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Friday, June 3, 2011

Good vs. Evil (and Giraffes to Boot)!

Image of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Peace Fountain
courtesy of Gesalbte/Wikipedia.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City is the largest cathedral in the world.  (St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is not a cathedral, although it is larger.)  Begun in 1892, it is only two-thirds complete. 

Image courtesy of Kevin Tsui.
Part of that reason is that construction stopped on it during WWII, and wasn't resumed until 1979.  The main reason is that it is being done using traditional Gothic engineering, and stonecutters are hard to find.  In fact in 1979 stonecutters were brought from Europe to train locals, something the Bishop encouraged as a way to teach a valuable skill to neighborhood youths.  There is no foreseeable completion date.

Image courtesy of Kevin Tsui.
This mother church of the Episcopal diocese of New York is also where several famous people are interred, such as writers Madeleine L'Engle and John Gregory Dunne, as well as choreographer Robert Joffrey.  But it is also known for a weird fountain built in 1985 by Greg Wyatt, sculptor-in-residence.

The sculpture, called The Peace Fountain, is a depiction of the struggle between good and evil, shown here as the struggle between the Archangel Michael and Lucifer.  Apparently good is winning this time, as evidenced by Lucifer's decapitated head hanging under a giant crab claw.  This sculpture, like many pieces of art, has been met with mixed reactions.

Besides the decapitation, there is an odd mix of elements in the piece:  giraffes, a double helix at the base, old testament icons, and surrounding it are smaller bronze statues.  Despite that fact that its on the grounds of a Christian edifice, the smaller statues include Einstein, Socrates, Gandhi, Confucius, and John Lennon.


In keeping with the incompletion theme of the Cathedral, this fountain has yet to be hooked up with running water.  It sits in a sunken plaza with the small statues and plaques on the periphery.  Most of these have quotes by whoever is depicted.  John Lennon's has lyrics from his song "Imagine".

Noah's Ark.

There is a plaque at the base of the fountain that explains the artist's concepts and states the following:

Peace Fountain celebrates the triumph of Good over Evil,
and set before us the world's opposing forces - violence and
harmony, light and darkness, life and death - which God
reconciles in his peace.

When the fountain operates, four courses of water cascade down
the freedom pedestal into a maelstrom evoking the primordial
chaos of Earth.  Foursquare around the base, flames of freedom
rise in witness to the future.  Ascending from the pool, the freedom
pedestal is shaped like the double helix of DNA, the key molecule 
of life.  Atop the pedestal a giant crab reminds us of life's origins
in sea and struggle.  Facing West, a somnolent Moon reflects
tranquility from a joyous Sun smiling to the East.  The swirls
encircling the heavenly bodies bespeak the large movements of
the cosmos with which earthly life is continuous.

Nine giraffes - among the most peaceable of animals - nestle and prance 
about the center.  One rests its head on the bosom of the winged Archangel 
Michael, described in the Bible as the leader of the heavenly host against 
the forces of Evil.  St. Michael's sword is vanquishing his chief opponent, 
Satan, whose decapitated figure plunges into the depths, his head dangling 
beneath the crab's claw.  Tucked away next to the Sun, a lion and lamb 
relax together in the peace of God's kingdom, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah.

A white peacock living in the garden of the cathedral likes to hang out at the fountain, which seems appropriate adding to the artist's weird menagerie.  An interesting choice of art for a church long known for its interfaith tradition.  This is a refreshing change from most fundamental Christian artworks, and I applaud the Cathedral for choosing this anomaly of Christian art.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of kathika.com

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Masters of Disguise

A panther chameleon.  Image courtesy of this site.

Chameleons are very special and specialized members of the lizard family.  While the majority, about half of all species, come from Madagascar, they also hail from Africa, Asia, Portugal, and Spain, and Sri Lanka, and they have been introduced to California, Florida and Hawaii.  They are found in warm areas that range from deserts to rain forests.

Side view of a panther chameleon, courtesy of this site.

The very name has an ancient pedigree.  The English word is derived from the Latin chamaeleo, which is a borrowing from the ancient Greek khamailéon (a compound of the words for "on the ground" and "lion"), which in turn is a calque from the Akkadian word meaning "ground lion".

These little guys are courtesy of this site.

They are uniquely built for hunting and climbing, with stereoscopic eyes.  This gives them a 360º view, since their eyes work independently of each other, rotating and focusing separately yet simultaneously.  Their feet are zygodactylous - they have two "toes" facing forward and two facing backward, like many birds. They have prehensile tails and very long tongues which they can stick out very fast, which is fortunate as they can't move their bodies quickly.  These tongues are sometimes longer than their body length, and can hit prey in about 30 thousandths of a second.  At the tip of their elastic tongue is a structure covered in thick mucus which functions like a suction cup.  But most interestingly and uniquely they can change colors.

From G.A. Boulenger, Fauna of British India, 1890.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Only some species can change colors, and different species change different colors.  For a long time it was thought that chameleons change color for camouflage, but now scientists have found that the primary reason for color change is to communicate mood changes to each other, hence functioning as social signaling.  While their basic pattern and color suits their habitat (and it does provide camouflage) light, temperature, and emotions determine their color changes.

Although these Peyrieras' pygmy chameleons are not the smallest, these
ground-dwelling ones are pretty tiny.  Image courtesy of this site.

If a dark chameleon detects a lot of light, its brain tells the yellow cells in its skin to become larger than the blue cells so that it turns green which helps deflect bright sunlight.  If the temperature gets cold, its brain tells it to turn darker so it can absorb more heat.  But mood is the most probably cause for color change.  When a chameleon gets mad it gets dark, which means it's willing to fight.  When it wants to attract a chameleon of the opposite gender, it displays brighter, flashier colors.

A common chameleon, turned black.  Image courtesy of Rickjpelleg/Wikipedia.

Their skin is transparent and they have layers which work together to produce color.  These specialized cells under their transparent outer skin are called chromatophores.  The first layer has two kinds of color cells, yellow and red.  The next layer has cells called iridophores or guanophores, which contain a colorless crystalline substance called guanine, which are strong reflectors of the blue part of light.

Veiled chameleon.  Image courtesy of Geoff/Wikipedia.

Under this layer are melanophores, which have a dark brown pigment called melanin.  This is the same pigment that determines skin color in humans.  The color cells alter the amounts of red, yellow, and brown in the skin.  How much pigment granules are in the cells alter the intensity of a color; if evenly distributed it causes strong color, but if the pigment is only in the center of the cell, it seems to be transparent.  All these cells can rapidly change pigments, and melanin can spread through the cells like a spiderweb.

These are horned leaf or brown leaf chameleons, courtesy of this site.

In an interesting study done in Australia, Smith's dwarf chameleons were watched when they were exposed to two different predators.  When they faced a fiscal shrike, they changed colors to produce the best camouflage.  When a boomslang snake was nearby, they didn't try as hard.  The conclusion was that since snakes have poor color vision, the chameleons didn't waste time and energy trying so hard.

Chameleon faced with shrike.
Chameleon faced with boomslang.

Whenever I see an image of a chameleon, I think immediately of the song "Karma Chameleon" by Boy George.  As it turns out, Boy George is a bit of a chameleon himself.....


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Statue of Girolamo Savonarola in his birthplace of Ferrare, Italy.
Photo courtesy of ho visto nina volare/Wikipedia.

Yes, Tom Wolfe wrote a book of that title in 1987 about ambition, greed, politics, racism, and social class in 1980s New York.  Influenced by an event in 1497, the vanities of New York society as characterized by Wolfe sound vaguely like those of 15th century Florence.  William Makepeace Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair in 1847, which takes place in a town called Vanity, representing the sinful attachment to worldly things.  The term is from Ecclesiastes, which has the phrase "vanity of vanities, all is vanity".

A "bonfire of the vanities" was a common occurrence to outdoor sermons in the first half of the 14th century - San Bernardino di Siena, a Franciscan missionary, encouraged people to burn their objects of temptation.  These tempting objects included books, artworks, gambling tables, cards, manuscripts of secular music, fine clothing, cosmetics, mirrors, and fancy furnishings.

Bernardino di Siena organizing a bonfire of the vanities.
Relief by Agostino di Duccio for the Oratorio di San Bernardio in Perugia.
Photo courtesy of Givanni Dall'Orto/Wikipedia.

But the most famous "bonfire of the vanities" was that held by Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy, in 1498.  He was a Dominican friar who preached against the wealth of the Renaissance and its patrons, such as the Medici family. His apocalyptic sermons were hugely popular.  He lambasted the institutions of the Church, but not its basic tenents.

Savonarola wrote a poem at the age of 20 he called De Ruina Mundi (on the Downfall of the World), revealing his preoccupation with living a chaste and pure life.  Three years later he wrote another poem, De Ruina Ecclesiae (on the Downfall of the Church) which showed his contempt for the Roman Curia (the administrative apparatus of the Holy See and the central governing body of the Catholic Church) and claimed it was "a false, proud, archaic wench".

Bronze medal of Savonarola of Florentine workmanship.
The hand with dagger emerging from the clouds refers to
one of his prophesies.  Image courtesy of artfund.org.

He preached against the wealth of the Renaissance, and of the ruling upper classes, particularly the Medici family.  In 1494 the Medicis were overthrown, and Savonarola emerged as a leader of Florence.  He urged the Florentines to rid themselves of the sins that their luxuries signified, and many people did so voluntarily.  He persuaded artists to burn their own works, and some poets decided that they would no longer write in verse as their lines were impure.  On February 7, 1497 he held THE bonfire of the vanities.  Afterwards there was rioting, and Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia, who was closely tied to the Medicis) excommunicated Savonarola.

From Beze's Les vrais portraits des homes illustres,
published in Geneva in 1481.  Image courtesy www.sciencephoto.com.

In the meantime, the people of Florence followed this charismatic crusader, who was said to have fallen in rapturous, ecstatic trances when preaching, bringing his audience to passionate tears.  He had a gang of young followers who roamed the streets, attempting to enforce a dress code, stoning and beating prostitutes, and trashing bars and clubs.

Savonarola's cell in San Marco, Florence.
Image courtesy TheBoxagon/Wikipedia.

He made many predictions, some which came true.  There were bad decisions made, and though it was through no fault of his, the city came to starvation.  Pope Alexander VI threatened to cut off all religious functions.  The Pope had bided his time, correctly guessing that the people would soon turn against Savonarola. Almost a year after he was excommunicated, Savonarola was charged with heresy, sedition, uttering prophecies, and "religious errors" by the Pope.  He and two of his closest associates were tortured to no avail.

Image from Giovo's Elogia vivorum literis published in Basel in 1577.
Image courtesy www.sciencephoto.com.

On May 23, 1498, the three were executed on the Piazza della Signoria, at the same place where he had held his bonfire, and in the same way he had ordered executions during his short rule.  They were hung, and then burned.  Their remains were stirred and burned again and again to insure that there would be no relics for followers.  The final ashes were thrown into the Arno.

Painting by an anonymous artist from 1498 of the executions.
Image courtesy of the Museo di San Marco.

Savonarola was not against books and arts per se; he saw them as symptoms of sin, and the way to deal with these symptoms was to destroy them.  His religious fervor and call to a purer life left him with many admirers.  Erasmus, the Dutch humanist, theologian, and Catholic priest, refused to become a Protestant after reading Savonarola's works, so the story goes.  Ironically, he is considered to be a forefather of the Reformation because of his anti-papacy stance.  Martin Luther was said to be inspired by him.

Plaque commemorating the spot of the execution in the Piazza della Signoria.
Image courtesy of Greg O'Beirne/Wikipedia.

Those of us who are book lovers view the destruction of books as a heinous crime, and this alone brings his reputation disfavor.  Not to mention the works of art that were destroyed that the world will never know.  Yet he was responding to a time when the balance of power was with the wealthy ruling classes and the unrest was already simmering among the common people.  He was in the right place at the right time, yet ultimately the wrong place at the wrong time.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bizarro Pizarro

Who's buried in Pizarro's tomb?  Unlike the one about Grant's tomb, this riddle is tricky.  Or was.  No one knows definitively who WAS buried there, but Pizarro is in there at last.

It's hard to think that someone who was as cruel and deceptive as Pizarro would be so honored.  Perhaps it's the fact that he is dead that is celebratory.  But history buffs and devout Catholics have venerated his ornate sarcophagus in the Lima Cathedral in Peru for centuries.  Unfortunately, he wasn't in it.

Close-up of the mosaic behind the sarcophagus.

Pizarro not only dealt the Incas a low blow, but also screwed one of his partners out of his rightful share of the booty and then garroted him, just like the Inca leader Atahualpa.  His partner's son, and some other enemies, attacked him in 1541, stabbing Pizarro in the throat, face, and skull even after he was dead.

The Lima Cathedral

His paternal half-brother, Francisco Alcántara, was also killed in the scuffle. Alcántara's wife initially buried her husband and Pizarro behind the cathedral. Pizarro was later reburied under the main altar in 1545, then moved to a special chapel within the cathedral in 1606.  There are church documents from 1661 that state that there was a wooden box with a lead box inside inscribed in Spanish: Here is the skull of Marquis Don Francisco Pizarro who discovered and won Peru and placed it under the crown of Castile.

Pizarro in Lima.
Image courtesy of Opentopia.

On the 350th anniversary of his death in 1891, a "scientific" committee examined the remains said to be Pizarro.  Their conclusion was that the skull conformed to the cranial morphology that "science" attributed to criminals, hence confirming the identification.

Pizarro's signature mark, or rubrica, written twice with his name in between.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1977 some workers were cleaning out a crypt underneath the altar.  They found two wooden boxes containing human bones.  One held the remains of two children, an elderly female, an elderly male, a second elderly male without a head, and fragments of a sword.  The other wooden box contained the aforementioned lead box with a skull.  The skull matched the bones of the headless skeleton in the first box.

A portrait of Pizzaro, circa 1540, artist unknown.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A Peruvian historian, anthropologist, and two radiologists, and two U.S. anthropologists examined all the remains.  The headless skeleton was determined to be a while male, at least 60 years of age when he died, and 5'5" to 5'9" in height.  Most of his upper molars and much of his lower incisors and molars were missing.  He had arthritic lipping, a broken nose, as had apparently fractured his right ulna when he was a child.

Pizarro's house and statue in Trujillo, Spain.

There were injuries consistent with four sword thrusts to the neck, and his 6th and 12th thoracic vertebrae had been nicked.  The hands and arms had been wounded from warding off sword thrusts (a cut on his left first metacarpal, his right fifth metacarpal was missing, a cut through the right zygomatic arch, a penetration to the left eye socket, and dagger marks through the neck into the base of the skull). This suggests savage overkill, rather than death in battle or a simple assassination.

The Inca ruler Atahualpa begs Pizarro for mercy.
Image courtesy Getty Images.

This group concluded that the skull and headless skeleton not only went together, but they were once Pizarro.  The other skeletal remains were presumed to be Alcántara and his wife, the children either their sons or Pizarro's.

Map of Pizarro's conquest of Peru, in The Historical Atlas
by William R. Shepherd, 1923, courtesy University of Texas.

The desiccated body that had been thought to be Pizarro's all these centuries showed no signs of trauma. It was decided that perhaps it was the remains of a church official.  The real Pizarro's bones were put into a coffin and placed in the sarcophagus.

Pizarro's 16th century home in Trujillo, Spain.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It's interesting that he has been honored as "discovering" Peru, since I'm sure the native people of Peru did not realize that they were lost.  Pizarro is touted for defeating the Incas when he was vastly outnumbered.  However there was much infighting at the time within the Incas, and Atahualpa's downfall caused some rejoicing.  Little did they know what was to come.  Pizarro, through his father, was a second cousin once removed to Hernán Cortés, another cruel conquistador. Pizarro was illegitimate and illiterate, and gave up pig herding for a chance for fame and fortune in the New World.  He got both.

By the way, the correct answer to the famous riddle, "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" is no one.  Technically speaking.  Both Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia Dent Grant, are entombed, not buried in the Manhattan tomb.  The question was made popular by Groucho Marx, who asked it on his show You Bet Your Life so that a contestant who couldn't get anything right would win something.  He accepted the answer "Grant".
Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of flickr.

Monday, May 30, 2011

When Art Irritates

Entropa exhibit.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Two years ago a controversial art piece was unveiled that still has tongues wagging.  Entropa: Stereotypes are barriers to be demolished was created by artist David Černý for a commission by the European Union to commemorate the Czech Republic's presidency of the Council of the EU.

Romania depicted as a Dracula theme park.  Image courtesy of the BBC.

Every six months a different country covers the presidency of the Council.  Prior to the Czech Republic, France held the position.  It is customary for the presiding country to erect an exhibit in the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels.  France offered a large balloon in the national colors of France.

Belgium as a half-eaten box of praline chocolates that have been bitten into.
Image courtesy of Tomáš Pirkl.

Černý chose to create a work that displayed negative stereotypes of all 27 EU member countries.  Each country is shaped like its real borders.  The depictions of each country range from harmless fun to rather risque innuendos.  

Poland with priests erecting a rainbow flag of the gay rights movement
on a field of potatoes, ala U.S. Marines at Iwo Jima.  Image courtesy of Pirkl.

The entire work measures 54' x 54', and weighs 8 tons.  Made of glass-reinforced plastic with joints made of steel, the entire work resembles an unassembled model kit with snap-out parts.  Černý claims that the Monty Python brand of humor influenced him.

Slovakia depicted as a wrapped Hungarian sausage.  Image courtesy of CT24.

The work was unveiled on January 12, 2009.  The next day Bulgaria's ambassador to the EU registered a protest on behalf of his country with the European Commission, and sent a formal protest to the Czech government demanding that the sculpture be taken down immediately.  The Bulgarian part of the piece was covered with black fabric on January 20th.

Bulgaria is shown to be composed of Turkish toilets.
The Bulgarian sculpture after it was covered up.
Both images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Czech officials defended the exhibit and stated that they wanted to avoid censorship as an expression of freedom.  Given the controversy they expected complaints from other countries, but few were forthcoming.

Malta with a dwarf elephant and a magnifying glass.  Image courtesy of Pirkl.

The Czech officials had a change of heart, however, when the evening of the unveiling Černý announced that he and two friends created the entire piece.  When the proposal was made to the Czech government, Černý had said that an artist from each country would create the piece for their respective countries.  They had even published a booklet listing each country's artist with résumés for the artists.  These ended up to be fake.  Černý stated that they had originally planned to contact artists but limited time and financing prevented it.  Once that fact was revealed, the Czech prime minister remarked that had they known that it would not have been authorized.

Portugal as a wooden cutting board with three pieces of meat shaped
like former colonies Angola, Brazil, and Mozambique.  Image courtesy of Pirkl.

Černý was accused of misappropriation of funds.  He claimed that since they knew they would be deviating from the proposal, the funds would be returned.  He also stated that the deception was part of the art.  In the end, it was decided to let the piece remain on exhibit, as it was "art, nothing more and nothing else".

Hungary as the Atomium, a monument in Brussels built for the 1958 World's Fair,
made of watermelons and sausages on a floor of peppers.  Image courtesy of antaldaniel.

No one seems to have denied that the stereotypes were true.  Blaming the art for the stereotypes doesn't cut it.  Since art reflects life, it is the way people think that is offensive, not an inanimate object.  Bravo for artists who dare to reflect shame and ugliness!

For more of Černý's work click on his website.
Since last September, Entopa is part of the Pilsner
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