Monday, March 19, 2012

Wind on the Heath

 There's a wind on the heath brother, who would wish to die ?

Norwich's connection to the Romantic movement is embodied in the figure of the author George Borrow (1803-1881). As a teenager Borrow studied languages, in particular the German language, under the tutorship of William Taylor (1765-1836). Taylor was the scholar who personally  influenced and encouraged Coleridge and Wordsworth to read his translations of German romantic literature. Together Coleridge and Wordsworth in the early poetry of their Lyrical Ballads (1798) inaugurated romanticism into English literature. This was in no small measure due to both poets being introduced to German authors such as Goethe and Lessing by William Taylor, a name nowadays scarcely known either inside or outside the medieval walls of Norwich.

George Borrow himself cuts as a dashing Byronic-like figure. Of athletic build and over 6 feet tall with a shock of white, not blonde, hair, as a young man he roamed the length and breadth of Britain in gypsy fashion as an itinerant tinker. He also travelled extensively through Spain, as well as visiting Morocco and Russia. Borrow was in near equal measure, an intrepid traveller,  a scholar and polyglot  and  on occasions, a rabid anti-papal preacher and belligerent pugilist. He's depicted above contemplating the splendid view of Norwich from Saint James Hill, adjacent to the large expanse of heathland known as Mousehold and is accompanied by the hat-wearing gypsy Petulenegro, an equally colourful character who, in addition to making his life-affirming statement, adopts the youthful Borrow to teach him the Romany language and traditions. 

George Borrow recounts his semi-autobiographical adventures on the highways and byways of England in Lavengro (1851) and in its sequel Romany Rye (1857). When the adventures of the self-styled scholar, gypsy, priest in Borrow's first book, The Bible in Spain (1843) were first published, such was the travelogue's popularity that its sales exceeded those of Charles Dickens' latest tale, A Christmas Carol  (1843). 

Borrow's homage to Norwich, the urban setting of his youth, and his acknowledgement of the city's civic pride can be found in Lavengro - 

A fine old city, perhaps the most curious specimen at present extant of the genuine old English Town. ..There it spreads from north to south, with its venerable houses, its numerous gardens, its thrice twelve churches, its mighty mound....There is an old grey castle on top of that mighty mound: and yonder rising three hundred feet above the soil, from amongst those noble forest trees, behold that old Norman master-work, that cloud-enriched cathedral spire ...Now who can wonder that the children of that fine old city are proud, and offer up prayers for her prosperity?

The classic panorama photograph of  Norwich looking south from Saint James Hill. From left to right above the horizon-line - the Norman Castle, the church of Saint Peter Mancroft, City Hall bell-tower and the Norman Cathedral (centre). On the right, the tower of Saint Giles and the Roman Catholic Cathedral are in view.

Wiki-links   -  George Borrow  -   William Taylor

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Diana and Actaeon

From March 3rd until April 15th as part of a Nation-wide tour organised by the National Gallery, Norwich Castle Museum is show-casing Titian's marvellous painting Diana and Actaeon. 

The painting captures the moment when the hunter Actaeon stumbles into a woodland grotto where the goddess Diana is bathing. For his transgression seeing the chaste goddess of the hunt naked, Diana in a fit of embarrassed fury splashes water into Actaeon's face and transforms him into a stag. Unable to make his former identity known to his hunting pack Actaeon is chased and devoured by his own bloodhounds.

The Venetian artist Titian's late masterpiece Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) is the work of an artist at the very height of his powers. Commissioned for Philip II of Spain as one of a series of six mythological scenes, its worth remembering that Venice like Spain was during Titian's era, the centre of a vast Empire; included among the many goods which the sea-port traded were rare and costly pigments and dyes used to colour fabrics. Titian's masterful skills as an artist themselves became a highly sought-after commodity, in his life-time he was commissioned by Popes and Emperors.

On a canvas measuring 185 x 202 centimetres, Titian (c.1490 -1576) portrays the fatal moment of Diana and Actaeon's encounter. What captures the eye immediately is its rich colouration and detail. Against a vivid azure sky with a mountainous background, the action depicted in the woodland grotto includes various textures. An orange-striped sarong worn by an Ethiopian nymph alluding to the exotic, is contrasted to the domesticity of a lapdog which yaps at Actaeon's hunting hound. Water trickles and reflects the bathing nymphs startled at their intrusion.  A mirror and gleaming drinking goblet hint of famed Venetian exports. Resting upon a stone column there's a stag's skull, a portent of Actaeon's tragic fate. But above all else it's Titian's ability to paint the drama of the moment,  its the varied human postures and realistic skin tones which makes the painting come alive.

A quarter century after Titian completed his masterpiece, the Hermetic and Neo-platonic philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) in an essay entitled On the Heroic Passions (1585) interpreted the myth of Actaeon and Diana as a parable on the process of knowledge, stating-

'Here Actaeon represents the intellect, on the hunt for divine wisdom at the moment of grasping divine beauty'. 

Just when Actaeon thinks he grasps Sophia (wisdom) in the glass of outer nature, lifting the veil from her lunar mystery, he himself becomes the victim or object of his own striving. Bruno philosophised on Acteon's fate -

'He saw himself transformed into that which he sought, and realised that he himself had become a much-desired prey for his hounds, his thoughts. Because he had actually drawn the godhead into himself, it was no longer necessary to seek them outside himself'. 

For Giordano Bruno the hunter Actaeon is the new heroic man who, killed by his many hounds, is radically inverted. Actaeon's encounter with Diana, at first seemingly his down-fall and the end of his mortal life is for Bruno a transformation which allows Actaeon to experience the life of the gods and immortality. Actaeon's mortal life and final fate are interpreted by Bruno thus-

'Here, his life in the mad, sensuous, blind and fantastic world comes to an end, and from now on he leads a spiritual life. He lives the life of the gods'.

The consequences of mortals accidental caught up in the affairs of the gods and the resulting tragedy  places the Greek gods as being supremely indifferent to the fate of mortal man. There's no forgiveness, regrets, redemption or second chances available to those who encounter them and their implacable will. Bruno's optimistic interpretation of the myth of Diana and Actaeon is contrasted to Diana's more frequently acknowledged dark side. The English scholar Robert Graves noted that Diana in ancient Roman means 'bright' or 'heavenly', and that another name for Diana was Nemesis (from the Greek nemos, 'Grove') which in Classical Greek denoted divine vengeance for breaches of taboo.

The twentieth century psychologist C.G.Jung described the goddess Diana's dark nature thus  -

Diana's hunting animal the dog represents her dark side. Her darkness shows itself in he fact that she is also a goddess of destruction and death, whose arrows never miss. She changed the hunter Actaeon, when he secretly watched her bathing, into a stag, and his own hounds, not recognising him, thereupon tore him to pieces. This myth may have given rise first to the designation of the lapis as the cervus fugitvus (fugitive stag), and then the rabid dog, who is none other than the vindictive and treacherous aspect of Diana as the new moon. [1]

A  possible Jungian interpretation of the myth of Diana and Actaeon is that of a fatal encounter with the anima. The hunter Actaeon's sudden, unprepared vision of the anima, that is, the feminine dimension within the masculine psyche, is one in which he's overwhelmed by its contents. Unable to assimilate or integrate the anima into his psyche, he's transformed into animal and devoured by his failure.

The element in the myth of Diana and Actaeon of the chaser being chased as vengeance is in hindsight somewhat applicable to  events of the modern era - as regards the activities of the papparazzi who once hounded Diana the late Princess of Wales. I'm sure H.R.H. Diana (1961- 1997) would have wished herself able to transform her own hunters into being the hunted. I think if I remember rightly, this myth was alluded to at her funeral in 1997.

Saturday, March 03, 2012


C.G. Jung identified the 17th century as the era of alchemy's last and greatest flowering.  And indeed, many noble flowers from the garden of alchemy including lavishly illustrated art-works, ornate in their imagery, accompanied by extraordinary dense texts which elaborate upon 'Celestial Agriculture', germinated and bloomed during the 17th century. 

It was also during the 17th century that the slow, but decisive, fissure and schism between Science and Faith opened up; the new man-made truths in astronomy, anatomy and physics unearthed by the enquirers and advocates of the 'New Learning', embryonic scientists no less, eventually challenged and competed for dominance in intellectual supremacy over the God-given Cosmology and the eternal  truths of Christianity.

The 17th century, often described as the last great age of religious Faith and private devotion, was an era of specific interest to C.G. Jung. According to the Swiss physician in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, his many years study of alchemy were inaugurated by a dream in which he visited a large Ducal Palace situated somewhere in Northern Italy. While exploring the palace's vast chambers, he heard in his dream, its heavy doors slamming shut. Jung interpreted his portentous dream as signifying he was now 'trapped' in the 17th century, his confinement signified he believed, a long study of alchemical literature originating from the baroque century, until somehow set free.  

C.G.Jung recognised that the single profession which engaged in the art of alchemy were physicians. These alchemist-physicians, invariably of a Protestant background, many of German or English background were often cautiously sympathetic to the new 'chemical' medicine of Paracelsus. They used distinctly apt symbols closely related to their profession, notably from anatomy, optics and astronomy to discourse upon their sometimes unorthodox, and even near-heretical, spiritually-orientated studies. 

Included among the treasures of seventeenth century alchemical art are a series of illustrations rich in symbolism entitled Philosophia reformata (1622) by the German author Johann Daniel Mylius (c.1535-1642) who wrote on medicine and alchemy. Emblem 9 in Mylius's sequence of 28 illustrations is entitled Putrefactio (above). It is described thus - 'On the top of a flaming black globe stands a skeleton holding a black crow in its right hand. On each side of him there is a winged angel, both of which point to the black globe. In the heavens above, the Sun and the Moon are visible. In the lower foreground can be seen a regenerating tree stump'.

The skeleton and the skull are frequently encountered in Christian and alchemical art symbolism. They retain a vestige of their numinous content as reminders of mortality and Death.   

A belief in angels was once a vital entity of spiritual belief. Many people, educated and illiterate, throughout 17th century Europe fervently believed in both angel and witchcraft. Angel's roles include that of musician and  psychopomp, most often they are depicted as celestial messengers. 

The Rotundum is a symbol frequently encountered in alchemical imagery, as are the crowded perches and aviaries associated with bird symbolism in alchemy; a feathered assembly of swans, ostriches, doves, eagles, vultures and pelicans flock the pages of alchemical art. The blackbird, crow and raven are each associated with the Nigredeo stage as is the operation of Putrefactio, along with the variant stages of Mortificato and Calcinato.

Whether Thomas Browne as a young medical student studying abroad circa 1627-1630 ever perused the books of the German alchemist-physician J.D. Mylius isn't known, nor is there any recorded evidence of J.D. Mylius's books being listed in the 1711 Sales Auction catalogue of Browne's library. However, several decades after completing his three years medical study on mainland Europe, Browne made what is credited as his single scientific discovery. Its a discovery utterly characteristic of his era, when human life was often precarious and short for many from the ravages of Civil War, plague and disease and utterly compatible to the dark Nigredo contemplations of Urn-Burial.

Browne augments his solemn funerary threnody adding to the heaped pyre of images and symbols, a short, but detailed description of his medico-scientific discovery. His observation on the effects of Putreficato and the formation of the waxy substance which coagulates upon body fat, known as adipocere, can be found in chapter 3 of Urn-Burial, a work which has been described as 'reeking of the Grave'.
In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castile-soap: wherof part remaineth with us.

More than one scientific observation can be found in Urn-Burial along with several archaeological hypotheses, there is even a far-sighted prediction of future forensic science  in the proposal that - 'Physiognomy outlives our lives, and ends not in our graves.'

Upon more than one occasion the Norwich-based early scientist concludes his observations with the remark, 'whereof part remaineth with us'!