By the Pool
Jack was just above average. Even his name, Jack, originated with the Norman invasion when the conquering Normans called the defeated Anglo-Saxon, "Jacques", the equivalent of "hey you." He led a middle class life for a moderately intelligent male born in 1940; attending a public high school, graduated without distinction from a state university, did four years in the airforce via ROTC, received a MA - also from a state university, had an uneventful marriage that produced one child, followed by six years of college teaching before being awarded a PhD from yet another state university. Even at golf, his best sport, he seldom broke 90.
Then after thirty years of marriage his wife suddenly died, his married daughter moved to Texas, and the escalator that carried Jack through life stopped. At this point we pick up on the man selected by higher powers due entirely to his lack of distinction.
Jack, an architect friend, and an accountant friend, are sitting by a swimming pool. The leaves on the oak tree at the far side of the pool are just beginning to show fall colors, but the day is warm enough for them to wear swimming trunks. The architect, recently returned from a trip to Italy, recounts his experience upon seeing Michelangelo's figures emerging from marble at the Academia in Florence.
"I was just standing there," he said," and tears suddenly started streaming down my face."
Jack grinned and said, "You experienced an A.O. - an Aesthetic Orgasm."
The accountant chimed in, "I had one of those when I was eighteen and saw Sophia Loren come out of the water in the Boy on a Dolphin movie."
Jack quipped, "Even accountants can appreciate Venus emerging for the sea."
"What are you wearing around your neck?" the architect asked Jack.
Holding the amulet out from his chest, he replied. "The eye of Horus, protects me from lawyers and doctors." Then with a somber voice, " I had a like experience years ago in the Delphi Archaeological Museum, I was standing on the steps looking down at an eastern European tour group surrounding and looking up at the Charioteer, when it occurred to me that the statue was more real than the tourists. Probably more to do with the space-time continuum than an aesthetic experience."
"Tell us about Delphi, Professor."
"In the late 70's was the first time I was there. I took a bus from Athens to Delphi, which is situated on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus about 2000 feet above the Gulf of Corinth. I found an an old hotel just up from the bus stop, the rates were seven dollars per day and hot water was available between 6 and 10 PM. The room was basic and offered a fine view of the owner's chickens. Groups of tourist day trippers arrived from Athens midmorning and departed well before dark. I purchased a ticket to the site and included myself into a group with an English speaking guide, a knowledgeable guy in need of a new pair of shoes. I surmised the shoddy shoes might be a ploy to increase the tips he garnered when the group returned to Athens. I left the group at the museum and wandered down to the Castalian spring. The spring emerges from a cave which was the home of Python, a chthonic dragon. Under the water was a stylobate which I gather was a site for ablution rituals - either for pilgrims or priestesses of Apollo. There were also modern pipes which furnished water to the village.
The founders of Delphi were probably Minoans from Crete with ties to Egypt. The religion of those small dark skinned Mediterranean folks centered on a goddess or a group of goddesses, whose attributes were a double ax and the crescent moon (horns of consecration ), with male deities in a subordinate role. Their religious centers included caves and mountain peak sanctuaries, such as Delphi. The story of Apollo, a sun god of northern origin, who arrives at Delphi, kills the dragon Python and makes Delphi his sanctuary, thus synchronize two religious practices. An interesting ritual, the Delphic Stepteria held every eight years, retold the story. A boy representing Apollo was led to a hut near a temple called the palace of Python. The hut was set afire and the boy went away in mock banishment. The boy and his group were purified at Tempe (a narrow valley in which the river Penus flows between Mt Olympus and Ossa) and returned to Delphi by the sacred route know as the Pythian Way
The next morning, behind the town, further up on Parnassus, I walked through an olive grove and found a path leading to the local entrance to the archeological site: a gap in the fence. The entrance was in the brush just above the stadium where the foot races were held during the Pythian games. Below the stadium was the Theatre of Dionysus, and just below the theatre, the Temple of Apollo where the Pythia made her prophecies. I stopped short of the temple as there were other tourists around and decided to return that night when I could have the place to myself. Lucky for me there was a paschal full moon and a clear sky, so when I did return I found my way without a misstep. I walked about on the stylobate and among the broken columns of Apollo's temple alone. And I do mean alone, I was standing on the bleached bones of classical civilization. The old spirits were gone. I remembered the 4th century Roman emperor Julian who tried to revive pre-Christian rituals sent an emissary to consult the Oracle and the Pythia responded:
Tell to the king that
the carven hall has fallen in decay;
Apollo has no chapel
left, no prophesying bay,
Delphi was the closest thing the Greek world had to the Vatican. It was the center of both their psychological and spiritual world. Both Apollo, the god of civilization, and Dionysus, the god of the life force, ruled there..fortunately not at the same time. And like the Vatican it was loaded with treasure, functioning as a sort of Panhellenic Reserve bank. Statues of bronze and stone, war booty, and gifts from individual pilgrims. Failed attempts to loot the sanctuary were made by the Persians and later by the Gauls, but the Romans under Nero carried away 500 statues. In 390 AD the Emperor Theodosius, in the name of Christianity closed what little remained."
"Now, a segue" said the accountant, " I have a question. In the field of architecture, what is the most important edifice?"
The architect offered, "The holy grail of modern architecture is The Kimbell Art Museum’s original building by Louis Kahn. The main facade of the building consists of three large bays, fronted by barrel-vaulted porticos, with a recessed central entrance bay. The porticos are light-filled vaulted spaces, which are five deep behind each of the side porticos and three deep behind the central one. Additionally, there are three courtyards in the interior space. I make a pilgrimage there every few years. Here is a link to a site with information about the museum: Great Buildings. You can look at it later." The other two men accessed and marked the site on their iPads.
At that point a waitress arrived and placed a glass of white wine in front of the accountant, red wine for the professor, and a beer for the architect. Somebody gave the waitress money and she smiled and walked back towards the hotel bar.
Jack continued, "Once I visited Chartres during the controversial cleaning of the stained glass. The job was about half finished and it was clear, so to speak, the pro-cleaners were right. The additional light was giving new life to the church.
You know the rituals performed in the medieval church appealed to all of the senses. The beauty of the light through the glass, the smell of incense, the music, the rich garments worn by the participants, and then, of course, the mystery of the mass itself. About the only place the youth of today can get such an experience is at a rock concert, with drugs filling in for the medieval mystical experience.
But even though I understand what the church was doing, I have a Protestant's reluctance about Catholic theatrics. There is an Emerald City of Oz element and like Toto I want to pull back the curtain on the Wizard. For me the Christian aesthetic is better served by the Arena Chapel in Padua. The building is a plain private chapel, but Giotto's frescoes that fill the walls and the ceiling with stories of Jesus, the Virgin, vices, and virtues seem better suited to convey the message of the internal hydraulics of Christianity."
The architect changes the focus of the conversation, "Can we move on to sculpture, more about the Charioteer."
"Very well, here is link to my stock dog and pony show on Greek bronzes, if anyone is interested, save it on you iPad."
"Those Greek bronzes are interesting, but is there not something from modern sculpture, we should know about?," said the accountant.
"Of course," replied the architect, "there are many and there is one that everyone needs to know about. Rodin is recognized as the most important sculptor of the modern era. Rodin freed sculpture from the repetition of traditional patterns and restored the ancient role of sculpture – to capture the physical and intellectual force of human beings. His importance, I think, is due to his emotion-laden representations of ordinary men and women and to his ability to find the beauty and pathos in the human drama. I once made a presentation, not the popular Thinker from the Gates of Hell, but another work. Check it out before you go to bed."
The sun was setting and the air was becoming a bit cool for swimsuits. The three agreed to adjourn and meet in the hotel restaurant at seven. The restaurant like many others along the Gulf Coast specialized in seafood and offered a splendid vista of Destin's emerald water and white beaches.
The conversation over the dinner table would veer away from art and ricochet about prosaic topics such as family, health, and sports, so as not to distract from the enjoyment of soft shell crabs, gulf shrimp, and blackened red snapper and a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
After dinner they repaired to the same table on the veranda by the illuminated pool. "Now, how about underrated painters, anyone want that topic?"
The professor, "Yes I have one, John Singer Sargent, who was once dismissed by the critics as an anachronism, a relic of the Gilded Age and out of step with the artistic sentiments of Europe after the Great War.
"That is enough home work, I am turning in. Jack, now that your are retired and alone in the world what do plan to do with yourself?" the architect yawned, stretched and stood up.
"I'm selling the house, don't need so much room, and will probably relocate to our condo on the Gulf. It is past ten o'clock and past my bed time too." The men said their good nights and headed towards their respective rooms.
After Jack removed the bon bon from his pillow and crawled into bed he mused about what his two friends had said. Jack's profession had allowed him a wide exposure to the arts and ideas. In addition to three months in the summer he had been awarded three sabbaticals during his academic career and had the opportunity to attend concerts in Europe, visit museums from Egypt to Japan, and over a thirty year period attended uncounted conferences. Architects and accountants are notoriously hard workers, so it was surprising his two friends had found time to pursue the arts.