25 November 2009

Ag. Nikon of Sparta

November 26 Thanksgiving in the US, but it is the Feastday of Ag. Nikon of Sparta. I do not like Ag. Nikon, but I am going to try to be fair.

He is called the "Metanoiete," the "Repent-Ye," because he tramped the length and breadth of Crete for seven years after Nikeforos Phokas took it back from the Arabs in 961, calling for repentence. Once he had them all quailing in terror of Hellfire, he went on to Negroponte and did the same there.

He stood on the city wall, over where the water of Evripos keeps changing its direction though not as many as the seven claimed, and preached "Metanoiete!" all day and all night. The crowds scrambled up on the walls, too, and a child was pushed off by "the malignant enemy, Beliar." The crowd assumed a person as cranky as Nikon would naturally have shoved a child off the wall, assumed the child was smashed to pieces, and were ready to tear Nikon to pieces himself, but the child stood up and and said that Nikon had caught him in the air and did not allow him to be hurt. Whereupon the crowd repented and converted quite efficiently. There are a lot of this kind of miracle cited in his Vita.

He went on to Thebes, a short trip from Negroponte, and then over the mountains to Corinth, and worked his way down through the Morea shedding doom and miracles across the countryside, while at the same time traveling from Corinth to Sparta in an instant. A farmer saw him aloft and in the air, illuminated by torchlight.

He stopped off in Argos and Nauplion -- this was before Ag. Petros had arrived; he's the one who has my allegiance -- and visited a John Blabenterios. Because of a sorcerer, this John Blabenterios and his daughter had a disease which had left them as corpses, except that they were still breathing. Nikon healed them and miraculously located the sorcerer's spell buried in the roots of a tree in their courtyard.

Ag. Nikon, like every other earnest Byzantine, was under attack by black demons. His appeared in the form of rock wasps. This is a harsh thing to say about demons, considering the nature of the Greek rock wasp which attack with the force and noise of Stukas.
Nikon healed those who had been stung and drove the black demons groaning back into the bottomless depths.

This icon detail shows black demons afflicting various individuals who are trying to get to Heaven. Demons also appear as black crows and there was one in a well he had to handle at Euripos that had flown up and terrified a girl who only wanted to draw water.

The rock wasps were impeding the building of a church in Sparta -- you can visit this very lovely site on a hill out beside the Roman ruins. Nikon had marked out the shape of the church on the ground with a rope. Believers in Sparta brought out food and wine to feed the workmen on the church. One gift, from the poorest of the poor, was of wine so acrid it was undrinkable, and the less said about the smell the better. Nikon changed this into unlimited amounts of splendid wine.

The volunteer construction workers got quite tired before the end, and tried to fudge the column work for the altar by piecing together one column instead of cutting it from a single piece of stone. Another miracle solved this problem. The church, when finished,
is reported to have had gleaming and colorful columns, bright stones, and paintings. Also, a golden dove flew about in the sanctuary and the lamps swung of their own accord without any wind.

These vitae give invaluable glimpses of the worlds in which their saints moved, and this one tells us that below the church was a field given over to ball players and horse racing. This is precisely the site of the Sparta soccer field today. The strategos of Sparta, Gregorios, was wrapped up in a ball game and did not pay attention to Nikon who was reproaching the players for making so much noise it was disrupting the service. Gregorios ordered Nikon out of town, and as soon as he turned to strike the ball with his hand, first the hand was paralyzed and then his whole body. He was in awful pain and was carried into the church begging for help. Nikon -- you already figured out how this story would end -- healed Gregorios, Gregorios repented of his arrogance, and forever dedicated himself to the service of the saint. I don't think much of this sort of saint-trick, but I would mention that we have only one other medieval reference to athletics in the Morea, and that is when Cyriaco of Ancona reported going with Constantine Palaiologos to see the young men of Sparta in foot races.

When Nikon died, his body gave off a miraculous oil that cured.
There were a lot of miracles from this oil, a grab-bag of sensational effects, including a terminal female cancer and two individuals, one vomiting (a man from Helos) and one defecating (a man from Kalamata) gigantic worms. In fact, the writer of this Vita personally testified to the miraculous effect of this oil, because he had a massive abscess in the bone on the left side of his face, which caused excruciating pain. He would have starved to death -- being unable to move his jaws -- had he not prayed to Nikon, rubbed on some oil, and been instantly relieved of his pain. He wrote that he had the sense of a cooling breeze passing over his face. An icon of Nikon grasped by humble peasants kept their daughter from being raped when she was seized by bandits. The bandits were blinded and had to release her.

There are many more miracles, which I will not go into, though I am glad he was concerned with rape. I am surprised that he also takes an interest in sailing and has been reported standing watch, steering, and even lifting galleys in a crisis.

This is what I especially don't like about Nikon and why I don't grant him his Agios: He diagnosed a problem in Sparta as having been caused by the Jews there, and called on the citizens to drive them out. Which they did. One nobleman, John Aratos, "pricked by the goad of envy, and moved by demonic evil," was so rash as to assert that this action was neither just nor reasonable. Remember the name of this 10th-century person: John Aratos who would not join the mob.

For more about the icon, go
Denis Sullivan has edited and translated the Vita of Ag. Nikon.

18 November 2009

Nick the Greek

Nicholas from Nauplion was a sailor on Magellan's Victoria between 1519 and 1522. He was one of eighteen men who survived the first circumnavigation of the globe, sailing 14,460 leagues, or about 81,449 kilometers.

Magellan began with five ships --
Concepción, San Antonio, Santiago, Trinidad and Victoria, and a crew of about 250 men. He was killed on 27 April 1521 in what is now called the Philippines. After 21 December 1521, Victoria sailed alone, the eighteen sailors pumping water out of the hold all the way because they had managed to save out of all the storms, deaths, murders, and disasters, a ship-load of spices.

This blog is to honor Nicholas from Nauplion. I have no more information about him. I don't know if he ever got back to Nauplion.

I want to honor all those eighteen men for their courage and endurance.* And possibly, their sheer cussedness.

Juan Sebastián Elcano, captain-general.

  • Miguel de Rodas, boatswain (contramaestre) of Victoria.

  • Francisco Albo, of Axio, boatswain of Trinidad.

  • Juan de Acurio, of Bermeo, boatswain of the Concepcion.

  • Martino de Judicibus, of Genoa, superintendent of Concepcion.

  • Hernando de Bustamante, of Alcantara, barber of Concepcion.

  • Juan de Zuvileta, of Baracaldo, page of Victoria.

  • Miguel Sanchez, of Rodas, skilled seaman (marinero) of Victoria.

  • Nicholas the Greek, of Nafplion, marinero of Victoria.

  • Diego Gallego, of Bayonne, marinero of the Victoria.

  • Juan Rodriguez, of Seville, marinero of the Trinidad.

  • Antonio Rodriguez, of Huelva, marinero of Trinidad.

  • Francisco Rodriguez, of Seville (a Portuguese), marinero of Concepcion.

  • Juan de Arratia, of Bilbao, common sailor (grumete) of Victoria.

  • Vasco Gomez Gallego (a Portuguese), grumete of Trinidad.

  • Juan de Santandres, of Cueto, grumete of Trinidad.

  • Martin de Isaurraga, of Bermeo, grumete of Concepcion.

  • The Chevalier Antonio Pigafetta, of Vicenza, passenger.

  • Nauplion should put up a statue for Nicholas. In his time, there was a small church of Ag. Nicholaos at the port, just outside the city wall, where the present Ag. Nicholaos is located. That would be a good place for the statue.

    Wikipedia supplied the names.

    13 November 2009

    The Girl in the Man's Coat

    On the back of the painting it says

    In 1506 on June 1 this was painted by the hand of master Zorzi from Castelfranco, colleague of master Vicenzo Catena, on request from master Giocomo.
    Zorzi is made respectable as Giorgione, and sometimes the girl is called Laura, though that is not necessarily her name. Sometimes she is "Portrait of a Young Bride" which makes her undress respectable.

    She is a little thing, private, only 41 by 33.6 cm, not as wide as my computer screen. An essay from the National Gallery of Art explores how she was painted. At an early stage, there was blue sky and much more laurel to the right. Some of her belly was exposed before Giorgione painted the fur under her breast. The laurel on the left was added on late, as was the wisp of veiling. In the 18th century the painting -- canvas glued to a fir panel -- was cut to make an oval, and later on it was reshaped with the addition of ten pieces of oak.

    Her portrait is said to have freed Venetian artists to paint all those drowningly lovely nudes with skin like cream, and mirrors, furs and pearls and splendid hair. When you look at contemporary portraits like this one by master Vicenzo mentioned on the back of Laura, you see that this is a new attitude in looking at women -- expectations for dress and class and symbol are overturned and you are left trying to figure out what to do with this naked woman with her hair falling down. She is not from a class that has portraits. Like the girl with the pearl earring, there is no background into which she can retreat, or that can provide the viewer with a clue.

    She is young -- perhaps sixteen. There is a touch of belligerence in her manner -- she is cold, she needs the money, the baby needs nursing, she doesn't like master Giacomo looking at her undressed, they are expecting her in the kitchen and she will hear about this, the red wool scratches, she would like to wear a good dress and fix her hair if she is to be painted, she is really really tired of not moving, and Zorzi has said "not much longer" about four hundred times.
    The painting generates speculation.

    And vocabulary. People do produce vocabulary about this painting. This is a "poetic image." She shows her breast "in a grave, thoughtful way," she "embodied the erotic dreams of the Venetians," and sometimes there seems confusion about what painting is under discussion: "the white lace that flutters around her like an airy snake gives this painting a mythic feeling." (I see fine-wove linen, possibly silk, here: there is no lace.) She is wearing a "gendered garment." Her right hand "is in the midst of an uncompleted gesture which, we might say, is not rhetorical but transitive." Or we might not.

    She is "a response to the developing phenomenon of the courtesan and a parallel exploration of the unrecognized middle ground between . . . lady and whore, that the courtesan had just begun to map out for herself."
    She is a chaste bride whose sexuality is for her husband (with women, laurel represents chastity). She is a poet (with men, laurel represents the poet -- and she is wearing a man's robe). She is concealing herself. She is revealing herself. She is a response to the tradition of romantic Lauras inspired by Petrarch. She is Daphne becoming the laurel tree.

    Like Daphne, the girl become tree, the girl whose name might not be Laura is forever fixed because of the way a man saw her.

    Suppose she is the girl the painter was sleeping with. She got out of bed on a cold morning to go to the small room on the staircase. It was very cold and she grabbed the robe closest to the bed. . The painter said, "Hold still like that while I do a sketch," or "I want a picture of you like that."
    She had grains of sleep in her eyes, her breath was off, her hair was falling down. She needed to go but she held still for the sketch. Later master Giacomo was visiting Zorzi's studio, saw the sketch, asked for a complete painting.

    But the girl was not important enough to be mentioned in the inscription on the back.

    The image at this link can be enlarged to about four times the size of the original which is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

    06 November 2009

    Greek Elephants

    Nick Nicholas was visiting and we were discussing the 15th-century elephant in the manuscript he and George Baloglou had published, An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds. The text under the elephant reads:
    Just like a tower, safe and fortified,/
    a fort impregnable, firm to the end,/
    thus, too, stand I, robust beyond compare.
    It is, frankly, not convincing if you consider this rather bewildered quadruped.

    But it reminded me of my small collection of images of Greek elephants, and as this week is given to celebrating a daughter's wedding, I offer a celebration of elephants instead of more of the 15th century.
    This next, tiny image, is cribbed from John Chapman's dense site on Mani, from an 18th-C fresco of the redemption of all the earthly creation at the Last Judgement, in the church of Ag. Chrysostomos at Skoutari.

    This elephant is in a fresco at Metora of Adam naming the animals. I bought an unlabeled postcard 32 years ago, and now have no idea which monastery is so privileged, nor of the date, though I will risk a guess for the 16th-C. The animals are fascinating as a group, each taken from a different manuscript illustration, from different cultures and periods, and Adam is gender-neutral, possibly influenced by Balkan gnosticism.

    Not actually Greek, but bought by a Greek, and brought to Greece -- it now resides in the Benaki Islamic Museum in Athens -- this ink drawing is Coptic, from the 8th century. A second elephant from the Benaki Islamic is this splendidly-colored tile:

    The Museum of Byzantine and Christian Art in Athens has this very scrubbed 3rd?-C elephant alongside a soft giraffe, part of a sculpture of Orpheus playing his harp for the animals.

    And the loveliest of them all, this tender elephant from a procession of elephants from the late 4th-century Arch of Theodosios in Thessaloniki.