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Sri Lanka: The new jackals are the old jackals

Monday, 22 April, 2019

British journalist Simon Reeve began investigating the 1993 World Trade Center bombing just days after the attack. The result was a book titled The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism, which was published in the UK and USA in 1998. Classified information cited by Reeve detailed the existence and aims of a shadowy terrorist group named al-Qaeda, and he concluded that an apocalyptic terrorist strike on the West by al-Qaeda was almost inevitable. Snippet:

“Officials from the CIA and the State Department were soon channeling other theories into the FBI’s command centre. On the same day as the World Trade Center explosion a bomb had been placed in a small coffee shop in Cairo, killing four people. It was one of the worst acts of political violence in the Egyptian capital for years — perhaps there was an Egyptian connection. ‘The modus operandi of the bombing was very similar to what we’d seen with Islamic extremists overseas, but we really didn’t know. We looked at several different groups that we thought were capable of doing something like this,’ said Neil Herman. ‘We started to get a series of investigative leads, none of which really took us anywhere.'”

Eight years later, on 9/11, those “Islamic extremists overseas” arrived in the US and then delivered the apocalyptic strike that Simon Reeve had anticipated.

Yesterday, in Sri Lanka, a similar act of barbarism was carried out by another pack of jackals, the Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath. It’s a strong supporter of the global jihadist movement and such groups now act as subcontractors for Islamic State and al-Qaida. Worryingly, many Muslims from Sri Lanka and the Maldives fought for IS in Syria and Iraq and now that their caliphate has been destroyed, the foreign fighters are coming home with barbarism in their jackal hearts.

Sri Lanka massacre


Wilde Easter

Monday, 22 April, 2019

As Oscar Wilde lay dying in Paris in November 1900, the priest who received him into the Catholic Church was Father Cuthbert Dunne. When the Dublin cleric ended his days in Mount Argus Monastery, the young Brendan Behan was living nearby in Kildare Road. Like Wilde, he also became a professional wit and, referring to that last-minute conversion, Behan commended Wilde for shedding his sins as life ebbed away. He also reminded the world slyly that the two of them had enjoyed their bisexuality:

“Sweet is the way of the sinner
Sad, death without God’s praise
My life on you, Oscar boy,
Yourself had it both ways.”

Oscar Wilde’s Easter Day was published in 1894, six years before that famous deathbed conversion in Paris. It’s a bitter-sweet poem.

Easter Day

The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.
Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendour and in light the Pope passed home.
My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
“Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,
I, only I, must wander wearily,
And bruise my feet, and drink wine salt with tears.”

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)


Happy Easter!

Sunday, 21 April, 2019

Frohe Ostern! Buona Pasqua! ¡Felices Pascuas! Joyeuses Pâques! Vrolijk Pasen!

Easter

Daffodowndilly

She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
“Winter is dead.”

A.A. Milne (1882 – 1956)


Houellebecq on restoration beyond Notre-Dame

Saturday, 20 April, 2019

It has been described as “an ecumenical, conservative and, in some views, neoconservative religious journal.” It’s First Things and among the contents of the May issue is an essay titled “Restoration,” which is an “exchange of views on religion between Michel Houellebecq and Geoffroy Lejeune.” What can one say about Houellebecq? He’s a French author of international fame whose latest novel is Serotonin. There’s much, much more, of course, but that’s sufficient for now, and Geoffroy Lejeune? He’s the editor of Valeurs actuelles, a French conservative weekly news magazine published in Paris.

Their conversation took place quite some time before Monday’s catastrophic fire in Notre-Dame cathedral, but whenever Houellebecq is involved, prescience is to be expected. Snippets:

Houellebecq: “In a Romanesque cloister I feel at peace, connected to the divinity. With Gothic cathedrals, it’s already something different. Beauty takes on a character there that Kant will later call sublime (beauty accompanied by the sensation of danger, such as a great storm at sea, or a thunderstorm high in the mountains). In a baroque church it’s no good at all, I could just as well be in a palace, or at the theater.”

Lejeune: “If you choose to go by architecture, there is indeed a striking aspect: In the time of the cathedrals, monumental places of worship were erected and their construction lasted longer than a man’s lifetime. The cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, and Paris were built in 75, 134, and 182 years, respectively. At that time, preference was not for the minuscule. By comparison, Trump Tower in New York was designed, constructed, and delivered in four years, between 1979 and 1983. You can say that motorization, technological progress, and materials explain this difference. So much for the business angle, but when we see the ugliness of modern churches, these unhappy cubes of faded cement, sometimes so hideous, which hardly ever tower above the horizon traced by the surrounding houses, one understands above all that what differentiates us from the Christian builders is ‘functional thinking,’ instead of dedicating the construction to God. It was better before, when the supernatural was seen everywhere, even in the cathedral spires pointing toward heaven.”

The big question posed by First things is: Can the Catholic Church regain her former splendour? Lejeune feels it probably can but the road will be long: “Today, the Church in Europe has shrunk back into certain hard cores, sociologically very homogeneous – a social class – cut off from the majority of souls. Its embourgeoisement is perhaps, in the end, the greatest scourge that strikes the Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

Houellebecq, noted for his pessimism, is more optimistic: “Can the restoration of Catholicism to its former splendour repair our damaged civilization? Here we are in agreement – it’s much simpler, almost self-evident. The answer is ‘Yes.'”


The Extremadura Pietà

Friday, 19 April, 2019

The Counter-Reformation in Spain was dominated by mystics such as Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint John of the Cross, Teresa de Cartagena, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Juan de Avila. The artist who painted their prayers was Luis de Morales (1509 – 1586), who was born and buried in Badajoz, a remote town in Extremadura near the Portuguese border. Talent will out, however, and despite his relatively isolated location, Morales acquired fame and some fortune, as this snippet from his Prado profile highlights:

“For a large part of his life, Morales had an active artistic career that frequently obliged him to travel to arrange commissions, execute them or oversee their completion by the workshop. Otherwise, like many other artists in the region, he rounded off his finances with other sources of income. He owned houses and land in the city as well as vines, olives and livestock in the surrounding area. The markedly rural profile of both the artist and the milieu he lived in is evident too when we recall that Bishop Juan de Ribera paid him for several commissions in kind: wheat and barley, or ‘a Friesian horse with bit and saddle'”.

Luis de Morales completed his Extremadura Pietà sometime between 1565 and 1570. The figures of Mary and her crucified son are marked by grace and beauty despite the prevailing mood of anguish and grief. The Italian word pietà means “pity” or “compassion” and today, Good Friday, is when we should show some.

The Extremadura Pietà


The shock and awe of the Röttgen Pietà

Thursday, 18 April, 2019

Gothic art sought to create an impact. The Röttgen Pietà, sculpted in wood circa 1300 and now in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, succeeded in spades. It was created expressly to evoke an emotional response in its viewers. What did they feel when they saw it? Shock, awe, terror, horror, disgust, distaste, fear, fascination… It’s obvious that this Christ clearly died from his crucifixion, but it’s also obvious that this undernourished man led a hard life. The message is that he’s one of us mediaeval folk.

Then, there’s Mary. What does her expression convey? Traditionally, she’s often depicted at peace because she’s aware of the impending Resurrection so her son’s death, while tragic, is temporary. This Mary, however, appears to be bewildered and aggrieved There’s no hint that she’ll see her son alive again. Again, the intent of the artist is to show that God and his mother experienced enormous pain and suffering.

Röttgen Pietà

Our week of pietà meditations began on Monday in Spain and that’s where it will end tomorrow with another graphic work that seeks to get viewers to feel a personal connection to the pain and death of the divine as painted by “El Divino”.


Giovanni Bellini: Pietà di Brera

Wednesday, 17 April, 2019

One of the most elegant parts of Milan’s Centro Storico district is Brera. The streets are lined with upmarket food shops and hip fashion boutiques, and the cobbled alleys fill up at night with people enjoying fine Milanese dining at sidewalk restaurants and cafés. A must-visit is the fresco-filled, 15th-century Santa Maria del Carmine church and, soul saved, the next stop has to be the Pinacoteca di Brera, with its magnificent collection of Italian art spanning the centuries.

One of the great treasures of the Pinacoteca di Brera is the Pietà di Brera by Giovanni Bellini, which dates from around 1460. When it was first revealed, the pietà was accompanied by verses composed by Propertius, the great poet of the Augustan age. He speaks of the capacity of an image to provoke tears — and anyone looking at the faces of Mary and Christ here cannot be unaffected by the the mother and son drama being played out. The pain depicted by Bellini reflects all human suffering and solitude.

Pietà di Brera


Notre-Dame: La pietà en marbre de Nicolas Coustou

Tuesday, 16 April, 2019

One of Notre-Dame’s centrepieces is the marble pietà by Nicolas Coustou (1658 – 1733) on the cathedral’s high altar. Initial photographs following yesterday evening’s fire showed that the sculpture was mostly unharmed, but its condition has not been confirmed.

Descente de croix has been compared with the art of Michelangelo and the comparison is valid because in 1681 Coustou won the Colbert Prize (the Prix de Rome), which entitled him to four years of education at the French Academy at Rome. There, the 23-year-old was immediately influenced by the sculpture of Michelangelo and Algardi and he tried to combine the characteristics of each in his later work.

Situated at the far end of Notre-Dame’s nave, Coustou’s pietà was backed by three major and several minor stained-glass windows. It was something of a miracle that it was never overwhelmed by its magnificent surroundings and it will require a real miracle now to restore those settings to their former glory.

Notre-Dame


Bermejo: Rebel pietà genius

Monday, 15 April, 2019

Bartolomé Bermejo (c. 1440 – c.1501) was a Spanish artist whose painting was very much influenced by the Flemish style of the day. Born in Cordoba, he worked in the Kingdom of Aragon, including what is now Catalonia, and the Kingdom of Valencia. His real name was Bartolomé de Cárdenas and his nickname, Bermejo, which means auburn in Spanish, may have been inspired by the colour of his hair.

At a time when painting was a serious business, there is evidence to suggest that Bermejo was somewhat unreliable. One contract contained a clause providing for his excommunication in the event of an unsatisfactory result. Still, his talent was such that patrons willing to take the risk of hiring him. Bermejo’s final years were spent in Barcelona, where he worked on the altar of the convent church of Santa Anna, the surviving panels of which were destroyed in 1936 during the Terror Rojo (Red Terror) waged by the Republican forces. However, Bermejo’s masterpiece, the Pietà, which he completed around 1490 for Canon Lluís Desplà i Oms’ private chapel, has survived.

Pietà

Bermejo. El geni rebel del segle XV” continues until 19 May at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, which is located in the Palau Nacional in Montjuïc. It will resume in a somewhat different format on 12 June at the National Gallery in London as “Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance.”


Terms of Sale

Sunday, 14 April, 2019

Haisam Hussein has produced a very entertaining map for Lapham’s Quarterly charting the flow of merchants, merchandise and words along the ancient global trade routes. As exotic goods made their way across new regions, their names mutated along the thoroughfares, goes the theory. Take tea, for example. It was transported from Mandarin-speaking Northern China via the Silk Road, with the result much of Asia has similar sounding words for tea. So, chá evolved into the chai widely consumed in India and neighbouring areas. The other major trade route for tea was through Min-speaking Southern China and this led to the spread of the pronunciation that became the standard in Europe. Think of the similarities between tea (English), thé (French), thee (Dutch), (Spanish), tee (German) and (Italian).

Terms of Sale


The violent passion of a learned mistress

Saturday, 13 April, 2019

The Irish writer Frank O’Connor (1903 – 1966) is best known for his short stories. Neil Jordan’s award-winning film The Crying Game was inspired in part by O’Connor’s short story, “Guests of the Nation”, which is set during the Irish War of Independence and recounts the doomed friendship between members of an IRA unit and the two British Army hostages they are holding.

O’Connor’s work as a teacher of the Irish language provided the linguistic basis for his many translations into English of Irish poetry, including his initially banned translation of Brian Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court). A Learned Mistress is the work of an anonymous Irish poet from the 17th century and it’s filled with the murderous passion expressed by the spokeswoman of a ménage à trois.

A Learned Mistress

Tell him it’s all a lie;
I love him as much as my life;
He needn’t be jealous of me –
I love him and loathe his wife.

If he kills me through jealously now
His wife will perish of spite,
He’ll die of grief for his wife –
Three of us dead in a night.

All blessings from heaven to earth
On the head of the woman I hate,
And the man I love as my life,
Sudden death be his fate.

(Translated from the Irish by Frank O’Connor)