Eating Waffles On A Gloomy Day
[Readers, it occurs to me that I don’t often post non-news-related things in this space. Here is a portion of one of my subscription-only Daily Dreher Substack newsletters from last week, when I was in Vienna with my son Matt. I hope you find it diverting and pleasant amid the torrent of gloom and doom here. — RD]
Yesterday Matt and I spent a long morning in the Kunsthistorisches Museum here in Vienna. It was glorious! I discovered a painting I had never before seen reproduced anywhere. It’s “Gloomy Day” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. It’s about a village dealing with early spring storms. Notice the destruction all about … but also notice that the storm doesn’t bother the men and the child on the bottom right hand corner. The kid is still wearing a crown from Carnival celebrations, and the man on the right is eating waffles.
I am the Waffle Man! The world is falling apart around me, but I’m still gonna eat waffles and kibitz with the Carnival goers.
Here’s my son Matt with Brueghel’s “Tower of Babel”:
And here he is with Brueghel’s “Hunters In The Snow,” which is one of my favorite paintings of all time. I did not realize that it was in the Vienna museum, so discovering it here was a great surprise:
My second-favorite painting in this museum is this self-portrait of Rembrandt. Look at this detail below; I could stare into his eyes forever. This is a man who knows the world:
I can’t remember who the artist of the canvas from which this detail is taken, but the image is of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. Look at the desolation in his face:
Here are two details of a Rubens painting of St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, refusing to let the Emperor Theodosius into his church until the Emperor repents of a mass killing he carried out in Thessaloniki. Notice the look on Ambrose’s face. It is the look not of an angry man, but of a loving father correcting his son. The sense of authority the great bishop had when facing down the Emperor is stunning:
Ambrose, in the end, prevailed.
You know who had a bad day? Medusa. This is her severed head, as painted by Rubens. This is one of the most horrifying images ever. The intensity of her evil is so vivid:
I was so struck by this painting of the Holy Eucharist wreathed by fruits and vegetables. What a marvelous symbol of bounty! I can’t remember who painted it.
Before we went into the picture galleries, Matt and I went through a special exhibition the museum has on:
It’s about how humanity has, across all eras and cultures, tried to establish a relationship with the divine. It was not only about religious and devotional objects, but also about worldly symbols of authority believed to have been granted to earthly rulers by God, or gods. And there was a strong element of people connecting to the divine in an attempt to control Nature — mostly to ward off its danger.
There were some frightening pagan pieces in the exhibition (the 19th century Amazon tribal costume for a storm demon was the stuff of nightmares), but also some charming ones. For example, in Thailand, there is a traditional folk belief that spirits inhabit the natural world. If one wants to build a house, then one must construct a small house in one’s garden for the spirits who inhabited that place before you to live in.
The strong impression the exhibit left me with was the ineradicable religiosity of man. From majestic objects created for religious rituals, to minor charms and fetishes, we can’t help filling objects with transcendent meaning. (What, after all, is an art museum anyway?) One of the most moving objects in the entire exhibition was probably the most humble: a segment of bright red string that the owner (who loaned it for the exhibit) received from a Tibetan lama on a visit to Nepal. The lama gave it to her, she said in the exhibition commentary, to remind her not to lose the through-line of her life.
Isn’t that beautiful? I thought so, anyway. This exhibit made me feel in a fresh way the sacramentality of creation, and how it mediates between us and God. Even the least sacramental religions — I’m thinking of Protestantism, Islam, and Judaism — can’t fully escape the impulse to declare some places and some objects (a Bible, a Koran, a Torah scroll) holy.
The thing is, as an Orthodox Christian, I don’t believe that this is only something we impute to material objects. I believe that a priest is the channel through which God’s grace is mediated in a particular way, but the grace is an actual spiritual force. I know that the divine is truly present in some things and places, and not in others. I also believe that the demonic is likewise present in some things and places. I once interviewed a woman who could not get books to stop flying off her shelves in her house until she burned and buried the ashes of two little humanoid wooden figures she and her late husband had bought at a bazaar in rural Indonesia on a vacation. She had not imagined it, but those objects had been used in some kind of wicked ritual. When she placed them on her bookshelf, she would wake up the next morning to find all the books splayed on the floor.
If you have ever been part of an exorcism or a deliverance rite, you know that holy water is not the same thing as water that comes out of the tap. People who are demon possessed, it burns them. A couple of years ago, I was in Manhattan visiting friends. The wife of the family is (or at least was at the time) possessed, and under the care of an exorcist. When her husband brought out a blessed object he had concealed, she reacted badly, her face changing, and a voice not her own coming out of her, cursing the presence of this object. I saw this with my own eyes. The poor wife apologized, and said, “I’m sorry, that’s not me.” [I wrote about it here.]
My point is, there is a great mystery present in the metaphysical connection between spirit and matter. No one can fully understand it. This museum exhibit, though, made me better aware of how natural this kind of thing is to the human experience, even today, in our supposedly disenchanted world.
After we left that museum, Matt and I repaired to a restaurant for a restorative cold, crisp Austrian lager: