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A miracle of traditional art in the Russian North

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This article is from a series by the invaluable William Brumfield, (Wikipedia), Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.

Brumfield is the world’s leading historian of Russian architecture.  He makes frequent trips to Russia, often to her remote regions, and records the most unusual examples of surviving architecture with detailed, professional photography.  

His most recent book is a real treasure, Architecture At The End Of The Earth, Photographing The Russian North (2015). (Amazon).  This truly beautiful book was made possible by the support of a US philanthropist, and its true cost is 3 times its retail price, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here is our 2015 review of it.

Bravo to RBTH for making Brumfield’s work possible, and providing such a great platform for his beautiful photography.  We recommend visiting the RBTH page, which has a slide show for each article with many more pictures than we can fit in here.

Don’t believe in miracles?  Well, we can assure you, Brumfield’s work is undoubtedly just that.  You can find a complete list of his articles on RI here.

The original title of this article was: Epiphany at Oshevensk: A miracle of traditional art in the Russian North


The historic Russian North, centered on the White Sea, has long been known as a repository of traditional arts and crafts. Among the most distinctive displays of this artistic culture are a few surviving wooden churches with 18th and 19th century painted interiors that combine religious piety and emotional expression.

The best example still standing is the Church of the Epiphany at the village of Oshevensk in the Kargopol region of Arkhangelsk Province. Oshevensk is in fact a cluster of settlements, including three hamlets picturesquely situated along the Churyega River. The Epiphany Church is located in the first hamlet, Pogost, a name derived from a term for sacred ground that usually contained a cemetery and church.

Built of sturdy pine logs in 1787, the Epiphany church is an unsurpassed combination of structure and art in the Russian north. (The church is also referred to locally as the Baptism, as Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ are the same holiday in Orthodoxy.) Octagonal in shape, the main structure of the church is crowned with a tall “tent” tower. The church bell tower stands separately to the northwest with its own vertical cap. The two complement each other in serene harmony.

Yet the miracle of this church is its interior, which encompasses one of the largest such spaces among northern log churches. Its icon screen is enormous in extent, yet few of the icons remain. The church was closed in the 1930s, opened during World War II, and closed again in 1960 during Nikita Khrushchev’s “final” campaign against religion. The church was reopened for prayer and occasional services in the late 1990s.

During this long period of closure, most of the icons in the main iconostasis were taken from the church. The icons in the uppermost row, dedicated to the Prophets, survived, but in October 2014, the church was broken into and these remaining icons were stolen. Only the magnificent carved icon screen remained. Although most of the icons have now been recovered, much work remains to restore them to their original place.

The most impressive display of art in the interior is the painted suspended ceiling, or “heaven” (nebo), which still has its panels in place, although with sporadic damage to the painted surface. The basic form of the “heaven” is a polygon segmented by flat beams extending from the top of the walls to a ring in the center. The beams are slightly inclined and thus create a frame that is self-supporting between the walls and the ring. The painted panels are in the shape of extended triangles and are laid upon the frame without fasteners. The design makes ingenious use of tension and gravity.

These “heavens” are a distinctive feature of the traditional North, a combination of painting and structure. The paintings at the Epiphany Church have been attributed to the Bogdanov-Karbatovsky family, one of the dynasties of icon painters active in the Arkhangelsk territory in the latter half of the 18th century. They were also involved in the painting of the icons for the monumental icon screen of the Kargopol Nativity Cathedral, rebuilt after a major fire in 1765. Such artists brought new expressiveness to a traditional art in transition from tempera colors to oil paints.

The “heaven” at the Epiphany church is uniquely large, with 18 panel segments that include eight archangels, the four evangelists, the Crucifixion and heavenly forms such as seraphim. The central ring is occupied by an image of Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of All).

The panel rising from the center of the icon screen depicts Christ on the cross. The panel to the right of Christ (the viewer’s left) contains Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos). The panel to the left of Christ depicts St. John the Evangelist, author of one of the canonical Gospels and thus a divinely inspired witness to the Crucifixion. Each panel of the entire ceiling has the name of the person depicted painted in bold black letters.

Next to Mary Theotokos stands Mary Magdalene. As a close follower of Jesus, she is mentioned several times in the Gospels and stood at the foot of the cross. She also appears in all four Gospels as a central person in the Resurrection narrative. Although both figures are depicted in blue robes symbolizing purity, Mary Magdalene is also clad in a crimson cloak.

St. John the Evangelist is flanked by Longinus the Centurion, the name given in medieval Christian sources to the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Christ with his spear. Longinus was canonized by both the western and eastern churches for his witness to and proclamation of the divinity of Christ. The bright red cloak that he wears over his armor creates symmetry with the cloak of Mary Magdalene.

This arrangement of five central figures, typical for Orthodox depictions of the Crucifixion, is flanked by panels containing the two main archangels, Michael (in the panel next to Mary Magdalene) and Gabriel. As the supreme archangel (arkhistratig), Michael leads the Hosts of the Lord against Satan’s army in the Book of Revelation. As a symbol of his militant power, he is portrayed in armor with a red cloak. His right hand holds a lance, here given the atypical form of a trident. Gabriel, portrayed more modestly, is God’s primary messenger, most notably in the Annunciation.

The eastern half of the ceiling concludes with portrayals of the Evangelists Matthew (in the panel next to Archangel Gabriel) and John the Evangelist. This is the second representation of St. John: first as a witness to the Crucifixion and secondly as one of the four Evangelists.

The western half of the nebo continues with other archangels in the Eastern Orthodox tradition including Selaphiel, who is often seen as an intercessor between God and the worshipper. Next to Selaphiel is Archangel Uriel, traditionally associated with various human endeavors such as the arts. Here Uriel is portrayed accompanying the boy Tobias, son of Tobit from the Book of Tobit. The boy holds a fish that he caught and that will subsequently play a role in the narrative of this complex legend. Usually it is Archangel Raphael (the healer) who accompanies Tobias, but the letters on the panel clearly spell “Uriel.

Also included among the western panels are the Evangelists Mark and Luke, as well as the Archangel Jegudiel. The central part of the western half of the nebo consists of three panels featuring archangels Barachiel, Selaphiel and Michael. This is the second depiction of Archangels Selaphiel and Michael, a repetition called forth by the unusually large number of panels in the Epiphany Church ceiling.

In addition to the main altar (behind the icon screen), the Epiphany Church has two additional altars dedicated to St. John the Divine and the martyr St. Vlasy that have miniature versions of the “heaven” painted ceilings. For heated winter worship in this severe climate, a refectory with the altar of St. John the Divine extends from the west of the main structure.

The miraculous paintings at the Oshevensk Epiphany Church are in urgent need of preservation. Valuable in themselves, they also suggest a continuity in Russian art extending to the major 20th-century artist Natalya Goncharova — for example, her work entitled “The Four Evangelists.” In each case we see both clarity and depth of expression, fluidity of line, delicate shading and a radiant expressiveness.

 

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Margot Robbie’s self-confessed ambition has made her the highest paid actress of the year | Culture

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Self-doubt is Margot Robbie’s greatest motivator, and competes with ambition in the Australian actress’s psyche. She couldn’t believe her own eyes when she first saw herself on a giant ad for the Pan Am TV series in New York’s Times Square. “I still have the photo,” she told EL PAÍS a few years ago, somewhat wistful for the days when she was still a nobody. The script of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the Martin Scorsese film that put her on the map, touted her as “the most beautiful blonde in the world,” but she didn’t believe the hype. “I remember saying to a friend, ‘I haven’t worked in six weeks.’ I’m sure there’s nothing out there for me,” laughed Robbie. But Hollywood didn’t share her skepticism. In July, Variety magazine ranked Robbie as the highest paid actress of the year when her US$12.5 million salary for the upcoming Barbie movie was announced.

Margot Robbie may be this year’s highest paid actress, but 17 men made even more money, led by Tom Cruise who was paid US$100 million for Top Gun: Maverick. Her Barbie love interest, Ryan Gosling, was paid the same as Robbie, even though she has the titular role, more evidence that pay parity in Hollywood is far from being a reality. Robbie ranked ahead of Millie Bobby Brown (US$10 million for the Enola Holmes sequel); Emily Blunt (US$4 million for Oppenheimer); Jamie Lee Curtis (US$3.5 million for Halloween Ends); and Anya Taylor-Joy (US$1.8 million for Furiosa).

Robbie’s misgivings about her career aren’t shared by other industry giants. Martin Scorsese compared her to Carole Lombard for her comedic genius, Joan Crawford for her toughness, and Ida Lupino for her emotional range. He described Robbie as having a surprising audacity, and recalls how she clinched her role in The Wolf of Wall Street by stunning everyone with a tremendous, improvised slap of Leonardo DiCaprio during her audition.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig's Barbie in California, June 2022.
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie in California, June 2022.MEGA (GC Images)

Robbie showed the same boldness when she lobbied director Quentin Tarantino for another role opposite DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019). She sent the director a letter telling him how much she admired his films, especially her all-time favorite, True Romance (1993). The letter probably wasn’t necessary, as Tarantino already had the I, Tonya star in mind to play Sharon Tate in his new movie, describing her to EL PAÍS as an actress with a visual dynamism and personal qualities that you don’t see every day.

Robbie has wanted to work in movies ever since her start in Neighbours, the long-running Australian TV series that is coming to an end after 9,000 episodes and 37 years on the air. “Of course I’m ambitious. My career motivates me. I came to the United States with a plan, and I’m always looking ahead,” she told us. Even as a child growing up in Queensland (northeastern Australia), Margot Elise Robbie displayed her business smarts and drama queen chops when she decided to sell all her brother’s old toys from the sidewalk in front of the family home.

She jokes about her childhood, but part of that little girl always comes out in the wide variety of characters she plays. She has had all kinds of roles in little-known films like Suite Française and Z for Zachariah, and also in box-office hits like Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. She won Oscar nominations for playing driven women in I, Tonya (2018) and Bombshell (2020). “Yes, many of the women I’ve played share my ambition – this is a tough industry. But I’m full of doubt like anyone else. You never know how things will turn out,” she said.

 Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018.
Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018. Jon Kopaloff (WireImage)

Seeking more control over her films, Robbie founded production company LuckyChap Entertainment in 2014 with her husband, British filmmaker Tom Ackerley, and some friends. She hopes to use LuckyChap as a vehicle for herself and other actresses, as she did with Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan, a black comedy thriller film that won writer/director Emerald Fennell an Oscar for best original screenplay. “Margot is an extraordinary person,” said Fennell. “That’s why she’s doing so well as a producer who is determined to try different things and give women a voice.”

Robbie met British assistant director Tom Ackerley on the set of Suite Française in 2013. They began a romantic relationship the next year and moved in together right after attending their first Golden Globes gala for The Wolf of Wall Street. Married since 2016, the couple and co-workers in LuckyChap have a bright future ahead, judging by all the work that is piling up for Robbie. In addition to Barbie, she will appear in Amsterdam, directed by David O. Russell; as silent film star Clara Bow in Babylon, directed by Damien Chazelle; and has a role in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. As if that wasn’t enough to keep Robbie busy, a remake of Ocean’s Eleven awaits her; she will play opposite Matthew Schoenaerts in the post WWII drama, Ruin; produce a remake of Tank Girl; and play a female Jack Sparrow in another installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Surely Margot Robbie doesn’t have any more doubts about her career.

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Salem’s last witch regains her honor | Culture

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As statues of slave owners and slave traders continue to fall in the United States, the embers of the bonfires that burned women accused of committing spells and witchcraft are also being extinguished. In the umpteenth revision of history to try to exonerate the victims, the most recent episode concerns the last official Salem witch, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., from the massive 1692 and 1693 trials in the English colony of Massachusetts. Thanks to the initiative of a middle school teacher and her students in Andover, located in the same county as Salem, her spirit can now roam free. The enthusiastic students began the vindication process in 2020 and persuaded Massachusetts state senator Diana DiZoglio (D), who took up the cause and pushed for Johnson’s pardon, which was announced last week.

It has taken 329 years for Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s name to be cleared definitively. She was the last of the Salem witches to be exonerated. While Johnson was spared a death by hanging, she was stigmatized until she died at 77, an uncommonly long life for the time. Historians say that Johnson showed signs of mental instability and was single and childless, all of which were signs of witchcraft during that period. She pled guilty before the court of inquisitors. Almost 30 members of her extended family were also implicated, as if witchcraft were contagious, hereditary, or both. Johnson, her mother, several aunts and her grandfather, a church pastor, were tried as well. According to historian Emerson Baker, the author of a book about the Salem witch trials, her grandfather described Johnson to the judges as a “simplish person at best.” Most likely, the judges would have equated “simplish” with different during that superstitious and pre-scientific period.

The fact that Johnson didn’t have any descendants deprived her of anyone to vindicate her good name, as relatives of the other defendants did. The first attempt to do so happened at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then, in the 1950s, Massachusetts passed a law exonerating those found guilty, but it failed to gather all the names. A 2001 attempt at justice excluded Johnson because, after her conviction in 1693, she was formally presumed to be dead (executed).

The social hysteria against everything that deviated from the norm, against the minimal exercise of free will, was implacable against women, as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (the playwright adapted it for the big screen in 1996) and recent variations remind us. The theme lends itself very well to artistic creation, but in real life it amounted to opprobrium for those who suffered it and represented a cause for scorn among puritans.

Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.
Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.The Granger Collection / cordon press

Salem was more than a witch trial. According to historians, it was a collective exorcism fueled by a puritanical inquisition based on paranoia and xenophobia, a gratuitous auto de fe that unleashed people’s worst instincts: fear and the human tendency to blame others for one’s own misfortunes. At least 172 people were indicted in the 1692 trial. About 35% confessed their guilt and were spared the gallows; according to sources, around twenty insisted on claiming their innocence and did not escape that fate. The rest of the detainees were acquitted or sentenced to prison. The Salem witch trials represented a collective bogeyman through which one can foresee the later threat of the Ku Klux Klan. It is hard not to wonder what bonfires would have burned today on the pyre of social media and extreme polarization.

The great Salem witch hunt can be re-read through the prism of gender. As the adage goes, se non è vero è ben trovato (Even if it is not true, it is well conceived). Witches, like those in Salem and the woman in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (made into a film in the 1950s), were demonized for going off the rails. The dominant society’s puritanical stance against any kind of heterodoxy or freestyling, against rebels with or without a cause, led people to be targeted for dressing exotically by puritanical standards or for daring to drink at a tavern, a sacrilege for the morals of the day. It’s not difficult to draw a straight line from the bonnet of a witch on the gallows to the handmaid’s white bonnet in Margaret Atwood’s novel: all were women who were demonized, objectified, and scapegoated for deeper ills.

Beyond gender, other historians emphasize the socioeconomic dimension of the Salem witch trials, which combined a deep-seated inequality with racism, the United States’ original sin since well before the Declaration of Independence. The trials targeted colonial society’s most vulnerable during a period of economic instability that unleashed fierce rivalry among Salem families. According to historian Edward Bever, society was permeated by interpersonal conflict, much of it stemming from competition over resources. People did whatever they could to survive, from physical aggression to threats, curses, and insults. One of the first women accused, Sarah Osborne, was a poor widow who dared to claim her husband’s land for herself, defying the customary laws of nature, which granted the inheritance to sons. The accusation of witchcraft ended Osborne’s claim. Tituba, an indigenous slave, was accused of being a witch because her racial origins differed from the norm. Sarah Good was also poor, but she defended herself against the humiliations of her neighbors, which led her to the gallows; her daughter, Dorothy Dorcas Good, was Salem’s youngest victim: she was arrested at only four years old and spent eight months in prison.

Since then, history has not changed the fact that vulnerable women pay the price for circumstances beyond their control. That the Puritans of the time considered women—the evil heirs of Eve —prone to temptations such as the desire for material possessions or sexual gratification was only an added factor. Poor, homeless, and childless, these women in the shadow of society’s dominant morality were fodder for the gallows. But Elizabeth Johnson Jr. didn’t just manage to save her life; 329 years later she recovered her honor as well.

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Meridian Brothers: A fake salsa band ignites the rebirth of an old New York record label | Culture

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A new album will land on the salsa dance floor by the end of this week; one that fuses rhythms from the 1970s with the technological dystopias of the future. Behind it is Ansonia Records, a label that, after its creation in 1949 among Latino immigrants from New York, would produce several merengue, jibara, bomba, guaracha, mambo, and boogaloo albums, before stopping altogether in 1990. This Friday, after more than 30 years, Ansonia Records will return with a salsa album.

Hermano del futuro, vengo buscando iluminación; brother from the future, I come looking for enlightenment. So says one of the songs from the new album, called Metamorfosis, by the old salsa group Renacimiento. But there is a catch: Renacimiento does not exist. It never did. It is a fake group, and this is a fake cover, explains musician Eblis Álvarez, founder of the Colombian group Meridian Brothers, who had already experimented with various genres, from cumbia to vallenato. A group that practices “tropical cannibalism,” says Álvarez. This year, Meridian Brothers decided to launch a group of salseros straight out of fiction: Renacimiento.

Colombian group Meridian Brothers.
Colombian group Meridian Brothers.Perla Hernández Galicia (Cortesía)

“Renacimiento [rebirth] is the typical name that musicians would give a salsa group in the 1970s,” Álvarez tells EL PAÍS. “For example, in the Nueva Trova movement there was talk of a political rebirth, but at the same time they combined this with a spiritual factor: when one listens to groups like La Columna de Fuego [from Bogota] or Los Jaivas [from Chile], there was a common pattern: everyone was waiting for a rebirth of the soul, and of society.”

Although on stage Renacimiento is made up of five artists — María Valencia, Alejandro Forero, César Quevedo and Mauricio Ramírez, besides Álvarez — when the album was recorded it was the founder who played all the instruments, besides doing the voice of the salsero that accompanies the songs. The album has nine tracks, some similar to the older, slower salsa, and others to the faster, contemporary style. Between the piano, the timbales and the percussion, we find verses with the concerns of the 21st century: love that “communicates by algorithm,” or the threats of atomic bombs that “take us to the cemetery.” Metamorfosis, the single that has already been released, begins with a man who wakes up turned into a robot and longs for a time “when nightclubs really had an atmosphere, not like now, full of cameras, full of drones.”

“I wanted it to sound like salsa from the 1970s,” says Álvarez. “There is no originality, or the originality of this lies in being able to replicate the music as best as possible, but in terms of the material there is nothing original, as it is made with the collective unconscious of Latin America, of Colombia, of Latinos. This is an extrapolation from the 1970s to today, and it speaks of transhumanism, like the matter of highest concern that everything, absolutely everything, is now packed inside the damn cell phone.”

The rebirth includes both the album and the label, as this is the first recording in more than 30 years to be released by Ansonia Records, a company created in 1949 and later forgotten, despite having been one of the first labels founded by a Latin migrant in the United States. Puerto Rican Rafael Pérez, its founder, brought Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians from Latin Harlem or the South Bronx, who had not found a home among American record companies, to several studios. He produced his records before the time of the powerful Fania, which made New York salsa famous.

To Liza Richardson, an American radio host who was also a music supervisor on series like Narcos or the movie Y tu mamá también, Ansonia Records is a gem. In the early 1990s, she found an Ansonia album in the station’s archives and, fascinated by the label’s production, became close to the heirs of Pérez. In 2020, she bought the record label with the intention of reactivating it. She, with the help of a small team, has begun to digitize more than 5,000 Ansonia-produced songs; an eighth of them can already be found on streaming platforms like Spotify.

Colombian group Meridian Brothers during a live show in Bogota.
Colombian group Meridian Brothers during a live show in Bogota.Perla Hernández Galicia (Cortesía)

Souraya Al-Alaoui, manager of Ansonia Records, explains that most of the artists chosen by the label were focused on the Latin American diaspora. That was their base; they valued the traditional sounds from islands like Cuba or Puerto Rico, and were not looking to become westernized.

“Johnny Pacheco, founder of La Fania, started with Ansonia Records, and Ansonia was an inspiration for what would later become La Fania,” says Al-Alaoui. “Ansonia was also a pioneer as a label owned by a Latino, an independent label with a founding message: ‘this is from us and for us.’ That’s why it was an inspiration for what came after.”

Over the years, La Fania grew and the seed of Ansonia Records faded away. The label never managed to promote its musicians in concerts like La Fania did, and after the arrival of the digital world, they did not set up a website or try to upload their music to any streaming platforms. Thus, it became a label that was only known by a small group of music lovers, like Liza Richardson and Eblis Álvarez.

“Now, we are hoping to release a new record every year, and we are thrilled to start with this one by Meridian Brothers,” says Richardson. “This is an album that looks to the past but tries to move towards the future, and that is exactly what we are trying to do: look to the past to, at some point, be able to grow again, to thrive.”

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