Girl Sending a Text

The images in this post are both taken from the National Gallery website,

The Entombment.

In room 20 of the National Gallery in London there is a painting called The Entombment. It’s by Michelangelo and has been dated to 1500 or 1501. The painting is unfinished. From the title, anyone with elementary biblical knowledge will rightly conclude that the subject of the painting is Jesus Christ and that it depicts his body being moved to his tomb.

It’s not the only painting in the room. There are six others. Room 20 is currently closed but if I remember rightly, I was most impressed by another Michelangelo, the small but beautiful Madonna of the Pinks. That painting is also 500 years old but seems as bright as if it was painted yesterday. Some have suggested that it’s a forgery but even if it is, it’s pretty good. You can see a picture of it below:

The Madonna of the Pinks

But back to The Entombment. I was in the National Gallery several years ago and was visiting with my parents. I’d been there several times before but it was my parents’ first visit. For reasons I can’t quite recall we found ourselves in room 20.

And my dad, looking at The Entombment, made an observation. He said the young woman in the bottom left-hand part of the painting looks like she is sending a text message.

Have a look at the picture again. He’s right!

I believe the young woman is meant to be Mary Magdalene. And while I don’t mean to be disrespectful, ever since I’ve thought of this painting as “Girl Sending a Text.”

The Melancholy Roman

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building ever constructed. This is my opinion and you are welcome to disagree. But while it’s true to say that I’ve never physically set eyes on some other famous buildings like St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, I nonetheless think my opinion is pretty easy to defend.

The story of the Taj is relatively well known. It was built on the orders of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in honour of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. Her tomb is at the centre of the monument. Shah Jahan’s is there as well but it’s off to one side.

The very image of the Taj is iconic but that image made me curious. We all know what it looks like but I wondered, what do you see if you turn your back to it and look the other way?

I satisfied my curiosity when I visited India several years ago. Below is the picture I took:

The view in the opposite direction: The great gate, or darwaza-i rauza.

It’s worth noting that in addition to the great gate there are a further two buildings in the complex that aren’t the Taj Mahal, that are nonetheless impressive in their own right. One is a small mosque to one side of the mausoleum. The other is a building quite similar to the mosque but on the other side of the mausoleum, built purely to maintain symmetry.

It’s well known that Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb. There is a story that Shah Jahan planned to build a second Taj Mahal in contrasting black marble on the other side of the Yamuna river. His overthrow by his son stopped him doing this.

I don’t believe the story. It’s an attractive myth in that it neatly explains why the emperor’s tomb is off-centre in contrast with the otherwise perfect symmetry of the central mausoleum. It also offers the tantalising suggestion that if only Shah Jahan had stayed in power, the Taj Mahal would be even more spectacular than it is.

But the reality? The offsetting of the second tomb was the normal custom.

Moreover, a black Taj just wouldn’t look as good. The white Makrana marble of the Taj has an unusual translucence, which tour guides demonstrate to visitors by literally shining torches through the stonework. I think this translucence contributes to the slight ethereality that the Taj possesses. Black marble just wouldn’t look the same.

Still not convinced? Then think on the availability of black marble in 17th century India. Surviving Mughal monuments tend to be of white marble or local sandstone. There’s a reason for that.

The Melancholy Roman

Not for all the tea in China

Back in April there was a flurry of attention when the American state of Arkansas announced that it was planning to execute eight death row prisoners in eleven days.

The only complication appeared to be that they were running out of midazolam, a necessary ingredient in the process. Arkansas executes people by lethal injection.

It’s a few months later. For the record, Arkansas actually executed four of the eight men. Ledell Lee, Jack Harold Jones Jr, Marcel Williams and Kenneth Williams were all put to death.

This is not the point at which I’m going to argue about the history of the four men or the crimes they committed. I assume the men were guilty and that their crimes were horrific. My sympathies are for the victims and the victims’ families.

Push me to give an opinion and I’ll admit that I’m against the death penalty. For the record, I don’t think the state should kill. But the voters and government of Arkansas appear to think otherwise and I have a healthy respect for democracy.

No, I’m going to comment on the curiously roundabout way that they go about it.

I’m a fan of the James Bond movies but one of the more apt criticisms of the series is that when the chief baddie wants to kill Bond, he or she does so in an unusually complicated way. As critics point out, in real life it wouldn’t happen like that.

Now compare that to some real methods of execution:

  • The electric chair: a person is fastened to a chair and then electricity is run through their body.
  • The gas chamber: a person is put in an airtight chamber, which is then filled with poison gas.
  • Lethal injection: a person is strapped down and then injected with a series of poisons.

You’ve got to admit, that is Bond villain stuff.

From what I understand, in America it’s a simple matter to buy a handgun and heavy-duty ammunition. Given those items, a simple and effective execution method comes readily to mind.

Likewise, I believe that legalised lethal injection uses a complicated cocktail of drugs including the above-mentioned midazolam. Now, I don’t know much about drugs and nor do I care to, but even I know that there are much simpler ways to kill someone with a lethal injection.

Which makes me wonder if the clumsiness of official methods isn’t deliberate. Maybe roundabout methods are used because the people who have to legislate them don’t really have the stomach for it. And that makes me think: maybe it’s easier to support the death penalty when you’re running for office, than it is when you actually have to take responsibility for the process.

My own opposition comes via a thought experiment: imagine that a murderer is strapped and wired into an electric chair. Everything has been set up; it only remains for you to step forward and flip the last switch, to actually commence the process of lethal execution.

And it’s you who has to do it. Nobody else. You are the executioner.

Could you do it?

I couldn’t. Not for all the tea in China.

And that is why I’m opposed to the death penalty.

The Melancholy Roman

Izola Ware Curry

Izola Ware Curry, in a 1958 image taken from

Izola Ware Curry isn’t a name that’s familiar to most people. Sure, there were media notices when she died, aged 98, in March 2015. But how many people know of the event for which she previously made headlines, in 1958?

She tried to murder Martin Luther King.

Her weapon of choice was a letter opener. The venue was a bookshop in Harlem. And she was a mentally ill black woman, not a white supremacist. Unfit to stand trial, she spent the rest of her life in a mental institution.

Of course Dr King went on to achieve many things and far greater fame. His “I Have a Dream” speech is famous around the world.

His second most famous speech is arguably the “mountaintop speech,” which he delivered the night before he was assassinated. There’s a famous clip that you can find on youtube, which runs to about three and a half minutes. I’ve included it below:

I can’t be the only person to have listened to the end of the speech, heard his premonition, and wondered if he knew the end of his life was nigh. I figure he probably did. He’d probably been warned about a coming assassination attempt. He was never likely to lead a long life.

As fascinating as that video is, there’s a better one on youtube that covers the full speech:

The reason why this one is better is that King goes into nuts and bolts detail about how parts of the civil rights movement worked. The marches, sit-ins and other activities are well known. But as he makes clear, economic activities were also vital. By boycotting certain consumer products, choosing which shops to buy goods at and so on, campaigners could put pressure on retailers and suppliers. That too made a difference.

King also recounts Ware Curry’s attack on him. The letter-opener had gone into his chest very close to his aorta. It was so close, in fact, that as he says during the speech: “It came out in The New York Times the next morning that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died.”

And then he comes to a detail that fascinates me. He received many letters from well-wishers while he was still in hospital. He says:

“They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the States and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I have forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I have forgotten what that letter said.

“But there was another letter. It came from a little girl, a young girl, who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, ‘Dear Dr King, I am a ninth grade student at the White Plains High School.’ She said: ‘While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.’”

The audience laughs, but King clearly spoke the truth when he said he would never forget that letter. And that ninth grader? She would have been born in roughly 1944. Whoever she was, there’s a good chance that she’s still alive.

King continues by listing some of the things that he would’ve missed if he had sneezed. And from a historical perspective, it’s tempting to wonder what might have become of the civil rights movement itself. Without King, would it have derailed?

I tend to think it wouldn’t have. Low-level terrorism was a constant feature of the civil rights era but from reading John Lewis’ graphic novel series “March,” I have the strong impression that the civil rights campaign was a massive movement and involved a lot of people. Had Dr King sneezed, history would have been different. But I think the civil rights movement would have continued.

By the way, there’s a brief feature on Izola Ware Curry here:

The Smoking Gun

About the title

The statue of General Titus Quinctius Flamininus

Why It’s a bit of an odd title. I’m not particularly melancholy and I’m definitely not Roman.

The name actually comes from a statue. Should you find yourself in Greece and more specifically in central Greece, you may find the small village of Delphi. It’s a minor tourist hub. It’s also the location of the famous Delphi of Ancient Greece. I went there as a tourist in August 2008.

It’s an impressive site on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. There are ancient remains, though the site of the actual Delphic Oracle seems to have been lost to time. But significantly, there is a museum there of artefacts recovered from the site.

As museums go it’s not bad, but it’s by no means the most impressive one in Greece. I never got to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens but the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Heraklion is pretty impressive and so are two of the museums in Olympia. But I digress.

As one does, I took pictures of some of the exhibits. Some were impressive, some were not, but one statue was striking. It was a stone head called the Melancholy Roman. You can see it above.

According to Wikipedia, it is believed to be of Titus Quinctius Flamininus, a Roman politician and general who lived from 229 to 174BC. Quite why his features have been captured so brilliantly well, or whether he always looked like that, is hard to say.

Skip forward a year or two and I was persuaded to join facebook. Like many people I don’t particularly like pictures of myself and so I searched for an avatar. The picture above was taken by me and I decided to use it.

I’ve used it as my facebook profile picture ever since. And having since searched and discovered that this is the name usually given to the statue, so too is this blog named.

The Melancholy Roman