Monday, January 16, 2017

Sunrise, sunset Civilisation?

I had the opportunity to watch a number of Werner Herzog's films and documentaries over the holiday period, and many of these provided moments of marvel during a not-so-merry-or-marvellous Christmas! Herzog has a deep appreciation of the Earth and its inhabitants and presents such a humane, yet no-nonsense, unsentimental view of Man and beast alike. I really do think of him as a genial genius; one who appears just as willing to voice concerns and considerations about Life as he is to lend his voice, with its distinctive accent and precise, Herzog-unique intonation, to TV shows such as The Simpsons.
Any supposed boundaries between film and documentary, fiction and fact, appear blurred in Herzog's work as recurrent themes thread their way throughout, The forces, fascinations and fears that drive the vision of the film-maker/documentalist are the same that frequently obsess his protagonists. Directly, or indirectly, there is the depiction of Man's steely will to achieve against all odds, to break free from pre-determined rules, to throw off the constraints that life imposes, namely those of the greatest law enforcer of all, Nature. Man may wish to fly - The Great Ecstasy of  Woodcarver Steiner (1974) - just as Herzog had himself sought to do during his ski-jumping days. However, the length and duration of  any flight will be set and challenged by natural limits, not least the laws of gravity. Any elevated, quasi-spiritual endeavour will invariably hit the buffers at ground-level, with greater or lesser impact. Man can never outdo Nature, but will never abandon the mission to do so. Just like infamous rages of Herzog's leading role actor, Klaus Kinski, Man's megalomaniac ragings may be taken for the wrath of God, but will inexorably be silenced by the impassive, implaccable authority of Nature as in  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). Whatever the human enterprise, the forces of Nature will close ranks and crush the recalcitrant being with the greatest indifference, in scenes of monstrous beauty.

Perhaps the art of film allows Herzog to inch up to the very brink of all these boundaries as the filming and content intertwine to create another narrative, both literally and figuratively, as in Fitzcarraldo (1982) or Into the Inferno (2016).
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) seems to cross the abyss of time with Paleolithic cave paintings that were created 32,000 years ago. Looking at these, the boundaries of time seem to be momentarily lifted. Situated above the meandering river of the gorges in the Ardèche region of France, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in the limestone cliff  had lain undiscovered until 1994. The collapse of rocks had obscured the entrance to what the BBC referred to as the  "prehistoric Sistine Chapel", effectively sealing off this stone vault, and thus preserving cave art that pre-dates the paintings of Lascaux - formerly the reference in such painting.

Although carbon dating has indicated that an interval of some 2,000 years separated some of the painting in the Chauvet caves, the work was carried out in the same style, using similar techniques. Animals that were commonly hunted - horses, reindeer and cattle -  vie for space alongside predatory beasts such as lions, rhinos, bears etc. We are thus offered a glimpse of the ancient ancestors of creatures commonly associated with modern animal husbandry today, running aside those we only ever see in the enclosed spaces of zoos or in remote wildlife reserves.

The most moving aspect in these paintings is the artistry in the animals' expression and posture. Just looking at the varying position of the horses' ears or the snarling jaws of the lions, you can sense the very essence of the beast. We feel the artists' effort to convey this, and their endeavour to communicate it to us. And indeed, here we are, millions of years later, fully able to recognize the animal depicted on the cave walls and yet are left without the slightest notion of the person who created this work. Just how primitive was primitive man? We can feel the undeniable 'horseyness' of the Przewalski's equines, but can we feel the 'human' in their artistic creators? Do these painted creatures appear more familiar to us than their artistic creators? Would we consider these men to be just as bestial as the wild beasts they portrayed?

Perhaps we cannot feel the common human ground that links us back to these ancestors of modern Man, beyond a shared desire to depict and communicate through art. Is creativity, and representative creation - the Arts - one of the foundations of human civilisation, perhaps as much as human emotion? If such a real-time encounter were possible, would these ancestral artists be able to meet and exchange with their artistic descendants today, using creativity as common domain?
Finally, if they were capable of such fine skill in such brutal times, what would they be able to achieve today, given the tools and gadgetry we freely dispose of? Furthermore, given this Millenium's breath-takingly extensive, ever-expanding access to information, education and entertainment, is our intelligence, creativity and culture growing exponentially?

While pondering over this question and busily teletransporting artists backwards and forwards throughout the millenia, in my mind, I remembered the film that I had loved as a child - The Time Machine. Actually, it was the shop window scene that caught my attention at the time, rather than the more important considerations of the film...

 H G Well's gloomy dystopian view of the future civilisations underlined concerns that had already preocupied the great late Victorian thinkers for some time; namely decadence and degeneration. Charles Darwin had elaborated the theory that Man's progress was "no invariable rule", and that a downward evolutionary path could be envisaged, given suitable conditions. Well's image of "humanity on the wane" in The Time Machine is the precursor to the "Sunset of Mankind", when human form ultimately gives way to butterfly and crab-like shapes.

In Well's civilisation of AD 802,701, Man's descent is portrayed by the decadent existence of the disappated Eloi. The Time Traveller stumbles upon this beautiful, torpid race which, freed from the ardours of labour and productivity, languishes in a life of idle, meaningless pursuits. Lack of mental and physical exertion has engendered an anaemic, insipid species which seeks nothing beyond simple enjoyment and ease, frivolity and facility. The traveller draws the conclusion that “Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness." Mankind does indeed define and maintain itself through struggle and effort; civilisation cannot grow from simple indolence and inactivity. Basic curiosity and enthusiasm have been stifled in the feeble and effete Eloi. In this futuristic garden of earthly delights, all forms of vitality have been made redundant. Proof abounds here in this nightmarish paradise that creative and intellectual stagnation has resulted in decay. The fruit born to this garden of Eden is rotten. -  “I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide.”

Perhaps this cultural self-dealth was more alarming to the Traveller than the actual killing of the Eloi, ever-vulnerable to the marauding Morlocks for whom they serve as fodder. The perceived superiority of the civilised, chattering Eloi over the bestial, grunting Morlocks is soon swept away. These privileged Haves - the Eloi - fall easy prey to the brutish, lurking predators that toil for them, Moreover, the power system at play is not all that it seems since this is a relationship of co-dependency between the 'civilised' Eloi and these base Have-nots (being devoured by the other party cannot really be described as being of mutual benefit; the definition of symbiosis!). In this manner, laws of natural authority and ascendance are overturned; civilisation  does not necessarily lead to a civilised society.

Well's fin-de-siècle vision presents the inherent dangers of an over-civilisation that leads to its own decline and ultimate demise. This image of entropy is complete; the transformation, or turning away from ordered to disorder, formed to formless, as the degradation of mass and energy leads towards a state of statis and homogeneity. The traveller disparingly acknowledges this entropic society. He exhibits exasperation at this indolence, and disgust at the general indifference towards the cultural and intellectual achievements of earlier civilisations, his own included. The future has failed to deliver the ascent it had promised for civilised Man.

All that lead me to think about where we stand today. Huge advances in technology have brought about social, cultural, intellectual seachanges over the past few decades, sparking a revolution just as momentous as the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. The transformation of communication has had an unprecedented impact on the way we lead our lives, our very conception of life itself, and our expectations thereof. We may witness the sun rising over a new connected era, that will certainly herald a braver new world. But how far will it be a better. more civilised one?  Will this lead to a further disconnect from the elements that are fundamental to existence - Nature itself, for example? Or others that form the basis of civilised society - considerate behaviour and tolerance? Smartphones have given rise to a global population of chatterers and twitterers, constantly communicating. But what are we saying? Is this bringing us closer to one another? Won't these twitching fingers, continually darting over screens in the search for sensation, stimulation and simulation have ever-less time for other activities?
I don't know the answers, but I know of someone who asks the appropriate questions concerning this brave, new digital world in his 2016 film Lo and Behold..... Werner Herzog! He has taken us from the obscure, hidden world of the Cave of Forgotten Dreams to the glaring, globally-accessible networks that feed the "Reveries of the Connected World"...

Friday, December 30, 2016

Mist and Ice for the End of the Year...

Mist and icy, powdery dust have descended, leaving everything blurred and yet strangely crisp. Winter has started to set in, with its cloaks of frost and ice that transform everything. Just as the freezing temperatures catch our breath and slow down our pace, the beauty of the frozen landscapes forcibly draws our eyes to take in and reconsider our surroundings. Familar, chartered territory suddenly acquires a slightly different form, an additional layer of reality that emerges independent of us.This reminds me of the thought processes and reflection that accompany this period, as we take stock of the year coming to an end before stepping out into the new. Like pristine, winter snow, we welcome the New year with excitement yet a certain amount of trepidation. We marvel at the beauty of the possibilites in front of us, but are wary of the risk of black ice lurking beneath the bright, untainted surfaces and we fear the reappearance of the dark shadows from the past that may shroud the future.

There are a number things I would like to change in my life, or Life in general, but obviously there is a limit to what I can actually achieve to make any kind of difference. I suppose what is required is a certain wisdom to understand the force of the 'butterfly effect' so as not use perceived or real powerlessness as an excuse to do nothing whatsoever. There is usually something that can be done, through the accumulation of small acts, either performed by one sole individual, or many. That may call for a great deal of steely determination, plain doggedness or simply 'stick-to-itiveness' (yes, that word actually exists!). Then after that, a certain clarity of mind to admit that if these plans for change continually come unstuck, you may need to turn in yet another direction.

I think I have reached that crossroad. I cannot change things going on around me and I do not want to live with these so I need to change myself, one way or another.... Although trekking off into the horizon sometimes seems pretty tempting, it isn't really an option, so I'll just have to work on myself. Mind you, I have resumed my driving lessons, so you never know!

           However, here's Joni Mitchell with Urge for Going.

                                 I awoke today and found
                                 the frost perched on the town
                                 It hovered in a frozen sky
                                 then it gobbled summer down
                                 When the sun turns traitor cold
                                 and all the trees are shivering in a naked row
                                 I get the urge for going
                                 But I never seem to go
                                 I get the urge for going
                                 When the meadow grass is turning brown
                                 Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

                                  I had me a man in summertime
                                  He had summer-colored skin
                                  And not another girl in town
                                  My darling's heart could win
                                  But when the leaves fell on the ground
                                  Bully winds came around
                                  Pushed them face down in the snow
                                  He got the urge for going
                                  And I had to let him go
                                  He got the urge for going
                                  When the meadow grass was turning brown
                                  Summertime was falling down and winter was closing in

                                  Now the warriors of winter
                                  They gave a cold triumphant shout
                                  And all that stays is dying
                                  And all that lives is gettin' out
                                  See the geese in chevron flight
                                  Flapping and racing on before the snow
                                  They got the urge for going
                                  And they got the wings so they can go
                                  They get the urge for going
                                  When the meadow grass is turning brown
                                  Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

                                  I'll ply the fire with kindling now
                                  I'll pull the blankets up to my chin
                                  I'll lock the vagrant winter out and
                                  I'll bolt my wanderings in
                                  I'd like to call back summertime
                                  Have her stay for just another month or so
                                  But she's got the urge for going
                                  So I guess she'll have to go
                                  She gets the urge for going
                                  When the meadow grass is turning brown
                                  All her empire's falling down
                                  And winter's closing in.
                                  And I get the urge for going
                                  When the meadow grass is turning brown
                                  And summertime is falling down.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Vessels of Mind and Matter...

Towers of Canterbury cathedral
When the opportunity came up to return to Canterbury earlier this week, I knew where I would be heading... There is only so much shopping I can do before reaching the point of thinking there must be more than this and realising that I have crossed the commercial saturation threshold.
I have never had the slightest religious beliefs or leanings of any sort whatsoever, but the need to gather thoughts and recover the basic senses seems to be growing on me. This is even more apparent at Christmas when this frenzy of buying and accumulation leaves me wondering if that's all there is. Not, of course, that I consider myself somehow 'above' all of this, as I do relish a good old shop but commercial binging is like gorging on junk food on a long-term basis. Just like our cupboards, our minds are being clogged up by this drive to purchase ever more clutter. Given our burning desire to spend, spend, spend, Plutarch's remark that "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." starts to take on an ironic tone.

To counter this desire to acquire stuff, the French notion of recueillement seems increasingly appropriate. Whilst the verb recueillir means to collect and gather, the reflexive form se recueillir refers to acts of simply drawing together one's thoughts or gathering in actual spiritual contemplation. For many, the obvious setting for any form of recueillement would perhaps be a religious edifice, but nature offers the same opportunity. In such a place or space, we are contained in something bigger and far more enduring than ourselves and our greedy mortality.

Mural plaque from the gardens in the cathedral grounds.
Even without the religious dimension that derives from the belief in a faith, old edifices play a vital role on so many levels. Through their sheer age alone, they have a force and size, spanning the centuries, vessels of the past to the present day, showing the aspirations of us mere humans, tripping along the streets of time, in weakness and strength. We are constantly reminded of our unique, all-too-human condition; reaching upwards, but still rooted in the profane.

From the cathedral gardens...
On display in the crypt of the cathedral is a piece of artwork by the modern-day sculptor, Antony Gormley. All cameras were banned, so no photos here, unfortunately. 'Transport' is suspended from the vaulted ceiling above the site of the first tomb of Thomas Becket, martyred archbishop and "troublesome priest" under Henry II's reign. Murdered at the altar of the cathedral in December 1170, Thomas Becket was slain for his faith and the old iron nails of Gormley's work indeed recall the nails of crucifixion. These were actually taken from the lead roof of the transept following restoration work and quite literally give body to an artistic venture that seeks to convey the evocative. The 2-metre-long work hangs from a single support and the modernity of the stark, yet ephemeral floatiing form creates a strange impressive in a site that is over 800 years old. These ancient nails form the body of this human effigy so that it resembles a voodoo doll, solely composed of the pins that have pierced the body. This bodily 'container' is less, yet more than a body in 3-dimensional volume. The artist wrote that "The body is less a thing than a place." and I liked this harmony of body and building - as vessels intertwined and interchangeable. "Through it (the body) come all the impressions of the wider world and all other bodies in space; palpable, perceivable and imaginable."  The title of the piece, 'Transport', transmits the sense of constant movement through this place of "prayer and creativity" the passage of time in space, what is infinite and finite.

All in all, I couldn't have had a better day...

Holly in the grounds.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

No Clouds Ahead...

Reims Cathedral (minus the main entrance/Christmas market....)
Well, if I'd known what this past week would hold in store for me... Anyway, of the assorted mix of issues that lay ahead, unbeknownst to me, the worst did not happen so I just feel relieved and grateful for all that I've got! A few near-misses certainly put things into perspective in an effective, albeit brusque manner. Any residual black clouds were blasted away, and since then it really feels as if it's just blue skies ahead.

The recently restored facade of teh cathedral
Not only do difficult moments oblige you to take stock of things, they also make you wonder over others...The first part of the week was very testing, but then when we were very nearly burgled towards the end of the week that helped throw another light on the situation and above all enabled me to 'count my blessings'. The break-in wasn't successful as the burglars were frightened off while they were tampering with the locks; the outcome wasn't the same for other neighbours here. I will have a very hefty bill from the locksmith to replace locks and reinforce the door, but apart from that I have been very lucky.

Passion Flower still out on the balcony in December...
After my non-event, someone made the remark that I didn't really have anything of value to be truly worth stealing. That set me sizing up my possessions, but for me the most precious was already weighed up; the cats. They probably would have run off, out of the flat or maybe even been hurt by these chancers. Of the rest of my 'stuff', what does have any market value isn't particurly special to me and my 'treasures' would sell for nothing. What I would have lost is the feeling of sanctuary. The value of Home is not calculated solely in the monetary terms of material possessions, but what it keeps at bay beyond that closed door, and the atmosphere it possesses and shapes within its private space. That for me is priceless.

So I suppose I am indeed guilty of that 'lust for comfort' that Kahlil Gibran refers to, but it is more the comfort of a safe haven, rather than that of 'magnificence and splendour'.

On Houses - Kahlil Gibran
Build of your imaginings a bower in the wilderness ere you build a house within the city walls.
For even as you have home-comings in your twilight, 
So has the wanderer in you, the ever distant and alone.
Your house is your larger body.
It grows in the sun and sleeps in the stillness of the night; and it is not dreamless. 
Does not your house dream? 
And dreaming, leave the city for grove or hill-top? 

Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, 
And like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow.
Would the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys,
That you might seek one another through vineyards, 
And come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments.
But these things are not yet to be.

In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together. 
And that fear shall endure a little longer.
A little longer shall your city walls separate your hearths from your fields.

And tell me, people of OrphaIese, what have you in these houses?
And what is it you guard with fastened doors?
Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?
Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?
Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?
Tell me, have you these in your houses? 
Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, 
That stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?

Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires.
Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron.
It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh.
It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels.
Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, 
And then walks grinning in the funeral.
But you, children of space, you restless in rest, 
You shall not be trapped nor tamed.

Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.
It shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye.
You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through doors, 
Nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling, 
Nor fear to breathe lest walls should crack and fall down.
You shall not dwell in tombs made by the dead for the living.
And though of magnificence and splendour, 
Your house shall not hold your secret nor shelter your longing.
For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, 
Whose door is the morning mist, 
And whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.

 And when it's pitch black outside, there is still a bright light ahead - even if it is rather blurred on the photo...

Reims Cathedral  (with the Christmas market)....

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hello Earth... Depth, Darkness and Light

My favourite glass Christmas bauble that I love to stare into....
Sometimes we just seem to be scurrying around so much, weighed down by our allotted portion of preoccupations but it would be more sensible to just slow down to put the whole set-up into perspective, although that doesn't always appear possible. We are just a part of a vast entity but we lose sight of that, and do not have the time to appreciate the simple beauty around us.

Listening to the mesmerising music of Kate Bush's Hello Earth takes you away from the haste and hassle of the moment.

The beautiful video above (not always available due to copyright issues) shows the wonder of our planet and then the final line of the lyrics, in German, Tiefer, tiefer, irgendwo in der Tiefe gibt es einLicht that translates as "Deeper, deeper, somewhere in the depth there is a light." help us see through darkness, real or perceived....

This music was partly inspired by the Georgian-style chants that form the soundtrack of Werner Herzog's 1979 film, 'Nosferatu the Vampyre', composed by the West German group Popol Vuh, from the album Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts ("Brothers of the Shadow - Sons of Light"). This, too, is incredibly haunting. The unique quality of the music, combined with the atmospheric visual impact of certain scenes of the film, make parts of Nosferatu very moving. Okay, probably not the most joyous of experiences, especially the iconic danse macabre scene, but shadows always make you turn towards the light. Anyway, perhaps the message of Nosferatu is that while life is inevitably cut short, whatever its length, it is better to have that existence composed of waves of emotion, sensation, movement and light rather than an eternal non-life of cold isolation, shady statis and exclusion.
We should all be dancing, in fact....

Along with jars of seaglass...

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Mermaids in the MUDO at Beauvais - Les Sirènes au Musée de l'Oise à Beauvais....

Main building of the Episcopal Palace at Beauvais
Just opposite the romanesque Basse-Œuvre church that is attached to the Saint Pierre cathedral at Beauvais is the Musée de l’Oise (Le MUDO). This museum is housed in the former episcopal palace, the residence of the bishops of Beauvais, counts and peers of the realm, and dates back to the 12th century. It was initially built under the orders of Henri de France, son of King Louis VI ‘Le Gros’, who was Bishop of Beauvais before becoming Archibishop of Reims in 1162. A fortified entrance flanked by two towers was constructed in the 14th century in order to impose the episcopal authority on the unruly inhabitants of Beauvais, who had led a protest riot over the issue of tax increases. The construction work was financed by a fine levied on the bourgeois so it is probably safe to assume that the towers would have been a source of resentment for the people of the town.

Passing through this impressive porterie today, the visitor enters the enclosure of the palace that ‘Le grand bâtisseur’, Louis de Villiers, restored in the 16th century. The ornate gardens set off the elegance of the main building which combined flamboyant gothic and Renaissance features to great effect.

Although I did visit the museum’s art collection, it was in fact, part of the mural decorations in the original 14th century towers that caught my attention far more than some of those stodgy early-19th century Neoclassical paintings. Within one of the fortified towers, with its fairy-tale pointed slate roof is a discrete treasure - four ephemeral mermaid figures that seem to float above us on the vaulted ceiling. This fresco with its enigmatic vision of feminity offered my eyes a welcome respite from some of those hefty, heaving female forms of the MUDO collection.

This ceiling painting probably dates back to 1310-1320, shortly after the construction of the entrance. The function of the rooms within the towers is not clear. The presence of latrines and fireplaces indicates that they were inhabited, and it is assumed that some members of the bishop’s household occupied these spaces, rather than the main body of the palace itself. Were they used by members of the clergy or by the wealthy, prestigious family of the bishop, Simon de Clermont de Nesle? The nature of the intended audience would generally affect how the mermaids were to be interpreted; the simple presence of these fishy females was always significant.

Our modern-day image of the mermaid is that of a magical symbol of beauty, peace, light and grace, often associated with rainbows, unicorns and the like. However, these mythological hybrids have a far murkier reputation and legends abound of their sinister practices in cultures around the world. In the epic poem Odyssey, Homer’s malefic mermaids lured sailors onto the rocks with their bewitching siren songs, driving the unsuspecting males to their death. For Ovid, the sirens were the companions of the young Persephone who was destined to be the Queen of the Underworld. It was Demeter, her mother, who had given the sirens wings in order to search for her daughter who had been abducted by Hades. By the Middle Ages, mermaids had largely lost their wings, but had kept their symbolic fish tail and their wicked ways. The mermaid became symbolic of the lascivious female in general, flaunting her feminine charms to ensnare any man foolish enough to fall prey to her attributes. Most mermaid figures were shown playing musical instruments, as is the case here in Beauvais, and often carry a mirror and comb with which to preen themselves. The tempting yet treacherous nature of the mermaid had already been documented in the Bestiaire d’Amour of Richard de Fournival, dating back to the mid 13th century.

        "There are three kinds of siren ; two of which are half-woman, half-fish. The third is
         half-woman, half-bird… Their melody is so pleasant that nobody can hear it without wanting to                        draw close." 

Richard de Fournival, Bestiaire d'amour, 
Were these Beauvais sirens intended to warn the unsuspecting abstinent clergy of the dangers of the flesh, from a moral, God-fearing point of view ? Or, on the contrary, were they supposed to titillate the senses and satisfy aesthetic tastes of the profane red-blooded male? Many private chapels of the period were decorated with musical angels, that partly reflected the custom for chivalry and courtoisie with grand musical celebrations. Perhaps the image of mermaid musicians was used as a mischievous take on the musicians – les ménestrels - of the time? Certainly, the Middle Ages saw a fascination with many hybrid creatures and shape-shifters that embodied the ambigious, scandalous or sinful aspects of life itself. Many of these beasts would appear as marginalia, that is to say, figures decorating the borders of the main body of illuminated texts. These ornate manuscripts served the same role as stained-glass windows – informing a largely illiterate public through visual representation – and these marginalia underlined their central message.

In the tower, however, the mermaids do not occupy a marginal position, but rather a key one as they float around the intersection of the rib-vault ceiling. They seem to be the main focus of the artist rather than a quirky after-thought, unlike the usual drôleries (grotesques). Furthermore, these mermaids do not appear to be particularly ill-intentioned, even if they do have the long golden hair, voluptuous nude forms and long scaly, swishing tails of their evil sisters.

The cornemuse (left)  and the viol
Today, the room itself seems rather sober, which seems to makes the ceiling glow all the more. The bold ochre and terracotta colours are set next to slate-grey and the strange dotted decorations along the ribs and background seem to bring out the the curved, pale bodies of the mermaids themselves. Applied a secco on the stone itself, the painting has survived the centuries, unlike the rest of the original paint work in the room. Indeed, restoration work in 2013 revealed traces of decoration on the walls and around the windows that indicate that the room must have been as bright and eye-catching as the ceiling and would have created a very different impression to the one today.

The viol
The musical instruments that the sirènes hold lead us to further questions. One mermaid plays a large cornemuse, a French equivalent of the bagpipes, whilst another holds a viol, a violin-shaped instrument. A third musician plays a galoubet or flûte de tambourin, which is a three-hole pipe wind instrument, intended to be played in one hand whilst the other beats a snare drum – the 'tabor' –from the French word for drum; tambour. Finally, a fourth mermaid holds onto the elongated form of a trompette marine, appropriate in the context, one would think. However, the name is misleading since this instrument is neither related to the sea nor the brass family.

The trompette marine
This is in fact a bowed string instrument, producing the sound of a trumpet so that it was often used in convents instead of actual trumpets which were generally played by men alone. Instead of any association with wanton female seduction, the marine trumpet appears to have been closely linked to the culte marial, the Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary. Marine was itself a deformation of the adjective marial ; in German, the instrument is known as the marientrompete or the nonnengeige – the nuns’ fiddle. Originally a monocorde instrument whose string was plucked, as in the painting here, later the marine trumpet had several strings played with a bow.

                                  EVO & L'Almodí - Alleluia / Quia ergo femina (6/10) - Auditorio Ciudad de León 7/5/2011

So all in all, these four mermaids continue to taunt their viewers, though not in the same manner as they originally did. We may not be sensitive to their particular powers of seduction today in the same way as our ancestors and certainly do not need to be warned of the dangers of the flesh but these mysterious figures still fascinate us. The simple fact that they have survived all these centuries makes their beauty all the more remarkable and humbling.

The galoubet or flûte de tambourin

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Joy And Sorrow - Chrysanthemums for La Toussaint...

In many parts of the world, the first of November marks All Saints' Day. To remember those no longer here at La Toussaint, here in France it is customary to mark their passing with pots of elaborate chrysanthemum flowers. These seem to me to be a perfect celebration of Life, although the association with Death itself means that many French consider the chrysanthemum to have morbid connotations. Such beautiful flowers just fill me with joy, even more so since the weather is generally cold at this time of year and the evenings have drawn in. They are simply bursts of light and warmth.

Whilst considering the subject of Life and Death, here is the poem Joy And Sorrow by Gibran Khalil Gibran.

Then a woman said, "Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow." 
And he answered: 
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. 
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. 
And how else can it be? 

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. 
Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven? 
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? 

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. 

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. 

Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater." 
But I say unto you, they are inseparable. 
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. 
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced. 

When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Joy And Sorrow Chapter VIII - Gibran Khalil Gibran - Lebanese poet and painter et peintre libanais, 1883-1931