Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Vision in the Cloister

A drawing for Halloween:

Around the year 1099, something terrible was seen. A monk, walking the halls by night, surprised his superior, Abbot Berard, in the act of cooking and eating a young boy. In shock, he beheld the abbot strip the flesh from the “tender limbs” of the child and devour it piece by piece. He fled the monastery in terror, but morbid curiosity soon got the better of him, and he returned in time to see Berard dipping bread in the dead boy’s brains.

Unfortunately stories of this sort, as the examples of Gilles de Rais and Albert Fish assure us, are sometimes true. But happily, in this case we are dealing only with a “terrible vision” beheld at night. A dream, in other words.

Nocturnal visions may strike us as an improbable avenue of character assassination, but it held weight in the year 1099, for our anonymous dreamer stood before his fellow monks on the following morning, and told them what he had seen. The wise among them considered it a prophecy of God’s judgment.

Of course, we only know about this dream because the historian Gregory of Catino, himself a monk, despised Berard with uncharitable passion. He recorded the vision - as well as Berard’s “untimely and detestable demise” - in his book.

He called his book the Liber gemniagraphus sive cleronomialis ecclesiae pharphensis, a mouthful modern historians have replaced with Farfa Register, after the Italian monastery it chronicles. Within, he detailed Berard’s crimes: an insatiable greed for money, defying the precepts of the order, selling off property owned by the monastery, and neglecting to acquire more, introducing vile and extraneous doctrines. In short, there was a difference of opinion on management styles. Unfortunately for Berard’s posthumous reputation, history is written by the writers.

As every monk is considered a brother, and the abbot their father, for the latter to harm his community is akin to a parent injuring their own child. Hence the grisly strength of the baby-eating metaphor. According to Gregory, even though the dreamer mentioned no names when he described his vision, everyone knew he was talking about Berard.

And there was, moreover, a precedent. Some six decades earlier, a similar dream was recorded at the French monastery of Cluny. There, some visiting Spanish monks dared to celebrate their own festivals separate from the rest of the community, and on the wrong dates. The following night, two of the French monks dreamt that the Spaniards, armed with cooking-forks, had fried a young boy in a large pan, while the boy cried out “Father, they are throwing away what you have given them!”
This evidence was decisive; the newcomers could not sunder the family with their unfamiliar ways.

An equally repulsive story dates from just a few years earlier, this time set in Egypt. One night an important general named Fadl was strolling the halls of the palace in Cairo, when he came upon the Caliph al-Hakim with the body of a young boy. The caliph had just dismembered the child, and was cutting up the internal organs. General Fadl was too shocked to conceal himself, and quickly returned home to set his affairs in order, for he knew he had seen too much and had not long to live.

As an abbot is father to his monks, so a monarch is father to his kingdom; our historian, Sevurus ibn al-Muqaffa, uses the child-dismemberment episode to start off a long recital of al-Hakim’s many crimes against his subjects, including arbitrary executions and mutilations, forced conversions, torture,  interfering in dietary conventions, killing every dog in Egypt, and likewise the pigs, banning raisins, consorting with Satan, and a great deal more.

A thousand years ago, then, child-murder and cannibalism appears to have been a standard calumny against those who upset the proper order of kin relations. Nor was this the end of such slanders, which persist today. But that is far too heavy a subject either for Halloween or this drawing.

Gregorio di Catino, Il Regesto di Farfa, ed. I. Giorgi and U. Balzani, v.5, p.156: De quo videlicet praefato abbate, quadam nocte visio terribilis visa est, scilicet quod tenellum puerum et innocentem, coctum assatumque comederet. Cuius cum cocta membra minutatim incisa pene devorata haberet, quidam ante illum assistentes, cum haec viderent, foras fugerunt prae stupore. Interumque paulo post ingressi, ut huius intuerentur crudelitatis finem, videbant quod iam in cerebro pueri intinctum panem avide manducaret. Et cum hanc quidam frater in capitulo coram cunctis referret somni visionem, illius supresso nomine, idem ipse, ut credimus, abbas, veritatis spiritu compellente, interpretatus est dicens; Pro certo sciatis omnes, quia ille de quo haec visio fuit, est vir mortis, et in rebus pessimis ac nefandis domus huius et mei gravissimi damni, manum tenet flagitiose. Quod qui noverunt mirati sunt,  et cognoverunt hanc dei iudicio prophetiam ab illo fuisse ignoranter prolatam.

Rodulfus Glaber, Historiarum libri quinque III.iv.132: “Quod cum fecissent segregati a ceteris, visum est nocte eadem duobus senioribus loci quod unus de Hispanis fuscina focaria arriperet desuper altare puerum, mitteretque illum in sartaginem prunis plenam, ita clamantem: ‘Pater, pater, quod tu dedisti isti auferunt.’ Quid plura? Apud nos antiqua consuetudo, uti decebat, prevaluit.”

Sevurus ibn al-Muqaffa, History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Part six, p. 183.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Drawn from life in about fifteen minutes, using various crayons and a Copic brush pen.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lonely Farm

Drawn on a warm day in May, from an old field on the downs below the Hog's Back in Surrey, England. I used micron technical pens and a handful of Copic brush pens.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

look to windward

Old age and treachery will always conquer youth and enthusiasm, according to an old teacher of mine. Maybe it will.
Old age hath yet his honour, according to another authority. Death closes all, but before that, there is a certain perfection in the imperfection of age - like an unfinished drawing, in which the empty spaces establish their own kind of order.

Sometimes you have to look harder to see what should not be added. Death, says Priam in the Iliad, can expose nothing in one who is not beautiful. He meant that the old and the ugly already looked like death - an uncharitable thought. The old may be nearer to death, but every step on the way is itself an accomplishment. Drawing the lines on an elderly person's face is like marking out the medals on an old soldier's chest.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ponte Santa Trinita

A quick pencil sketch of the ponte Santa Trinita in Florence. My pencil didn't quite capture the elegance of Ammanati's design - the bridge is one of those objects whose lines are simply entrancing.
I drew it from the northern embankment, sitting up on the stone barrier.

Sunday, October 6, 2013