Evil, Sexuality and Disease in Grünewald’s Body of Christ

Eugene Monick

The Isenheim altarpiece, painted sometime around 1515 by a man known now as Grünewald, is the touchstone of this work of dark fantasy and bold speculation on evil and the divine. Boils and black pustules being more evident in this multipanel painting than the conventionally depicted lacerations, Grünewald’s pestilent Christ suffers from the inside out. He thus embodies evil, and, seen this way, is a unique and powerful symbol to the syphilitic patients for whom the altarpiece was painted, and, by extension, for us today.
After establishing evil and disease as being correlative with the beauty and blessing of sensuality, Monick presents his most startling passages. He imagines potent, archetypal sexual relations between Christ and the four main figures who appear with Him in the Crucifixion panel: John the Evangelist, Mary, Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist. What if Jesus lived as a man and through sexual love contracted syphilis?
“Once one is contagious, involved personally in the inexorable illness, Grünewald’s crucified Christ might be seen as I imagine the Isenheim patients might have seen that stark image dominating their chapel: a revolutionary picture of psychological reality quite aside from one’s faith in a particular religious system. Moralizing about sexual preference and behavior becomes irrelevant; the issue is sickness and death. Even the gods get sick and die, as the Isenheim Crucifixion demonstrates.”
At times irritatingly personal, this book is also expansive and imaginative, dealing, as it does, with “paradox rather than reason, [as] a guiding principle of psychological truth.” Included are interesting discussions of homeopathy and the medical establishment, Susan Sontag, Tim Rollins and KOS, and an illuminating comparison of Grünewald and Albrecht Dürer, who was his contemporary. The author opens up many doors through his meditations on this rich icon. JTW

Publisher: Spring
Paperback: 189 pages

The Meaning of Love

Vladimir Solovyov

For a philosopher intent on illuminating the godliness inherent in each of us, Solovyov sure spends a lot of time talking about sex. “There is only one power which can from within undermine egoism at the root, and really does undermine it, namely love, and chiefly sexual love.” Arguing that, at least in lower forms, sexual love is not necessary to reproduction, and, in any case, that sexual love between humans does not necessarily result in procreation, Solovyov determines that sexual love exists primarily as a touchstone for cosmic integration.
His approach is scientific. Observing that the whole of biological evolution is toward more individualized organisms, he likewise notes the tendency toward the increasing association of romantic passion with sexual union. He theorizes that since neither “romance” nor “passion” is necessary for successful reproduction, perhaps they are to be seen as an end in themselves. Perhaps they are expressions of the divine in the human sphere. Recognizing our failure to achieve “unity of the all” consciousness, he nonetheless views sexual love as an avenue toward this ideal. “The meaning and worth of love, as a feeling, is that it really forces us, with all our being, to acknowledge for another the same absolute central significance which, because of the power of our egoism, we are conscious of only in our own selves.” Solovyov’s ideal is the transformation of the world through love, starting with sexual love and continuing outward and resulting in syzygy, the correlation of the individual with the all. JTW

Publisher: Lindisfarne
Paperback: 121 pages

Soul in the Stone: Cemetery Art from America’s Heartland

John Gary Brown

This essay on mortality and materiality addresses the inevitability of death and the impulse to survive in the hearts and minds of those who follow. Straightforward black-and-white photographs of gravestones are accompanied by thoughtful, and often factually detailed, captions which speculate on and interpret the varied desires expressed through sculpture and poetry found in cemeteries. “Life Is, Death Only Dies,” says one; another stone immortalizes, “I’d rather be drag racing.” In one Kansas graveyard an overstuffed limestone armchair suggests that the dead are just waiting in the parlor for the living to join them. The morose and the sensual are given equal standing in some monuments where young women dressed in clinging gowns are depicted as surrogate mourners, continuously standing in for absent family members. The author’s opening chapters on the history of burial, religious and secular iconography, and ethnic and economic factors are instructive. Discussion of children’s graves, folk art monuments, and markers commemorating worldly concerns are gracefully handled by the author. But the photographs of the monuments, which are often touching and sometimes astonishing, are the heart of this book. JTW

Publisher: Univ. Press of Kansas
Hardback: 232 pages

The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America, circa A.D. 1000-1500

Kirsten A. Seaver

There is no doubt that sometime early in the 11th century medieval Norse sailors ventured west and south from settlements in Greenland searching for lumber and fur on the North American continent. Excavations 30 years ago in northern Newfoundland proved that the site found at L’Anse aux Meadows was Norse, and that it could be reliably dated to approximately A.D. 1000.
This book establishes the latest archeological evidence for Norse habitation of the New World; describes the nature of North Atlantic commerce in both commodities and ideas, discusses the role of the Catholic church at the farthest reaches of European settlement; charts relations between Norse settlers and indigenous people; and chronicles the often strained political relations between colonists and their European home governments. Finally, there are some new ideas about what became of these people when large-scale European exploration began to bypass the northern settlements in the 15th century. JTW

Publisher: Stanford University
Hardback: 428 pages


Rose-Marie and Ranier Hagen

Working in the second half of the 16th century, Bruegel was naturally acquainted with the work of his countryman Hieronymus Bosch, who died several years before Bruegel was born. And he followed Bosch’s lead in depicting diabolical demons and phantasmic, apocalyptic visions. But this book demonstrates that in addition to being a mysterious and satirical social commentator, Bruegel was, perhaps more interestingly, a philosopher. His biblical or mythological paintings emphasized an extreme naturalism integrating contemporary detail and sensibility into universal themes. And he was an empirical scientist interested in up-to-date scientific achievements as well as in expressing advanced knowledge of perspective and techniques of depiction. With simplicity, the authors describe the times in which the work was produced, and give voice to its relevance. JTW

Publisher: Taschen
Paperback: 96 pages

Pen, Ink and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector and Document Detective

Joe Nickell

Brief but thoughtful histories of the use and manufacture of pens, ink and paper begin this interestingly documented volume. Closeup photographs depict drips made from a vat-man's hands which fell on a freshly handmade piece of paper; and illustrate the distinction between two sides of a piece of parchment (one side is yellow with hair follicles evident, the other side smoother and whiter). A photograph of handwriting from 1843, which reveals the point in the text that the writer mended his quill, shows just how close a study can be made of the written word. The evidence uncovered might solve a mystery or merely bring the past to life.
The goal of this book is to illuminate subtle clues and to encourage detailed observation. A teacher at the University of Kentucky, Nickell is also a calligrapher who belongs to the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting. Here he offers his knowledge in detecting forgeries, identifying watermarks and dating documents, as well as in penmanship, stationery, and postal iconography. He assiduously presents photographs of rare manuscripts and antique instruments to verify his observations.The book contains a wealth of information for sleuths and scholars alike who seek knowledge of the history and use of handwritten text. In this day when computers have nearly eliminated handwritten evidence of error, and therefore thought, this document reminds us of what we will miss in the future. JTW

Publisher: University of Kentucky
Hardback: 228 pages