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This book does not belong on your
coffee table that is, unless you would like to have people stop and catch a
look at it, or wonder what you are up to now.
The portrayal on the dust jacket, of a satanic figure being slaughtered,
is enough to stop almost anyone.
To begin with, it is essential to
understand that this book is in a class by itself. This subject is not widely known or studied, and I seriously doubt
that even the most avid art historian would go through this heavy tome
Nigel Spivey is very
knowledgeable, and leaves no pebble unturned in his research; that is
obvious. But that very characteristic
does prove to be somewhat distracting, as the reader is going along trying to
grasp the subject at hand and then has a number of side issues brought up. The man knows too much! These characteristics would be quite
suitable for a man in his position, however, as lecturer in Classics and Fellow
of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
The prelude lays it out: this is
a book about art, about the aesthetic of feeling for others. So, he continues, it is also a book about
horror, fear, death, ghastliness and grievous bodily harm; it is, predominantly,
a book about pain.
Then, somewhat paradoxically,
Spivey writes that it is Art that soothes us in our lives.
Understandably, the opening
chapter goes into Spivey's trip to Auschwitz very vivid and very visual. Then on to the feelings of guilt and disgust
that might engulf anyone after seeing and feeling the horrors of Auschwitz -
that we can claim to see or feel anything beautiful, anything of culture after
those unspeakable acts of humans upon other humans.
It was humans who made the
Holocaust, some of whom even enjoyed the lovely Alpine wildflowers in spring
and Schubert songs. Humans. They claimed to be ridding their nation of
rubbish - disposable rubbish, such as Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and Marxist
agitators. Book burnings started in
1933, degenerate art and the artists who were persecuted for producing
it. Surely nothing before had been so
Then we get into the history and
social attitudes surrounding crucifixion as punishment and death around the
time of Christ. Apparently, crucifixion
was not practiced all around the Mediterranean. It was utilized as a fitting end only for the lowest of the low,
and only by Easterners, Greeks, Carthaginians, or Jews. All of these people were considered by the
Romans to be total Barbarians. The
Romans did use crucifixion, ultimately, but supposedly reserved it for
especially low criminals. Perhaps they
preferred the more exciting methods of mass murder, such as staging massacres
of Christians by lions at the Coliseum. What a thrilling way to socialize, to
spend time with friends and family.
Spivey points out that Caracalla was tender-hearted as a boy, but became
hardened up by trips to the Coliseum, where he was forced to watch these
dreadful slaughterings. It is well
documented that he became a most bloodthirsty individual!
This book brings up numerous
subjects that most people know nothing about, and most of them not bloody. The major obstacle faced by Paul and the
other apostles, for example, when trying to convert non-Christians (everyone,
initially) was the question of why Christ, if he were truly the son of God,
would be murdered by crucifixion, which was reserved for the lowest and most
horrendous criminals? Additionally, the
idea of burial and resurrection didn't fit at all. Crucified victims were cremated, not buried. So the images of the crucifixion and the
symbol of the cross werent even used until many centuries later. Since the masses could not read, seeing
visual images and hearing verbal depictions were the ways they learned.
This book is an odd one in its
primary subject a very thorough examination of the portrayal, in our art
tradition, of torture, misery, despair, and death, beginning with the very
start of western art in Egypt, and bringing us up to WWII, and the resulting upheaval
But these sentiments invariably lead to feelings of hope for betterment in the future.
It seems to be only human to have these cycles in our societies.
Seeing the wretched seems to lead us to a determination to improve.
It is part of human nature.
The masterly passages about
ancient history, customs, and traditions of various individuals as well as
nations, the thorough etymological tracings of phrases and words, and the
amazing comparisons of imagined of historical figures help to shed light on the
earliest times of western culture.
Spivey moves effortlessly from history to art to Egyptology, to ancient
Rome, and so on, throughout the book.
At the beginning, I could not get
into the book at all. When I finally
overcame that major hurdle, I had already determined I would not like it too
gruesome. But Spivey's knowledge and
excellent writing pulled me in, and I ultimately even enjoyed the book! He is not only capable and scholarly, but
also funny enough that I heard myself laughing out loud. This is amazing for a book I could not pick
up for so long.
I do fault the proofreading
somewhat, and dislike the fact that there is not one speck of color. It is a weighty book about a serious
subject, but very enlightening, and even humorous. And I still think that it has its own little niche in the
vastness of literature.
2002 Gretchen Williams Jurek
Gretchen Williams Jurek,