Who else but John Prine could work Quasimodo, the famous Hunchback of Notre Dame, into a contemporary song? John is to me the “thinkin’ and drinkin'” man’s singer/songwriter: few others seem to have his gift for clever, whimsical wordplay. The dramatic lighting in the image below makes Notre Dame pop, and it’s gorgeous at night, but really it’s wonderful at every time of day. It’s sits where the Romans of Jesus’ time constructed a temple to Jupiter, alongside the River Seine. After the fall of Rome, Jupiter fell into disrepute and his temple into disrepair. The Parisians broke ground for the cathedral in 1163, finishing some two hundred years later. Generations of the faithful toiled on the project, led by a succession of master builders and craftsmen who devoted their lives and entire careers to Notre Dame. During the French Revolution, the Church was seen as allied to the nobility, and clergy lost their heads while the Cathedral was turned into a saltpeter plant. By the mid-1800s, the Gothic style had fallen out of fashion and the cathedral had become so run-down that local builders wanted to dismantle it and use the stone to build a bridge! Luckily, the Cathedral had an admirer and ally in Victor Hugo, who it is said set his novel in Notre Dame in hopes of rekindling interest in the Gothic masterpiece. His strategy succeeded beyond imagination, as the public rallied behind his beloved church and raised necessary funds for its renewal. It remains a classic monument to the faith of man, a symphony of delicate flying buttresses, imposing towers, and grotesque gargoyles of every description. If you go, take time to climb the tower and join the chimeras enjoying one of the finest views in the City of Lights…you’ll be glad you did. (30 November, 2011 Paris, France)
The great Florentine sculptor Donatello of the early Renaissance is known for his work in stone, but the image below demonstrates he could deal with wood too! The carving portrays Mary Magdalene after years as an ascetic hermit, living in a cave and doing without in penitence for her life of sin. In the good old southern Protestant tradition in which I was raised, we all knew Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute, the first to proclaim of Jesus “he is risen” after he rejoined his heavenly father. Would it surprise you to discover that the major religions are not exactly in agreement about this interpretation, and that she has been viewed very differently through the years? She is considered a saint by many religions, is one of the most frequently named women in the Bible, and in the years after the crucifixion was frequently cited as the “apostle to the Apostles”…but never specifically identified as a lady of the night. Indeed, it was not until 591 that Pope Gregory the Great first ventured the opinion that she was a member of the oldest profession. The story may have gained traction as it was useful in reinforcing a point the church was trying to get across…that the way to salvation was through acknowledging and repenting your sins, and here was a poster child that already had brand recognition among the faithful. It was not until 1969 that the Vatican quietly backed away from that interpretation, though that’s not to say that all other religions have necessarily followed suit. In any case, whether the subject was a lady of sporting morality or not is beside the point to me in regarding the art…it remains a powerful portrayal of the human condition, and a monument to an artist nearing the end of his life but obviously still in full command of his gift.
Not everyone gets buried, you know. The sculpture in the image below is one of a series entitled Pieta by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. His is a disturbing vision, replete with insects crawling all over Jesus’ body and that of Mary, herself not a grieving mother but Death itself. His aim was not to offend, but to represent a mother’s true feelings when she “yearns to take the place of her dead son”. The bugs made me think immediately of the original Body Farm at the University of Tennessee. If you’re not familiar with this charming place, human bodies are scattered about here in various stages of decomposition and predation by scavengers, studied and documented intently by people with stronger stomachs than I possess. While not pleasant to contemplate, the knowledge gained here is critically important to forensic pathologists, police, and others seeking to unravel the mysteries of the unexplained death. The myriad CSI-Wherever shows would lead you to believe the science of crime has been long understood, but to the contrary…while there are now a number of such places in the US, would you believe it was not until 1981 that this first open air lab was created just outside Knoxville? So the next time the beautiful medical examiner hooks up with the handsome detective after putting the time of death at roughly six o’clock…she owes something to that little garden of death in east Tennessee. (20 September, 2011 Venice, Italy)
The great John Prine wrote that song about old people, when he was quite a young man and shouldn’t have known as much as he seems to have about the human condition. To me, the image below is not just the face of age, but also the face of want. A volcano erupted in Iceland recently, disturbed a lot of flights in Europe and caused vacation consternation, but it’s not the first time that happened there. In 1783 the Laki volcano started an eight-month eruption cycle with unbelievable consequences for Iceland, and indeed the world.
Iceland: 25% of the population died from starvation and fluoride poisoning, as well as 80% of the sheep and 50% of cattle and horses. They literally have never recovered.
Europe: an estimated 120 million long tons of sulphur dioxide was emitted, with amazing consequences to the weather. They had long, hard winters, absurdly hot summers, record crops and crop failures…in short the weather was off the hook, and not in a B-52s “party in the Love Shack” kind of way.
World at Large: nerds with too much time on their hands and a keen grasp of statistics will tell you that North America had one of its worst winters ever, that the monsoon in India and Africa failed leading to famine in Egypt that cost it one-sixth of its population, and that the general poverty and famine due to the freakish weather contributed to the French Revolution.
This sculpture by Rolf Lunde, called Tårnpeter, stands in Oslo outside the National Gallery. (30 August, 2011 Oslo, Norway)
That’s a line from a Dan Reeder song, and he’s referring to the great good fortune Norwegians enjoy living in such a beautiful and wealthy country. Dan’s an American guy, married and pursuing the artist’s dream in Germany. He built his own instruments and mixing board himself from junk, plays all instruments and multi-tracks all vocals on songs that he wrote for his self-produced albums…and oh yeah, all the cover art is by him too, since his day job is as a painter of the arty variety. He says he “plays music because there are some things you can’t paint”. You ask, “but what about the songs”? Clever, catchy, smart, funny…I can’t think of an unflattering adjective that applies. The singer John Prine was given a tape of some of his songs, and enjoyed it so much that he signed him to the Oh Boy label and has released three of his CDs so far. So much talent in one guy ought to be unfair! I shot the image below while hiking with friends from the Sogne fjord to the Aurland lookout, with Reeder’s witty take on Norway running through my head. I’d suggest checking out both Norway and Dan’s music, preferably at the same time. (18 August, 2011 Aurland, Norway)
If you need a little downtime to unwind your mind and rethread your head, I recommend the beach. I know, it ain’t the latest thing, but cliches like the “quiet walk on the beach” get to be cliches for a reason. Any place with simple and pleasing visual distractions, combined with the space to let your mind go where it will, can be a tonic when you’re troubled. We put so much time and energy in “going”, and not enough in contemplation of “where to”, and I think that incoherence between what and why is a great source of stress. An added bonus is the cool stuff that washes up on the beach, like this skeleton of a sea urchin! What little I know about sea urchins is confined to a strong desire not to locate the creatures by stepping on them. In life, they are loaded with sharp, pointy spines that cause instant regret when introduced to tender flesh…a highly useful adaptation if like the urchin your motor skills are lacking. (29 March, 2011 Robe, South Australia)