Vegder's Blog

December 14, 2009

Oh, you beautiful doll, you great big beautiful doll

Oh, you beautiful doll… is the title of a song from July 1911. The music was written by Seymour Brown and the lyrics were by Nat D. Ayer.
These two young men were taking a break out side of a vaudeville theater in St. Louis when an attractive young lady walked by. According to one source the theater’s electrician said: “Say! There’s some beautiful doll! I’d like to get my limbs ’round her!” Within hours the song was finished, but it took a few years before it became a smash success.

I chose those lyrics to title this post because they seem so appropriate to the story of Hidari Jingorō, one of Japanese most famous sculptors. As the story goes, Jingorō once saw a particularly gorgeous woman who was way out of his league. Unable to have her for himself – he was said to have been homely in the extreme if not downright ugly – he carved a life-sized version. But a mock up is not exactly satisfactory when it comes to lust. So, as the legend goes Jingorō was able to bring her to life, but naturally there was a hitch. Isn’t that always the case? But more about him later.

Jingorō may be the impetus for this post, but a larger issue exists here: The breathe of life. What is it? How does it come about? Will we ever know? Most, if not all,  cultures have puzzled over this miracle and each has come up with it’s own explanation. I try to touch on a few of these.

Hidari Jingorō (左 甚五郎) and his Kyōto doll

To believe any of the numerous stories about life-giving one must have (blind) beliefs and/or faith – not to mention a modicum of gullibility. Perhaps the most famous account from Japan would focus on Hidari Jingorō (ca. 1596-1644), one of Japan’s most famous sculptors – a real life – now long dead – mortal.

However, before we start going into what little we know about Jingorō – a man Basil Hall Chamberlain described in 1899 as “Japan’s greatest sculptor” – lets take a moment to look at the historical role of the sculptor in both the East and the West. Almost everyone with a modicum of education in the West knows the name of Michelangelo (ミケランジェロ) no matter how they pronounce it.  Those with greater interests in the arts can tell us who Phidias (ペイディアス) and Praxiteles (プラクシテレス) were, but no one – at least I don’t think anyone – can name any of the sculptors from ancient Babylon or at Thebes.  And even if they could name one or two, so what?  It wasn’t until the Renaissance in Europe that the names of individual sculptors became important again after a gap of about 2,000 years. Gothic cathedrals are just as impressive with or without names. For ages sculpture was viewed strictly as craft subordinate to a greater whole or good . The same was not the case in the East. Just try to name 7 famous Japanese sculptors before the time of Jingorō. Name just one. I dare you. Bet you can’t do it. Not that there aren’t thousands of great images carved or cast by armies of sincere and sensitive craftsmen – we just don’t know their names. The great Buddhas of Bamiyan which were stupidly and foolishly destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 were the creation of nameless but devoted and dedicated workers. Their destruction was merely a taste of what was to come. Was their god served by this act? [That question is rhetorical from my point of view.] But… I have strayed from my point: Before Jingorō one would be hard pressed to name a single sculptor from India, China or Japan and not a hell of a lot since. The floodgates opened in the West and haven’t closed since Donatello gave us his androgynous David. The same can not be said of the East although the opening of Japan and globalization has gone a long way in correcting this oversight. What started as a trickle in the 19th century has become a… today.

In 1902 a book about Japanese artist was published by Yamanaka and Co. In their biography of Hidari Jingorō they say that he lived in  Fushimi (伏見), near Kyōto, where Hideyoshi built his famous castle. Jingorō was as humble in his origins as he was skilled as a sculptor. One day he “…fell in love with a lady, but he was too poor even to pay his respects to her.” This clearly is one of history’s great euphemism considering that she was a courtesan, a prostitute. “One day, however, when walking along a street he met the object of his love, and immediately followed her. The lady dropped her mirror by chance, which she had kept between the folds of her sash. This Jingorō picked up and hastened home. He at once undertook to carve her image, and when it was done he put the mirror in the sash worn by the image and lo! the image began to move, talk with the sculptor and even confided her love to him.”

In Terry’s Japanese Empire: Including Korea and Formosa (etc.) from 1914 there is a brief biography of Jingorō in footnote 1 on page 259: “Hidari Jingorō (1594-1634) was the son of Itami Masatoshi, and a samurai in the service of the Ashikaga. His trade was that of a carpenter, but he early developed a talent for carving wood, and he rose to become one of the most celebrated sculptors in Japan.”

Below is Toshihide’s 1898 version of Jingorō admiring his creation.

And yet another version of the doll story: Jingorō was able to build an operating automaton of the woman he was smitten with. She could walk, talk and dance, but her movements and words were always those of her creator until one time when he placed a mirror before her and she truly comes to life. His conclusion: “…the object upon which all feminine instincts of the fair sect are concentrated is a mirror.” Remove the mirror and she is an automaton. Return the mirror and she becomes a woman again. Another source said that the living woman who Jingorō doted on had looked in her mirror so many time that when the sculptor found it lying in the street it held the essence of the beauty’s soul and that is what brought the carving to life.

Robert Long in his Inside the Chrysanthemum: New Japanese Fables tells the story of Jingorō and another mirror. Bemoaning his own looks one of the sculptor’s students suggested he make a mirror and then have a Shinto priest bless it a thousand times. If this is done the viewer will be a thousand times better  looking when he views his own countenance. Jingorō did this and he looked great. So he rushed out to where the gorgeous beauty would walking by and he presented himself to her when she appeared. She took one look at him, winced and turned away. Jingorō was furious but his student pointed out that the mirror would only make him look better to himself and not to others. [ Since I don’t own a copy of this book I have no idea if Long is creating the new fables himself or if these are based on something older. I have read the part about blessing a mirror before, but don’t recall where.]

Kuniyoshi and Hidari Jingorō

Kuniyoshi created a particularly striking portrayal of Jingorō in his studio. The sculptor is seated on the ground, head turned away from us and from what he is doing, mostly with his back to us and wearing a remarkably striking robe portraying Emma-O, the overlord of deceased souls, and other scenes and figures from Hell. It is this robe which I find particularly curious. It must have existed and have been one of Kuniyoshi’s favorite studio props because it appears in one form or another in at least two other prints by him which is thought to be a self-portrait and in a colored drawing of him by his student Yoshitoshi. Even more curious must be the layers of meaning here. Emma-O who sits in judgment over lives of men is portrayed on a robe of a sculptor who was believed to have the power to bring his own work to life. Perhaps Kuniyoshi was actually his own model for Jingorō. You will see what I mean when I show you the so-called self-portrait further down this page. But for now here is a detail of the triptych I am talking about showing the robe and the sculptor in all their glory.

Now, here is the full triptych with each of the sculpted figures looking very much alive. [I doctored this image by giving it a light green ground in the hope that it would be more readable.]

Below is a detail from a print identified as a Kuniyoshi self-portrait from ca. 1839 and guess what… he’s wearing the same ‘damned’ robe or something awfully close to it.

Toyokuni III and Kyōsai  and Hidari Jingorō

The image shown above was a collaboration between Toyokuni III when he was 79 years old in 1864 and his pupil Kyōsai. It combines a portrait of a famous actor as Jingorō admiring his life-like sculpture of a temple guardian. In another print, strictly by Kyōsai, the statue has come to life and has frightened a mother and her young child. The myth lived on.

That robe

The heavy, padded robe or kimono is known in Japan by two different names, tanzen (丹前) or dotera (褞袍), according to what part of the country one lives in. It could be worn during cold weather on top of other robes or after one gets out of their bath. I suppose that its Western counterpart could be those fancy, plush robes provided by four and five star hotels – the ones that make you feel you were born to wear them.

Amy Reigle Newland writes about Kuniyoshi and this robe in the introduction to Heroes and Ghosts: Japanese Prints by Kuniyoshi 1797-1861. “The distinctly patterned padded kimono, cats, paulownia crest and turned or concealed head, altogether or in differing combinations, became a leitmotif of Kuniyoshi’s self portraits.” But it isn’t always in his self-portraits where it appears. Below is his portrayal of another one of Edo’s beloved bad boy bandits, the otokodate (男伊達), with a fictionalized Token Gombei (or Gonbei) admiring  himself in a mirror.

The question is where did the idea of this theme of scenes from  hell on robes come from. Newland answers that too: “These scenes were ultimately drawn from the [book] illustrations by Toyokuni… They depict courtly dotera decorated with scenes of hell worn by courtesan figures in the nō theatre and Kuniyoshi’s fondness for them is reflected in the incorporation of the designs into his dress. (Below is a detail from a print by Kunisada II of the Courtesan or Maid from Hell (遊君地獄太夫). In the lower you can see the top part of the head of Emma-O who also appears on the Kuniyoshi dotera. Just right of center at the bottom of the print is the top of the head of Datsueba (奪衣婆), the old hag of Hell. The book illustration to the right of the Kunisada II shows a full length Maid from Hell.)

An odd thought has occurred to me: If that is the Maid from Hell – and it is – why is she dressed in such a heavily padded winter robe? Why? Because the only thing odd about is what we bring to our concepts of eternal damnation. Mostly we think about it in terms of fire and brimstone, but that is only one paradigm. There are others. In The Inferno by Dante (ダンテ: 1265-1321)) the author is led by Virgil (バージル: 70-19 B.C.) through the circles of Hell and when they get to the center they find a humongous Lucifer [明星 – Myōjō in Japan: from before time began to an as yet undetermined date]  frozen up to his waist in ice. The worst tortures were those associated with ice and not fire. This, it turns out, is not so alien an idea from an image of the Hell Maiden all wrapped up in her elaborately decorated dotera.

One final point about Kuniyoshi and dotera before I leave this subject and basically this post – at least for now: There is a triptych by Kuniyoshi where he portrayed himself “…leading a procession of students during the Sannō festival. Again, he is identifiable by the boldly patterned kimono – in this case with the imagery of tigers, peonies and dragon…” As you will see the artist has his back turned to us again, but this time he is standing and his arms are extended outward.

Years ago there was a short-lived television program called Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (メリー.ハルトマン – メリー.ハルトマン). Everyone I knew said it was great and I should watch it sometime. But I didn’t. Finally months later I turned it on in the middle of an episode. The first thing I saw on the screen was old man with his back to me, standing in a courtroom, in a trench coat, facing a judge. The old man was Mary’s grandfather, aka, the Fernwood Flasher. The judge asked him if he had anything to say for himself and all the old man did was open his trench coat wide and expose himself. I turned the TV off and didn’t bother to watch the show again for another few months. When I finally did I was hooked and sorry I had missed so much. It was completely whacky. I mention this because I cannot look at the image of Kuniyoshi above without thinking about the notorious Fernwood Flasher. But maybe that’s just me.


Detail from a Canova sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The full image was posted at by Saliko.

But seriously, long before the Jingorō story took hold in the Japanese imagination the ancient Greeks and Romans had their own myths. Ovid tells the story of the king of Cyprus, Pygmalion, who was so disgusted by the enormous number of prostitutes he saw around him that he carved a statue of the ideal woman out of ivory.

Pygmalion saw these women waste their lives
in wretched shame, and critical of faults
which nature had so deeply planted through
their female hearts, he lived in preference,
for many years unmarried.—But while he
was single, with consummate skill, he carved
a statue out of snow-white ivory,
and gave to it exquisite beauty, which
no woman of the world has ever equalled:
she was so beautiful, he fell in love
with his creation. It appeared in truth
a perfect virgin with the grace of life,
but in the expression of such modesty
all motion was restrained—and so his art
concealed his art. Pygmalion gazed, inflamed
with love and admiration for the form,
in semblance of a woman, he had carved.

Pygmalion was so smitten with his creation that he caressed it, kissed it and got the feeling that his affections were being returned. He whispered sweet nothings and gave her gifts. He even worried that he might have bruised his lover’s legs with the intensity of his embraces. He laid his creation on a luxuriant bed and called her his consort. And on the day to celebrate Venus he made offerings at her altar and prayed that he could have a real wife as beautiful and pure as his ivory statue. After this prayer he returned to his statue and began kissing her again.

and as he kissed,
she seemed to gather some warmth from his lips.
Again he kissed her; and he felt her breast;
the ivory seemed to soften at the touch,
and its firm texture yielded to his hand,
as honey-wax of Mount Hymettus turns
to many shapes when handled in the sun,
and surely softens from each gentle touch.

His prayers were answered and nine month later, this couple blessed by Venus, had their first child. Below is a painting from ca. 1890 by Jean-Léon Gérôme. While it doesn’t quite follow the text by Ovid the point is clearly made.

The contrast between the stories of Gérôme’s Pygmalion and Jingorō’s sculpture is interesting. 1) Both sculptures come to life. Both are the idealized versions of what their creators thought would be the perfect woman. Their transformations bring satisfaction to what would otherwise be an unobtainable desires. 2) Jingorō is a lowly artisan. Craftsmen in Japan were always commoners – a class which ranked below that of farmers and soldiers. Only merchants were of lower rank. On the other hand, Pygmalion was a king, a man who stood on the top rung of his ladder and yet was a sculptor to boot. 3) Both men were profoundly affected by the ever-present prostitutes around them. In  Jingorō’s case he was smitten with a prominent courtesan of astounding beauty. However, in Pygmalion’s case he was so disgusted by the whores who seemed to be everywhere that he withdrew from the company of real-life women.

The same basic story told in two different ways in two diverse cultures ages apart. Personally I don’t think there is any hint of a connection here.

And then there is a third variation – Geppetto and Pinocchio: Most of us know the story of sweet old Geppetto who always wished he has a son and who carved a marionette which came to life. Same story, different take. Below is an image of a German stamp featuring Pinocchio. However, before you go there I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of Pinocchio with the elongated nose and the Japanese images of the tengu king. For that reason I am posting next to the stamp a doctored image of an oversized tengu mask placed at wikimedia by MShades. Remember that there is no connection between the two. None whatsoever. Just an uncanny resemblance.


Before we leave this behind us, I thought it would be good for you to see the full rear view of the Canova sculpture at the Met. It is from a picture posted at wikimedia by Saliko.

Discretion prevents me from showing you the frontal view and I am anything if not discrete. Wouldn’t you agree?

Other works by or attributed to Hidari Jingorō:

Some say the sleeping cat (nemuri neko/眠猫) at Tōshōgū (東照宮) was placed there to frighten off mice because the grave of Ieyasu lies nearby and should remain undisturbed. There is another sculpture elsewhere of a cat with its eyes open.  Attributed to Jingorō it si said to be so life-like that when some living cats see it they arch their backs, their fur bristling and they hiss and spit at in fear (or aggression). How the hell should I know which? I don’t speak cat.

One Western writer for Scribner’s Magazine wrote in 1921 “…the ‘sleeping cat’ of Hidari Jingoro… makes you drowsy to look at it.” Hyperbole? I look at my sleeping cats all the time and think “Now, maybe, I’ll get some work done.” My cats, by the way, are not the aloof kind. They are needy, neurotic and always want to play, be fed or petted. Sleeping cats is Jerry-time. (Below is a picture of Sticky on the left and TJer on the right.)

This ability to catch the absolute or true nature of an object is a favorite topic among art historians. Some have argued that the figures painted by Giotto (ジョット) were so lifelike that his contemporaries thought they were looking at the real thing. Somewhat like the way we view photographs today.  Or, maybe even more realistic. Pliny (プリニウス) tells us that Alexander the Great (アレクサンダー大王) sought out Apelles (アペレス) to paint his portrait. While sitting for the greatest artist of his age Alexander expostulated on the nature of art and Apelles told him to shut up because even the young men grinding the pigments in his studio were laughing at him. Although angered – my inference – Alexander nevertheless deferred. One story – with many variant versions – says that the youthful Macedonian king asked Apelles paint a portrait of him astride his great steed, Bucephalus. When finished Alexander was pleased with his own likeness, but not that of his horse until a mare walked by, saw the painting and neighed at it at which the painter noted that the mare was a better judge of art than Alexander was.

Several sources say that the carving of the elephants is based on a painting by Kano Tan’yu (狩野探幽 1602-74). They also all note that the believe the legs are all wrong, i.e., going the wrong way. Considering that there were no live elephants to work from I think they did pretty damn well.

How gauche!

Have you ever been in a crowded movie theater where everyone, or almost everyone, is intensely absorbed in a scene when someone starts laughing – when no one else is? Well, that may have been me. What most people take seriously in fictionalized settings I often find ironic or absurd. I am sure my neighbors are thinking that my reaction is terribly inappropriate. (That is one reason I don’t attend many movies.) Even when the scenes are comedic I tend to laugh at the orphaned lines when no one else does.

Hidari (左) means left because this sculptor was left-handed. In French the word for left is gauche. In 1471 the French began to replace the more commonly used sénestre for left with gauche. Sénestre, of course, was derived from the Latin sinister. Sinister?! According to Shipley “Sun worshipers, at morning prayer in thanks for rebirth of light, had south on the dexter, right-hand side; hence dext(e)rous. Opposed is the sinister…” Followers of the sinister, by implication, would be worshipers of the dark. While Jingorō may not have been an ancient Roman or even French is there any question why people would come to believe that such an incredibly gifted (left-handed) sculptor would have supernatural powers – powers which could bring his work to life?

On another level there is reason to think of Jingorō’s work as gauche. To the Minimalist everything Baroque art is a nightmare: It is riotous in color, movement, foreshortening – hence, antithetical to everything quiet and contemplative and thus totally gauche. Jingorō was clearly not a Zen artist working for Zen masters. His patrons wanted color and form galore. His best known works are found in buildings devoted to the glorification of Tokugawa Ieyasu at Nikko. One author in 2000 referred to this astonishing pieces as “rather florid”. Below we have posted two images to make our point. The first one is a detail of the ceiling of in the Schloss Wurzach. The photo was taken by Andreas Praefcke and posted on the web at The second one, taken by Fg2 and posted at the same place,  is a detail of the Yomeimon Gate at Nikko – which in not ascribed to Jingorō, but is definitely part of the whole he participated in.  I think they make the point clearly.

Fact or Fiction? 1a) There was an article published in 1914 which says “Among these carvings are the best works of the greatest artist, Hidari Jingoro, of whom it is said that when his enemy out of jealousy cut off his right hand, he immediately learned to carve as well with his left.” Give me a break. Is that bull or the straight poop? I think it’s bull. 1b) Another version: In Basil Hall Chamberlain’s Things Japanese the author says that after the sculptor created his living doll they were living together happily until… until… Jingorō’s lord was told by his enemies that he must sacrifice his daughter.  Hearing this Jingorō scarified his creation by lopping off her head. He then delivered the ‘corpse’ to the enemies of master and they were fooled. However, someone failed to tell all of the lord’s servants one of whom believed that the sculptor had actually killed his master’s daughter. In revenge he cut off Jingorō’s right hand making him the  ‘hidari’ we all know and love today. 2) In 1883 Daniel Pidgeon in his An Engineer’s Holiday relates that “Among the many artists who helped to decorate Nikko was a certain Hidari Jingoro, the Pygmalion of Japan, who once painted the picture of a lady so surpassingly beautiful that he fell in love with his own work. By the kindness of the gods, whom he implored to that effect, the canvas came to life, married the artist and lived happily with him ever after – of course. It was curious to light on this old myth in the far East.” 3) The two story Yomei-mon gate (陽明門) at Tōshōgū is said to have over 500 elaborated carved figures on it. Some credit Jingorō’s hand in its decoration. It is said to be so absorbing that it has been nicknamed Higurashi-mon (日暮の門) or the sunset gate because people would spend the whole day just looking at its parts until it gets too dark. 4) The dragons of the Kara-mon (唐門) at Tōshōgū attributed to Jingorō are said to be so realistic that they are believed to slip away at night to drink from Shinobazu Pond. 5) Jingorō has often been referred to as “the Japanese Phidias”. 6) Jingorō “…once sculpted a horse that took his status so seriously to heart that he occasionally left his pedestal for the purpose of grazing in the fields nearby…” 7) Alan Scott Pate in his book on Japanese dolls tells the story about Jingorō that when he needed extra help in his workshop/studio he would carve assistants to help him. Whenever a project would be finished he would take these carved helpers and throw them into a river where they would be transformed into kappa – ugly, nasty creatures. #8) The sculptor is credited with creating the “singing floors” of the Chion-in (知恩院) in Kyōto which make the sound of a nightingale (uguisu 鴬) when you walk on them. 9) At the Chion-in Temple the abbot was performing a dedication ceremony when it began to rain. A fox god appeared and held an umbrella over the abbot until the ceremony was finished. The umbrella had been left there by Jingorō who died four years before. From then on the umbrella was referred to as Hidari Jingorō no wasure-gasa. 10) There is a Hidari Jingorō Museum (左 甚五郎美術館) in Takamatsu (高松) on Shikoku Island. In New Japan Solo the authors say “The museum is housed in a three-story tan stucco building with two white balconies. This small museum has a fine collection of works…” by the sculptor. They continue: “Recommended for art history majors only.” Not that is not exactly what I would call a ringing endorsement. 11) Frank Brinkley in 1902 related a story where one of the sculptor’s friends urged him to raise himself out of poverty to which Jingorō replied: “Pleasure lies hidden in poverty. Does not the plum blossom in snow?”

For A Little Cultural Balance and Some Bizarre Thinking

Hidari Jingorō may have been Japan’s greatest wood sculptor ever, but isn’t it odd that he died in 1644 and England’s greatest wood carver, Grinling Gibbons (グリンリング・ギボンズ), was born just4 years later? For those of you out there who believe in reincarnation – and there are plenty of you – this is more than a coincidence. I, of course, don’t buy it.  However, just for contrast I am posting a detailed of image of a Gibbons wood carving found at Hampton Court and placed on the web by Camster2 at If Jingorō and Gibbons are not the same spirit at least they are damned close. Sort of like Braque and Picasso in their Cubist period, but not, eh?

The Second Commandment

In The New English Bible with the Apocrypha published by both the Oxford and Cambridge University presses in 1970 it says in Exodus 20:4 “You shall not make a carved image for yourself nor a likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” Well, there you have it. It couldn’t be plainer. No images, no likeness, no photographs, no Avatars created from pixels. Nothing. Nada. It is right there in Mosaic Law. Only God is the creator or Creator.

Above is a relief from a synagogue in Bucharest posted on the Internet at by Joe Mabel.  Clearly, even here, it does not follow the strictures of the Second Commandment as quoted above. Perhaps there is something in the nature of humanity which overrides such strictures. For every literalist adherent to the scriptures there is at least one (to a thousand or more) individuals who look at it more loosely, more symbolically, more metaphorically – or don’t think about it all.

In I Kings 10:18-20 there is a description of Solomon’s throne “…of ivory and overlaid… with fine gold. Six steps led up to the throne; at he back of the throne there was the head of a calf. There were arms on each side of the seat, with a lion standing beside each of them, and twelve lions stood on six steps, one at either end of each step. Nothing like it had ever been made for any monarch.”

A question for you: Why were there no world famous Jewish artists prior to the 20th century? First off, I want you to know that I have no answer to this question, but I do have some suggestions. The Second Commandment might be one reason. A second barrier might have been the Diaspora itself and the dispersion of the the Jews over centuries accompanied by numerous persecutions and expulsions. A third possibility might have been due to the segregation and isolation of Jews from the rest of the European communities whether it was in the shtetls of in the east or the ghettos in the west. A fourth explanation might lie in the segregated nature of these Jewish communities where scholarship, i.e., Talmudic studies, and commerce may have played a more significant role than that of the creation of fine art imagery. Somehow survival may have come to vaguely mirror Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where artistic creativity was not at the top of their agenda. Even if there was a young  Jewish male who wanted to study with a great non-Jewish master the idea was unthinkable.  Rembrandt might paint portraits of Jews, but he was far less than likely to have one as an apprentice. (“Far less” is a gross understatement.) The same would have been true of Rubens or any other great master – especially considering how much of their time and efforts were involved in the production of religious art.

In 1919 Thorstein Veblen (ソースティン.ベブレン) wrote an essay, The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe, in which he argued against the Zionist drive to establish a homeland in the Middle East. There was nothing anti-Semitic about Veblen’s views. In fact, there was probably no one who admired more the contributions the Jews had made since they began their recent and emerging integration into European society. Veblen argued that Jews played a positive and disproportionate role in the growth of scientific and scholarly work and that the Zionist movement would deprive everyone of a better things to come. He was not anti-Zionist at all and was even sympathetic with their goals, but he felt that in the end run the Jews could add more to human advancement if woven into the fabric of Western society instead of isolated from it.

Veblen dealt mainly with social and economic theories and not with aesthetics and the arts. Perhaps that is why he failed to see the role the Jews would play in those areas in the decades to come. Without getting into any extraneous arguments I would propose that Marc Chagall was the best know Jewish artist of the 20th century. Veblen, who died in 1929, would hardly be expected to know about Chagall, one of the artists who were breaking the mold. That is what makes the image posted below so ironic. It is a picture of a stained glass window in All Saint’s Church in Tudeley, Kent in which the crucifixion of Jesus is portrayed by a modern Jewish artist. What could be more ecumenical and yet what could be further from a strict interpretation of the Second Commandment? (This image was posted at by Klaus D. Peter of Wiehl, Germany.)

The Golem

Clearly by the 17th century the concept of creation was being played with fast and loose in Jewish folklore. According to Chayim Bloch the Jews of Prague were saved by the Golem (גולם) which was fashioned out of clay and brought to life through the wondrous workings of Rabbi Loew who understood the mystical workings of the Kabbalah.  In 1808 Jacob Grimm wrote an account of Polish Jews and their Golem creations. After modeling a small figure out of clay or lime they would say a prayer over it and it would come to life. On its forehead was written the word for Truth/God. The Golem was used as a servant and everyday it would grow larger. If it threatened to grow too large the first part of the inscription could be erased leaving only the characters which meant ‘death’. At this it would crumble back into non-existence. One man let his Golem grow too large and ordered it to remove his boots. When the Golem bent down the man erased the first letters and the creature collapsed. But since it had grown so large that when it did collapse it buried its master and he died with it. The modern world came to know one version of the story through the 1914 novel The Golem by Gustav Meyrink.

As the legend goes Rabbi Loew was “…counselled ‘from Heaven’ to make the Golem.” Counseling took the form of dreams and as such would supply a clear dispensation for ignoring the original commandment. Only God could overrule his original order through the vehicle of the rabbi.The rabbi enlisted the help of his son-in-law and one of his pupil. They performed certain rituals including a purifying bath. Afterwards they went to the bank of the Moldau and formed a figure out of clay which had all of the essential body parts. In other words, on the surface, it was anatomically correct. Each of them performed their mystical roles. The first one represented fire and the Golem turned bright red. The second was water and the creature grew hair. And then the rabbi, who represented air, recited – with the help of his assistants – the sacred words taken from the book of Genesis. But before they performed this final act he placed a piece of parchment with the name of God on it in the Golem’s mouth. Then they all said: “And he breathed into his nostrils  the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” With this the Golem opened his eyes and looked astonished. When the rabbi ordered him to stand up the creature did so. They dressed him and now he had everything except the power of speech.

In every way the Golem was to obey the rabbi’s wishes, but first and foremost he was to protect the Jews against unjustified assaults. Clearly the Golem, named Joseph to continue the deception, understood his orders, but he was unable to distinguish between what was literal and what was nuanced. Metaphors and similes were way beyond him. When asked to fetch water to fill two barrels Joseph didn’t stop until ordered to and the entire courtyard had been flooded. When sent on dangerous missions the rabbi would supply the Golem with an amulet which would make him invisible. Sometimes he was dressed like a Christian worker so he could pass easily through their crowds and spy on their anti-Semitic plots. If he caught a Christian carrying around a dead baby which he was going to plant in a Jewish home as evidence of the so-call blood lust of the Jews the Golem would drag the man off with his horrific evidence to the police, make himself understood through gestures and then, using the magical amulet, disappear. [A personal note: While the Golem had this incredible skill in making himself understood I suck at charades.]

In many of the stories the Golem eventually goes mad and is more of a threat than a gift. It dies, but never quite completely and if necessary can be resurrected. [It is funny how certain themes repeat themselves in different settings.]

The Koran: My ignorance of Islam surpasses that of my ignorance of nearly all other religions. That said, no matter what I have to say here can easily be disputed. I know that.  However, as you may have realized by now ignorance has never been a deterrent in my pursuit of greater ignorance.

Much has been made of the use of images in Islam or the prohibition of same. The sayings of the Prophet and the Koran laid the ground rules. “…the wish to imitate the Creator’s work by imitating the form of living beings, and particularly the form of man, is irreverent and even blasphemous. This last injunction has not always and everywhere been observed, since it concerns more the intention than the deed: in the Persian and Indian world especially, it was argued that an image which does not claim to imitate the real, being but is no more than an allusion to it, is allowed. This is one of the reasons for the non-illusive style of Persian miniatures, that is to say, the absence in them of shadows and perspective. No mosque, however, has ever been decorated with anthropomorphic images.” Since many Muslims, especially those of a more fundamentalist mind-set, think that all portrayals of living creatures should be taboo. Basically they believe that on Judgement Day the creator of all such images will be called upon to breathe life into their works or suffer eternal damnation.

It is said that angels will not enter the house of a man with images or a dog or both. Below is an image of the upper reaches of the Sehzade mosque in Istanbul. It was posted at by Zagomar. As you can see there is no chorus of angels or putti or hand of God reaching out to a freshly created Adam. All is elegant design with a few well placed bits of script.

Lazarus, Prometheus, Frankenstein, Ted Williams and vermicelli

Detail from the Raising of Lazurus by Rembrandt

In 1632 Rembrandt etched another version of Jesus performing the miracle of bringing Lazarus back from the dead.  As Jesus approached Bethany Martha, Lazarus’ sister, came out to meet him. Her brother had already been dead for four days and she said to Jesus: “If you had been here, sir, my brother would not have died.” To this Jesus responded with “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said she realized that her brother would rise again during the final judgment, but Jesus reassured her saying “I am the resurrection and I am that life. If a man has faith in me, even though he die, he shall come to life…” When they reached the tomb where the man was interred Jesus had the stone removed which covered the front of the cave. After Jesus looked upon the corpse he gave thanks to his Father and “raised his voice in a great cry: ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ The dead man came out…” The story is told in John 11: 1-44.

In Luke 16 Lazurus is beggar with open sores who begs for food at the house of a wealthy man. His uffering is ignored by the rich man, but when Lazurus dies his soul is carried to heaven by the angels. When the rich man dies his soul ends up in the other place where he will sizzle for all of eternity. The original Hebrew for Lazarus means ‘God will help’ or ‘has helped’. The word ‘leper’ comes from the Greek for scaly.

Isolation and hoped for redemption: In Michel Foucault’s remarkable book Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason the first chapter is entitled “Stultifer Navis”. It begins with a discussion of the lazar houses in medieval Europe. Lazar is synonymous for leper and their houses were the establishments where these outcasts were isolated from the rest of society. As leprosy slowly died outin Europe a huge number of buildings and institutions were left vacant. What was to be done with them? At first they became juvie detention halls, but in time they were transformed into lunatic asylums which naturally housed a large criminal population too.The insane had become the new lazars or lepers.

For those of you who don’t read Latin Foucault’s “Stultifer Navis” translates as ‘Ship of Fools’.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein

Mary Shelley in her introduction to her Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus wrote about the origin of this tale: “When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but with acute mental vision, – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” The artist would run away hoping that the spark which gave it life would fade away and once more it “…would subside into dead matter.” But the artis’st hopes would be dashed when would waken and find the creature standing at the end of his bed staring at him. That image alone frightened Shelley and she decided to share it frightening others.

This creature was brought to life through alchemy. Victor Frankenstein relates a story of being 13 years old,  stuck indoors on a rainy day while on vacation and bored out of his mind. So, he picked up a book about Cornelius Agrippa. After showing it to his father his father told him “…do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash.” Naturally that made him want to read it even more and that led him to the other superstars of alchemy – Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. At the end of the second chapter Victor laments that the path he took “…eventually decreed my utter and terrible destruction.”

Ted Williams when still alive. This photo was placed on the web by Jim Hansen at

Then there is the tragic, almost farcical, events which followed Williams death on July 5, 2002. Ted Williams (テッド・ウイリアムズ) was a genuine American hero and his story is well-known – including those which followed his death at the age of 83. One of his sons said that his father wanted his head cryogenically preserved in the hope of eventual revival. This led to a bitter family dispute between the cremation side and the cryogenic (クライオジーニクス) or freezing  faction. Legal action was taken, but it was too late because there were already people in Scottsdale, Arizona (スコッツデール.アリゾナ) who said they could dip the head in liquid nitrogen and so it was done.

Now I don’t know about you, but I consider such beliefs loony tunes. However, my empathetic side tells me that no matter how crazy this idea seems I do understand their desire for something a little more hopeful than just letting a person expire and that being that. Who can account for different belief systems? I can’t. Ted Williams had a younger brother, Danny, who died of leukemia at the age of 39. William’s son, John-Henry, the one who froze his dad’s head in 2002, died of the same disease on March 6, 2004 at the age of 35. Is there any wonder about why members of the Williams family and so many others always want keep hope alive in the face of so much suffering? (John-Henry was supposed to have been frozen too so that he could eventually be reunited with his dad, but he wasn’t. It doesn’t get a lot sadder than that on so many different levels.) And recently, in 2008,  a fellow who worked for the cryogenics firm in Arizona published a book stating that Williams frozen head was physically abused. Even this brought on new lawsuits.

When I was child I watched any number of science fiction movies which either had a ‘living brain’ in a glass contraption wired to keep it alive and sentient. Sometimes there were whole heads which were preserved and functioning. And what about those brain or head transplants. However, I have tell that putting my brain in a much sexier and better looking body probably wouldn’t make a lot of difference – at least where the ladies are concerned. Draw you own conclusions. Then there is the case of Einstein’s brain which supposedly was preserved in formaldehyde. Good grief Charlie Brown! What were they thinking? Formaldehyde? One more point: Who will ever forget the head of Vincent Price on the body of a fly which someone was trying to swat? “Help me! Help me!” Not I. Wish I could.

Einstein (アインスタイン) shown above the yummy vermicelli.

Vermicelli (バーミセリ) means little worms in Italian

Mary Shelley (メアリー・シェリー) in her introduction to Frankenstein (フランケンシュタイン) recounts a conversation between Byron and her husband. At that time there was a story going around  about Erasmus Darwin (エラスムス.ダーウイン) which Darwin never claimed to be true. But fantastic rumors are fantastic rumors and often generally more interesting than the truth. According to Shelley:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley,
to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these,
various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the
nature of the principal of life, and whether there was any probability of
its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments
of Dr. Darwin… who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some
extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.

Shelley mused that if a scientist could bring life to a piece of pasta then surely a corpse might be ‘galvanized’ back to life. So, ever inquisitive, I did a search on Erasmus Darwin and vermicelli and guess what, he did mention that tasty starch at least once: “If the orchis [a fleshy tuber] could… [be] scalded in boiling water, and the peel rubbed off,  it… might become a nutritive article of diet, like sago and vermicelli, if it could be propagated at less expence.” This quote comes from his Phytologia; or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening. With the Theory of Draining Morasses and with an Improved Construction of the Drill Plough. Published in 1800.

Other topics I had hoped to cover in this post, but never got to: Mimesis and Animation; Christian iconoclasts;  Pygmalion and Galatea; Lewis Carroll and Tolkien; Rochisin and the niō; and Pinocchio, Babes in Toyland and Woody. Maybe on another day.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. As Tony the Tiger might say “It’s Grrrrreat!”

    Comment by Gary & Abbie — May 28, 2010 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

  2. What a fabulous article. I believe in the Creator of the Universe…the G-d of Abraham Isaac and Jacob and have recently come to realize that the second commandment, as mentioned in this post, isn’t only there to keep one from bowing down to images, but to keep one from the opportunity to do so. This simple, straightforward point is lost on the vast majority of G-d followers. We can still see the tendency for such things in religions like Catholicism though no catholic will admit it.

    I suppose my misconception came from hearing others interpret the verse, but I found it interesting that you had no problem interpreting the verse literally – probably because it has no ramifications on your lifestyle. I suppose those lovers of G-d simply don’t want to give up their un-worshiped images so they mis translate the verse…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this post.

    Comment by Shaliach — July 2, 2010 @ 3:36 am | Reply

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