Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Albrecht Durer, "Holy Family with Three Hares"
Christmas is now less than a week away. The practical meaning of this sentence is that you have no more time to be reading random blog posts than I have to be writing them. But, then, again, I’m left with the conundrum of the old ars longa and the definite vita brevis, so one plunges on. In this household we career through pre-Christmas from crisis to crisis, with this day’s crisis being the Christmas cards. They really do need to be on their way within forty-eight hours. I have been printing our own since about 1970, when the first Vandercook arrived ; but this year the premature descent of chaos, combining with age, infirmity, and a serious writing obligation conspired against me. God rewarded me with a miracle. While searching for a lost book—which I never did find of course—I stumbled upon a large cache of old cards unused by anyone but the spiders who seem to have been nesting in them for the last decade.
Over the years we have had a wide variety of designs. The old Christmas blocks from the Twenties and Thirties that I used to find among the junk bought at auction are now so retro as to look futurist. And early in my Christmas card career I had a reasonably high quality set of four of Durer’s Christmas etchings reproduced. Among the lesser known curses of the digital age is that the photoengraver has disappeared from the earth, so my line etchings are now antiques approaching the value of their prototypes. But they are large, barely fitting into an A-6 envelope.
Of the Durers my own favorite is the so-called “Holy Family with Three Hares,” which features a pretty well-fed Madonna and Child, and an emaciated Joseph looking approximately 102. This was the image that led me to do extensive research into Joseph iconography, and the place to do that is in the pages of the Cahiers de Joséphologie. I’ll wager I’ve got you there. There is a certain genre of magazine that seems to exist only in the waiting rooms of dentists’ offices. Mainly they have as their subject matter the latest trends in aluminum tubing or the undiscovered charm of picturesque shopping malls in Passaic County. The plausible theory would seem to be that people who are waiting in dentists’ offices are probably so preoccupied with premonitions of the root canal that stocking Harper’s or The New Yorker, which actually require a paid subscription, would be a frivolous expense. Since people are only pretending to read anyway, a dog-eared copy of Dental Prophylaxis Today for May, 2013, will serve quite well. But even in these grim antechambers, brilliant with fluorescent lighting and shiny plastic laminate chairs, you will not find the Cahiers de Joséphologie, a treat reserved exclusively for obscure medieval scholars and sub-sub-librarians.
Durer shook off this mortal coil in 1528. But don’t think that dead white males, just because they are my specialty, are the only artists in our salon. We have, whenever possible, tried to patronize up-and-coming painters as well. Somewhere around 1988 Luke Fleming, then about ten years old, produced for his Sunday School class at Trinity Church the now famous sequence known to art historians as “Luke’s Luke”—referring, of course, to the most tender and feminist of the four evangelists, and the one whose treatment of the Christmas legend is regarded by many scholars as the most poetic and inventive of the four of them. Luke, who as we know from extra-canonical sources produced a portrait of the Virgin, was certainly the only practicing painter among them. Fleming was particularly struck by what he called the “urgency of the kinetic moment” suggested by one textual detail (“And they came with haste…”, Luke 1:16)—a sentence written of the shepherds, though Fleming’s fecund imagination reassigned it to the magi of Saint Matthew. Thus was born “Wise Man in a Hurry”. I was, as I say, fortunate enough to stumble upon a store of our old cards, which, though mainly consisting of a more conventional (camelback) treatment by an unknown commercial artist from Fall River, MA, included several exemplars of “Hurry”.
Luke Fleming the Younger, "Wise Man in a Hurry"
Now, of course it is I who am in a hurry—too rushed to explain what I learned from the Cahiers de Joséphologie about the insistence of certain influential theologians of the fifteenth century that all paintings the Holy Family clearly depict in Joseph a geezer too old to cut the mustard. We have to get our cards into the mail, among other things. But it suddenly occurs to me that a blog post itself might serve as well as any three by five piece of printer’s stock to send holiday greetings to all our far-flung friends in many lands. So to all of you a very merry Christmas, and throughout our whole needy planet let there be peace and good will to all.