Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Patron Saint of Pigs

Hamburg is known as the city where the Beatles were launched, but forget for a moment that dubious distinction and luxuriate in the Geschichte of this grand port city, one which goes back 800 years. In point of fact, this past weekend was its 800th Gebortstag feuer, and the place was lousy with thrill-seeking youths, fireworks, great food and high energy. I happened to be in town with my parents, who were vacationing from the U.S. We were en route to Copenhagen for the weekend, and had escaped the heat and hectic celebrations of Berlin's Kultur Fest for the ostensibly cooler and quieter northern climes. We hadn't bargained for the fact that all these fests were happening Europa-wide over the three day weekend, culminating in some Catholic holiday to do with the holy ghost or some such tripe (describing these myriad religious holidays in Deutsch kurse can be a riot, z. B. "Ostern, als Jesus zur├╝ckkam") In Hamburg there were rock bands performing at the waterfront, and they even had a huge Riesenrad, or ferris wheel. Afterwards we took a cab to the infamous Reeperbahn, the red light district and enormous, throbbing, ahem, heart of the city. My parents were slightly bemused by the whole affair, and it was a mite embarrassing for me being accosted by ersatz Saint Pauli girls in front of meine Eltern (one such creature clawed furiously at my arm, nearly dragging me into the gutter with "her") but frankly the place is so commercialized and tourist-ridden as to be all but sexless in aspect.

The raison d'etre of this visit was actually a viewing of an art exhibit, or Ausstellung, which had been highly recommended by one of my colleagues from the language school, a talented lad name of Joel from good old Portland, OR, US of A. Joel, like me, has a bit of a yen for the shadow side of life, so it was without reservation that he suggested this particular Ausstellung der Kunst, heisst "Schrecken und Lust: Die Versuchung des heilegen Antonius von Hieronymous Bosch bis Max Ernst" (Terror and Desire: the Temptation of Saint Anthony from Bosch to Ernst).

Now I had no idea this Saint Anthony character had figured so prominently in so many kunstlers' works over the past few centuries, from the middle ages on. Apparently Ol' Tony was a hermit who revered (along with many of the artists who painted him) the virtue of self-abnegation to the extent that he gave away all of his (substantial) monies and devoted his life to the Lord, which in turn prompted Satan and a whole mess of evil spirits to provoke him mind, body and soul. He fled into the desert at age 55 and spent the balance of his life dodging said demons, living to a ripe old age of 105!

Bosch was so in thrall to this legend that no less than an entire room is devoted to his representations alone, the culmination of which was the eponymous triptych which makes clear Bacon's inspiration for Three Studies for Figures from a Crucifixion. The original, however, is rife with medieval squalor, anthropomorphic flying harpies, coprophagia and sinister priests, with the recalcitrant Saint Anthony holding his own, cross clutched in hand, against a cavalcade of perversions. In today's parlance, he must have been quite a repressed individual.

Or not. The presence of pig symbolism in over half the paintings prompted a Google search which yielded the following:

While on a year of solitary retreat and prayer, St. Anthony had the experience of being tempted by Satan who allegedly came to him in the form of a fierce pig which viciously attacked him. Anthony saintily resisted the temptation to return the favour and beat the pig to death, whereupon he was enveloped by a "wondrous light" and the pig was transformed into a humble and docile porcine companion.

Henceforth Anthony was known as the Patron Saint of Pigs. One French maler created a risible portrait of Anthony snuggling with his beloved Schwein in what appears to be either abiding friendship or post-coital bliss!

It is amazing how this theme is used as a hook from which many concrete events were hung. Take for example, the work from the Dutch School of Painting in the 1600s, the eponymous Die Versuchung des heilegen Antonius by Domenicus van Wijnen , which conflates the legend of Saint Anthony with apocalytic science fiction (before science fiction) visions fomented by an impending visit from Halley's Comet.

The ultimate iteration of the legend, which is again titled Die Versuchung des heilegen Antonius , this time round by Joos van Craesbeeck, renders Anthony and his precious pig mere supporting characters in the dissolution of an artists mind, perhaps most obviously captured by the Kopf geschnitten, or decapitated head of the artist, another leitmotif in renderings of the Temptation. An ornithological orgy of decadence of biblical proportions in captured in medias res, the disembodied head spilling over with Lilliputian humanoid figurines and anthropomorphized birds. As my delightful German pal Tobias would malaprop, "It was horrowful!"

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