Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Merry Christmas and A Freilichin Chaunukah!

Happy Holidays to all of my friends and visitors! Here is a gift to all from The Forlorn Path:

This is George A. Smith’s short film “Santa Claus” from 1898. Smith was a pioneer of British cinema and was a friend and colleague of Georges Méliès. Smith began as a stage illusionist and magician, and like Méliès, would later incorporate these skills into the new art of filmmaking.

This film is most likely the first time Santa was put on film. It is interesting to note that he has the same overall appearance as he is portrayed today, albeit a bit thinner and perhaps a little more pagan-looking. Also, instead of coming down a chimney, he enters the children’s room through a magical portal.

I find these old films so very fascinating; they are like magical portals that transcend the sands of time and give us a glimpse into the past. I hope that you enjoy it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Georges Méliès, The Alchemist of Light

Today marks the 150th birthday of Georges Méliès, the first sci-fi movie director, not to mention one of the worlds’ first directors. He made 552 films between 1896 and 1913--nearly all of which are under twenty minutes in length (many are only one or two minutes long.) His films are some of the most imaginative films ever to be directed, even by today’s standards. His innovations in the field of cinematography were groundbreaking and paved the way for future directors. D.W. Griffith said of Méliès, "I owe him everything," and Charlie Chaplin dubbed him "the alchemist of light."

Georges was born in Paris, France, on December 8, 1861. His full birth name was Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès. In his younger days, he worked as an illusionist and conjuror. He also had a background in theatre and had a lifelong compulsion to draw. All of these skills would be used to enhance his films and contributed to making his movies stand out. Many of his early films were of himself performing magic tricks, while also utilizing the film to further the illusions. He acted in eighty-four of his films.

The Conjuror 1899

In 1888, after inheriting a share of his fathers’ business, he purchased the Théârte Robert Houdin on 8 boulevard des Italiens, Paris, and began to put on his own productions. The Théârte Robert Houdin was very important and deeply symbolic to Georges.

The theatre was named after the great French stage magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin who has been credited as the Father of Modern Conjuring. The small theatre was where Houdin performed many of his most famous acts and was a mecca for would-be magicians. It was also frequented by the Parisian elite. After Houdin’s death on June 13, 1871, the theatre was inherited by his son, Emile (who was also an illusionist). Emile never performed there, but he did arrange for magic acts to continue to keep the theatre running. After Emile’s death, his widow sold the theatre to Georges Méliès.

Note: Harry Houdini intentionally chose the name “Houdini” as an homage to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. I plan to write a future posting entirely dedicated to Robert-Houdin, but I felt some clarification on the similarity of names was in order to clear up any confusion.

Georges created around twenty-five different major stage illusions at the theatre before he attended a viewing of the Lumière brother’s Cinématographe on December 28, 1895, at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. Ten short films were shown (all around 45 seconds long), including their first film, Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.) This night would change his life.

Georges tried to buy the invention from them, but they refused on the grounds that "the cinema is an invention without any future." The Lumière brothers primarily made documentary styled films and are considered the worlds first documentary filmmakers. They would go on to focus their attention on producing color photographs instead of films.

Méliès was undeterred by their refusal; he traveled to London and purchased an early projector and, with the aid of an engineer, converted it into a homemade video camera. After perfecting the camera, he patented it as the Kinétographe Robert-Houdin and began shooting his own films in 1896--only one year after seeing a film for the first time.

Méliès also became the inventor of the movie trailer in 1898. In an effort to lure an audience into his theatre, he showed short snippets of his films outside of the Théârte Robert Houdin. He also experimented with adding color to his films as can be seen in his 1900 film Joan of Arc and his 1906 film The Merry Frolics of Satan. His studio filmed between thirty and fifty movies per year until the start of World War I.

Science fiction and magic were not the only genres he filmed. He was the first director to convert books into films. For instance, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Hamlet were both made into films in 1907; Gulliver's Travels in 1902 and Don Quixote in 1908. He also used mythology, history, religious imagery and folktales for inspiration of many more of his films.

Tentation de Saint-Antoine (The Temptation of St. Anthony) 1898

The Temptation of St. Anthony is one of my favorites. It is surprising how risqué this film is considering it was made in 1898. St. Anthony is tempted by scantily clad (for 1898) woman during his prayers and there is nothing he can do to get away from them. He kisses a skull and it becomes a woman; even Christ is replaced on the cross with one of these temptresses! Finally, they are driven away by the appearance of an angel, who now appears just as desirable as the she-devils to the poor saint.

Méliès was also one of the first horror directors. His 1896 film Le Manoir du Diable (English title: The Haunted Castle), is widely considered to be the first horror film, although it was meant to be more amusing than scary. Either way, it is definitely the first vampire film. To give you some perspective, it was actually released the year before Bram Stoker’s Dracula was originally published. Le Manoir was released on Christmas Eve, 1896, at the Theatre Robert Houdin. The film was written, produced and direct by Méliès. He costarred in it playing the part of Mephistopheles and this was the first film of Jeanne d'Alcy, an actress who starred in many of his films between 1896 and 1903 who would later become his second wife.

Le Manoir du Diable (The Haunted Castle) 1896

Méliès final film was made in 1913, most likely due to a series of extraordinarily horrible events. This would be the blackest point of his life. His first wife, Eugénie Génin, who he married in 1885, died in 1913; his Théârte Robert-Houdin went bankrupt in 1914 and closed its doors; and then his brother, Gaston (who acted in some of Georges’ films and produced and directed films of his own in America), died on April 9, 1915, of “shellfish poisoning.”

Undaunted, Georges converted his studio into a theatre in 1915 and continued to show his films until 1923 when, pursued by creditors, he was forced to close it down and sell his negatives, costumes, set designs and props. What he didn’t sell was recycled as he had no way of storing it. Many of his films would be melted down and turned into boot heels for the army.

Méliès became wedded again in 1926, marrying his former actress and presumed mistress Jeanne d'Alcy. For the next five years he would make toys and sell them in a small boutique in the Montparnasse railway station. They were penniless and seemingly forgotten to the world.

Unexpectedly, his films had a resurgence with the new generation of French youth. In March of 1931, Méliès was named as one of the two pillars of French cinema alongside Louis Lumière. On October 22, 1931, he was presented with the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor) award by Louis Lumière.

He would live out his final days at the Chateau d'Orly where Méliès reminisced and occasionally performed conjuring tricks. He passed away on January 21, 1938, in Paris, France, at the age of 76 and is interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Jeanne would live another eighteen years before passing away on October 14, 1956, at Versailles, France, at the age of 91.

Méliès’ films live on and are still attracting an audience today. It was not simply fame or money that he was after. Georges was a true artist; he was driven by a deep need to give his art to the world and it still shows in his films even after one hundred years time. Approximately ninety of his films survive today, the rest are lost to time. However, many of his films are available for free on the various websites, such as Youtube.

Le Diable Noir (The Black Imp) 1905

For the sake of space, I would like to give some links to other Méliès’ films I would recommend here:

A Trip to the Moon (1902) This is the first science fiction movie ever made.

Jeanne D'arc (Joan of Arc) Starring Jenne d’Alcy as Joan. (1900)

Cinderella (1899)

The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) Color

Monday, November 21, 2011

Black Death (2010)

I recently had the pleasure of watching the 2010 film Black Death directed by Christopher Smith. I went in only expecting a typical medieval adventure type of movie. The opening narration (something I usually dislike a movie to open with) grabbed my attention and actually drew me in. I knew that there was going to be more to the film than I thought.

Its official description reads:

“Set during the time of the first outbreak of bubonic plague in England, a young monk is tasked with learning the truth about reports of people being brought back to life in a small village.”

Do not be fooled by the vagueness of this; Black Death is much more than that. I was reminded very much of a newer version of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. It most certainly is not a remake, just a movie in a similar vein. Black Death saves most of its philosophical problems for the ending, but it hints of the culmination throughout as the plot unfolds.

Flawless acting coupled with striking and believable sets and wardrobes is the best recipe for a good movie. Well written dialogue also never hurt a movie. Black Death also has some great quotes that will stick with you.

For a movie, it was a surprisingly accurate portrayal of life in the dark ages. If you are looking for a prettied up or romanticized depiction of plague ridden England, look elsewhere--Black Death is gritty, cruel and not afraid to show the ugly side of human nature.

I especially liked that it was not afraid to be itself. By that I mean that most movies of recent times try to be everything to everyone and appeal to as broad a demographic as physically possible and end up being completely bland. Black Death is a movie set in Dark Age Britain and the religion, culture and biases that come with that are not cut out.

I should point out that the film is definitely not a pro-Christian propaganda flick. It is not pro anything really. Christians, Pagans and even Atheists are shown in an unflattering light. The characters are not one dimensional stereotypes; they are shown as complex individuals, each with their own reasons for doing and behaving as they do. They are all unique and it is a joy to watch as their personalities are explored.

This is a movie that leaves you thinking afterwards. Life and death; good and evil; mob mentalities and the human tendency to scapegoat others when faced with unimaginably horrific circumstances--these are the main issues explored in this excellently crafted film.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Search of the Real Necronomicon

The Necronomicon, the accursed grimoire written in haste by the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred has thrilled readers of H. P. Lovecraft for over eighty years. It is mentioned in movies, books and video games and has become a pop culture icon even to people who have never heard of Lovecraft. Naturally, many people ask the same question after their first exposure to the book: “Is it real?”

This leads us to the purpose of this blog. We will cover the myths that have crept up around the book and examine them point by point in search of evidence of a real Necronomicon.

Let’s begin with the author himself, the Mad Arab. Any Arabic speaker can tell you right off that “Abdul Alhazred,” while sounding very Arabic, is not a proper Arabic name. It is gibberish and nothing more. Lovecraft invented the name when he was five years old after reading 1001 Arabian Nights. He admits to this in a letter to Harry O. Fischer written in late February 1937. It has been speculated that the name was corrupted and could be altered in different ways to become a proper Arabic name. Of course, one could do that with any fictitious name and that doesn’t prove anything. There is no historical record of anyone fitting his description.

The name of the accursed book “Necronomicon” will also fail to yield any real books. It is most commonly translated from Greek to English as “The Book of Dead Names” but Lovecraft himself wrote that it should be translated as "an image of the law of the dead": nekros - νεκρός ("dead"), nomos - νόμος ("law"), eikon - εικών ("image") (H. P. Lovecraft - Selected Letters V, 418). The supposed original Arabic title of the book is “Kitab Al-Azif”. I am unable to find any entry in any English-Arabic dictionaries for “Azif” or “Al-Azif”; most likely, as Lovecraft admits, it is a fictitious title. Outside of Lovecraft’s fiction, there is no reference to any of these book titles. However, I believe I have discovered the inspiration for the Arabic title. More on that below.

Before we continue any further, I will briefly point out that one may find a “Necronomicon” for sale on Amazon or other sites for $7.99. This book is known as the “Simon Necronomicon” and it is nothing more than a modern day invention that was written in the 1970s and merely uses the title to gain notoriety and fool the reader into thinking that it is the same book found in Lovecraft’s Mythos. It is at best fan fiction and at worst a simple sales gimmick. Let’s continue to more worthy subjects . . .

The most commonly cited book that supposedly proves the existence of the accursed book is La Magie Chez les Chaldeens by François Lenormant (1877). I’ve seen many internet postings claiming that the Necronomicon is mentioned in this book, which was written before Lovecraft’s birth. I noticed that no one ever actually cited a page or direct quotation from it. I found that this is because there is no such passage in La Magie when I read it in 2005 for the first time.

That is not to say that there was no useful information in it. It became clear to me that the book was very Lovecraftian in language and overall feel. For example, page 169 speaks of “one of the most curious and strangest fragment from the third book of the magical collection. This fragment, like so many others, has been handed down to us in a deplorable state of dilapidation. . . .”

While there is no reference to an evil grimoire, there is reference to evil sorcerers. Only the books of divine magic are still in existence (there’s no proof that black magic books even existed) and that “the diabolical and malevolent magic is excluded with horror, and its practices are energetically condemned.” (p. 59) It is natural that one could imagine that one of these nefarious books would be a Necronomicon, but there is simply no evidence or reference to their actual existence.

Lovecraft’s Mythos does bear a correspondence with the Babylonian and Sumerian mythology described in La Magie. Astrological symbols and gods from the deep sea are referenced in both.

On page 29 we find this passage:

“These demons had a general cosmical power, attacking mankind, and producing ‘the evil command which comes from the midst of heaven; the evil destiny which issues from the depths of the abyss.’”

We find on page 157 the story of Hea, appearing in the form of Oannes--a half-man half-fish demigod who taught mankind numerous religious and social laws. There were also many other fish avatars in Chaldean mythology known as “annedoti.” Hea was one of the chief gods and was known as “the master of the abyss of waters and lord of Eridu” and was believed to be the repository of all science and knowledge.

It is possible that Lovecraft read this very book as it seems he did have a knowledge of Babylo-Chaldean mythology and that his Mythos were heavily influenced by it.

However, La Magie is not the only book of its kind. Between 1880 and 1900 there were quite a few books written about these ancient religions and I have no doubt that Lovecraft read many of these books and used the information and language of them to color his ideas of unimaginable cosmic entities.

One could just as easily claim another book, Babylonian Magic and Sorcery by L. W. King (1896), as a source. After all, Lovecraft was only six when it was published in Britain and in the books’ dedication one finds such statements as:

“The cuneiform texts, which fill seventy-five plates, are about sixty in number, and of these only one has hitherto been published in full. . . .”


“They show a remarkable mixture of lofty spiritual conceptions and belief in the efficacy of incantations and magical practices, which cannot always be understood.”

However, one will not find the word “Necronomicon” anywhere in it or any reference to an evil book of sorcery. It is also noteworthy to point out that all of the ancient Mesopotamian “books” were not actual books as we think of the word, but were in fact collections of clay or sometimes stone tablets inscribed in cuneiform writing as can be seen here:

Semitic Magic: Its Origins and Development by R. Campbell Thompson (1908) reads very much in the same manner as the others. It has more detail as it was written later than the others and deals more with Semites of a later period. Nonetheless, Lovecraft could easily have used its contents to boost his imagination. Its table of contents alone speaks for itself:

“I. Demons and Ghosts
II. Demoniac Possession and Tabu
III. Sympathetic Magic
IV. The Atonement Sacrifice
V. The Redemption of the Firstborn”

The Kitab al-jilwah (The Book of Revelation) and the Mishefa Reş (The Black Book) are the sacred books of the Yezidi--the alleged devil worshipers of northern Iraq. Certainly, their books could be real Necronomicons since the original was supposed to be an Arabic manuscript. The only problem is that they are of Kurdish ethnicity, not Arabic ethnicity. Secondly, their books contain no reference to sorcery or black magic and Yezidis do not condone this practice. They are not devil worshipers in any sense. They believe in the same God as other Abrahamic faiths with the main distinction being their belief in Melek Ta'us, the Peacock Angel. He has been identified with the Shaytan of the Qur’an, but instead of a prince of darkness, in Yezidism he is the chief angel and ruler of the Earth who refused to bow to Man. He is revered for this by the Yezidis (who believe he was actually obeying God by refusing to do so), whereas he is condemned in other faiths because of this. They believe he is the revealer of all other religions as well.

That being said, the Yezidis seem far less diabolical. They do, in fact, have a slight connection to the Necronomicon. An alternate name for Melek Ta’us is “Aziz” which translates as “Something Precious.” Aziz is very similar to Azif. Nineteenth century European explorers made a spectacle of the Yezidi religion, telling false stories of their devil worship in remote mountainous regions of the Middle East. There is no proof, but I believe this to be Lovecraft’s inspiration for the alleged Arabic title of “Kitab al-Azif.”

It is easy for something hidden in plain sight to be overlooked. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, was first printed in 1895 and would certainly have been available to Lovecraft. The rituals, gods, and monsters described in it bear a similarity to the Mythos. Ancient Egyptians undoubtedly influenced Lovecraft as they are alluded to in some of his stories, and one of his Outer Gods, Nyarlathotep, was described as a tall, swarthy man who resembled an Egyptian Pharaoh in his first appearance in the Mythos. Also, note the similarity between the names of the Book of the Dead with the English rendition of the Necronomicon--the Book of Dead Names.

In fact, according to La Magie, Egyptian magic is more in line with the type of magic described in the Necronomicon than Mesopotamian. Page 94 states that knowledge of certain magical formulae could elevate man the height of the gods. These mysterious words were only given to the initiated. On page 100, it states that this is unique to Egyptian magic and is absent in other nations. The Chaldean sorcerers only commanded lesser spirits to do their will and only prayers and supplications were used to gain the favor of the gods.

It seems to me that the type of magical system contained within the Necronomicon is more similar to Medieval European ceremonial magic. The Lemegeton (Clavicula Salomonis or The Lesser Key of Solomon) seems more similar to the Necronomicon than any of the Mesopotamian tablets encountered in the above books.

The Lemegeton is a 17th century grimoire that details all of the demons that King Solomon conversed with and how to conjure them into physical appearance and compel them to do the sorcerer’s bidding. It contains many elaborate ceremonies and is laden with different seals of these demons. Although it purports to date to King Solomon’s time, it contains numerous references to Christ and is clearly a European creation. It does contain references to older ceremonies that date to around the 14th century.

There are many real books that could be real life inspirations for the Necronomicon. For instance, The Voynich Manuscript is a lavishly illustrated book from the 15th century that is written entirely in an unknown language. It is supposed that it is not a language but a code that has not been deciphered to date, but no one really knows. The illustrations range from botanical (every page contains at least one plant), astronomical, cosmological and even what are thought to be recipes. The author is, of course, unknown but Roger Bacon is rumored to have written it and sold it to John Dee.

The Devil’s Bible, or Codex Gigas, is another example. It is the largest medieval manuscript in the world and weighs in at 165 pounds. It is known for its diabolical name due to a 50 cm tall illustration of a devil and, according to legend, this bible was written in one night by a monk that sold his sole to the devil.

And finally we have the Book of Soyga. It is a 16th century Latin treatise on magic known to have been in the possession of John Dee. After his death in 1608, it was lost. Then one day in 1994, two manuscripts were found in the British Library and the Bodleian Library! Its contents include the standard lists of angels, magical formulae, demonology, conjuring, etc. It does cite unknown grimoires and 36 blocks of letters that Dee was unable to decipher. Dee, during a scything session with the aid of Edward Kelley, asked the Archangel Uriel about the book and was told that it was first revealed to Adam while in the Garden of Eden and that it could be interpreted by the Archangel Michael. Note that in the Lovecraftian Mythos, John Dee supposedly translated the Necronomicon into English, but it was never printed and only pieces survive.

All of these books could easily have served as a basis for the Necronomicon, but it is unknown if Lovecraft even knew of the existence of any these. Undoubtedly, there are numerous more lost or mysterious books that could be listed here. The Necronomicon is most likely a conglomeration of all such books. I believe that the Necronomicon has become a symbol of all lost books of antiquity. No one can ever really know what was contained in them and they will forever be shrouded in an impenetrable veil of mystery.

What did H.P. himself say about his legendary book? Quite a bit, in fact. Even during his lifetime the debate existed and he was swarmed with inquiries as to the whereabouts of this book. Lovecraft seemed to find the whole debate amusing and even jokingly suggested furthering the confusion. In a letter to Robert E. Howard dated August 14, 1930, he said:

“Long [Frank Belknap Long] has alluded to the Necronomicon in some things of his—in fact, I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation. I ought, though, to write Mr. O’Neail and disabuse him of the idea that there is a large blind spot in his mythological erudition!”

A personal favorite of mine is a pretty straight forward letter to Willis Conover dated July 29, 1936 where he, in no uncertain terms, states:

“Now about the ‘terrible and forbidden books’—I am forced to say that most of them are purely imaginary. There never was any Abdul Alhazred or Necronomicon, for I invented these names myself. Robert Bloch devised the idea of Ludvig Prinn and his De Vermis Mysteriis, while the Book of Eibon is an invention of Clark Ashton Smith’s. The late Robert E. Howard is responsible for Friedrich von Junzt and his Unaussprechlichen Kulten. . . .

“As for seriously-written books on dark, occult, and supernatural themes—in all truth they don’t amount to much. That is why it’s more fun to invent mythical works like the Necronomicon and Book of Eibon.”

It is to Lovecraft’s credit that there is still, eighty years later, a following of adamant believers in a fictional book of his creation. The Necronomicon becomes all the books lost to history that can never be recovered and will forever be an item of mystery, even if it is only a work of fiction from the grand master of horror’s mind.

Notes & References:

A full list of Lovecraft’s letters regarding the Necronomicon can be found here

The full text of the Lemegeton can be read online for free here

Babylonian Magic and Sorcery by L. W. King is available as a free ebook download here

The full text of the Kitab al-jilwah and the Mishefa Reş can be found here

Monday, October 31, 2011

Films to Keep You Awake: The Baby's Room (2006)

Original Spanish title: Películas para no dormir: La habitación del niño
My Rating: 10/10, Current IMDB Rating 7.0/10 from 2,015 votes

Now this is how it’s done! I’ve been looking for a good horror flick to review for Halloween and until tonight I didn’t think I would find one good enough. Then I happened upon this film. It is directed by Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia and is one of the films from a collection called “6 Films to Keep You Awake.”

The movie centers on a couple, Juan and Sonia, and their seven month old son. They have just moved into their new home- an older house in a good neighborhood. They think it a good idea to install a crib monitor in the baby’s room. You can probably guess that nothing good comes of that. Night after sleepless night Juan becomes convinced that someone is in the house but no one is ever found. With no evidence of a break in, it begins to look like Juan is imagining it.

One thing I really loved about this movie was the fact that the director does not utilize any of the “shock” methods commonly found in new horror films. No sudden loud music to make you jump, no innocent smiling face behind the refrigerator door. Instead, Iglesia relies on a strong plot, original storyline, well shot scenes and most of all a dose of subtlety that stays with you long after the movie is over.

Iglesia even works in some comic relief with Juan’s relationship with his boss and coworker without it interfering with the rest of the movie. The director knows when to be funny and when not to be- a skill greatly lacking in American horror movies lately.

It is set and filmed in Spain, which adds a beautiful backdrop and atmosphere to the movie. The house is simply perfect. Not so overly dilapidated that no one in their right mind would move in, but also not too well kept. It has just the right amount of dust on the floor to be believable as an old house that a shady realtor can get you a great deal on. It’s the type of place you would live in but not expect to hear some creaks and “the house is just settling” noises at night.

So if you are looking for an excellent horror movie to watch tomorrow night, I strongly recommend “The Baby’s Room.” It is currently on Netflix’s Instant streaming videos list, for the few of us that stuck around after the Qwikster blunder.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Penitent Magdalene by Corrado Giaquinto

In his 1750 painting, Giaquinto depicts Mary Magdalene weakly leaning against a rock looking upwards at a crown of thorns carried by a cherub. However, a closer archangel tries to direct her attention upwards to heaven, but Mary is focused on the crown instead. A crowd of cherubim looks on from the cliffs above her. A book lays open, propped up between the rock and a skull, a crucifix resting atop it.

This painting is very reminiscent of the 1565 version of Titian’s painting by the same name. It is probable that Giaquinto was inspired by Titian’s work, but with some additions and personal alterations. It is still a unique and original piece that stands on its own.

I believe this painting is based off of a legend that Mary Magdalene lived out the end of her life in the cliffs of St. Baume near Marseille, France. For thirty years she lived in complete seclusion performing penances. She fasted to the point that she would have died of starvation if not for visits from angels who gave her communion as her only source of food. A hermit once witnessed the angels carrying her to heaven amid celestial music. The title, setting and scenery of the painting are all clearly indicative that this is the same legend being portrayed.

It is also striking that Mary has a rather masculine appearance in this painting. My initial impression was that the artist intended for her to have an androgynous look; perhaps this is even an allusion to the hermaphrodite of esoteric philosophies.

The Spencer Encyclopedia states that the positive aspect of the hermaphrodite is “an emblem of spiritual union” and its negative features are represented by moral lassitude and sexual overindulgence. All of these hermaphroditic traits, both positive and negative, are portrayed by the image of an androgynous penitent Mary Magdalene.

Further investigation brought me to a quote from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas:

“Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

It should be noted that this passage is not meant to be sexist; it is in fact expressing the opposite. In context, Jesus stated earlier in the narrative:

“They said to Him, ‘Shall we then, as children, enter the Kingdom?’

Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the
female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter [the Kingdom].’”

Here we see the view of the hermaphrodite as the perfected person. Mary Magdalene was rumored to be a prostitute prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus. Afterward, she is not only reformed but becomes the most prominent of the women of the New Testament as well as earning a place in all apocryphal Christian texts from the Pistis Sophia to the aforementioned Gospel of Thomas.

Even if Giaquinto did not intend for Mary Magdalene to be seen as androgynous and it was simply his style, given the subject matter and the interpretations I have offered above, it is really a moot point as to whether it was his intention.

The skull depicted is easily identified as a memento mori and the book portrayed is likely the Bible. With the crucifix, these three items tossed together makes a statement about life, death and the possibility of salvation.

The Bible is open to a page with a drawing. Zooming in, a bird flying in the center of a circle, possibly the sun, becomes evident. Below the disk, one finds two human figures facing each other, and a third standing behind them looking outwards is vaguely visible. The person on the left seems to be stretching his arms towards the other person, but it is just not clear what they are doing. I do regret not noticing this detail when I saw the original at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

My first thought was that this might be John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan river. The bird would be the dove descending to Jesus.

This would be fitting with the overall message of redemption of the work. A mystical baptism, penance, hermaphroditism and the crown of thorns all serve to blur the distinction between Mary and Jesus in a true Imitatione Christi.

To me, this work of art is a very beautiful symbol of the religious experience. Mary’s expression of calm resolve as she gazes unflinchingly at the crown of thorns speaks volumes. It is telling that she pays no attention to the archangel who rings a bell above her bible and points heavenward; instead she is focused on the matter at hand. In fact, Mary looks right through the archangel, completely ignoring the bell (representative of the celestial music), and the pomp of the angelic audience is forsaken for the same thorny crown worn by Christ. This tells me that she is not just a recluse hoping for a worldly heaven, but rather a genuine saint who is more concerned with the pain and trials of this world.

Keep reading with part 2: The Penitent Magdalene Revisited

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Man of Sorrows

Michele Giambono’s “The Man of Sorrows” (circa 1420s) is easily one of the most shocking and morbid depictions of the resurrected Christ. Even compared to other paintings of the same genre, such as Meister Francke’s piece by the same name, Giambono’s stands out. I was very taken aback when I first encountered this piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City last May. The barely conscious, cadaverous Savior stands upright in his coffin, his bloody arms slump over the rim of the coffin displaying deep puncture wounds on his outturned palms. Behind him you find a crossbeam, adorned with three nails still imbedded in it with fresh blood dripping from it. Large globs of blood trail profusely from the thorny crown still tightly wound around his head, and his right side still bleeds from the centurion’s lance.

It is almost easy to miss the image of St. Francis standing to Christ’s left. The saint looks up with an expression of pained reverence at the risen savior. If you look closely, you will find a single strand of blood leaping out of Christ’s side, making a triangle as it pierces through both of Saint Francis’s hands and then returns into the nail wound on Christ’s own hand. This, quite literally, highlights the close tie of Francis to Christ through the saint’s own stigmata.

Why create such a horrid image of the Son of God? Because it demonstrates Christ’s dominance over life and death and tells us that there is nothing to fear. He was one of us; he lived among us and even died in the same manner as anyone else. This connects him to us and makes an impersonal, distant God become something much more personal and relatable. A God who suffers with us, shown in just such a state as this, is much more moving on a very deep level than any trite “footsteps in sand” imagery we are accustomed to these days. Rather, He bleeds and suffers with us as well as comforts us and watches over us. It also functions as a memento mori, an undeniable reminder that if even the Son of God can die, so you too must one day die. Meditating on this work is an intense religious experience certainly not for the faint of heart.

After dwelling on this painting, I couldn’t help but begin to see it in an alchemical light. I am reminded of what Philalethes said in the Fount of Chemical Truth, “For our water is a most pure virgin, and is loved of many, but meets all her wooers in foul garments, in order that she may be able to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy.” I cannot help but compare this to the Man of Sorrows as the ghastly Christ seems to represent the same lesson.

Philalethes also states, “To those who do not despise her foul exterior, she then appears in all her beauty, and brings them an infinite dower of riches and health.” After the remains are resurrected, the Bible tells us Christ later appeared to his disciples, but they were unable to recognize him in his purified form. I feel that this is also apparent in Giambono’s painting. The very horrible appearance of Christ is certainly off-putting, but if one were to embrace Him in this form, He would then appear in his glorious form.

The old story of St. Francs and the leper he encountered is also worth mentioning here. The story is recounted in the Catholic Encyclopedia: “One day, while crossing the Umbrian plain on horseback, Francis unexpectedly drew near a poor leper. The sudden appearance of this repulsive object filled him with disgust and he instinctively retreated, but presently controlling his natural aversion he dismounted, embraced the unfortunate man, and gave him all the money he had.”

After this mystical encounter, the young Francis truly set his foot upon the holy path which led him not only to sainthood, but to be the first to receive the marks of the stigmata.

We are taught today to shy away from the unpleasant and avoid the ugly parts of life. The Man of Sorrows, however, boldly states the opposite. The beauty within the unsightly is more profound than the obvious. Even in death there is hope and, yes, even beauty. It gives the hope that once one confronts the awful reality of this world, there is another realm to aspire to.

Monday, June 27, 2011

"The Idiot" (1869) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“They call me a psychologist. That is not true. I’m only a realist in the higher sense; that is, I portray all the depths of the human soul.”
- Fyodor Dostoevsky

The main theme of “The Idiot” is the contrast between the naive and innocent Prince Lyov Nikolayovich Myshkin and the materialistic and decadent society of the day. The prince truly believes in the good nature of people; he is constantly insulted, used and abused throughout the story only to instantly forgive and repeat the process once again. He even blames himself for their behavior, sometimes correctly but his reproaches are generally undeserved. Dostoevsky is being a realist in the sense that if a truly innocent were to try to survive without either being polluted and drawn into the world this would be the inevitable outcome. The story centers on a love triangle that develops between the prince, Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaia Epanchin. Plenty of drama ensues.

Prince Myshkin is frequently compared to Christ but I personally do not think this a correct correlation. While the prince is a genuinely good soul, he is not really a mystic or prophet. He is perhaps an ideal Christian, but still a flawed mortal. To me, that makes him more lovable and relatable than the lofty ideals he is frequently swept away with. And I did deeply relate to him; more so than to any other fictional character in fact. Is it too much for him just to have a pure heart?

Rogozhin is one of my favorite characters. He is craftily used throughout the novel; sometimes just a face peering out a window (or was it just your imagination?) and other times a very sympathetic victim of both his heart and circumstances. In my opinion, he is an excellent example of a base man who has become rich overnight and is ruined by it. He is not an evil man at heart but he does engage in villainous behavior as well as good old fashioned debauchery. He does love Nastasya but their coupling drives them both to a downward spiral. She becomes more erratic and scandalous and he behaves even more roguish until they are separated and then he obsesses over regaining her. It is true that Rogozhin is the type of man who will stop at nothing to get what wants. He does care for Myshkin but cannot help but see him as an obstacle between him and Nastasya and naturally resents that she loves Myshkin in a way that she will never love him. Rogozhin wanted to be like Myshkin but was not and Myshkin would have faired much better if he were a little more like Rogozhin. For that reason they are a pair of opposites which are eternally intertwined with each other.

One question that arises after reading this novel is “what is love?” A multitude of feelings that could be considered love are examined in the motives and thoughts of the characters. Rogozhin displays obsession, Myshkin compassion, Ganya mere financial gain with Nastasya over his true feelings for Aglaia, Aglaia cannot admit her feelings towards Myshkin and Nastasya really wants to be with Myshkin but always ends up running off with Rogozhin. From all this drama, the reader is left to ponder over who really loves who and how they end up where they are.

Throughout the story the prince, and reader, are drawn to each of the love interests only to meet their negative side and be repelled by them. Ultimately, it is rather difficult to say who he should choose. Maybe Yevgeny Pavlovich was quite correct when he tells Myshkin that he has really never loved either of them. At least not in the romantic sense; he took flight in altruistic and abstract ideas but never could see them in the normal sense. At the same time he saw people more clearly than anyone, but seemed to miss the fact that Aglaia “loved him like woman, like a human being, not like an abstract spirit” and Nastasya needed him to carry her away as Rogozhin would. This is one area where he is to blame, but he never meant to hurt them. I suppose that is why he is, in the end, an Idiot.

In my opinion, Myshkin should not have gotten involved with either of them as he could not love them as a husband or lover, but only in an altruistic way. He did truly love both of them, but not in the worldly way. He looked at them as wonderful pieces of art without objectifying them. He could have spent the rest of his life just looking at Aglaia but nothing more and she desired to run away with her poor knight in a romantic tryst. Nastasya loved him, but needed him to come down to Earth for her to feel deserving of him and Myshkin was in awe of her but never could be what she really needed him to be.

There are many more colorful personalities adding to the story and Dostoevsky does a superb job of developing all of them fully, showing both their good qualities as well as their short comings. Ippolit the consumptive gossip-hound, General Ivolgin the compulsive liar, Keller and of course Lebedyev cannot be forgotten. You really feel as if they are larger than life prototypes of people you have met in real life.

At the end of the day, I must agree with Prince Myshkin in his quixotic belief that “beauty will save the world.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Venus of Urbino

This is easily one of, if not my outright favorite painting. I first saw Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” when I was a teenager and instantly fell in love with her. I feel that this is a very remarkable work because of the unabashed eroticism it portrays.

There is no question as to the incredibly sexual intent of this piece. The screen coving the left side of the background draws a perfect line down the center of the work and points directly to her almost exposed vagina. This is the most obvious straight line in the entire painting. All the other lines are curved Her hand, which is the only thing covering her, indicates that she is about to begin masturbating or that she perhaps already has been pleasuring herself.

Venus stares directly at you with a neutral or perhaps even stoic expression. The fact that she is not only unashamed of her nudity or self stimulation completely makes this piece what it is. She is one of the only Venus’s worthy of the name out of all the other paintings or sculptures of this goddess. This expression immediately puts the viewer into their place, as if you are her subject and she cannot even be bothered to cover herself and she is not even aware that she would be expected to do so. Your intrusion into her chamber hardly requires a glace down at you while she lays on her bed rubbing herself.

The sleeping dog on her bed is also conspicuous. Dogs usually symbolize loyalty and trustworthiness and the fact that her dog is fast asleep implies the opposite of this, at least for now. This is the artists way of implying that she, like the goddess of love, may be quite polyamorous. This interpretation works well with the rest of the piece and I do believe it to be the intention of Titian.

The women on the right in the back of the chamber search in a chest, presumably for Venus’s cloths. They are the tether between our goddess and reality. They bring her down to earth so to speak. While she lays dreaming, they hurry to make their mistress decent. It is also telling that these women are surrounded by straight lines on the walls around them.

The right side of the work is very rigid and orderly while the curtain on the left is ruffled dark and composed of fluid horizontal lines. This is a duality of order versus chaos. The right side is light while the left is dark. It is no coincidence that her face is almost centered on the left portion and that the dog sleeps on the rear right corner of the bed.

The Venus of Urbino is truly a masterpiece by one of the Italian Renaissance’s best masters. This short treatise cannot begin to do proper justice to what I consider to be Titian’s magnum opus.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Starring Conrad Veidt, Directed by Paul Leni
My rating: 10/10

I had the pleasure of viewing this film over the weekend. It is a later silent film and as such the cinematography was much better than a lot of silents that I’ve seen.

The story focuses on the life of Gwynplaine, the son of a rebel nobleman in 17th Century England who was disfigured as a child by the evil jester Barkilphedro, “whose laughs are cruel and smiles false.” Gwynplaine’s face is contorted into a permanent horrible, wide grin. I don’t want to focus on the plot. That is available elsewhere, and I believe I’ve already said enough.

This film is simply incredible, filled with many wonderfully shot scenes. It is considered a horror film, but the horror is much more subtle. Gwynplaine’s pain is conveyed through his ever smiling face throughout the film so intensely that you can’t help but feel it yourself. He is crying and he is smiling. When he is suffering, he must still smile.

One scene stands out to me. A clown, who is wiping his makeup off after his performance, comments to Gwynplaine, “You’re lucky, you never have to wipe your makeup off.” Gwynplaine just stares back at him with his ever present grin. The clown is completely unaware of the look.

The supporting cast cannot be neglected. Olga Baclanova as the scandalous Dutchess Josiana and Mary Philbin as the lovable blind Dea are unmatched by any actress of today’s shallow and anorexic Hollywood. The fact that Mary Philbin’s real life story is nearly as tragic as the film’s protagonist, although her face would never inspire fear or ridicule, most likely adds to the overall morose feel of the film on some unconscious level. Olga Baclanova portrayed the seductress in many film before and after this one and her performance is certainly at the top of her game.

It is also well known that Gwynplaine was the inspiration for The Joker of Batman’s Gotham City, but I believe that the personality of the Joker could possibly be based on the cruel jester Barkilphedro. After all, Gwynplaine is not evil even though he certainly looks the part. It is Barkilphedro who thought it funny to have a smile cut into a child’s face and who manipulates everyone throughout the film. In this light, I feel that Barkilphedro is really the Jokers’ inspiration with only Gwynplaine’s face.