27 November 2008

Leagros Kalos

This pot, or vase, is formally called the Euphronios krater. It dates from about 515 BC – Euphronios was the painter, Euxitheos the potter – and it presents the death of Sarpedon as narrated in the Iliad.. Sleep and Death are come to take home the body of Sarpedon, the king of the Lykians who had come to fight for Troy, and lay it down in green pastures. It is a powerful scene, dense with allusions and metaphor, with the figure of Sarpedon unique in Greek vase painting.
All the characters are named in writing that goes sometimes from left to right, and sometimes right to left. The potter, Euxitheos, has signed it over behind Sleep to the left -- Euxitheos epoiesen.. Euxitheos made it. And Euphronios signed Euphronios egrap[sen?] Euphronios painted it.

But when you look at the reverse side of this pot, it is quite a simple scene, conventional, unemotional: young men arming themselves for battle. Two of them have shields with armored animals – a crab and a scorpion. This image reminds me of young Simoeisios at Troy. Look at this simile:

Aias’ spear
. . . struck him as he first came forward beside the nipple
of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder.
He dropped then to the ground in the dust, like some black poplar,
which in the land low-lying about a great marsh grows
smooth trimmed yet with branches growing at the uttermost tree-top:
one whom a man, a maker of chariots, fells with the shining
iron, to bend it into a wheel for a fine-wrought chariot,
and the tree lies hardening by the banks of a river. 4.480ff.

In this simile, Simoeisios is transformed into a tree, and like the young man the tree falls, and like the young man it is cut down by iron and is made into a chariot and becomes itself a part of the war maching to continue making missing sons.

And some of the poignancy of this great image of Sarpedon is that because Zeus is his father, his particular fate could have been prevented. Now look at the simile that accompanies Sarpedon's death – it is almost the same image as that used for Simoeiseis:
the shaft struck where the beating heart is closed in the arch of the muscles.
He fell, as when an oak goes down or a white poplar,
or like a towering pine tree which in the mountains the carpenters
have hewn down with their whetted axes to make a ship-timber. 16.481ff

A timber for a ship, like those that brought men to Troy, and dead Sarpedon is tall and lean like a towerig pine. Again there is that suggestion of being returned to the war machine – remember the young men arming on the other side of the krater – well, this krater has LEAGROS KALOS beautiful Leagros written on both sides, over the dead man and over the young men – this krater was at the least intended as a reminder of a memorable young man.

Eleven inscriptions by Euphronios alone have been found dedicated to Leagros – and nearly seventy by other artists. Leagros must have been absolutely stunning. The inscription on one pot is Leagros Kalos kai xi – Leagros is handsome, and how! It is known that his family lived near the Athens Keramikos, and very possibly he modelled on occasion for artists. When Euphronios was considerably older, he made a pot that was dedicated to Glaukon son of Leagros. Like all young Athenians, Leagros went to war, and was respected enough to be elected strategos, general, and in his turn he was killed in war, probably in 467 – acting and reenacting the images on this krater and in Homer.

Sarpedon goes down like a great tree, and that should be a moving image in itself, but neither his father nor we are spared a thing:
. . . he lay there felled in front of his horses and chariots
roaring, and clawed with his hands at the bloody dust . . .
He died raging .

The great classicist, Bernard Knox, was a volunteer in the Spanish Civil war. In the battle of Madrid, a bullet went through his neck & shoulder & ruptured his carotid artery. The medics let him know he was dying. In a published lecture, he told how he felt:

I was consumed with rage furious, violent rage Why me? I was just 21 and had barely begun living my life. Why should I have to die? It was unjust. And, as I felt my whole being sliding into nothingness, I cursed. I cursed God and the world and everyone in it as the darkness fell.

Sarpedon died raging, and Homer is relentless: 
. . and Patroklos, stepping heel braced to chest, dragged
the spear out of his body, and the midriff came away with it
so that he drew out with the spearhead the life of Sarpedon.
The battle continues for some time before
Apollo ...
lifting brilliant Sarpedon out from under the weapons
carried him far away, and washed him in a running river,
and anointed him . . .
then gave him into the charge
of Sleep and Death who are twin brothers, and these two
laid him down within the rich countryside of broad Lykia.
When the Metropolitan acquired this pot, I travelled to New York from Washington to see it. In the two and a half years I taught in New York, I made at least 18 visits to take my students, and when it was about to be repatriated, I travelled to New York from Seattle to see it for the last time. So I was amazed and profoundly moved to encouter it in Athens, in the new Acropolis Museum, in an exhibit called Nostoi (Returns). All the other Homeric nostoi are of the living and they are in the Odyssey. Sarpedon's is the only nostos of a dead man.

20 November 2008

Osman Şah's Mosque

In his inimitable style, Evliya tells us how Osman Şah's mosque came to be:

True, it is rather small, but it is a remarkable, fine and captivating edifice, full of light, a prosperous, well-adorned and brilliantly constructed mosque. There are such jeweled hangings suspended here. . . The court is paved in white marble, and revetted with colored marbles, with arcades along the sides, formed of capdomes supported on monolithic columns, and an upper school formed of chambers for the learned. This brilliant mosque is situated in a level area of lawns and flowerbeds along the bank of the river, with all the other monumental buildings are good works and pious benefactions of Osman Şah.

Koca Osman Şah, the descendant of the Ottoman line, was a man possessed of a magnificently generous nature. He was nephew to Sultan Suleyman, in that his mother was the daughter, born under a happy star, of Sultan Selim the first, and he was slightly older than Sultan Suleyman. Now when Selim turned Suleyman over to the Chief of the Imperial Gardeners with the order to kill him, the Chief Gardener claimed that he had done so, and prepared a bier with a man’s body on it. He took that man out and buried him. Then this foresighted and provident chief gardener disguised prince Suleyman as a gardener, and set him to work with a hoe in the tower garden.

It happened then that Selim Khan fell ill on his return to Istanbul after the conquest of Egypt, and when his remaining household were gathered around him, they said, “My Sovereign, to whom will you pass on this crown, this throne, this mantle and this dominion after you? For behold, my Sovereign, you are left without a son. You have sacrificed your brothers, Sultan Korkud and Sultan Ahmed, and you have sacrificed the darling prince, the tawny lion, free of all faults, your own Suleyman, and now who shall be master of the throne?” When they had said this, Selim answered, “The learned prince Osman Şah, my daughter’s child shall be the supreme and absolute ruler.”

The chief Gardener waited till Selim Şah was in the last agonies of death and taking many hundred thousand oaths in the name of God, he went to find tawny Suleyman in the tower garden, and brought him in to Selim Şah’s presence, still wearing his gilt gardener’s gap and carrying his hoe in his hand. Father and son rushed into one another’s embrace, and Selim Han recovered his health and strength for forty more days. On the fortieth day, after he had raised the Chief Gardener to the rank of a Councillor of State, Selim Han went to his last rest.

When Suleyman Han became absolute sovereign, all the servants of the imperial household raised a great murmur of scandalized outrage, saying, “Selim Han made his testament to us, and we will make Osman Şah our sovereign, since he is a great prince.” So the provident and far-sighted Suleyman got Osman Şah, together with his half-sister, that is to say, Osman Şah’s mother, and sent them off under cavalry escort to ride in a single night into banishment in the Trikkala command. He made this command over as an inalienable lifetime gift to Osman Şah who built this beautiful mosque here in Trikkala and left hundreds of other good works and benefactions. God have mercy on him, for it is certainly a brilliant mosque.

From Evliya's Travels © Pierre A. MacKay.
The mosque today, and here.

14 November 2008

Mycenean Polytope

In the summer of 1979, the premiere of a work entitled Mycenean Polytope, by a leading Greek composer was presented at the great fortress of Mycenae. Posters promised a live orchestra, three hundred soldiers, torches, narrations, and the Premier of Greece. Reviewers were expected from all the major European newspapers.

At the Mycenae parking lot, a grazing field rented for the occasion, traffic had to maneuver around some thirty black goats and sheep, belled and bearing lights. Most of the animals had paired off and were butting heads together in slow motion, oblivious to screaming men who were trying to direct them into an enclosure. It was lovely to watch, but it did not promise well for the music.

It was an interesting performance, for those whose tastes ran to interesting performances. A great deal of the music emphasized the atonal and arythmic, as well as the blatantly ugly. More of the music involved what seemed intended to be rams' horns blown for an attack or for authenticity of atmosphere, but it came through the amplifiers like Cyclopean whoops, farts, and burps, which is how the audience responded.

There were not three hundred soldiers with torches, but maybe there were seventy raw recruits from the Nauplion barracks, and they had not rehearsed climbing on and off vertical archaeological sites in the dark. Their walkie-talkies broadcast on the same frequency as the amplifiers for the orchestra so we heard a great many instructions, frustrations, expletives, and discussions of personal sexual habits, hygiene, and ancestry. Meanwhile, someone possibly associated with the performance was intoning those consonant-vowel syllables from the Mycenean Linear B clay documents -- da-mo-ko-ro-po-ro-ko-re-te -- or perhaps not those precise syllables, but it hardly mattered since Linear B is lists of livestock and jobs. Accompanying this were little whoops and bleats from the orchestra, with occasional shrieks which occasioned additional feedback in the speakers and a great many responses from the black sheep.

Then someone else began intoning, "Menin aide thea." This was cheering because it was recognizeable, but the cheer was brief because the orchestra's part showed no signs of improvement and the narrator gave every impression of being able to continue through the whole twenty-four books. There was considerable intonation about Ahhhh-chi-laaaay-oos, which seemed odd in a way as he never had anything to do with Mycenae, but it served to signal that the Iliad was still going on. Meanwhile, torches were lit, or such torches as could be managed in a high wind -- more antiphonal ancestral comments from the soldiers here – and whispers in the crowd suggested the torches meant the narrative had reached the burning of Troy.

The black goats and sheep with their bells and lights were unleashed and driven up the slope of Mt. Zara – this was intended to represent the hopes and aspirations of mankind – momentarily splendid to behold, but surely disappointing to the composer as some of them began like we to go astray, and the ruder sorts in the audience gave forth with shepherd whistles, many of them and contradictory, which tended to confuse the sheep and brought some few back down the slope where such as could be collared and turned around were driven forth again. The livestock in Homer, as best I could recall, were generally being eaten. It was reported over the next weeks that Polytope had occasioned hard feelings among the sheep-owning population of Mycenae, many of whose animals continued to be missing.

07 November 2008

Far-Away Peter and the Lion in the Rafters

He is a clumsy thing, this mannikin with the great hands. Barely a foot high and so far away as to be nearly invisible, he stands at the right end of the triumphal arch in the church of Ag. Pareskevi in Halkis, Greece. He is St. Peter Martyr and at the left end of the arch is an equally clumsy but less interesting St. Dominic.

The other image here below, the merry feathery lion, even smaller and more completely invisible from the floor, is the Lion of St. Mark, painted on the end of one of the massive rafters in the same church

These two unlikely images are unlikely in their location, and even more unlikely in that they may be the oldest surviving images of their types.

The church, long claimed to be a sixth-century Byzantine basilica by nationalists who willfully failed to consider the Gothic arches and rafters before their eyes, has been demonstrated by two scholars independently to be a Dominican priory church, dated by dendrochronology to 1261 or just after. Peter, a Dominican monk, became a martyr in 1252 and was canonized in 1253, so he had barely been minted which this image of him was created.

Brother Peter of Verona was a Dominican inquisitor, and though most people have an instant hostile reaction to the word, he never did anything to anyone. In fact, he had called off an inquiry into the Cathars at Milan with the idea that they might return to the fold of the church more readily with kindness than with discipline, and he was such a good preacher that they were. He was walking to Milan with Brother Dominico to find our how things were working when he was attacked in the forest of Barlassina by two men, Carino and Manfredo who had been hired by wealthy Cathars to get rid of him. Brother Peter bled to death almost immediately. Brother Dominico was wounded and died a week later.

Brother Peter's skull survives, and it is easy enough to see the hole and slice in his skull made by the blow of a pruning hook -- and what other sure weapon could a countryman risk being caught carrying in a woods? The Dominicans, running far behind the Franciscans in interesting saints, pushed through his canonization immediately, and authorized images of him to be set up in their churches along with St. Dominic.

Very few images make any pretense of accuracy, though this portrait of Savanarola as Peter Martyr comes fairly close. Fra Angelico tones it down, but one can't imagine Fra Angelico doing anything else. This image, though, is a melodramatic interpretation of his martyrdom, surpassing most other melodramatic images such as this, this, or this, and it is probably a fair sample of the images that appeared in the first generation after his death. This little big-handed man had an iron blade slicing through his face, attached with dowels to the stone -- you can see the holes for the dowels and the place where the face was cut away for the blade. It is a shame, really, that he was too small, too high up, too far away for this to be seen.

Another first, this exuberant little lion, fairly dancing on his Gospel book, because the first known use of the winged lion of St. Mark to represent Venice was in 1261. It is a very familiar image now, painted, carved in stone, in moleca -- the last appeared by 1263. He holds a book, this one closed, but conventionally it is open and says, 'Pax tibi, Marce, evangelista meum." The rest of the phrase says, "here will your body rest," because the body of Mark is believed to rest in the crypt of S. Marco in Venice. Someone has demonstrated the body of Saint Mark is really the body of Alexander the Great, because Mark was brought from Alexandria and Alexander was buried in Alexandria, and it all stands to reason.

Carino, by the way, allowed himself to be captured. He had been promised aid, and that seems to be why he was able to "escape" from prison. It is a great story. He eventually ended up, ill and wracked with guilt, in the Dominican hospital in Forli where he made a deathbed confession. When he failed to die, he became a lay brother of the Dominicans and lived a life of such devotion, that after his death he became the focus of a cult and is even now recognized as the Blessed Carino of Balsamo by the people of Forli.

02 November 2008

Layings on of Hands

The photographs this fall made me remember what Rebecca West wrote about the 1934 assassination of Alexander I of Yugoslavia:
Innumerable hands are caressing him. Hands are coming from everywhere, over the backs of the car, over the sides, through the windows, to caress the dying king, and they are surprisingly kind. . . . they stroke his cheek as if they were washing it with kindness.
When President Reagan was shot, the videos showed the same thing, showed over and over men's hands moving in tenderness, men's hands offering comfort. Pictures show hands touching Bobby Kennedy that way, too, but it was too late.
That was forty years ago -- is it possible this man who was our sad younger brother could ever be seventy-nine years old? The hands were reaching out to him that year grabbing, demanding, wanting a piece of him as if touching him could make them gold. That year we learned to be afraid. Too many people we loved were killed, and the vintage of the grapes of wrath flowed through our streets.

It is not inappropriate here to write of death, because to think about death implies that we have some requirements for what life must mean if it is to be more than simple biological functions, and that we have some need for lives to have meaning. Surely few things show how individuals create meaning in their lives more than do political campaigning and the ways campaigns are understood
Barack means "blessing," and picture after picture shows people responding to him in just that way, show him receiving gentle hands, and in the one here he is covered with a feathering of hands. These are hands with grace, not grabbing hands, not grieving hands, but hands with joy. In this Fall of 2008, hands reach out to Barack Obama -- passing him strength, giving him blessing.

Take note of this column.