October 30, 2010
So, what are your plans for the next days? Will you quietly celebrate All Saints’/All Souls’ Day and visit the graves of your loved ones? Or will you choose the American “melting pot” way and honour the Irish feast of Halloween by dressing up as a notorious undead character from Eastern European folklore?
Anyway, here’s a nice little picture that should suit all tastes:
No, what you see in the photo is not a still from some trashy horror flick but the interior of a plain old Roman Catholic ossuary.
As wikipedia explains,
“in countries where ground suitable for burial was scarce, corpses would be interred for approximately 5 years following death, thereby allowing decomposition to occur. After this the body would be exhumed and the remains moved to an ossuary or charnel house, thereby allowing the original burial place to be re-used.”
In an ossuary, of course, the bones wouldn’t just be chucked in a heap but carefully arranged in more or less elaborate ornamental patterns. After all, they still were the remains of your ancestors and you’d want to be able to visit them every now and then, especially on a feast like All Saints’ Day.
On the other hand, if you don’t know the context, the picture does fit rather well with the lurid, spooky, pseudo-gothic character of Halloween. Plus, it should go well with other traditions of remembering the dead and the deceased (think, for example, Mexico’s Dia de Muertos), too. In fact, most people will agree that human skulls are a striking, perhaps the most striking symbol of mortality and death. Just think about those famous Vanitas still lifes in 17th and 18th century painting, illustrating the transitoriness of earthly existence – there’s a skull in, I believe, 99% of them. Of course, they also include other, more culturally and historically coded symbols of transience, like hourglasses, rotten fruit or bubbles. Yes, bubbles. Well, you have to admit, they tend to be rather short-lived and to burst without any apparent reason, so it’s not too far-fetched to view them as reminders of the brevity of life and the suddenness of death.
So, do not be fooled by this teddy bear’s cuddly appearance. It has a grim and moralizing tale to tell…
And, in case you haven’t chosen an outfit for Halloween yet, why not try something different this year? How about a bear costume and a bottle of bubbles?
October 27, 2010
The Wienerwald region is certainly most notable for its extensive forests and its often ruggedly picturesque landscape. It is, however, also spersed with medieval castles on rocky hilltops and ancient monasteries in bosky vales. So when we went hiking there on Sunday, we also took the chance to visit the former Benedictine abbey of Klein-Mariazell. Founded in the 12th century, it became an important pilgrimage site in subsequent centuries and, consequently, underwent some major refurbishment campaigns over the years. Still, there are some medieval features left, most prominently a couple of splendid Romanesque portals…
These portals date from the mid-13th century, so they’re roughly contemporary to the porch of the cemetery chapel in Tulln where we visited earlier this year. Some of those elaborate ornaments used on the north portal in Klein-Mariazell [pictured above] may even be found in Tulln as well. In both cases the stonemasons clearly tried to outdo themselves, decorating each moulding on the archivolt in a different style.
All this effort, though, was somewhat wasted on us. Our interest lies much more with medieval painting so we usually fail to get too excited about this kind of architectural details. Architecture-wise we were actually much more fascinated by some artless old farmhouses, perched at the edge of the woods, that we passed on our walking-tour…
Most of them seemed to still be inhabited: Some were engulfed by the crisp smell of burnt wood as smoke was streaming from their chimneys. Some had little cottage gardens in their front yards where withering roses caught our eye.* And in their backyards, some had withering tractors…
That tractor, by the way, isn’t merely old, it’s vintage. It’s a Steyr 180, a model that was produced from 1947 to 1953.** Today, it may look rusty and ragged, but about 60 years ago it would have been all flashy and dashy like this:
Can’t you just about imagine James Dean driving this thing?
* See last picture in previous post.