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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Permanence & Change

I recently had the opportunity of visiting a church 600 years old. It was not one of the a grand cathedrals of Europe. It's belfry does not stand tall, rather a watch tower than a church tower. The nave is low-slung, husky and blends with the neighboring houses. The choir is the oldest part of the building, dating back to the 14th century. The nave was newly built after a fire in the 15th century.

St. John at Kronberg, home of the epitaphs.
The subtle edifice reveals its hidden treasures, once the visitor steps inside. Here, we meet four couples who lived around A.D. 1500. The people sculpted in stone wear outfits strange to us today and radiate stern austerity, but their likenesses bear faces of such vivid expression as if the couples wish to speak to us.

The ladies and gentlemen were the protectors of the church and rulers of the castle on the hilltop above. They are depicted in their best years of life. The men stand on lions as symbol of prowess, the ladies on hounds as symbol of loyalty.

Though the artisans were bound by convention and strove for conformity, lending the sculptures profound grace and serenity, the realism of renaissance is undeniably visible. The clothing is featured in meticulous detail. The faces are shown in fine features. The couples represent two generations. Below I discuss examples for each.

These people lived in uneasy times. The men are geared up in military outfits. They are clad in chain mail and full armor, fitted with all attributes of utility, i.e. the hooks for the lances, the chin guards, the unadorned helmets with large visors meant for use and not for show. The ladies are portrayed in devout poses with heads slightly tilted to the side, eyes gazing downwards. Their hands are clasped in prayer. They wear gowns and bonnets.

The first generation:

The elder generation lived an epoch of uprisings. The reformation had just begun. The knight's helmet is exaggeratedly large. He strikes a belligerent pose, leaning on his sword, his head cocked up in defiance. The protected chin juts out. His lips are pressed tight. He radiates determination, ready to counter any challenge. He is standing close to and in front of his wife ready to protect her from any harm. Despite of her austerity, she exhibits an outgoing, joyful, liveliness. Though her angular, high bonnet covers the scalp entirely, the keen observer notices beautiful tresses of hair masterfully wound in stylish rolls behind her high temples. The young woman smiles with full lips. She wears a tight exposed shirt with a deeply cut v-shaped neck.

With the next generation, facial expression and demeanor have turned more melancholic and pious. Reformation has left its indelible mark. The Lord of the castle stands well apart from and unattached to his Lady. His head tilted in devotion, he gazes straight at us. His hands are clasped in prayer. The face bears a full-lipped mellow expressions, sedate, meditative. He is a role model of a God-fearing leader.

In a portrayal of similar piety, his wife is clad from head to toe in wide, flowing gowns that do not permit the smallest peek at the body underneath. The round bonnet is held with a scarf, tightly framing her face, concealing all hair. The happiness and lightness of youth is absent from her face. Hers expresses the grave responsibility and worry of a matron in the middle of her life, as if in forbearance of the grief to come with a war over the right belief that would ravage the land for thirty years until only one fifth of the populace was left.

The next generation:

Despite the stenciled, figurative style, the couple of the first generation shows touching signs of a special relationship. Though lord and lady strike the expected poses - he martial, she devout - conventions were broken in small ways. Little gestures can project deep meaning. Clad in the iron glove of his armor, his left hand touches the gown of his beloved, beautiful wife. He was known for his quick wits. His first wife had died. This was his second. He loved her dearly. Then as now, love defies convention, is coveted for eternity. Life may have changed over the centuries, the sentiments of life have not.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!
The lord's protective hand.


Addendum
  • The most illuminating, comprehensive accounts I found on the evolution of private life in Europe from the Romans to modernity are published in a series of formidably illustrated and expertly written volumes entitled "A History of Private Life" edited by Paul Veyne, Phillippe Ariès, Georges Duby, and Arthur Goldhammer.

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