Tuesday, July 28, 2015


On "The Education of Henry Adams", one of the most delightful books ever written

The Panaghia in the principal, large eastern apse of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; dated in the 9th century, she was uncovered when Justinian's church (532-565) was no longer a mosque, and substantial numbers of the mosaics were again revealed.

Publicly released in 1913 at the behest of Ralph Cram (AIA), and thenceforward a popular triumph, Henry Adams said that Mont St. Michel and Chartres  had been written for the diversion of his nieces "and nieces-in-wish"; at any rate, it was intentionally easy reading.  I managed not to read it throughout my youth, being constantly having it thrust upon me (when anyone could see that it was not what such as I would call history of architecture!), and I still haven't quite capitulated.  When he died in 1918, Henry Cabot Lodge saw to the publication of The Education of Henry Adams, and in 1919 it won the Pulitzer Prize (it had been privately published in 1907, the year also that he suffered a stroke).  He has his volume in the Library of America now, besides the Modern Library edition always in print.  But you can go to Wikipedia for Henry and all the other Adamses.

It is not to show a Virgin much earlier than the ones that Henry Adams (at least, in this book) was invoking as the Force of the high middle ages that I chose to illustrate the Eternal Feminine (and Adams surely knew the final chorus of Goethe's Faust both because he had read the poem and because it was much quoted at the fin de siècle—though the first, Munich, performance of Mahler's 8th symphony, which concludes with it, was a little later).  Adams himself pointed out that it was not voluptuous goddess types that he meant but the female principle as deity, though not unsexed, powerful and demanding worship.  Of course, Aphrodite Ourania is not the same as Aphrodite Pandemos. (The illustrations provided on line are pretty bad).   He specified, in fact, the "Diana of the Ephesisan", the Artemis of Ephesus (his fellow New Englander, Thomas Bulfinch, preferred the Latin names), but unlike Gibbon Henry Adams  by age 60 had become modern enough not to call ancient goddesses 'pagan idols': the great cathedrals were built for, and in a sense by, Our Lady.  Her cult was the Force that was pervasive in medieval Europe.  The Greek church has the useful vocabulary: just as the Christ in the mosaic of the central dome of a church is the Pantokrator (the Lord of All), so his mother, the god-bearer (theotokos), in the mosaic of the main eastern apse of the church, is the Panaghia (which means, all-holy).  These images are icons, not illustrations.  Christ with his disciples, Mary at the foot of the cross, all the  pictures that tell the gospel stories, are different kinds of pictures, illustrations; the Pantokrator and the Panaghia in their appointed positions in churches  are icons that embody deity, just as Pheidias's Zeus at Olympia and Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis of Athens are iconic statues that embody deity.  As Adams points out near the end of Ch. XXV of The Education of Henry Adams, for John Adams's great grandson, born in Calvinist Quincy in 1838, to have realized all this, and a great deal more, by his sixties was extraordinary.  Yes, he had lost his wife in 1885, but so many lose their dearest friends and partners with no alteration but bitterness or sanctity.  Yet, his was the generation that saw a world more than stories or morals, let alone the Bible of the Unlettered,  in the great religious art and architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries.  In particular, America's enlightenment did begin with the industrial revolution.  And, though I'm not sure that she wasn't still covered with iconoclastic plaster in Adams's lifetime (though he did visit Hagia Sophia at least once), this truly august Panaghia (at top of this page) does show, I think, what he had realized, lovely as the Amiens Vierge Dorée surely is.

It takes close attention to understand everything Henry Adams is revealing to the reader (for he never conceals how astonished he is, for example by radium, and both he and Langley are aware that much that they do not understand may be frightening).  For one thing, he uses Greek and Latin terms, as 19th-century science often did, in their ancient senses, so that 'economy', for instance, is not about finances nor even its original Greek, which means roughly 'housekeeping'.  He often uses terms just as Francis Bacon had done.  Even physicists in the 1890s are still struggling with vocabulary—and Adams confesses to knowing almost no mathematics.  I find that close reading is the key to both enjoying and understanding him; he is no mystic, though a covert poet in Walt Whitman's terms, and we suddenly realize that no one understood radium at the time of its discovery.
But don't let me spoil it for you.
Not yet concealed by all those machines, turbines and the rest,  here is the famous photograph (anonymous, I think, but surely Archives Photographiques) showing the completed Galerie des Machines opposite the Tour Eiffel, also nearing completion.  It is made of units of pre-cast steel, not iron like St. Pancras Station a generation older.  The pages of Images on line include many period photographs of the Galerie while the Exposition was open, during which you could barely make out the building's bold beauty, and this was when Adams, on at least one occasion accompanied by Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), his personal friend, to explain the dynamos to him, but we have no record of his being impressed by the building itself, which was dressed up nearly as much as the London Crystal Palace had been.
1889, before the Exposition Universelle opened, this drawing shows what regularly was omitted from courses on the History of Architecture, how the spanning units were "pinned" together at the top, as well as the scale of the triangular "pylons" that, for my generation, had become like heroic icons of cast steel construction.  This is Mainstone's illustration, chosen to show how the very broad span was achieved, and on a tight schedule.  Rowland J. Mainstone, Developments in Structural Form, MIT press, Cambridge, MA, 1983, fig. 13.2.  This book is old now, but I know of nothing that replaces it.

The great dynamos (generators), forty feet in diameter, that Samuel Pierpont Langley shortly before the Paris Exposition (of 1889) closed in 1900, explained exhaustively to his friend Henry Adams, are not what today are hardly illustrated or discussed (see the Images pages).  For my generation,  the Hoover Dam (for example) made the massive generation of electricity intelligible.  What Adams does is to make us understand his own feelings in that Galerie des Machines.  By 1900 electric trains and trolleys were routine, too.  But from the train window (usually, of course, drawn by a steam engine) he noticed the huge mounds of mined coal everywhere.  He does not yet object to its ugliness, but does observe that the whole world's appearance has been altered.  In the later 20th century, it was the building itself that in the famous photographs had become iconic.
At a time of crisis, of meditation (one might say), he says that he finds himself praying, in effect, to the almost incomprehensible machines.  He also makes clear that, as with the cathedrals and the Virgin, it is not a case of religious conversion.  One of his most remarkable, one may say heroic, traits is refusal to swallow easy answers—to anything.  He has been reasoning relentlessly over the industrial revolution (as we have decided to call it), as well as new physics, ever since the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1892.  Both he and Langley agree that it is radium that is fearsome, and that because it does not obey their laws of physics.
(The Chicago Fair, of course, opened on the heels of the Depression; though persons whose home was in the LaFayette Square house, next to John Hay's (now replaced by the hotel named for them on its site), were not exactly ruined by it, still were shocked when they could not withdraw more than $50. —"of my own money"—from the bank).
Personally, studying all the photos of it available on line, I find the Chicago Fair (except for a few buildings) hideous; it had billboards sufficient to deface an entire Interstate Freeway system, with lettering fit for Coney Island.  And Adams, later, when he went to visit the St. Louis Fair, found the excessive use of white electric lights unpleasant, especially since (if we may trust his assessment—and we usually can, because otherwise he is not so explicit) it had practically nothing to show but itself, all white and uninteresting.  Paris, on the contrary, was packed with instructional exhibits.

If you just will read his book, you will see why I can't summarize.  Just take my word for it!  The old distinction between Personal and Private is perfectly exemplified.

Of course, it was the Vierge Dorée on the trumeau of the south portal of Amiens Cathedral that was best loved by Henry Adams's generation (he relates the experience of standing before it with his great friend Augustus St. Gaudens, but Proust also loved it).  This  exquisite ivory in Utrecht, only 26 cm high, is itself some two centuries later than the great Virgin at Hagia Sophia but also (Middle Byzantine, like the Harbaville Triptych) about two centuries earlier  than Amiens.  But you can find pages of photos good and bad of the Amiens Virgin in Google Images.

I did want to provide, since the pages of Images do not provide just what I want, though I have no idea whether Henry Adams ever saw the Utrecht ivory (or any of the several such Middle Byzantine BVM that survived post-iconoclasm) a worthy image of the Virgin.  The Virgin in the large apse of Hagia Sophia is, after all, colossal.  This one, though not miniature, is less than a foot tall.  The date must be close to that of the Harbaville Triptych in the Louvre.  In the center of the middle panel of the triptych is the Greek Orthodox subject called the Deësis.  The word means 'the beseeching', or 'entreaty' or simply 'prayer' (it is unrelated to the words for divinity), the verb being deomai.  Deësis is the prayer of the whole church, to begin with, ekklesia meaning congregation, but this image shows Mary and John on either side of Christ and in a gesture of entreaty, of intercession.  Christ is one in the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; with her Assumption Mary stands in a special relationship to her Son, being (Assumption or not) theotokos, the god-bearer.  To say, therefore, with Adams (and I think with Goethe, too) that all those Notre Dame cathedrals are dedicated to the female expression of God, seems to me obvious.  And, no, I didn't look it up in any catechism, and neither did they.  But Regina Coeli is very much Aphrodite Ourania, isn't it?  Anyway, if we are going to perceive divinity in new Forces, we are only joining the ranks of the contemplatives, aren't we?  In any case, the theology of Deësis does help to bridge what Henry Adams perceived as a gap between the Cross and the Cathedral.

How leaden my own sentences are compared with those of Henry Adams!