Friday, December 2, 2016

The Medieval Hereafter

Book of hours hand colored illustration with gold leaf. Depicts Jesus Christ in the sky surrounded by two angels in blue, hovering above a group of the dead. A gold tower is to the left and a hell mouth is to the right.For those living in the Middle Ages, death was a constant presence: Plague, famine, war, and a lack of medical knowledge all contributed to high mortality rates among European medieval society, especially for those living in cities. Consequently, much of life was occupied by thinking about and preparing for death. The Church provided hope through its promotion of the afterlife, although the path to that blissful eternity was a narrow one. At the Final Judgment, upon the return of Jesus Christ, many souls would be forced into the mouth of Hell instead of being ushered into paradise. Given the inexorable approach of death, and the concerns of the living about what might come afterwards, many artists and authors from the Middle Ages to the present day have attempted to represent the lives and deaths of saints and sinners as well as imagining what life after death might entail.

Book of Hours illustration. Woodcut that depicts a monk and a skeleton side by side. The upper border features more skulls.
At Rauner, we're currently displaying an exhibit that explores representations of death and the afterlife, chiefly from medieval and early modern sources. The exhibit was curated in conjunction with the New England Medieval Consortium's annual conference, held here at Dartmouth College on November 19th. From now through January 27th, come visit Rauner's Class of 1965 Galleries and see breathtaking illuminations from our medieval books of hours, fascinating printed books made only a few decades after Gutenberg, and various representations of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, arguably the most important work about the afterlife that has ever been written in Western culture.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Cuba Libre

paper cover of the Gelpi y Ferro's Album historic fotografico de la guerra de Cuba, colored grayish blue. There are water stains and a worn edge along with some design work around the center of the page, which reads as follows: "Album historic fotografico de la Guerra de Cuba desde su principio hasta el reinado de amadeo I. Dedicado a los benemeritos cuerpos del Ejercito, Marina y Voluntarios de eta isla. For D. Gil Gelpi y Ferro. Con Veinte Y Cuatro Grandes Fotografias de los distinguidos artistas varela y suarez. Habana. Imprenta "La Antilla" de cacho negrete, calle de cuba numero 51. 1872."The recent death of Fidel Castro, controversial politician and undeniable revolutionary, and the impending regime change here in the United States started us thinking about Cuban-American relations and a relatively recent acquisition of ours. In the past, we've blogged about three fascinating items from our collections that are connected to Castro's revolt against the Batista regime in 1959. For today's post, we go back nearly a century earlier, to a series of wars for independence in Cuba that ultimately started the complex and often contentious relationship that now exists between Cuba and the United States.

This is the frontispiece to the volume. It's a tipped-in photograph of a drawing or engraving of two women, one in Spanish dress with a breastplate and helmet and the other in native garb, standing on top of a pile of rocks, a broken spear, and a large water jug. The women are holding a spear pointed at the heavens, and above the tip of the spear float the words, "Cuba Siempre Espanola". In front of them on the ground are several fallen bodies, presumably soldiers killed in the fight. To their left, numerous men in military uniforms with guns are cheering. To their right, in the background, several men are riding away from them on horseback.
In 1868, after nearly four centuries of European rule, native Cuban planters and their slaves revolted against their Spanish masters. Led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a sugar planter, a motley army of recently-freed slaves and native sons of Cuba took up arms against the forces of the Spanish Governor-General. Although the revolutionaries initially made great strides, the Spanish forces pushed back with a war of extermination, eventually settling into a rhythm of pitched battles that essentially resulted in a long-running stalemate.

A tipped-in full-page photograph following page 32 of the book, with the caption "Defensores de la Integridad Nacional." The photograph depicts four different types of soldier, all in different uniforms. The soldier on the far right is seated and seems to be a sailor given his distinctive hat. The soldier third from the left is of African descent while the other three appear to be Spanish. on the ground in front of the men lie a cannon and several cannonballs.Gil Gelpi y Ferro's Album historico fotografico de la guerra de Cuba, published in Havana in 1872, is a beautiful work of Spanish propaganda written just after the peak of the continuing conflict. Gelpi y Ferro was a Spaniard who had moved to Cuba in 1864 to work at a newspaper in Havana. His large and elegantly bound volume is filled with numerous full-page photographs that have been tipped in between descriptions of people, places, and battles. These images convey a sense of inevitability about the downfall of the rebels while emphasizing the harmony and unity of the royalist population.
However, despite Gelpi y Ferro's optimistic assessment of Spanish might, the war wasn't even halfway finished when his book was published. Finally in 1878, the Pact of Zanjón was signed, signaling an end to hostilities without a clear winner to the conflict. One of the positive results of what came to be called the Ten Years War was that slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886. However, independence for Cuba was still a dream long deferred. It wasn't until two additional wars of independence had been fought, and the United States had been drawn into war with Spain in 1898 over the sinking of the USS Mainein Havana harbor, that Cuba was finally able to establish its freedom in 1902.

To see Album historico fotografico de la guerra de Cuba, ask for Rare F1785 .G43 1872.