De Profundis ~ from Georges Rouault’s series, ‘Miserere et Guerre’
In his fifty-eight print series titled Miserere et Guerre, the French Expressionist painter Georges Rouault struggled over a thirty-five year period with issues of faith, the suffering of Christ, and human cruelty.
A retrospective of Rouault’s work, “This Anguished World of Shadows,” was held in 2006 at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. Writing about the exhibit, the Museum says:
The brutal, contemporary images of the series — which are, in part, a reaction to the almost unimaginable destruction in France during World War I — become even more poignant when one realizes that, by the time they were published, the artist had lived through World War II as well, and witnessed the almost total transformation of Europe and of French society.
Their ultimate message is a testament to Rouault’s overriding belief in the redemptive power of suffering.
The title of Plate 47, De Profundis, translates as “from the depths,” a phrase which serves to open Psalm 130, one of fifteen Songs of Ascents contained within the Old Testament. Ascension or pilgrimage songs (in Hebrew, Shirei ha Ma’alot) were sung on the occasion of the great feasts of pilgrimage: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. They first would have been sung on the way to Jerusalem: then, on the steps of the Temple. Today, The Psalm often is included in Christian Good Friday services.
Have you ever seen
in your life
than the way the sun,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon
and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again
out of the blackness,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower
streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
as it warms you
as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–
or have you too
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As a child, I never slept through a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Whether the tale was light and playful (“The Princess and the Pea”) or darker, more complex, and just a little disturbing (“The Tinderbox” or “The Child in the Grave”) I loved them all. Sometimes I longed to live in such magical worlds. Just as often, I laughed at the silliness they contained. Occasionally, I responded to the poverty, rejection, illness and death woven into the stories with puzzlement and fear.
Eventually, the darkness lurking around the edges of Andersen’s tales became more understandable. His own life had been difficult. Born to poverty, he was ridiculed in school, and experienced terrible unhappiness there.
Even after he achieved success and a degree of fame later in life, he remained socially awkward, often irritating those who wished to serve him as benefactors. Invited to stay at the home of Charles Dickens for two weeks, he stayed five, even after some gentle and not-so-gentle attempts to dislodge him. Eventually, he was sent packing by his out-of-sorts host. Dickens never replied to another of Andersen’s letters, and by all accounts, Andersen never understood why.
In 1950’s small town Iowa, Mardi Gras was barely a rumor. We’d read now and then of the bead-tossing, the parades, the exotic French Quarter celebrations with their hints of unspeakable, masked misbehavior. But we were midwesterners, with midwestern sensibilities, and gave little thought to those far-away customs.
Even neighbors who traveled to New Orleans seemed to consider Mardi Gras a purely native ritual, disconnected from their experience of the city. Their souvenirs – long, gray-green sweeps of Spanish moss, Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s, recordings of Sweet Emma Barrett’s piano and Willie Humphrey’s exquisite clarinet – were the stuff of any vacation. As we listened to their jazz and looked at their photos, New Orleans’ life seemed normal enough, recognizable despite its differences. On the other hand, Mardi Gras seemed odd, slightly degenerate, part of a world of drunkenness and debauchery best avoided by reasonable people. (more…)