Monthly Archives: January 2014

Janus and attending the start of all things

In Fasti, Ovid’s poem about the Roman holidays, and consequently of Roman religion, he introduces Janus, or Ianus, the Roman god of doorways and gateways, with:

Two-headed Janus, source of the silently gliding year

Unlike most Roman gods, Janus has no direct Greek precedent. Joseph Campbell suggests that Janus may be rooted instead in the animistic forces of the home or lars.

It doesn’t take my shelf of symbol, myth, and art history books, nor hours of searching through scholarly articles, to see the power of a deity of gateways.

But I looked through them anyway.

An as, a Roman coin made of heavy bronze from 240-225 BC. showing the head of bearded Janus on a raised disk. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com/Coin.aspx?CoinID=100279. During the Roman republic, the as showed Janus on one side and the prow of a galley on the other.
An as, a Roman coin made of heavy bronze from 240-225 BC. showing the head of bearded Janus on a raised disk. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc.  During the Roman republic, the as showed Janus on one side and the prow of a galley on the other.

And though the basics- gave the name to January, has two faces (sometimes four), beginnings and endings, Roman not Greek- were consistent, Janus turned out to be a somewhat cryptic deity.

Janus tells Ovid he was once called Chaos

This implies that he brings order from that Chaos. In Roman liturgy, he was honored before all other gods. He is the god of all that begins: day, month, or year.

By facing backwards, he holds in his hands the beginning and the ending of all things. Janus is reminder that nothing starts without something else ending, that no door opens unless another is closed.

Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that Rome had many ceremonial gateways with symbolic entrances and exits. The double doors of the Janus Geminus, mentioned in Ovid’s poem, were left open during times of war and closed during times of peace.

Open in war and closed in peace?

No, it doesn’t make much sense, and it’s a point of discussion for scholars. The most credible explanation, from Rabun Taylor, is that Janus read the auspices.

A sestertius (about 2.5 asses), a Roman coin of the time of Nero 54-68 CE. It says PACE P R TERRA MARIQ PARTA IANVM CLVSIT S C and shows the Temple of Janus with ornate roof decoration, latticed window on the left and with a garland hung across the closed double doors to the right. BNC 319. BN 73. Cohen 146. RIC 438. WCN 419. From the From the Patrick H. C. Tan Collection. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com/Coin.aspx?CoinID=163662 via Wikimedia Commons.
A sestertius (about 2.5 asses), a Roman coin of the time of Nero 54-68 CE, showing the Janus Geminus with closed double doors. From the From the Patrick H. C. Tan Collection. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc. via Wikimedia Commons.

Divination in Rome was based on signs from the gods as to whether an action should be performed or not on a given day. Corresponding to the etymology of the word auspice (which means to look at birds), it was through the flight of birds, and lightning, that the gods spoke most frequently.

Who better to observe the flight of birds than one who can look in both directions?

As Taylor notes, the taking of auspices was almost continuous in time of war, making it necessary to consult the shrine of Janus, the Janus Gemini.

Janus is a liminal deity

A god of transitions, he was consulted before all others precisely because he provides passage to the other gods and to the the omens and signs that allow future action. Taylor notes:

As an arbiter of spatial transitions, Janus was more than a mere gateway. He determined human endeavors as well as space.

At once he looks to the past and to the future- in time, and inward to the home and outward to the other- in space.

His function at the gateway is not to protect, as would an apotropaic figure, like the Medusa. Rather it is to observe and to know. Janus contains within the past and the future, the inside and the outside.

Our calendar starts in January, in midwinter

As Janus tells Ovid:

Midwinter’s the first of the new sun, last of the old

Janus means that beginnings are necessarily born of endings. The year doesn’t start in spring with new growth, trees budding, and birds hatching. The year begins in winter, when it is still cold and nature is dormant.

This choice of new year is not universal.  Calendars have been drawn from the sun and from the moon. The start of the year varies from autumn through spring. How we attempt to contain and label time into a calendar speaks of the world that formed our cultures, our religions, and, ultimately, to politics and the pace of an increasingly connected world.

And so the year starts

systematicwonder_auspices_janus
The augurs in Rome observed the flight of birds as auspices or omens.

We’re already entering the second half of the month. New Year’s resolutions lay behind us. Recaps of 2013 are even further in the past. As for me, I didn’t complete my overview. I haven’t set new goals.

But Janus is always present, at the beginning of every day, every week, every month.

So it is always day one, moment one. It is always time to look back. We can erect an imaginary gateway anywhere, a place to look inside and outside. It is always the right time and place to be alert to the signs, to the omens.

We can start every day, everywhere.

In fact, we have no choice but to do so.

An epiphany (or two) in a Medieval cloister

Monday was January 6, celebrated in my native Spain as Reyes, the day of the three kings or magi or wise men. Children traditionally receive gifts on this date, known in the Roman Catholic calendar as Epiphany.

The cloister: in Tarragona's Santa Maria cathedral.
The cloister: in Tarragona’s Santa Maria cathedral.

Epiphany, from the Greek epiphaneia, means manifestation or making an appearance 

In a Christian context it refers to the recognition of Jesus as son of God. (For the Western church this recognition was the acknowledgement of wise men from afar: the Adoration of the Magi. For the Eastern church it was the baptism in the Jordan River.)

An epiphany with a small “e” is a sudden realization or moment of revelation. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this meaning appeared in the late 19th century.

I’m fascinated by the evolution of the word– from the manifesting of the divine to a realization.

It seems to refer to the illogical non-linearity of the creative process. An epiphany does not result from step-by-step progress, but lands like a lightning bolt. Not quite the same as a divine manifestation, but similar in its unpredictability and “other”-ness.

Revelations or when the divine enters the day-to-day

Although not religious, I’m drawn to how stories are told through images in religious art. The representation of scenes in which the divine enters everyday life are particularly fascinating. How to show a burning bush? An angel speaking to a maiden?

In my hometown, Tarragona, the Romanesque cloister has two depictions of the Adoration of the Magi carved in high relief on capitals atop columns, dating from sometime between the late 11th and mid 12th century.

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The wise men on their way to Bethlehem in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.

Stylized images from the early Middle Ages

Medieval art doesn’t aim for realistic depiction of the natural world but to convey a message, to tell a story. It is usually formulaic. There is an economy of elements (no extra characters or scenes) and a hierarchy of size (no ambiguity as to who is more important). For example, in the two capitals here, the horses have to be there to express the travels of the three kings, but they are far too small for their riders. 

Both capitals show the same characters in two scenes. One face of each capital shows wise men (with crowns) in transit by their horses, and the other presents a single wise man with Mary, Jesus, and Joseph in the background. The star shines above Mary and Child.

The Epiphany in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.
The Epiphany in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.

Telling a story with pictures

The first Epiphany, E1, is on the central column of the door to the cathedral and has suffered very little erosion. The second Epiphany, E2, is on a gallery column and is damaged, likely explaining the missing wise man. The author of E2 is probably responsible for many of the capitals with stories in the cloister.

Mary as Throne of Wisdom

In a common representation of the early Middle Ages, Jesus sits in the lap of a crowned Mary as if she were his throne. This form aims to present Christianity as the universal religion to which all nations will pay obeisance.

In E2, Mary holds a scepter ending in a fleur-de-lis (a stylized lily),  conveying regal authority and referring to her purity.

In E1, Jesus raises his right hand in blessing. Mary, the Child, Joseph, and the two wise men that are still on the road face forward. Only one character looks at an element in the composition: the wise man who half-kneels, offers his gift, and looks towards the Child.

A wise man on his way to Bethlehem in E2, the capital in the northern gallery of the cloister.
A wise man on his way to Bethlehem in E2, the capital in the northern gallery of the cloister.

The two wise men in E1 are jiving

In E1, the two wise men lean to their left, as if dancing. This slant is reinforced by the beardless king pointing to the star, in a line parallel to the back of the kneeling wise man whose body is in the next frame. The horses’ heads fall in a countering diagonal.

The Epiphany in E2, the capital in the northern corridor of the cloister.
The Epiphany in E2, the capital in the northern corridor of the cloister.

In E2, the Child reaches for the gift- and you feel his weight shift

In E2, the Virgin gazes down at the Child, who leans to take the gift from the kneeling king, who, as in E1, looks upward. From behind Mary’s left shoulder Joseph also watches the Child. (Like many a picture of new parents.)

The two views of Epiphany use formula to convey majesty, but also show humor and affection

For me, more than eight centuries after they were created, the humor of the dancing kings or the humanity of the leaning Child win out over the majesty and intended message. In fact, the Tarragona cloister sculptures have puzzled scholars as the artist(s) unexpectedly omitted or added figures or gestures to standard scenes.

I was not that sculptor’s primary audience, but his work continues to speak, reminding me that creating is often about knowing the script– and then riffing on it. Hmm, that probably defines being human.

Happy new year!