Monthly Archives: March 2018

A Chance Encounter with Hans Holbein the Younger — published by Rebecca Potts, Archives Assistant (c/o Carolyn Bratnober)

These images are from a printed collection of woodcarvings designed by the famous Hans Holbein the Younger and carved by Hans Lutzelburger. By chance, I encountered a copy of Dance of Death in the Special Collections of the Burke Library — where I am currently working on Archives-processing projects as a student at Union Theological Seminary — and this unique volume opened my eyes to the world of Holbein’s woodcarvings.

"The Husbandman," woodcut engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger

“The Husbandman,” from Dibdin, Thomas Frognall, 1776-1847, Francis Douce, and Hans Holbein. Holbein’s Dance of Death Exhibited In Elegant Engravings On Wood: With a Dissertation On the Several Representations of That Subject. London: H.G. Bohn, 1858.

"The Child," and engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger

“The Child,” from Dibdin, Thomas Frognall, 1776-1847, Francis Douce, and Hans Holbein. Holbein’s Dance of Death Exhibited In Elegant Engravings On Wood: With a Dissertation On the Several Representations of That Subject. London: H.G. Bohn, 1858.

"The Abbess," an engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger

“The Abbess,” from Dibdin, Thomas Frognall, 1776-1847, Francis Douce, and Hans Holbein. Holbein’s Dance of Death Exhibited In Elegant Engravings On Wood: With a Dissertation On the Several Representations of That Subject. London: H.G. Bohn, 1858.

Holbien was a 16th century German artist and printmaker who, over the course of his life, did work for Erasmus, Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and Thomas Cromwell. After working for More—who resigned over Henry’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon—Holbein began to work directly for Anne Boleyn, More’s political and theological rival. Holbein was able to weather Anne’s famous downfall and in 1536, the year of her execution, he was officially employed as the King’s Painter. He went on to paint Henry, his third wife Jane Seymour, their child Edward, and many different courtiers. Holbein was also working for Cromwell during this time, creating images for Cromwell’s reformist, anti-clerical agenda. Following Jane’s death, Holbein returned to Germany under commission to paint Anne of Cleaves, the woman Cromwell was promoting as Henry’s next wife. As history has it, Holbein’s picture was highly flattering and Henry, distraught that his wife’s true face did not match Holbein’s picture, divorced Anne and beheaded Cromwell. Is it surprising then that a man who had witnessed and survived some of the most famous intrigues and downfalls in western history, would take as his subject, the fleeting nature of life and the constant, smiling certainty of death?

 

The images in this book depict the Dance of Death, or Dance Macabre, as drawn by Holbein. Dance of Death imagery was popularized long before Holbein, appearing in churches, monasteries, and illuminated manuscripts in the European Middle Ages. Ecclesiastically, Dance of Death imagery—people from all stations and ages confronted and called away by the personification of death as a skeleton—functioned as an allegory urging Christians to repent in the face of certain and, in those days, likely immanent death. Yet, as the essays in this 1858 book by Francis Douce demonstrate, the use of skeletons and stories of dancing death have much longer histories and more complex meanings. Douce tells how, according to Herodotus (a 5th century BCE historian), at Egyptian banquets, a dead body was brought out and presented to all the guests while the hosts proclaimed “Behold this image of what yourselves will be; eat and drink therefore, and be happy” (Douce, 2). Later Romans apparently adopted this tradition at their feasts (Ibid., 3). Thus the face of death can be used to call sinners to the church or diners to revelry. This ambiguity is somewhat captured in the once popular stories Douce recounts in which, though the characters and locations alter in every retelling, some group of people are loudly singing and dancing in direct defiance and mockery of priests, who are trying to conduct a religious service. The priest then asks God to force these dancers to continue their dance without stop for a year. God grants this request and the dancers gradually die, starved and exhausted, dancing themselves to death.

 

Holbein’s woodcarvings seem, to me, located within the space between allegory and ambiguity. Some of the images appear to clearly chastise immoral or corrupt behavior, such as the Judge, who is called by death as he prepares to take a bribe from a from a rich man, or the Advocate, which is similar. Yet others, such as the Husbandman, the Child, and the Abbess, illustrate that death comes for us all, regardless of virtue, age, or hard work. What then is the point of placing an image death before the unjust, as if in punishment, if later images demonstrate the unsettling and incontrovertible fact that death has little to do with justice? Sadly, these woodcarvings, exquisitely crafted and famous though they may be, do no more to answer that question than the mountains of philosophy and theology that came before and since. Therefore, in lieu of an answer to this question, I will leave you with my favorite image from the set: the Nun, kneeling in prayer, yet still able to cast flirtatious glances over her shoulder at the lute player in her room. Though this image was perhaps meant as a warning or a satire against the Catholic Church, I see it as the perfect marriage between the ancient Egyptian and European Middle Ages imageries of death. If life is fleeting and uncertain, why choose between prayer and merriment? Get it, girl.

Travel and Research in Israel/Palestine

Before becoming Circulation Supervisor here at the Burke Library, I attended Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (UTS-NYC) as a Master of Divinity student with a focus in Interreligious Engagement.  My particular area of academic research lies in two distinct segments of scholarship; 1) Judeo-Christian relations in Late Antiquity, and 2) the modern conflict in Israel/Palestine.  Before arriving at UTS-NYC I attended Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary at graduated in May 2014 with a MA in Religious Thought.  In January 2014 I participated in a month-long travel seminar to the Holy Land, sparking an interest that has grown substantially.

When I visited Israel/Palestine in early 2014 I had no idea how much of an impact the trip would have on my continued vocational work.

Photos taken in the West Bank, by Deanna Roberts, 1/27/2014.

From exploring historic landmarks and ancient ruins throughout the region, to sharing coffee at a local Palestinian cafe next to the wall in Beit Sahour with new friends, the trip changed my life.  Beit Sahour is a refugee camp on the eastern side of Bethlehem.  When most people hear the term refugee camp, tents and non-permanent structures come to mind.  However, in Beit Sahour and the other refugee camps inside the West Bank, which have now been around for well over 60 years, dwellings are quite permanent.  The experience I had in the West Bank was eye-opening, insightful, heartbreaking, and joyous.  As a citizen of the United States I was able to move freely in and out of checkpoints and through gated areas with little to no questioning from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers about my intentions.  It became more obvious to me each day just how limited travel is to Palestinians living in both Israel proper and inside the Occupied Territories.  What makes things even less black and white, and way more grey is that people living side-by-side one another, or in some cases directly above and below have drastically different sentiments about whose land they are living on.  On an “illegal” excursion to Hebron, my privileged position as a US passport carrying citizen became all the more clear.

Something interesting about the Holy Land, as in many other places around the world,  is that people continuously build on top of more ancient cultures and civilizations.  We build our dwellings right on top of the lived realities of those that have come before us.  In many instances, international Christian communities like to build churches right on top of historical sites, particularly in the Galilee region. Not only do Christian churches get build on top of ancient Jewish synagogues, but Jewish settler apartment complexes get built right on top of now closed Palestinian homes and storefronts.

Photo taken at Capharnaum, by Deanna Roberts, 1/16/2014

It became clear to me that the vision that Jewish settlers in the West Bank have for a homeland is in contrast to the vision that Palestinian Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, would have of their homeland.

The experiences in Israel/Palestine in 2014 were not all bleak and dreadful.  One of my favorite photos from the trip is of me standing inside a church on the Mount of Olives overlooking the borders of the old city of Jerusalem.  As I stood there I remember noticing that there was a mesmerizing unity of the cross located on the altar lined up perfectly with the Dome of the Rock, and the Wailing/Western wall that falls directly behind.  The moment captured the hope that I have: that people of three faiths can live together in harmony.

Photo taken inside the Chapel of Dominus Flevit, by Deanna Roberts, 1/21/14.

When I arrived back in the States after my trip I found myself unable to put away from my mind the images and stories I had seen and hear while visiting the people that inhabit the land inside historic Palestine.  I joined the Israel Palestine Mission network of the Presbyterian Church (USA), moved to Massachusetts to participate in a year of service, and then found myself in NYC following a call to ordained ministry in the PC (USA).  Of all the social justice issues swimming around the campus of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, the one that is minimally acknowledged is the moral, economic, social, and religious crisis in Israel/Palestine.

Now that I’m at the Burke in a more official capacity, it makes the most sense for me to share with you all the wonderful resources that the Burke, the wider Columbia University Libraries network, and the city of New York have to offer regarding issues around the current conflict in Israel and Palestine.  For the last few months I have been conducting research in our collections, searching for anything relating to Israel and Palestine, current land rights in historic Palestine, apartheid in the Holy land, and walls and borders throughout history.  I’ve been lucky enough to find a plethora of resources that I would like to share with the wider community:

From the circulating collections of the Burke Library:

Photo of “A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict,” by Naim Stifan Ateek (New York, Orbis 2017).

 

Located on one of the New Book shelves, this work echos many of the other works by Ateek.  In Burke we also have Justice and Only Justice:  A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, and A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation both authored by Ateek.

Also held at Burke are several of the works written by Union Theological Seminary NYC Doctor of Philosophy graduate W. Eugene March including: Israel and the Politics of Land : A Theological Case Study, God’s Land on Loan: Israel, Palestine, and the World, God’s Tapestry: Reading the Bible in a World of Religious Diversity, as well as The Wide Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity.

In addition to these we also hold several books by Mitri Raheb in the wider Columbia Libraries Network, including I Am A Palestinian Christian, Faith in the Faith of Empire, Bethlehem Besieged : Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble, and the recently published The Cross in Contexts : Suffering and Redemption in Palestine has been ordered and will be available at Burke once it arrives.

A few other resources within the Columbia University Libraries to draw your attention to:

Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison, Goran Gunner and Robert O.Smith, editors, 2014.

The Biblical Text in the Context of Occupation : Towards a New Hermeneutics of Liberation, Mitri Raheb, editor, 2012.

The Gospel and the Land of Promise : Christian Approaches to the Land of the Bible, Philip Church, editor, 2011.

I would also recommend:

What It Means to be Palestinian: Stories of Palestinian Peoplehood, Dina Mater, 2011.

Anything by Ilan Pappe.

Israel/Palestine-related events are happening throughout New York.  To highlight one which just closed at the end of February, please see information on traveling exhibit of Bethlehem Beyond the Wall up at Manhattan College in the Bronx.