“I think she understood, but she never spoke…”

What sort of uncle darts into French Quarter traffic with a five-year-old to take snapshots of medieval-themed statuary? A very bad uncle.

“I think you’re a good uncle,” he insisted later over ice cream cones, reminding me that we should all be quicker to heed the beatific wisdom of children.

But what say you, Miss of Arc?

On the matter of children playing in traffic, the Maid of Orleans has chosen saintly silence.

“A built-in remedy for Kruschev and Kennedy…”

Growing up in Central Jersey, I never thought to pause and ponder quasi-medieval statuary, mostly because we didn’t have any—or so I thought until this weekend, when I drove through Bound Brook and decided, on a whim, to check out a monument that’s landed in my peripheral vision on and off for more than 20 years.

That’s St. Olga, seated in majesty. Behind her is a memorial church for the victims of Stalin’s famines; behind that is a lovely, tree-lined cemetery; and the entire area is part of the larger headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, otherwise known as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

So who was St. Olga? Before her death in A.D. 969, Olga was the first ruler of the Rus to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Baptized in Constantinople, she ruled Kiev on behalf of her son and sent an embassy westward to Emperor Otto I. She was the grandmother of Prince Volodymyr—Vladimir—who proclaimed Orthodox Christianity the official religion of Rus-Ukraine. You know those emissaries who came back from Constantinople and famously said of Hagia Sofia, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth”? Those were Vladimir’s men.

Olga was not a nice lady. True to her Viking roots, she avenged her husband by burying his killers alive in a ship. She also sent smoldering doves to alight on the thatched roofs of an enemy town, which then burned down.

In Bound Brook, sculptor Petro Kapschutschenko has made a remarkable monument to the Kievan Rus regent. Olga is elevated, as an enthroned Byzantine empress would have been, reminding visitors of her superiority and making it impossible for anyone to look her in the eye. Viewed straight on, Olga seems remote but amused, as if she just condemned the director of a TaTu video—but in profile, her face is a mixture of dignity and visible cruelty.

Next to the church is another striking Kapschutschenko sculpture of a 20th-century archbishop raising his hand heavenward. Also on the grounds are the home and resting place of the local Dutch Reformed dignitary who witnessed the signing of the Declaration of Independence and then returned home to read it aloud to the people of Bound Brook.

But there, reigning at the gates, is Olga. As she deigns to rest her royal gaze on the run-down repair shop across the street, she’s a reminder of the Vikings who lent their name to Russia—and one reason why Russia, a thousand years later, still glares possessively at the Ukraine.

“Back to school, it’s a bad situation…”

It’s back-to-school time for teachers and students alike. If you stroll along Massachusetts Avenue looking for inspiration, you’ll find this fellow at the Embassy of Croatia.

It’s Saint Jerome, who’s clearly immersed in his work. If you’ve ever grappled with Jerome’s page-length Latin sentences, you’ve probably made this gesture, too.

For many of you, the coming weeks will call for much sighing and staring at tomes. Whether you’re a teacher or a student, here’s to a pleasant and productive semester—without too much hieronymian clutching of the forehead.

“Medicine is magical, and magical is art…”

After he’s wandered the French Quarter for the thousandth time and snapped a sufficient number of crawfish in half, what does the errant medievalist do when he’s in New Orleans? Demonstrating a disregard for common sense which he urges his dear readers not to emulate, he seeks out a shrine to a medieval saint in the city’s Ninth Ward.

In the heart of a half-abandoned neighborhood, the small, above-ground cemetery occupies two compact blocks.

The saint’s shrine is pleasant but unremarkable—until you look at it from the side. Then it become an apse whose cathedral has flown away.

Inside the shrine stands the saint, with a friend. According to medieval legend, Roch miraculously cured the sick while making the pilgrimage to Rome. Eventually he also came down with the plague, but miracles—and food provided by a dog—kept him alive. The dog’s name is unknown, but “it has been reported that some people think the dog is at least as holy as Roch and offer prayers to the dog.”

In 1867, after his entire congregation survived a yellow fever outbreak, the New Orleans priest who prayed for the saint’s intercession raised this shrine in thanks—and, as an inscription over the front door reveals, “in fulfillment of vow.”

A barred alcove holds a collection of tokens offered by the grateful. Most of them represent body parts believed to have been cured through the saint’s intercession. Several pairs of old, awful crutches hang against the wall.

Outside, even as a storm rolls in, the cemetery is peaceful: empty, but hardly sad.

A hint of sadness waits across the street, where a monument to miraculous cures faces the troubles of the 21st century. Rarely have the Middle Ages seemed like the more hopeful place to be.

“When everything’s quiet, will you stay?”

Walahfrid Strabo is always at work on the grounds of my local cathedral. The ninth-century abbot who tutored Charlemagne’s grandson is remembered in the garden, where a stone baptismal font is surrounded by plants he described in a poem. Gardening gave Walahfrid the metaphors he needed to talk about the world. Plurima tranquillae cum sint insignia vitae was the sum of his teaching: “A quiet life has many rewards.”

More than eleven centuries later, Walahfrid would probably be as troubled as today’s neighbors were when they learned the cathedral is closing its greenhouse.

In “On the Cultivation of Gardens,” Walahfrid wrote that a plot full of flora was evidence of hard work repaid, a notion that made him an optimist:

True, that part there
Below the high roof is dry and rough from the lack
Of rain and the heaven’s benison; true, this
Part here is always in shade, for the high wall’s
Solid rampart forbids the sun to enter.
Yet of all that was lately entrusted to it, the garden
Has held nothing enclosed in its sluggish soil
Without hope of growth.

Friends of the greenhouse aren’t nearly as hopeful; the cathedral insists its decision is final. Walahfrid, who found poetry easy but gardening hard, would likely see metaphors here.

The closing will make us one metaphor poorer. In a city that thrives on ephemeral matters, it’s a pity to lose a place that hints at the timeless rewards of a quiet life.

“For I smell of the earth and am worn by the weather.”

The medieval world had no patience for giants. Heroes of epic would send them to Hell; Thor, ever sporty, would hunt them for fun; in chivalric romance, knights smote them with glee. From Yvain to King Arthur to Bevis of Hampton, medieval heroes made giants extinct—except for one holdout, who fled from oppression, and napped on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

Here in the District, we’re losing our giant. I went out this weekend to bid him adieu and was pretty surprised: he’d attracted a crowd. Strangers sat in his palm, children slid down his knee, and adults tapped his forehead and peered up his nose. In a city of pipsqueaks who long to be giants, that’s no way to send off the last of his kind.

“I’m looking for cracks in the pavement…”

Back in July, while visiting family, I discovered that downtown New Orleans had been deprived of a prominent literary landmark.

Today, an email missive brings good news: Ignatius has returned. All hail the restoration of theology and geometry to Canal Street!

Behold the grandeur of his physique! The complexity of his worldview! The decency and taste implicit in his carriage! The grace with which he functions in the mire of today’s world!

(Photo courtesy of the blogger’s very cool mom.)

“So we go inside, and we gravely read the stones…”

Henry Adams was fond of statues. His 1904 book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres opens with Michael the Archangel “[s]tanding on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot.” Later, when Adams notes a depiction of the Virgin Mary at the great cathedral of Chartres, he takes gentle, vicarious pleasure in imagining the twelfth-century mindset behind it:

The Empress Mary is receiving you at her portal, and whether you are an impertinent child, or a foolish old peasant-woman, or an insolent prince, or a more insolent tourist, she receives you with the same dignity; in fact, she probably sees very little difference between you.

Throughout Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, Adams plays the genial tour guide for his reader, whom he cheekily casts as his own wide-eyed niece. While the other faces of Henry Adams—novelist, academic, part-time Washingtonian, scion of a great political family—are shrouded by the author himself in the interest of efficient tourism, Adams the medievalist is a chipper fellow indeed. Faced with profundity, he is effusive, reactive, opposed to every pedantry. “To overload the memory with dates is the vice of every schoolmaster and the passion of every second-rate scholar,” he informs us. “Tourists want as few dates as possible; what they want is poetry.”

More than a century after its publication, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres is still a charming, imminently quotable work, an account of what happened when one of the sharper minds of late 19th-century America beheld the marvels of medieval France. I don’t know how well known the book is today, or how well regarded it is by scholars; I imagine it’s quite out of date. I do know that here in Washington, the influence of Henry Adams is most evident not at our cathedrals or in medieval history courses, but in a man-made grove at Rock Creek Cemetery—where, as Adams predicted, tourists seek poetry in a statue.

The tale of the statue is simple enough. Adams commissioned his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create it in 1886, one year after his wife, Marian Adams, committed suicide. The larger structure later served as a tomb for both Marian and Henry Adams after the latter died in 1918, but the bronze figure became a tourist attraction even before Adams had seen it for himself. According to his third-person quasi-autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, he hurried to the cemetery in 1892, as soon as he returned from Europe.

For readers who clung to the coat-tails of the avuncular tour guide of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, the Henry Adams who visits Rock Creek Cemetery is unusually brooding and curt:

Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’ correction of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant.

Adams lets his reader infer the awkwardness of chatting with strangers who sought out the tomb of his wife:

As Adams sat there, numbers of people came, for the figure seemed to have become a tourist fashion, and all wanted to know its meaning. Most took it for a portrait-statue, and the remnant were vacant-minded in the absence of a personal guide. None felt what would have been a nursery instinct in a Hindu baby or a Japanese jinrickshaw-runner. The only exceptions were the clergy, who taught a lesson even deeper. One after another brought companions there, and, apparently fascinated by their own reflection, broke out passionately against the expression they felt in the figure of despair, of atheism, of denial. Like the others, the priest saw only what he brought. Like all great artists, St. Gaudens held up the mirror and no more.

Tourists to Rock Creek Cemetery still react in such strangely personal ways. During my visit there last weekend, I met a couple who had passed a few moments of sunny contemplation on the bench before the statue.

“She’s so beautiful,” the wife informed me. “She looks so hopeful—like she’s ready to cast off her shroud and fly.” When I told her about the suicide of Marian Adams, she seemed more bemused than troubled, reluctant to complicate her aesthetic experience with any newfound knowledge. Having cheerfully glanced into Saint-Gaudens’ mirror, she departed with an empty smile.

What did Adams see when he visited the cemetery? In the Education, he claims that the statue represented “the oldest idea known to human thought,” but his reader learns quickly to look past his loftier claims. The Education ignores the suicide of Marian Adams; in fact, it skips past twenty years, omitting the marriage entirely. Inclined to be silent rather than confess to sadness, Adams allows only traces of feeling to show. Perhaps his truest thoughts are better found elsewhere—in his defense of Norman architecture, for example, which, taken Adams-like and somewhat out of context, can be read as a case for the statue itself:

Young people rarely enjoy it . . . No doubt they are right, since they are young: but men and women who have lived long and are tired,—who want rest,—who have done with aspirations and ambition,—whose life has been a broken arch—feel this repose and self-restraint as they feel nothing else.

In his writing, Adams is an enigma: impressively learned, improbably modest, and always a little removed. He wanted that figure at Rock Creek Cemetery to be just as difficult to read—but each time he saw her, he hoped to discover something new. His books, although brilliant, will never reveal what he learned. To find the answer, you have to go: visit Rock Creek, sit across from that shrouded figure, and let her tell you about Henry Adams—not about his writing, wry and worldly and burning with praise for the archangel and the empress, but about the author and husband who finally ran out of words, and who counted on secrets that only a statue can tell.

“…to leave you there by yourself, chained to fate.”

If you stroll along Massachusetts Avenue looking for inspiration on the day before school starts, you’ll encounter this figure at the Embassy of Croatia.

It’s Saint Jerome, who’s immersed in his work. If you’ve ever grappled with Jerome’s page-length Latin sentences, you’ve probably made this gesture, too.

For many of you, the coming weeks will call for much sighing and staring at tomes. Whether you’re a teacher or a student, here’s to a pleasant and productive semester—and not too much hieronymian clutching of the forehead.

“Walking in the park, dreaming of a spark…”

On a dull day in Washington, when the weather is dangerously hot, what better way to pass the afternoon than to look for medieval people at Meridian Hill Park, one of the city’s grandest public places?

Climb to the source of the waterfall, and there she is, disarmed but not discouraged: la pucelle d’Orleans.

The pedestal sports a rather enthusiastic inscription:

“A most bodacious soldier and general, Miss Of Arc totally rousted the English from France. Then she turned this dude, the dauphin, into a king. And all this by the time she was seventeen!”

Wander into another corner of the park, and—non mi sembra vero!

It’s the Big D himself.

But wait…who’s that personage of historical significance seated behind those trees?

Aha! It’s that indispensable touchstone for all medievalists…

President James Buchanan!