Vale of tears

There is a very old legend that relates that the crocodile would cry in order to disarm its victims, human or otherwise, which would be moved out of curiosity to watch the sight, then suddenly devoured by the cunning reptile when they were least expecting it. This has given rise to the idiomatic expression for insincere displays of sincerity: crocodile tears.

Tears hold a special place in spirituality, particularly for the Eastern branches of Christianity. While there has been, and still is,  much discussion on whether Christ laughed -for laughter is considered by some authorities to be a sign of human imperfection as we laugh, in Aquinas’s opinion, at the unexpected- He is recorded as having wept following the death of Lazarus. One of the most haunting biblical scenes involving lachrymosity occurs in Psalm 137 when the Israelites, being held in captivity in Babylon, are depicted as going to the river and crying at the memories of their homeland, a literal and metaphoric image to which many can relate:

By the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat down, yea, we wept

when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps in the willows thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;

and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,

Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

(Psalm 137:1-4; King James Version)

There are two very different yet beautiful versions of this psalm that I love very much. Palestrina’s sixteenth-century polyphonic setting, Super Flumina Babylonis, is moist with melancholy; hear it here. The other version is by Boney M entitled By the Rivers of Babylon, and was a chart success in 1978, and may be listened to here.


The psalm, a painting of which by Harold Copping is above, and the concept of exile hold a special place in Rastafarianism. I don’t think that it is only religious-minded folk who are moved by the poem’s sentiments, for we are all under the domination of our passions, addictions, and frail natures. The only difference is one of degree.


If boys are not supposed to cry (and this makes me think of a song from my youth by The Cure), then how much more must kings never do so.  Louis XIV was a young man of twenty years old when he was passionately in love with Marie Mancini (pictured above), the sultry niece of his prime minister and father-figure Cardinal Mazarin.  Tears would figure prominently in their relationship as Louis first noticed her passion for him when she cried during a serious illness that threatened the young sovereign’s life. Despite his love for Marie, a marriage was not possible. The young woman brought no political advantage and was not of the blood royal. Moreover, her familial ties with the detested minister meant that such a union would always remain suspect and worse still, sullied. Initially, Louis determinedly fought to change his mother and Mazarin’s refusal as well as attempting the even more impossible task of convincing public opinion, but sensing the inevitable, he resolved to send her away from the court and had one final interview with her on 22 June 1659 before she left to her exile. She was in many respects not only his first love but also his true great love and, standing before her while saying farewell, tears streamed down his cheeks. Even though this was a day of deep sadness for Marie that would radically change her life, she was shocked at the ruler’s signs of weakness, and the last words she said to him were: “Vous êtes roi, vous pleurez et je pars” – “You are the king, yet you are crying and I am going to leave”. The lines would be immortalized eleven years later in Racine’s play Bérénice, albeit as a paraphrase, a tragedy about Emperor Titus renouncing his lover, whom as a Queen the Roman people will never accept, in a drama that also functions as a crafty homage to Louis’s youthful sacrifice in the interests of state. This is the only time that Louis would cry in public yet literature was able to transform the apparently emasculating experience into a political triumph. This episode and the notion of the king crying interested me so much that I wrote an article related to these issues: “‘Le roi pleurera’: Liturgy and Performance in Bossuet’s Oraison funèbre d’Henriette d’Angleterre,” in Formes et formations au XVIIe siècle: Actes de Columbia, ed. Buford Norman, Biblio 17 Series, 168 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2006), 225-36 (available here).

I find it interesting that tears themselves are not only associated with sadness or grief but that we can also shed tears of joy or laugh so much that we cry. They remain one of the greatest challenges to actors and they have the power to move spectators when we see them in artists or even politicians, as evidenced in the iconic video to Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U (1990), at the end of which two tears slowly make their way down both cheeks. We might be hardened, we might be inured to the bittersweet vicissitudes of life, and yet there seems to be part of us that cannot resist the sight of genuine tears. In this, they are a necessary reminder of the goodness that lurks beneath the veneer of our egocentricity.

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Today’s cufflinks suggest teardrops. They are made out of sterling silver and opaque champleve black enamel and bear the maker’s mark of MEKA. They were crafted by the Danish designer Meka Reklamegaver who was active from 1951 to 1989 and it is likely that they date to the early to mid-1960s, though I would think more towards the beginning of that decade. I find them very beautiful, reflecting the beauty of the tears that humanize us in this, our exile, in the vale of tears.

Fired up

The fly, in all of its varieties but in particular the humble housefly, is an almost universal symbol of filth, contempt, and even death. The reasons for this are very apparent; flies are attracted to decaying food, they spread germs, and, thanks to forensic-science programmes and cold-case investigations on the television, we know how quickly they gravitate to corpses. They are often used in movies, their presence being a portent of some calamity; in The Omen, for example, their buzzing indicates malevolent forces that are about to be unleashed. In contrast to these negative connotations, the Romans saw them as a sign of the ubiquity of the gods, for, just as flies were always part of our daily routine, so were the gods watching everything and present everywhere. In the East, it is traditionally associated with the soul, eternally wandering through different carnations. The fly has a long pedigree in Western art. Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child with a Goldfinch (1480), features a fly as a prominent part of the painting.


Both Mary and Jesus are studying this somewhat enormous fly, almost with an apprehensive air but primarily with disdain. The fly here is an emblem of death and disease, brought into the world as the consequences of original sin. Satan is known, in the Old Testament and borrowed from Babylonian religions, as the Lord of the Flies. Whereas illness and mortality are the fault of Adam and Eve, the pairing of Jesus and Mary form the antithesis of the first parents, for their fruit will be redemption and eternal life. The goldfinch, held so meticulously by the child, is a symbol of the freedom that we gain from the shackles of sin. The art historian Herbert Friedman lists almost 500 devotional paintings from the period that include a goldfinch and links this to the end of some terrible manifestations of plague throughout southern Europe. This knowledge gives an additional element to the image as the fly must have had an especial horror to people who had seen the devastation that this pestilence brought. Salvador Dali often uses the fly in paintings in much the same way as these Renaissance artists, that is to say as a sign of the corruption of the flesh.


As a random religious addendum: the town of Gerona in Catalonia makes chocolate flies to celebrate the annual feast of St Narcissus. When French invaders tried to pillage the saint’s tomb in 1285, a swarm of flies flew out from the coffin and caused the intruders to flee empty-handed. Salvador Dali alluded to this legend with his bronze sculpture St Narcissus of the Flies, executed in 1974 (above).

For my part, flies always make me think of Rimbaud’s poem, Voyelles. This sonnet was written when the poet was 17 years old and it is fair to say that it counts among his most difficult to interpret. Whole studies have been penned entirely devoted to these fourteen lines. Rimbaud gives each vowel a colour and related imagery, famously declaring in a letter that he had, alone, invented the colour of vowels. The poem reveals that he had the condition of synesthesia, but the particular colours that pair with each vowel are striking as black is allocated to A, expanded in lines 3 to 5:

A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Golfes d’ombre ;

A, black velvety corset of shiny flies

Which buzz around cruel stench,

Gulfs of darkness;

              [taken from the translation here]

It is a truly incredible poem, that combines eastern and western mysticism, the young man’s interest in alchemy, linguistics, and religion. The flies here, rather than remaining ciphers of doom and despair, are cast positively as life emerging out of death, a radical inversion of a traditional symbol. I often teach this work to students and it can lead to some interesting discussion, but ultimately any neat resolution of the poem’s themes is simply not convincing or perhaps even possible. In his seminal biography on Rimbaud, Graham Robb shows the futility of such endeavours by looking at a French high-school teacher in the 1960s who published an article claiming that each vowel represented a sexual position, beginning with its very shape and then the terminology, probably revealing more about the schoolmaster’s interests than Rimbaud (the teacher’s glossing was completely heterosexual, a world away from Rimbaud’s same-sex desires). I have always believed that the young man was struggling to articulate his sense of spirituality. He uses O as the last vowel, changing the order but also referring to Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. This leads to an interesting visual effect that may be seen in the last line on the original manuscript below.


The last line reads: “- O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux !” [O, the Omega, violet beam from His Eyes!]. The allusions to the Apocalypse of St John are obvious but the two Os at the beginning of the line form two eyes with a nose in their middle staring back at us. Who is it? Rimbaud, across time? I like to think that it is God, the God that Rimbaud is searching for but whose eyes, nonetheless, are not focused yet. He was to convert, several weeks before he died.


Today’s cufflinks are rather bold, not in their appearance but rather in the choice of the fly. They are made by Paul Smith and the material is brass with blue enamel wings. Along with Vivienne Westwood, I am partial to some of Paul Smith’s designs of cufflinks and find these ones very appealing because of their subdued quirkiness. I particularly like the reclaiming the fly from its predictable attributes and in this small sartorial way, Sir Paul is following in the footsteps of Arthur Rimbaud.

Radio signals

Only two inventions in Western history have truly succeeded in changing mindsets and were directly responsible for generating others: the printing press and the steam engine. The press enabled information to be diffused across nations and continents and persuaded people to espouse new opinions, rally to action, or to become a global citizen. The Internet does exactly the same thing via a different medium and it’s for this reason why we should see it as a successor to printing rather than an entirely new invention. The steam engine meant that trains and ships could move in hitherto rapid speeds and the world suddenly became smaller. The downside was that it became an effective tool of colonization. Humans hankered after spanning even more distance in less time, and this led to the automobile and the plane in a direct line of technical succession.


While historians hotly dispute when radio transmission was first invented and by whom,  we know that the first public demonstration of a radio broadcast of the human voice was made by Landell de Moura, above, a Brazilian Catholic priest and scientist, on 3 June, 1900. Moura belongs to a long and distinguished list of clergy who were major scientists, a group that includes Georges Lemaître, a Belgian cleric who formulated the Big Bang Theory. The medium took a while to be be developed, but commercial radio stations spread like wildfire from 1920 onwards. It led to the demise of silent movies and, ultimately, to televisual technology, peaking in its influence and popularity during the 1940s. It is very interesting that, during the first few decades of radio and television, the devices people possessed at home purposely resembled a piece of furniture rather than having any futuristic or mechanical aspects. It is as if manufacturers wanted to reassure the public that this was something safe and homely and I took the image below at the National Music Centre in Calgary.

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These sets and the medium itself was known as the wireless, a word that had fallen into disuse until computers took up wireless reception. For my part, I gave up television a long time ago and have a television set only for watching selective DVDs. I took great care to ensure that the device is not the focus of my living room, a mantelpiece and some art are, since it does not represent, in any way, a tabernacle of entertainment for me. While many good and worthwhile programmes are broadcast, there is a temptation of dependency that is very difficult to overcome and I never wanted to fall back into the habits of my teenaged self, watching several hours a day. Radio does not demand the listener’s attention in quite the same insistent way as television does, and leaves room for imagination to do its work. While it is true that we may spend hours on the Internet, it remains an interactive experience which ultimately leaves control in our own hands.

Miller brass

Today’s cufflinks very much evoke a radio set to me, albeit an abstracted version of one.  They bear the maker’s mark of Peggy Miller and are made out of brass. Miller may have studied with the great 20th-century artist Betty Cooke in Baltimore and is one of a handful of artisans who worked with brass during the 1950s and 1960s, which she often paired with ebony wood. These cufflinks are rare since she didn’t make very many examples, concentrating on women’s jewellery, pendants and necklaces in particular. Given the radio theme, I would guess that they date from the late 1940s or early 1950s. I like this pair very much as they are bold yet simple, alluding to a medium that was about to be gravely attacked by television but which would ultimately rise again.


Firstly, all good wishes for this new year. As historians and some liturgists know, the new year did not in fact begin until the feast of the Annunciation, traditionally called Lady Day, which falls on 25 March. This christianization of the calendar was successful until 1752, at least in England, when the dating system changed from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar. A remnant of this exists with the tax year in the UK, which still begins on 6 April. While the US fiscal year corresponds to a calendar year, filing must completed by a variable date occurring in mid-April. The French term for calendar year, année civile, is thus called to distinguish it from the former religious year of March to March.


There are many artistic representations of this iconic moment but my favourite by far is Antonello da Messina’s version, above, known as the Palermo Annunciation to differentiate it from his other paintings on the theme. It was his last work, painted in 1476.The work’s use of colour as well as the function of light and shade are of great interest. I’m currently reading an excellent book, Victoria Finlay’s Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, which details how the materials used in painting supplies throughout the centuries have degenerated, though I haven’t yet reached the chapter on blue. This colour is traditionally used in connection with Mary, and is therefore the dominant hue of the stained glass of Chartres Cathedral, which houses the prize relic of one of the Virgin Mary’s veils. If you haven’t been to Chartres then you absolutely must. On a bright day, seeing the sunlight pierce this glass made almost eight centuries ago whose particular shade of blue we still do not know how to reproduce even now, and witnessing the space being filled with dancing spots of azure vibrancy is an experience that I can only describe as like being punched in the stomach. It is stupefying and in a most positive way.


Courtesy of francisco.j.gonzalez, Flickr

Back to Messina’s own Marian interpretation. It is a remarkable work of a remarkable moment. This Mary is not hesitant nor fearful;  her face displays calmness and resoluteness, though the shadows on one side hint at the suffering that her choice will bring her. Art historians underline the detail of her hands. What I find striking is that the right hand is raised almost in blessing, indicating that her assent to the divine plan will bring the highest salvific blessing on humankind. Most noteworthy of all is the fact that she is reading, stressing that she is now the Mother of the Word, an act accomplished by the ultimate speech act of her compliance. The printed word is endowed with a particular kind of power at the date when this image was completed, since Europe was within the first few years of the printing revolution. Moreover, this Mary is an active reader, a participator in culture, and has assertive body language, deftly rejecting patriarchal representations of female submission.

The archangel Gabriel, one of the greatest celestial beings in the court of Heaven, appears to a young peasant girl but, in an unexpected turn of events it is he who pays respect and homage to her rather than the reverse. Catholics believe that this is because she was born without original or actual sin, the sole sinless human in history; my local poet William Wordsworth described her as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast“. Her response, “fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum”, be it done unto me according to thy word, is the moment of transformation in human history, the reversal of Eve’s consent to Satan and heralds the arrival of redemption into this vale of tears. For these reasons, it was, and is, a fitting feast on which to begin a new year. A friend of mine in the UK who does not accept the Gregorian Calendar has his bank’s authorization to write cheques from 1 January to 24 March of each year with the previous year’s date, so this custom is still retained on some cheques circulating in the UK.

Secondly, following on from the first paragraph, normal cufflink blogging will resume soon. I am currently in Paris on a month’s research trip. France does not have a great tradition of cufflink workmanship, though there are a few notable examples. It is hard to find any cufflinks at all in jewellers, let alone decent pairs. However, I have a great stock of images of pairs I have not yet blogged about and have brought eight (unblogged) pairs as my companions on this trip (until my SSIO arrives on 15 January), so there is no risk of running out of matter for the blog!