Monday, April 20, 2020
Sunday, April 12, 2020
Friday, April 10, 2020
Wednesday, March 11, 2020
Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene, by Hendrick Jansz Terbrugghen, 1625, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Saint Sebastian (256-288) was a Christian martyr who was tied to a post in Diocletian's Rome and shot through with arrows as punishment for his refusal to renounce his Christian faith. He did not die, however, thanks to Saint Irene, the widow of another martyred Roman Christian, who came to cut down Sebastian from the post and bury him. Finding him still alive, she brought him to her home and nursed him to health.
The 17th-century Dutch artist Terbrugghen (1588-1629) paints the moment when Saint Irene and her servant rush to free Saint Sebastian and begin attending to his wounds. The painting, nearly 5 feet by 4 feet, is among the treasures at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio.
Terbrugghen was one of a group of Dutch painters who lived and painted in Italy, learning fluidity of form and drama from the paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610). After seven years in Rome, Terbrugghen returned to his native city of Utrecht in 1614.
In the late Middle Ages, the arrows that pierced the body of Saint Sebastian became a metaphor for the fatal piercing of the flesh by the bubonic plague--the disease of the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century and continued to recur regularly in European cities. For this reason, Saint Sebastian is venerated by the faithful as a protector against the plague.
Saint Sebastian's protection was immediately relevant to the inhabitants of Terbrugghen's Utrecht, where the dreaded disease returned each summer from 1625 to 1629. Terbrugghen brings this home in two ways.
First, as Valerie Hedquist points out in an article for the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art (Volume 9, Issue 2 Summer 2017), the painter adds buboes on the body of the dying Saint Sebastian--on the inside of his right elbow and prominently on his right knee. He also shows the blackening of the saint's skin from the internal hemorrhaging the disease causes. The metaphor is now the reality.
Second, Terbrugghen heightens the immediacy of the drama by placing us so close to the life-sized figures. Saint Sebastian's right knee juts out beyond the picture plane, putting us right into the scene and drawing us upward toward the expressions of urgency and care in the faces of the saint's rescuers. As the art historian Wolfgang Stechow writes,
"... the action of the two women is the very life-blood of the picture. Loving care is about to conquer death; it is a tense struggle but it is a noiseless one. No punches are pulled in the depiction of the nearness of the end: the body of Sebastian is olive-grey, his mouth drooping, his left arm hangs limp, touching the ground behind his right foot. Yet the activity of the women bespeaks efficient help--but without resort to any ado. Wonderful is the quiet contrast between the neighboring hands at the upper left, and particularly, how the lifeless flesh of Sebastian's right hand yields to the pressure with lively resilience. It is as though this contrast sounded the key for the entire picture. Above the slumping head of the Saint appear the reassuring smile of Irene and the busily alert profile of her servant. The lifting of the arrow by Irene's gentle right hand is a masterpiece of depicting an action bent upon easing pressure and soothing pain, her left hand is a little wonder of subtle luminosity (The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 96, No. 612, March 1954).Almost 400 years later, Terbrugghen's masterpiece prompts the modern-day viewer to pause and consider the courage of our first responders and hospital doctors and nurses as they act with all due haste to care for those sick with infectious disease.
Friday, August 16, 2019
Illustration by Shirley Fields
I recently read two Persephone books back to back that portrayed mothers in England in the years between the two world wars: Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge (Persephone No. 41) first published in 1933, and The Squire by Enid Bagnold (Persephone No. 103) first published in 1938.
Hostages to Fortune chronicles the trials, dappled with happiness, of Catherine, her husband William, and their three children from 1917 to the mid-1930s, when England was struggling to recover from the losses of the First World War. Both William, a doctor, and Catherine are middle-class, living in an old, drafty home and keeping a large vegetable garden and fruit trees as an economic necessity. Catherine sews clothes, does the shopping, teaches her children how to read and write, and wrestles with the servants--a cook and a nurse.
Hall at Shinnecock by William Merritt Chase, 1892
The Squire relates the unspoken thoughts of the lady of the house in the several days leading up to the birth of her fifth child and the month thereafter. As the title connotes, the Squire is a member of the upper middle class, living in the Manor House on the village green. The lady of the house is referred to throughout as the Squire, because her husband is away on a three-month business trip to Bombay. The Squire works on her flower garden, does sporadic hand sewing, keeps an eye on her imaginative and boisterous four children, and wrestles with the servants--a butler, a cook, a kitchen maid, a nurse, and a nursemaid, at least.
Both books are semi-autobiographical, both Cambridge and Bagnold were highly successful novelists, both had abiding marriages and several children. Delightful in both books are the distinct and expressive personalities of the children, portrayed in loving detail with snippets of fresh and lively dialogue. And in both books, the main character's primary concern is her children and her relationship with them.
The differences between these novels lie in the character and circumstances of the women. In Hostages to Fortune, we see the growth of a woman who has deep doubts about her ability to love her children enough, to teach and guide them, eventually comes to like and accept them, and have confidence in her own mothering. In the first third of the book, she is frustrated because her enormous workload in keeping her home and family going with very little money makes it impossible for her to pursue her youthful dream of becoming a writer; her children are her top priority and she does not want to hand over their care to other people. We hear Catherine's laments that the family never has money for the slightest luxury or vacation. Her husband is absorbed in his dedication as the doctor to the village and surrounding countryside and only learns to appreciate his children as they grow older.
The family has few leisure moments together when they are all relaxed--a rare jaunt to the countryside in an afternoon. They spend hours each week in the garden, working, playing, fighting. At the end of the book, Catherine and her husband are riding home in the car after a "last day" graduation party for her oldest daughter, and he puts his hand on her knee in gratitude for her years of effort for him and their children. Catherine is also thinking of the past 15 years of doubts and difficulties and recognizes that her children will soon be leaving and she must let loose her hold on them; she realizes that she cannot plan her children's future happiness.
The Squire's contemplations are far different. The birth of her fifth child, which she looks forward to in total confidence, prompts her to ponder the nature of time, the "naval line" between herself and her children, and how her children embody her own immortality. At the end of the book, "with a deep female pride, she felt herself an archway through which her children flowed; and cared less that the clock in the arch's crown ticked Time away." She considers her mother, herself, and her newborn daughter as one being progressing through time. She thinks of her children as extensions of herself. These thoughts of an existential nature may be prompted not only by the Squire's age--forty-four--but also by the horizons of 1937-1938 that threatened war, yet again. At the closing of the book, she writes her weekly letter to Bombay, but otherwise, her husband is in the outer orbits of her mind.
The Mirror by Mary Cassatt, 1905