Sunday, August 31, 2014

142. MOMA and the Frick: Is Bigger Better?

     When is bigger better?  Americans have always been enamored of bigger and better, usually equating the two, which also meant faster and newer.  Change was by nature good, and we generally rushed into it without assessing the cost.  This was a new country with new ideas, new religions, new industries, new territories, new cities, new language, new everything, and we scorned anything old as fogyish, ancient, undemocratic, and just plain bad.  Progress and Go Ahead were in, tradition and precedent were out.  We were an adolescent nation, willing to take chances, to grow, to expand, to experiment, and were scornful of Europe and its mature, even decadent societies.  So of course bigger is better; how could it not be?  Or is it?  At times we catch our breath, we wonder. 

The Museum of Modern Art

     In New York City, where Go Ahead has also reigned, the museums are absolutely convinced that bigger is better.  The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), a stellar attraction with a fabulous collection, has blazed ahead with dramatic renovations, so as to house its huge collection and meet its growing need for more space for educational and research activities, and to accommodate the ever growing throngs of visitors.  Which hasn’t been easy, since the museum is situated in the heart of midtown Manhattan, squeezed in by other buildings on all sides.

     So what has MOMA done?  Expand in the only direction possible: upward.  As part of its 1983 expansion it built the 52-story Museum Tower at 15 West 53rd Street, a soaring high-rise providing six floors of museum space and, above that, 248 condominium apartments with high ceilings, huge rooms, and floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of Central Park to the north and of the city skyline, and in some cases the museum’s sculpture garden.  The building’s amenities include doormen, a concierge, a fitness center with a sauna, a steam room and a meditation room, a business conference room, a wine storage room, a landscaped roof terrace, and housekeeping and laundry services.  What, indeed, does it not offer?  But these attractions aren’t for just anyone.  A one-bedroom apartment currently starts at over $2 million, and a two-bedroom at $4.5 million.  So bigger is better for those who can afford it, and for the finances of the museum, which sold the air rights for the tower to a private developer for $17 million.  But just who lives in the tower remains a mystery, since real estate agents promote the amenities offered but not who takes advantage of them. 

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MOMA and its sculpture garden.hibino
     But the 1983 tower was just the beginning.  In 1997 the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi beat out ten other international architects to win the competition to redesign the museum once again.  The museum was closed from May 21, 2002, until November 20, 2004, while Mr. Taniguchi worked his miracles, imposing a long fast on those tens of thousands, myself included, eager to feast on MOMA’s Picassos, Matisses, Van Goghs, and other splendors, unless, for a modest taste of those splendors, they were willing to undertake a perilous journey into the wilds of Queens, where a few treasures were displayed in a former staple factory in Long Island City. 

     So what wonders did the museum now offer, at a cost of $858 million?  Yet more space for exhibitions, classrooms, auditoriums, library, and archives.  But more than that, Mr. Taniguchi promised to make the architecture disappear.  Did he?  I can hazard an opinion on the public spaces, since I have set foot there, an adventure denied me for the 1983 tower.  And what have I found?  Plunging perspectives that make me feel distinctly uneasy, even though I have no particular fear of heights.  (I have climbed to the top of pre-Columbian pyramids in Mexico and Guatemala and – the real test – come back down again without a flutter of qualms.)  And glass walls that seem like there are no walls at all, which likewise makes me uneasy.  Having survived these terrors, I’m always glad to enter exhibition rooms that have four solid walls, a ceiling, and a floor, with no such menacing perspectives.  Architecturally I'm a hopeless old fogey.

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File:USA-Museum of Modern Art.jpg

   What did the critics say of the new MOMA, the brain child of Mr. Taniguchi?  Roberta Smith of the New York Times decried a “big, bleak, irrevocably formal lobby atrium,” hard-to-find escalators and elevators (true), and too-narrow glass-sided bridges (also true) in a “beautiful building that plainly doesn’t work.”  Author John Updike in the New Yorker cited the “enchantment of a bank after hours, of a honeycomb emptied of honey and flooded with a soft glow.”  So the prevailing note seemed to be coldness and a want of charm.  Granted, New York critics have a talent for savaging anything, but in this case I’m inclined to agree.  In the case of the ever expanding MOMA, bigger is not better.  Better in terms of new space acquired, certainly, but at the cost of less intimacy, less warmth, less comfort and ease for visitors.

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The bleak and crowded lobby.

      Is more progress or mayhem to follow?  In 2007 the museum sold a lot on its west side at 53 West 53rd Street to Hines Development, an international real estate developer, for $125 million.  Hines announced grandiose plans to build Tower Verre, an 88-story high-rise designed by French architect Jean Nouvel that would be almost as tall as the Empire State Building, with a faceted exterior with crisscrossing beams, its sleek form tapering to a set of crystalline peaks at the very top, where glass walls with tilting trusses will give a sense of being simultaneously both enclosed and exposed – a design that shocks some but inspires and excites many.  Bland it ain’t.  The city’s Department of City Planning insisted that the structure’s height be cut by 200 feet on aesthetic grounds, but it has still been welcomed as an enterprise that would finally let New York compete with the startling initiatives of Dubai and Singapore and Beijing.  The tower will house three floors of exhibition space for MOMA, a 5-star hotel, and 171 luxury apartments – these last obviously just what New York City needs more of.  But the economic crisis of 2008 hit architecture hard, and Hines’s soaring residential tower was delayed indefinitely until, in October 2013, the needed $1.3 billion was reported to have been found, thanks to loans from a consortium of Asian banks and from billionaire investors in Singapore, with an assist from Goldman Sachs.  Construction is slated to begin in mid-2014 – in other words right about now, though I haven’t been up there to check things out. 

Singapore by night.  Can New York match it?
Eustaquio Santimano

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The projected Tower Verre.
     So what do I think of the projected Glass Tower (verre = glass), not meant to be the tallest building in the world, but one that narrows, stabs, and needles upward to celestial heights?  The English art critic Ruskin said of Gothic architecture, “It not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle.”  If New York is to rival the architectural daring of Asia, what better place for it to happen than at MOMA and its midtown neighbors?  I hadn’t anticipated such a conclusion, but this venture is a challenge.  Can New York still dare and astonish?  I hope so.  It has always dared in the past, and its daring produced Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller and Lincoln Center, the UN building, and the Twin Towers – most of them unprecedented and all of them astonishing.  Is Go Ahead still alive?  Does the dark eros of the city, the force that drives New York, still exist?  Nouvel’s surging tower suggests that it does.  If foreigners have faith in the city, surely New Yorkers can, too.

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The American Folk Art Museum in 2006,
in perilously proximity to MOMA.

David Shankbone
     What a comedown to have to state that in 2011 the ever expanding MOMA, its galleries jammed with visitors, acquired for $31.2 million the home of the financially strapped American Folk Art Museum at 45 West 53rd Street, adjoining its property on the east, and that two years later it announced plans to demolish this  gem of a building, only 13 years old and therefore without landmark status.  (The Folk Art Museum itself has moved to a smaller location at 66th Street and Columbus Avenue.)  Howls greeted MOMA’s announcement, and pleas were made to spare the Folk Art Museum building and its somber façade made of folded planes of hammered bronze, unique.  MOMA then reviewed its latest expansion plans, which included demolition of the little structure, but in January 2014 announced that it was simply impossible to save it; it would have to go.  As of now, it awaits the wrecking ball.  Bigger wins out again, but this time to very few cheers.

The Frick Collection

     The Museum of Modern Art is about as big time as you can get.  By way of contrast, the Frick Collection at East 70th Street and Fifth Avenue offers the charm of smallness and intimacy.  Housed in the Gilded Age mansion of industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), an associate of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, it includes works by Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Goya, Fragonard, El Greco, Holbein, Rembrandt, Piero della Francesca, and many others, plus 18th-century French furniture and porcelains, Italian bronzes, and Limoges enamels.  What last drew me there was the chance to see the collection’s three Vermeers displayed side by side; it’s hard enough to find a Vermeer in this country, and to see three at once in the same room is rare indeed.  Though visitors are confined to the ground floor and its annexes -- a velvet rope blocks off the grandiose marble staircase leading tantalizingly to the forbidden second floor -- I managed to experience the ambience of Frick’s home and fell in love with the place all over again.  It reminds me of the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, another delightful relic of the Gilded Age and its moneyed art collectors, whose newly amassed fortunes let them snap up Old Masters still available, for a price, in Europe. 

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The Frick's Beaux Arts façade, facing Fifth Avenue.

    But the Frick, like MOMA, is receiving ever larger throngs of visitors and longs for greater space to accommodate them and expand its facilities.  In June 2014 it announced its master plan for a long-delayed expansion that would add 40,000 square feet of space and numerous much-needed amenities: a large new reception hall, a 220-seat auditorium, a special ground-floor exhibition gallery, a passageway connecting the collection to the adjoining six-story art reference library on East 71st Street, and – finally! -- access for visitors to the mansion’s second floor.  All this would be done carefully, integrating the new facilities architecturally with the original mansion and the additions done brilliantly by architect John Russell Pope in 1935 – additions so seamless and so harmonious that visitors think them part of the original structure.  The new addition’s limestone façade along East 70th Street will blend in with that of the original mansion and the Pope additions and offer a rooftop garden as well with views of Central Park and the West Side of Manhattan.  Respite all these changes, the Frick management assures the public that the Frick Collection will retain its gemlike quality and resonate with the comfortable grandeur of the Gilded Age.

     But will it?  Voices have been raised in opposition.  The proposed plan entails constructing a new tower on East 70th Street replacing a gated garden dating from 1977, the creation of British landscape architect Russell Page.  The garden, the Frick management reminds us, was never open to the public, but it can be viewed from the street and from the museum’s current reception hall.  It features a rectangular pool with floating lotus and white lilies in summer, surrounded by gravel paths and boxwood hedges.  It flowers almost year round with late-blooming crab apple and Kentucky yellowwood trees, clematis and hydrangea on trellises, and wisteria climbing up the wall.  “A masterpiece of restrained minimalism,” it has been called, setting the mansion apart and dappling it with shade: one of those minor miracles that the city has managed to squeeze into small spaces here and there, alleviating its cement and concrete massiveness with a touch of green.

     But more than the garden is at risk.  I and many love the Frick as it is, and don’t want it to join the ranks of museums remaking themselves for huge crowds and blockbuster shows where visitors stand six deep to admire the overpublicized marvels on display.  The Frick is small and should house shows that are similarly small; in my book, small is beautiful.  

      A friend of mine once worked at the Frick.  Here is his take on the Frick then and now:  “When I started working there in 1967 it was a quiet backwater housed in a discreet, if imposing, limestone mansion.  People were welcome to visit, if they really wanted to; in fact, admission was free.  But if nobody was asking them to come, and if they stayed away, so much the better.  What was on view was the Founder’s personal art collection, augmented now and then by purchases made from the Founder’s endowment by the Board of Trustees.  That was it.  The idea of a special, temporary exhibition was unheard of – no, anathema!  The loyal, respectful staff included many who had been there since the place opened to the public in the 1930s.  It was serene, and it made you feel good to be there.
     “Over the years the endowment began to shrink, and those in charge began to look elsewhere for the wherewithal to keep the place running.  Fundraisers were added to the staff, along with writers of grant applications, etc.  The Museum Shop grew from a closet (literally) to a bustling place of commerce.  The [indoor] Garden Court began to be rented out for wedding celebrations and bar mitzvahs.  The most crowd-pleasing traveling exhibitions were eagerly courted; my favorite was Fairies in Victorian Art (literally).

     “All of this snowballed, and now the goal is to draw in as many admission-payers as the building can hold, and then to add new space to bring in still more admission-payers.  And then still more.  And more.  Well, you can see what I think of the extension plans.”

     No, bigger is not always better.  Let the site adjoining MOMA hurl its needle-nosed high-rise skyward, but let the Frick try to retain something of the small-scale charm that it once radiated.  It’s now up to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.  The Frick will probably get something of what it wants, but maybe not all; time will tell.  I’m glad I knew it way back when its charm was still intact. 

     Me and the American Folk Art Museum: I am chagrinned to admit that I have never visited this museum; since low attendance was one of the ills causing it to move from its midtown location, I have contributed to its financial problems.  But in New York, with so many big-name museums with stellar collections, it’s easy to overlook the smaller ones, and that is what for years I have done.  Now, seeing some of its treasures online – ceramics, scrimshaw, weathervanes, paintings, furniture, quilts – I have vowed to rectify this omission by paying the museum a visit, and encourage others to do so as well.  Admission is free.  By way of comparison: MOMA: adults $25, seniors $18, students $14.  Metropolitan Museum of Art: adults $25, seniors $17, students $12 (recommended; you can get in for less).    Neue Galerie: $20, students and seniors $10.  Obviously, the Folk Art Museum is a rare bargain.

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American Folk Art Museum

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Bird of Paradise quilt, 1858-1863.  One of the museum's treasures that I hope to see soon.
American Folk Art Museum

     Me and gun control:  A child of the Midwest, I learned to fire a shotgun at age sixteen.  From my father, of course, since he was an avid hunter and fisherman, though I was not.  He kept his beloved shotguns in their cases under his bed, and it never occurred to me or my more adventurous brother to ever go near them in his absence.  He never forbade it, we simply couldn’t imagine doing it.  Fast-forward to today: A shooting instructor was accidentally shot and killed last Monday at a shooting range in Arizona while showing a nine-year-old girl how to use a Uzi submachine gun; he was standing next to her when she pulled the trigger and the recoil sent the gun out of her control.  No comment.

     My audience:  For both the week and the month, and sometimes for the day, this blog gets the most viewers, predictably, from the U.S., and after that, most unpredictably, from the Ukraine and Turkey.  And the post with the most viewers continues to be #43, Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo.  My conclusion:  People in many societies aren’t used to candid discussions of sex, least of all this subject, and so are irresistibly drawn to this post.

     Coming soon:  Panhandlers and hustlers of New York, including one who got $100,000 from the city.  After that, the smells of New York.  Let me know your favorites, pleasant and unpleasant, and I’ll include them; I’ve already got some lulus.

     ©  Clifford Browder  2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

141. Hell House and Christian Terrorism

     Christian terrorism?  Many will balk at the notion, given the murderous terrorisms rampant in the world today.  But here is the dictionary definition of terrorism:  “The systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.”  Now consider these scenes:

·      A smashed car and two teenagers sprawled dead on the pavement, the result of drunk driving.

·      The sacred institution of marriage is disgraced by the Satan-inspired wedding of two men.

·      A teenager tormented by the stress of life, Satan-inspired, commits suicide.

·      A young woman bleeding to death between her legs, the result of a self-induced abortion.

·      A human infant sacrificed during a clandestine Satanic ritual where masked ghouls and demons utter horrific shrieks and screams in a flickering light.  In the audience petrified children cling to their parents, sobbing.

·      A depressed teen is pressured by witches to murder his fellow students.

·      A demon dancing around the coffin of an AIDS victim, rejoicing that the dead man is now tormented in hell.  “I tricked him into believing he was born gay!” the demon exults.  “Have you ever heard something so silly?”

·      A girl at a rave takes a pill that a young man offers her, telling her it will relax her; she passes out and is gang-raped.

·      A corridor in hell where the damned reach out from peepholes begging for help.

·      The Angel of the Lord in shining white and a dark-robed demon battle over a teen-age lesbian about to commit suicide.  A child in the audience gasps, “I can’t breathe!” and is helped out of the room.

·      A girl shrieks and gesticulates as she dies from an overdose of methamphetamine.

·      Cold, uncaring medics advise a young woman to have an abortion.  “Why not?” taunts a red-faced demon.  “Everyone is doing it these days!” 

·      Scared teenagers in the audience are told by a ghoulish voice to get inside a row of upright coffins; when they do, demons pound on the sides of the coffins while shrieking loudly.

·      A girl is strapped to a table for an abortion.  Nurses operate, pull out gnarly-looking gobs of bloody flesh; nurses and girl are splattered with blood.  Teenage girls in the audience weep.  The girl having the abortion dies, goes straight to hell.


     These are some of the scenes presented around Halloween each year by various fundamentalist Christian churches, in an attempt to frighten impressionable young people with the consequences of sin and then offer them a way out through commitment to Jesus.  While the target is primarily teenagers, some of the accounts show that parents are taking very young children to these events, which are well designed to terrify.  Ministers presiding over these presentations admit quite candidly that they are meant to frighten, not to entertain.  So in this respect Hell Houses differ from the spook houses associated with Halloween and many fairs and amusement parks; the goal of the Hell Houses is to frighten you away from Satan and into the redeeming arms of Jesus.  And by most accounts they do succeed in frightening, if not everyone, many impressionable young people who go to them out of curiosity, or for a thrill, or because they are already half converted.  And those presenting the scenes are often teenagers themselves, members of the church sponsoring the event.

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A Hell House presentation of particular judgment, judgment
of an individual following death.

     While Hell Houses can be found almost anywhere in the U.S. except the West Coast and the Northeast – in other words, wherever there are Christian fundamentalists -- they seem to abound in Texas.  The first one is believed to have been the creation of the Trinity Assembly of God in Dallas, but they were popularized in the late 1970s by Jerry Falwell, the evangelical Southern Baptist televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority.  

     Today Keenan Roberts, pastor of the New Destiny Christian Center in Denver, offers kits for $299 that will let you build your own Hell House with a series of theatrical scenes; included are a DVD of Roberts’s own production, a 300-page instruction manual, and an appropriately spooky soundtrack.  Roberts himself dons a long black robe, a gray face mask, and large black horns to play a demon who guides visitors from room to room of his own Hell House, which in a 2012 interview he claimed had been visited by 75,000 people over the last 16 years.  He refuses to provide the media with sample kits, but excerpts have appeared online.  For an abortion scene, he recommends buying “a meat product that closely resembles pieces of a baby” to put in a glass bowl; the actors playing the medical staff involved should be “cold, uncaring, abrupt and completely insensitive.”  And business is good: the kits have now allegedly been sold in all 50 states and 26 foreign countries.  Has his initiative been criticized?  Yes, even in some Christian circles.  Does it bother him?  Certainly not.  “God’s going to have the last word.”

Les Freres Corbusier's Hell House
The wedding of Adam and Steve
Les Freres Corbusier
     Secular, easygoing New York may not seem a likely venue for a Hell House production, but in October 2006 Les Freres Corbusier, a theater company with a Jewish producer and a Catholic director, presented what they termed an “authentic rendition” of Roberts’s outreach kit in Brooklyn, straight-faced and devoid of irony, in hopes that the audience would draw their own conclusions.  The sequence of horror scenes was climaxed by a steam bath of a hell with a glaring Satan; then an angel leading visitors upstairs to meet a Jesus played by an actor with intimidating sincerity; and finally, to round things out, a fruit punch and music by a live Christian rock group, and an invitation to play “Pin-the-Sin-on-the-Jesus,” where visitors pin on a cardboard cutout of Jesus a piece of paper on which they have written a secret sin obstructing their salvation, which some of them actually did (“Anal sex,” “I think Jesus is hot,” “I am a man and I wear Capri pants”).  And all this without a hint of irony, a suggestion of satire; the mockery, when there was mockery, was provided by younger elements in the audience.

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A Methodist circuit rider.
     So much for Hell House in the Big Apple.  But Christian terrorism for the sake of converting the backslidden and the heathen has a long history in this country, which has seen a series of Great Awakenings aflame with hellfire.  As late as deep into the nineteenth century most of the mainstream Protestant sects treated their faithful, and the not so faithful, to fire-and-brimstone sermons designed to scare them into repentance and salvation.  No one was better at this than the Methodists, whose circuit riders ranged far and wide, both to settled churches and the constant flux of the frontier, preaching fierily in churches or, to accommodate multitudes who couldn’t fit into the churches of the neighborhood, in open fields.  So let’s imagine one of these open-air meetings in a rural region where the coming of a preacher was a big event for people starved for entertainment of any kind (no radio or TV, no Internet, perhaps no newspaper), a people eager for excitement, for something meaningful and passionate.

     Such meetings often began with assurances that they would outsing the Baptists, outpray the Quakers, outpreach and outlove the Presbyterians.  Then, to warm things up, they would sing such classic hymns as this:

                         The world, the devil, and Tom Paine                        
                       Have tried their force, but all in vain,
                       They can’t prevail, the reason is
                       The Lord protects the Methodist! 

And so on for eighteen verses.

     But that was just the beginning.  Cries of “Praise Jesus!” and “Hallellujah!” would season the gathering, and as dusk came on, torches would be lit that cast an eerie glow.  Then a preacher in a crow-black coat would climb up on a handy stump and begin.

     “Brethren, I grieve at the low state of Zion.  Satan is in your homes and your hearts!”

      Gasps, cries of “No!”

     “He is!  You’ve been guilty of false pride, greed, and tobacco, of ostentatious apparel and blasphemy, of card-playing, of intemperance, adultery, and dancing!  Look into your hearts and see the filth!”

     They did.  None of them could escape his censure, all of them had sinned.

     “Fools!” cried the preacher, sweat streaming down his face as tiny bubbles spewed from his lips.  “Maybe this year – this month, this day – you’ll roast in the hot flames of hell, cast down among infidels, Mahometans, and Papists, while your bones hiss and crackle, and demons tong your flesh!”

     Sobs in the shadows; a flickering light on tear-stained faces.

     “It need not be!” exhorted the preacher, after describing in lurid detail the torments of hell.  “Renounce sin, accept the sweet love of Jesus.  Cross over into Beulah land!  O come to Jesus, come!”

     By twos, threes, then scores, weeping and groaning, they would stagger up to the Mourners’ Bench and sit, sobbing and praying.  Some might even shriek and fall to the ground.

     “Pray, brethren, pray for forgiveness!”

     Tears, dazed faces as they prayed.  A young girl, limp in the arms of others, might speak in tongues, while other young women plucked off frills and ribbons and threw them away, and both men and women, sin-convicted, writhed and jerked on the ground.  Still others, their ruddy faces glowing in the torchlight, would gather round the penitents shouting “Glory!” while the preacher, raising both arms toward heaven as he beheld the results of his preaching, might exclaim in triumph, “Ride on, glorious Redeemer!”

     Few of those attending such a gathering, even if not among the sobbing penitents, could fail to be moved.  Talk of it would echo through the county for days, and the memory of such a meeting could last a lifetime.  As for the penitents, they were in God’s pocket.

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A camp meeting, circa 1829.  Women seem especially susceptible.

     So the Hell House of today carries on a long American tradition of scaring people into salvation, though with a difference.  In those days the terrors of hell awaited sinners in the next life; in this life those sinners might be plump and prosperous.  But the Hell Houses of today, while promising the same fire-and-brimstone hereafter, bring hell into people’s lives right now; the torment of the sinful begins in this life with painful abortions and rape and AIDS, before being heightened in the next. 

     But the tradition of Christian terrorism goes back even further, to the morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, where a central character like Everyman was assaulted by the Seven Deadly Sins (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride), but aided by such allegorical figures as Good Deeds, Knowledge, Discretion, and Strength.  The whole drama consisted of Everyman’s struggle to lead a godly life, failing which the gates of hell gaped wide to receive him.

     Everyman’s struggle points back to the western façade of the great Gothic cathedrals of France, the façade facing the sunset and its suggestion of finality, the façade that often showed the Christ of the Second Coming, the Christ of the Last Judgment.  Thus the sculpture over the central portal of Notre Dame in Paris shows Christ flanked on his right by the kneeling Virgin Mary and on his left, also kneeling, St. John the Evangelist; under them a winged Saint Michael and a grinning demon weigh souls, and another demon leads the damned off to perdition.  The cathedral, like all the Gothic cathedrals of Northern France, was dedicated to the Virgin, whose compassion would hopefully mitigate the stern judgment of her Son.  Even so, this was the main entrance, so its subject gave a cheery greeting to the faithful as they came to attend Mass or pray.

The central portal of Notre Dame de Paris.

Saint Michael and a demon weighing souls.
Julie Kertesz

     This scene of the Second Coming was portrayed as well by painters, most notably by Michelangelo in his vast fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, where a muscular and angry Christ gestures dramatically to condemn the nude figures of the damned descending to hell and its demons on his left (our right, as we view it), while the saved, also nude, ascend to heaven on his right.  The sculpted sinners of the cathedral portals tend to be stiff and stylized, without much differentiation, whereas Michelangelo’s sinners are painted with Renaissance dynamism and drama, no two of them alike.  Especially gripping is one chubby male who, gripped by a demon, buries his face in one hand as he hunches over, stricken with dread and despair as he realizes he is damned for all eternity; nothing a Hell House offers can match it.

Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

     So where is the Virgin, that figure of warmth and compassion?  She is there, just to the left of her Son and fully garbed, but she is dwarfed by comparison and turns away from him, almost cowering; this is his scene, not hers.  Not much lovingkindness here; Christ is much more Judge than Redeemer.  (Unlike so many Italian painters, Michelangelo was not one to portray a gentle, merciful Virgin; his females, far from being soft and motherly, tend toward the stern and majestic, like the Sybils of the Sistine ceiling.)

     From Michelangelo to the Gospels is only one quick leap.  In Matthew 23:33 Jesus says, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”  And in Luke 12:5: “But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.”  And in Matthew 13:49-50: “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  And in Matthew 25:41: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”  So in the Gospels hell is a very real place of torment, and God is to be feared.  Jesus promises forgiveness elsewhere and promises heaven to the righteous, but here he stresses judgment and fear. 

     All of which is awkward for those many Christians who today shy away from notions of Satan and hell and torment, uncomfy as they are.  Since the nineteenth century vast numbers of Americans have opted for religion without God, salvation without sin, a kind of feel-good faith emphasizing good works for those less fortunate than ourselves, and the Golden Rule for all.  I should know, since I grew up in a liberal Methodism that said nothing of hell and torment, and a great deal about compassion and tolerance and sharing.  I will always be grateful to those gentle Methodists for not ramming ideology down my tender throat, for not imposing a set of strict rules on me, for offering me examples of warmth and love in action and, in the case of a few, a genuine, deep-rooted spirituality. 

     Admittedly, there are risks in de-Satanizing Christianity, in dousing hellfire so as to emphasize exclusively Christian love and compassion.  The result is often a namby-pamby religion where everyone gets to heaven, a religion without spine and rigor.  You can see it in the sentimentality of much nineteenth- and twentieth-century religious art, as for example the slides shown me in Sunday School classes every Easter.  The slides served their purpose by immersing our callow minds in the drama of Holy Week, but in retrospect I realize how insipid they were artistically. 

     The sentimentalizing of religion is also seen in Hollywood movies about priests and nuns, as for instance Loretta Young in the 1949 film Come to the Stable, where she plays a beatific nun, her smile benign, her goals noble, and her utterance pure sugar.  I’d like to think that, Hollywood notwithstanding, such insipidity is confined to a certain brand of Protestantism, but one glance at websites offering Catholic religious objects for sale disabuses me.  There are figurines of Mary and the saints (“Saint Joseph will help you sell you home”) that are equally insipid, sometimes offered in a “blow-out sale.” 

     The figures I remember being sold in stores for small indoor Christmas Nativities were among the worst, with feminine angels with flowing blond hair and dainty features, but the larger ones advertised online today are no better.  All these winged cuties are a far cry from the fearsome male angels of an earlier age, epitomized memorably in Saint Michael, the fearsome warrior archangel who will weigh the souls at the Last Judgment, and who led God’s forces in driving Satan and his rebellious cohorts out of heaven and hurling them down to hell.

Saint Michael, weigher of souls at the Last Judgment.  Rogier van der Weyden,
1443-1446.  This guy you wouldn't mess around with; he means business.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Song of the Angels, 1881.  You think
this is the ultimate in 19th-century religious sentimentality?  Just wait.

Franz Kadlik, Three Angels, 1822.  It can't get worse than this.
Almost makes you yearn for a Hell House.

     So insipidly saccharine are some nineteenth-century renditions of angels that I find them just as objectionable as the horrors of the Hell Houses.  It can easily be argued that eliminating Satan and hell rips the very guts out of Christianity, leaves it limp and flaccid, robs it of its essential drama.  Maybe what the secular world of today needs is a reimagining of Satan and hell, a fresh incarnation of evil that resonates.  Anyone aware of recent history knows that evil exists, and we humans long for a cosmic order that punishes it.  I leave it to the thinkers and writers and artists of our time to find this new representation of evil that will grab hold of our psyche, shake it up, excite it, obsess it, and thus make evil once again something we can’t ignore.  Unless, of course, this new representation exists already and I, poor fool, am simply unaware of it.

     Hell Houses do indeed remind us of what has been left out of a kinder, gentler Christianity, but I don’t miss those features, rooted in the Gospels though they be.  Hell Houses terrify small children, whereas Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come [to me], for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).  If the liberal Christianity of today is selective in what it takes from the Gospels, so is the fundamentalism that sponsors Hell Houses; it leaves out, or at least minimizes, kindness and compassion and love.

     When I started this post with accounts of Hell House, I had no idea I would gravitate via morality plays and Last Judgments to the Gospels and end up where I have.  So it goes.  But if you have access to a Hell House next Halloween, go visit it for curiosity’s sake and some thrills.  Just don’t get converted – not there, on their grim terms.  And for God’s sake (and theirs and your own) don’t take any young children with you; this is not for them.

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     Coming soon:  Is Bigger Better?  MOMA’s expansions and the Frick’s, and what I and others think of them.  And then a post on panhandlers and hustlersof New York: Elmos and Spider Men in Times Square, tight and prickly conservatives vs. loose and gooey liberals, the 20 meanest cities in America (is New York one of them?), Buddhist monks and their amulets, a crippled vet who recovers miraculously, and the panhandler who won a hundred thousand dollars.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder