Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas 2013

Wishing all visitors and readers a very merry Xmas and a peaceful New Year.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Martinu Anniversary 2013

Celebrating the 123rd birthday of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (born December 8th 1890 -1959)  today.

The two words the seminal French music-teacher Nadia Boulanger used to describe Martinu's music were "brilliance" and "purity". Also in her letter to Michael Henderson, Boulanger said of Martinu’s music: "It can win the most sophisticated and the most simple listener". For myself the exciting rhythms, unique orchestral colouring, experimental harmonies, along with its optimism and sheer joie de vivre, are each attractive elements of Martinu's music.

Bohuslav Martinu was a prolific composer who wrote original music in every genre and who varied his style several times in his life-time. Its useful to divide Martinu's creativity into three eras; the first, his musical apprenticeship to early maturity from 1923 - 1940 while resident in Paris, saw the composer experiment with a number of styles to settle into what may be termed Neo-Classicism, with the music of Stravinsky as its exemplar.

The second phase of Martinu's life, from 1941-1952 while resident in America, coincides with his maturity, in which much of his finest chamber music as well as five of his six symphonies were composed. Martinu's symphonies are all impressive pieces which will surely be better known and loved in the near future for their expressive depth and beauty of invention, each of the last three has an important place in 20th century music.

In his last years, from 1953 until his death in 1959 while resident in Europe, Martinu wrote his fourth and fifth piano concertos and developed a style loosely termed Neo-Impressionist, exemplified by the large-scale orchestral triptychs The Frescoes of Piero Francesco (1955), The Parables and Estampes (1958).

New York 1941 -1953

In November 1941, Serge Koussevitsky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Martinů’s Concerto Grosso (1937). Its success transformed Martinů into a star overnight and paved the way in January 1942 for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra  to perform a programme entitled, "The Czechoslovak Immortals of Symphonic Music", which included the masterpieces of Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček and Martinů. 

During his residence in America Martinů wrote some of his finest chamber music including Five Madrigal Stanzas for violin and piano (H. 297 New York 1943) which he dedicated to Albert Einstein, professor - and later Martinů’s colleague - at Princeton University. There’s the lovely anecdote which there is no way of now verifying, which tells how Martinů, when asking his amateur musician friend how the rehearsing of his composition had went, Einstein hesitated before replying, "Relatively well".

The two major personal events which coloured Martinu's artistic sensibility and which are strongly antithetical to each other, are firstly, his childhood in Policka, where, living in accommodation in the tower of the church of Saint Jacob's, he enjoyed hearing the sounds of the bells, choir and organ of the church, having a 'God's Eye' view of Nature in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands from the heights of the church tower. The second biographical event, of crucial significance in understanding Martinu's later creativity, is his headlong fall from a balcony, mistaking a poorly-lit mezzanine floor for a staircase. Martinu fractured his skull and suffered dizziness, headaches, tinnitus and hearing loss for many months after this accident in 1946. Its not improbable that symptoms from this accident which Martinu experienced included what is now known as 'Alice in Wonderland' syndrome, in which the sufferer experiences distorted perspective, odd sensations and even hallucinations. An 'Alice in Wonderland' perspective features strongly in Martinu's 6th symphony.

Martinů began composing his sixth symphony known as Fantasies symphonique in 1951 in New York but did not complete it until 1953 in Paris. Of his sixth symphony Martinu himself described it as a, "departure from symmetry in the direction of fantasy" music takes on its form freely and flows without restraint, following its own motion. An almost undetectable slowing or hastening suddenly gives life to the melody'. There's a strong allusion to Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique not only in its title, but in its fantastic element also.

The  music-critic Robert Layton stated of the sixth symphony -

'the detail in the musical landscape (of) this work unfolds is richer in colouring and immediate in impact. At times the Fantasies symphoniques has the visionary quality, the enhanced awareness of colour, the vivid contrasts and more brilliant hues that are said to come from taking mescaline : certainly there is a proliferation of textures, exotic foliage and vibrant pulsating sounds that have no parallel in the earlier symphonies. ...the opening of the second movement unleashes an extraordinarily imaginative, insect-like teeming activity'.[2]

Europe 1953 - 1959

From leaving America in 1953 and settling in Europe, Martinu developed a rich, detailed orchestral palette which may be described as Neo-Impressionist in style. In his correspondence Martinu stated of his large-scale orchestral triptych The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca H.376 (1955) - "It is far from descriptive, naturally, but it expresses impressions  Les Fresques had arisen in me in the Arezzo church. The first movement depicts this well known group of women with the Queen of Sheba; the second is Constantine's Dream; while the third is the overall impression Les Fresques gave me. The composition is rather impressionistic in its character".

Sadly, due to International politics Martinu was unable to return home and wrote to his patron Paul Sacher -  "But I don't see my future in rosy colours; I'm beginning to fear that I will never find peace and will not be able to return to Prague, which would be the best solution for me." [3]  In another letter to his friend Frank Rybka, he wrote - "Explain to them at home that if I appeared there, great propaganda would be made from it--that I approve of the regime and so forth."  [4]

Martinu wrote several concertante works with different combinations of instruments. His sharp ear for instrumental timbre resulted in some fine chamber music, notably his late work of 1959 for nine instruments originally entitled Le Fetes Nocturnes.

Michael Beckermann defined the characteristics of Martinu's musical language well when stating -  'There is no single Martinu sound, but a collection of sub-dialects. Martinu’s key sound is the presence of lyrical moments syncopated in a rather special way, usually surrounded by passages meant to suggest an opposing state. He employs several “fake” twentieth-century styles (Neo-Poulenc, Neo-Stravinsky, Neo-Ravel) and some all-purpose dissonance, but his core style is the syncopated folk stylization. That’s what he believes in, if you will. He doesn't believe in most of the dissonance - its there to set off the jewels......His “uniqueness” lies in two areas: first, a sonic one. Martinu created a particular sound world which is his alone. It itself seems bipartite. There is a Martinu “sound” of the syncopated folk stylization, and a “process” whereby this sound is contrasted with other, usually dissonant, sound worlds. The second area of Martinu’s uniqueness involves his creation of a pastoral world, which is the protected space of nation, memory, childhood. This appears in almost every work of his'. [1]

In Michael Beckermann's view, ' Martinu is one of the great cartographers, mapping a certain aspect of the human imagination. In my view, the experience in question is that place in the imagination that causes time to stand still and allows us to imagine paradise. This is, of course, elusive, and in Martinu’s compositions it is always being lost and found. ......He’s quite simply plugged into one of the great tendencies of human consciousness: the search for an unattainable point of rest in our travails, our suffering, our journey. In order to do this, he first had to cultivate and master the process of forward motion in music, and he is  almost unique in the many ways he can create a sense of flow. Then he had to figure out how to get from one state to another, and I think that alone is worth serious study. The symphony no. 6 is filled with such moments. No composer, not even Beethoven, explored this world of idyllic space more fully.........He is exploring a realm of the human spirit which most composers are afraid to look at....Martinu rarely stays in these idyllic spaces he creates. Much of the real drama of a piece consists of approaches to a “state of grace” and then departing from it, often suddenly. Sometimes there is only a fragment of it, other times it is almost the entire piece, but its never alone.

The Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek assessed Martinu's music thus -  "I think the richness of styles in Martinů's work is due to his inextinguishable thirst for novelty and inspiration, and his ability to extract from many sources the right amount of elements into his own musical language. Martinů is also probably the most prolific Czech composer and, of course, you can find different levels of genius among them. But at his best, he is irresistibly original, cosmopolitan and Czech in one stroke."

*   *   *

[1] Martinu's Mysterious Accident - 14 Essays in honour of Michael Henderson
[2] The Symphony 2: Elgar to the Present Day editor Robert Simpson pub. Penguin 1967 chapter 30 - Martinů  and the Czech tradition by Robert Layton.
[3] Correspondence dated 4th July 1957
[4] Correspondence dated 27th July 1957

Essay in memory of Paul Grenville (1956 - 2013)

Asked for his opinion of Martinu's music Paul simply said, "it's too busy". When questioned, "Did you say, dizzy ?" he swiftly replied, "that as well !"  He continued to say that he liked Bruckner, so I offered to lend him a recording of Bruckner's 8th symphony, the last ever conducted by Karajan, but tragic events intervened. 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party

Last night I re-read in one sitting Graham Greene's novella Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party (1980). One of the greatest of 20th century English novelists, Greene's novels contain acute and sometimes controversial observations upon the human condition. In his last ever novel, Graham Greene (1904 -1991) explores the nature of greed, in particular the greed of the rich. 

The novella (140 pp) is narrated from the perspective of the endearing character of Alfred Jones, a translator for a chocolate factory in Geneva. When Alfred meets Anna-Luise, the estranged daughter of the fabulously wealthy Doctor Fischer, he becomes her lover. Anne's father has acquired his enormous wealth through the invention of Dentophil Bouquet, a toothpaste which ironically Alfred notes, is antithetical to the effects of eating too much chocolate. Alfred is invited to attend one of Dr Fischer's notorious parties at which extraordinarily valuable presents are given to guests on sufferance of humiliation. At the first party which Alfred attends cold porridge is served to his sycophantic guests. The sadistic nature of Dr Fischer ensures his guests are well aware of his rules, one must endure considerable humiliation from him in order to receive an expensive gift. Without wanting to post spoilers to what is a short story which packs a punch, the denouement of the novel involves a variant of Russian roulette, in which the ultimate test of human greed is made. 

Throughout his novella Greene makes several noteworthy statements upon the human condition, he suggests, through the voice-piece of Alfred, that the human soul is like an embryo which develops from suffering. Because children and animals do not suffer except for themselves, Alfred proposes they do not have souls. A soul, states Alfred, requires a private life. 'If you have a soul you cannot be satisfied', he asserts. When asked by Anna-Luise whether her father, Dr. Fischer has a soul, Alfred replies, 'He has a soul alright, but I think it may be a damned one'. Alfred also notes that silence can only be enjoyed by those not experiencing unhappiness. 

But its the subject of greed, and by extension, its poisonous relationship to the soul, which is central to Greene's novella, especially the rapacious greed of the rich. Published at the onset of decades of sanctioned greed (1980) Doctor Fischer, not unlike certain members of the present-day British government, justifies his greed and contempt for humanity in general, as a healthy and natural instinct. Having little or no empathy or understanding of the suffering of others, once more not unlike the legislative policies of the present-day British government, Doctor Fischer is quite happy to feed his greed at the expense of others.

Often closely allied to cruelty, greed inevitably knows no morality and often quite mercilessly exploits the vulnerability of others. Its estimated that the wealth of the very richest in society has actually increased since the world recession of 2008 began.  Present-day economic policies in the USA and GB continues to increase the wealth of the very richest 1% of society at the expense of the poor, quite literally robbing from the poor in order to make the rich even wealthier. The madness of greed, as Greene masterly depicts in his novella, has neither shame or social conscience.  

Although it is purely advertising blurb, on this occasion I'm inclined to agree with The Times literary critic who's quoted stating on the back-cover of the Penguin edition of Greene's novella - 'Manages to say more about love, hate, happiness, grief, immortality, greed and the disgusting rich than most contemporary  English novels three times the length'.

Incidentally, and somewhat surprisingly, although Graham Greene's novella its set in Geneva, there's no mention of the famous landmark of the Swiss city, namely the Jet d' eau, the fountain which spouts water some 140 metres into the air (photo above). The setting of Geneva is however highly appropriate for the novella's theme of greed. Well-known as a city of great wealth, Geneva is listed as one of the most expensive cities in the world, as I personally discovered when visiting the Swiss city one summer and winter last century. I also vaguely remember watching a 1985 TV adaptation of Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party with James Mason in his last ever acting role as Doctor Fischer, Alan Bates as Alfred and Greta Scacchi as Anna-Luise.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů

Bohuslav Martinů ( b. December 8th 1890 - d. 28th August 1959) was a brilliant Czech composer of a vast quantity of music, including six symphonies which were written against the backdrop of World War II (1939-45) and its aftermath. With their bohemian lyricism, highly original orchestral colouring and exciting rhythms, Martinů's six symphonies, composed at the height of his mature style, are the crowning glory of his musical genius. Among the greatest of all twentieth century symphonies, they encapsulate the human condition yet emerge triumphant, joyous and life-affirming. 

Born in the village of Policka in Bohemia, Martinů had an isolated childhood, seldom descending the hundred plus steps of the bell-tower of his family's living quarters. He took lessons from Joseph Suk who was the son-in-law of the 'founding father' of Czech music, Antonin Dvorak (1841 -1904) and played second violin in the Czech Philharmonic during the years 1918 - 22, an experience which provided him with a privileged insight into the co-ordination, workings and performing capabilities of an orchestra.

Living in Paris in the 1920's Martinů became familiar with the very latest in art, including Surrealism. He experimented with many forms of music, his La revue de cuisine (1927) was a jazz-inspired success. Continuing his musical studies with Albert Roussel, Martinů eventually settled for the clear and concise form of Neoclassicism, as first developed by Stravinsky in the 1920's. The political scenario of the 1930's however necessitated that he fled Paris only days before the Nazi occupation of the city. It took him nine long arduous months to finally reach the haven of America, catching one of the very last available passenger ferries before the war prohibited the crossing the Atlantic sea. 

Like his fellow compatriot before him, Dvorak who found enormous success in America with his New World  symphony (1893) Martinů also found fame in America. He'd been writing music for over 30 years before he came to write symphonies, relatively late in life and in his 50's, but then following a commission he wrote a symphony in each of five consecutive years. In the 1940's all the major American orchestra's performed Martinů's symphonies throughout the cities of the United States. 

From the opening bars of the first movement of Martinů's first symphony (1942) the craftsmanship of a skilled composer conjuring a unique orchestral colouring can be heard. It's worth remembering that the Czech music tradition with its rich folk-melodies and inventive rhythms was proudly independent from the Viennese school which dominates much Western music. Martinů made frequent reference to Moravian folk-melodies, resulting in music distinctively coloured by the inventive rhythms and the lyrical, bohemian rhapsodies of his Moravian homeland. His first symphony has been described as, “epic, tragic and energetic”.

The American composer and music-critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) also stated of Martinů's first symphony, in words which are applicable to all of his symphonies -

'The shining sounds of it sing as well as shine; the instrumental complication is a part of the musical conception, not an icing laid over it. Personal, indeed, is the delicate but vigorous rhythmic animation, the singing (rather than the dynamic) syncopation that permeates this work. Personal, and individual too, is the whole orchestral sound of it, the acoustical superstructure that shimmers consistently.There's a calm, pastoral mood pervading both the first and second symphonies, the composer describing his second symphony (1943) as “lyric, poetic and vivid”.

Martinů considered his tense, highly-dramatic and angst-filled third symphony to actually be his first proper symphonic work, having had Beethoven’s Eroica in mind when he wrote it. “It is a work of revolt,” he once claimed, “of manly defiance, of grim yet firm determination, challenging fate.” Its first movement reflects the anxieties and fears experienced by many during the World War, the composer himself describing it as 'dramatic and Bohemian'.

Martinů described his fourth symphony (1945) as - “impressionistic, cosmopolitan, colourful and joyful”. Its probably his most accessible and satisfying symphony to listen to and easily the most frequently performed and recorded of all his symphonies. There's an extraordinary rapid change of mood from triumph to despair in its opening bars in a string glissando phrase slightly reminiscent of a moment in a Hollywood Film noir film where the heroine's dreams are suddenly dashed. (00: 55 - 01:10 on the clip below)

A high-quality clip of the scherzo from the  4th symphony. (Below)

Martinů described his fifth symphony (1946) as 'visionary'. Its said to hover somewhere between the joyous optimism of the fourth symphony and the angst-fuelled energy of the third symphony.

No decent recording of Martinu's 5th symphony is available online. The music-critic Robert Layton however, wrote of Martinů's Fifth symphony

'The Fifth is the last of the purely 'abstract' symphonies:...Martinu has an almost classical view of the limits imposed by the symphonic discipline. In a sense the Fifth is the most classical and perfectly balanced of the symphonies: the perspectives are precisely judged and the control over detail and its relation to the work as a whole is complete; there is no trace of the slight sentimentality that clouds the slow movement of the Fourth. It is filled with the life-enhancing power we find in his very best work and its statement is wholly affirmative'.

Martinů's sixth symphony (1951-53) followed after a five-year gap after the fifth symphony. It was written after he had a serious fall from mezzanine floor, sustaining injuries to his head which affected his hearing, causing him to suffer from vertigo for some time afterwards. This major traumatic incident of 1946 marks a turning-point  in Martinů's music away from the structured, dispassionate form of Neoclassicism, to a far-freer expressiveness, loosely termed as Neo-Impressionism. Martinů described his sixth symphony as a “song of longing and hope”. Its opening movement may depict the sensation of vertigo -

The  music-critic Robert Layton stated of the sixth symphony-

'the detail in the musical landscape (of) this work unfolds is richer in colouring and immediate in impact. At times the Fantasie symphoniques has the visionary quality, the enhanced awareness of colour, the vivid contrasts and more brilliant hues that are said to come from taking mescaline : certainly there is a proliferation of textures, exotic foliage and vibrant pulsating sounds that have no parallel in the earlier symphonies. ...the opening of the second movement unleashes an extraordinarily imaginative, insect-like teeming activity'. 

Layton summarizes Martinu's symphonies thus-

'The Fourth and the Sixth symphonies open up new worlds of sound: the Fifth consolidates territory already won and is less exploratory than either. Both the Fourth and the Fifth have recourse to direct sectional repetition, This way of treating material argues an approach to form which has its origins in the eighteenth century dance suite:.........It has been argued that Martinů was content with his discoveries, that he made little effort to expand the frontiers of his world experience. Up to a point this is true, for he did repeat himself in many of his works. But the finest music in these symphonies glows with an inner warmth and love of life, inimitably expressed'.

The Czech music critic Aleš Březina assessed Martinů thus -

'In the majority of cases, Martinů was not the first one to turn the music world’s focus in a new direction; rather, he would act as the perceptive and inquisitive observer of the music scene, one ever ready and willing to expand his compositional vocabulary and his catalogue of genres. His capacity to combine experimentation with a musical idiom very much his own places Martinů amongst the 20th century’s most exciting, as well as most innovative, composers'.

Its generally acknowledged that Martinů's vast output is startlingly uneven in quality and that he repeated himself in many of his works. However, although many works by Martinů are seemingly of a highly improvised, uncritical and unrevised nature which echo stylistic traits similar to contemporaries such as Bartok, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, Martinů distilled the very essence of his musical genius into his six symphonies which are lyrical, colourful and exciting works; he's also one of the few predominantly cheerful voices in 20th century music. The best of Martinů's music is mercurial in its ever-changing moods and rhythms, and often Mozartean in character. (Mozart was one of the few Viennese composers to influence the musical world of Prague of his day). Martinů's music shares with Mozart's a fondness for the structure and formality of 18th century music, in particular music of the dance, as well as  sharing a piquancy in its writing for woodwind.    

In a rare American Radio interview Martinů stated that the three main influences upon his music were Czech national music, the English madrigal and Debussy.  He also stated of his art-

'The artist is always searching for the meaning of life, his own and that of mankind, searching for truth. A system of uncertainty has entered our daily life. The pressures of mechanisation and uniformity to which it is subject call for protest and the artist has only one means of expressing this, by music'.

Martinů's near pathological compulsion to compose resulted in a vast catalogue of both highly original and hastily composed, unrevised music. Altogether he wrote almost 400 individual works in some 40 years. In addition to the six symphonies, there are five piano concertos as well as concerti for varied combinations of instruments.  His  large output includes - the opera Juliette, Key to Dreams (1937) the tense and thrilling Double concerto for Strings, Piano and Percussion (1938) a charming Concerto for Harpsichord and small Orchestra (1935) in Neoclassical style, seven string quartets, the first piano quartet (1942) with its remarkable last movement opening bars of jazz-blues improvisation, and the hauntingly beautiful late work Chamber music No. 1 ('Les fetes nocturnes') (1959) a sextet for clarinet, harp, piano and string trio (1959) all of which are well worth hearing. 

Due to the politics of the 'Cold war' and the 'Iron Curtain' of the Soviet bloc, Martinů sadly was never able to return to the Moravian homeland he loved. Increasingly homesick, he spent the last few years of his life as an exile in various European cities, dying from cancer aged 68 on the 28th August, 1959. Martinů's legacy however lives on in his unique music, in particular his symphonies. Its a legacy far greater than many realise, for among those who took music-lessons from him was the quintessential American songwriter, Burt Bacharach (b. 1928).


Martinů : Symphonies (3 CD's) Royal Scottish National Orchestra  / Bryden Thomson Chandos 1991 Re-mastered 2005  - a rich recording sound, but bit plodding though.

Martinů: Symphonies (3 CD's)  Bamberg Symphony Orchestra / Neemi Jarvi  Brilliant 1987
A ridiculously low-priced bargain on Amazon for 3 discs and for many years the best available recording and interpretation until .....

Martinů: Symphonies (3 CD's) Jiri Belohlavek / BBC Symphony Orchestra Onyx 2011
GRAMOPHONE AWARD WINNER 2012 simply the best interpretation and recording currently available.

'You won't find a more persuasive champion than Belohlavek, who has the music in his blood. His skill at unravelling Martinů's rhythmic and textual knots-evidenced time and again in these live performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra - is such that you immediately sense the stature of the music. The best place to start is the Fourth Symphony: in Belohlavek's hand it sizzles - especially the Allegro vivo, a motorised march that generates fabulous momentum. **** --Financial Times,30/07/11


The Symphony 2: Elgar to the Present Day editor Robert Simpson pub. Penguin 1967 chapter 30 - Martinů  and the Czech tradition by Robert Layton. 
Brilliant Box-set notes - Stig Jacobsson
Chandos Box-set notes - Jan Smaczny

Wikilink -  Bohuslav Martinů

Catalogue of  Bohuslav Martinů's compositions

To follow:    Orchestral and Chamber music of Bohuslav Martinů

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

De Harmonia Mundi

The ancient city of Norwich has a number of interesting associations with western esotericism. It was, for example, the birthplace of the Elizabethan dramatist Robert Greene (1558-1592) whose most famous play, The Honorable Historie of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1590) re-enacts the tale of the medieval Franciscan friar Roger Bacon's magical feat of creating  an oracular 'Brazen' Head which talks and answers questions given to it.

Norwich was also where Arthur Dee (1579-1651) the eldest son of Christian cabalist and alchemist John Dee (1527-1608) chose to spend his retirement. Arthur Dee had accompanied his father in his travels across Bohemia as a child, and later served as a physician to the Romanov Czar Mikhail I for fourteen Moscow winters. Upon his retirement, Arthur Dee became a close associate of  the newly-qualified physician Thomas Browne.

The 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne's library records that he owned an edition of  Giorgi's De Harmonia Mundi (1525) [1]. The very same edition of Giorgi's synthesis of Christianity, kabbalah and angelic-hierarchies was once also in the library of John Dee, who served as adviser and court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth before falling from favour.

In addition to being a Franciscan monk Giorgi (1466-1540) was also an international diplomat. When Henry VIII found grounds for divorce unobtainable he consulted Thomas Crammer. Crammer proposed to Henry VIII that he should consult lawyers and leading Jewish rabbis because different views as to the legality of marriage with a brother's widow are stated in books of the Old Testament. The Franciscan monk Giorgi was consulted as an expert in Hebraic studies. While in London, engaged in his diplomatic errand, Giorgi met and discoursed with the Elizabethan magus John Dee. There is thus an indirect link, but nonetheless a traceable link between the Renaissance founders of the Neoplatonic, Neopythagorean and Kabbalist traditions, namely Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola via the Franciscan monk Giorgi and his espousal of the Kabbalah to John Dee via his son Arthur Dee to Sir Thomas Browne.

The seminal British scholar of esoteric philosophy and its influence in western intellectual history, Frances Yates (1899-1981) wrote of Giorgi -

'Giorgi's Cabalism, though primarily inspired by Pico della Mirandola, was enriched by the new waves of Hebrew studies which Venice with its renowned Jewish community was an important centre. Cabalistic writings flooded into Venice following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Giorgi grafts Cabalist influence onto the traditions of his order. He develops that correlation between Hebrew and Christian angelic systems, already present in Pico, to a high degree of intensity. For Giorgi, with his Franciscan optimism, the angels are close indeed, and Cabala has brought them closer. He accepts the connections between angelic hierarchies and planetary spheres, and rises up happily through the stars to the angels, hearing all the way those harmonies on each level of the creation imparted by the Creator to his universe, founded on number and numerical laws of proportion The secret of Giorgi's universe was number, for it as built, so he believed, by its Architect as a perfectly proportioned Temple, in accordance with unalterable laws of cosmic geometry'.....In Giorgi's Christian Cabala, the angelic hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius are connected with the Sephiroth of the Cabala... The planets are linked to the angelic hierarchies and the Sephiroth'.

Giorgi's angelology was as Yates also detected, greatly influenced by the writings of the early Christian mystic Dionysus the Areopagite, who, for over a thousand years was believed to be one of Saint Paul’s converts in Athens. However, as with the identity and authorship of the Hebraic Zohar and the Corpus Hermeticum, both of which were once believed to date from the time of Moses, until detected as texts which were the product of a syncretic philosophy developed by Alexandrian Gnostic thinkers of the second and third century of the Christian era. Modern scholarship now recognises the true identity of Dionysus the Areopagite to be of a much later date, he is now thought to have been a Syrian monk of the 5th/6th C.E.

In his profoundly mystical book, De Celestia Hierarchia, Dionysus transposed the Neoplatonic hierarchy between man and the Godhead and established the idea of Angelic hierarchies in Medieval and Renaissance Europe into Christian theology. His account of angelic hierarchies and espousal of an inward way to a God which transcends all categories of rational thought was hugely influential. Dionysus' angelology is the basis of Giorgi's angelology. [2]

Throughout Giorgi's De Harmonia Mundi  there is a belief in a celestial, cosmic harmony which is based upon number, order and proportion and is is yoked to the angelic hierarchies. Giorgi's highly-Christianized Cabala exerted a powerful influence in Elizabethan England. Frances Yates proposed that Giorgi's highly poetical thought was attractive to poets, in particular, Edmund Spencer when penning his epic poem The Fairie Queene. As late as the seventeenth century  Sir Thomas Browne's own belief in Angelic hierarchies are writ large in Religio Medici (1643) in which the physician-philosopher states-

'We do surely owe the discovery of many secrets to the discovery of good and bad Angels.[3]...........Therefore for Spirits I am so farre from denying their existence, that I could easily believe, that not onely whole Countries, but particular persons have their Tutelary, and Guardian Angels: It is not a new opinion of the Church of Rome, but an old one of Pythagoras and Plato'. [4] 

A belief in cosmic harmony occurs in a celebrated passage of Religio Medici in which the newly-qualified physician declares-

'For there is a musicke where-ever there is a harmony, order or proportion; and thus farre we may maintain the musick of the spheres; for those well ordered motions, and regular paces, though they give no sound unto the ear, yet to the understanding they strike a note most full of harmony. Whatsoever is harmonically composed, delights in harmony'. [5]

Given the fact that Arthur Dee bequeathed the contents of his library to Browne at his death in 1651, it's not improbable it may have been his father's edition of De Harmonia Mundi which he bequeathed to the Norwich physician. Alternately, if both John Dee and Browne each possessed their own individual edition of Giorgi's book, it would advance the hypothesis that both hermetic philosophers are closely linked in the western esoteric tradition.

John Dee and  Thomas Browne's interest in the highly Christianized form of Cabala as espoused by Giorgi also substantiates a hypothesis that the British tradition of Christian kabbalah are themselves each closely connected to the founders of the Florentine Humanist tradition, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) along with his successor Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) both of whom were the foremost promoters of Platonic concepts, Pythagorean numerology and the Cabala during the Renaissance.


[1] De Harmonia Mundi  Venice 1525
1711 Sales Auction Catalogue page 2 no.33
[2] p. 1 no 16 Opera Paris 1644
[3] Religio Medici Part 1:31
[4]  R.M. I :33
[5] R.M. Part 2 : 9

Book consulted

The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age Frances Yates pub. RKP 1979

Friday, May 17, 2013

The statue in alchemy

Statues have been associated with religion and spirituality from earliest recorded time to the present-day. 'From the Minoan Age and throughout the Mediterranean world of antiquity, statuettes of gods in human or animal shape were carved from terracotta, bronze, wood, or stone. They had religious significance and were deposited in graves or dedicated to the gods in shrines and in private homes, where they exercised a protective influence upon the dead, upon the community or upon the family. They were tutelary symbols'. [1] 

The statue also performs a number of roles within the western esoteric traditions of hermeticism and alchemy. In the Corpus Hermeticum, a mixture of  Egyptian, Greek and Gnostic wisdom texts originating from the early Christian era, a dialogue between the mythic sage Hermes Trismegistus and Asclepius occurs. Trismegistus celebrates humankind’s ability for learning the art of “god-making” – making statues come alive by drawing divine powers into them, stating-

TRISMEGISTUS : But the figures of gods that humans form have been shaped from both natures - from the divine, which is purer and more divine by far, and from the material of which they are built, whose nature falls short of the human - and they represent not only the heads but all the limbs and the whole body. Always mindful of its nature and origin, humanity persists in imitating divinity, representing its gods in semblance of its own features, just as the father and master made his gods eternal to resemble him.

ASCLEPIUS : Are you talking about statues, Trismegistus?

TRISMEGISTUS : Statues, Asclepius, yes. See how little trust you have! 
I mean statues ensouled and conscious, filled with spirit and doing great deeds; statues that foreknow the future and predict it by lots, by prophecy, by dreams and by many other means; statues that make people ill and cure them, bringing them pain and pleasure as each deserves’. [2]

After being damaged in an earthquake in 27 BCE  the eastern colossus of Memnon, one of two statues of the ruler Amenhotep III (14th century BCE) was believed to emit sound. Many travelers throughout antiquity travelled to Egypt to visit Amenhotep’s statue in the hope of hearing it, including Roman Emperors. The Greek historian Strabo, the travelogue author Pausanias and the Roman satirist Juvenal, all claimed to have heard Amenhotep’s statue. Pausanias compared its sound to 'the string of a lyre breaking’, Strabo reported it sounding, 'like a blow', but its sound was also likened to the striking of brass or whistling.

The seminal Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung in his Mysterium coniunctionis (1956) observed - ‘the statue plays a mysterious role in ancient alchemy’[3]. 

Jung noted that the medieval cleric Thomas Norton (1433-1513) in his Ordinall of Alchemy depicts the seven metals/planets as statues. In the anthology of alchemical texts Aurora Consurgens (1566) Mother Alchemy or mater alchemia is portrayed as a statue of different metals, as are the seven statues in the writings of Raymond Lully. In the German Rosicrucian Michael Maier’s Symbola aureae mensae (1617) the protagonist on his peregrinations through the continents encounters a statue of a golden-headed Mercurius who points in the direction of Paradise.

Commenting upon the biblical verse, ‘And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house’. (Genesis 28: 22) C.G. Jung theorized - ‘If our conjecture is correct, the statue could therefore be the Cabbalistic equivalent of the lapis philosophorum.’ [4] In agreement with the Gnostic’s teaching that the biblical Adam was a  'corporeal or 'lifeless' statue, Jung concluded his survey of the statue’s role in alchemy stating- 

'The statue stands for the inert materiality of Adam, who still needs an animating soul; it is thus a symbol for one of the main preoccupations of alchemy'. [5]

Statues, as C.G. Jung detected, are often encountered in alchemical themed artwork and literature, frequently within the setting of a rose garden, sometimes speaking or guiding the questing adept, or even emitting an ethereal light from their eyes. The alchemical operations of thawing and warming in order to bestow life upon the inert, readily lent itself to the notion of statues coming alive. The alchemical author J. D. Mylius (c.1583-1642) in his Philosophia Reformata (1622) stated –'It is a great mystery to create souls, and to mould the lifeless body into a living statue.’

In the first of the illustrated series of Philosophia Reformata (above), a group of alchemists drink from statues which spout wine. When intoxicated with vinum nostrum (our wine) they walk into the dark corners of a mountain in order to begin the task of mining the prima materia from the rock, intending to refine its impure metals into gold.

There are other instances of statues becoming animated. and of  their relationship to the esoteric in the arts. In Shakespeare’s late drama The Winter's Tale  a statue by ‘that rare Italian master, Julio Romano’ of Queen Hermione comes to life. In reality however, the Queen only imitates a statue in pose before coming to life. [5] 

The statue’s ability to transcendently communicate the invisible is alluded in Sir Thomas Browne’s discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) in the numerological observation-

‘in their groves of the Sun this was a fit number, by multiplication to denote the days of the year; and might Hieroglyphically speak as much, as the mystical Statua of Janus in the Language of his fingers’.

But perhaps one of the most dramatic of all tales of statues coming to life occurs in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (K527). Mozart’s anti-hero, hastily returning home  at night after an amorous escape through a graveyard, encounters a statue. He dismissively invites it to dinner. In one of the most intense and psychologically loaded acts of the entire operatic repertoire, the statue of the Commendatore calls upon the Don, knocking loud at his door. Failing to persuade him to repent from his dissolute lifestyle, the Stone Guest requests the Don shake hands with him. Locking his hand in an icy, unbreakable grip, the Stone Guest drags the unrepentant Don Giovanni down into the infernal regions.

The many and varied roles the statue plays in the esoteric arts suggests that the four statuettes of Christopher Layer’s funerary monument in the church of Saint John the Baptist at Maddermarket, Norwich, with their thinly-veiled planetary and elemental symbolism, are superb examples of the statue’s role in spiritual alchemy; for, to repeat, the reviving of the inert and inanimate soul of man is fundamental to the alchemist’s quest to animate the spiritual man within. 

If conjecture has any substance, the guiding psychopomp of alchemy and the conductor of souls (frequently depicted standing upon a rotundum to denote his world-wide influence in alchemical iconography) Mercurius, is alluded on the Layer monument in the form of Vanitas a playful, bubble-blowing child standing upon a rotundum. [7]


[1] Penguin Dictionary of Symbols ed Jean Chevalier
[2] Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius
Brian P. Copenver 1995 Cambridge University Press
[3] CW 14 :  The Statue,  paragraphs  559 -569
[4]  Ibid.
[5]  Ibid.
[6]  The Winter’s Tale Act 5 scene 2
[7] Examples include- Figurarum Aegyptorum secretarum (Ms. 18th c) and Canari Le imagini de I dei  (1581) in C. G. Jung CW vol. 12 illustrations 164 and 165

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

That Vulcan gave Arrows unto Apollo and Diana

What is more beautiful than the Quincunx, which, however one views it, presents straight lines.
- Quintilian

Just how Sir Thomas Browne’s discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) has not been recognised as exemplary of literary writings influenced by hermetic philosophy remains a mystery. The  first page of Browne's discourse alludes to no less than six major themes, symbols and preoccupations associated with western esoteric traditions including hermeticism.

Opening with highly original proper-name symbolism featuring the patron "deity" associated with Paracelsian alchemy, namely Vulcan -including Browne’s study of comparative religion - employing highly original spiritual-optical imagery - speculating upon the Creation and life’s beginnings - citing Plato’s discourse the Timaeus, and finallyutilizing the potent alchemical symbol of Sol et Luna, Browne could not spell out the esoteric theme of his discourse louder if he tried.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps because of its esoteric theme, the reception and literary appreciation of  The Garden of Cyrus over the past three hundred and fifty years, has been little more than a potted history of the many prejudices, misapprehensions and hostilities surrounding the hermetic arts. Within twenty years of its publication, the theologian Richard Baxter opposed Browne's Neopythagorean and Neoplatonic vision, declaring to newly-ordained priests in 1678 -

'You shall have more.. solid truth than those in their learned Network treatises'. 

Though appreciative of the stoic gloom and doom of Urn-Burial, Victorians literary critics considered The Garden of Cyrus to be an aberration of the imagination. Walter Pater, a leading  Victorian literary critic complained of  Browne’s Platonic inclinations -

'his fancy carries him off it into some kind of chimeric frivolousness here'. 

Edmund Gosse was another who detested it,  petulantly stating 

'gathering his forces it is Quincunx, Quincunx, all the way until the very sky itself is darkened with revolving Chess-boards' 

Yet Gosse also conceded- 

'this radically bad book contains some of the most lovely paragraphs which passed from an English pen during the seventeenth Century'. 

Thus the publishing practice began, utterly against Browne's creative intentions, of dissecting his literary diptych and of publishing Urn-Burial separately, an erroneous trend which persists to this day. [1]

Literary critics however have rarely understood the pervasive influence of the hermetic arts, or the vitality of the esoteric, especially during the 1650’s decade. The decade of the Protectorate of Cromwell saw a ‘boom-period’ in the publication of esoteric literature, encouraged by a relaxation in printing-laws and the psychological Endzeitpsychosis of the era. There can be as few readers now, as in 1658, who have any idea of the artistic motivation behind Browne's penning a Pythagorean hymn in praise of the number five and Quincunx pattern during England’s short-lived Republic.The solitary  contemporary figure of the Welsh alchemist Thomas Vaughan (c.1621-65) however may have been alert to the hermetic content of Browne's literary diptych. Alluding to the dominant symbol from each respective Discourse  Vaughan defines Mercurius as -

‘our true, hidden vessel, the Philosophical Garden, wherein our sun rises and sets'.

In many ways The Garden of Cyrus with its mention of astrology, Egyptology, the philosophy of Plato and Pythagoras, the kabbalah, physiognomy and Paracelsus, is a condensed compendium of esoteric lore of interest to Browne. Its central chapter also features Browne’s contribution to the emerging new science. Dozens of sharp-sighted, detailed and meticulously recorded botanical observations are recorded.

Like other alchemist-physicians, Browne was fascinated with life's beginnings and observations upon embryology, germination and generation feature in the central chapter of the discourse.

The Garden of Cyrus opens with the Creation being likened to the alchemical opus - God operating as a demi-urge figure and cosmic alchemist.

'That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology, may pass for no blind apprehension of the Creation of the Sun and Moon, in the work of the fourth day; When the diffused light contracted into Orbs, and shooting rays, of those Luminaries.'

This extraordinary cosmic opening, besides naming the Roman god nominated by Paracelsus as representative of the alchemical art and introducing the important themes of Light, optics and Space, also features Browne’s study of comparative religion. Browne detected that the ancient Greek myth which describes the god of fire Vulcan donating arrows, i.e. Light, to Apollo and Diana, as recorded in the Fabulae of Hyginus [2] was a Creation myth in which - just like in the Biblical account of the Creation - Light appears upon the fourth Day. (And God said Let there be Light. Genesis 1:3). The ancient Greek myth was in Browne’s view no blind apprehension but confirmation of the Biblical account of the Creation.

Browne reconciled the wisdom of antiquity to Christianity in exactly the same way as Renaissance scholars Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, by giving credence of a Prisca Theologia, that is, a belief in a single, true theology threading through all religions whose wisdom passed in a golden chain through a series of mystics and prophets, including Zoroaster, Pythagoras and Plato. In particular, the mythic Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christianity. Christianity appropriated hermetic teaching for their own purposes, proposing that Hermes Trismegistus  or ‘thrice greatest’ on account of his being the greatest priest, philosopher and king, was a contemporary of Moses. Such imaginative comparative religion not only justified the study of philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato, but also sanctioned the antiquity, wisdom and superiority of the Bible to devout Christians. 

Proceeding from 'plainer descriptions' by 'pagan pens' Browne next acknowledges the primary source of another influential Creation myth, Plato's discourse the Timaeus.

'Plainer Descriptions there are from Pagan pens, of the creatures of the fourth day; While the divine Philosopher unhappily omitteth the noblest part of the third'.

With its myth of the lost civilization of Atlantis, description of the eternal, archetypal forms and proposal that the world was a living being or anima mundi Plato’s Timaeus, first translated in 1462 by Marsilio Ficino, wielded a near Bible-like authority amongst thinkers, artists and mystics throughout the Renaissance. The Timaeus was of particular interest and influence upon the imagination of alchemist and hermetic philosopher alike. Browne speculated upon the existence of the anima mundi in Religio Medici thus-

'Now besides these particular and divided Spirits, there may be (for ought I know) an universal and common Spirit to the whole world. It was the opinion of Plato, and is yet of the Hermeticall philosophers; if there be a common nature that unites and ties the scattered and divided individuals into one species, why may there not be  one that unites them all?'  [3] 

Throughout his literary diptych, Browne displays an uncommon familiarity with Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher’s writings are well-represented in his vast library. Browne even calls the 'father of western mysticism' with the self-same phrase as Ficino and John Dee, describing him as the divine philosopher. (Divine pertaining to Plato’s theology rather than the modern term of adulation). The influence of Platonic thought looms large throughout The Garden of Cyrus, in particular the Greek philosopher’s advancing of the anima mundi or Universal Spirit permeating Nature. 

According to C.G. Jung -

'The alchemist thought he knew better than anyone else that, at the Creation, at least a little bit of divinity, the anima mundi, entered into material things and was caught there'. [4] 

Just as the diptych companion discourse Urn-Burial depicts the human soul trapped within the corporeal body, so too in The Garden of Cyrus Browne endeavours to demonstrate that the anima mundi or World-Soul is imprisoned in nature, alluding to the anima mundi or World-Soul on several occasions.

In the 'Great Work' of alchemy the initial dark nigredo stage is followed by the albedo or whitening phase and the light of illumination. While Urn-Burial represents the nigredo stage, its polar opposite and antithesis The Garden of Cyrus represents the albedo and growth of consciousness. According to Jung-

'By means of the opus which the adept likens to the creation of the world, the albedo or whitening is produced.' [5]  

Starting from the Garden of Eden Browne traces the ubiquity of the Quincunx pattern, firstly as a method of planting to the ancients. The Garden of Eden was a favourite symbol in Christian iconography of Paradise. Its early appearance in The Garden of Cyrus as representing the albedo stage of Browne's diptych, is confirmed by Jung's observation that-

'For the alchemists Paradise was a favourite symbol of the albedo, the regained state of innocence'. [6]

Gardens are often mentioned in alchemical literature. At their highest level they symbolize civilization and man's mastery of Nature, as well as being symbolic of pleasure, Nature's beauty, Order and Rationality, themes highly relevant to Browne's discourse. 

The densely-packed symbolism and imagery of the opening paragraph of The Garden of Cyrus also alludes to the potent symbol of the alchemical opus, the hierosgamos, or sacred wedding, or Conjunctio of Sol et Luna.  Sun and moon are among the most psychologically potent of all symbols, encapsulating nature's greatest division (male and female) as well as the active and passive, light and dark, and consciousness and unconsciousness. Browne’s usage of this commonplace symbol is another strong clue to the alchemical nature of The Garden of Cyrus. 

Mention of the alchemical conjunctio occurs several times in the discourse in images and symbols drawn from nature, mythology and esoteric literature.

There's also a Gnostic element in Browne’s literary mandala with its highly original usage of optical imagery of light and darkness.The basic mandala of Gnosticism and alchemy, the Ouroboros can also be detected as a template of the diptych. Throughout Urn-Burial  imagery of shade and darkness abounds. As the nigredo stage of the alchemical opus, the discourse is 'lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing' as Browne succinctly defines it. In contradistinction, throughout the pages of The Garden of Cyrus imagery of light including starry, astral imagery occurs. At its apotheosis, in its short revelatory rudebo the 'patron deity' of Vulcan  appears, before a final coda and a circular return of night, darkness and doubt concludes the discourse.

Developing his optical imagery in The Garden of Cyrus Browne in a rapturous, cosmic outburst, which concludes in a subtle, humorous observation.

Darkness and light hold interchangeable dominions, and alternately rule the seminal state of things. Light unto Pluto is darkness unto Jupiter. Legions of seminal Idea's lie in their second Chaos and Orcus of Hippocrates; till putting on the habits of their forms, they show themselves upon the stage of the world, and open dominion of Jove. They that held the Stars of heaven were but rays and flashing glimpses of the Empyreal light, through holes and perforations of the upper heaven, took of the natural shadows of stars, while according to better discovery the poor Inhabitants of the Moon have but a polary life, and must passe half their days in the shadow of that Luminary.

The concept of polarity (a word introduced by Browne into English language in its scientific context) is an essential component of much esoteric symbolism. The opposites and their union were a fundamental quest of Hermetic philosopher and alchemist alike. Browne’s literary diptych, like all good mandalas of any psychological depth, is a complex of opposites or complexio oppositorum  in imagery, truths and symbols. It corresponds well to the polarity of the Micro-Macro schemata of Hermeticism in which the little world of man and his mortality (as in Urn-Burial) is mirrored by the vast Macrocosm of Eternal forms in The Garden of Cyrus

The alchemical maxim solve et coagula (decay and growth) also closely approximates the respective themes of the diptych. The Gnostic progression from darkness and unknowingness to Light and awareness using optical imagery has already been noted. 

The alchemical feat of palingenesis, the revivification of a plant from its ashes, as reputedly performed by the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus is another template upon which the Discourses may be considered to bear comparison. The funerary ashes of Urn-Burial burst into  flower in the botanical delights of The Garden of Cyrus

Browne’s hermetic vision of the interconnection of Nature via the closely related symbols of the Quincunx pattern, the  number five and the figure X  - identify The Garden of Cyrus, however much previously misunderstood is a quintessential work of Hermetic literature. The mission of its author is synonymous with the ultimate quest of alchemist and hermetic philosopher alike, namely, to redeem mankind from the dark prison of unknowingness (as portrayed in Urn-Burial) towards recognition of the wisdom of God, found in number, shape and archetype, all of which are transcendently delineated by the Quincunx pattern through Browne's Dedalian imagination. 

In an era of considerable psychological stress and uncertainty, the Quincunx pattern in The Garden of Cyrus assumes a spiritual, mandala-like significance, suggestive that Browne believed he had been permitted to glimpse into Nature's highest arcana and thus acquire the wisdom of the Stone of the Philosophers no less. Browne’s fixation with the Quincunx pattern may therefore be interpreted as none other than his recognition of a symbol of totality and wholeness - the Unio mentalis or self-knowledge of the alchemists. As ever the foremost interpreter of alchemy in the 20th century, C. G. Jung places Sir Thomas Browne's creativity in clearer perspective, helpfully and tantalizingly Jung notes -

'The quinarius or Quino (in the form of 4 + 1 i.e. Quincunx) does occur as  as symbol of wholeness (in china and occasionally in alchemy) but relatively rarely'. [7]

Crucially, in words utterly apt to Browne's creativity in The Garden of Cyrus C.G.Jung observed- 

Intellectual responsibility seems always to have been the alchemists weak spot... The less respect they showed for the bowed shoulders of the sweating reader, the greater was their debt.. to the unconscious. The alchemists were so steeped in their inner experiences, that their whole concern was to devise fitting images and expressions regardless whether they were intelligible or not. They performed the  inestimable service of having constructed a phenomenology of the unconscious long before the advent of psychology. The alchemists did not really know what they were writing about. Whether we know today seems to me not altogether sure. [8]

See also -


[1] American academic Stephen Greenblatt perpetuates this error in his recent edition 
[2] Section 140 in Hyginus Fabulae listed in 1711 Sales Catalogue page.13 no.35 
[3] Religio Medici Part  I Section 32
[4]CW 14 764 
[5] CW 9 ii: 230
[6]  CW 9 ii: 372.
[7] C. W.  18: 1602
[8] CW 16:497

This essay has been roughly hammered out in time for the anniversary of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus. Both discourses have dedicatory epistles dated May 1st Norwich.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Hubert Gerhard

The angle from which a cast of Hubert Gerhard's highly dramatic sculpture Perseus and Medusa (above) has been photographed highlights quintessential characteristics associated with late Mannerist art - violent and/or erotic subject-matter, often within a mythological setting, startling imagery of striking impact and psychological depth, and the utilization of a distorted or unusual perspective.

The myths of antiquity became increasingly popular during the Renaissance. The Greek myth of Perseus rescuing Andromeda for example was painted by many artists in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Another popular myth as subject-matter in art, and equally dramatic, was that of the hero Perseus and his encounter with the hideous, serpent-haired gorgon Medusa. Whoever gazed upon Medusa's face immediately turned into stone. Perseus however, successfully avoided such a fate and decapitated her. 

Like several other artists of his generation, the Dutch sculptor Hubert Gerhard (b. Hertogenbosch c.1550-1620) left his homeland as a young man, probably to escape from the political upheavals and iconoclasm experienced by the Netherlands circa 1566-67. Gerhard moved to Italy, training how to design and cast bronze sculptures in Florence in the circle of Giambologna, who heavily influenced his style. Gerhard's dominant subject-matter, as with many Northern Mannerist artists, was the mythological gods of antiquity. His early patrons, the banking family the Fuggers of Ausgsburg, commissioned Gerhard to create for their castle at Kirchheim, a mantelpiece, bronze ornaments for a fountain of Mars and Venus and a bronze on a base bordered by fantastic imagery.

While at Augsburg, Gerhard first met the Florentine-trained artist, Friedrich Sustris (1540-1599). When Sustris became the artistic superintendent for Wilhelm V of Bavaria (1548-1626) he persuaded Gerhard to live in Munich, where the sculptor duly resided from 1584 to 1597. Gerhard created large bronzes for  the fountain, garden and grotto of Wilhelm's ducal palace. He prepared the monumental bronze St. Michael Vanquishing Lucifer that adorns the façade of the Jesuit church of St. Michael's in Munich and with Carlo's assistance he also made about fifty over life-size terracotta statues of saints and angels which line the interior of St. Michael's church.

With the financial crisis of 1597, which forced Wilhelm V to abdicate, Gerhard and most of the court's artists were suddenly unemployed. Between 1599 and 1613 Gerhard next worked under the patronage of Archduke Maximilian III of Austria, first in Bad Mergentheim and then in Innsbruck. Unlike Wilhelm V however, Maximilian III commissioned mostly small-scale bronzes, including equestrian portraits and mythological statuettes, in addition to his tomb and other projects.

In 1602 Gerhard added two bronze sculptures to the Augustus fountain in Augsburg in which the four rivers of the city are represented by statues of four river gods around the fountain's basin, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II when viewing  them critically said  -

 the workmanship is subtle and pure, but the positioning of the figures is rather poorMaster Adriaen, as his Imperial Majesty's sculptor is far more accomplished in this. 

Rudolf's withering remark highlights the rivalry which existed between two art-loving connoisseurs, for at the time Gerhard was employed by Rudolf's younger brother, Archduke Maximilian III of Austria, while his contemporary Adriaen de Vries (1556-1626) was resident sculptor for  Rudolf II.

Gerhard returned to Munich in 1613, where he worked until his death seven years later.

Although Gerhard worked primarily in the medium of bronze he also sculptured in terracotta a quartet of personifications of the seasons. In Gerhard's set of four figurines Spring sits holding a cornucopia or horn or plenty, Summer also female, holds a sheaf of corn, Autumn is represented by a cheerful, wine-drinking youth, while a care-worn, bearded old man personifies Winter.


There's an extraordinary affinity to certain themes and imagery encountered in Gerhard's Four Seasons to the four marble figurines of the Layer monument (anon. Norwich, circa 1600). Intriguingly, Hubert's quartet  are also a complex of opposites in their juxtaposition of classical antiquity and contemporary figures, mortal and deity, male and female, youth and age, pleasure and suffering. Gerhard's sculptures are therefore valuable pieces in completing the jigsaw puzzle of identification of the stylistic source and possible sculptor of the Layer monument's quartet of figurines.

Another remarkable affinity of style occurs between Gerhard's sculpture of the mythological sea-god Neptune (below) and the figurine of Labor (figure higher up on the right here) of the Layer monument. Dating little more than a decade apart, both figures are depicted with wrinkled brows, gnarled high cheek-bones, care-worn expressions and shaggy tufted, highly-stylized designer beards.


The combined factors of close chronology, Gerhard's predilection for producing sculpture in groups of four, his juxtaposition of figures from Classical antiquity alongside the contemporary, as in his allegorical personifications of  Four Seasons, are indicative of an affinity between him and the anonymous sculptor of the Layer monument. However, the quality of artistry, the sculptural medium of marble and geographical distance make it fairly unlikely that the four figurines of the Layer monument were carved by Gerhard, who worked primarily in bronze. In any event Gerard's essentially Northern Mannerist art retains an affinity in subject-matter and style to the Layer monument's figurines. Indeed, as its recorded that Gerhard maintained a workshop with apprentices named as Colin and Alexander Kaspar Gras, it's possible the four figurines of the Layer monument share not only the esoteric template of the quaternity with Gerhard's Four Seasons, but may originate from a workshop closely associated with the Dutch sculptor. 


I  have no qualms in admitting that most of this post is copied from Wikipedia, for upon discovering it had no entry on  Hubert Gerhard  I wrote one, based and indebted to this review -

Hubert Gerhard und Carlo di Cesare del Palagio: Bronzeplastiker der Spätrenaissance (review)
Jeffrey Chipps Smith
From: Renaissance Quarterly
Volume 59, Number 1, Spring 2006
pp. 241-243

Link to page of sculpture by  Hubert Gerhard