Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Adoration of the Shepherds

The Adoration of the Shepherds, by the wonderful Venetian artist Jacopo Tintoretto; on display in the incomparable treasury of art that is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.

From a guidebook by Francesco Valcanover;  "In an open scenic illusionism, the shepherds below present their gifts with impassioned and joyous gestures.  They are counterpointed by the light and shadow created by the brightness from outside; above, main and secondary figures taking part in the divine event take on attitudes of conscious, almost solemn participation and are dazzled by the light which streams through the cracks between the wooden beams of the humble barn.  The two different spiritual moments are underlined also by the different colour quality; without breaking the continuity the lower part is continuously struck by reverberations and reflections and at the same time carefully and realistically evokes the animals in the stall, the brightly-colored peacock, the humble tools; the upper part is calmer and more relaxed although the wide chromatic background painting is strengthened by sudden, flashing rays of light."

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The First Heisman & Jay Berwanger of UChicago, 80 Years On

Jay Berwanger
Eighty years ago today the Downtown Athletic Club awarded its first Heisman Trophy to Jay Berwanger as college football’s most outstanding player.  He was the star halfback of the University of Chicago Maroons, in the team’s waning years as a Big Ten powerhouse.  That alone is a great trivia question. 

Berwanger was also a great track and field athlete, and for many years held a school record in the decathlon.  He tried out for but did not make the 1936 Olympics team in that competition.  In 1936 he became the first player drafted in the first ever NFL draft – the second great Berwanger trivia question.  The Philadelphia Eagles selected him then traded the negotiating rights to the Chicago Bears, but owner George Halas and Berwanger could not agree on a salary so Berwanger never played pro football.  Typical Halas, who over his long history with the Bears gained a reputation as a tightwad.  Berwanger eventually went into business, and passed away in his suburban Chicago home in 2002 at the age of 88.

His Heisman Trophy is on display at the University of Chicago.  I clipped a photo of it from the UChicago website; I don’t think they’ll mind. 

Speaking of the Heisman, at a school charity auction a few years ago I had the good fortune to win a football signed by 20 Heisman Trophy winners, donated by Johnny Lattner, the 1953 Heisman winner and star at Notre Dame and Fenwick High School in suburban Chicago Oak Park.  Lattner's signature is just to the left of the figure of the player.

R Balsamo

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

My UChicago Haunts (Part 1)

This year the University of Chicago is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its founding.  In commemoration of that great and special (and unusual) place, home of the “life of the mind,” where exasperated shouts of “define your terms” bounce between the limestone Gothic buildings, where secondary sources are third class citizens, where the graffito “F-you – Newton” is coupled with “F-your vicinity – Heisenberg,” and where when hurrying to the library on a brisk fall Saturday afternoon a driver pulls over to ask, in all earnestness, “where’s the Plato lecture,” as if you’d know just which one.

Reminiscing on some well-travelled campus haunts:

Hitchcock Hall is an unusual building, inside and out.  Completed in 1902 as a men’s residence hall, it has Gothic elements encased in prominent horizontal lines enclosing five vertical sections, four stories each, connected only by cross corridors in the basement and on the quad side a ground floor, unheated cloister.  It was designed, writes campus historian Jay Pridmore, as “a merger of Prairie School and Gothic Revival.”  Very UChicago – cross-discipline fertilization.  How many other Prairie-Gothic buildings can one name on the National Register of Historic Places? 
Hitchcock Hall
(Snell Hall in more traditional Gothic design is adjacent to the right)
Hitchcock Hall is a place where once upon a time, after yet another intense conversation around a greasy table in the basement kitchen, someone would remark sardonically “well, another raucous Saturday night at the U of C;” but also a place where, should anyone try to leave such conversation, on the price of tea in China or carbon-carbon double bonds, the plea “five more minutes” would invariably be heard. 

Bartlett Gymnasium was a pretty neat, and historic, place.  It once stood as the eastern part of the Stagg Field complex, housing a big gym, offices for coaches, a large trophy room with testaments of past Big Ten glories, and a locker room where attendant Bill Dee would string a mean Hornet squash racket for a young college freshman.  It was decorated with large hand-painted murals and most notably over the entrance a large, multi-paneled stained glass window depicting a scene from Ivanhoe “in which the knight is crowned for his triumph in a legendary twelfth-century tournament” (Pridmore).  Build of very solid limestone in the Gothic style, of course, with the same turrets and battlements found on Stagg Field. 
Bartlett Gymnasium
A place where I learned the game of squash, which I played there for many years, and the place where I would interview the athletic coaches for my short-lived small sports column in the student newspaper The Chicago Maroon.  In the twenty-first century, upon completion on the edge of campus of a larger athletic center with a faddish, futuristic-look, the convenient and centrally-located Bartlett Gymnasium building was turned into a cafeteria.  My oh my.
Hutchinson Commons, Mitchell Tower, a sliver of the Reynolds Club, and a corner of Mandel Hall (L to R) 
Hutchinson Commons was the grandest place on campus to eat a mediocre meal, though when a student it was a bit pricey for me.  Always an interesting experience to chow down in the wood-filled, heavy-beamed, high-ceilinged hall, watched over by past university greats whose huge portraits hang on the walls all about you.  The building, modeled after Oxford’s Christ Hall Church, is, writes Pridmore, a “classic example of the late-Gothic English Perpendicular.”  How about that?  Hutch Commons is part of a multi-building complex that includes Mitchell Tower, Mandel Hall auditorium, and the Reynolds Club, a hodgepodge of spaces and offices built as a student center.

Hutchinson Commons; Portraits Fill the Walls Now
My thin wallet preferred the adjacent C-Shop, where, if flush with a few extra dollars from the latest advance on a loan, my pals and I ate many a greasy hamburger rather than cooking up a pot of cheaper spaghetti or gnocchi.  We were glad to have a late night dining option on campus.  It looks now to have been converted into a healthy-food sandwich, granola, and muffin shop, with a full line of organic juices.  Times have changed.     

Cobb Gate
(Incorrectly named on the postcard)


Finally, for now, Cobb Gate merits a mention.  It is the south entrance (on 57th Street) first to Hull Court, with its complex of biology buildings, and then to the main quadrangles.  Traversed innumerable times in a typical undergraduate’s stint, it certainly is a sight, a passageway beneath a massive limestone archway covered with a bevy of gargoyles and other grotesque creatures glaring down on passers-by, a fair warning that the University of Chicago isn’t for the faint of heart.   



Sunday, December 6, 2015

Saint Nicholas, the Christian Bishop Who Became Santa Claus, & Turkish Chutzpah

Desubleo: Saint Nicholas
Knowing that today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the fourth century Greek Christian bishop in Anatolia upon whom the character Santa Claus is based, I took a few minutes to read up a bit on him.  And, as the saying goes, you learn something every day.

This I already knew:  That Nicholas was known to freely give gifts, often in secret, to the needy, and his practice became the basis for the Christian custom of gift-giving at Christmastime; That somehow the practice of gift-giving was moved, for most Christians, to Christmas Day; That the name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch name “Sinterklaas,” which is some sort of linguistic corruption of “Saint Nicholas.”    

What I did not know was that Nicholas was one of the bishops at the First Council of Nicaea and was such an ardent defender of the “orthodox” Christian position on a point of Christology against that of Arius that, according to legend, he punched Arius in the face.  Nicholas was one of the signatories to the Nicene Creed, a variation of which is still recited in many Christian churches today.

Most art work on St Nicholas seems to be in the Orthodox tradition, two-dimensional and unrealistic, but I came across an appealing painting on the subject by the 17th Century Flemish painter Michele Desubleo, who spent his career in Italy: “Saint Nicholas with the three school children and a Carthusian monk.”

Nicholas died in 343 and was buried in southern Anatolia.  His tomb became a popular religious site to visit.  About 700 years later, the area was threatened by the invasion of the Muslim Turks.  To protect the relics of St Nicholas, some of his remains were whisked off to Bari in the heel of Italy.  The rest were soon carried off to Venice, a maritime culture especially drawn to the patron saint of sailors, where a church in honor of Nicholas was built on the Lido, one of the islands in the lagoon. 
Church of San Nicolò al Lido, Venetian Lagoon

An amusing epilogue:  According to Wikipedia, in 2009 “the Turkish Government announced that it would be formally requesting the return of St. Nicholas's skeletal remains to Turkey from the Italian government” on the grounds that Nicholas’s remains “were illegally removed from his homeland.”

So here we have it:  the Muslim Turks, increasingly becoming more religiously fundamental and even less-hospitable toward Christians, and not all that long after slaughtering the Christian Armenians, and who as a people were not even living in Anatolia at the time of Nicholas, now are demanding the seventeen hundred-year old remains of a Christian man who once lived in Anatolia hundreds of years before Muhammad was even born.  There’s a Yiddish word for this – chutzpah.  St Nicholas was part of a Christian culture in Anatolia that the Turks purposefully destroyed, but now the Muslim Turks want his dusty bones back presumably to promote Christian tourism.  I suspect the Turks will be waiting a long time, but if they are really serious about the principle of returning old stuff to rightful owners they could start with a show of their bona fides by returning to Christians Hagia Sophia, once the greatest church in Christendom, and whatever holy artifacts survived the centuries of their wanton destruction.  And, while they’re at it, why not return the entire city of Constantinople?  Now that would be a real show of good faith.

R Balsamo