Station Island

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.

Lough Derg

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 Pilgrimage

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:

‘Your obligation
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.

References

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

Fawbie, D. (accessed 2019) Connecting with Seamus Heaney. Station Island Sequence.

Ford, D. F. (2011).  Reading texts, seeking wisdom: A Gospel, a system and a poem. Theology 114, 173–180

Fumagalli, M. C. (1996). “Station Island”: Seamus Heaney’s “Divina Commedia.” Irish University Review, 26, 127-142

Good, E. (with photographs by A. Cassidy, 2003). Lough Derg. Dublin, Ireland: Veritas.

Greenblatt, S. (2001). Hamlet in purgatory. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Griffiths, P. J. (2008). Purgatory. In J. L. Walls (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. (pp. 427-445). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Hawlin, S. (1992). Seamus Heaney’s ‘Station Island’: the shaping of a modern purgatory. English Studies,1, 35-50.

Heaney, S. (1984). Station Island. London: Faber and Faber

Heaney, S. (1985). Envies and identifications: Dante and the modern poet. Irish University Review, 15, 5-19

Heaney, S. (1990). New selected poems, 1966-1987. London: Faber and Faber.

Heaney, S. (1996). Crediting poetry: The Nobel lecture. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Also available at Nobel Prize website

Heaney, S., (2009). Collected poems (Audio recordings). Dublin: Raidió Teilifís Éireann.

Kavanagh, P. (edited by Quinn, A., 2004). Collected poems. London: Allen Lane.

Kavanaugh, K., & Rodriguez, O. (1991). The collected works of Saint John of the Cross. Washington, D.C: ICS Publications.

Le Goff, J. (1984). The birth of Purgatory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacTréinfhir, N. (1986). The Todi Fresco and St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg. Clogher Record, 12, 141-158.

Mulrooney, H. (2018). The night of other days: the life and work of poet Seamus Heaney. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse

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).

Epicurus proposed
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.

Epicureanism was
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).



Gustav Doré’s illustration (1857) of Dante’s Sixth Circle.

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
real.

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.

Jusepe de Ribera’s imagined portraits of Heraclitus (1615) and of Democritus (1630), both now in the Prado Museum

Of the many
writings of Democritus, we now have only fragments, the most famous of which
is    

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).

Epicurus (a digital reconstruction by Bernard Frischer that combines a head from Naples with a body from Florence)

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,
disturb). 

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.

Epicurus proposed
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)

Epicurus practiced
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:

Titus Lucretius,
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).

De Rerum
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 Genesis 22 and the actual sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11. 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).

De Rerum
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)

Lucretius also
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
always changing.

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 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)

De Rerum
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.

Stoicism

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.  

Marcus Aurelius

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)

Stoicism became
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

Despite the
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.

Epicurus promoted
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.

Aubade

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
original.

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.

Endings

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).

References

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.

Callahan,
D. (2005). Death: ‘The Distinguished Thing,’ Hastings Center Report, 35, S5-S8.

Čapek,
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

Edel, L. (1968). The deathbed notes of Henry James. The Atlantic Monthly, (June 1968)

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.
London: Routledge.

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.

Santayana, G. (1910). Three philosophical poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

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.




Modern Wheels

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.

Bicycles

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.

Automobiles

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.

Envoi

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.”

 

References

Brandt, J. (1993). The bicycle wheel. 3rd Edition. Palo Alto, CA: Avocet.

Brown, S, (2008, revised by Allen, J., 2011) Wheelbuilding.

Bulliet, R. W. (2016). The wheel: Inventions & reinventions. New York: Columbia University Press.

Duffy, J. E. (2014). Modern automotive technology. Eighth Edition. Tinley Park, IL: Goodheart-Willcox.

Herlihy, D. V. (2004). Bicycle: The history. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Litt, S. (2010). Wheel Building.

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.



Early History

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
strings. 

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:

Violin, viola, cello, bass

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 for violin 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 the Israel 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
the celebrations.

Cinderella no More

Lionel Tertis
(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.

Lionel 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).  

Cartoon by Rene Bull included in a program for a concert by Lionel Tertis at the Wigmore Hall in 1911

  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
Roger Chase. 

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

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 Hebraïque for viola and piano of 1951.

Rebecca Clarke

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.

The following
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
compositions. 

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
wedded was
Unto a virtuous maid
A glorious angel from Heaven came
Unto that virtuous maid.

O mortal man, remember
well 
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.

Ralph Vaughan
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.    

Walton’s Concerto

William Walton

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).

Walton’s Concerto
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).    

Epilogue

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:

References

Avery, K. (1947). William Walton. Music & Letters,
28, 1-11.

Boyden, D. D., & Woodward A. M. (2001). Viola (Fr. alto; Ger. Bratsche). In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd Ed., Online

Broadwood, L. E. (1908) English traditional songs and carols. London: Boosey & Co, 1908.

Dunham, J. F. (2006). The Walton viola concerto: a synthesis. Journal of the
American Viola Society, 22
(1), 13-21.

Graham, G. F. (1849) The songs of Scotland adapted to their appropriate melodies. Volume III. Edinburgh: Wood & Co.

Kawabata, M. (2004). The
concerto that wasn’t: Paganini, Urhan and Harold in Italy. Nineteenth-Century Music Review, 1,
67-114.

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.

Pringle, T. (edited by Leitch, E., 1839). The poetical works of Thomas Pringle. London, E. Moxon

Riley, M. W. (1991). The history of the
viola
. Volumes I and II.
Ypsilanti, MI: M.W. Riley.

Tatton, T. (2011). Bach violoncello suites arranged for viola: Available editions annotated.Journal of the American Viola Society, 27, 5-27.

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
.
London: Elek.

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.



Origins
of the Picts

Drumtroddan

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;
Cunliffe, 2018).

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:

Bell-Beakers

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
fighting:

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.

Bridgeness Slab

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.

The
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. .

Pictish
History

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:

St Columba Preaching to 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.

Battle of Dun Nechtain

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
Scóine
or
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
Scots

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
CE.

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.  

Pictish
Symbols

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):

Pictish Symbols

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
broken sword.

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
analysis.

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
Stuart (1856):  

Picardy Stone

Class
I Stones

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:

Craw Stane

Class
II Stones

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
the Saints.

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): 

Celtic Patterns

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.

Maiden Stone

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
(1956):

Aberlemno Churchyard Stone

Hilton Cadboll Stone

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.

Hilton Cadboll 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).

Class
III Stones

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:

Dupplin Cross

Legacy
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):

References

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,
15, 1-21

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.

Bain,
G. (1973). Celtic art: The methods of construction. New York: Dover
Publications.

Bede (8th Century, translation 1910). The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Available at Fordham University or Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Clarkson,
T. J. (2008, revised 2017). The Picts: A history. Edinburgh: Berlinn (John
Donald).

Clarke, D. L. (1966). A tentative reclassification of
British beaker pottery in the light of recent research. Palaeohistoria, 12, 179-198.

Cunliffe,
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

Fraser,
I. (2008). The Pictish symbol stones of Scotland. Edinburgh: Royal
Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

Harding,
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.

Hudson,
B. T. (1991). The conquest of the Picts in early Scottish literature. Scotia, 15, 13-25.

Hudson,
B. T. (2014). The Picts. Chichester,
West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.

Jones,
D. (2003). A wee guide to the Picts.
Musselburgh, Scotland: Goblinshead.

Laing,
L. R., & Laing, J. (1992). Art of the Celts. London: Thames and
Hudson.

MacNamara,
E., (1999). The Pictish stones of Easter
Ross
(with illustrations by M. Taylor). Tain, Ross-shire: Tain and District
Museum Trust.

Manco,
J. (2015). Blood of the Celts: The new ancestral story. London: Thames
and Hudson.

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,
1329-1348

Olalde, I., Brace, S.,
Allentoft, M.E., Armit, I.A., et al. (2018). The Beaker phenomenon and the
genomic transformation of northwest Europe. Nature,
555
, 190-198.

Pearson,
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,
722-735.

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.

Abstract Expressionism

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:

Abstract Meanings

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.

Differences

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.

Similarities

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.

Endings

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.

References

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.




The Mysteries

For over a millennium the Mysteries were celebrated at Eleusis, about 18 km northwest of Athens. The main buildings in the temple precinct were built in the 5th Century BCE, but earlier buildings were present in the 6th Century, and evidence of cult-activity at the site goes back to the Mycenaean period before 1100 BCE (Mylonas, 1961, Chapter II). The Mysteries continued through the Hellenistic and Roman ages until their demise in the 4th Century CE when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

What happened during the Mysteries is unknown. Those who were initiated into the Mysteries were instructed not to reveal their secrets. All we know is that they provided their initiates with a vision of the divine and a way to cope with death.

 Myth

The Mysteries at Eleusis were based upon Demeter and Persephone (also known as Kore, the maiden). The earliest recorded version of their story is in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter from the 7th Century BCE (Lawton, 1898, pp. 154-179). Persephone was the daughter of Demeter (the Goddess of the Harvest) and Zeus. She was carried off by Hades to rule with him as Queen of the Underworld. While in the realm of the dead, Persephone sometimes assumed the name of Thea, and the Underworld later became known by the name of its king. Bernini’s 1622 sculpture of the Rape of Persephone is the most famous representation of the myth.

On the left is shown a 5th-Century BCE votive tablet found in Southern Italy. The King and Queen of the Underworld sit together: Persephone holds a hen and a spray of wheat stems, and Hades displays a libation dish and a fully leaved tree-branch. Despite the fact that they rule over the dead, they are concerned with life.

Back on Earth, Demeter was grief-stricken. She wandered far and wide in search of her daughter. Ultimately she arrived at Eleusis and accepted the hospitality of its king, Celeus, and his family.

Demeter was the God of fruitfulness, and in her grief the Earth had become infertile:

                                      The Earth did not send up any seed.
Demeter, she with the beautiful garlands in her hair, kept the seeds covered underground.
Many a curved plough was dragged along the fields by many an ox—all in vain.
Many a bright grain of wheat fell into the earth—all for naught.
(Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Nagy 1914 translation, ll 306-309)

Zeus decided that this barrenness should not persist. After much negotiation with Demeter and with Hades, he arranged that Persephone could return periodically to her mother:

Zeus assented that her daughter, every time the season came round,
would spend a third portion of the year in the realms of dark mist underneath,
and the other two thirds in the company of her mother and the other immortals. (ll 464-465)

Thus the land returned to cyclic fruitfulness. The thankful Demeter taught Triptolemus, Celeus’ son, all the secrets of agriculture. One interpretation of the Eleusinian relief at the National Archeological Museum in Athens shows Demeter (on the left) presenting wheat stems (no longer visible) to the young Triptolemus. Persephone lays her hand upon his head in blessing.

In celebration of the return of Persephone, Demeter also proposed that the Mysteries be conducted annually at Eleusis. These rites occurred each autumn just before the wheat was planted. The climate of Greece is such that nothing grows in the summer, ploughing and seeding occur in the fall, and the grain is harvested in spring (Cartwright, 2016).

Initiation

After a large procession from Athens to Eleusis, a group of several hundred people were initiated each year into the Mysteries. Much more is known about the procession than the actual rites which occurred within the sanctuary, though these are far more important. The rites at Eleusis lasted for two days. What happened during this time is not known since the initiates (mystai or telestai) were sworn to secrecy. We can only speculate based on scattered references and representations from the time. The following narrative combines elements from Mylonas (1961, pp 224-285) Kerenyi (1967, pp 67-102), Clinton (1992, 1993) and Bremmer (2014). A reconstruction of the temple buildings is illustrated below:

The first day was spent in fasting and purification. Outside of the main gate was a well which provided water for cleansing the body. The illustration on the Roman Lovatelli Urn (from 1st Century BCE) shows an attendant holding a winnowing fan (lyknon) over the head of a veiled initiate. A winnowing fan is used to separate the chaff from the wheat. It therefore symbolizes both harvesting and purification. In this particular representation, the initiate is Heracles (as seen from the lion skin of the Nemean Lion on which he sits).

At the end of the day the initiates were given a special non-alcoholic drink called kykeon. This was likely made from grain, honey, and herbs. Wasson et al. (1978) have suggested that it may have contained hallucinogens (also called “entheogens” – drugs that promote the experience of the divine), although it is doubtful that the dose could have been adjusted properly for such a large number of people.

As the night came on, the initiates were ushered by Iacchus into the Sanctuary through the main gate (Propylaia) and then through the narrower lesser gate. In the area now called the Ploutonion they could look into cave in the hillside. Clinton suggests that here they might have seen a representation of Demeter in her grief, seated upon the agelastos petra (mirthless rock).

Then the initiates spent the night in inner regions of the sanctuary. There was likely music and prayers. Perhaps the initiates wandered around, trying to help Demeter find Persephone. There was much confusion due to the darkness, the veils, the fasting, and the kykeon.

Later that night the initiates entered the central Telesterion. Again this was likely dark.  After a while a large gong was sounded and the central platform Anaktorion became suddenly lit up with blazing torches. The initiates then saw Persephone brought back from the Underworld by the herald Euboulos to be re-united with Demeter.

Following this, and perhaps only to those in their second year of initiation, various sacred objects were revealed by the special attendant known as the hierophant (from hieros, sacred and phainein, show). Most experts think that these may have been representations of the wheat and the harvest. Others (e.g. Kerenyi) have suggested that Persephone was shown giving birth to a son.

The dawn brought the second day, which was enjoyed in feasting and music.

Ninnion Tablet

The only definite contemporary representation of the Eleusinian Mysteries is the Ninnion Tablet found at the Eleusis, dated to the 4th Century BCE and now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Mylonas, 1961, pp 213-221; Clinton, 1992, pp 73-75). The tablet has been interpreted in several ways. The writing suggests that the initiate’s name was Niinnion, but most now accept that that the double-i is a mistake.

The lower and upper sections of the tablet can be interpreted as showing two stages of the Mysteries. In the lower half Iacchus, holding torches, ushers the female initiate (one assumes this is Ninnion) and her bearded male companion toward the Goddess Demeter on the right. Ninnion is bearing a vessel on her head, the contents of which will likely be used as a libation to sanctify the Telesterion. Her right hand is raised in greeting and in wonder. Demeter is seated beside an open seat for her lost daughter.

The upper half of the tablet shows the second stage of the rites. The bearded man, a young boy and Ninnion are now approaching another vison. On the right Persephone holding two torches becomes reunited with her mother. Demeter’s pale complexion in the lower representation has become suffused in the upper with the red of happiness.

Most consider the Mysteries to involve two stages: myesis and epopteia. These may related to the two different visions seen during the rites at Eleusis. Others have interpreted the stages differently. Myesis was one of the words used to denote the mysteries. It may have derived from a simpler word meaning “to close.” This itself may have alluded to the secrecy of the proceedings, the closed eyes of the initiates before the revelations or the mental closure that happened after the revelations. In the last sense, it was similar to another word for the mysteries – teletai, which came from the root telos (goal) and meant something accomplished or finished. The second stage was epopteia, which meant “revelation” or “vision,” deriving from ops, eye. Though many agree that there were two stages to the Mysteries, exactly how they occurred remains unknown. Some have suggested that the myesis may have involved “lesser mysteries” that occurred in Athens prior to the initiates going to Eleusis for the “greater mysteries.” The two stages may also have required attendance at the Eleusinian Mysteries on two successive years.

Regina Vasorum

The story of Demeter and Kore was intertwined with several other Greek myths. The Hermitage museum has a beautifully crafted hydria (water carrier) adorned around its shoulder with relief representations of the various divinities associated with Eleusis. This Regina Vasorum (Queen of the Vases) was found in Southern Italy and dates to the 4th Century BCE. The following illustration shows the hydria and that section of the decoration representing the reunited Demeter and Kore.

The following diagram identifies the various divinities. Both Heracles and Dionysus, though heroes of their own myths, also participated in the Mysteries and became initiates. Athena is present since the Mysteries were conducted under the auspices of the city of Athens. Triptolemus is there to represent Eleusis, and perhaps also to be a symbol of normal human beings. Demeter and Kore are portrayed twice – apart and then reunited.

Other Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries were but one of many different mystery-cults in the Ancient World (Burkert, 1987; Bowden, 2010; Bremmer, 2014). Each of the cults provided initiation ceremonies. Each was based on its own set of myths.

The cult of Dionysus/Bacchus centered on the life and actions of the God of Wine. Celebrations of this cult – bacchanalia – involved intoxication with wine and frenzied dancing. Most of the celebrants were female; in their ecstasy these were called maenads. The Orphic rites derived from the story of Orpheus who tried to reclaim his wife from Hades. The myths and cults of Orpheus and Dionysus were closely related. Some stories tell of the death of Orpheus from being torn apart by maenads celebrating the rites of Dionysus.

The cult of Isis came from Egypt but was widely celebrated in the Roman Empire. Isis was a Goddess of fertility similar in nature to Demeter. Her life was a search for the dismembered body of her brother/husband Osiris. The rites of Magna Mater (“great mother”, also called Cybele) originated in Anatolia (where the Romans believed they might have originated – as the descendants of Aeneas). Priestesses in her cult, called Sibyls, provided advice and prophecy in early Rome. In later Roman times, the Persian God Mithra was widely celebrated in secret temples.

The foundational myths of the different mysteries have many similarities. Many involve a journey to Hades and/or the return of someone from the Underworld. Dionysus journeyed to Hades to rescue his mother Semele, who had died when her lover Zeus revealed himself in all his glory. Orpheus sought to rescue his wife from the Underworld.  Osiris was finally brought back to life and became the god of regeneration on the earth and the judge of all who enter the Underworld. The world has known many cults that revolve around the death and resurrection of a God (Frazer, 1923)

Some of the mysteries (particularly those related to Dionysus, and Orpheus) may have provided the initiates with small gold tablets (Bowden 2010, Chapter 7). These were buried along with the deceased in various areas of Greece. The tablets were inscribed with what are apparently instructions about what to do when the initiate dies. The most important instruction was to drink the water from the Pool of Memory (Mnemosyne) rather than from the River of Forgetting (Lethe). Several tablets indicate that Mnemosyne is to the right near a white cypress tree. Once refreshed, the newly dead could “go on the great Sacred Way along which the other famed mystai and bakkhoi make their way” (Bowden, 2010, p 149). The following is a 4th-Century BCE tablet (approximately 2 by 4 inches) from Thessaly (now in the J. P. Getty Museum in California)

The cryptic inscription requests a drink from the Spring of Memory and identifies the bearer according to some prescribed format likely learned from the Mysteries:

I am parched with thirst and am dying; but grant me to drink
from the ever-flowing spring. On the right is a white cypress.
‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ I am a son of Earth and starry sky.
But my race is heavenly.

The Mysteries were thus one way that the Ancients came to grips with the idea of death. Burkert describes the mysteries as “a form of personal religion, depending on a private decision, and aiming at some form of salvation through closeness to the divine.” (1987, p 12). He quotes Cicero who said that those who underwent the initiations at Eleusis learned “how to live in joy, and how to die with better hopes.”(Laws, II, 36).

Literary Allusions to the Mysteries

Two striking allusions to the Mysteries occur in the ancient literature. The first from Plato’s Phaedrus highlights the revelations that came from participating in the Mysteries. For Plato supreme understanding came from recognizing the eternal forms upon which transient individual things were based. In Phaedrus Socrates likens the mind of man to a charioteer which has to control two winged horses, one striving toward the good and one falling away toward evil.  If the mind can control the horses and get the chariot to rise up it might reach the outside of heaven and behold

justice, and temperance, and knowledge absolute, not in the form of generation or of relation, which men call existence, but knowledge absolute in existence absolute (Jowett translation, Section 247)

Before it assumed mortal form the soul understood truth and beauty for which it now has only a faint memory. Sometimes through love or through philosophy this knowledge can be regained. Socrates likens the understanding of the absolute to what happens when one is initiated into the Mysteries:

For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty. There was a time when with the rest of the happy band they saw beauty shining in brightness,—we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell. (Section 250).*

The second allusion to the Mysteries is by Plutarch, who in his essay On the Soul likens the experience of the soul at death to what happens during the initiation into the Mysteries:

Thus we say that the soul that has passed thither is dead, having regard to its complete change and conversion. In this world it is without knowledge, except when it is already at the point of death; but when that time comes, it has an experience like that of men who are undergoing initiation into great mysteries; and so the verbs teleutan (die) and teleisthai (be initiated), and the actions they denote, have a similarity. In the beginning there is straying and wandering, the weariness of running this way and that, and nervous journeys through darkness that reach no goal, and then immediately before the consummation every possible terror, shivering and trembling and sweating and amazement. But after this a marvellous light meets the wanderer, and open country and meadow lands welcome him; and in that place there are voices and dancing and the solemn majesty of sacred music and holy visions. And amidst these, he walks at large in new freedom, now perfect and fully initiated, celebrating the sacred rites, a garland upon his head, and converses with pure and holy men; he surveys the uninitiated, unpurified mob here on earth, the mob of living men who, herded together in mirk and deep mire, trample one another down and in their fear of death cling to their ills, since they disbelieve in the blessings of the other world. For the soul’s entanglement with the body and confinement in it are against nature, as you may discern from this. (Plutarch from the fragment On the Soul, Sandbach translation, 1969, pp 317-319).

These two mentions of the Mysteries in the ancient literature bring out the two main aspects of the rites: the attainment of understanding through a vision of the divine, and the provision of some way of coping with death.

Relations to Christianity

In the 4th Century CE during the reign of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, taking over from the various mystery cults. How much Christianity assimilated from these earlier belief systems is difficult to assess.

Christianity differed significantly from the Mysteries. A primary difference was the lack of secrecy. Christianity was based on set doctrines that were promulgated by the faithful and delineated in scriptural texts. The teachings of the Mysteries were far less dogmatic and heresy was unknown. In addition, Christianity was communal. Believers did not just attend the mysteries once or twice in their lives – they worshipped together weekly and acted on their beliefs daily. A third main difference was the lack of any clear moral teaching in the Mysteries.

The early Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexander (2nd Century CE, icon on the right) both decried the Mysteries as superstition and promoted Christian beliefs as the greatest of the mysteries:

O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy while I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant, and seals while illuminating him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be kept safe for ever. Such are the reveries of my mysteries. (Protrepticus Chapter 12).

Clement proposed that Christianity was the “mystery of the Word (logos),” the divine truth that was manifest in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Clement was using logos in its meaning as “truth.” However, Christianity also differed from the Mysteries in virtue of the other meaning of logos as “word.” Christianity followed scripture; the Mysteries were based on secrets.

The sacraments of Christianity (Baptism, Eucharist, etc.) are often referred to as the Mysteries of Faith. These transcendent rites cannot be understood by reason. The Catholic existentialist philosopher Maritain (1962, First Lecture) differentiated two modes of human thinking. One uses reason to solve problems. The other uses intuition to understand mysteries. Knowledge involves both.

The main story underlying the Christian mysteries is that of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The climax of the story comes with Christ’s statement on the cross as he nears death: tetelestai – “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word is similar to those used in the Mysteries.

The Mysteries dealt with coming face to face with divinity and coping with death.  Christianity was more certain of its ability to provide salvation:

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (I Corinthians 15 51-55)

What happens to consciousness after death is the great mystery of human life. In the Ancient World this question was addressed by the various Mysteries. As Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, the story of Christ provided the most widely believed answer. “I have met the gods and am prepared for death” changed to “I believe in Christ and have been granted salvation.”

Tetelestai

Human experience is not random. Because of memory we recognize when events repeat and discover the laws whereby they recur. Most importantly we find a self or soul at the point where events become experience.

Every morning when we awaken we quickly reassemble this soul and the world in which it lives. Surely we tell ourselves that death will be no different. Just as the world proceeds from winter into spring, the soul will return to life.

We tell stories of what will happen then, when the body dies and the soul survives. The stories are intricate and beautiful. They provide us with hope for ourselves and comfort for those we leave behind.

Yet we all die. Though the stories and the stones of Eleusis survive, the initiates all vanished long ago. There is no golden ticket to heaven. We are born. We tell stories. Some are true and some fanciful. In the end it is finished, and we are buried in the earth beneath the starry sky.

Note

* The words “through a glass dimly” immediately recall “through a glass darkly” in I Corinthians 13:11 (“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”) The idea is similar to that expressed in Phaedrus, and Paul was undoubtedly aware of Plato’s work. However, it is not a direct quotation – though the translations are similar, the original Greek words are different.

References

Bowden, H. (2010). Mystery cults of the ancient world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bremmer, J. N. (2014). Initiation into the mysteries of the ancient world. Berlin: De Gruyter. Available at learningsources.altervista.org

Burkert, W. (1987). Ancient mystery cults. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Cartwright, M. (2016). Food and agriculture in Ancient Greece. Ancient History Encyclopedia

Clement of Alexandria (2nd Century CE, translated by W. Watson, 1885). Protrepticus Exhortation to the Heathens.  Available at New Advent

Clinton, K. (1992). Myth and cult: The iconography of the Eleusinian mysteries. Stockholm: Svenska Institutet i Athen.

Clinton, K. (1993). The sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis. In Marinatos, N., & Hägg, R. Greek sanctuaries: New approaches. (pp. 88-98). London: Routledge.

Frazer, J. G. (1923). The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. Abridged ed. London: Macmillan. Available at Arkive.org

Kerényi, K. (translated Ralph Manheim, 1967). Eleusis: Archetypal image of mother and daughter. New York: Bollingen Foundation (Pantheon Books).

Lawton, W. C. (1898). The successors of Homer. New York: Macmillan. Available at Arkive.org

Maritain, J. (1939, reprinted 1962). A preface to metaphysics: Seven lectures on being. New York: New American Library.

Mylonas, G. E. (1961). Eleusis and the Eleusinian mysteries. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. Available at Arkive.org

Plato (4th Century BCE, translated B. Jowett, 1892). The dialogues of Plato translated into English with analyses and introductions. Volume I. 3rd Edition. London: MacMillan. Available at Arkive.org

Plutarch (1st Century CE, translated by F. H. Sandbach, 1969). Moralia. Volume XV Fragments. London: Heinemann. Available at Arkive.org

Wasson, R. G., Hofmann, A., & Ruck, C. A. P. (1978). The road to Eleusis: Unveiling the secret of the mysteries. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.




Aspects of Etruria

 

The Etruscans thrived from about 900 to 100 BCE. Although archaeology has revealed much about their life, even more remains unknown. After the Etruscans were assimilated by the Romans, their written history was lost. Although the Emperor Claudius wrote a 20-volume history of the Etruscans, not a page of this has survived.

Popular ideas that the Etruscans originated in Greece, Turkey or Phoenicia have given way to the idea that they were indigenous to the area where they lived – Etruria. This is the land north of the Tiber River, south of the Po River and west of the Apennine Mountains, comprising the present day Italian regions of Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria.

The Etruscan language was not written down until about 700 BCE when a modified Greek alphabet was used. What little we know, mainly from epitaphs on tombs and inscriptions on pottery, indicates a language that is not Indo-European in origin.

Without a history and with little language, our understanding of the Etruscans remains as fragmentary as the pottery in their graves. We piece together what we can.

cerveteri-841x-b

In his prologue to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962), Giorgio Bassani describes a visit to the Etruscan tombs at the Banditaccia Necropolis near Cerveteri (illustrated above). A young girl, Giannina, asks her father why it is that old tombs are not as sad as new ones. Her father suggests that

‘People who have just died are closer to us, and so we are fonder of them. The Etruscans, after all, have been dead for a long time’ — again he was telling a fairy tale — ‘so long it’s as if they had never lived, as if they had always been dead.’

Giannina thinks about this for a while and then replies

‘But now, if you say that,’ she ventured softly, ‘you remind me that the Etruscans were also alive once, and so I’m fond of them, like everyone else.’

Etruscans often evoke these tender feelings. This post, which follows a visit to Etruria last month in a tour led by Nigel Spivey, considers some aspects of Etruscan culture which have intrigued me. Like Giannina, I have become fond of them.

Eternal Banquets

Most of what we know about the Etruscans come from their tombs. Their cities were destroyed and rebuilt by later civilizations, but the cemeteries remained largely untouched. Some tombs, especially those in the Monterozzi Necropolis near Tarquinia, have striking wall paintings. The Tomb of the Leopards from the 5th Century BCE (illustration below derived from Wikipedia) depicts a banquet (Tathje, 2013). Whether this represents the funeral celebration for the deceased or the eternal feasting to be expected in the afterlife is not known. Perhaps both.

tomb-of-the-leopards-xb

D. H. Lawrence described this painting in Etruscan Places:

The end wall has a splendid banqueting scene. The feasters recline upon a checked or tartan couch-cover, on the banqueting couch, and in the open air, for they have little trees behind them. The six feasters are bold and full of life like the dancers, but they are strong, they keep their life so beautifully and richly inside themselves, they are not loose, they don’t lose themselves even in their wild moments. They lie in pairs, man and woman, reclining equally on the couch, curiously friendly. The two end women are called hetaerae, courtesans; chiefly because they have yellow hair, which seems to have been a favourite feature in a woman of pleasure. The men are dark and ruddy, and naked to the waist. The women, sketched in on the creamy rock, are fair, and wear thin gowns, with rich mantles round their hips. They have a certain free bold look, and perhaps really are courtesans.

The man at the end is holding up, between thumb and forefinger, an egg, showing it to the yellow-haired woman who reclines next to him, she who is putting out her left hand as if to touch his breast. He, in his right hand, holds a large wine-dish, for the revel.

The next couple, man and fair-haired woman, are looking round and making the salute with the right hand curved over, in the usual Etruscan gesture. It seems as if they too are saluting the mysterious egg held up by the man at the end; who is, no doubt, the man who has died, and whose feast is being celebrated. But in front of the second couple a naked slave with a chaplet on his head is brandishing an empty wine-jug, as if to say he is fetching more wine. Another slave farther down is holding out a curious thing like a little axe, or fan. The last two feasters are rather damaged. One of them is holding up a garland to the other, but not putting it over his head as they still put a garland over your head, in India, to honour you.

Above the banqueters, in the gable angle, the two great spotted male leopards hang out their tongues and face each other heraldically, lifting a paw, on either side of a little tree. They are the leopards or panthers of the underworld Bacchus, guarding the exits and the entrances of the passion of life. (Lawrence, 1933/1950, pp 65-66)

Lawrence enthusiastically conveys the feelings of the banquet. However, he did not get everything right. The tomb was constructed later than he thought and the women were likely not courtesans. Although the symposia of the Greeks involved only wine and were limited to males (and occasional courtesans), the feasts portrayed in Etruscan paintings included food and allowed both male and female participants. The relations between the sexes may have been more equal in Etruscan society than in other ancient cultures. Probably the most famous piece of Etruscan art is the Sarcophagus of the Spouses (6th century BCE) from Cerveteri, now displayed in the Villa Giulia in Rome. A married couple partakes of the eternal banquet. The man was probably holding in his right hand an egg as a symbol of regeneration. The woman may have held a small jar of oil to pour onto the outstretched hand of her husband. Their archaic smiles suggest an enviable serenity in the face of death:

sposi-876xg-bThe banquet portrayed in tomb paintings and sarcophagi is a recurring theme in Etruscan art. The illustration below shows a fragment of a terra cotta frieze from the eaves of a temple. Three reclining Etruscans enjoy the music of the aulos on the left and the lyre on the right. Beneath the couch, the family pet scrounges for scraps of food:

terra-cotta-symposium-585x-aa-b

The painters and sculptors were either Greek immigrants to Etruria or Etruscans whom they had trained. The artists may have left Greece and came west because of war and tyranny in their homeland. In the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, large Greek colonies were founded in Sicily and Southern Italy. Although the Greeks did not colonize Etruria, they had extensive commercial and artistic interactions with the Etruscans.

In the first millennium BCE commercial shipping in the Mediterranean was very active: Phoenicians from both the Levant and Carthage, Greeks from both Greece and Sicily, and Etruscans all traded with each other (Bruni, 2013; Haynes, 2000, pp 62-64; Smith, 2014, chapter 5). Much of the trade involved luxury goods – wine, painted pottery, jewellery.

Afterlife

The central painting from the Tomb of the Augurs (6th century BCE) in Tarquinia shows a closed doorway (see below). This symbol, common in Etruscan funerary art and architecture, likely represents the portal between the realms of the living and the dead.

augurs-xb

The symbol recurs in the ruined tombs in the tufa cliffs of the Castel d’Asso necropolis near Viterbo (see below). The tombs were designed on three levels (as diagramed on the right). The top allowed for sacrifices and libations to the gods. The middle level provided a place for the funerary celebrations, and the tombs containing the sarcophagi were below.

castel-dasso-xb

The ruins of the Castel d’Asso necropolis evoke the melancholy and mystery that the Victorians found fascinating in the Etrucans. Below is an etching (from British Museum) by Samuel Ainsley prepared for the 1848 book by George Dennis, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria. Today the site remains little changed.

ainsley-castel-dasso-bm-b

Divination

We are not sure what the two men standing on either side of the door in the Tomb of the Augurs are doing. Perhaps they are bidding farewell to the deceased who has gone beyond the door into the afterlife. Another interpretation, one that gives its name to the tomb, is that they are augurs foretelling the future through the flight of birds – auspicy. Indeed, a bird is seen on the left of the door.

haruspicy-2x-b

 

Etruscans also divined the future by examining the entrails of animals sacrificed to the gods – haruspicy (de Grummond, 2013). Etruscan graves have yielded fascinating models of the livers of sheep in bronze and in terra cotta (illustration on right). The bronze version (the Piacenza Liver) is extensively annotated to help guide the divination. The gall bladder droops down in the center; the caudate lobe is raised in the upper right, and the middle upper raised portion is likely the quadrate lobe.

 

Even during Roman times, Etruscans were renowned for their ability to foresee the future. The seer who warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March was an Etruscan named Spurinna.

Portraits

Within the tombs, the Etruscan dead were usually placed within sarcophagi. Some of these were sculpted in terra cotta. The earlier sarcophagi – such as the Sarcophagus of the Spouses – have idealized features. Later versions of these sarcophagi present striking portraits of the deceased (Brendel & Serra, 1995, pp 387-400; Carpino. 2013). Greek sculpture tended toward the ideal, but later Etruscan sculpture was far more individual. The following illustrations show a sarcophagus from the 3rd or 2nd century BCE from Tuscania, and several portrait heads.

etruscan-sarcophagus
etruscan-heads-hhBucchero

The tombs of the Etruscans were full of grave goods. These represented prestige objects or keimelia – “things which are to be treasured when plundered or presented, but not cashed in” (Spivey, 1997, p 43). Pottery was abundant. Although some of the pottery was made by Etruscans in imitation of the Greek forms, much of the pottery in the tombs came from Greece. The Etruscans traded with the Greeks for these beautiful objects. Athenian painted pottery was particularly popular, and many striking examples of these vessels were preserved in Etruscan graves. Indeed, most of the Athenian pottery in the British museum was actually found in Etruria rather than Greece.

Nevertheless, one type of pottery found in the graves – bucchero – was specifically Etruscan (Perkins, 2007; de Puma, 2013a). So much so that its presence elsewhere in the Mediterranean indicated trade with Etruria. The name bucchero is of uncertain origin. Some have linked it with a type of black clay from South America named bucaro in Spanish. Most of the Etruscan pottery was discovered in the tombs during the 18th century, a time when pottery from the New World was being imported to Europe, and the Spanish term may have become generalized to denote any balck pottery. Perhaps, a more reasonable suggestion is that the word might come from the Latin poculum for drinking cup.

Bucchero pottery is black or dark grey. Not just on the surface but throughout. The color was caused by decreasing the air supply to the kilns in which the pottery was baked. Due to the lack of oxygen, the iron in the clay became black ferrous oxide rather than red ferric oxide. The surface of bucchero can be burnished to an almost metallic sheen. Depending on the light the black surface sometimes has a faint tinge of brown or blue. Some have suggested that bucchero was made in imitation of more expensive bronze or silver vessels. Yet bucchero is beautiful in its own right.

The earliest bucchero made in the 7th and 6th centuries in the southern parts of Etruria. This thin-walled bucchero sottile was often engraved with simple geometric patterns such as spirals or fans. Later bucchero pesante with much thicker walls was manufactured in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE and was more common in northern Etruria. This type of bucchero was adorned with relief decoration. The following two wine pitchers (oenochoai) illustrate the differences. The decoration on the right pitcher shows a typical Etruscan image of flying horses.

oenochoai

One of the most characteristic styles of bucchero is the kantharos. The design of this particular type of wine vessel (below left) may have actually originated in Etruria. The high handles make the kantharos far easier to hold and drink from than the typical flat Greek kylix, which may have been more frequently used for libations rather than for drinking. The Etruscans also made elegant chalices (from Latin calyx) which are similar to our modern wine goblets. The illustration below shows a kantharos and a calyx from ancient Etruria.

kantharos-kalyxMirrors

Bronze mirrors were also common in the grave goods of Etruscan tombs from the 5th to 4th centuries BCE (de Puma, 2013bc). The backs of the mirrors were occasionally decorated with relief carvings, but more often they were engraved with drawings. These typically depicted persons from Greek mythology. In the illustrated mirrors below, the top two are very similar  ̶  two nude men in the company of two women, one dressed and one not. This image occurs very frequently, and may have come from one particular workshop. Exactly who is represented varies. Sometimes the characters are actually labelled – as Achilles and Chryseis (Cressida) together with Helen and Paris (de Puma, 2013c, p 176). On other versions of this mirror, similar characters may be Castor and Pollux with Athena and Aphrodite (de Puma, 2013c, p 185).

etruscan-mirrors-hh

These mirrors indicate a people highly conscious of themselves, aware of what it means to be beautiful and fascinated by stories. The polished side no longer reflects Etruscan faces but the drawings on the back preserve the contents of their imagination.

Envoi

D. H. Lawrence found in the Etruscans a vitality and honesty that he considered lacking in the modern world (Spivey, 1995, pp 192-194). He ignored the facts that Etruscan society existed on the backs of slaves, and that only the aristocrats were able to enjoy the good life. Lawrence saw what he wanted to see. We all do.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Etruscans enjoyed life immensely. Wine, music, beautiful things and good company were central to their lives. Most impressive was their intense self-consciousness. Their portraits and mirrors tell of people who sought to understand themselves. Their sense of self was deep enough to convince them that they would persist after death. We may not have the same beliefs. But we must admire this confidence.

 

References

Bassani, G. (1962, translated by W. Weaver, 1977). The garden of the Finzi-Continis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Brendel, O., & Serra, R. F. R. (1995). Etruscan art. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bruni, S. (2013). Seafaring: shipbuilding, harbors, the issue of piracy.  In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 759-777). New York: Routledge.

Carpino, A. A. (2013). Portraiture. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World.  (pp 1007-1016). New York: Routledge.

de Grummond, N. T. (2013).  Haruspicy and augury: Sources and procedures. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World.  (pp 539-556). New York: Routledge.

Dennis, G. (1848/1878). Cities and cemeteries of Etruria. 2nd Edition. Volume I and Volume II. London: John Murray.

de Puma, R. D. (2013a).The meanings of bucchero. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 974-992). New York: Routledge.

de Puma, R. D. (2013b). Mirrors in art and society. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 1041-1067). New York: Routledge.

de Puma, R. D. (2013c). Etruscan art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Haynes, S. (2005). Etruscan civilization: A cultural history. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.

Lawrence, D. H. (1933/1950). Etruscan places. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Perkins, P. (2007). Etruscan Bucchero in the British Museum. British Museum Research Publication 165.

Smith, C. (2014). The Etruscans: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spivey, N. J. (1997). Etruscan art. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Tathje, A. (2013). The banquet through Etruscan history.  In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 823-830). New York: Routledge.




Stonehenge

Over five thousand years ago the Neolithic people of Britain began to erect a monumental stone structure known as “Stonehenge” on the Salisbury Plain. The name likely means “hanging” or “suspended” stones. The structure underwent several changes over the years of its construction, reaching its final form around 2000 BCE.

The stones are of two kinds. The largest are the sarsens, which have their origin in the hills about 40 km north of Stonehenge. The word “sarsen,” first used at the time of the Crusades, comes from “Saracen” and essentially means “pagan.”

The smaller bluestones come from the Preseli Mountains in Southwest Wales 240 km away. Most archaeologists currently believe that these were transported across the Bristol Channel and then overland to Stonehenge. The bluestones may have been used in several ways during the different periods of construction. In the final form of the monument they are arranged within the outer circle of sarsens and within the inner horseshoe of larger sarsens.

The monument has long been a symbol of ancient Britain. Over the years, however, our understanding of it has changed radically. This posting considers how Stonehenge has interacted with the British imagination. Because of its striking appearance, images are given as much space as words.

Past and Present Structure

The following figure shows a photograph of the monument taken from the Southwest by Diego Delso in 2014. A larger version of the photograph is available from Wikipedia.

stoneheng diego XB
In the center of the figure is a large standing stone – the only stone still upright from the great trilithon (“three stones” – two erect stones with a superimposed lintel). At its top is a small peak representing the tenon of a mortice-and-tenon joint that served to maintain the lintel on top of the two uprights.

tpmorticetenonBehind and to the right of this central stone can be seen the surviving arches of the outer sarsen circle. The lintels on this circle are held in position using tongue-in-groove as well as mortice-and-tenon joints. These techniques are similar to those used in woodworking (Chippindale, 2012, p 12; Johnson, 2008, pp 142-148). The figure on the right (modified from the English Heritage site) illustrates these procedures.

 

Many of the original stones have collapsed. Some fallen stones were probably long ago broken up and used for other buildings. Others lie on the ground; others are buried. Most of the sarsens on the south and west of the outer circle fell and vanished long ago. The following figure shows on the left a diagram of how the monument might have been in 2000 BCE (based on Johnson, 2008, p. 166). and on the right a plan of the present site (modified from the English Heritage Webpage).

tpstonehengeplan

The outer ring of sarsens with the superimposed lintels rose almost 5 m above the ground. The trilithons of the inner sarsen horseshoe varied in height: those at the open end of the horseshoe were about 6 m high, the adjacent trilithons a little higher and the great trilithon at the center of the horseshoe almost 7.5 m. The bluestones are much smaller and quite variable in size and shape. The illustration below shows a digital model by Hypnagogia of how the completed monument might have appeared as viewed from the Northeast at sunrise.

green model xbThe great trilithon collapsed long ago. The eastern upright broke in two over the altar stone. The western upright fell only halfway and was for many years held up at an angle by the inner bluestone. It was re-erected and stabilized in 1901. The first set of stones whose fall is historically recorded is the southwestern trilithon which collapsed in 1797. It was re-erected in 1958.

Stonehenge_render_labelled xb

As shown on the right, the standing stones are at the center of a larger circle marked by a ditch and by the Aubrey Holes. These are the oldest part of the monument, predating the sarsens by several hundred years. Parker Pearson (2012, pp 181-186) has suggested that the Aubrey Holes may have been the original location of the bluestones, which were later removed and placed within the sarsen monument.

Early Views of Stonehenge

BM egerton 3028 xb

 

One of the earliest accounts of Stonehenge occurs in Geoffrey of Monmouths’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136). Chapters 10 to 12 of Book 8 provide a fanciful tale of the stones being erected by giants under the supervision of Merlin, the sage of the Arthurian legends. The Egerton 3028 manuscript in the British Library contains an illustration of this story.

 

 

The first “realistic” depiction of Stonehenge was a 1575 watercolour by Lucas De Heere, a Flemish refugee in England. The painting shows the general size and arrangement of the stones as viewed from the Northwest but is woefully incorrect in its detail (Chippindale, 2012, pp 33-35). The most glaring error is that the monolith of the great trilithon is depicted as leaning outwards rather than inwards.

lucas SH xB
The great English architect Inigo Jones studied the monument in the 17th Century. John Webb collected Jones’ notes and published them posthumously in 1655 in a book entitled The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly called Stone-Heng on Salisbury Plain. Jones thought that the stones were erected as a temple by the Romans during their occupation of Britain. He considered the ancient Britons too savage to have built a monument of such perfectly classical proportions.
jones stonehenge xbThis idea was disputed by John Aubrey, the author of the famous Brief Lives, who published his Monumenta Britannica in 1665. He made a careful study of the Stonehenge site and noted the circle of chalk pits around the stone monument, which are still called Aubrey Holes (Johnson, 2008, p. 57). He pointed out that the Britain and Ireland contained multiple Neolithic monuments and stone circles, and that many of these were in areas where the Romans had never penetrated. He therefore suggested that they were erected by the Britons as “Temples of the Druids” (Hill, 2008, p 33).

Aubrey’s proposal was promoted by William Stukeley, a friend of Isaac Newton. He published Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids in 1740. Initially he had made some accurate observations of Stonehenge: he was the first to notice the “avenue” leading to Stonehenge from the Northeast (Chapter 8), and he noted that the monument and the avenue were oriented along a line pointing to the sunrise at the summer solstice (Chippindale, 2012, p. 75).

Imaginative Interpretations of Stonehenge

However, Stukeley soon let his imagination take over, and he concocted a narrative of how the Jewish patriarchs had visited England in ancient times with the Phoenicians (Chippindale, 2012, Chapter 8; Lewis Williams & Pearce, 2005, pp 169-172; Hill, 2008, pp. 39-49). This was all part of a grand universal history of humanity, with the pure original religion being initially subverted by idolatry and then restored by Jesus. He considered Stonehenge as a temple of this primordial religion, where divine observances were conducted by the Celtic Druids. Stukeley was so enthusiastic about these ideas that he took to calling himself Chyndonax, Prince of the Druids. His work has exerted a tremendous influence on the popular views of Stonehenge. Modern dating methods have shown that Stonehenge was built by Neolithic Britons more than a thousand years before the Iron-Age Celts (who only became evident in Britain by after 1000 BCE). Nevertheless, to this day druids still conduct services at Stonehenge on the days of the summer solstice.

Some of Stukeley’s ideas are present in William Blake’s poem Jerusalem:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

Hubert Parry’s 1916 musical setting of this poem has become an extremely popular anthem, traditionally sung with great fervor and flag-waving on the last night of the Proms.

blake milton xbBlake’s poem is contained in the preface to his illuminated book Milton a Poem (1811). The poem deals with the need for the creative imagination to liberate mankind from slavery to established morality. Some illustrations of megaliths (e. g. part of page 4 shown on the right) are included in this long poem, and at times Blake seems to suggest these as evidence of religion’s Satanic power over the people. Some interpreters have even considered the “Satanic Mills” of the second verse of the prefatory poem mean the established churches rather than the cotton mills of the industrial revolution.

However, Blake’s view of Stonehenge was ambiguous. The last page of a later illuminated book Jerusalem: The emanation of the giant Albion. (1821) contains a striking image:

blake jerusalem XB

The central male figure is Los, the personification of imaginative energy, with the hammer and tongs he uses to create. On the left is his spectre carrying the sun. On the right is his emanation, Enitharmon, the female personification of spiritual beauty. She holds what appears to be a spindle, from which descend the threads of life. Below them is a serpentine line of trilithons with a central circle similar to the Stonehenge. The meaning of this final image is not clear. In his notes to the facsimile edition of the book, Paley suggests that these structures may represent the creation of Jerusalem in England. However, the words of a prophet can be difficult to understand.

Romanticism

J. M. W. Turner visited Stonehenge in 1799. He made several drawings of the ruins. The following small sketch represents a view from the West.

turner stonehenge drawing 1799 xb

In 1827 he created a watercolor based on his earlier sketches. The final painting depicts Stonehenge during a storm. Lightning strikes the ground in the middle of the ruin, killing many sheep and the shepherd who lies in the right foreground. The shepherd’s dog howls disconsolately. An 1829 engraving of this image became very popular, appealing to the public’s new romantic fascination with the unrestrained power of nature:

turner stonehenge engraved robert wallis 1829 xb

John Constable’s 1835 watercolor of Stonehenge also sets the monument in a scene of great natural power. The view is from the South. In the North are dark storm clouds, onto which the sun has cast a double rainbow. At the time of this painting, Constable was grieving for his recently deceased wife. The painting is imbued with sadness; the rainbows are drained of color.

constable Xb

Constable (quoted in Chippindale, 2012, p 105) provided a caption when his painting was first exhibited:

The mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the present, carries you back beyond all historical recall into the obscurity of a totally unknown period.

Modernism and Stonehenge

The Romantic approach to Stonehenge does not do justice to its austere beauty. However, Modernism also fails to capture the essence of the site. The following is a 1935 painting by Paul Nash entitled Equivalents for the Megaliths. Large geometric shapes are set down in a stylized English landscape. The painting does not convey the power of Stonehenge or the other megalithic monuments, though it does suggest their incomprehensibility.

nash equivalents xb

John Piper’s ink-and-wash painting from 1981 is more successful. This considers Stonehenge form the point of view of a Romantic Modernist.

piper painting xb

Photographs of Stonehenge

Photographs provide a realistic view of Stonehenge. The following is the first known photograph, a calotype by William Russell Sedgfield in 1853 (copied from Chippindale, p.149). The view is from the west. A carriage stands by the leaning upright of the great trilithon.

sedge002xb

Photographs also provide a record of the reconstruction. The following photograph by John Piper shows the upright resurrected. This photograph was taken before the 1958 reconstruction of the southwestern trilithon (which can be seen in the 2014 photograph at the beginning of this posting).

piper stonehenge xb

piper photograph XB

 

John Piper in another undated photograph in the Tate Britain collection focuses on the surface of one of the stones. In so doing he captures their very tactile impression. Unlike other megaliths, the stones at Stonehenge were dressed using stone axes so that their inner surfaces were smooth. Over the years lichen have painted upon them in an abstract expressionist style.

 

 

 

 

caponigro xb

 

 

Photographs can give a sense of the place as well as providing a simple record. The photograph to the left by Paul Caponigro is entitled Inner Trilithon through Circle Stones, Stonehenge (1970). Caponigro published a large book of photographs of the Neolithic monuments in Britain, Ireland and France in 1986. The outer reaches of Europe contain numerous stone structures dating back to several thousand years BCE (Mohen, 1999)

 

 

 

 

Prints of the Stones

trevelyan xb

 

 

Print-makers have been very successful in capturing the form and feeling of Stonehenge. Perhaps they are more comfortable with stones, since they work closely with them in lithography. Their prints concentrate on how the light plays on the monument. They tend to consider the monument in part rather than in whole. On the right is a 1961 aquatint print by Julian Trevelyan.

 

 

 

Henry Moore made a series of lithographs of Stonehenge in 1973. All are available at the Tate Britain website. Below is Stonehenge IV:

moore SH IV XB

stevens 1974 XB

 

 

On the right is a 1974 intaglio by Norman Stevens. Stonehenge at night has a brooding majesty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature of Stonehenge

What purpose did Stonehenge serve? Many fanciful explanations have been proposed with little support other than the imagination (Hutton, 2013). Any ideas that the site served as a place for living are completely dispelled by the lack of any archeological evidence for everyday life. The people who built Stonehenge lived nearby but not at the site of the monument. They stayed close to the River Avon in a place called Durrington Walls, where archeologists have found signs of ancient wooden buildings, and the refuse of everyday life (Parker Pearson, 2012). Some of the wooden buildings, such as Woodhenge, were circular. The people then used the techniques of the wooden buildings when constructing Stonehenge.

Why then did they build their great megalithic monument? Was it a place for meetings or a site for religious observances? One would have thought that the objects used in such meetings or rites might have remained, but the site is largely empty of anything unrelated to the stones or to the burials. Was Stonehenge a shrine where the sick went for healing under the benign influence of the stones? The human remains do not show evidence of obvious illness. Was Stonehenge a celestial observatory to help predict the seasons and eclipses (Hawkins & White, 1965)? When one stands at the base of the great trilithon at the summer solstice, one can see the sun rise over the Heel Stone. Although the monument is laid out along the line of the solstices, most archeologists now feel that this was more of gesture to the heavens rather than a way to measure them (Brown, 1976; Ruggles & Hoskin, 1999; Hutton, 2013)

Because of the cremated human remains found in the Aubrey Holes, Parker Pearson (2012) has suggested that the site was built as a monument to the dead, perhaps as a place to honor noble ancestors. He tells an intriguing story of how he was told by Ramilisonina, an archeologist from Madagascar, that people in his country spent their lives in wood structures, but gave their dead stone houses to last them for eternity. Other great stone monuments such as the Egyptian pyramids were certainly built as places for the dead, as were the British barrows and dolmens that predated Stonehenge.

Words

Thomas Hardy set the penultimate scene of his 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbevilles at Stonehenge. Tess has killed Alec, her seducer and tormentor. Tess and Angel Clare are now fleeing at night across the Salisbury Plain. When they reach Stonehenge, Tess is too tired to go on, and she lies down on one of the recumbent stones. She asks Angel if he believes that they might meet again after they are dead.

Like a greater than himself, to the critical question at the critical time he did not answer; and they were again silent. In a minute or two her breathing became more regular, her clasp of his hand relaxed, and she fell asleep. The band of silver paleness along the east horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near; and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity, and hesitation which is usual just before day. The eastward pillars and their architraves stood up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped Sun-stone beyond them; and the Stone of Sacrifice midway. Presently the night wind died out, and the quivering little pools in the cup-like hollows of the stones lay still.

The great stones are silent about what happens after death. They persist through the centuries. They evoke memories of those who built them so that they might, themselves, remember and honor their ancestors. Yet the world has moved on and all those ancient people are no more.

References

Blake, W. (1810, facsimile with annotations by Paley, M. D. 1991). Jerusalem: The emanation of the giant Albion. Princeton, N.J: William Blake Trust/Princeton University Press.

Brown, P. L. (1976). Megaliths, myths, and men: An introduction to astro-archaeology. Poole, Dorset, UK: Blandford Press.

Caponigro, P. (1986). Megaliths. Boston: Little, Brown.

Chippindale, C. (2012). Stonehenge complete. 4th Ed. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Hawkins, G. S., & White, G. B. (1965). Stonehenge decoded. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.

Hill, R. (2008). Stonehenge. London: Profile Books.

Hutton, R. (2013). Pagan Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Johnson, A. (2008). Solving Stonehenge: The new key to an ancient enigma. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Lewis-Williams, J. D., & Pearce, D. G. (2005). Inside the Neolithic mind: Consciousness, cosmos, and the realm of the gods. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mohen, J.-P. (1999). Megaliths: Stones of memory. New York: Abrams.

Parker Pearson, M. & Stonehenge Riverside Project (2012). Stonehenge: Exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery. London: Simon & Schuster

Ruggles, C. & Hoskin, M. (1999) Astronomy before history. In M. Hoskin (Ed.) The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy. (pp. 1–17). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.




Divine Geometry

 

The Counter-Reformation, initiated by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in response to the Protestant Reformation, promoted art as a way for believers to become emotionally involved in the Church. While Protestants were whitewashing church walls and destroying sculptures, Catholics produced the masterpieces of Baroque Art. For the Protestant, nothing should come between man and God; for the Catholic, the majesty of art could bring man to the mystery of God.

borromini engraving xxx

Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) was born as Francesco Castelli in Ticino in the lake district of Northern Italy, which at that time was actually part of Switzerland (Connors, 1999). The son of a stone-mason, he studied in Milan and may have been taught there by the great geometer Muzio Oddi. The young man finished his apprenticeship and came to Rome in 1619 to work for Carlo Maderno, the Chief Architect of Saint Peter’s Basilica and a fellow Ticinese. In Rome Francesco assumed the name of “Borromini” after San Carlo Borromeo (1538-84), Archbishop of Milan, leading force in the Counter-Reformation, and perhaps a distant relative of his mother.

 

In Rome, Borromini met a young sculptor from Naples, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Bernini was the most talented and productive of the Baroque sculptors. With his intense creativity and charming personality, he soon became the favorite of the Roman popes. In 1624, Bernini was commissioned to construct the baldacchino over the high altar at Saint Peter’s, and after the death of Carlo Maderno in 1629, he was appointed Chief Architect of Saint Peter’s.

For a brief time, Borromini acted as Bernini’s assistant. They did not get along (Morrissey , 2005). They were of opposite temperaments: Bernini was charming and enthusiastic, Borromini was obstinate and melancholic. Borromini felt exploited, and thought that Bernini was not sufficiently grounded in the science of architecture to warrant his position. He severely criticized Bernini’s proposals for the façade and bell-towers of Saint Peter’s. The criticisms were correct and the plans were revised, but Bernini never forgave him.

Bernini is the acknowledged genius of the Baroque Age (Hibbard, 1965; Beny & Gunn 1981; Wittkower, 1997; Hopkins, 2002). Recently, however, Borromini has become more widely studied (Blunt, 1970; Morrissey, 2005; Conors, 2007). His architecture is characterized by a marvelous sense of the effects of light on curving surfaces. In his geometry one may sense the divine. The Naxos String Quartet No 7 (Davies, 2007) attempts to express in music the emotional effects of his buildings. The movie La Sapienza (Green, 2015) focuses on the visual splendor of his architecture. This posting concerns two small churches in Rome.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Borromini’s first independent commission (1638-41) was to construct a small church, fittingly dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo. This Trinitarian church was located on a small space at the southern corner of an intersection with four fountains. Borromini’s design was based on an oval, geometrically constructed using two adjacent equilateral triangles, symbolic of the trinity. The long circular curves of the oval (red) were drawn using centers (red dots) at each end of the triangles’ adjacent sides. The short curves (blue) were drawn using centers (blue dots) located at each triangle’s centroid. The following figure shows the construction of the oval and the ground plan of the church.

san carlo geometry

The façade is shown in the following figure, together with a cutaway perspective drawing. One of the innovations of Baroque Architecture was the use of curves in the façade (discussed in Blunt, 1979, p. 76). Because of funding difficulties, the façade of San Carlo was not finally finished until 1665, but Borromini’s early sketches clearly define its subtle curves.

carlino 2

The oval dome of the church ascends to a cupola that contains the symbol of the trinity – a dove within a triangle within a flaming circle. Light enters the dome through lateral windows and through the cupola. A high resolution version of the following figure can be obtained in Wikipedia:

carlo dome

The coffered decoration of the dome is an intricate geometric mesh of octagons hexagons, and crosses. The design is based on the mosaic ceiling of the north ambulatory in the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza just outside the walls of Rome (see figure on the right). This was built in the 4th Century to house the remains Constantia, the daughter of Emperor Constantine I. Borromini not only adapted the design to a dome but also adapted it to give the dome an illusion of greater height.

san costanza mosaic

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza

In 1641-1660, Borromini designed and built a church for the University of Rome dedicated to Sant’Ivo, the patron saint of jurists. This was commissioned by Urban VIII (formerly Cardinal Barberini), under whose papacy Galileo had been sentenced to house arrest in 1633. Connors (2007) has suggested that the geometrical purity of its design may have provided a way for the papacy to heal its breech with science. Galileo died in 1642 soon after the church was begun. Urban VIII died in 1644, and the funding for the church fell away. It was only completed in 1660. The breech was difficult to heal.

The church is located at one end of the arcaded courtyard of the Palazzo della Sapienza, built by Giacomo della Porta (1533-1602). The following figure shows the floor plan of the palazzo and the church, together with a photograph from Adrian Fletcher’s Paradox Place.

sapienza plan and photo

Borromini based his church on two equilateral triangles overlapped to form a Star of David. This was also known as the Star of Solomon and thus was a symbol of wisdom. By locating circles at the apices of the triangles or at the midpoints of their sides two basic outlines could be obtained:

sapienza geometry

These two different outlines are evident in the dome and in the floor plan:

santivo dome and floorx

santivo spiral

 

On top of the dome, Borromini placed a lantern, and upon that he built a striking spiral staircase that leads to a flaming emblem (Connors, 1996). What this virtuosic construction means has been subject to great debate: Tower of Babel, Lighthouse of Alexandria, beehive (for the Barberini bees) or papal tiara? In essence, the spiral likely indicates the ascent toward wisdom. In the past it was one of the great climbs for the adventurous tourist in Rome.

 

Endings

Geometry did not bring Borromini serenity. Plagued by funding difficulties, paranoid that others might be stealing his ideas, lonely and embittered, Borromini entered old age. In 1667, he committed suicide. He wounded himself with his sword and died a day later, after having written down his own account of his death:

Last night the idea came to me of making my will and writing it out with my own hand, and I began to write it about an hour after supper and I went on writing with a pencil till about three in the morning. Messer Francesco Massari my young servant … who sleeps in the room next door to look after me and had already gone to bed, seeing that I was still writing and had not put out the light, called to me, ‘Signor Cavaliere, you ought to put out the light and go to sleep because it is late and the doctor wants you to sleep.’ I replied that I should have to light the lamp again when I woke up and he answered: ‘Put it out because I’ll light it again when you wake up’; and so I stopped writing, put away the paper on which I had written a little and the pencil with which I was writing, put out the light and went to sleep. About five or six I woke up and called to Francesco and told him to light the lamp, and he answered: ‘Signor, no’. And hearing this reply I suddenly became impatient and began to wonder how I could do myself some bodily harm, as Francesco had refused to give me a light; and I remained in that state till about half past eight, when I remembered that I had a sword in the room at the head of the bed, hanging among the consecrated candles, and, my impatience at not having a light growing greater, in despair I took the sword and pulling it out of the scabbard leant the hilt on the bed and put the point to my side and then fell on it with such force that it ran into my body, from one side to the other, and in falling on the sword I fell on to the floor with the sword run through my body and because of my wound I began to scream, and so Francesco ran in and opened the window, through which light was coming, and found me lying on the floor, and he with others whom he had called pulled the sword out of my side and put me on the bed; and this is how I came to be wounded.(Blunt, 1971, pp. 208-209.)

The violent passions of the dark gave way to an amazingly cool rationality during the light. At his request, Borromini was buried in the tomb of Carlo Maderno in San Giovanni in Laterano. The will enjoined his heir and nephew Bernardo to marry the granddaughter of his mentor Maderno.

The 17th Century was a time of great changes in how we conceived of the universe and its creator. The heavenly spheres were no longer. The planets moved around the sun and not around the earth. Geometry became a guiding principle for understanding the universe. The circular orbits of Copernicus ceded to the ellipses of Kepler. Kepler used the geometry of perfect solids to explain the different radii of the planetary orbits (Hatch, 2002). And in 1687 all was explained by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Science was explaining the universe with geometry. God was perhaps a mathematician. Baroque art, and Borromini in particular, sought for God in the geometrical interplay of curve and light.

 

References

Beny, R., & Gunn, P. (1981). The churches of Rome. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Blunt, A. (1979). Borromini. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (Belknap).

Connors, J. (1996). Borromini’s S. Ivo alla Sapienza: the spiral. The Burlington Magazine, 138, 668-82.

Connors, J. (1999). Francesco Borromini. La vita (1599–1667). In R. Bösel, C. L. Frommel. (eds.) Borromini e l’universo barocco. (pp. 7–21) Milan, Electa.

Connors, J. (2007). The cultural moment at the beginning of work on S. Ivo alla Sapienza. In L. Mochi Onori, S. Schütze & F. Solinas (Eds.) I Barberini e la cultura europea del Seicento. (pp. 581-86). Rome: De Luca.

Green, E. (2015) La Sapienza (DVD). New York, NY: Kino Lorber.

Hatch, J. G. (2002). The science behind Francesco Borromini’s divine geometry. In K. Williams and J. F. Rodrigues (Eds). Nexus IV: Architecture and Mathematics. (pp. 127-139). Fucecchio (Florence): Kim Williams Books.

Hibbard, H. (1965/1990). Bernini. London: Penguin.

Hopkins, A. (2002). Italian architecture: From Michelangelo to Borromini. London: Thames & Hudson.

Davies, P. M., & Maggini Quartet. (2007). Naxos quartets nos. 7 and 8. (Sound recording). Hong Kong: Naxos Records.

Morrissey, J. P. (2005). The genius in the design: Bernini, Borromini, and the rivalry that transformed Rome. New York: W. Morrow.

Wittkower, R., (1997, photographs by Guidolotti, P.). Bernini: The sculptor of the Roman Baroque. London: Phaidon Press.