J G Ballard on viewing Crivelli’s Annunciation

Via Bibliokept:

I am sure that a large part of the enduring mystery of the Renaissance masterpieces in the National Gallery was due to the absence of the explanatory matter that now drains away much of the strangeness and poetry of the Old Masters. I would stare at Crivelli’s Annunciation, charmed by the peacocks, loaves of bread and other incongruous items, the passer-by reading a book on the bridge and the Virgin in her jewel box of a house. I was forced to use my own imagination to stitch these elements into a master narrative that made some kind of sense, rather than read an extended wall caption and be solemnly told that the peacock was a symbol of eternal life. Perish the thought, and let the exquisite bird be itself, and nothing more or less than itself. What could be more natural, and more mysterious, than a peacock and a loaf of bread appearing on the scene to celebrate the forthcoming birth of the Saviour?

From J.G. Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of Life.


#ChoralMarch: March 8th: “Black Christ of the Andes (St Martin De Porres)”, Mary Lou Williams

I’m conscious that some readers may find the music featured in Choral March excessively pious (of course, some may find it not pious enough) If these readers are unfamiliar with this piece, I would beg them to reserve judgement until they listen ( I would always so implore, but especially in this case)

I recently discovered the extraordinary figure of Mary Lou Williams. The opening paragraph of her Wikipedia bio captures the breadth of her activities and influences:

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981) was an American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. She wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than one hundred records (in 78, 45, and LP versions).[1] Williams wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious MonkCharlie ParkerMiles DavisTadd DameronBud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Here is the blurb for about Williams:

She was ahead of her time, a genius. During an era when Jazz was the nation’s popular music, Mary Lou Williams was one of its greatest innovators. As both a pianist and composer, she was a font of daring and creativity who helped shape the sound of 20th century America. And like the dynamic, turbulent nation in which she lived, Williams seemed to redefine herself with every passing decade.

From child prodigy to “Boogie-Woogie Queen” to groundbreaking composer to mentoring some of the greatest musicians of all time, Mary Lou Williams never ceased to astound those who heard her play. But away from the piano, Williams was a woman in a “man’s world,” a black person in a “whites only” society, an ambitious artist who dared to be different, and who struggled against the imperatives of being a “star.” Above all, she did not fit the (still) prevailing notions of where genius comes from or what it looks like. Time and again, she pushed back against a world that said, “You can’t” and said, “I can.” It nearly cost her everything.

Back to Wikipedia for the turn in her life that led to her composing a hymn in honour of  St Martin de Porres:

In 1952, Williams accepted an offer to perform in England and ended up staying in Europe for two years. When she returned to the United States she took a hiatus from performing, converting in 1956 to Roman Catholicism. Her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she initiated to help addicted musicians return to performing. Two priests and Dizzy Gillespie convinced her to return to playing, which she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy’s band.

Father Peter O’Brien, a Catholic priest, became her close friend and manager in the 1960s. They found new venues for jazz performance at a time when no more than two clubs in Manhattan offered jazz full-time. In addition to club work, she played colleges, formed her own record label and publishing companies, founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and made television appearances. Throughout the 1960s, her composing concentrated on sacred music, hymns, and masses. One of the masses, Music for Peace, was choreographed by the Alvin Ailey and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as Mary Lou’s Mass in 1971.[13] About the work, Ailey commented, “If there can be a Bernstein Mass, a Mozart Mass, a Bach Mass, why can’t there be Mary Lou’s Mass?” [14] Williams performed the revision of Mary Lou’s Mass, her most acclaimed work, on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.[15]

In this lecture it is observed that Mary Lou Williams created some of the first pieces that explored jazz in a classical idiom. That is certainly true of the extraordinary Black Christ of the Andes (St Martin de Porres) and I will let the music speak for itself now:

#ChoralMarch : March 3rd, Schola Antiqua, “Ego Te Tuli”

Founded in 1984, Schola Antiqua is dedicated “to the study, research, and performance of early music and, in particular, Gregorian chant.” This selection is taken from their recording Oficio De La Toma De Granada – which is a service written by Hernando de Talavera,  the first Catholic Archbishop of Granada. This service was celebrated for many years to commemorate the surrender of the last Moorish King of Granada.

de Talavera himself was a popular figure among Grenada’s Muslims and did not allow the Inquisition to operate there. His own scholarly efforts were directed towards mutual understanding. From Wikipedia:

In newly conquered Granada, the population was Muslim; their right to practice their religion was guaranteed by the conditions of Granada’s surrender. Hernando’s goal was to convert these Muslims to Christianity (Catholicism) peacefully, by explaining to them, in their own language as few knew Castilian, the nature of the Christian religion and its superiority over Islam. To facilitate this he promoted the study of Arabic, a language he learned himself. To him we owe the first grammar of Arabic in Spanish and the first bilingual Spanish-Arabic-Spanish dictionary, the first printed books in which Arabic letters were used; these were authored by Hernando’s own confessor, Pedro de Alcalá. He did not allow the Inquisition to operate in Granada. He was very popular among the Granadine Muslims, but conversions to Christianity were few.



“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?” : Introducing St Pelagia the Harlot

In “Of Martyrs, Monks, and Mystics: A Yearly Meditational Reader of Ancient Spiritual Wisdom”by Charles Ringma and Irene Alexander, I came across this quote from The Life of St. Pelagia the Harlot. Click on her name above for the rest of the story:

“Some of the other bishops asked my superior, Nonnus, whether he had any edifying comments for them, and without delay our holy bishop began to tell them something for the instruction and salvation of all who were listening. As we were all listening with enjoyment to his holy teaching, suddenly there passed by in front of us the foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls. The male and female slaves accompanying her were extravagantly clothed in costly garments, and the torcs [metal neck rings] round their necks were all of gold. Some of them went before, others followed after. The worldly crowd could not get enough of their beauty and attractiveness. As they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes, but when the bishops saw her passing by so immodestly, with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head, and yet the object of such adulation, they all fell silent, groaned and sighed, and averted their eyes as if being forced to witness some grave sin. The most blessed Nonnus, however, looked at her long and hard, and even after she had passed by he looked after her for as long as she remained in sight. Not till then did he turn round and speak to the other bishops. “Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”

“What is Beauty?” considered in Dungloe courthouse

An interesting tale from the Donegal courts. A vet who set up a clinic in Bunbeg was denied certification by the veterinary authorities as the word “beauty” was in the clinic’s proposed name. Dungloe District Court evidently had jurisdiction:

The title of the practice is Animal Beauty and Care Clinic, but the VCI said the term beauty could be equated with some unacceptable cosmetic surgery taking place in the practice to modify an animal’s appearance, the court heard.

Mr Podiaru appealed the decision at Dungloe District Court against The Veterinary Council of Ireland, 53 Lansdowne Road, Dublin. His counsel Dean Regan said it was a case that centred on the definition of the word “beauty”.

Mr Regan said the VCI was suggesting that the word beauty meant trying to modify an animal’s appearance and was unethical. He said it was unreasonable to suggest that beauty was linked with some sort of mutilation of an animal.

Counsel for the VCI Hugh McDowell said that for the appeal to succeed it must be shown that the VCI erred in law or acted unreasonably.

President of the VCI Peadar O’Scannail told the court that “if ever a blade was taken to an animal to beautify it, that is a red line for the Veterinary Council”.

He said there were cases of dogs having their tails cut for cosmetic reasons and that was not allowed.

Mr O’Scannail said there was a danger that the public might draw an inference that something untoward was happening at the practice.

Obviously legal argument ensued to ensure nothing untoward would trouble the sensibilities of Gweedore folk:

Judge Paul Kelly read from some veterinary practices which provided for dog grooming. Among the services were “nail clipping” “paint on highlights” and “anal gland expressing”.

The judge wondered what was the difference between dog-grooming and beauty?

At one stage the Oxford Dictionary was produced, and the definition of beauty read out in court.

In a rather Solomon like decision, Judge Kelly found for Mr Polidaru but didn’t award costs as he could have engaged more with the VCI earlier. But that would have denied us the legal speculation on the nature of beauty outlined above.

The perils of quoting out of context

The Samuel Johnson Soundbite Page is a trove of quotable bits from the Great Cham himself. I came across this post on the perils of taking quotes from Johnson’s Rasselas as being the thoughts of Johnson himself – they are spoken by characters and often the context modifies the sense considerably. For instance:

Out of their context, there are some quotes which sound like something wonderful for the bulletin board. For instance, one character (“the artist”) says “Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome.” In the novel this character proceeds to don a set of false wings and then belly flop into a lake; without the context you don’t know that very important “on the other hand.”

I’ve noticed something similar with Wilde: many of the most “Wildean” quotes are spoken by characters. “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” is not a statement by Oscar Wilde, but a statement by Wilde’s fictional creation Lord Henry. The same goes for much of the quotable Wilde. Of course, these quotes very much suit our contemporary image of Wilde. We tend to forget that he gave Dorian Gray a rather sticky end (I don’t recall what happened to Lord Henry).

Another example from the Rasselas page:

In another example where the lack of context can hurt the meaning, there is the frequently cited Imlac quote “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” A fairly pessimistic sounding commentary on life. However, Imlac says this to dampen Rasselas’ envy of life in Europe, telling him that there is a basic consistency to the human condition all around the world. There is an important introductory sentence from Imlac, which is usually omitted. Imlac’s complete statement is as follows:

“The Europeans,” answered Imlac, “are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”