23 December 2008


What is wanted here is silence.

That the young woman is pregnant is suggested by her unlaced gown, shorter in front than in back. Her labor has begun, and her right hand both indicates her pregnancy and feels the movement of the contraction, while her other hand presses into her back to relieve the discomfort. She has moved deep within herself into silence.

The angels, mirror images, their colors inverted, are closing the tent to give her privacy. Inevitably these angels are described as pulling back the curtains to reveal her: this would be the convention, and innumerable putti pull back draperies to uncover lovers or other important events. But Piero is never conventional when he follows conventions, and an understanding of the young woman's posture and the way in which they shield her with their wings makes it clear that they are protecting her, giving her privacy.

This tent, though is even less conventional.

Exodus 25-26-27 describes the making of the tent of the Ark of the Covenant. Piero gives us an imperial tent of his day and here the red-dyed rams' skins and the gold of Exodus have become heavy red brocade woven with gold roses. Where Exodus constructs the tent of skins, Piero lines the young woman's enclosure with fur. The King James Version reads the skins as badger skins, but the word may actually refer to sealskins (there were and are seals in the eastern Mediterranean), and Piero's furs have that softness. So this young woman standing in the Tent of the Ark, flanked by two angels as was the Ark, becomes herself the Ark and the Covenant will be present among us this winter night in the protective quiet and warmth of the enclosing fur.

The first chapter of the Gospel of John, which nearly every church will read tonight at midnight or tomorrow morning, says, "And the Word became Flesh and pitched his tent -- ἐσκήνωσεν --
among us." Translators make that say that he lived, or dwelled with us. But John meant what he wrote: the tent of the Ark of the Covenant was pitched in our midst, and he created in words this image that Piero has translated into fresco.

Piero always paints silence, whatever the images, the silence between notes, and the silence of this young woman about to give birth brings to mind a poem that ends:

She's crowning, someone says,
but there's no one royal here.
just me quite barefoot
greeting my barefoot child.

The poem is by Linda Pastan, from A Perfect Circle of Sun.
A larger version of the painting.

17 December 2008



Athens' students have learned well the lesson of the eighteenth division of the first book of what it means to be Greek.

. . . so from the head of Achilleus the blaze shot into the bright air.
He went from the wall and stood by the ditch . . .
There he stood, and shouted, and from her place Pallas Athene
gave cry, and drove an endless terror . . .
As loud as comes the voice that is screamed out by a trumpeter,
by murderous attackers who beleaguer a city.
Humiliation leads to fury. Fury leads to destuction that is anything but mindless. These minds were concentrated on destruction.

Whatever else was involved in making this crisis -- there are many factors, and this is a very partial and prejudiced account -- the students have been humiliated: humiliated by the thinness of authoritarian education in shabby classrooms; humiliated by undereducated and underpaid teachers; humiliated by a culture that will only have employment at graduation for half of them, most of that employment at minimal rates outside the area of their discipline; humilated by the loss of the future.
Despair has been fed by anarchists supplied with drug money, by frustration exploited by political extremists -- extremists are alien to irony, but reflect, will you, that Socrates was executed on a charge of corrupting the young.

Those first nights, koukouloforoi
-- "the hooded ones" -- whirled through the streets bringing terror, raging against the long-legged buildings like the flames whirling about the mannequins in the image here, smashing into plate glass with steel bars and hammers, throwing Molotov cocktails into shops and at the underpaid, undertrained, underequipped police whose job it is to get themselves abused to make the government look as if something is being done. But the koukouloforoi seek terror and destruction, not social justice, and the name recalls the nightriders of the Klan whom my mother saw riding with torches when she was a child.
Homer's warriors hurled stones (such as no man now could lift): the koukouloforoi, fuelled by adrenalin, testosterone, and the joy of destruction, smash sidewalks and pavements to get missles to hurl at the police or through the windows of shops. Blazes shot into the air from Achilleus, the green blaze of lazer pointers shoots from the koukouloforoi.

My generation learned of Molotov cocktails from the Hungarian students in 1956 who stood against Russian tanks, and the flames in Budapest came from torches made by the spontaneous lighting of newspapers that first evening when there was still hope. Students standing against tanks takes us to Tianamen Square. The fury in Athens has the dignity of neither, but it, too, is a revolution. The Athenian press calls it polemos -- war.
History is wrenched from the pavement to shatter assumptions.
Achilleus raged with unimaginable fury and his fury created such destruction that nature recoiled from him. The river vomited up his his destruction and the gods cried out: Achilleus has destroyed pity!


Saturday when the city was almost quiet, I was walking in a part of Athens new to me and glanced up absent-mindedly to see the soaring north side of the Acropolis -- the Parthenon and the Erechtheum. They came to me like singing rather than sight, singing of order, singing out what this city knows of building and mindfulness.

Then the next day at St. Paul's Anglican Church, the surrounding pavements glittering with shards of glass and burned buildings not twenty feet away, we had a reading from Isaiah:

. . . instead of ashes . . . They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

11 December 2008

The Miracles of Ag. Demetrios-Karakalas

Nuns from an icon since the nuns of Ag. Demetrios Karakalas are not to be photographed, although the nuns of Ag. Demetrios Karakalas could never show the grimness on these faces.
One of our visits was on the twenty-sixth of October, the Feastday of the saint,
and the road was clogged with pick-up trucks and small cars and ery small donkeys. The crowd had clotted at the convent gates, waiting to pass the gauntlet of gypsies, beggars, and pretty girls who sold lottery and admission tickets. Inside the gate we were snatched by Sister Akakia who rushed us into the parlour calling ahead to the others that we had returned and calling back to us that she wanted us to see their miracle.
On each visit the nuns told us stories of miracles, in the matter-of-fact way in which children discuss Christmas presents: one feels a certain confidence in their reports. On this visit they introduced us to a woman who had experienced a miracle in the convent three years earlier. She was a thin woman with large tranquil eyes, though pain had clawed deep lines in her face. She told her story.
For some years, she had been depressed, finally, to the point of anorexia and aphasia. Her family was in despair. They brought her to the convent for help, and their whole village came with them. At night they came to the chapel with its great double doors, a dark sweet church smelling of incense and lemon oil and fresh flowers and bread, and they knelt and prayed together all night long.
In the night, Agios Demetrios rode into the church on his red horse, and pointed his spear at her and said, "Speak."
She said, "I can't speak."
He said again, "Speak."
She said, "I can't speak."
He said, "Speak."
She said, "I don't have anything to say." And then Panagia, the Mother Holy above All, came and put her arms around her and patted her, saying over and over again, "Everything will be all right."
She and her family and her village prayed in the chapel for three nights. Each night Agios Demetrios rode in and commanded her, "Speak," and each night Panagia came and held her and said, "Everything will be all right."
And everything was all right. She was able to speak, and at the convent she was helped to eat again. For the first year after that, she wore black; in part to honour the miracle, but also to bury the sickness, and because even in healing, a certain loss must be acknowledged.
The nuns were delighted with this miracle, but not boastful, for the roses were blooming exceptionally well for the end of October, and a child was playing in the courtyard who was expected to die. These women all assumed that miracles are reasonable happenings. They radiate good health, bodily and mentally, all of them moving not as women who have made sacrifices, but as women who are constantly receiving abundance.
On this feastday they went about their duties, embracing women and children, cooing over each little Demetrios or Demetria, or Mimis or Dimitri or Demetra or Dimitraki, the new crop of babies since last feast day, all fat and engulfed in hand-embroidered baby clothes and clouds of blankets. The sisters applauded other women's pregnancies, exclaimed over this year's new engagement and wedding rings, passed out plates of candied apricots, relayed messages, complimented each other, and carried stacks of handwoven and embroidered linens to the guest rooms which were crammed wall to wall with pallets for the pilgrims.

We had met other miracles there, such as Sister Paraskevi, thin and precise like the point of a librarian's pencil. She was, for a Greek, tall and thin; her triangular face barely visible under her wimple; a prominent nose and chin. She had a masculine walk and a masculine handclasp, meaning that she showed great self-possession, confidence, authority.

She described herself to us, on her arrival at the convent, as sickly, scrawny, mean, complaining, depressed, unloveable, and so nearsighted as to be nearly blind. She chose Paraskevi as her convent name, for the saint who has particular responsibility for eyes. She bathed her eyes regularly with water that had been poured over a miraculous icon of Agia Paraskevi, and wore a scapular with a piece of cotton soaked in the miraculous oil from the tomb of Agios Demetrios.
She had a nervous habit of doodling. Someone, she said "the convent," saw that what she did was good, and encouraged her to draw. She drew constantly, losing as she did so her tendency to whine and to feel poorly, and her eyes were not so weak. The convent bought her books on art and painting, reproductions to study, and she gradually trained herself as an icon painter. She became widely known; the convent had a long backlog of orders for her work from churches all over Greece.
Sister Akakia was another example of this particular intelligence in the convent. She had come to Ag. Demetrios Karakalas after living in Crete for twenty years as a weaver. In the first months she was depressed and lonely, and "the convent" asked what made her happy at home. When she spoke of weaving, they provided her with a loom and the necessary materials, and she delightedly taught Sister Christoforo and some of the others how to weave. All the hangings in the church and the convent were of their own weaving, as were the vestments of the priest of the Evangelistria in Nauplion. When he stood among the brocades and samites of the other clergy in a simple white cotton sprinkled with blue flowers, he had the appearance of the true prince among the false claimants.

The convent -- a monastery until the end of World War II -- has survived Venetians, Turks, Greeks, Albanians, Egyptians, and Germans, all of whom harassed and burned and killed. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the monastery gave refuge to klefts from the mountains, and some said that the monks were themselves klefts. It was dynamited by the Germans under the assumption that it was sheltering andartes from ELAS in the sick bay; in the depredations of the Civil War, it was fired by Communists who claimed that it was aiding the Government troops, and fired by Government troops because it was hiding Communists. They were both right: the monks were never particular about the political views of the wounded.

04 December 2008

Bartolomeo Minio

This is not Bartolomeo Minio. Minio would never have given his attention to dressing this well, and he couldn't have afforded to. But he has Minio's resolution, isolation, and the deep marks of experience: he was Minio's contemporary, and represents him here.

There is a myth of Venice, often disparaged, and it has been fashionable in the last 20 years for historians to deconstruct one part or another of the myth. But Minio was the man the myth describes and he deserves honor. He is knowable, in the way that few men from 500+ years ago are knowable, because there survive 150 letters that he wrote,* in addition to many small references to him in Venetian government documents, comments in the Sanudo Diaries, and bits that can be inferred from other records..

Minio was born about 1428 and died in the summer of 1515. He should have died a number of other times for which records survive -- of malaria in Nauplion in August 1480, of dysentery in the Ferrara war in 1484, in a night battle at sea with pirates in June 1485, of pneumonia in Crete in 1501. He was a lonely man, tense, with neck cramps and migraines. He thought he followed a strict construction of his intructions, but you can watch him developing friendships and making decisions more out of concern for actual people.

The variety of his professional life reflects the expectations Venice had of its representatives in the stato da mar. He built the sea walls of Nauplion and the great tower of Famagusta. He developed warm relationships with a series of Ottoman governors and officials in the Morea, and after a stratioti revolt was able to commit Venice to an exceptional grant of amnesty that prevented an all-out revolt across the country. He kept having to deal with starvation -- in Nauplion, of the chronically unpaid soldiers stationed there, and of the city after a crop failure; in Crete he received the refugees from the capture of Methoni and Koroni by the Turks, and reported that there was no place for them but the streets, and no way of providing food. He had orders to obtain 40 falcons for the French fleet in the dead of winter, and to bury the headless body of an acquaintance executed for treason.

His first post immediately after his return from Nauplion in 1483 was provveditor over the stratioti taken from Greece for the Ferrara war. The stratioti had been so shocked at the violence and slaughter in their first Italian encounter (which was with Federigo, Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino) -- guerilla fighters had been sent in opposite a mounted charge in full armor -- that they refused to fight without a commander who knew what he was doing, "not one of those Italians." Minio was selected because he had dealt with the same men for nearly four years, and he was complimented for his success in managing them and for winning battles in the field.

The next year, 1484, he was elected captain to defend the galley convoy, muda, to Flanders and England, and this is a story worth following. On 3 August, the four galleys reached the Atlantic. They were attacked off Cape Vincent in the Bay of Biscay by seven armed ships flying the flag of Charles VIII of France, commanded by the corsair
Nicolò Griego ("Nick the Greek"). In the ensuing battle which lasted from the first hour of the day to the twentieth, 300 galioti oarsmen who were armed and expected to fight – were killed, as were most of the crossbowmen, and two of the patroni. Christopher Columbus was one of the pirates and a sensational description survives in a biography written by his son. Most of the galioti were killed. Minio and two of the investors were set on the coast of Portugal to make their way home. The pirates went away with the galleys and at least 200,000 ducats worth of goods for sale, and the potential of bankrupting half the merchants in Venice.**

He is the only one of some 500 Venetian governors in Greek territories before 1540 who was remembered by the Greeks. He wrote once, in extreme unhappiness, about having to use forced labor at Nauplion working on the walls -- it was a hardship for "these poor people," but, he said, he worked with them in person. The Greeks remembered that, and a chronicle records:

At that time, the governor of the place, that is, the Venetian, with all the people of Nauplion, did all the building, and built the walls around, just as they appear today . . . and the governor of the place, the Venetian, gave benefits and many gifts . . .

Bartolomeo Minio is one of those people of whom Cavafy wrote:

Honor to those who in their lives
are committed and guard their Thermopylae.

Never stirring from duty;
just and upright in all their deeds,
but with pity and compassion too;
generous whenever they are rich, and when
they are poor, again a little generous,
again helping as much as they are able;
always speaking the truth,
but without rancor for those who lie.

* See Diana Gilliland Wright and John Melville-Jones: The Greek Correspondence of Bartolomeo Minio: Volume I, Dispacci from Nauplion (1479-1483),
UniPress, Padova, at 40.00 euro plus shipping, by e-mail from unipress2001@libero.it or fax 39.049.8752542.
** This story will be told in Volume II, Dispacci from Crete (1500-1502) which should be out next winter.