Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Buda Side Sights (2)

This elaborate "Lamb of God" fresco inside Coronation Church (also known Matthias Church (Hung: Mátyás-templom) - caught my eye for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the asymmetric construction of the window frame, made up of a diminishing series of off-center circles. On closer inspection, I found the allegorical composition and decorative details fascinating. The Hungarian inscription reads something like, "As the deer long for running streams, so my soul longs for God." A little research showed that the passage is a quote from the beginning of Psalm 42 (the King James version uses the word “panteth”, rather than “longs” or “yearns”, to my modern sensibilities a somewhat unfortunate choice, evoking an image of dogs – or humans – in heat).
Fresco with Stained Glass Window, Coronation Church, Castle Hill
(29 December 2008)
The central image in the stained glass window, the Agnus Dei (Jesus Christ) sitting on a book with seven seals, is a clear reference to the Apocalypse of John as described in the Book of Revelation.
Closeup of "Lamb of God" Stained Glass Window, Coronation Church, Castle Hill
(29 December 2008)
The overall composition naturally reflects the Christian transference of the object of longing, the source of soul-sustaining hope for salvation, from the Abrahamic God of the original Psalms to the New Testament Jesus that “takest away the sins of the world” through his sacrifice, and grants mercy and peace. However, the apocalyptic vision of the book with seven seals is not one of forgiveness, mercy, and peace, but of terror, judgment, damnation, and millennial warfare. Which is not incompatible with the God of much of the Old Testament, who is repeatedly characterized as an instrument of righteous (and violent) judgment, not to mention a facilitator of military triumphs to secure territory in Canaan for his Chosen People. In the Imprecatory Psalms, God is an agent of victory over both the physical and spiritual enemies of the developing Israelite nation-state.

The composition was designed by Frigyes Shulek (1841–1919), who undertook a major reconstruction of the Church in the last quarter of the 19th century (1874-1896). Other major frescoes and window compositions in the Church were created during this period by Károly Lotz and Bertalan Székely, designed either independently or in collaboration with Shulek. Shulek was also responsible for the construction of nearby Fisherman’s Bastion. (Bios and selected works for Lotz and Székely - but not Shulek - can be found by searching the artist index at "Fine Arts in Hungary").
Note that the church is currently undergoing another round of reconstruction, which fortunately doesn't hinder access to the interior. Unfortunately, however, there was a lot of scaffolding around the exterior when we visited, which prevented me from getting picturesque photos of the magnificent structure from the outside (don't worry, there are lots of good photos accessible on the net - an excellent series by a photographer named "Susan" can be found on her gallery at pbase). Further information on Matthias Church can be found at the official web-site (once past the welcome page, it might take a couple of seconds to figure out how the index page works). Another good source can be found at http://www.szakinfo.hu/matyas-templom/eng/index.htm.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Buda Side Sights (1)

I'm spending New Year's week in Budapest. Just sightseeing around Castle Hill on the Buda side, taking pictures, not thinking too much.
Typical Hungarians, Fishermen's Bastion, Castle Hill
(29 December 2008)
Musicians, Fishermen's Bastion, Castle Hill
(29 December 2008)
Altar, Coronation Church, Castle Hill
(29 December 2008)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Denmark Day 330: Surviving Christmas Dinner

Since I've already gone back to the US six times in the last year, I decided to stay in Europe for the holidays, sticking around Copenhagen for Christmas, and then visiting friends in Budapest over New Year's. This has allowed me to stay off the trans-Atlantic air travel merry-go-round, sit around with my feet up for a few days and, luxury of luxuries, enjoy Christmas Eve dinner with my good friends, Henrik and Ulla, and their extended family. Now although it's not uncommon to pick up a stray or two, a traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Denmark is a family affair, so I really appreciated the invitation to be included. Also, since Henrik is a master chef who could probably open a Guide-Michelin-rated restaurant if he ever decided to give up science, I was selfishly anticipating a memorable dining experience. Never mind that there would be 18 people to cook for, and that the cumulative effect of traditional Danish Christmas Eve fare is reputed to be comparable to a stomach full of lead shot, I knew Henrik would pull this together in his usual masterly fashion.
So, following pre-dinner cordials, we sat down around 7 PM to take in the programmed two rounds of roast duck. The first course of duck was breast meat dressed with crispy skin and a rich wine-reduction gravy, served with a variety of vegetables, including the required traditional local small potatoes, a red cabbage dish, and beets simmered in cream. A non-traditional helping of mashed sweet potatoes was added. In Henrik and Ulla's house, the womenfolk are traditionally excused from the second round of duck, and can opt for just another helping of duck gravy. I don't believe any of the women near me actually gave up the second round, which is a duck leg, again served with the crisped skin intact. I swear I got the largest limb of anyone at the table. Throughout dinner, most of us I believe were drinking a very fine riserva Chianti Classico, supplied by Ulla's father.
After everyone has thoroughly killed themselves with duck, the traditional slice of pork roast, topped with a piece of crisped pork rind, is brought out, and a third helping of vegetables is passed around to go with it. This includes another traditional dish, very small potatoes in a caramelized sugar sauce. After that, everyone is completely dead, so it's time to bring out the rice pudding (ris à l'amande) with warm cherry sauce. At least two helpings are de rigueur. Along with a ton of slivered almonds, the pudding also contains one or more whole almonds (more than one is optional, depending on how many people there are). If you find a whole almond in your portion, you are supposed to trade it in for a small present. The real jokesters hide the almond so they can watch everyone else eat additional portions of pudding as they keep searching for it. Eventually, if it isn't found, some may start "fiskering" (fishing) for it in the serving dish, which is laughingly frowned upon.
The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and the food was all wonderful.
After dinner, they all link hands and dance in a slow circle around the "Juletræ" (Christmas tree), singing songs. Very charming. I was unintentionally in the bathroom when they started, and tried to sit it out, but they insisted I join them, even though I didn't know any of the songs. Henrik thought I ought to be able lead an English version of "White Christmas", but I was too brain dead by this time to remember the words. After this, the presents are brought out from under the tree and handed out by the oldest guy in the family wearing a Santa hat and false beard. In this case, it was Ulla's dad. Since there were a lot of presents, this looked like an exhausting business. While that's going on, of course, there has to be coffee, cake, heaps of homemade chocolate, liqueurs, single malt whiskeys, cognacs, port wine, etc.
After the presents were given out, we ate and drank some more (a round of Swedish caviar, accompanied by fresh bread, chopped red onions, sour cream, fresh dill, etc.), until finally the eldest grandparents had fallen asleep sitting up with empty wine glasses dangling dangerously in their hands. Those who had to head home finally left around 1 AM.
Fortunately, unlike the natives, I had no commitments Christmas Day that would require further eating or drinking. By the afternoon, I was sufficiently recovered to go out and run ~3 miles around the "lakes" (Peblinge Sø and Sortedams Sø), feeling very virtuous, if not completely healthy. I took my very survival as a sufficient blessing.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Jim Martin-Saxby Chambliss Runoff in Georgia

For those of you who can't get enough US electoral excitement, it's worth pointing out there are still a couple of important races that have not yet been decided. One is the Al Franken (D)-Norm Coleman (R) Senatorial race in Minnesota, still on hold per a recount. The other is between Jim Martin (D) and incumbent Saxby Chambliss (R) in Georgia, which will be decided by a runoff election being held today (Presidential Race Is Still Alive in Georgia Runoff, Robbie Brown, NYT, 01 December 2008). Since I lived in Athens, Georgia for 5+ years, I just couldn't let this pass without comment. As it happens, I left Georgia for New Hampshire at the beginning of 2002, the same year Chambliss won his Senate seat by defeating the previous incumbent, Max Cleland (D), so I didn't have a voting stake in that contest, but took considerable interest in the result. For anyone who didn't hear about it, or has a short memory, Max Cleland is a decorated veteran who lost both legs and his right arm during the Vietnam War; Chambliss ran a shameful ad, juxtaposing pictures of Cleland, Osama Bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein, that predictably raised the ire of liberals, but also drew fire from fellow Republicans such as Vietnam War veteran John McCain. The same John McCain who went to Georgia a couple of weeks ago to campaign for Chambliss. "I'd never seen anything like that ad," said McCain at the time. "Putting pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden next to the picture of a man who left three limbs on the battlefield - it's worse than disgraceful. It's reprehensible."
Of course such apparent turnarounds in attitude are par for the political course; we don't have to look any further than the recent love-fest between Obama and Clinton (which I have to admit I endorse). So I'm not going to make that my major point. My major points are (1) that Chambliss' record in the Senate has been that of a typical conservative Republican douchebag; and (2) that you can still hear the same idiotic statements from Republican supporters that characterized their campaign against Obama. Take for example, this fine nugget from the NYT story quoted above: "I’m scared to death," said Ms. Mock, 65, a small-business owner from Rockdale County. "Obama’s going to put our country further in debt. He’s going to push a socialist agenda." But she added, "Saxby Chambliss can stop him." Gee, where have I heard this kind of talk before? Really, Ms. Mock, are you kidding me? Further in debt than Bush has put us over the last 8 years? (Remember that Bush started with a budget surplus left him by the last "socialist" President we had, Bill Clinton.) Even as progressive bloggers complain that Obama's recent list of appointments make him appear about as radical as Dwight Eisenhower, it's not difficult to find evidence of how relative that assessment really is.
A lot is at stake, here. If by some chance Franken and Martin were both to win, the Democrats would hold the magic number of 60 seats in the Senate. For this reason alone, the Republicans have marshalled all their forces (e.g., McCain, Palin, Romney, Huckabee, Giuliani, and lots of $$) to the cause. For their part, the Democrats have rallied the troops as well (e.g., Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and $$ - although Obama has not made a personal appearance). The probability is that Chambliss will win (he started with a 3 percentage point lead from 04 November, although he had less than the required 50% majority), but the fact that the Senate race in this decidedly Red State was close enough to call for a runoff is pretty remarkable. Today's result will show if this was a glass half full or half empty.
Update 05 December 2008: Chambliss won, of course, and it looks like Franken is about done, although the margin of Coleman's victory looks about as thin as it gets. According to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, the latest (almost final) count has Coleman winning over Franken by a mere 192 votes. Too bad.