So late tonight arrives word that “the Mayor’s Agent” has decided the fate of the building that is home to the Third Church of Christ Scientist, a 16th St. NW structure that is unloved by its congregants, but considered a significant example of “brutalist” architecture. It was granted landmark status, against the wishes of the people who worship there and maintain it. They then petitioned for the right to tear it down despite its landmark status. It appears that they have won this round. Many, many issues are raised by this, including what will be built there in place of the existing structure… which will be discussed here soon.
Daily Archives: May 12, 2009
One of the more pernicious habits of blinkered historical thinking is to imagine that all exotic lands exist in isolation from each other, and have substance only in relation to our frame of reference. The Smithsonian’s The Tsars and the East, which opened on May 9th at the Sackler Gallery, is a delightful confrontation with that bad habit. Early in the exhibition is a map showing the trade routes that connected Russia, during the days of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy and the early Tsars, to the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran. Lines of commerce trace across the Caspian Sea through Astrakhan and Baku, and down the Dnieper and the Don, to the Black Sea and Istanbul.
This is not the Russia we think of when learning about Peter’s Window on the West. This is not the Iran (or Persia) that comes to mind when remembering the battle of Salamis or Alexander’s conquests. And it’s not the Ottoman empire that creaks and groans through First World War. All of those places are connected by direct lines to the Western imagination, but not to each other.
But here’s the material proof of their complex, long and rich interaction: Chain mail and helmets covered in lacy traces of gold and Koranic inscriptions, sitting in the treasury of the Tsars; a Russian-made surplice of silk, gold, silver, precious gems and pearls, many of its constituent parts brought from Turkey; and a luxurious caparison (a covering for horses) made in 17th century Iran, brought as an ambassadorial present to the ruler of Russia. The show brings to Washington dazzling treasures from the Armory of the Moscow Kremlin.
These sort of “treasures” exhibitions are often just a lot of bling without much historical context. But for opera lovers, especially, this is a thrilling show. Because while we may all too often think of these faraway places in isolation from each other, there is an embedded memory of their interconnection in the great tradition of Russian opera. As you walk through the exhibition, you feel as if you’re in the costume shop of a well-funded opera house preparing for a production of “Boris Godunov,” or Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sadko.”
Even the handiwork seems strangely like costume jewelry. The settings of emeralds and sapphires and rubies are strikingly crude. Their effect, on sword hilts and horse bridles, was calculated for its impact at a distance. Up close, the work is blunt. In the sun, from a safe remove, it must have been brilliant and blinding. It’s theatrical production.
You realize, looking at the over abundance of riches here, how much Western discomfort with the Tsar’s theatricality and display was a second-order response to the age-old fear of the same things in the more familiar East of Xerxes and co. It was a backdoor for “Orientalist” anxieties about luxury and tyranny and excess. Mussorgsky’s Coronation Scene, in “Boris,” is a memory of these connections, between Russia and the East, at a time when Russia (and Russian composers) were increasingly turning to the West. Its thrill, its menacing power, its grand racket of noise, is an aural imagining of the world that The Tsars and the East makes visually manifest.
Opera News has placed online my recent story about Mahler, who despite being one of the greatest vocal composers of all time, never wrote an opera (a few, minor bits of juvenalia notwithstanding).
The glasses slowly sliding down the nose of Peter Brown, one of the grandest old scholars of late antiquity, threatened to upstage his Library of Congress lecture. Brown is a recipient of the Library’s richly endowed Kluge Prize and on April 30 he delivered the obligatory prize lecture in one of the Jefferson building’s ornate meeting rooms. It was packed and you could have heard a pin drop as Brown walked the audience through a fundamental division in the way early Christian monks supported themselves financially. But oh, those glasses, a large, owlish pair of spectacles that kept sliding down to the very tip of his nose. He’d push them up every so often, and down they’d come again, threatening to fall off his face. The Irish-born scholar who now teaches at Princeton is straight from central casting, with all the donnish eccentricities, wayward glasses and disheveled mop of silver hair.
His lecture reminded us that something we take for granted was not always so, that the tradition of religious communities working to support themselves was, in fact, a hard won battle in the history of spirituality. The map of the ancient, post-Roman world, of course, makes what we take as the center of civilization—Europe—really just a backwater. The real action was in the East, where communities of Manicheans and Syrian religious mendicants viewed the idea of work very differently. For the Manicheans, work was an all too materialistic intersection with a thoroughly corrupted world: It not only dirtied the hands, it dirtied the soul. For the Syrian communities, who relied on alms to survive, work was a reminder of man’s devastating fall from grace. Not for them Milton’s almost cheery send off to Adam and Eve: “the World was all before them, where to choose their place of rest, and Providence their guide…”
Brown cited a relatively recently discovered cache of Manichean documents, in which a woman is instructed to send oil to the religious elites as alms. This was part of a systematic laying up of spiritual treasure. Charity, it seems, was most perfectly dedicated not to what we might think of as the poor, but rather, the impoverished-by-choice religious elites. It also allowed them to keep the mind and spirit focused on prayer, rather than encumbered by work.
A very different tradition emerged in Egypt, where work was eventually celebrated as an essential part of the monastic order, a tradition that spread throughout Europe. This not only connected monks to each other in communities, it connected them to the world, and freed up the charitable impulse to be directed to the real poor. Brown didn’t belabor the consequences of this, but it clearly directed western spirituality away from ideas that still define some Eastern traditions: An ideal of disembodied, impoverished, mendicant religion that turns its gaze firmly upward and away from the world.
Oh yes. There was wine and nibbles afterward. And though Brown’s glasses departed his nose on a half dozen occasions, they never hit the floor. This guy’s a pro.