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Maxed Out

Old World charm missing in New Europe

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By G.D. Maxwell

At about the moment his captors slashed into Eugene Armstrong’s throat, spilled his blood and removed his head, all for the greater if misguided glory of… whatever, I was sitting in a salon at London’s National Gallery staring at Pierre-Cécile Purvis de Chavannes’ mural-sized painting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist .

I was sitting there for three reasons, none of which had to do with the demise of the unfortunate Mr. Armstrong. My feet hurt after four days of tramping through London looking at untold thousands of paintings, artifacts, historical landmarks and two millennia of historical gewgaws; I needed a rest. The beheading of St. John has always been one of the art subjects I find most intriguing. And Purvis de Chavannes’ 1869 depiction is both powerful and, as far as I know, unique.

St. John was painted more often than a Newfoundland skiff. His birth, Tintoretto, his portrait as a young man, El Greco, his imprisonment, Verrocchio, and the entire career Caravaggio seemed to build painting him in every conceivable aspect of his life. There are paintings of him being led to death and untold numbers of paintings of Salome being given his head on a platter.

But Purvis de Chavannes captures the moment just prior to his execution. The prophet kneels, back erect, eyes heavenward as if he were either gazing toward his final destination of suggesting if the Lord had a miracle left this would be a good time to pull it out. His face is in repose, at peace.

His executioner, bigger than life size, filling the left-hand third of the enormous canvas – Purvis de Chavannes was most noted for his murals and painted as though he was charging by the square inch – is coiled like a baseball player looking for a pitch he can take downtown. His muscles ripple, his gaze bores into the sweet spot at the nape of John’s neck. He is a lifestudy of male anatomy and unquestioning male blindness; just doin’ my job, ma’am.

The historical galleries of London, indeed the city itself, drip with death and beheadings. The 17-year-old Lady Jane Grey prostrate in all her porcelain whiteness, gesturing with her delicate hands to keep death at bay a moment longer. The Tower of London, being to torture, death and beheadings what Wimbledon is to tennis. The list of treachery and powermongering among royalty and social climbers, military men and colonizers, reads like an historical Who’s Who.

So what does that have to do with the modern beheadings designed to scare and terrorize the citizenry of the Coalition of the Unquestioning? Beats me. I’m jetlagged as all get out and sifting through random thoughts about a three week vacation to foreign places. Cut me some slack here.

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