Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Weekend milestones.

I marked two personal milestones this past weekend, one being my first trip behind the former Iron Curtain. The above photo was taken in Znojmo, a Czech border town less than two hours by train from Vienna. Znojmo was known during the Kaiserzeit as Znaim and had a German-speaking majority until the end of the First World War, when it became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia and underwent a very dramatic (and, for German-speakers, quite traumatic) transition to being monolithically Czech in language and culture.

Here is a closer look at the Soviet victory monument visible in the background of the first photo. An inscription below this column indicates that the Red Army entered Znojmo on May 9, 1945 - this was the day of liberation, at least as understood by those who built the monument.

For another view of the Soviet impact on Znojmo, consider this memorial dedicated to members of the anti-Communist resistance who died at the hands of the government between 1948 and 1989.

Outside of a bicycle shop in Znojmo, here is the Czech version of a common Slavic family name of which my own surname is a relatively rare variant.

The second milestone I marked this weekend was the experience of seeing Peter Paul Rubens' two paintings depicting the miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, executed in 1617/18 for the high altar of the Jesuitenkerk in Antwerp but now displayed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. These monumental works are very familiar to Jesuits - reproductions are displayed in many Jesuit communities - but seeing them in person was still quite moving.

I spent some time seated before each of the two paintings, contemplating them as prayerfully as I might if they were still displayed in a church. Both canvases are a bit overwhelming - one can't take them all in at once, and one can easily get sufficiently distracted by the details of each so as to lose a sense of the whole - but I suppose that sensory overload is what Rubens was going for.

One of the things that I most enjoy about visiting places like the Kunsthistorisches Museum is the delight of discovering works of art that are entirely new to me - works like sixteenth-century Italian painter Marcello Venusti's Madonna del Silenzio, pictured above. What I like about this painting is the strikingly natural but still very creative manner in which each of the figures is presented. The Child Jesus sleeps in the way that small children often do when they've been tired out by a day full of activity, passed out on his mother's lap with his arms flung over her legs. Mary's legs are crossed in a fashion that is almost surprisingly relaxed and informal; the book in her right hand recalls many traditional depictions of the Annunciation. In the background, Joseph broods pensively while a young John the Baptist (already clad in animal skins!) bids the viewer to remain silent.

This final photo is connected neither with the weekend nor with any particular milestone. For yesterday's Feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, I attended Vespers and Mass at the Schottenstift, a Benedictine abbey in the center of Vienna. The Schottenstift was founded in 1155 by missionary monks from Ireland (then considered part of Scotland, hence the Schotten- in the abbey's name), who came to Vienna at the invitation of the Austrian ruler Margrave Heinrich II. Today, the monks of the community run a parish and a school and help preserve the longstanding monastic presence in the heart of the city.

Language study is keeping me very occupied, but I do hope to post another update on this blog later in the week. In the meantime, please know of my prayers and good wishes. AMDG.


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