On Looking at Holbein

What do you see when you look at The Ambassadors? That anamorphic skull hanging like Edwardian ectoplasm? A Europe slipping from an Amsterdam-Rome Axis to a North-South one? Erasmus weeping? Two young men as silly and full of themselves as any that I ever was, looking out?

The question is redundant, since it doesn't really matter. They are there, dead and alive forever. I was struck by how 'unskulled' the faces looked for the period. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, after all, was obsessed with the skull beneath the skin, and with lycanthropy--the transformation of people into wolves. Dual natures run like a thread through Donne and Hobbes, and were, I suppose, even in vogue in the papal states. For Northern Europe, the mutability of man was a spur to science; for the world of the counter reformation, a reminder of the animality of human feelings, of the sensuality that linked the Catholic effort to get people to feel to the effort to get people to reach out to a God they knew without thinking. Werewolves were as true a vehicle for that impulse as Bernini's statutes. They were based on a theory of an excess of humour, I think of melancholy, as these men probably wanted to demonstrate but couldn't, since they seem to have very little to feel sorry about. Who knows, though? Appearances deceive, after all.

The mandolin made me think of Rod Stewart. How silly can I get? I mean, pretty soon, I'll be writing defences of Hroswitha. The backdrop curtain made me think of the Nixon white house, though as far as I can tell from the films, his curtains were gold, like those of President Obama. Those green things look stained by the new tobacco, and remind me more of british political clips from the seventies. I bet you that Eric Morecambe is telling Sir Reginald Maudling a joke behind one of them, whilst Enoch Powell skulks in another. They are made for hiding in. What are those lines from Lepanto?
King Philip's in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day

That weird chain of thought--dwelling on baroque things-- brought me to King Charles, and the sculpture of him looking more than a little like Frederick I of Prussia--without the mad toothbrush moustache, but with a pencil one--that I saw in the Baroque exhibition last year. Both Charleses fell for the Baroque, and for its sensual interplay--for the music in the cabinet and the idea of the immutable skull, rather than the promise of education and escape that the rest of the picture offered. But then, the functional definition of a Stuart King, at any time, was that they were just, well, dicks.

I went down to Baker Street today, tired, and with holes in my shoes again--it happens regularly, and I don't really mind--and gave a tutorial on the utility of Elizabethan anticatholicism, before doing one on tort law. They lifted my mind up, during a day I spent otherwise giving talks on the economics of stagflation and unemployment. When you think of Elizabeth, you might have a feeling of a humanist intelligence who didn't fall for the Southern passion, or for sensuality--like Charles and his masques--and who wouldn't have fallen for the ideas that I sometimes play with. That comes across in the Book of Common Prayer, as much as anything else. I read a version of it--I assume the 1662 one--at one of the few Anglican services I have ever attended, at the Queen's chapel in Windsor, with herself behind a screen--it was a bar jolly to Cumberland Lodge and none of us realised that she was there until we met her outside.

What does she see when she looks at Holbein, I wonder, knowing what she knows? I quite like the Queen, though her driver has tried to run me down on two separate occasions--I keep stepping in front of her car--and my grandfather was involved in helping free Ireland from her governments.

My girlfriend is away for a week or so, reader. I pray for my mum, I miss my friends, and I am staring at Holbein with some aniseed Sake a young woman gave me after a favour I did her. I hope that this post finds you well, since I have something of a foreboding about the economic abyss that we're skirting.I want people to be well. It's all very well me sitting here looking at art and drinking, but I can't help think of those families who are depending on jobs and paying their way through their lives, needing to believe the lies of those who think that they govern, and not knowing what I think is gathering pace around us.

The skull in baroque and early modern art is meant to remind us that everything passes; I realise with the Holbein one that the only way to see it is through a glass. Mine is a small Croatian one, a little bigger than a thimble, which a loving woman gave me once.

It's odd how we see what we want to see, isn't it? Here's something healthy to help you to bed....



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