Montagnana a master luthier based in
Venice. With a body that was 17 1/8 inches (43.5 cm) long, the viola was larger
than most other violas. The instrument was in pieces and without a case. Tertis
had it repaired and played it from 1920 to 1937. It is currently played by
Tertis recorded extensively for Vocalion (1919-1923), and for Columbia (1924-1933). Many of the recorded pieces were adapted by Tertis from music originally written for other instruments or for voice. Among the transcriptions was Bach’s sacred song Komm, süßer Tod, BMW 478. The words are from an unknown poet. The first verse follows; the whole poem is online.
Komm, süßer Tod, komm sel’ge Ruh! Komm führe mich in Friede, weil ich der Welt bin müde, ach komm! ich wart auf dich, komm bald und führe mich, drück mir die Augen zu. Komm, sel’ge Ruh!
Come, sweet death, come, blessed rest! Come lead me to peace because I am weary of the world, O come! I wait for you, come soon and lead me, close my eyes. Come, blessed rest!
This Bach song was
also transcribed for orchestra in 1946 by Leopold Stokowski. The full
orchestral version is powerful. Tertis’ 1925 recording is heart-breaking. We
have grown to love sad songs and the viola sings them well.
Bach Cello Suites
Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello have been transcribed many times for viola (Tatton, 2011). These transcriptions began in 1916. The music sounds quite different on the viola, but it is still as fascinating and as beautiful as on the cello. The following are some excerpts for comparison. First the beginning of the Sarabande from the 4th Suite as played by Pierre Fournier on cello and then by Maxim Rysanov on viola:
And then the first Bourrée from the same suite:
Rysanov uses the 1998 transcription of Simon Rowland-Jones. Although I originally thought that the suites were inextricably bound to the cello, I have grown very fond of the viola arrangements.
The Berkshire Festival
In 1918 Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a rich American heiress, founded the Berkshire Music Festival in the hills of western Massachusetts. Although it later evolved into the Berkshire Symphonic Festival at Tanglewood, it was initially devoted to chamber music. Part of the festival involved a competition for composers of new chamber music. In the second year of the festival the chosen instrumentation for the competition was viola and piano. Out of 73 entrants, two tied for first place: Ernest Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola. Elizabeth Coolidge herself cast the deciding vote for the Bloch suite.
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was born in Switzerland and came to the USA in 1916. The photo on the right is from 1917. After the competition he went on to a very successful career in composition and teaching. His music uses both ancient and modern harmonies, but is immediately appealing. Many of his compositions are related to Jewish traditions, such as the Suite Hebraïquefor viola and piano of 1951.
Rebecca Clarke (1889-1979) studied viola at the Royal Academy of Music with Lionel Tertis. She came to the United States in 1916 and supported herself by performing both in chamber ensembles and as a soloist. The photo at the right is from 1919. She also composed music, especially for the viola, and performed her compositions as part of her performances.
The Berkshire Festival competition was the closest that Rebecca Clarke came to appropriate recognition for her compositions. Years later she called it her “one little whiff of success.” No one was sure who Rebecca Clarke was. The general opinion was that a woman could not produce such fine music. Some even suggested that the name was a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch! In 1923, Elizabeth Coolidge commissioned a Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. Thereafter she continued her career as a violist and occasionally composed music. Most of Clarke’s compositions, however, were performed by her in concerts and not published until after her death. There is an excellent website about her life and work.
excerpts provide a taste of the 1919 Berkshire competition. The first is the Allegro ironico movement of Bloch’s
suite played by Paul Neuberger, accompanied by Margo Garrett:
And the second is
the comparable Vivace movement from
Clarke’s sonata, played by Paul Coletti and Leslie Howard.
It has become
fashionable to suggest that Clarke probably would have won the competition if
she had not been a woman. Myself, I prefer the Clarke. However, I am not sure
how much of this is related to the performers rather than to the actual
The Viola and the Voice
The viola has a particular affinity for the human voice. In 1884 Brahms published Two Songs for Alto, Piano and Viola, Opus 91 (Miyake, 2018). The lyrics of the first song (Gestillte Sehnsucht – Longing soothed) are from a poem by Thomas Rückert, the first verse of which is given below (and the whole poem is available online).
In gold’nen Abendschein getauchet, Wie feierlich die Wälder stehn! In leise Stimmen der Vöglein hauchet Des Abendwindes leises Weh’n. Was lispeln die Winde, die Vögelein? Sie lispeln die Welt in Schlummer ein.
Bathed in golden evening light, How solemnly the forests stand! The soft voices of the birds breathe The wafting of the evening winds What do the winds and birds whisper? They whisper the world to sleep.
The following is the
beginning of Gestillte Sehnsucht sung
by Janet Baker with Cecil Aronowitz on viola and André Previn on piano.
The viola beautifully portrays human singing in transcriptions of folk-songs and carols. The Sussex Mummers’ Carol was originally collected in 1880 by Mrs. Lucy Broadwood and published in 1908. Percy Grainger composed a piano version of the carol in 1915, and also arranged the piece for viola and piano. The first two verses are:
When righteous Joseph
Unto a virtuous maid
A glorious angel from Heaven came
Unto that virtuous maid.
O mortal man, remember
When Christ our Lord was born;
He was crucified betwixt two thieves,
And crownèd with the thorn.
The text of the complete carol is available online. The following excerpt is the beginning of Grainger’s viola arrangement as played by Paul Coletti and Leslie Howard:
This can be
compared to the how the carol sounds in the voices of the Choir of St Paul’s
Cathedral (directed by John Scott) singing wordlessly:
In 1944 Rebecca Clarke wrote a viola transcription of an old Scottish ballad I’ll bid my heart be still. The tune is centuries old (Graham, 1849, Volume III, p. 84). The Scottish poet Thomas Pringle (1789-1834) wrote the modern words (Pringle, 1839, p 168). The song laments the death of a lover in battle. The first two verses are:
I’ll bid my heart be still, And check each struggling sigh; And there’s none e’er shall know My soul’s cherish’d woe, When the first tears of sorrow are dry.
They bid me cease to weep For glory gilds his name; But the deeper I mourn, Since he ne’er can return To enjoy the bright noon of his fame!
Again, it is
interestingto compare excerpts from
the vocal and viola versions. The raw a
capella voice is that of Sylvia Tyson from the 1965 Ian and Sylvia album Early Morning Rain, and the viola and
piano performance is by Philip Dukes and Sophia Rahman.
Williams (1872-1958) used British folk music extensively in his compositions.
The following is the beginning of the Ballade
movement from his 1934 Suite for Viola
and Orchestra performed in the composer’s own reduction for viola and piano
by Tina Cayouette and Mariane Patenaude. The piece portrays the idea of singing
rather than a specific song.
Cecil Beaton’s 1926 photograph of William Walton (1902-1983)
portrays him against a cubist background that Beaton had painted himself. The
intent was to present Walton as Britain’s modernist composer. And indeed, many
of his compositions broke with traditions putting forth new rhythms and
harmonics. Yet, at heart he was still a romantic. His music was emotional
rather than dry, lush rather than austere – “the reaction of a mind
fundamentally romantic to the events in a most unromantic world” (Avery, 1947).
for Viola and Orchestra in A minor (1929) is considered by many as his most
important composition. The concerto was written for Tertis, but he initially
found it too modern and Paul Hindemith played the premiere.
Breaking with tradition, its first movement, is an Andante comodo. Walton greatly admired
Prokofiev’s first violin concerto (1923), which had begun in this way and there
are notable similarities between the works. The following is the beginning of
the first movement as played by Helen Callus with Marc Taddei conducting the
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Against the growling of the orchestra the viola
claims its rights and interweaves its song with the flute.
At the end of the concerto’s third and final movement
the themes of the first are recalled:
Walton had written the concerto for Lionel Tertis, but
he thought the music too modern. The soloist at the premiere was Paul
Hindemith. Over the years various violists, such as William Primrose and
Frederick Riddle worked with Walton to improve the solo viola part, and Walton
reduced the size of the orchestra before the concerto came to its final form in
1962 (Dunham, 2006).
After Tertis the viola came into its own as a solo instrument. Composers such a Cecil Forsyth (1903), York Bowen (1908), Paul Hindemith, (1925), Darius Milhaud (1929, 1955), Bela Bartok (1945), and Arthur Schnittke (1985) have written important viola concertos. The sonata for viola and piano has provided composers with a form especially suited to inner feelings. One of the most powerful of these sonatas was Dimitri Shostakovich’s last composition: the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 (1975). Music for solo viola has also become important. This posting ends with the Langsam mit viel Ausdruck (slowly with much expression) movement of Paul Hindemith’s 1922 Sonata for Solo Viola Opus 25, No. 1 played by Kim Kashkashian:
Avery, K. (1947). William Walton. Music & Letters,
Boyden, D. D., & Woodward A. M. (2001). Viola (Fr. alto; Ger. Bratsche). In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd Ed., Online
Kawabata, M. (2004). The
concerto that wasn’t: Paganini, Urhan and Harold in Italy. Nineteenth-Century Music Review, 1,
Miyake, J. (2018). Implications of phrase rhythm in Brahms’s
“Gestillte Sehnsucht,” Op. 91, No. 1. In Murphy, S. (Ed.). Brahms and the shaping of time.
Pp. 83-109. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
Tertis, L. (1953). Cinderella no more.
London: P. Nevill.
Tertis, L. (1974). My viola and I: A
complete autobiography, with Beauty of tone in string playing, and other essays.
White, J. (2006). Lionel Tertis: The
first great virtuoso of the viola. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.
Stones of the Picts
With my surname it is inevitable that I should become interested in the Picts, a people who lived in Scotland during the first millennium of the Common Era. They left behind many sculptured stones, which now stand in fields and churchyards in the Northeast part of Scotland. Together with the Scots, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, they became the people of Scotland.
of the Picts
The British Isles have been home to human beings for thousands of years. In the Neolithic Period, the inhabitants of Western Britain, Northern Britain and Ireland raised striking stone monuments, the most famous of which is Stonehenge. Scotland has numerous stone-circles and standing stones, particularly in the West and North. The illustration at the right shows a Neolithic standing stone (about 3 meters high) at Drumtroddan in Galloway. Most Neolithic stones are plain, but occasionally they are marked with circular incisions or hollowed-out cups.
Recent archeological evidence has indicated a major
change in the people of Britain during the 3rd Millennium BCE. At
that time the original Neolithic inhabitants of the islands were largely
replaced by Bronze Age people from the continent who brought with them the
technology of Bell-Beaker pots (Olalde et al., 2018). This migration to Britain
was part of the westward expansion of the Celtic peoples (Manco, 2015;
The beakers were molded by hand rather than on a wheel,
and had a characteristic bell shape (Clarke, 1966). They were decorated
horizontally either by cord impressions or by incised patterns. Typical pots
had a diameter of about 10 cm and were used for drinking. Larger pots could be used
for storage or as funeral urns. Some pots were used in the smelting of metals. The
bell-beaker technology began in central Europe but there was much interchange
of both pots and potters among the different peoples and regions of Europe
(Salanova et al., 2016). The illustration shows a Spanish pot on the left and a
Scottish pot on the right:
The people who brought the beakers from the continent to
Britain likely spoke an Indo-European Proto-Celtic language. This then differentiated
into two main branches – Goedelic in Ireland (and later in Western Scotland)
and Brythonic in Britain. Goedelic developed into Irish, Manx and Scottish
Gaelic; Brythonic developed into Brittonic, Cornish, Welsh and Pictish.
The Celts thrived on the British Isles until the
Romans came. Julius Caesar made his first forays into Britain in 55 BCE, and
Roman legions subsequently controlled much of Southern Britain. Boudicca led an
uprising of the Britons in 60 CE, but this was soon put down. Gnaeus Julius
Agricola, governor of the Roman Province of Britannia from 77 to 85 CE, expanded
the area of Roman control northward. He led his soldiers against the inhabitants
of what is now called Scotland, culminating in 83 CE in the Battle of Mons Graupius
(somewhere in Aberdeenshire). The Romans considered themselves victorious.
Agricola’s nephew Tacitus (98 CE, pp 218-239) described the battle, attributing
to the Pictish general Calgacus a rousing speech of defiance before the
But today the uttermost parts of Britain are laid bare;
there are no other tribes to come; nothing but sea and cliffs and these more
deadly Romans, whose arrogance you shun in vain by obedience and self-restraint.
Harriers of the world, now that earth fails their all-devastating hands, they
probe even the sea; if their enemy have wealth, they have greed; if he be poor,
they are ambitious; East nor West has glutted them; alone of mankind they
behold with the same passion of concupiscence waste alike and want. To plunder,
butcher, steal, these things they misname empire; they make a desolation and
they call it peace. … Here you have a general and an army; on the other side
lies tribute, labour in the mines, and all the other pangs of slavery. You have
it in your power to perpetuate your sufferings for ever or to avenge them
to-day upon this field; therefore, before you go into action, think upon your ancestors
and upon your children.
Tacitus described the outcome as a “decisive victory’ for the Romans. However, Agricola returned to the south without leaving any occupying garrisons. The Romans later set up defensive walls to keep out the marauding highlanders: Hadrian’s Wall (122 CE) at the level of the Firth of Solvay and a far less effective Antonine Wall (142 CE) at the level of the Firth of Forth. The sculptured Bridgeness slab in the Antonine Wall, showing a Roman horseman trampling on the Picts, may perhaps refer to Mons Graupius.
warriors north of the walls were called Scots and Picts by the Romans. The term
Scots is of uncertain etymology. It was initially used to describe raiders from
Ireland but it later came to mean those Celts in the Western part of Scotland who
were related by language and trade to the Irish. The Picts were in the North
East. Their name, deriving from picti (painted),
refers to their custom of painting or tattooing their bodies, a custom shared
with the Celts in the more Southern regions of Britain. We have little if any
knowledge of the Pictish language, but it was likely more related to the
Brittonic language than the Gaelic spoken by the Scots.
When the Roman Empire crumbled in the 5th
Century CE, the province of Britannia was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons. The
Celts were driven westward to Wales and Cornwall. Several new kingdoms were set
up, most notably Mercia in the middle of England and Northumbria in the
Northeast. In the 9th Century
the Vikings attacked the British Isles, later settling and governing many
northern regions of both Britain and Ireland. .
Most of what we know about the Picts comes from
historians who were not Picts. Most of these wrote long after the events they
described. There are lists of Pictish kings (e.g., Clarkson, 2017, pp 207-208)
but these are difficult to follow. Pictish kings were often not succeeded by
their sons. This may have been due to matrilineal succession (Woolf, 1988), but
was more likely caused by the kingship switching among the feuding clans. For
the purposes of this posting on the sculptured stones I can highlight three
main events in Pictish History after the Romans left.
First was the coming of Christianity. In the 6th Century CE, St. Columba came from Ireland to Scotland. At that time, the Gaelic people in Western Scotland were loosely affiliated in the Kingdom of Dal Raita. In 563 CE, their king, Connall mac Comgaill, granted St. Columba the island of Iona, on which to build a monastery. Once the monastic community was established Columba moved to proselytize the Picts. In 565 CE, Columba visited the stronghold of Brude (or “Bridei”), son of Maelchon. No one is clear as to its location, perhaps Craig Phadraig near Inverness. According to Adamnan’s Life of Columba (Book II:38)
[W]hen the saint made his first journey to King Brude,
it happened that the king, elated by the pride of royalty, acted haughtily, and
would not open his gates on the first arrival of the blessed man. When the man
of God observed this, he approached the folding doors with his companions, and
having first formed upon them the sign of the cross of our Lord, he then
knocked at and laid his hand upon the gate, which instantly flew open of its
own accord, the bolts having been driven back with great force. The saint and
his companions then passed through the gate thus speedily opened. And when the
king learned what had occurred, he and his councillors were filled with alarm,
and immediately setting out from the palace, he advanced to meet with due
respect the blessed man, whom he addressed in the most conciliating and
respectful language. And ever after from that day, so long as he lived, the
king held this holy and reverend man in very great honour, as was due.
The recorded lives of the saints are ornamented with miracles.
The opening of the door likely had some more natural cause, but the beginning
of the conversion of the Picts can be dated to about this time. An 1898 mural
in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery by William Hole shows Saint Columba’s
mission to the Picts:
A second major event in Pictish history was the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685 CE (Hudson, 2014, pp 74-80; Clarkson, 2017, pp 121-137). Under the leadership of King Bridei mac Bili (also known as Brude), the Picts defeated a Northumbrian army led by King Ecgfrith. According to Bede (8th Century, Book IV: 26), this was a divine punishment for the Northumbrian incursions into Ireland:
In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 684, Egfrid,
king of the Northumbrians, sending Beort, his general, with an army, into
Ireland, miserably wasted that harmless nation, which had always been most
friendly to the English; insomuch that in their hostile rage they spared not
even the churches or monasteries. Those islanders , to the utmost of their
power, repelled force with force, and imploring the assistance of the Divine
mercy, prayed long and fervently for vengeance and though such as curse cannot
possess the kingdom of God, it is believed, that those who were justly cursed
on account of their impiety, did soon suffer the penalty of their guilt from
the avenging hand of God; for the very next year, that same king, rashly
leading his army to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice
of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who had been
lately ordained his op (preacher), the enemy made show as if they fled, and the
king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the
greatest part of his forces, on the 20th of May, in the fortieth year of his
age, and the fifteenth of his reign.
After the battle, King Bridei had the body of Ecgfrith
interred in the monastery of Iona. Eight years later Bridei died and was
himself buried on Iona. The Battle of Dun Nechtain was not decided by the will
of God, but it did represent the consolidation of Pictish power in Northeast
Scotland. These events also indicate the peaceful relations between the
kingdoms of Dal Riata and Pictavia.
The Battle of Dun Nechtain is recorded on the Pictish sculpted stone in the Aberlemno Churchyard. In the upper part of the sculpture, a long-haired Pictish warrior advances from the left while an Anglo-Saxons with helmet and nose-guard flees to the right. In the middle three Pictish footsoldiers confront a mounted Anglo-Saxon. The bottom of the stone shows two mounted warriors fighting and on the right is shown the outcome with a raven pecking at the dead body of the Anglo-Saxon.
The final episode I shall consider was called Braflang
the “Treachery of Scone” (Clarkson, 2017, pp 178-194). According to stories
recounted much later by such writers as Gerald of Wales writing in the late 12th
Century, Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpin), King of Dal Riata,
invited the Pictish lords to a banquet at Scone. Unbeknownst to them their
tables were set on boards placed over pits. At a signal from MacAlpin, the
noted their opportunity and drew out the bolts which
held up the boards; and the Picts fell into the hollows of the benches on which
they were sitting, in a strange trap up to the knees so that they could never
get up; and the Scots immediately slaughtered them all, tumbled together
everywhere and taken suddenly and unexpectedly, and fearing nothing of the sort
from allies and confederates, men bound to them by benefits and companions in
their wars. (from Gerald of Wales De
Instructiones Principis, translated in Clarkson, 2017, p 183).
Kenneth MacAlpin (810-858) then became King of the
Picts and the first king of a united Scotland (Alba). The dates of his kingship are generally considered 843-858.
The lurid details of the Treachery of Scone do not appear to represent any
definite event (Hudson, 1991). The massacre is a myth, but it serves to explain
the Scottish assimilation of the Picts. MacAlpin did indeed unify the Scottish
peoples, and there is little historical mention of the Picts after about 900
The history of Scotland thenceforth involved battles
with the Vikings to the North and with the English to the South, with Scotland
continuing as an independent kingdom until the Act of Union of 1706 when
Scotland became a part of Great Britain.
The Picts left no written history. Their sculptured
stones form their main surviving record. On many of these stones are incised or
carved various symbols. Some of the symbols clearly represent animals or birds
or fish. The others are mysterious.
Pictish stones have been classified by Allen and
Anderson (1903) as: Class I, those with only symbols; Class II, those with
Christian iconography (typically a cross) as well as symbols; and Class III
those with Christian iconography and no symbols. Both Class II and Class III
stones often portray people, in scenes of daily life, in battles, or in stories
from the Bible. .
The following illustration shows six of the most
common symbols found on Class I stones (Alcock, 1988, Forsyth, 1995; Jones,
2003; Fraser, 2008, McHardy, 2015; Noble et al., 2018):
No one knows what the symbols represent. Most interpreters
relate the symbols to physical objects or animals; others suggest a more
abstract or spiritual correlation. The double disk could indicate the sun and
its transition from winter to summer. In more abstract terms, it could indicate
a marriage, or the opposition of life and death. The crescent likely has some
relation to the moon. The Z-rod and V-rod might represent broken spears or
arrows. The notched rectangle might represent a chariot. The Pictish beast is
clearly animate, but no one knows what animal it represents or whether the
animal is real or imaginary. My own preference is for a dolphin. The tuning
fork might represent the tongs used in metal work. This would fit with the
Celtic expertise in working bronze. Others have suggested that it shows a
Whether the symbols have further meaning is impossible
to know. They might represent hieroglyphs like those in Egypt, or even a
syllabic alphabet. As such they could have been used to name clans or families.
The number of stones with symbols are far too few to allow easy linguistic
The stones might define territory or indicate a
meeting place. They do not appear to commemorate persons since most stones are
unrelated to burials. An exception is the Picardy Stone (Myreton Farm, near
Insch), which was located above what appeared to be an empty grave. The stone
is 2 meters high and has three incised symbols: a double disk with a
superimposed Z-Rod, a serpent with a Z-Rod and a mirror. The illustration below
compares a recent photograph (by Peter Richardson) with the engraving from
Perhaps the most famous of the Class I stones is located
beside the road in the village of Aberlemno. The stone is known as Aberlemno I
or the Serpent Stone. The front side of the stone shows deeply incised Pictish
symbols: a serpent above a double disk with a Z-rod, and a mirror and
comb. On the lower part of the back of
the stone are small cup marks, indicating that the stone was likely erected in
Neolithic times and later carved by the Picts. The modern photograph from
Wikipedia is compared to the engraving in Stuart (1856):
Another important Class I stone is the Craw Stane at
Rhynie, which has outlines of a salmon and a Pictish beast. In the illustration
a 2016 photograph by Allan Robertson is compared to Stuart’s 1856 engraving:
Class II stones differ from Class I stones in several
ways. First, they are carved on stones that have been roughly squared and
finished to form slabs. Second, the figures on these stones are carved in bas
relief rather than incised. Third, the carvings are more representational than
symbolic, often portraying people and animals. Fourth, they are ornamented with
Celtic designs characteristic of Irish Art. Fifth, the stones include Christian
iconography, typically a cross, but also scenes from the Bible or the lives of
Celtic ornamentation was highly developed in Ireland
(Laing & Laing, 1992, pp 138-196). The Class II Pictish stones were clearly
carved under the influence of Gaelic artists. However, there was also
interchange of ideas between the Celts (both Scots and Picts) and the
Anglo-Saxons. Some of the major types of Celtic ornament are illustrated below
with patterns from Bain (1973):
The Maiden Stone near Inverurie is one of the simplest
of the Class II stones. One side shows a set of Pictish symbols: from top to
bottom a centaur, a notched rectangle with a superimposed Z-rod, a Pictish
beast, and a mirror and comb. The other side shows a human figure surrounded by
two fish superimposed on a cross and a panel with Celtic spirals, now much
eroded. The name of the Cross comes from a local legend about a maiden who was
duped by the devil, but saved by being turned into stone. The notch on the slab
is from the failed clutch of the Devil as he tried to capture the maiden.
I have already considered the cross-slab in the Aberlemno
Churchyard because of its representation of the Battle of Dan Nechtain. The
cross side shows intricate Celtic ornamentation. The hole in the slab was
drilled much later than the carving probably to help move the stone. The
illustration compares modern photographs with the engravings from Stuart
The Hilton Cadboll stone shows a beautifully carved hunting scene with a lady riding side-saddle. The cross side of the stone was erased and inscribed with a 17th century memorial. The stone was transferred to the National Museum of Scotland, and a replica by Barry Groves was erected at the original site. The illustration at the right shows a drawing by Mike Taylor (MacNamara, 1999) and below is a photograph by Stephanie McGucken of the replica.
The Nigg Stone is perhaps the most intricately decorated of all the Pictish stones. The cross side of the stone shows beautifully carved patterns of many kinds. Above the cross is a scene that is said to represent St Paul and St Andrew, each with a lion at their side, being brought a loaf of bread by a raven – food for their meditation. On the other side of the stone intricate Celtic designs surround a central hunting scene. Because of the harp, one of the figures may represent David. However the harp is as much a Celtic symbol as a Christian one. At the top of this side are the symbols of a bird and a Pictish beast. The stone was broken long ago and has recently been put back together. The illustration shows a photograph of the reconstruction and drawings by Mike Taylor (MacNamara, 1999).
With a height of 7 meters, Sueno’s Stone in Moray is
the tallest of the Pictish stones. The name refers to the Sweyn, a Danish king
who conquered Britain and became its king in1013 CE. However, there is no
evidence for any association between Sweyn and the stone, which was likely
erected over a century before his exploits. One side of the stone depicts a
cross and other carvings that have been almost completely eroded. The better
preserved side shows an amazing sequence of scenes that narrate a battle.
The uppermost panel portrays mounted warriors arriving at the battle from the right. The second panel shows the fighting between foot-soldiers, with some of the warriors on the left side turning as if to flee. The upper line of the third panel shows the army of the right besieging a palisade. In the left middle of this panel is a pile of beheaded corpses. On the right the victorious soldiers appear to be blowing the bronze trumpets (carnyces) used by the Celts in battle. The fourth panel shows more corpses underneath what might be a bridge. The bottom strip of the stone seems to show prisoners tied up. No one is sure what battle is represented. Perhaps the Picts were fighting the Vikings; more likely they were fighting amongst themselves. The stone is now protected from the elements in a cage of armoured glass. The photographs in the following illustration are from the Undiscovered Scotland website and the engravings are from Stuart (1856):
The Dupplin Cross differs from almost all of the other Pictish stones. The cross is not a slab upon which a cross has been carved, but a completely free-standing cross. Originally located on an open hillside it is now preserved in St Serf’s Church in Dunning. The cross is beautifully carved with Celtic patterns and a variety of scenes with no apparent narrative relationship. The most striking carvings are the Pictish rider on the front and David playing his harp on the right side. The engravings are from Stuart (1856) and the photograph (2014) by Colin Gould:
of the Picts
The Picts maintained their fierce independence for centuries, defending their territory from Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. They occur briefly in the records of those who fought with them, but they left no history of their own. They were a people as mysterious as the symbols they left on stones. Toward the end of the first millennium they became assimilated with the other peoples in the melting pot of Scotland. Their stones remain as an integral part of the Scottish landscape (photo Cathy MacIver):
Adamnan, Abbot of Hy (7th Century CE, Edited by W. Reeves, 1874). Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas. Available at CELT
Alcock, E. A. (1988). Pictish stones class I: Where
and how? Scottish Archaeological Journal,
Allen, J. R. & Anderson, J. (1903). The early Christian monuments of Scotland. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Neill & Co.) Available at Archive.org: Part I and 2,Part 3.
G. (1973). Celtic art: The methods of construction. New York: Dover
T. J. (2008, revised 2017). The Picts: A history. Edinburgh: Berlinn (John
Clarke, D. L. (1966). A tentative reclassification of
British beaker pottery in the light of recent research. Palaeohistoria, 12, 179-198.
B. W. (2018). The ancient Celts. 2nd Edition. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Forsyth, K. (1995). Some thoughts on Pictish symbols
as a formal writing system. In Henderson, I. and Henry, D. (Eds) The worm, the germ and the thorn: Pictish
and related studies presented to Isabel Henderson (pp. 85-98). Brechin,
Angus: Pinkfoot Press
I. (2008). The Pictish symbol stones of Scotland. Edinburgh: Royal
Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
D. W. (2007). The archaeology of Celtic art. London: Routledge.
Henderson, G., & Henderson, I. (2004). Art of the
Picts: Sculpture and metalwork in early medieval Scotland. New York, N.Y:
Thames & Hudson.
B. T. (1991). The conquest of the Picts in early Scottish literature. Scotia, 15, 13-25.
B. T. (2014). The Picts. Chichester,
West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.
D. (2003). A wee guide to the Picts.
Musselburgh, Scotland: Goblinshead.
L. R., & Laing, J. (1992). Art of the Celts. London: Thames and
E., (1999). The Pictish stones of Easter
Ross (with illustrations by M. Taylor). Tain, Ross-shire: Tain and District
J. (2015). Blood of the Celts: The new ancestral story. London: Thames
McHardy, S. (2015). Pagan
symbols of the Picts. Edinburgh: Luath Press.
Noble, G., Goldberg, M., & Hamilton, D. (2018).
The development of the Pictish symbol system: Inscribing identity beyond the
edges of Empire. Antiquity, 92,
Olalde, I., Brace, S.,
Allentoft, M.E., Armit, I.A., et al. (2018). The Beaker phenomenon and the
genomic transformation of northwest Europe. Nature,
M. P., Chamberlain, A., Jay, M., Richards, M. et al. (2016). Beaker people in Britain: migration, mobility
and diet. Antiquity, 90, 620-637.
Salanova, L., Prieto‐Martínez, M. P., Clop‐García, X., Convertini, F., Lantes‐Suárez, O., &Martínez‐Cortizas, A. (2016). What are large‐scale Archaeometric
programmes for? Bell beaker pottery and societies from the third millennium BC
in Western Europe. Archaeometry, 58,
Stuart, J. (1856, 1867). Sculptured Stones of Scotland. Aberdeen: Spalding Club. Available at Archive.org: Volume I and Volume II.
Tacitus (circe 98 CE, translated by William Peterson, 1914). Dialogus, Agricola, Germania. London: Heinemann. Available at Archive.org
Woolf, A. (1998). Pictish matriliny reconsidered. The Innes Review, 49 147-167
Mitchell and Riopelle
From February 18 to May 6, 2018, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is presenting an exhibition of the paintings of Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle entitled Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation. This is the first time that many of these paintings have been seen together. The paintings are stunning, the relations between them fascinating.
The abstract expressionist movement in painting began in New York in the 1940s (Anfam, 1990, Sandler, 1970). Among its major artists were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell. Each artist had his own particular style, but they all attempted to convey meaning and emotion without recourse to representation. The Americans promoted the development of abstract expressionism as their particular artistic “triumph” (Sandler, 1970), and other abstract artists working later or in other countries have lived too long without proper recognition. Among these are Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle.
Riopelle developed his technique independently of the New York artists. He had studied with Paul-Émile Borduas in Montreal, who had extended the ideas of surrealism into a movement called Les Automatistes. Finding the society of French Canada unreceptive to his new art, Riopelle moved to Paris. Mitchell had been impressed by the New York Abstract Expressionists, particularly de Kooning and Kline, but began to evolve her own particular style after visiting France.
In parallel to New York, Paris had developed a similar artistic movement called Abstraction Lyrique (Moszynska, 1990, p 120). This differed from the New York movement mainly by rejecting the geometric approaches, such as those of Barnett Newman or Josef Albers, which was considered “cold abstraction.” Mitchell and Riopelle painted most of their major works in France, and could be considered proponents of this type of abstraction. However, the term is ambiguous since “lyric abstraction” was also used to describe a group of New York artists in the 1960s.
Lives of the Artists
Mitchell and Riopelle came from vastly different backgrounds. Mitchell (1925-1992) was born into a wealthy family in Chicago. Her maternal grandfather Charles Strobel was an accomplished engineer who had designed many of the early Chicago steel-frame skyscrapers. Her mother was a poet and co-editor of Poetry, her father a very successful dermatologist and amateur painter. Riopelle (1923-2002) was from the middle class. His father was a builder and Riopelle started out with the idea of becoming an architect. For both Riopelle and Mitchell, early teachers inspired their artistic talents, and they both decided to pursue painting – Mitchell in New York with the Abstract Expressionists, and Riopelle in Montreal with the Automatistes. Mitchell visited France in 1948 but began her painting career in New York. Riopelle moved to Paris in 1948 and soon became recognized for his large abstract paintings, such as Pavane (1954) (not in the AGO exhibition) but reproduced below:
Mitchell and Riopelle met in Paris in 1955. Both were married, but Riopelle was living apart from his wife and Mitchell had divorced her husband. They were mutually attracted and spent time together, ultimately moving into a shared studio apartment in Paris in 1959. Paris was the city where art was created and love was enjoyed. Mitchell considered the beginning of their relationship in terms of Piaf’s famous La Vie en Rose. Their relationship was passionate and tumultuous, productive and persistent. Below are 1956 photographs of the artists in their Paris studios:
In 1967 Mitchell purchased an estate in Vétheuil about 65 km northwest of Paris. This was close to Giverney, where Claude Monet had painted his famous series of Water Lilies, and near a house where Monet had lived before Giverney. Riopelle initially lived at Vétheuil, but he later purchased a separate studio several miles away, and spent much of his time working there or travelling.
The paintings of Riopelle and Mitchell give the same sense of shimmering light as the impressionist works from fifty years before. This is shown in the following illustration which compares a part of a Monet Water Lilies from 1916 to Mitchell’s Mon Paysage (1967). Mitchell’s painting seems to have abstracted the feelings from a landscape of flowers. Not water lilies – but the colors and the feelings are similar.
One might perhaps consider Mitchell’s work as “abstract impressionism.” This formulation has been used to describe some of the later abstract expressionists such as Riopelle, Mitchell, Sam Francis and Patrick Heron, but it never really caught on, and Mitchell disliked the term (Michaud in Martin et al. 2017, p 118).
And as for any artist, the sources of present art have many different predecessors. Some of the late Cézanne paintings which pieced together blue and green color-fields to represent the garden at his home Les Lauves in Provence (1906) parcel out a similar experience to Mitchell’s untitled diptych form her 1975 Canada series. Mitchell uses a different palette of colors and her painting is about twice the size, but the feelings evoked and the experiences suggested are very similar:In 1974 Riopelle constructed a studio in the Laurentians in Canada and began to spend more and more time there. Mitchell visited. Some of her later monumental abstract paintings were inspired by the Canadian landscape, such as Canada I (1975) shown below.
However, the relationship between Mitchell and Riopelle was beginning to fall apart. Mitchell’s large quadriptych Chasse Interdite (1973) was initiated by an angry argument about hunting, which Mitchell deplored and Riopelle enjoyed. In 1978 Riopelle began an affair with Mitchell’s young protégé and assistant Hollis Jeffcoat. In 1979 the relationship between Mitchell and Riopelle ended. Mitchell stayed in France and Riopelle returned to Canada. After their rupture Mitchell painted another quadriptych, bitterly entitled La Vie en Rose (1979). Though not in the AGO exhibition, it is reproduced below:
All paintings convey meaning. However, representational art is far easier to understand than abstract art. The meaning is in the scene, person or object that the painting describes. The style of the painting can highlight certain aspects of this meaning, but ultimately the artist is saying something about what the painting represents.
Abstract art does not directly represent or portray the world. Moszynska (1990, p 7) suggest that abstract art comes from two different approaches. In one the artist starts from an experience of the real world but then simplifies and changes it to highlight its effect on the artist. This gives the viewer a new way of looking at the world. In the other approach the artist starts with some transcendent or mystical idea and tries to give it form. This provides the viewer with some insight into what is beyond any normal sensory experience. Mitchell and Riopelle used the first approach; Barnett Newman and Rothko the second.
Many people give up trying to understand abstract art. The artist provides little help, generally refusing to say what an abstract painting means. Sometimes the paintings are given simple titles, but these often come after the fact, and many paintings remain untitled or simply numbered. The artist insists that the painting means something that could not be expressed in words but only conveyed in paint.
The indefiniteness of abstract paintings has some similarity to music. A piece of music composed without any definite program is appreciated for its melody and rhythm, but most particularly for its emotional effect. William Pater wrote long ago that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” (Pater, 1893). Though he was discussing classical representational painting, his idea fits best with abstract art. Herbert Read proposed that all art involves a response to “harmonies” and “rhythms,” whether they be musical or not:
All art is primarily abstract. For what is aesthetic experience, deprived of its incidental trappings and associations, but a response of the body and mind of man to invented or isolated harmonies? Art is an escape from chaos. It is movement, ordained in numbers; it is mass confined in measure; it is the indetermination of matter seeking the rhythm of life. (Read, 1931, p 42)
The difficulty in understanding an abstract painting can sometimes lead to hostility. Exasperated viewers may claim that a monkey or a three-year old could paint something similarly meaningless. They fear that the artist is putting one over on them.
Perhaps the best approach is to let the paintings directly provide a new sensory experience. This is helped by the large size of many abstract paintings, which can fill the viewer’s field of vision. What emotions do the paintings trigger? Emotions are difficult to put into words. But this does not make them any less powerful, or any less meaningful. The following quotation is from the play Red which brought the art of Rothko to the stage
Wait. Stand closer. You’ve got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you: let it embrace you, filling your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has ever existed or will ever exist. Let the picture do its work – But work with it. (Logan, 2009)
The direct sensory and emotional experience of abstract art can be illustrated in two paintings. The first is La Forêt ardente (1955) by Riopelle. The French ardent means “burning” or “passionate.” The experience of the painting is similar to that of being in an autumn forest. The darkness, the colored leaves, and the sky above are all there. But the essence of the experience is its passion.
The second painting is Girolata (1964) by Mitchell. Girolata is an isolated village on a bay on the west coast of Corsica. The following is a photograph of the bay by Pierre Bona (2006). And below that is Mitchell’s painting. The experience of the painting is one of serenity. All is right with the world.
In relation to the idea of turning landscape into feelings, one may quote Mitchell’s own words from the introduction to her exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1974 (Tucker, 1974);
My paintings aren’t about art issues. They’re about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape.
I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I do not want to improve it … I could certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.
The painting is just a surface to be covered. Paintings aren’t about the person who makes them, either. My paintings have to do with feeling, yet it’s pretentious to say they’re about feelings, too, because if you don’t get it across, it’s nothing.
When one compares the paintings, it is important to realize that the work of both painters, particularly that of Riopelle, evolved through different styles. So we must talk in terms of artistic tendencies rather than fixed techniques – dispositions rather than rules. And it will be easy to find contradictory examples.
Mitchell always used a brush, whereas Riopelle used a palette knife or trowel. Riopelle’s oil-paintings are characterized by an almost sculptural surface – impasto – whereas Mitchell’s are flat and fleeting. The paintings therefore catch the light differently: Mitchell’s reflect the light very gently and suggestively; Riopelle’s shiny irregularities glitter or coruscate. The following illustration compares their surfaces, Mitchell’s is taken from an untitled 1955 painting, Riopelle’s from La Forêt ardente (1955).
Riopelle tended toward saturated primary colors, taking them straight from the tube; whereas Mitchell mixed her paints and used a much broader spectrum. The number of different shades in a Mitchell painting is generally far higher than in a Riopelle. Riopelle’s colors are much more definite; Mitchell’s tend to be lighter, sometimes fading in and out. Riopelle tended toward the red end of the spectrum, Mitchell toward the blue.
Mitchell’s paintings almost always have a white or lightly tinted background – her shapes and lines appear briefly out of the mist. Many of Riopelle’s paintings have no background, the colors intermingling without any limits. In others the background is dark, with bright colors appearing out of some primeval chaos.
Mitchell’s paintings use two main structural elements. One is the color field – an area of color that floats in the background. The second is the free line that rides above the background and the color fields. Many of her lines are made with thin paint, and leave downward-dripping rivulets of color.
Riopelle’s most famous paintings are composed like a mosaic out of brilliantly colored tesserae. In some later paintings, lines appear over the background, as though crystalizing out of the face of the deep. In other later paintings the colored regions become much larger and one can see the shapes more clearly.
Both painters were very sensitive to symmetry. This was no mirror replication. Rather there was a balance from left to right of color, lightness and shape. Both Mitchell and Riopelle painted large diptychs and triptychs, wherein symmetry prevails. The following are two examples: Mitchell’s 1992 untitled painting (finished just before her death) and one of Riopelle’s 1977 Iceberg series (triggered by a trip to Baffin Island in the Canadian North) entitled Le Ligne d’eau.
Both artists derived their paintings from sensory experiences. Their paintings are abstracted from but not divorced from the real world. One gets a sense of the Vétheuil garden from the Mitchell’s 1992 painting, and of Baffin Island from Riopelle’s.
Sometimes the artists appear to be imitating each other styles. The exhibit pairs two untitled paintings to illustrate this. The Mitchell is from 1957 and the Riopelle from 1958; Riopelle is clearly trying out his companion’s style.
The sharing between the two artists is perhaps more evident in Riopelle’s work. His gouaches, such as the untitled 1956 example on the right, and his lithographs are composed of lines rather than shapes and have a light rather than a dark background. Nevertheless they are still in his style. His lines are short and replicate themselves. They are not Mitchell’s long, independent and free-floating lines.
Mitchell’s style was more consistent over the years. She was not as much affected by Riopelle as he by her. However, in 1963 she adopted the idea of painting triptychs from Riopelle, whose first triptych had been painted in 1953 (Brummel in Martin Brummel & Michaud, 2017, p. 74). Triptychs were used by artists in the altar-pieces of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Pollack and other Abstract Expressionists had used the form for abstract works. Yet Riopelle almost certainly triggered Mitchell’s first attempts in the early 1960s. Thereafter multi-panel works became a mainstay of Mitchell’s art.
In 1992 Joan Mitchell died in Vétheuil of cancer. Jean-Paul Riopelle retreated to a studio on the Île aux Oies (Goose Island) in the Rivière Saint Laurent just north of Quebec City. Using a completely new technique – spray-cans and cut-out figures – he composed a series of images L’Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg (1992) as his memorial to Mitchell. A portion of this work, which resides permanently in the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec and is not in the AGO exhibit, is shown below.
Riopelle’s nickname for Mitchell was Rosa Malheur, a play on the name of Rosa Bonheur, a 19th century French painter. From that it was not far to Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish communist who was murdered in Germany in 1919 for promoting revolution. The painting also makes rueful reference to Mitchell’s 1979 quadriptych La Vie en Rose. Riopelle’s painting uses the bird-forms that were common in his later lithographs. These appear to signify freedom and its loss. This was Riopelle’s last painting. He died in 2002.
Anfam, D. (1990). Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson.
Cogeval, G., & Aquin, S (2006). Riopelle. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Kertess, K. (1997). Joan Mitchell. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Livingston, J., Mitchell, J., Nochlin, L., & Lee, Y. Y. (2002). The paintings of Joan Mitchell. New York: Whitney Museum.
Martin. M., Brummel, K., & Michaud, Y. (2017). Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation. Québec: Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec.
Moszynska, A. (1990). Abstract art. London: Thames and Hudson.
Pater, W. (1893, edited by Hill, D. L., 1980). The Renaissance: Studies in art and poetry Berkeley: University of California Press.
Read, H. (1931). The meaning of art. London: Faber & Faber
Sandler, I. (1970). The triumph of American painting: A history of abstract expressionism. New York: Praeger
Tucker, M., (1974). Joan Mitchell. New York: Whitney Museum of Art. Available at archive.org.
Viau, R. (2003). Jean-Paul Riopelle. Québec: Musée du Québec.