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Le Calvaire

Le Calvaire

Europe certainly has its share of crucifixes. From the restaurant across from the Place Verte in Verviers, to the many representations of Christ to be found in the grand cathedrals, it seems they鈥檙e everywhere. And they all look strangely similar: The white plaque above His head with the Latin initials 鈥淚.N.R.I.,鈥 the bearded, near-naked figure with a neutral facial expression鈥攕eemingly dead already. And I daresay that after seeing this picture so many times, the scene has long since ceased to move me.

But this time was different. I was in the section of the Orsay Museum dedicated to the work of the Naturalists, a school of painters who sought to paint their subjects as accurately as possible. And as I passed my eyes over these incredibly detailed paintings, one of them halfway up the wall grabbed my attention.

There He was again: my Saviour dying on a Roman cross. But He wasn鈥檛 as I had seen Him before, emotionless and still. This time he was screaming in pain, and the horror of His fate was so evident in His face that I could almost hear those words escaping from His lips: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

(“Le Calvaire” by Nikola茂 Gay, Mus茅e d’Orsay, Paris)

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau in the Orsay Museum

(Photo by George P. Landow)

I had heard of Art Nouveau before, but I didn鈥檛 think much of it until I encountered it again in Paris, France. The entrances of several metro stops were decked out in the style, one of the few visible remnants of the turn of the century that remain. But it wasn鈥檛 until I wandered into the Art Nouveau exhibit at the Orsay Museum that it captured my fancy.

As I came to find out, Art Nouveau is more than a type of art鈥攊t is also a font face and a style of interior design, and it was this last aspect that I discovered in the museum. It seemed that the designers of these beds, desks, and chairs deliberately avoided sharp corners, and the result was furniture that curves and flows, imitating the contour of vines and branches. As I walked through the exhibit, it no longer felt like Paris鈥攖his was Lothl贸rien!

It鈥檚 difficult to find words to describe the Art Nouveau style鈥攊t looks modern, but in an oldish sort of way. I wouldn鈥檛 be surprised at all if the artists who created these works were inspired by the woods and fields, which of course were designed by the Creator Himself.

Faces of the British Museum

On more than one occasion at the British Museum, I found myself looking at a piece of art and wondering about the intentions of its creator. Every ancient culture had its own style of portraying humans in art, some more realistic than others—from the blocky, ever-grave Aztecs to the majestic, lively Greeks—but I was most interested in their facial features.

What was the Scandinavian seaman thinking when he carved out of walrus tusk a chess king with a forlorn look as if his son just died? Did the Huastec potter in ancient Mexico intend for his hedgehog-shaped jug with big eyes and tiny mouth to look as if it were flying through the air about hit something? And that Greek harpist on the side of a pot—did the artist who drew her see the same melancholy expression that I see today? There is no way to know, and certainly facial expressions vary between cultures and time periods. However, I like to think that even the great artisans of old had a sense of humour.

Black, Yellow and Red

As we entered the Royal Museum of Fine Art, it was on the right wall. Not quite a mural, but big enough to be one in a smaller building, it illustrated in vivid colour and motion a grave struggle. On the left side, a general rides up, amid the chaos of yelling soldiers, a barking dog, a drummer boy, and women trying to aid the wounded. Somewhat above this, a man holds out a paper that is being refused by those to whom it is offered. And at the very top can be seen the Belgian flag, which although it had been torn in battle, is still being held up by the young standard-bearers.

This painting apparently illustrates an important point in the 19th century Belgian war for independence鈥攁n event upon which I am sadly uninformed. But despite my ignorance, as I studied this huge work of art I was struck by the patriotism and emotion that it portrayed, and I became mindful of the sort of feeling that Belgians must have when they see the black, yellow and red tricolor on the wind. Being from Texas, for me red, white and blue are the patriotic colours, whether for the state or for the country. And being from such a large country, I think Americans may sometimes forget that citizens of other nations are just as patriotic towards their own homelands as we are towards ours—perhaps we are just a little ethnocentric.

Episode of the September Days 1830 on the Grand Place of Brussels


Flight of Florimell

Flight of Florimell

Like as an hind forth singled from the herd,
That hath escap茅d from a ravenous beast,
Yet flies away of her own feet afeard,
And every leaf, that shaketh with the least
Murmur of wind, her terror hath increased;
So fled fair Florimell from her vain fear,
Long after she from peril was released:
Each shade she saw, and each noise she did hear,
Did seem to be the same, which she escaped whilere.

All that same evening she in flying spent,
And all that night her course continu茅d:
Nor did she let dull sleep once to relent,
Nor weariness to slack her haste, but fled
Ever alike, as if her former dread
Were hard behind, her ready to arrest:
And her white palfrey having conquer茅d
The mastering reins out of her weary wrest,
Perforce her carried, wherever he thought best.

—Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene: Book III, canto VII, stanzas I and II

Painting by Washington Allston, 1819: Flight of Florimell