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Friday, 9 March 2012

Thoughts on Prince Bishops of Wurzburg and Benjamin Zephania

There is a room in the V&A which is magic. There are many spaces there that are magic. But this room is the one largely devoted to Medieval carving and sculpture. My favourite was this.

I mean what a face.

I’ve seen living, breathing people less alive than this man Rudolf II von Scherenberg (c. 1401 – 1495) Stare at it and you see more than a face, you can imagine his soul. But it takes courage to stare at him too long. He makes you feel like a peasant. This is real art, not the idealized templates you see in classical busts. Genius or craftsman, the artist responsible is decribed further down.

There was another example of wonderful detail: a large carving of Count Ekkehard of Naumburg. Again what struck me was the meticulous attention to detail – even down to the frown lines on his forehead. I was unable to capture this on the camera so googled and discovered another example that says it all: Uta von Naumburg who died in 1046.

Who can doubt that this is an accurate reproduction of a real life woman, someone still so alive that when Umberto Eco was asked what woman from European art he would most like to spend an evening with he answered without hesitation, “In first place, ahead of all others, with Uta von Naumburg.”

And I agree.

Which is creepy because Walt Disney used her as the model for the beautiful but sinister queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” So what does that tell you about my taste in women?

Everyone has heard of Michelangelo. Few people have heard of Riemenschneider, perhaps because his name sounds like a sneeze. It’s a shame because Riemenschneider was brilliant, and his fate is a warning. In his day he achieved both wealth and fame and between 1520 and 1524 was Mayor of Wurzburg. Having carved that splendid tribute to a former Prince Bishop of Wurzburg - Rudolf II von Scherenberg - the ageing artist must have thought he was being justly rewarded.

His nemesis came in the form of the Peasant’s war in Germany when, perhaps to escape fire and destruction, he and the council made an alliance with the peasants. Watching, was Konrad von Thungen, Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg who overlooked the city from his castle. 8000 peasants were massacred by the Prince Bishop and his allies and the entire city council and Riemennschneider were imprisoned and tortured. Both of his hands were broken, and after he was eventually released his creative career was over.

Tilman Riemennschneider was a genius in the wrong place at the wrong time.
No one should ever be too scared to voice their opinion – whether it be right, wrong, or downright foolish. And no one should impose their views on another. We don’t break hands in his country but we do verge on the Orwellian in inhibiting free speech.

This guy here, from a late medieval carving clearly had no trouble in making his point.

Which leads me on to my last random thought.

Is there such a thing as ‘negative racism’. I pondered the issue as I watched ‘The Big Arguments’ on TV with my Sunday bagel and coffee. They were talking about something called ‘British identity’ and a corpulent northerner said something absurd about how you couldn’t be ‘British’ if you didn’t support constitutional monarchy. It was plainly wrong, I mean wasn’t Oliver Cromwell called ‘God’s own Englishman’? But he had expressed his opinion and was then, immediately sneered at by the preposterous Benjamin Zephaniah.

Corpulent Northerner wasn’t having it. He pointed a finger. ‘Listen Sunshine…’. He got no further. Chicken Licken day arrived with force. The sky fell down with an almighty crash. The furious, Zephaniah accused the luckless northerner of being racist and demanded an instant apology, and I swilled coffee and bagel round my mouth wondering what on earth was going on.

‘Sunshine’ is a northern term. I was called sunshine, sometimes affectionately by female bus drivers (When I’m in a nursing home they’ll call me ‘darling’.) I have been called ‘Sunshine’ in a semi threatening way, more usually in mock irritation. I’ve used the same phrase to my children on occasion: ‘just you listen to me, sunshine!’ Though they never do. The point is I am not black, nor are they. We retain our northern pallor.

I object to words being re-categorised on a whim, and I wondered whether Zephaniah had got confused with the now archaic ‘shine’ as a derogatory term, or was just feeling in a bullying mood. Either way, the BBC apologised to him but not corpulent northern man, and it seems to me that I can, for the moment, continue to use the term ‘sunshine’ to all and sundry unless Benjamin Zephaniah is in range, or until that, too, is added to the stock of words we may no longer use.

What would Tilman Riemennschneider have thought of it? What indeed would have the Prince Bishop of Wurzburg, Rudolf II von Scherenber have said?


DRC said...

I remember hearing of a german sculpter whose name sounded like a sneeze, but never really took much notice. Now that you've brought him up and reminded me, I had to google him. His work is sooo impressive and realistic. Amazing.

Your posts are always interesting :) Thank you

Angela Brown said...

I can certainly see your point regarding the carvings. The second picture even shows the attention to detail shown in the folds or wrinkles on his neck,

This term "negative racism" sounds a bit redundant. I hadn't realized someone somewhere may have coined the phrase "positive racism" for "negative racism" to exist. But on that, I digress.

I can see the occurrence mentioned here is one where slang differs from country to country. The moment the word sunshine was used, I hadn't a clue that it was being used in a derogatory manner at all given its use as a term of endearment whenever I've heard it. So the rest of the telling left me baffled. Rather...lost. Sorry about that. But I think I get the gist that there was some overreaction and unnecessary apologizing and apparently, I've learned I'd better only refer to sunshine when it comes to the weather in the presence of this person who overreacted.

Mike Keyton said...

DRC thank you for the compliment. I'm really glad I've re-sparked an interest in this man. Look out for his carving of Jesus being lifted down from the cross. It transcends the usual religious art. There is so much feeling, all of it subtly different, in the faces of those around the yet to be resurrected Christ.

Angela You've beautifully skewered a carelessly used term. I suppose I was trying to say a sensitivity to racism that isn't there and therebye holding a word hostage. Now if I could think of a snappier way of saying that : )

I noticed the wrinkles too. Wonderful stuff. Never mind. We have/had Andy Warhol

Maria Zannini said...

The sculptures are magnificent. I'd never heard of Riemenschneider, so I'm grateful for the education.

As for the racism: Methinks people look for slurs where there are none. And nothing is easier to cry than racism--much like crying wolf.

Mike Keyton said...

I hope the 'educaton' wasn't too overt, Maria. I tend to rant on what grabs my attention. But like you, like most people, I imagine I love discovering new things. Somebody asked a poet, Simon Armitage, I think it was - what is more important 'wonder' or 'wisdom.' And he went for wonder. I think I agree with that. And I also agree that politics and ego can tarnish a moral imperative like anti-racism.

Mike Keyton said...

Damn. Typo. Education :(

Angela Brown said...

AH! Okay, now I've got it. Sorry, I was certainly a bit confused there wasn't I? lol!

Alas, understanding your reference to negative racism better, it is a sad truth that there are times when foul is cried when it ought not. I dislike this as it taints the word, weakens it as such. Should a truly egregious act occur against this fella, who's going to really believe him if he's screaming racism just because the person disagreeing with him is of a different race. Quite sad.

Claudia Del Balso said...

Oh, I had never heard the term "sunshine" used in that way. Perhaps I'm too naive. To me, it's a term of endearment. My husband says it to me from time to time, "Good morning, Sunshine!" I thought it was a sweet word :D
WOW! I learned something new today. Thanks, Mike!
BTW, you're right, the sculptures are amazing. The details are just marvelous.

Mike Keyton said...

No, you're not naive at all, Claudia. One guy with an ego and looking for insult saw it that way. And if you look at the comments - world wide - Sunshine is a term of endearment - at worst patronising, depending on tone. But not racist.

Glad you liked the sculptures - next time you're in London you must go and see

Mike Keyton said...

No, you weren't confused, Angela. I just used a snappy but ambiguous phrase that you spotted.

Unknown said...

Wow. Those sculptures are amazing. Thanks for sharing!

I love the term "Sunshine". I'm up north so I hear it used often, usually as a term of endearment. I can't imagine anyone thinking of it as a racist term. People do seem to look anywhere and everywhere for something they can call racist.

Mike Keyton said...

Shirley, I'm relieved. For split second I wondered at the time whether it was my ignorance, but it seems we have a world wide concensus (okay a small sample: ) That, as you say, Sunshine is a wonderful northern expression and nothing else. I'm glad you like the carvings. I think there was so much mystery and power in medieval art - perhaps unjustly overshadowed by the Renaissance.

Misha Gerrick said...

Beautiful sculptures. And yes. There is a thing like negative racism. Ask me. I know.

Mike Keyton said...

I'm glad you like the sculptures too, Misha. Ref your last comment, I think we've evolved to be 'tribal' in one way or another ref race, caste football teams, politics, everything. Unless you're careful it's the defacto position too many people slip into. The amygdal comfort zone.