Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Lives of the Great Photographers

Lives of the Great Photographers

By Juliet Hacking
Thames & Hudson/$50/304 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Even before you get a chance to peruse the superb new book, Lives of the Great Photographers, the title itself makes a bold statement - a very bold statement.

With The Great Photographers emblazoned in gold letters on the dust jacket, author Juliet Hacking stakes a claim to an illustrious pedigree for her book. Hacking, in the opening lines of her introduction, directly references the foundational text of all Western art history, Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

Vasari's Lives was published in 1550. This collective biography of Italian Renaissance worthies has influenced the way that artistic achievement has been evaluated to the present day. Trends and "isms" there might be, but art history after Vasari was largely a "portrait of the artist as a great man." With "heroic" characters like Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Capa and Ansel Adams at work behind the camera, photography seemed a perfect fit for Vasari's biographical approach to history.

The sheer boldness of Hacking's premise, however, derives from the way she that addresses the challenges of Modernism to the "great man" approach to art appreciation. By the mid 1800's, when pioneer photographers like Roger Fenton and Gustave Le Gray were finally winning recognition for photography, the hallowed traditions of Old Master ancestor worship were giving way to new and often unsettling artistic realities.

Clementina Hawarden, Possible Self-portrait, 1855

Women of talent like Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) and Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) were asserting their right to a place in the elite of photography, just as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot were doing in painting. During the twentieth century, women photographers would excel in every genre of photography, from Hanna Hoch's mastery of photomontage to the photo journalism of Margaret Bourke-White.

Even more threatening to the Old Guard was the collapse of the concept of national "schools of art." This gained speed in the crucial first decade of the twentieth century. During these years, the "School of Paris" drew ex-patriot artists from around the globe, with Eastern European  sculptors and painters like Constantine Brancusi, Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine leading the way. Likewise, "German" Expressionism was largely  a Russian art colony founded by Vasily Kandinsky in Bavaria.

Photography followed suit. There never developed a French school of photography. The great early figure of French photography was Nadar (1820-1910, born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon). Nadar, was more of a showman than a practicing photographer. As Hacking's biographical essay notes, it is questionable how many of Nadar's photos were actually taken by him or by his brother.

Nadar, Self-portrait with Wife Ernestine in a Balloon Gondola, 1865

In the case of a true master of French photography, Eugène Atget (1857-1927), the legacy of his poetic evocations of Paris is indisputable. So is the fact that Atget's work was rescued from oblivion by the American photographer, Bernice Abbott, and resides in the archives of MOMA in New York City rather than the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Even though Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal financed great American photographers to document the Great Depression of the 1930's, an American school of photography never developed either. Nor was there a British school or a German school.

The greatest British photographer of the twentieth century was the German-born Bill Brandt (1904-1983), whose career Hacking charts in a brilliant chapter. Some of Brandt's early work, like his landscapes of "Bronte country" in Yorkshire, evokes English themes. But most of his later photographs, especially his series of nudes "featuring Alice in Wonderland-type distortions of size and scale," defy national classification.

The Nazis certainly tried to foster - and brow-beat - the development of an Aryan "school" of German photography. That was part of the tragedy of August Sander (1876-1964), who is also featured in Hacking's book. 

Sander's portraits in his People of the 20th Century series showed down-to-earth Germans engaged in prosaic, unwarlike tasks like walking to a country dance. Sander's work was deeply humanistic and consequently was suppressed by the Third Reich. In a cruel twist of fate, thousands of Sander's negatives were destroyed by an Allied bombing raid during World War II.

There is one constant factor, one shared point of life experience that defines "great" photographers. They are all outsiders.

Portrait of Robert Capa, 1940

Hacking quotes Robert Capa, born Endre Friedmann, on the credentials of top-tier photographers. 

"It is not enough to have talent," Capa declared. "You also have to be Hungarian."

Capa (1913-1954), Brassaï (1899-1984, born Gyula Halász), László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946, born László Weisz) and André Kertész (1894-1985) were all Hungarians. All were born as citizens of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire where Hungary played "second fiddle" to Austria.  All were politically liberal (in several cases Communists or sympathizers of the short-lived Marxist regime in post-World War I Hungary). All were Jews or of Jewish ancestry. Thus, they were born "outsiders," primed to observe life from beyond a privileged comfort zone.

It is amazing how many of the great photographers were Jews or of Jewish ancestry: Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White, Claude Cahun, Irving Penn, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand to name only those who appear among Hacking's biographies. Robert Frank, Nikolas Muray (also born in Hungary), Doris Ulmann and Gary Winogrand were notable Jewish photographers, but did not make it into Hacking's book - there just wasn't room enough for all! 

Claude Cahun, Self-portrait (Sleeping in Compactum Wardrobe), c. 1932

Since almost of these photographers embraced their art from a secular, internationalist perspective, there is not a Jewish School of photography that can claim their membership. There is, I think, a Jewish sensitivity, a Jewish empathy for outcasts, underdogs, victims and martyrs. Hacking in her beautifully written biographies does not comment on this in detail, but perhaps there is no need to belabor the obvious.

In many cases, family trauma or economic hardship took the place of religious or ethnic prejudice, prompting an "outsider" mentality in people of "approved" lineage or social background. Walker Evans used a Kodak Brownie to find a creative outlet when his family was shattered by the break-up of his parent's marriage. Even Ansel Adams, who had an idyllic childhood in many respects, was marked by the competing demands of devoting himself to music (at the urging of his family) or to photography.

This "outsider" mentality is not the definitive factor in producing a great photographer any more than a good vantage point alone insures a great photograph. Timing, determination and skill count too. 

The twentieth century, during which the majority of these photographers practiced their art, was a time which called for determination and skill in life and photograpy. To survive the wars, purges, economic slumps and the goose-stepping rhetoric of dictators was a pre-condition and a prerequisite for taking memorable photos of twentieth century events.

Oscar Graubner, Margaret Bourke-White atop the Chrysler Building, New York, 1934

The "great" photographers in Hacking's book - and working today - are those whose skill, determination, vision and life experience place them in the right spot at the right time with the right "stuff" to capture immortal pictures. 

Hacking takes all these factors into her consideration. In these masterful short biographies. Hacking probes the psychological depths of her protagonists. She gains a feel for the essential elements of their characters which informs her discussion of their work methods, technical know-how and political ideals. 

After reading these brief, brilliant essays, I definitely wanted to know more about Capa, Steichen, Bourke-White and company. However, I always felt that Hacking had succeeded in gaining their true measure in what she presented.

When Vasari wrote about his Renaissance men, he characterized them as “Most Eminent.” Hacking is a bit more skeptical. No reader will mistake this book as one of hagiography rather than about photography. 

Alfred Stieglitz, Self-portrait, Freienwalde a.O., 1886

With her keen eye, Hacking spots plenty of character flaws amid the marks of genius. To highlight but a few: Alfred Stieglitz's Svengali-like manipulation of "his" artists, the peevish sense of lack of appreciation which André Kertész felt in the United States after escaping from the Nazis, the flagrant marital infidelities of Walker Evans, about which he honestly declared, "I've never been faithful to anything but my negatives." 

Juliet Hacking is certainly faithful to her protagonists. When she comments upon the deeds and characters of these great photographers it is never for the sake of sensationalism or controversy. 

Superheroes do not take great photographs. Human beings, flawed and inspired, self-seeking and generous, vain and high-minded, take great photographs. 

“If your pictures aren’t good enough," Robert Capa famously declared, "you’re not close enough.”

Juliet Hacking got very, very close to Capa, Atget and the rest. In Lives of the Great Photographers, she focused on the person behind the camera, presenting unforgettable portraits of these image makers in the full frame of their humanity.                                                                                                                                                   
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson 

Introductory Image: Lives of the Great Photographers, 2015 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden, Possible Self-portrait, 1855, National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Nadar, Self-portrait with Wife Ernestine in a Balloon Gondola, 1865, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel (2000.21.1)

Photographer unknown, Portrait of Robert Capa, 1940, Photo: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Claude Cahun, Self-portrait (Sleeping in Compactum Wardrobe), c. 1932, Courtesy Jersey Heritage Collections

Oscar Graubner, Margaret Bourke-White atop the Chrysler Building, New York, 1934,  Photo: Oscar Graubner/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Alfred Stieglitz, Self-portrait, Freienwalde a.O., 1886,  National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Alfred Stieglitz Collection (1949.3.9)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ancient Egypt Transformed: the Middle Kingdom at the Metropolitan Museum

Ancient Egypt Transformed: the Middle Kingdom

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City 

October 12, 2015 - January 24, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There is a Russian proverb that speaks for human experience across the ages, "There is no evil without some good."

This ever timely insight is particularly appropriate for Ancient Egypt's "time of troubles." A breakdown in central authority occurred with the collapse of the Old Kingdom (2575–2125 B.C.). 

The ensuing chaos triggered over one hundred years of civil war known as the First Intermediate Period (2125–2010 B.C.). From this century of strife arose a new era of Egyptian power and cultural achievement, the Middle Kingdom (2010–1630  B.C.).   
The Middle Kingdom is the subject of a brilliant new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ancient Egypt Transformed: the Middle Kingdom. It is on view from October 12, 2015 to January 24, 2016. Surprisingly, this is the first comprehensive exhibition ever mounted on this vital era of the ancient past.                                                                                                                                               

Stela of Khety and His Wife, Henet, early 12th Dynasty (ca. 1981–1917 B.C.)

The Middle Kingdom produced much of what is characteristic of Egypt under the pharaohs. Signature works of art, classics of literature such as The Story of Sinuhe and religious theories and rituals were either created during the Middle Kingdom era or adapted for a wider social base than had been true under the Old Kingdom. Even some progress was made during the Middle Kingdom in domesticating cats - in so far as our feline friends can be!

The Middle Kingdom thus represented the inverse of the Russian proverb, with more good than evil. Yet this glittering period of accomplishment bequeathed a number of ominous developments that in time would prove a fateful inheritance.                 

Ancient Egypt Transformed begins with two statues that are contradictory and complementary. We can visualize to an extraordinary degree how Middle Kingdom artists both preserved hallowed traditions and expanded or reformulated them.

A colossal statue of an idealized, seated Pharaoh (320 cm or nearly 10 1/2 ft. tall) is positioned in the Metropolitan Museum's main lobby. This imposing Middle Kingdom piece is on loan from the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. It was sculpted in a highly polished manner similar to exquisite Old Kingdom statues. 

Colossal Statue of a Pharaoh Seated, (ca. 1919–1878 B.C.)

The mighty Pharaoh sitting in splendor in the Met's lobby would seem to represent a degree of continuity between the Old and Middle Kingdoms. That is exactly opposite to what happened. The breakdown of Egyptian society during the First Intermediate Period was cultural and artistic as well as political. Many of the exacting skills needed in the fine arts and architecture decayed to the point where they had to be relearned.

This is very evident in the Statue of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II. It was one of twenty two statues of this type, each clad in a special jubilee robe. Originally, the statues once lined a temple processional path. Perhaps the impressive placement of these works compensated for the lack of expertise in crafting them.

Mentuhotep II (ca. 2030–2000 B.C.) was the first of the Middle Kingdom pharaohs. He set Egypt on the road to recovery after the Intermediate Period. That did not spare his image from rough treatment, as each of these statues was subsequently maimed, decapitated and the "body parts" scattered. Luckily most of the components of the Metropolitan Museum's example were found, enabling us to study a truly transitional work of art.

The stiff, mummy-like pose of the Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II statue was based on Old Kingdom models. It was intended to look "old fashioned." The modeling, however, was very poor, verging on the inept, with huge feet that would have better suited a statue twice as tall.

Size, rather than the quality of sculpting, is key to understanding Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II. It stands a little over 8 ft. tall (252.9 cm) but that includes the base. As the base was buried in the ground, the statue is close to human scale. And its face, perhaps due to its lack of sophisticated modeling, exudes a greater sense of humanity than the huge seated Pharaoh currently holding court in the Met’s lobby.

Statue of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II (detail), (ca. 2030–2000 B.C.)

Mentuhotep's dynastic line was quickly extinguished and a new one, Egypt's Twelfth Dynasty, was founded by a capable commoner named Amenemhat I. The Twelfth Dynasty, 1981 –1802 B.C., represented the Middle Kingdom at the zenith of its political power and cultural influence. 

An image of a member of that dynasty, Amenemhat III, who ruled ca. 1859–1813 B.C., is the focal point of the entire exhibition. This work testifies to the success of Middle Kingdom artists in rediscovering the skills of the Old Kingdom and then progressing to greater heights of creative accomplishment.

Head of a Statue of Amenemhat III Wearing the White Crown from the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark, is an unsurpassed masterpiece even in its severely damaged form.  It was sculpted from graywacke, a hard siltstone from quarries near the Red Sea. The Egyptians were master carvers of graywacke as far back as the fabled Narmer Palette, executed in honor of the first pharaoh around 3100 B.C.  

Head of a Statue of Amenemhat III Wearing the White Crown (ca. 1859–1813 B.C.)

A truly astonishing degree of modelling was devoted to Head of a Statue of Amenemhat III. The texture of the skin is so lifelike that with a wash of color it would be entirely believable. Likewise, the expression of Amenemhat exudes the classical, godlike power of Old Kingdom portraits. This is balanced with a world-weary sensitivity that would not be rivaled until the Hellenistic Greek sculptors fifteen hundred years later.

Had the Statue of Amenemhat III survived in any form approaching a fully realized work, it would be regarded as a masterpieces of world art. Yet there is a more profound development present in Middle Kingdom art that surpasses the importance of individual works, even one as superb as Head of a Statue of Amenemhat III

Human scale and human dignity characterize Middle Kingdom art. This humanity applied to likenesses of people from many classes and ethnic groups, sometimes even foreigners from beyond the borders of Egypt. Individuality was no longer the exclusive domain of pharaohs and members of the royal family of Egypt.                                      .

Ancient Egypt Transformed displays many portrait statues or reliefs that confirm the heightened individualism of non-royal Egyptians during the Middle Egypt. Notably impressive in this respect is a side-by-side display of three statues from the Twelfth Dynasty, sculpted in quartzite. 

Statue of the Sealer Nemtihotep Seated, (ca. 1878–1840 B.C.)

With a pleasing terracotta color and long-standing durability, quartzite was used by Egyptian artists for a wide variety of statues. But it was difficult to sculpt and had been reserved for royal portraits during the Old Kingdom.That changed in the more liberal atmosphere of the Middle Kingdom. These three statues depict “middle management” officials - a provincial mayor named Rehuankh from the British Museum, a priest named Amenemhetankh from the Louvre, and a court official, Nemtihotep, from the Ägyptisches Museum. 

Each of these works was crafted with the same sensitivity and idealism formerly reserved for the portraits of Old Kingdom pharaohs. Statue of the Sealer Nemtihotep Seated rivals the idealization of Old Kingdom depictions of the pharaohs to a much great degree than the remarkable "warts and all" likeness of Senwosret III also on view.

Head of a Colossal Statue of Senwosret III, (ca. 1878–1840 B.C.)

These striking portrait sculptures were made to be placed in private funerary chapels. 
Previously, the pharaoh or his family had exclusive right to grave sites inscribed with the magical instructions of The Book of the Dead which enabled their souls to reach eternity. During  the last years of the Old Kingdom, high-ranking Egyptians began to practice the burial rituals of the pharaohs, often in secret or in distant border towns far from the pharaoh's palace officials.  

With the onset of the Intermediate Period's turmoil, the people of Egypt focused on the state of their souls - as often happens in time of war or social disorder. 

Coffin of Nakhtkhnum (detail), (ca. 1850–1750 B.C.)

By the time that Mentuhotep II and Amenemhat I secured political unity, a full-scale religious revolution had occurred in the Middle Kingdom. This is one of the decisive moments in world history. A wide-spread population, yearning for meaning in this world and eternal life in the next, had grasped the means to achieve both.

In his excellent book, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, Toby Wilkinson described this shift in the social and religious world view of Middle Kingdom Egypt:

Earthly success and being well remembered after death were no longer enough. The hope of something better in the next world, of transfiguration and transformation, became paramount. Notions of what lay on the other side of death were elaborated, codified, and combined in ever more inventive formulations. In the process, the ancient Egyptians devised the key concepts of original sin, an underworld rife with dangers and demons, a final judgment before the great god, and the promise of a glorious resurrection. These concepts would echo through later civilizations and ultimately shape the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In the growing populism of Middle Kingdom religious practice, many who aspired to this "Afterlife for All" had to cut a few corners to get there. Many Middle Kingdom mummies were entombed with some of their internal organs left intact, causing early decay. The cost of elaborate tomb carvings of servants, animals and other comforts was often too great so that wooden models, delightful to modern eyes, were substituted.

An archeologist from the Metropolitan Museum, Herbert Winlock, made a sensational discovery in 1920. While excavating  a thoroughly looted tomb from the Middle Kingdom era, Winlock found a secret chamber that the ancient robbers had missed. Inside were the twenty grave models and two enchanting statues of servant women bringing food to the deceased. One of these was presented by the Egyptian government to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

With a height of a little over three and half feet, the statue is obviously less than life- sized. But the servant or "estate figure" is a representation of fully realized human being. Moreover, she is clad in a beautiful dress decorated with a pattern of feathers. Dresses like this were worn by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys who protected the dead.

Estate Figure, (ca. 1981–1975 B.C.)

Is this servant woman a goddess like Isis? Or is she a serving woman blessed by Isis? Whatever the answer, Winlock discovered works of art that testify to the Middle Kingdom's religious revolution whereby human devotion and dignity have found a place in the workings of cosmological destiny.

Two years after Herbert Winlock's discovery, Howard Carter located the tomb of Tutankhamun. Winlock's wooden servant/goddess was quickly eclipsed in fame by the celebrated golden burial mask and sensuous throne attendants of Tutankhamun. That fittingly shows why the Middle Kingdom is so little known. Sandwiched between the pyramids of the Old Kingdom and the "gilded age" New Kingdom of Tutankhamun, the Middle Kingdom is starved of attention.

Thanks to this outstanding Metropolitan Museum exhibit, we now have valuable insight into the Middle Kingdom with its huge accomplishments - and its demerits.These black marks have a troubling resonance to modern times. A string of hapless pharaohs, bureaucratic paralysis and escalating militarism brought about the fall of the Middle Kingdom and the onset of a second "Intermediate Period."

The legacy of the Middle Kingdom ultimately transcends its failures. The religious revolution of this period entered into the hearts, minds and souls of the people of Egypt. Its influence extended throughout the ancient world and via the Judeo-Christian scriptures affects us to the present day.

Statue of the Nurse Sitsnefru, mid‐Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1919–1878 B.C.)

In The Story of Sinue, the great Middle Kingdom hero is exiled from Egypt and longs to return. Wandering in the desert, Sinue feels the presence of God. He exclaims that whether in the parched red land of the desert or in the fertile black land of the Nile Valley, the divine being is there.

"It is you," Sinue says to God, "who cover this horizon."

It is this insight, more precious than gold, that Middle Kingdom Egypt bequeathed to us.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Introductory Image: 
Guardian Figure (detail) Cedar, sycamore, gesso, paint; shrine: wood, paint Twelfth Dynasty, reign of Amenemhat II (ca. 1919–1885 B.C.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1914 (14.3.17–.20) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Stela of Khety and His Wife, Henet  Limestone, paint H. 44 cm (17⅜ in.), W. 77.2 cm (30⅜ in.), D. 11.2 cm (4⅜ in.) Early Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1981–1917 B.C.) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Ägyptisch‐Orientalische Sammlung, Vienna 

Colossal Statue of a Pharaoh Seated  Granodiorite H. 320 cm (126 in.), W. 110.5 cm (43½ in.) Twelfth Dynasty, reign of Amenemhat II or Senwosret II (ca. 1919–1878 B.C.) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung (7264); Long‐term loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (L.2011.42) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Statue of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II Standing in the Jubilee Garment  Sandstone, paint
H. 252.9 cm (99⅝ in.), W. 47.7 cm (18¾ in.), D. 43.7 cm (17¼ in.) Eleventh Dynasty, late reign of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II (ca. 2030–2000 B.C.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1926 (26.3.29) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Head of a Statue of Amenemhat III Wearing the White Crown  Graywacke H. 47 cm (18½ in.), W. 18.5 cm (7¼ in.) Twelfth Dynasty, reign of Amenemhat III (ca. 1859–1813 B.C.)
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen Photograph by Anna‐Marie Kellen

Statue of the Sealer Nemtihotep Seated  Quartzite H. 76.5 cm (30⅛ in.), W. 25 cm (9⅞ in.), D. 44 cm (17⅜ in.) Twelfth Dynasty, reign of Senwosret III (ca. 1878–1840 B.C.) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung (15700) Image: bpk, Berliin / Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, photo, Sandra Steiss / Art Resource, NY

Head of a Colossal Statue of Senwosret III  Quartzite H. 45 cm (17¾ in.), W. 34.3 cm (13½ in.), D. 43.2 cm (17 in.) Twelfth Dynasty, reign of Senwosret III, perhaps second half (ca. 1878–1840 B.C.) The Nelson‐Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust) (62‐11) Photograph by Anna‐Marie Kellen

Coffin of Nakhtkhnum (detail) Wood, paint W. 51.8 cm (20⅜ in.), H. 68 cm (26¾ in.)
Late Twelfth to mid‐Thirteenth Dynasty (ca. 1850–1750 B.C.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1915 (15.2.2a, b) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Estate Figure  Wood, paint, plaster H. 112 cm (44⅛ in.), W. 17 cm (6¾ in.), D. 46.7 cm (18⅜ in.) Twelfth Dynasty, early reign of Amenemhat I (ca. 1981–1975 B.C.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920 (20.3.7) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Statue of the Nurse Sitsnefru  Granodiorite, paint H. 38.6 cm (15¼ in.), W. 20.7 cm (8⅛ in.), D. 26.5 cm (10⅜ in.) Mid‐Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1919–1878 B.C.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1918 (18.2.2) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Journey to Clonmacnoise, Ireland


Art Eyewitness Essay:  
Journey to  Clonmacnoise, Ireland

Photos by Anne Lloyd

Text by Ed Voves

Fifteen hundred years ago, a devout young man named Ciarán had a dream. Ciarán was a monk living at the monastery of Inishmore on the Aran Isles, off the western coast of Ireland. He dreamed of a great tree, growing by the side of a stream in the center of Ireland.

Another monk at Inishmore dreamed the same prophetic scene. This was the abbot of Inishmore, St. Enda, who interpreted the dream for Ciarán. The great tree was Ciarán himself and the site he envisioned was to be the location for a great monastery which would serve all the people  of Ireland.

St. Ciarán by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) the great Irish stained glass master. The window is located in St. Manchan's Church, near Clonmacnoise.

St. Enda instructed Ciarán to search for the divinely designated spot. In 544, after several years of looking, St. Ciarán (as he eventually became) located  the land of his dreams and there he laid the foundation for the monastery of Clonmacnoise.

By a wonderful confluence of luck and grace, my wife, Anne, and I were able to go to Clonmacnoise in September 2015. The day of our visit was one of gentle sunshine and soaring skies after weeks of heavier than normal rainfall. The beautiful photos that are featured in this essay are a testament to Anne's exceptional artistry and to the compelling energy that one feels at Clonmacnoise.

Anne and I originally ventured to Ireland inorder to visit Banagher, the hometown of Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, husband of Charlotte Bronte. Rev. Nicholls returned to Banagher several years after his beloved wife's tragic, early death in 1855. While there, we lodged in Rev. Nicholl's home, now a "B&B" being restored to its Victorian grandeur by Ms. Nicola Daly.

Charlotte's Way B&B, Banagher, Ireland

During our stay at "Charlotte's Way," as the dwelling is known, Ms. Daly kindly introduced us to a local local historian, Mr. James Scully. With a profound grasp of Irish history and plenty of Celtic wit and warmth, James Scully was the perfect guide for an expedition to the nearby site of St. Ciarán's monastery. 

Mr. James Scully (left) with Ed Voves

To paraphrase the Irish blessing , "the road rose up to meet us" at the historic, holy place known as Clonmacnoise.

The "road rose up" for  St. Ciarán as well - literally in fact. Mr. Scully explained that geology as well as theology influenced St. Ciarán's choice of Clonmacnoise for his monastery.

Clonmacnoise is located at a key point on the band of ridges called the  Esker Riada which stretch across Ireland. The historic monastery is in County Offaly, 27 kilometers (about 17 miles) from Charlotte's Way in Banagher. Geographically and spiritually, the site of Clonmacnoise is the heart of Ireland.

When St. Ciarán chose the place to build his monastery, he selected the point on the Esker Riada where this high ground meets the River Shannon, Ireland's longest river. Eskers are sandy ridges which were pushed upwards by the advancing glaciers in the last Ice Age. 

A view of the Shannon River near Clonmacnoise. The riverside meadows, known as callows, are often under water during the winter rains.

These eskers generally run east-west, while the Shannon flows down from the Cuilcagh Mountains in the north to Limerick in the south. A long, protected estuary leads the Shannon from Limerick to the Atlantic Ocean. 

Eskers, rising above the peat bogs, thus made for great lines of lateral communication in ancient Ireland. Between river-based journeys on the Shannon and travel via esker roadways, almost anyone could reach Clonmacnoise. It was also perfectly situated to launch missionary ventures to the rest of Ireland.

The Round Tower, constructed in 1124, and graveyard of Clonmacnoise.

With the eye of a battle-tested military commander, St. Ciarán had picked the most strategic point in Ireland for his new monastery.

Clonmacnoise takes its name from Cluain Mhic Nóis, which means "Meadow of the Sons of Nós." This note of plural ownership is a significant point. In ancient Ireland, there was no conception of private property, at least in terms of land holdings. Land belonged to families not individuals. It could not be sold or traded away to outsiders.

Land could be donated to the Christian Church. But there was a catch. Family members came along as part of the deal. With the transfer of land came monks or nuns from the family that bequeathed it. More to the point, the abbots who governed the monasteries were members of the leading clans whose generosity contributed to the growth of Christianity in Ireland.

Carvings of medieval saints above the north doorway of Clonmacnoise Cathedral.

Saint Ciarán received support from a local leader named Diarmait Uí Cerbaill. Diarmait later became the first High King of Ireland to embrace Christianity. Diarmait's support was crucial  to the success of  Clonmacnoise. Saint Ciarán, aged 33, died a few months after founding Clonmacnoise. But the vital work of laying the foundation for the great monastery had been achieved in that brief period.

It would be encouraging to be able to write that Diarmait's generosity brought him success as High King of Ireland. That was not the case. In a dispute over the ownership of a sacred manuscript, Diarmait ruled against the famous St. Columba. The Uí Néill clan rallied to St. Columba's support. A bloody battle was fought around 560, blighting any chance that Diarmait might unite Ireland. St. Columba was exiled from Ireland, becoming the apostle to the Scots.

Following  Saint Ciarán's death in 544, the seven monks who had accompanied him continued the work of building the monastery at Clonmacnoise. A scriptorium was established, making Clonmacnoise a vital center in the spread of literacy and of book production. No works comparable to the famed Book of Kells have been identified as coming from Clonmacnoise. References in ancient chronicles however assert the importance of the scriptorium at Clonmacnoise in preserving the word of God.

Saint Ciarán's companions were joined by other monks and hundreds of people from the surrounding region. Clonmacnoise became a thriving town, as well as a monastic site, with a population estimated around two thousand during the early Middle Ages.

The buildings at Clonmacnoise during its first centuries were built of wood and thatch. One of the earliest stone structures is the small church, Temple Ciarán. It was built in the ninth century, replacing an earlier wooden one. 

Don't bump your on the doorway of Temple Ciarán!

With its sagging masonry and (dauntingly) low-hanging lintel, Temple Ciarán certainly looks its age.  Under the floor of its wooden predecessor, St. Ciarán had been buried and presumably his remains are still there. One theory about this "Leaning Temple" of Clonmacnoise is that so many notables have been interred with St. Ciarán beneath the floor that the foundations have shifted!

There are no ruins of cavernous basilicas at Clonmacnoise. Temple Ciarán is a very small edifice. Its interior measures a mere 3.8 x 2.8 meters (approx. 12 ft. x 9 ft.). 

The Cathedral of Clonmacnoise, originally built in 909 and extensively remodeled in the 13th century. A replica of the Cross of the Scriptures appears in the foreground.

Even the biggest church, the Cathedral of Clonmacnoise, is comparatively small with an interior measuring 18.8 x 8.7 meters (approx. 61 x 28 ft.). Several of Ireland's high kings are buried here but the financial resources of medieval Irish lords never could match the wealth of their English or French counterparts. 

It is just as well that the Irish kings and nobles could not afford grandiose church endowments. Clonmacnoise is a hauntingly beautiful site but one where "small is beautiful."  Clonmacnoise is dedicated to spiritual values. You don't have to be a practicing member of a Christian denomination to feel close to God here.

That might seem a contradictory statement when one looks at the forest of Celtic crosses that features so prominently on the landscape of Clonmacnoise. The design of the Celtic cross is thought to predate Christianity. Some of the earliest examples at Clonmacnoise, inscribed on stone slabs, certainly have the feel of a remote pre-Christian Europe. 

A grave slab inscribed with a Celtic cross of the ringed type produced during the 9th century. 600 stone slabs or fragments of slabs have been found at Clonmacnoise.

Trying to trace the historic lineage of the Celtic cross, however, can be counter-productive if the basic sanctity of these inspiring objects goes unappreciated.The Celtic cross articulates the human belief in God as do a Buddhist prayer flag or a Navajo sand painting. The wind of course wipes these religious icons away much faster, but the slowly-weathered Celtic cross will eventually succumb to the ages too. Yet the spiritual values inherent in these symbols of faith will endure as long as humanity does.

Ironically, less praiseworthy aspects of human conduct have affected the current state of the crosses at Clonmacnoise

Air pollution spewing from the automobiles that have replaced the horse-drawn jaunting cart has had a devastating affect on Ireland's historic monuments. When we visited the cemetery in Banagher where Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls is buried, we could scarcely read the inscriptions on his grave marker, though he died in 1906. Mr. Scully informed us that the marker was perfectly legible only a couple of decades ago.

The original Cross of the Scriptures, relocated for safety to the visitor center in 1992.

With that kind of danger at hand, it is understandable that the curators at Clonmacnoise have moved the the great Cross of the Scriptures, the South Cross and the North Cross (of which only the shaft remains) indoors to the climate controlled visitor center. Replicas mark the spots where these towering crosses, carved in the ninth century, once stood. 

Many of the carvings on these crosses are already difficult to decipher. Various interpretations have been advanced about the two figures on base of the Cross of the Scriptures. Are they Christ and St. Peter or Saint Ciarán and King Diarmait? We are unlikely to get an answer to this, although archaeological work at Clonmacnoise is providing clues to other, long-debated questions.

The mystery of why the great stone crosses were created may be answered by the estimated date of their creation. If the Cross of the Scriptures and the South Cross were carved around 840 to 850, as a number of historians believe, then the reason may stem from the foreign visitors who came to Clonmacnoise around that time.

In 845, marauding Vikings attacked and burned much of Clonmacnoise. These Scandinavian pirates plagued Ireland for nearly two centuries. They returned to Clonmacnoise for several more raids, hauling-off plunder and captives.

I have a suspicion that the reason why none of the ornamented, hand-copied books produced by the monks of Clonmacnoise have been discovered is due to the ravages of the Vikings. The Vikings prized the gilded covers of these religious books, though certainly not the contents of their text!

By creating  massive, towering Celtic crosses like the Cross of the Scriptures, Irish monks thwarted the Vikings' lust for loot. The stone crosses were too big to move and could not be destroyed by the swords and battle axes of the invaders. Christ's cross, as carved and erected at Clonmacnoise, proved more powerful than Thor's hammer.

When I asked Mr. Scully for his opinion about the Viking impact on Ireland, he responded with an impartial list of their contributions, such as the founding of Dublin in 841, and depredations like the sack of Clonmacnoise four years later.

I was prepared for this "pro-con" assessment about the Vikings but not for Mr. Scully's further reflections.

"The Vikings attacked seven times but Irish raids struck Clonmacnoise twenty-seven times during the early Middle Ages," Scully said, adding, "Ireland was a wild place during those ancient times."

Doing some follow-up research of my own revealed that Mr. Scully's analysis was lamentably accurate. In one particularly horrifying incident, King Feidlimid of Munster attacked and burned the monastery and church of Clonmacnoise, with a heavy loss of life, including many of the monks. 

By the time that Temple Ri was built in the late 1100’s, the Vikings were gone – and the Normans were raiding Clonmacnoise in their place. These narrow windows at the east end of Temple Ri allowed light in while keeping arrows out.

King Feidlimid's atrocity occurred in 833, a decade before the Viking incursion. Attacks by the Normans, crossing the Irish Sea from England during the twelfth century, added to the destruction and bloodshed. Somehow Clonmacnoise survived these repeated assaults.

Clonmacnoise could not withstand the shift in trade patterns and demographic changes that intensified with the growing power of the Normans in England - and Ireland. The focus of economic development and urbanization moved to the north and east of Ireland, away from the Irish midlands. An English military force, part of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, gave the final coup d'grace to Clonmacnoise in a plundering raid in 1552 - or thought they did.

Clonmacnoise survived as a spiritual Camelot, a "once and future" site of religious revival for Ireland. Catholics and Protestants now hold inter-faith services there and a yearly youth event takes place each summer. 

Clonmacnoise is no longer an especially easy place to reach. We made it there thanks to Mr. Scully, but also because this was a place that drew us in. We could have gone to Birr Castle or some other tourist site. But we really wanted to get to Clonmacnoise and I suspect that most tourists who venture there are drawn by its special aura of holiness. 

A September sunset over Banagher, Ireland. Such was the setting for the missionary work of Saint Ciarán and other heroic Irish clergymen during the Middle Ages.

The evening of our visit to Clonmacnoise, we were blessed with a beautiful sunset. The golden rays of light, seemed to radiate with the light of faith, evoking a sense of life's inherent goodness. This feeling is still with me, weeks later, as I write these lines.

A skeptic might view my words as the "purple prose" of an impressionable tourist. Yet, another tourist came away from Clonmacnoise with a similar feeling of the site's spiritual power. And I don't think that anyone would describe Pope John Paul II as gullible or impressionable.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II  - now recognized as a Catholic Saint along with St. Ciarán - visited Clonmacnoise and declared that "the walls of these ruins are charged with a great mission."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images Courtesy of Anne Lloyd © Anne Lloyd

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