The Grim Reaper at the Chessboard

Few games lend themselves to philosophical metaphors like the game of chess.
The two armies, one dark and one bright, have been battling each other for millennia in endless struggle. An abstract fight of mathematical perfection, as mankind’s “terrible love of war” is inscribed within an orthogonal grid which is only superficially reassuring.
The chessboard hides in fact an impossible combinatory vertigo, an infinity of variations. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the scheme (the estimate of all possible games is a staggering number), and remember that famous Pharaoh who, upon accepting to pay a grain of wheat on the first square and to double the number of grains on the following squares, found himself ruined.

The battle of 32 pieces on the 64 squares inspired, aside from the obvious martial allegories, several poems tracing the analogy between the chessboard and the Universe itself, and between the pawns and human condition.
The most ancient and famous is one of Omar Khayyám‘s quatrains:

Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This idea of God moving men over the chessboard as he pleases might look somewhat disquieting, but Jorge Luis Borges multiplied it into an infinite regress, asking if God himself might be an unknowing piece on a larger chessboard:

Weakling king,  slanting bishop, relentless
Queen, direct rook and cunning pawn
Seek and wage their armed battle
Across the black and white of the field.

They know not that the player’s notorious
Hand governs their destiny,
They know not that a rigor adamantine
Subjects their will and rules their day.

The player also is a prisoner
(The saying  is Omar’s) of another board
Of black nights and of white days.

God moves the player, and he, the piece.
Which god behind God begets the plot
Of dust and time and dream and agonies?

This cosmic game is of course all about free will, but is also part of the wider context of memento mori and of Death being  the Great Leveler. Whether we are Kings or Bishops, rooks or simple pawns; whether we fight for the White or Black side; whether our army wins or loses — the true outcome of the battle is already set. We will all end up being put back in the box with all other pieces, down in “time’s common grave“.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Death many times sat at the chessboard before Man.

In the oldest representations, the skeleton was depicted as cruel and dangerous, ready to violently clutch the unsuspecting bystander; but by the late Middle Ages, with the birth of the Danse Macabre (and possibly with the influence of the haunting but not malevolent Breton figure of Ankou) the skeleton had become unarmed and peaceful, even prone to dancing, in a carnival feast which, while reminding the viewer of his inevitable fate, also had an exorcistic quality.

That Death might be willing to allow Man a game of chess, therefore, is connected with a more positive idea in respect to previous iconographic themes (Triumph of Death, Last Judgement, the Three Kings, etc.). But it goes further than that: the very fact that the Reaper could now be challenged, suggests the beginning of Renaissance thought.

In fact, in depictions of Death playing chess, just like in the Danse Macabre, there are no

allusions or symbols directly pointing to the apocalyptic presence of religion, nor to the necessity of its rituals; for instance, there are no elements suggesting the need of receiving, in the final act, the extreme confort of a priest or the absolution as a viaticum for the next world, which would stress the feeling of impotence of man. Portrayed in the Danse Macabre is a man who sees himself as a part of the world, who acknowledges his being the maker of change in personal and social reality, who is inscribed in historical perspective.

(A. Tanfoglio, Lo spettacolo della morte… Quaderni di estetica e mimesi del bello nell’arte macabra in Europa, Vol. 4, 1985)

The man making his moves against Death was no more a Medieval man, but a modern one.
Later on, the Devil himself was destined to be beat at the game: according to the legend, Sixteenth Century chess master Paolo Boi from Syracuse played a game against a mysterious stranger, who left horrified when on the chessboard the pieces formed the shape of a cross…

But what is probably the most interesting episode happened in recent times, in 1985.
A Dr. Wolfgang Eisenbeiss and an aquaintance decided to arrange a very peculiar match: it was to be played between two great chess masters, one living and one dead.
The execution of the game would be made possible thanks to Robert Rollans, a “trustworthy” medium with no knowledge of chess (so as not to influence the outcome).
The odd party soon found a living player who was willing to try the experiment, chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi; contacting the challenger proved to be a little more difficult, but on June 15 the spirit of Géza Maróczy, who had died more than 30 years before on May 29, 1951, agreed to pick up the challenge.
Comunicating the moves between the two adversaries, through the psychic’s automatic writing, also took more time than expected. The game lasted 7 years and 8 months, until the Maróczy’s ghost eventually gave up, after 47 moves.

This “supernatural” game shows that the symbolic value of chess survived through the centuries.
One of the most ancient games is still providing inspiration for human creativity, from literature (Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was built upon a chess enigma) to painting, from sculpture to modern so-called mysteries (how could chess not play a part in Rennes-le-Château mythology?).
From time to time, the 64 squares have been used as an emblem of seduction and flirtation, of political challenges, or of the great battle between the White and the Black, a battle going on within ourselves, on the chessboard of our soul.

It is ultimately an ambiguous, dual fascination.
The chessboard provides a finite, clear, rationalist battlefield. It shows life as a series of strategical decisions, of rules and predictable movements. We fancy a game with intrinsic accuracy and logic.
And yet every game is uncertain, and there’s always the possibility that the true “endgame” will suddenly catch us off guard, as it did with the Pharaoh:

CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly):
Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.
(Pause.)
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.

(Thanks, Mauro!)

The Punished Suicide

This article originally appeared on Death & The Maiden, a website exploring the relationship between women and death.

Padova, Italy. 1863.

One ash-grey morning, a young girl jumped into the muddy waters of the river which ran just behind the city hospital. We do not know her name, only that she worked as a seamstress, that she was 18 years old, and that her act of suicide was in all probability provoked by “amorous delusion”.
A sad yet rather unremarkable event, one that history could have well forgotten – hadn’t it happened, so to speak, in the right place and time.

The city of Padova was home to one of the oldest Universities in history, and it was also recognized as the cradle of anatomy. Among others, the great Vesalius, Morgagni and Fallopius had taught medicine there; in 1595 Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente had the first stable anatomical theater built inside the University’s main building, Palazzo del Bo.


In 1863, the chair of Anatomical Pathology at the University was occupied by Lodovico Brunetti (1813-1899) who, like many anatomists of his time, had come up with his own process for preserving anatomical specimens: tannization. His method consisted in drying the specimens and injecting them with tannic acid; it was a long and difficult procedure (and as such it would not go on to have much fortune) but nonetheless gave astounding results in terms of quality. I have had the opportunity of feeling the consistency of some of his preparations, and still today they maintain the natural dimensions, elasticity and softness of the original tissues.
But back to our story.

When Brunetti heard about the young girl’s suicide, he asked her body be brought to him, so he could carry out his experiments.
First he made a plaster cast of the her face and upper bust. Then he peeled away all of the skin from her head and neck, being especially careful as to preserve the girl’s beautiful golden hair. He then proceeded to treat the skin, scouring it with sulfuric ether and fixing it with his own tannic acid formula. Once the skin was saved from putrefaction, he laid it out over the plaster cast reproducing the girl’s features, then added glass eyes and plaster ears to his creation.

But something was wrong.
The anatomist noticed that in several places the skin was lacerated. Those were the gashes left by the hooks men had used to drag the body out of the water, unto the banks of the river.
Brunetti, who in all evidence must have been a perfectionist, came up with a clever idea to disguise those marks.

He placed some wooden branches beside her chest, then entwined them with tannised snakes, carefully mounting the reptiles as if they were devouring the girl’s face. He poured some red candle wax to serve as blood spurts, and there it was: a perfect allegory of the punishment reserved in Hell to those who committed the mortal sin of  suicide.

He called his piece The Punished Suicide.

Now, if this was all, Brunetti would look like some kind of psychopath, and his work would just be unacceptable and horrifying, from any kind of ethical perspective.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After completing this masterpiece, the first thing Brunetti did was showing it to the girl’s parents.
And this is where things take a really weird turn.
Because the dead girl’s parents, instead of being dismayed and horrified, actually praised him for the precision shown in reproducing their daughter’s features.
So perfectly did I preserve her physiognomy – Brunetti proudly noted, – that those who saw her did easily recognize her”.

But wait, there’s more.
Four years later, the Universal Exposition was opening in Paris, and Brunetti asked the University to grant him funds to take the Punished Suicide to France. You would expect some kind of embarrassment on the part of the university, instead they happily financed his trip to Paris.


At the Exposition, thousands of spectators swarmed in from all around the world to see the latest innovations in technology and science, and saw the Punished Suicide. What would you think happened to Brunetti then? Was he hit by scandal, was his work despised and criticized?
Not at all. He won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions.

If you feel kind of dizzy by now, well, you probably should.
Looking at this puzzling story, we are left with only two options: either everybody in the whole world, including Brunetti, was blatantly insane; or there must exist some kind of variance in perception between our views on mortality and those held by people at the time.
It always strikes me how one does not need to go very far back in time to feel this kind of vertigo: all this happened less than 150 years ago, yet we cannot even begin to understand what our great-great-grandfathers were thinking.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that the cultural removal of death and the medicalization of dead bodies are relatively recent processes, which started around the turn of the last century. But it’s not until we are faced with a difficult “object” like this, that we truly grasp the abysmal distance separating us from our ancestors, the intensity of this shift in sensibility.
The Punished Suicide is, in this regard, a complex and wonderful reminder of how society’s boundaries and taboos may vary over a short period of time.
A perfect example of intersection between art (whether or not it encounters our modern taste), anatomy (it was meant to illustrate a preserving method) and the sacred (as an allegory of the Afterlife), it is one of the most challenging displays still visible in the ‘Morgagni’ Museum of Anatomical Pathology in Padova.

This nameless young girl’s face, forever fixed in tormented agony inside her glass case, cannot help but elicit a strong emotional response. It presents us with many essential questions on our past, on our own relationship with death, on how we intend to treat our dead in the future, on the ethics of displaying human remains in Museums, and so on.
On the account of all these rich and fruitful dilemmas, I like to think her death was at least not entirely in vain.

The “Morgagni” Museum of Pathology in Padova is the focus of the latest entry in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, His Anatomical Majesty. Photography by Carlo Vannini. The story of the ‘Punished Suicide’ was unearthed by F. Zampieri, A. Zanatta and M. Rippa Bonati on Physis, XLVIII(1-2):297-338, 2012.

Monstrous pedagogy

Article written by our guestblogger Dario Carere

The search for wonder is far more complex than simple entertainment or superstition, and it grows along with collective spirituality. Every era has its own monsters; but the modern use of monstrosity in the horror genre or in similar contexts, makes it hard for us to understand that the monster, in the past, was meant to educate, to establish a reference in the mind of the end-user of the bizarre. Dragons, Chimeras, demons or simply animals, even if they originated from the primordial repulsion for ugliness, have been functional to spirituality (in the sense of searching for the “right way to live”), especially in Catholicism. Teratology populated every possible space, not unlike advertising does nowadays.

We are not referring here to the figure of monsters in fairy tales, where popular tradition used the scare value to set moral standards; the image of the monster has a much older and richer history than the folk tale, as it was found in books and architecture alike, originating from the ancient fear of the unknown. The fact that today we use the expressions “fantastic!” or “wonderful!” almost exclusively in a positive sense, probably comes from the monster’s transition from an iconographic, artistic element to a simple legacy of a magical, child-like world. Those monsters devouring men and women on capitals and bas-reliefs, or vomiting water in monumental fountains, do not have a strong effect on us anymore, if not as a striking heritage of a time in which fantasy was powerful and morality pretty anxious. But the monster was much more than this.

The Middle Ages, on the account of a symbolic interpretation of reality (the collective imagination was not meant to entertain, but was a fundamental part of life), established an extremely inspired creative ground out of monstrous figures, as these magical creatures crowded not only tales and beliefs (those we find for instance in Boccaccio and his salacious short stories about gullible characters) but also the spaces, the objects, the walls. The monster had to admonish about powers, duties, responibilities and, of course, provide a picture of the torments of Hell.

Capital, Chauvigny, XII century.

Chimeras, gryphons, unicorns, sirens, they all come from the iconographic and classical literary heritage (one of the principal sources was the Physiologus, a compendium of animals and plants, both actual and fantastic, written in the first centuries AD and widespread in the Middle Ages) and start to appear in sculptures, frescos, and medieval bas-reliefs. This polychrome teratological repertoire of ancient times was then filtered and elaborated through the christian ethics, so that each monster, each wonder would coincide with an allegory of sin, a christological metaphore, or a diabolical form. The monkey, for instance, which was already considered the ugliest of all animals by the Greeks, became the most faithful depiction of evil and falsehood, being a (failed) image of the human being, an awkward caricature devised by the Devil; centaurs, on the other hand, were shown on the Partenone friezes as violent and belligerous barbarians — an antithesis of civil human beings — but later became a symbol of the double nature of Christ, both human and divine. Nature became a mirror for the biblical truth.

Unicorn in a bestiary.

SantEufemia5

Capital, Church of Sant’Eufemia, Piacenza, XII century.

Bestiaries are maybe the most interesting example of the medieval transfiguration of reality through a christian perspective; the fact that, in the same book, real animals are examined together with imaginary beasts (even in the XVI century the great naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi included in his wonderful Monstrorum historia a catalogue of bizarre humanoid monsters) clearly shows the medieval viewpoint, according to which everything is instilled with the same absolute truth, the ultimate good to which the faithful must aim.

Fear and horror were certainly among the principal vectors used by the Church to impress the believers (doctrine was no dialogue, but rather a passive fruition of iconographic knowledge according to the intents of commissioners and artistis), but probably in the sculptors’ and architects’ educational project were also included irony, wonder, laughter. The Devil, for instance, besides being horrible, often shows hilarious and vulgar behaviors, which could come from Carnival festivities of the time. The dense decorations and monstrous incisions encapsulate all the fervid life of the Middle Ages, with its anguish, its fear of death, the mortification of the flesh through which the idea of a second life was maintained and strenghtened; but in these images we also find some giggly outbursts, some jokes, some vicious humor. It’s hard to imagine how Bosch‘s works were perceived at the time; but his thick mass of rat-demons, winged toads and insectoid buffoons was the result of an inconographic tradition that predated him by centuries. The monsters, in the work of this great painter, already show some elements of caricature, exaggeration, mannerism; they are no longer scary.

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Ulisse Aldrovandi, page form the Monstorum Historia.

Mosaici-della-cupola.-Il-Giudizio-Finale.-Ambito-di-Coppo-di-Marcovaldo-1260-1270-ca.-I-dannati-e-lInferno

Coppo di Marcovaldo, mosaic in the San Giovanni Baptistery (Firenze), XII century.

A splendid example of the “monstrous pedagogy” which adorned not only vast and imposing interiors but even the objects themselves, are the stalls, the seats used by cardinals during official functions. In her essay Anima e forma – studi sulle rappresentazioni dell’invisibile, professor Ave Appiani examines the stalls of the collegiate Church of Sant’Orso in Aosta, work of an anonymous sculptor under the priorate of Giorgio di Chillant (end of XV century). The seatbacks, the arms, the handrests and the misericordie (little shelves one could lean against while standing up during long ceremonies) are all finely engraved in the shape of monsters, animals, grotesque faces. Demons, turtles, snails, dragons, cloaked monks and basilisks offered a great and educated bestiary to the viewer of this symbolic pedagogy, perfectly and organically fused with the human environment. Similar decorations could also be admired, some decades earlier, inside the Aosta Cathedral.

Aosta_Sant_Orso_Stalli_12

Stalls, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.

drago

The dragon, “misericordia”, 1469, Aosta Cathedral.

aletta poggiamano

Handrest, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.

Who knows what kind of reaction this vast and ancient teratology could arouse in the believers — if only one of horror, or also curiosity and amusement; who knows if the approach of the cultivated man who sculpted this stalls — without doubt an expert of the symbolic traditions filtered through texts and legends — was serious or humorous, as he carved these eternal shapes in the wood. What did the people think before all the gargoyles, the insects, the animals living in faraway and almost mythical lands? The lion, king of the animals, was Christ, king of mankind; the boar, dwelling in the woods, was associated with the spiritual coarseness of pagans, and thus was often hunted down in the iconography; the mouse was a voracious inhabitant of the night, symbol of diabolical greed; the unicorn, attracted by chastity, after showing up in Oriental and European legends alike, came to be depicted by the side of the Virgin Mary.

Every human being finds himself tangled up in a multitude of symbols, because Death is lurking and before him man will end his earthly existence, and right there will he measure his past and evaluate his own actions. […] These are all metaphorical scenes, little tales, and just like Aesop’s fables, profusely illustrated between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for that matter, they always show a moral which can be transcribed in terms of human actions. 

(A. Appiani, Op. cit., pag. 226)

So, today, how do we feel about monsters? What instruments do we have to consider the “right way to live”, since we are ever more illiterate and anonymous in giving meaning to the shape of things? It may well be that, even if we consider ourselves free from the superstitious terror of committing sin, we still have something to learn from those distant, imaginative times, when the folk tale encountered the cultivated milieu in the effort to give fear a shape – and thus, at least temporarily, dominate it.