Friday, December 30


S. Joan with her Voices

S. Joan of Arc with her Voices: SS. Michael, Katherine and Margaret. Ink on vellum. December 2009. © Matthew Alderman 2009. Private Collection, Washington, D.C. (Larger version here, print available here).



Welcome, readers of Crisis Magazine! I hope you enjoyed my recent book review there of Dr. Zmirak's graphic novel, The Grand Inquisitor. For those interested in my artistic and design work, please mosey over to for your further edification and entertainment. Prints, stationary, and other odds and ends available for purchase here ("The workman is worthy of his hire." --Luke 10:7).

(Above: The Espousal of the Blessed Virgin with SS. Joachim and Anne. Ink on Vellum. March 2010. © Matthew Alderman 2010. Private Collection, Minnesota.)

From the Archives:The La Sapienza Wine Bar, and a Visit to Piazza Navon

Apologies for the long absence. This was originally published 09/12/03, during my year studying in Rome, and is suitably Christmassy for a day in the Octave:

I’ve spoken often about the street life of Italy, the one country in the world that seems like a twenty-four-hour open-air comic opera. However, the other day I saw a much more literal example of urban theater, or at the very least a pause between acts. In the stuccoed, bulky shadow of Sant’ Ivo della Sapienza, I saw one of Italy’s cinematic auteurs plying his trade.

Okay, maybe he was just shooting a commercial, as it did not have the look of a major motion picture. Still, filming on location, even if it’s the outdoor seating secton of the La Sapienza Wine Bar, has to count for something. The cast and crew were sitting around with a mixture of dejection and mild pique waiting for a graffiti-festooned and extremely noisy dump truck to clear out of earshot.

Inside, the café patrons (or perhaps extras) were trying very hard to look cool, while a bored, tanned and perhaps slightly shopworn starlet glugged down bottled water at one of the iron sidewalk tables. I caught a glimpse of the big zebra-striped clipboard gadget that always seems to show up at movie-making sites, or at least that’s they way it is on television. And on it, the name of the auteur and his work. In this case, one Sergio Prenoli. And the rather generic title of Roma.

Well, at least I had a name. By that point I had also walked straight into a now rather indignant bald man because of my rubbernecking. I sputtered some apologies and headed back to studio and thought about ways to fill up the pleasantly blank slate of my upcoming weekend.

I swung by later with my two friends Vera and Amelia—the Maenad girls, as I call them, because of an amusing mishap that happened on a trip to Tivoli involving two litres of red wine, my puritanical teetotaler habits and an empty mineral water bottle. But that’s another story. Anyway, Sergio Prenoli hadn’t gotten much farther with his great work. The starlet was looking fashionably bored at a different table with a different drink and they’d introduced a boom mike as well as wrapping one of the reflectors in blue plastic. Roma was looking very much true to Italian life: nothing seemed to be happening.

We weren’t stargazing, anyway, we were heading over to the Piazza Navona Christmas fair. The morning was surprisingly cool and clear, the first blue sky I’d seen in days. And it was wonderfully blue, and wonderfully chill. If I’d had any doubts about Italy’s devotion to Christmas, it had vanished. Over one narrow street, someone had hung half-arcs of red crepe and pine, festooned with gilt angels. Meanwhile, Piazza Navona positively buzzed with Yuletide hustle and bustle.

The sun bounced off the pure white stucco of the Brazilian Embassy façade, pigeons wheeling lazily in the cool air. Dozens of booths ringed the long, narrow piazza, while a carrousel spun in the center in a blaze of prerecorded music, flashing mirrors and garish nude caryatids encrusted with perhaps their tenth layer of paint. Everyone seemed to be smiling.

At first glance, some of the stalls had very little to do with Christmas. The girls stopped off at the first one, diffidently hovering on the edge of the carnival, carefully looking through velvet scarves hanging on a rack. The rest of the stand seemed to be devoted to soccer memorabilia, gloves, weird Peruvian knit caps and an incongruous Che flag. A couple of freckled blonde California girls exchanged casual tourist remarks in their native accent, curious to hear after so long in Italy. And then there was the preposterous mannequin torso with molded Redneck sideburns and goatee wearing the Assitalia team colors.

We moved on, passing a serious bevy of pudgy, bespectacled little nuns and a sprinkling of young matrons with toddlers. They seemed to be the target audience, as the booths were so weighed down with great garlands of hanging merchandise it would have taken a midget to clear one of these extravaganzas without knocking down either a bundle of Christmas stockings with pictures of Japanimation characters or La Befana playing soccer or maybe a seven-foot-tall Pink Panther about the color of cotton candy.

It was a six-year-old’s dream come to life. There were action figures of all races, creeds and TV shows, rapiers with cardboard Zorro masks, racks of miniature plastic Roman centurion cuirasses, and then a truly inexplicable guitar-shaped stuffed animal with the words “I love you” on its belly. What on earth would a kindergartener make of this monstrosity? Or the stuffed Rastafarian doll with cigar, bongos and gold teeth? Or even more puzzling, that enormous four-foot-tall gorilla with a snake shoved up his nose?

On the other hand, there were also some wonderful, and doubtlessly absurdly expensive, stuffed tigers and panthers snarling away with open mouths and quite convincing teeth. Most of them looked larger than the children who would want to play with them, set pieces designed to drive young Roman mothers nuts trying to explain to their charges that they did not need toys bigger than some compact cars.

Santa was there as well, either as a mechanical dummy doing a sort of Elvis hip-swinging dance, or available as a four-piece set of musicians, Santa variously on drums, bass violin, saxophone, or most frighteningly, accordion. A string of Christmas lights played several anthems dedicated to this curious secular saint.

La Befana, however, was clearly queen of this festival, and great bundles of Christmas Witch dolls were hanging like strings of onions from a dozen booths. Occasionally one would let loose with a diabolical pre-programmed electric cackle. A few other ones had a faint converted-kewpie look, less Macbeth than Samantha Stevens. Some others even looked faintly obscene.

I don’t really get La Befana the Christmas Witch. I don’t get the Italian witch fascination at all, though I admit to being a bit hazy on her existence up until the other day. (I still am not wholly convinced Strega Nona isn’t really just a brand of pasta, either.) A holiday mascot that looks due to scare the bejeepers out of your average toddler (or at the very least give the most redoubtable first-grader a case of, as they say, the jibblies) seems rather an unlikely giver of gifts. But Italy is Italy.

I did however, get the rest of the fair with crystal clarity. There were remarkable booths bedecked with hundreds of glassblown ornaments tempting fate (and small children) in the clear cool air. They were vast translucent rainbows, some cobalt, some gilt, some shocking pink with feathers like exotic fishing lures. Even more pleasurable were the candy stands, piled high with shiny obsidian-black dollops of licorice, green almond paste and dozens of jelly worms, or the occasional mandarin-yellow wax apples, looking good enough to eat.

And then came the nativity scene vendors. They were everywhere, selling everything and anything you could need to kick your crèche up a notch (or ten). There were plenty of quaint cork-carved stables and working miniature wall fountains and corn cribs and just about any other structure imaginable, some populated by horrible smooth-faced Fontanini knockoffs, others filled with minute figures that looked likely to get trampled underfoot like so many post-Christmas lego bricks back at home.

There were automated smithies with their brawny-armed blacksmiths striking plastic hammers against plastic anvils with balletic repetition that suggested both strength and repetitive stress motion injury, as well as all sorts of weird and wonderful accessories, like baskets of silvery sardines no bigger than grains of rice, tiny (and anachronistic) tin milk pails, frying eggs in pans and even trays of mushrooms. And you thought gold, frankincense and myrrh made for weird newborn gifts.

The girls stopped to examine more scarves at a more ordinary stand which also sold novelty boxer shorts. There was so much more here, the hoardings with the enormous Lenin-sized effigy of Gwyneth Paltrow asking for her martini, the weird hydrocephalic Tweety-bird balloons, the disreputable heraldist at his computerized booth peddling the history, shield and noble title of your last name, and the great festival of travertine that Bernini had erected in the center centuries earlier, the grand rocailled spike of the Fountain of the Four Rivers with its aquamarine water and sober river-gods around which this Roman weirdness seemed to swirl.

And then there was the empty cabin at the center for the coming attraction—a vast nativity scene. Maybe it would have sardines and mushrooms and frying pans, but it would also have something far more important, the Child that all these children squealing for La Befama were ultimately waiting for.

The girls finished up their shopping and we headed back to studio. They decided they had to ride on the carrousel at least once before they left. Not a bad idea, since Christmas at Navona only comes once a year. Which makes me wonder what they do with all those mini-sardines for the rest of the time.

Thursday, December 29


From the Archives: Heraclitus and Ursula

This was originally published on 04/01/2004, during my time studying abroad in Italy, which now seems so long ago, and deals with a visit to the town of Barletta in Apulia, the heel of the Italian boot. I hope, to introduce new readers to my Italian essays, to periodically post old pieces from the archives on this site over the next year.

The first thing I heard about Barletta was that it was home to the largest bronze statue left over from antiquity. The second thing that I discovered was, according to Professor Nessman, it was also the ugliest bronze statue left over from antiquity. And it wasn't even that old. Apparently some bits of the ungainly giant--either Heraclitus or Constantius II--had washed up on shore one morning during the early Renaissance. The townspeople decided to finish the job, with less than serviciable results.

Inspecting the completed sculpture in front of the church of Santo Sepolcro, Heraclitus's solemn, bag-eyed face looking more dourly Byzantine than classically antique, it seemed fine enough to me. Though for some reason, the top of Heraclitus's head was missing. Given the preponderance of flat roofs in the region, the danger of the Emperor filling up with rainwater seems a small danger.

We arrived in the dark Thursday evening. The outskirts seemed, at best, shabby, filled with haphazard high-rises with the occasional concession to tradition in the form of Italianate roofline dingbats. The hotel was on the outskirts of town in the beachfront tourist ghetto, a gleaming new pocket-sized four-star in hyper-clean imitation art-deco. The occasional nod to postmodernism showed up in a few crooked lines here and there that suggested the architect had hiccupped in the middle of drafting.

Still, I had a feeling I was going to like the complementary breakfasts, no matter who designed the place.

The mayor was footing the bill, and feeding us darn well, too. We soon were escorted next door to the Brigantino Due Restaurant to an extravagantly multi-course dinner of spinach pasta and fresh fish. In between the luxury, we were expected to take copious notes and measurements about all things Barletta, the net result being we would design a master-plan for the die-hard classicist town council who wanted something a bit more solid to show to the real architects to give them some ideas. So solid that he was willing to go as far as to let us stay for a week rather than just a weekend.

I was a bit agnostic about the town's prospects, though I planned to enjoy the food nonetheless. I hadn't seen much to suggest that a week or a month here would give us anything with which to save the place. The towns we'd passed nestled under the lofty peaks of the southern Appenines were choked with sprawl, and looked too busy trying to survive to be quaint. History, after all, had not been as cutely kind to the underdeveloped south as she had to the touristed hills of the Val d'Orcia or the cobbled streets of Arezzo.

Plus, there was the fact that our hotel's next-door neighbor was a video game parlor. The closest thing to classicism was the La Rotonda pizza stand at the bend in the coastal highway. To be fair, we had glimpsed the glorious floodlit Trani marble spire of the Duomo as we had driven past, but I wasn't about to hold my breath.

Not yet.

The next morning, the tour took us straight into old-town Barletta. We walked through the green, empty park around the stark sloped white walls of the old fortress. We'd meet the mayor there, though it seemed his Excellency was nowhere in sight and the heavy iron grill of the barbican was still locked. The moat was dry, but still looked thoroughly impassable.

And so we began to wander. We soon found ourselves standing on ancient paving stones, rich and mottled in their subtle rainbow of pink and yellow, their sharp edges glazed with hundreds of years of passing steps.

Then we entered under the arch of the campanile and passed into another world.

Narrow streets, iron balconies, a patina of beautiful peeling stucco. Time and antiquity pressed close as the walls of the tiny alleys. On our left hand, the austere white flank of the church rose; Saracenic arabesques and weird Romanesque gargoyles snarled at us across centuries of time. The tiny piazza before the Duomo was empty in the chill winter morning. We entered under the curve of an arch carved with a surreal bestiary of long-necked dragons and double-bodied centaurs tangled amid an Arabic tree of life, and found a small miracle of pale, clear light and even clearer stone.

A brief foray into the open door of the sacristy ended with the uncertain stare of a sexton, and so I slowly made my way around the ambulatory, bathed in the cool white light. In the north aisle stood a wooden half-length reliquary effigy of a swooning female martyr, eyes dark and raised to heaven, glossy and naive. Against the pale skin of her neck could be glimpsed a neat round red wound streaming precise drops of painted blood. Gilt gleamed on her ornate dress and carven waves of hair. St. Ursula, perhaps, by the limp cloth banner held in one dramatic outstretched hand. At her chest was a neat little glass window--and inside--

I wasn't certain, but it looked like a great curving shard of skull. The skull of a saint, inches away from me. I pressed my fingers against the glass, put my hand on hers, and simply stood there for a minute, astonished. It was--I felt chills, a faint quickening of my breath, confusion and excitement. Grotesque, perhaps, this disembodied fragment of someone else's life on display, and I felt that tingle of perversity. But soon, amazement overwhelmed it. But I was as close as humanly possible to a splinter of sanctity. Ursula, that great martyred princess of legend, who wasn't supposed to exist. Like the classical town that we were trying to re-build here.

I decided I was going to like Barletta.


Perhaps the ages have been unkind to Barletta's fringes, but amid the close-hugging townhouses of the old centro storico, the memories of the past still lingered, and lingered beautifully.

Barletta's only significant historic claim to fame, after Heraclitus, is a duel which pitted thirteen gallant but outnumbered Italian knights against a significantly larger group of occupying foreigners. Either Spanish or French, nobody I talked to seemed to be sure.

The overt act in the brawl occurred in a tavern off one of the tiny principal streets of the old quarter. The lofty, vaulted bar-cellar is still there, grand but empty. Its display cases are barren, the only exhibit a histrionic plaster effigy of one of the victors beating up a Frenchman (or was it a Spaniard?). About the only things of interest that remain are a stack of magazines, some marginally historic furniture and a tired docent. A mannered, historically accurate beaux-arts-Romanesque monument in the piazetta out front is about the only clue to who killed who here.

It may be Barletta's only claim to fame, but there are still hidden treasures tucked away from the prying eyes of beachfront tourists.

Around the corner from the tavern--around every corner, practically--could be glimpsed the facade of a graceful baroque church, springing to life with naive, glorious whirls of cherubim that seemed to unite the provincial perfection of Latin American baroque with the charming vigor of a New England Puritan tombstone. And to imagine growing up here, amid such splendid monsters and strange legends--it boggled the mind.

It's a slow town, an unremarkable town, even, the sort of average village that an Italian Garrison Keillor might make up meandering, poignant stories about. But a Garrison Keillor who would have grown up in the shadow of ancient churches with doors carved with linenfold panelling and images of the Host blazing above a chalice. In a history-soaked country, Barletta's shabby charm might seem ludicrous in comparison to Rome's hundreds of churches and eons of existence, but to an American like myself, it seems just about the right size. I could see myself being very happy here.

The town, for all my early cynicism, had a homely, homey beauty. Literally, it feels like you've stepped into someone's well-loved home. After all, our own Professor Marconi grew up in its welcoming, grimy alleyways and exotic stucco, beneath the forest of television antennae that bristle like spider-webbed ships' masts over the flat roof-terraces of the village.

We sketched and wandered, and wandered and sketched, and soon it was siesta time. The Puglians take siesta seriously: the cathedral's closed at least until four, and most shops hardly stir from noon to five. Clouds and chill gave way to golden-auburn late-afternoon light on the cornices of a dozen age-streaked stucco palazetti. Dead Christmas decorations still hung on the locked church doors.

Meanwhile, I had begun to inspect the people of Barletta, as well as her architecture. And it looked like they were perfectly happy to inspect me as well. I sat myself down on a metal bench in a little square that lay in the shadow of a grizzled white-marble civic campanile, cornices dark with the patina of age.

The piazza, humming with the din of midday traffic on the main street, seemed to be populated entirely by old men in flat caps. I sat there for a space, watching the pigeons waddle, heads bobbing, as the afternoon light caught the purple iridescence on their necks. Later, two five-year-olds started scrambling over the bench and eagerly demanded what I was doing, inspecting my sketchbook with cries of delight. After they had exhausted my meager Italian vocabulary, I excused myself and left them to clobber each other with delighted shrieks.

I continued to meander. In the cathedral, a cleaning lady was desultorily thwacking the base of the St. Ursula statue. Back outside, a young girl smoked on a balcony, giving me a diffident stare through the arched alleyway. On a convent square, an old man sat perfectly still in a darkened doorway, looking contented beyond compare. I offered a ciao to an old lady and a young woman hanging out laundry on a balcony, garnering a muttered giorno from the nonna. It was siesta. No need to strain oneself.

Almost everything was closed. Admitted, the scuzzy Lizard cantina was still open, its walls decorated by a single poster of Emilio Zapata, the bargain-basement Che. But the extraordinarily-named Shakespeare's Head English pub and the Irish jazz bar with the enormous Guinness advertisement painted on the front door didn't look like they would open for a while. The High Fashion Uomo store was, however, doing business with some exorbitantly large discounts, though given the quality of the flashy merchandise--something out of What the Well-Dressed Goombah is Wearing--it looked like the customers could use all the encouragement they could get.

But, goombahs or no, the town still slumbered beautifully.

Soon, a pink sunset was streaking the white stone of the church. Four kids, one sporting purple-streaked hair, sat under the wild Saracenic arabesques and munched potato chips. Within, the gleaming whiteness had turned to a serene pale gloom, illumed only by the warm sparks of light from the bulbs in the shrine to St. Roch, his downturned face kind in the darkness.

It was too dark to see St. Ursula, though, save for a tinselly spark on the gilded filigree of her dress. So I turned to leave. Perhaps I might return some day.

Plus, the four kids had started screaming and throwing themselves against the portal in some juvenile display of rough-housing. It seemed a good-enough time to leave.

Saturday, December 24


New Christmas Card Design

© Matthew Alderman 2011

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will. And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us. --St. Luke, 2:13-15.


Tuesday, November 16


Studio Update from Matthew Alderman

Just to let our readers know that I have been keeping busy during my occasional absences from the Shrine, I thought you might enjoy Matthew Alderman Studios' two official 2010 Christmas cards (here and here), complete with pre-printed greeting and quotation from the first chapter of the Gospel of John (Douay-Rheims translation): "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, the glory as it were of the Father, full of grace and truth." You can see and purchase the designs here.

In other news, I have been busy with some similar illustration and graphic projects--CD packaging design, a design for a set of altar cards that I hope will be available for commercial purchase soon, as well as my continuing work for St. Paul's in Madison, and some writing/journalism. More on these as they develop.

Tuesday, October 26


Matthew Alderman Studios in the News!

Matthew Alderman Studios has been serving for the past few months as the designer for the principal elevation of the new St. Paul's University Catholic Center in Madison, Wisconsin, with RDG Design and Planning of Omaha serving as the overall architect of record. We are now releasing our concept to the various organs of the city government for their comment and review, so I can now share this exciting news with our readers.

St. Paul's University Catholic Church serves as the Newman Center for the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Under Fr. Eric Sternberg, it has spearheaded an amazing effort to bring the fire of the Faith to Madison's student population. Catholic life in Madison has undergone a remarkable renaissance under Bishop Morlino, and St. Paul's is one of the foundations of this resurgence. I can assert from personal experience that it is really heartening what is going on over there. St. Paul's is molding a new generation of faithful, responsible, and joyfully serious young Catholics.

The current facilities are crowded and do not match the parish's expanding vision. St. Paul's is proposing a mixed-use high rise, incorporating a chapel and offices on the lower floor, with a unique residential college located on its upper levels. The fourteen-story building's dormitories will house 175 students, while the chapel will have room for 500 worshippers. More details from the Wisconsin State-Journal:

Officials with the St. Paul Catholic Student Center at UW-Madison unveiled a new, less-boxy design Monday for a $45 million housing development and campus worship center. The design keeps the same square footage and 14-story height as an earlier version but presents it in a way that will better fit with surrounding historic buildings, they said. An April design drew concerns from city planners over mass and height.

"I don't know if we've addressed those concerns — it's the same height and size — but our goal is to convince city staff that while it's a tall building, it's not a very big building," said the Rev. Eric Nielsen, St. Paul's priest.

The project would replace the existing Catholic campus facility at 723 State St. The center's "relatively small" quarter-acre footprint would remain the same, with much of the 10,000 square feet coming in height, Nielsen said.

The student center portion of the current facility was built in the late 1800s. The chapel was built in 1909 and renovated 43 years ago. It has no residential component. The redeveloped center would house up to 175 students. "This is something Catholics in the state will want for students here, and urban density is something the city wants," Nielsen said.

City Planning Division Director Brad Murphy did not return phone calls for comment. The student center is across from Memorial Library on State Street Mall and between University Book Store and the landmark, neo-Gothic revival Pres House, the campus Presbyterian chapel. The new design looks less blocky and more classical than the earlier version, center officials said. It is "more cohesive" in the way it integrates a chapel and student center on the lower levels with several stories of student housing, Nielsen said.

Informational plans for the project were to be submitted Monday to the Madison Landmarks Commission, said Ron Trachtenberg, St. Paul's attorney. The project is expected to go before the Landmarks Commission Nov. 8 and before the Urban Design Commission Nov. 10. The City Council will need to approve it, he said. Center officials hope to break ground in two to three years, said Scott Hackl, St. Paul's development director. A vast majority of the money for the project is expected to be raised from a small group of benefactors, he said.

The project poses a number of intriguing challenges; it was commented when I was first discussing the possibility of involvement that I was probably the only ecclesiastical design consultant in America who had made a systematic study of early twentieth-century churches with similar mixed-use programs, which the concept is reminiscent of. I was brought on board once most of the internal program had been worked out, as well as the basic height and width of the building, but a lot of the exterior massing and detail had not yet been worked out. After consultation with the clients, a form of Romanesque was adopted as the preferred style, given its obvious ecclesiastical connotations, its ability to blend with a more modern Deco aesthetic, and its ability to withstand budgetary simplification.

The interior of the building will house a variety of dormitories, apartments, meeting rooms, study lounges, and other facilities for the campus ministry, as well as the chapel, which is accessed through a large lobby and will be on the second level of the structure. It was important to impart an ecclesiastical character to the principal facade while at the same time asserting the building's mixed-use status. In my own sketches, I drew on the work of Ralph Adams Cram at Christ Church Methodist in New York, a rugged urban ecclesiastical plant with a great deal of dignity and personality, and Bertram Goodhue's slightly earlier St. Bartholomew's, just down the street on Park Avenue. St. Bart's offered some particularly useful ideas, as the General Electric Building, a particularly lofty high rise, was built behind it and designed to serve as a suitable low-key backdrop for the church's Byzantine dome, in much the same way the main shaft of the structure relates to the church facade below. This is also an important precedent given the neighboring structure, Pres House, the Presbyterian university church, is a landmarked Gothic revival structure, so while St. Paul's should make its identity clear, it must also create a symbiotic relationship with the older structure.

I imagine you will hear more from me on this in the next few weeks as the story develops further and we get reactions from the vox pops. Everything I have heard so far has been very positive. I encourage you in any case, if you live in Wisconsin, to tell your friends and support this very worthy cause. Not only could this be a great moment for traditional architecture, it could be a unique and fruitful opportunity for future generations of young Catholics in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest.

How Do You Say "Plus ça Change" in Viennese Dialect?

'...and well-presented anthems in churches were often rewarded with cries of "Bravo" and handclapping.'

--Arthur J. May, The Hapsburg Monarchy 1867-1914, Harvard, 1951, p. 309

Oh, Bother

Someone had idea of inviting a man in a Winnie-the-Pooh suit to the recent birthday celebrations for Queen Elizabeth (or HRH Princess Philip of Greece and Denmark to those Jacobites in the audience). I am sure HM took things with her usual grace, but one simply wonders what made them connect men in foam costumes with royal dignity and old age.

Friday, October 22

I suspect Captain Jack Aubrey would have done slightly more than this. Still, points for style.
This little aside posted by Mark Shea reminds me why the word "spirituality" (when contrasted with "religion") puts me on my guard. There are a lot of things called spirits out there that aren't on the side of the angels. Or at least the good, unfallen sort of angels. Best to not go down that dark alley.

You've Come to the Right Place

In my role as a lecturer on architectural topics I have been to a number of monasteries and convents, and even one seminary. All of them have been filled with devout, holy men and women and were of a traditional bent to their liturgy and life, but on one visit I definitively knew I was among friends when the monk showing me around said, in these exact words, "I'm quite devoted to the cult of relics,"* and then promptly opened up a largish armoire in the chapel filled with at least one hundred small bits of saints. I knew the talk I was scheduled to give was going to go over very well with that audience.

*Note to alarmed Protestants and the unchurched: Cult in this instance just means "veneration" or "respect" (cultus in Latin) but it sounds disappointly less scary if one puts it that way. It has nothing to do with worshipping Prince Philip as a god or drinking koolade in Guyana. One might speak in a secular context of the cultus of the American flag centered on the pledge of allegiance, or, in certain parts of the Midwest, the cultus of the Green Bay Packers centered on nearly everything someone can stick green and gold on.

Thursday, October 21


An American Neuschwanstein That Wasn't

The wonderful, wonderful book Unbuilt America: Forgotten Architecture from Jefferson to the Space Age was a constant companion of mine during college, and from it stems my fascination with Halsey Wood's "Sacre Coeur on Crack"-style design for St. John the Divine in New York; another great fanciful unbuilt unknown is this Maxfield Parrish-esque proposal (apparently seriously considered) for a U.S. summer capital complex in Colorado to house the President and his retinue during the hotter months. The castle would have been located in Mount Falcon, Colorado, and would have cost $50,000 and the landscaping $200,000. Views of Denver, the Continental Divide and Pikes' Peak would have been visible from the terrace. It would have been funded by popular subscription and was supported officially by 22 governors, who would have held the building in trust.

Wilson, who apparently had no love for Mitteleuropäische Count Chocula-style architecture (another point against him, in my book, not that I need an excuse*), nixed the idea. On the other hand, considering the massive expansion of the federal government some decades later seems to eerily intersect with the installation of air-conditioning in the federal city, perhaps this was all for the best.

*Please stand for the official anthem of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Guild of Amalgamated Deli Meat Producers and Hog Butchers: "Unser Kaiser has a first name, it's K-A-R-L, unser Kaiser has a second name it's H-A-B-S-B-U-R-G." Wait, that doesn't really scan. And I'm pretty sure Franz-Ferdinand didn't drive a Wienermobile, though it might have been from Wien (or Skoda, or something).

Wednesday, October 20


(Test Pattern)

I do have some posts planned for today, but the image uploader is acting up this morning, so bear with me! Coming up later today or tomorrow: The turn-of-the-century castle that would have housed an American summer castle in Colorado, Winnie the Pooh turns up at Buckingham Palace, and more. In the mean time, enjoy this photo of the legendary Latin ATM at the Vatican, courtesy of a friend. It does exist!

Of course, they'd naturally use Comic Sans.

Tuesday, October 19


Christ the God and Christ the Good Man

I think many of us Catholics had at the back of our heads growing up, unconsciously, at the very least that the idea of Christ's divinity, or His claim of divinity, was the hardest thing to prove. Some may even assume it was a fairly late addition to the story, like the half-hearted deifications of the Roman emperors. Much of this comes, not from history, but from historians, and rather bad popular historians at that. If one looks at the early Christological heresies, the one thing that it seemed nearly all Christians could agree on was He was emphatically not just a good man. Those outside the Church who denied His divinity, often thought Him considerably less than a good man, and there were many inside Christianity were not even sure He could be called a human being at all.

A lot of this comes from popularizers who find it convenient to throw out the text and tell us what really happened from their own speculations on human nature, or on their rather blandly respectful view of what they assume is Christian morality and their unfocused contempt for what they think is Christian dogma, as if the two could be separated. The Jefferson Bible, a bit of Enlightenment bowdlerization, is a prime example of this, in which Christ goes swanning around giving the impossible advice of the Gospels without the impossible miracles of the Gospel.

Anyone who tells you that they believe in the high moral system Christ developed, but not in His divinity, clearly has not read scripture. Christ was not a moral teacher in the manner of Confucius or Buddha, but came to fulfil the Law, doing so in startling and puzzling fits of drama and opaque parables that at times verge on performance art. Fig trees get cursed, Christ scribbles in the dirt, tells weird stories, asks people to eat him (which sent most of his followers running for the exits), uses scary phrases like people being "eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven," and claims He knew Abraham some thousand-odd years earlier.

Chesterton called these the "riddles of the Gospel." Without the miracles and the resurrection, this is not so much a moral system as a cryptographic puzzle, and a rather disheartening one at that. Without grace (and the Eucharist), the Christian life is an unreachable ideal, and a rather Quixotic and bizarre one at that. It is not the self-evident Hallmark squishiness people assume it was--humility was never a virtue in the pagan world before Christ, for one thing. If you wish a high, human moral code, go and read Marcus Aurelius and contemplate your solitary stoic self-splendor, don't drag the God-Man into it. He is not telling you how to fix yourself, asking you to let Him do the heavy lifting.

The other thing is that it is clear to the early Christians who thrashed around with the tradition handed onto them in word and scripture thought this strange visitor was clearly more than a man. Christ's divinity was being praised in song as early as the letters of St. Paul (if Christ's own assertions to the effect in the Gospels are not enough), and it is clear from rabbinic commentaries of the period on Isaiah's prophesies that even before Christ came, it was thought the Messiah would have at the very least some special relationship with God, and at the most be quasi-divine Himself--He, the wonderful counselor, mighty God, the prince of Peace.

Indeed, the errors of early Christianity are quite illuminating in that regard. We have the Dan Brownian notion that the early heresiarchs were mild-mannered peacenik types who loved Christ the simple good man (and the goddess Mary Magdalene, don't ask me how that works), rooted in history and everyday life. With a few exceptions, by and large their Christ was not only scarcely human, He was scarcely historic. The Gnostic pseudo-scriptures show Christ as a weird ghostly being, not necessarily a god but a messenger from corporate headquarters sent to untangle the mess started by Jehovah, who in this view comes across as a sort of low-ranking Dwight Schrute weirdo in the greater scheme of things, with very little connection to Jesus the friendly aeon. Christ floats in, dispenses gnosis in a historic void lacking in the arguing Pharisees and Sadducees.

Why anyone would find this talkative, haughty spirit appealing is beyond me, but then I suspect a friendly ghost is considerably less demanding than a flesh-and-blood incarnate God. At the very least such discussions prove that the modern world's problem is not a lack of proof for historic high Christology, or its remoteness from modern man, but simply its inconvenience.

Monday, October 18


Vlad Ţepeș and the Worst "Where's Waldo" Ever

Since Halloween is coming up, a bit of seasonal ghoulishness for your edification. I have been re-reading Elizabeth Kostova's rather enjoyable The Historian, one of the few reasonably memorable contributions to the vampire-slaying genre of page and screen since the late Terrence Fisher, serious High Church Anglican and horror filmmaker, left the field. The greatest achievement of this first-time author, though, seems to have been being able to camouflage, with considerable charm and suspense, the fact that on the whole not much really happens in the course of the book, nor does she seem quite able to develop even some of her own more interesting contributions to vampire legend and lore, like trying to vaguely link up Vlad the Impaler with the various heretical Cathars and Bogomils of southern France and old Bulgaria, or some rough fictional equivalent. This goes, oddly, almost nowhere, despite the fact that Cathars are, nowadays, the new Beanie Babies. (Are Beanie Babies still the new Beanie Babies? I can't keep track of these things.)

That being said, it is something of a relief to see in Kostova-land, the blood-sucking fiends still recoil in horror from a crucifix, however much the authoress seems to ignore the metaphysical assumptions this requires to work, rather than simply moping around moodily and acting all sparkly. (On the other hand, sparkly teenagers are terrifying in themselves.)

I bring this up because I ran across a rather curious sidelight on Vlad the Impaler the other day. (Which in all fairness has nothing to do with vampires--Bram Stoker's character has nothing in common with the bloodthirsty Romanian prince, save the name, and at various times in the book seems to be either a Hungarian Szekeler or perhaps even a Serb, rather than Wallachian or even properly Transylvanian, and vampires are, when you get down to it, more Greek--!--than Transylvanian. He also looks a bit like the late Victor Borge in the novel.) It is an open question exactly how nasty a piece of work the fellow was, though I doubt he was an angel, in any case.

Romanians ar understandably somewhat baffled by their national hero's Bela Lugosi reputation in the west. Imagine going to Kazakstan and discovering in their culture, er, say, Andrew Jackson, with all the good and bad that implies, is a blood-drinking undead sex symbol with a bad Canadian accent. All the Romanians I know are pleasant Mediterranean types, rather than pale ghouls, and they know, wine.

Much of Vlad III Drăculea's reputation in the West seems to stem from King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary's various the-nosferatu-ate-my-homework attempts to explain why the heck he didn't team up with Dracula to run the Turks out of Dodge (for Dodge read: Rumelia), and thus why he didn't owe his creditors back all that money they gave him. There was even a poem about it: Von ainem wutrich der hies Trakle waida von der Walache. Indeed, it seems Vlad had supporters at one time or another in Poland, Venice and even the Holy See. It seems much of his atrocities were wildly exaggerated, and while perhaps a nasty little man, was certainly not insane, for what it's worth. That being said, Corvinus or no, I am not sure I would want to get on the wrong side of someone a) named "the Impaler," and b) who doesn't drink... wine.

One of the odder bits of this propaganda campaign (in addition to the usual broadsheets and pamphlets) must be a couple of images that put the Impaler in place of Pontius Pilate, and in the place of the Roman consul watching over St. Andrew's crucifixion. The elegant court hat, the feral little face, the big Marshal Kûrvi-Tasch mustache--it is immediately recognizable and disturbingly out of place. The effect is oddly chilling and yet, brainwashed from birth by images of Chocula and the Count von Count, weirdly funny in a completely inappropriate way. It is like the Where's Waldo from hell.

Yet, it does get one thinking. It is too easy to write off Pilate as an overworked lightweight, in over his head, a bad man, a foolish man, a weak man, but perhaps not a wicked man. Yet, in letting himself be cowed by the rabble, and sending off a man he knows to be innocent as the tidiest (or least-headache-inducing) solution to a bureacratic snafu, one may rightly put him on the same footing of wickedness as the Impaler. Pilate's muzzy, dispassionate condemnation is just as inhuman and chilling as the bitter, ruthless, hot-and-cold hatred of Vlad Ţepeș. At least the Impaler never killed anyone out of sheer moral laziness.


And now, Sesame Street's Count von Count singing in German. Just in case you thought this was getting too serious.

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