Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Shanah Tovah!

September 28, 2013

Since we started school here in Jerusalem, our September has been punctuated by near-weekly holidays. Many of these appear in the Old Testament, and it’s interesting to see them celebrated still.

We started our semester at the beginning of September with Rosh haShanah, the Feast of the Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23-25). The holiday begins with a series of shofar (ram’s horn trumpet) blasts. Not only does this mark the beginning of a new year, but it is also when Jewish tradition says God rises up as a judge and determines each person’s fate and fortune for the year. You will often find four main foods on a traditional Rosh haShanah table: apples and honey to dip the apples in (for a sweet year), pomegranates (for abundance), and a fish head (for staying…ahead).

The end of Rosh haShanah begins the 10 Days of Repentance, in which you try to atone for the sins you have committed by meditating, apologizing, and donating to charity. Then comes Yom Kippur (Leviticus 23:26-32), when God will decide if you have atoned properly enough to make it into the Book of Life for another year. For a 25-hour period, healthy adults must abstain from any form of work and observe a complete fast, including water.

Once Yom Kippur ends (mid-September, this year), the 7 days of Sukkot begin. To show how serious you are about pleasing God, the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:33-43) is entered into with festive zeal. Some folks will live in these pavilions, which are usually now made of tarp and PVC (with palm branches on top). Most will just eat in them, though. Restaurants will even build sukkots for their observing patrons. Prayers are said while waving the Four Species—palm, myrtle, and willow branches, and a citron (like a big lemon). The seventh day is when God writes your name in the book or not, so this is your last chance to be sorry.


Western Wall Sukka

The Western Wall was busy, but hungry visitors could eat in the large sukka in the plaza. You could also see a variety of sukkot on college campuses, restaurants, and balconies.

Simchat Torah is the 8th day of Sukkot, in which the Torah is brought out and everyone celebrates. The last bit of Deuteronomy is read in the yearly reading cycle, immediately followed by Genesis 1 to start the cycle over again. Much dancing is involved—both with one another and with the Torah itself.

Other holidays include Hanukkah in late November or early December, an 8-day celebration of the Maccabean victory, and God’s hand in helping the cleansing of the Temple. Then there’s Purim in February or March, to celebrate Esther’s successful campaign to save her people. This is a time to enjoy food and give gifts. Some traditions also say you should drink enough alcohol that you can’t tell the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordecai; others, just till you fall asleep.

Passover (Pesach) in late March or April is the classic celebration of Israel’s deliverance from captivity, in which all leavening is purged from the home for 7 days (Leviticus 23:4-8). On the first night, everyone has unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and four cups of wine. Prayers follow. So does the counting of Omar—49 days are counted before…

Grain Harvest

Grain ready for harvest (photo courtesy of Steve Klein)

…Shavuot! In May or June, the Feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:9-14) celebrates the end of the grain harvest, which began on Passover, and is the day that observers would have brought their tithe to the Temple. As the language transitioned from Hebrew to Greek in the first century, this day became known as Pentecost. A day of first fruits, indeed.

New adventures…

June 7, 2013

…coming soon.


Madrid’s Art Neighborhood: The Good, the Bad, and the Picasso, Part 2

October 2, 2012

We’re home safe and sound, but we’ll keep posting about our trip (we got behind–spotty Internet access can do that). Part deux of our tour of Madrid’s art museum neighborhood ends with us at the popular modern art museum, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Reina Sofía Art Center).

Normally, we are not modern art fans. But that’s generally. There are pieces of modern art that are both iconic and extraordinarily moving. That is the art in which the creator is using the medium to express intense emotions, ideas and feelings that are too distorted, subtle, or fluid for a classic canvas. This is what brought us to the Reina Sofía, home of two famous Spanish Civil War-era artists: Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. The current curator of the museum has quite cleverly matched some of the masterpieces with films from the same eras, which provides a fascinating insight into the culture behind the art. Thus, with our trusty guidebook in hand, we immediately made a beeline for the museum’s pièce de résistance: Picasso’s Guernica.

Centro de Arte Center of Modern Art Reina Sofia

Reina Sofía Art Center

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, with the Nationalista party and Franco’s coup d’état. Franco was a fascist, and had the backing of both Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. The painting takes us to April 26, 1937 on a bright market day in the Basque capital city of Guernica. The city was filled with farmers and shoppers from the countryside, as well as war refugees, swelling the normal population. Around 3:40 in the afternoon, a German warplane appeared over the horizon, but this was not alarming–until it began bombing the bridges and roads leading into the town. Then more warplanes appeared and the real bombing began. For 3 hours, the town was a roiling mass of panic, animals screaming in fear, people rushing to escape. But there was no escape. Those that survived the bombs long enough to make it to the streets and hills were met with machine gun strafing, like shooting rabbits fleeing a warren. By sunset, the once-proud town was leveled by Hitler’s first experiment in saturation bombing, by Franco’s leave. The time and place were strategic: Franco needed to make an example and the bustling, independently-minded town offered the most horrific opportunity for casualties.

Bombed Building Guernica

Remains of Bombed Guernica Buildings – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224 / CC-BY-SA

Picasso, a Spaniard, was in Paris, France, brainstorming for a mural he was to paint for the World’s Fair when he received the news of the atrocity. All ideas were forgotten, and he began the work of his lifetime. In a matter of weeks, he presented the 286-square-foot mural to the world. The painting itself, a study in cubism, resembles broken shards jumbled and pieced together. Nothing is as it should be. Chaos reigns even in the very color and composition of the images. A bare bulb lights a nauseatingly monochromatic scene of unmitigated terror–a man trapped in a burning building screams as a woman runs, dragging her wounded leg behind her. A dying horse, pierced by a broken spear, has thrown its rider, his severed arm still clutching a sword. Someone looks out the window to see the turmoil below. A mother raises her face and her voice heavenward as she clutches her dead child in her arms, Picasso’s own pietá. Above it all, a fighting bull, the symbol of Spain’s courageous spirit, bellows in impotent fear and the dove of peace fades helplessly into the background.

Picasso Guernica

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937. Oil on canvas. Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

The world was shocked and horrified by the gritty imagery, having till then only seen the sanitized version of events that Franco permitted it to see. Suddenly, nations were aware of the losing battle being fought by the Republicanos and the chilling efficiency of the fascist war machine. Now they knew what this brutal trinity was capable of, but did they realize this was the prelude to the even more egregious genocides of World War II?

Today, the Reina Sofía houses this work of art in a room by itself, where you can stand and reflect on the heartbreaking events that lead to its creation and those that continue on today around the world. War is a truly terrible thing, but, sadly, as long as there is evil in the world willing to exploit the innocent, then we can only hope there is a greater good willing to rise up and protect those in need.

Madrid’s Art Neighborhood: The Good, the Bad, and the Picasso–Part, 1

September 30, 2012

When one thinks of great art in the world, your mind usually goes to the Old Masters of the Renaissance, and especially the Italians. But Spain had its share of Old Masters, too: El Greco, Goya, Diego Velázquez, and Murillo. However, when it comes to modern art, Spain wins the prize with heavy hitters like Picasso and Dalí. We were able to see a healthy sampling of them all in Madrid’s famous art museum neighborhood. Part 1 of our tour of art through the centuries will focus on the classical works at the Thyssen and Prado. In part 2, we’ll have a crash course Spanish Civil War-era modernism.

Our artistic warmup was the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. The Thyssen collection was begun by Baron Thyssen and his wife and former Miss Spain, Baroness Carmen. After the baron’s death, she opened the gallery to the public and continues to add to the collection today. While you do have a couple of Titians and a Caravaggio, you will mostly only see the artistic B-list here. Now, that’s not a bad thing, as even bad classical art is still pretty good (unless it’s German, and bad German art is, well, bad). The Thyssen’s main strong point is its collection of Impressionist works. As the Renaissance drew to a close, Velázquez and Goya spearheaded a movement in which intricate details started being “faked” by broader brush strokes and “blotches” of color, giving you the “impression” of the picture–and from far away, they look very realistic. Just don’t get too close.

The next day, we visited the A-list, beginning with the world-famous Prado. We used our guidebook to take us straight to the big guys (it is a very good idea to always enter an art museum with some kind of plan, saving you literally hours of confused wandering). We began our artistic journey with the Renaissance fledglings, Fra Angelico and Bosch. Both were religious artists, but frontrunners of the movement. Bosch (1450-1516) also gives us the first peek at surrealism, especially with his Garden of Earthly Delights, a discomfiting three-panel depiction of what happens when God’s creation devotes his life to pleasure rather than spirituality. Short answer is eternal torment with a creepy self-portrait of Bosch staring at you reproachfully.

Fra Angelico Annunciation

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was next on the list. His most well-known painting is Las Meninas, a lovely snapshot of the royal family. This is a beautiful 3-D painting, drawing you in as the action happens all around you. Mom and Dad are sitting somewhere behind you as Diego paints their portrait, but you can see their reflection in the mirror behind the artist. Their little princess watches them as her meninas, maids of honor, play with her. The court dwarf and the family dog seize the opportunity to relax.

Velazquez Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas

Next up was El Greco (The Greek, 1541-1614). The nickname is understandable, since his real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos, and that would have been very difficult for the lisping Castillianos to say. El Greco specialized in religious art, but mixed a bit of impressionism with spirituality and a touch of mysticism. His saints are long and thin, guiding your eyes up their bodies and to heaven–which is usually where their large, expressive eyes are pointing, too. El Greco’s Christ bears His cross, blood running from His pierced head and down His neck; but His face is serene, looking towards His deliverance and the sinful world’s redemption.

Christ Carrying the Cross El Greco

El Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross

Rubens, a Flimmand, was next. And really, it’s safe to just go ahead and lump Rubens (1577-1640) and Titian (1490-1576) together, especially since they reside next door to each other at the museum. Both of their works center mainly on sensualism, with a focus on mythological themes. Titian’s big patron was Philip II, who was apparently not as rigid of a saint as he would have you believe. But when they were being serious, they both presented some beautifully executed portraits, making even the “let’s marry within the family” Habsburgs look almost normal.

Rubens Habsburg Portrait

Peter Paul Rubens, Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma

Our last stop at the Prado was Goya (1746-1828). And wasn’t he quite the character–he began as a court artist, albeit a facetious one. He painted his royals like they were, rather than flattering them. Now the world saw the arrogance, the stupidity of their nobles shining through. Habsburg underbites jut out viciously and eyes stare blankly and dumbly ahead. He ended his royal portrait career when Napoleon put his brother on the Spanish throne, spurring a mob to gather in Madrid in protest on May 2, 1808. Napoleon’s brother was brutal, and rather than end the protest peacefully, he sent his Eqyptian mercenaries into the plaza to make an example of the rebels. The mob was too big, and no one could escape the massacre. On May 3, the ringleaders were rounded up and executed before a firing squad. Goya watched it all, and produced his quintessential works Second of May, 1808  and Third of May, 1808. Some legends say the screaming young man in white in Third of May was a friend of Goya’s that he watched die. He retired from the public eye when he became too deaf and riddled with disease to continue. This began his Black Period, where he smeared the walls of his house with nightmarish visions of flying demons, witches, and satanic rituals.

Francisco de Goya Segundo de Mayo 1808 Second of May

Francisco de Goya, Segundo de Mayo, 1808

Francisco de Goya Tres de Mayo 1808 Third of May
Francisco de Goya, Tres de Mayo, 1808

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and are public domain images.