Archive Page 2

The Death of Socrates


Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Click for source

Recently I had the great pleasure of attending a fantastic gallery talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The talk was devoted to a 70 minute contemplation of one of my all-time favorite paintings, The Death of Socrates, by the French artist, Jacques Louis David. (If you want to sound artsy, pronounce his last name Dah-VEED).

Our fantastic guide, Alice W. Schwarz, MMA, Museum Educator, told us that the average museum-goer spends 17 seconds looking at a painting. Thus, our 70 minutes was unusual, but it was so worth it to finally understand some of what is going on in this gorgeous 1787 painting which many consider to be David’s finest work.

You probably know the story of Socrates:  He was an Athenian teacher charged with two felonies – refusal to acknowledge the proper gods and corrupting the young.  In 399 BC  he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death.  He could have renounced his beliefs or escaped but he chose death instead.

Ms. Schwarz explained what’s going on in the painting:

Socrates (age 70 and quite fit-looking) and the others are in a prison/dungeon that resembles an 18th century French prison.


Old Plato and Mrs Socrates.  My photo as are the others below.

The old man at the foot of the bed is Plato (although in real life he would have been 29 years old when Socrates died). Socrates’ wife is ascending the stairs and waving goodbye in the far background. Ms. Schwarz intimated that Socrates did not have the happiest marriage.


The saddest guy in the painting (in the red toga) is not one of Socrates’ students.  He is a young jail attendant who is handing Socrates a kylix (cup) of poison.  Notice that there are shackles on the ground and there is a red mark on Socrates’ ankle where they recently had been fastened.  Socrates has been freed so that he can walk around after he drinks a tea made from hemlock leaves.  Hemlock, a weed that only grows in areas near the Mediterranean, is so poisonous that a tea brewed of five leaves will kill a human. They allowed Socrates to walk around after drinking the hemlock in order to speed up his death.  Apparently death by hemlock is more protracted and horrible if one merely reclines after ingestion.

socrates students

The rest of the men, of various ages, most of whom aren’t even looking at Socrates, are his students. They are distraught and unafraid to express their anguish.  I think that is why I love this painting so much – it is so heartwarming to see such devotion of students to their beloved teacher.  One can only dream.


Student Work – Mario Cuomo and Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman

Mario Cuomo by Michelle Daniels


Mario Cuomo – Image from Wikipedia. Click for source

















Mario Cuomo was the 52nd governor of New York City and an attorney by profession, but to many he became much more.  Born to Italian immigrant parents he knew the struggles of everyday hard working people and became a voice for those who were less fortunate.

In his early beginnings he tried his hand at a baseball career but due to an injury he could no longer play the sport.  What then became his chosen career path was working as an attorney. He showed great promise early on as an attorney.

In an eminent domain dispute case he helped save 69 families who lived in Queens and were facing eviction from their homes by the city. In order to make way for a school.  He was able to work on behalf of the families and save 55 of the 69 families facing eviction.  Working as an attorney eventually lead Mr. Cuomo to pursue a career in politics.

In his three terms as governor he continued to be star for those who were the less fortunate.  He is best known for his speech given on the night of July 16, 1984 which to some may be known as the “tale of two cities speech” which was given at the Democratic Convention. In his speech he gave voice to those less fortunate and showed the world he was a man of compassion and kindness and he never forgot that he was the product of hard working parents.  His speech spoke to poverty in America and shined light on President Regan and what he was neglecting to see with his own eyes which was an unequal and unfair divide between those who had money and those who were struggling to make ends meet.

Mario Cuomo died on January 1, 2015 in his home due to a medical condition.  Mr. Cuomo is survived by his wife Matilda Cuomo and five children Andrew Cuomo, Dr. Margaret I. Cuomo, Maria Cuomo Cole, Madeline Cuomo O’ Donohue and Christopher Cuomo and 14 grandchildren.


John Cassidy, What is Mario Cuomo’s Legacy? , The New Yorker (Jan. 5, 2015),

Adam Nagourney, Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon, Dies at 82, The New York Times, (Jan. 1, 2015),


Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman by Tashi Haskin

R.K. Laxman. Image from India City blog. Click for source.











Tashi Haskin

Tashi Haskin



On January 26, beloved Indian cartoonist Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer (‘R.K.’) Laxman passed away in Pune, India. Internationally known for his satirical cartoons, his career spanned more than 5 decades.  Doctors confirmed that his death was due to multiple organ failure. He was 93.

Mr. Laxman, born on October 24 1921, was the youngest of 7 children. His mother was a homemaker, while his father was a school headmaster. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mysore, he began his career in the city of Mumbai, working for The Free Press Journal. He also provided illustrations for novels by his brother, R.K. Narayan, who became one of India’s most famous writers.

In 1951, while working for the Times of India, Laxman created the cartoon that would bring him worldwide acclaim. Known as “You Said It”, it featured The Common Man, a character who represented everyday people. The Common Man never spoke- he simply observed the goings on. “You Said It” was an almost daily fixture in the lives of Indians and focused primarily on political and societal issues.

The Common Man became so embedded in Indian culture that a television sitcom based on the character was produced. Entitled Ki Duniya, it ran for over a decade.  The character has also been featured on a postage stamp.

In addition to cartoons, Laxman also authored essays, short stories and his autobiography, “The Tunnel of Time” which was published in 1998.

Laxman was the recipient of the 2005 Padma Vibhushan award, which is the second-highest honor that a citizen may be given. There is also a statue of The Common Man in his hometown of Pune.

He is survived by his second wife, children’s book writer Kamala Laxman, and his son Srinivas.



The New York Times

Pandya, H. “R.K. Laxman, Cartoonist Who Amused India for Decades, Dies at 93.” The New York Times. Retrieved February 3, 2015 from

George, N. “Acclaimed Indian Cartoonist Dies at 94.”

Retrieved January 30, 2015 from







The Pagans of Iceland


Icelandic Pagans. Image from BBC World News. Click for source.


Recently I learned that a pagan temple is being built in Iceland for the first time in a thousand years. According to the BBC World News.

The temple will provide followers of Iceland’s old Norse religion with a place to hold their communal “blot” – or feasts – as well as marriages, name-giving ceremonies, funerals and rite of passage ceremonies for teenagers. Until now, ceremonies have mostly been conducted outdoors during the summer.

“At last, our long journey across the desert is at an end,” says Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, a composer and high priest of Iceland’s neo-pagan Asatru movement.”

The news reminded me of my visit to the National Museum of Iceland a few years ago when I learned about the earliest settlement of Iceland by the Norse during the Viking Age (around 870 AD).


Skeleton of an Early Settler with Gravegoods

Just like the modern day “neo-pagans” who are building the new temple, the original settlers worshipped the Norse gods – Thor, Odin, Freyja, Loki and others.  An exhibit at the museum explained that an ancient writing, The Prose Edda of Snorri Snurlson, describes the settlers’ beliefs about death:  men who died in battle would join Odin in his great hall at Valhalla.  Men who died in bed joined the being,Hel, for eternity in Hel and  “no indication is given as to where women went after death”.

Both sexes did believe in a life after death though. They buried many gravegoods with decedents including entire boats and horses as well as implements they might need in the afterlife.


Drawing of settler buried with horse, shield, sword, spear, knife, lead weights and stones.

Iceland adopted Christianity circa 1000 AD and paganism was outlawed until 1972.  One of the most significant objects at the museum is this tiny bronze figure of a man that dates from around 1000.  Most believe he is Thor, holding his hammer but some argue that he is Jesus, holding a cross.  What do you think?


Image from the National Museum of Iceland. Click for source.

  • While you ponder enjoy a video by Skalmold, a Viking metal band from Iceland!

Assorted Relics; The Holy Dexter, Jesus’ Crib and Royal Wedding Cake

Relics are the body parts and belongings of revered decedents.  Usually, relics are housed in beautiful containers called reliquaries.  Many cultures and religions have traditions of preserving relics and I often run into amazing reliquaries when I visit new places.

I saw one of my favorite- of- all- time relics  last winter in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest. There, I beheld the reliquary that contains the rather spooky mummified right hand, “The Holy Dexter”, of St. Stephen, the founder and first king of Hungary.

Holy dexter

Image from Wikipedia. Click for source

Although St.Stephen died almost 1000 years ago, his hand is remarkably well preserved.  A sign in the church notes that the hand is “highly esteemed” by the nation.

This winter I discovered a wonderfully huge and beautiful reliquary in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. If you walk all the way to the front of the church, there are stairs leading down to The Crypt of the Nativity that holds a giant reliquary said to contain wood from Jesus’ crib!



My photo.

After Rome, I came upon a bonanza of Roman Catholic reliquaries in the tiny hill town of Monreale, outside of Palermo, Sicily.  Although the town is small, it has a very famous cathedral dating from 1174.  Mostly to escape the rain, I ventured into the museum attached to the church and was gobsmacked by the many reliquaries I found. Here are some of my favorites, although there were many more:

monreale1 monreale2 monreale 3 monreale 4 monreale 5

Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell whose clearly visible bones or property were contained in the reliquaries.  Some had little typed labels inside the reliquaries, but to me they remain mysteries.




We continue to create relics and reliquaries in modern times.  For example, both John Lennon’s and Elvis’ teeth have been purchased (by a dentist, Dr. Michael Zuk) for preservation. The space suit that Neal Armstrong wore on the moon is also being preserved for future generations.

And last semester we learned that a piece of wedding cake from the 1981 wedding of Princess Di and Prince Charles was  purchased for $1375 in an online auction!

Image from The New York Daily News.  Click for source.

Wedding cake relic in original waxed paper wrapper and box.  Image from The New York Daily News. Click for source.


A few  months later, a slice of Prince William’s wedding cake (from his 2011 marriage to Kate) sold for $7500!


Image from The Sun. Click for source.


According to The Telegraph, there is  “a small but dedicated group of royal cake collectors.  Some … have purchased cakes dating to the days of Britain’s Queen Victoria, who married in 1840.”

I don’t know how collectors preserve old cake, but I love that they are creating sweet modern royal relics!





The Morbid Anatomy Museum

Yesterday, we spent a fascinating/disturbing afternoon at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn.  I had heard that the museum was the perfect place for a class field trip and I wanted to check it out during its Open House afternoon featuring many guest speakers and tours.  The Museum describes itself as “Exploring the Intersections of Death, Beauty & That Which Falls Between the Cracks” 


Before I journeyed out to Gowanus, I made sure to look up the definition of “morbid” which turns out to mean “characterized by or appealing to abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease” according to Oxford Dictionaries. I wondered, “will this be fun”?

And yes, well, wow, it was different.  When you enter the museum there is a gift shop and a coffee bar, although the display of taxidermied animals and many books about death might put off any thoughts of food or drink whilst visiting.  I did love the sculpture of taxidermied chipmunks on a ferris wheel though.


Image from Atlas Obscura. Click for source

Upstairs there was a wonderful exhibit entitled “The Art of Mourning” that will be on view until January 5, 2015.  It features (mostly) Victorian era objects of mourning including early photographs of the recently deceased, a spirit photograph, a beautiful death mask of the Unknown Woman of the Seine


L’inconnue de la Seine. Image from Wikipedia, click for source.

and much hair art.  A guide noted that hair doesn’t decay, so it is a great medium with which to preserve a tangible piece of a loved one.  Craftsmen made artwork and jewelry out of hair and even melted hair into a kind of ink to create mementos.

There was a second room, a library full of preserved creatures in bottles and loads of other spooky stuff.  It gave me the willies. but some may savor it.

So yes, this is a potential field trip but we will have to find the room in our crammed-full curriculum   In the meantime, subscribe to the museum’s mailing list and go when you can, because it is pretty cool and super spooky!

Student Work – Nadine Gordimer and Robin Williams

Nadine Gordimer by Kamaria Romeo

Nadine Gordimer image from Wikipedia.  Click for source.

Nadine Gordimer image from Wikipedia. Click for source.


Kamaria Romeo

South African writer Nadine Gordimer, one of the most influential literary voices against apartheid, was born on November 20, 1923. Also a political activist, she was awarded the 1991 Noble Prize in Literature. She authored more than 30 books, among them novels, short story collections, compilations of personal and political essays, as well as literary criticism.

She was born to Jewish immigrants in the gold mining town of Springs, which is near Johannesburg. While her father’s experience as a Russian refugee and her mother’s concern for the plight of blacks under apartheid sparked her interest in economic and racial inequality, Gordimer never considered herself innately political. Indeed she initially set out to indulge her love of the written word. She published her first work, a children’s story, at the age of fifteen.

However, she found it difficult, if not impossible, to delve into any exploration of South African life without running up against the pervasive and systematic institution of political and social injustice against blacks in her native country. Indeed, when Gordimer was 25, the National Party, a political party dominated by white Afrikaners, won a national election and began implementing its policy of apartheid, a legal system which mandated racial separation.

Even so, while her works teem with issues of discrimination and the moral turpitude of apartheid, they were not so much driven by achieving a political agenda as they were about plumbing the complex depths and nuances of humanity. For instance, in her second novel, A World of Strangers, the protagonist, Toby, is young upper middle class Englishman living in Johannesburg. He moves freely between his friends in both the wealthy white inhabited suburbs and the poor black townships. Although Toby is disinterested in the larger debate of the disparity between the two worlds, even adopting a voyeuristic mien toward it, he is emotionally aware enough to understand that neither world is for him.

Incidentally, for years, this novel, along with two others, were banned in South Africa. Yet, even as Gordimer’s work was banned in her native country, it continued to receive international acclaim, and throughout her career she received many international honors.

Gordimer died peacefully in her sleep at her place of residence at the age of 90 on July 13, 2014. She is survived by her daughter Oraine and her son Hugo. She routinely revealed little about her personal life in interviews, even reacting testily when posed personal questions. Perhaps this is why I was not able to locate information concerning her estate or her will. Nonetheless, it is known that she married dentist Gerald Gavron in 1949 and their daughter Oraine was born in 1950. Her marriage to Gavron ended in divorce three years after they were married. She married her second husband, Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who fled Nazi Germany, in 1954. Their son Hugo was born in 1955, and they remained married until Reinhold’s death in 2001. The author never remarried.

Five years after Cassirer’s death she and her housekeeper endured a frightening home invasion. During the robbery, they were dragged upstairs, her housekeeper punched and kicked, then both women were locked in a cupboard as the robbers left. She attributed the robbery to the lack of opportunities and education endemic to blacks in a society permeated by apartheid. Her response to the invasion points to a life spent grappling with South Africa’s social and political issues. In fact, Gordimer joined the banned African National Congress (ANC), a political party formed in opposition to apartheid, at times hid its leaders from the police in her home, and even transferred messages and money between its political fugitives. ANC leader and former South African President Nelson Mandela—who himself died at the age of 95 in December 2013—was a friend of Gordimer’s and read her books while incarcerated. When he was released from prison in 1991, Nadine Gordimer was one of the first people he asked to see. And as mentioned earlier, the year 1991 was the year Gordimer received the Noble Prize in Literature.

With Gordimer lending her efforts to its abolition, 1994 saw the beginning of the process of the dismantling of apartheid. And even after its abolition, Gordimer continued to write about apartheid. Her death notwithstanding, Gordimier’s legacy lives on. One need only look at the racially charged protests which played themselves out in Ferguson, Chicago when a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager to see that her literary themes of racial divide continue to resonate with a chilling familiarity.


Helen T. Verongos, Nadine Gordimer, Novelist Who Took on Apartheid, Is Dead at 90, (Jul. 14, 2014),
Jim Falk, Cassirer and CohenDraft Family Genealogy: Person Sheet, (Jul. 16, 2014),
Justin Cartwright, Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer: ‘I have failed at many things, but I have never been afraid,’ (Jul. 14, 2014),
Marianne Macdonald, A Writer’s Life: Nadine Gordimer, (Jun. 04, 2003),
Michelle Bailat-Jones, Nadine Gordimer – A World of Strangers, PIECES, (Feb. 22, 2008),
Nadine Gordimer Biography, Academy of Achievement, (Jul. 14, 2014),
Todd Leopold, Nadine Gordimer, South African author, dies, (Jul. 14, 2014),

Robin Williams by Kerricia Williams

Robin Williams image from Wikipedia.  Click for source.

Robin Williams image from Wikipedia. Click for source.


Kerricia Williams

Kerricia Williams


“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it,” Robin Williams.

The year 2014 can be considered the year that America lost some of the most influential people who brought smiles to many faces across the globe. It is very ironic that the individuals who bring such joy into other’s households, onto televisions and movie screens and into various arenas with their comedy are often not happy. On August 11, 2014 Oscar award winning Comedian and Actor Robin Williams died from suicide by hanging. Williams was found by his personal assistant hanging from a belt on a closet door in his room at his home in Tiburon, California. Robin Williams was clothed and seated when found by a distraught personal assistant. Dr. Joseph Cohen a chief forensic pathologist from Marine County’s sheriff’s office has produced information that there was no apparent struggle in Williams’ death although he had minor cuts to his wrists. He was fully clothed and seated in an upright position. It is reported that he suffered from drug and alcohol addiction and was in and out of sobriety for many years. Robin Williams was said to have also been battling depression. He was 63 years of age.  Robin Williams is survived by his wife Susan Schneider and his 3 children; Zelda Rae Williams, Zachary Pym Williams and Cody Alan Williams.


Born Robin McLaurin Williams on July 21, 1951, in Chicago, the destined for greatness funny man studied at the prestigious Julliard in Manhattan, New York and got his big break when he was noticed by a producer during an audition for ABC’s Mork and Mindy which was a spinoff of Happy Days. Williams was known for his amazing performances in his top movies; Mrs. Doubfire, Dead Poets Society, Hook, Aladdin, The Fisher King, One hour Photo and Good Morning Vietnam. Many can agree that Mrs. Doubtfire has to be one of America’s favorite Robin Williams films, he was exceptionally funny especially dressed as an elder woman. The most intriguing point about(Mrs. Doubtfire 1993) is the message the film sends about a father wanting to see his children and an ex-wife moving on after a divorce he certainly was still grieving over. It was great to see Williams go between being funny and sentimental. Although he was comedic, Williams was able to play on the hearts of fans in some of his films. Aside from his film contributions Williams associated himself with many charities such as the Read Now Program that helps children get interested in reading, St Jude’s for children’s cancers, and the yellow bracelet campaign for Lance Armstrong. Robin has made numerous trips overseas to entertain our troops past and present. His participation with various charities has encouraged his fellow friends, comedians, actors and actresses to do the same. Williams helped a young man named Christopher Reeve with his medical bills and he also rode a bicycle in a tri-Athlon to support a young man with no legs.


Much of Robin Williams’ estate and will details are kept private. However, it is reported that he has two separate trusts; one for his real estate and one for his children holding his monetary possessions. There is also estate tax limitation apart of his will plan. “…Zachary, Cody and Zelda will each receive a third of his/her share at age 21, half of the remaining share at age 25, and the rest at age 30” Robin Williams’ Net Worth in Trusts For 3 Children … Despite Depression And Financial Problems, ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ Star Put Family First, (August 13, 2014, 6:29 pm),


Leonard Greene, The Life and Times of Robin Williams, (August 12, 2014, 4:55pm),
Arienne Thompson, Marina Puente and Elizabeth Weise, Oscar winner found dead by his personal assistant, hanging by a belt from a closet door,
 (August 13, 2014 9:02 am),

African Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

An Ideal Couple/ A Funerary Object

Yesterday we were party to an excellent tour covering several important works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s African Art collection.  I was so pleased to learn more about one of my favorite pieces at the museum, the wooden, 18th century “Dogon Seated Couple” from Mali.

dogon couple

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, click for source.

I have always loved this couple for the way that they seemed to exist in perfect harmony, contentedly sitting with the man’s right arm around the woman, his right hand resting on her breast and his left hand resting on his junk, but I never understood the meaning and importance of this amazing sculpture.

Our excellent guide,  Kristen Windmuller-Luna, of Princeton University, explained that this sculpture is all about balance, an esteemed value in Dogon society.  The man and woman (not real people but rather an idealized couple) are carved with “bilateral symmetry” – they are virtually mirror images of each other (and if you cut them in half vertically, mirror images of themselves as well).

According to our guide, the piece is so beautiful and complex that it likely was used in the funeral rituals of very important Dogon men.   The  carving would be brought out to teach and inspire men and women to assume their proper roles in a  balanced society.  The man has a quiver for arrows on his back, the woman has a child on her back – they unite to create and sustain life.

When you get close up, you can enjoy their elaborate hair styles, scarification and loads of jewelry (both have several piercings).

You can also see where insects have eaten away part of their base.  Although our guide didn’t know the type of wood used in the carving, she did note that the dark color was often achieved by rubbing  sculptures with palm oil and other substances (including dirt from graveyards, sometimes).


A Powerful Queen Mother Commemorated


Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, click for source


We also learned that this ivory pendant mask is one of the most significant and rare pieces in the Metropolitan’s entire collection of African art.  The mask represents an (idealized) actual person – her name was Idia, and she was the mother of  Oba (King) Esigie of Benin.  The  mask was carved in the early 16th century and it was likely worn as a pendant by Oba Esigie during rituals meant to honor his deceased mother and insure her protection.  This piece is one of the few portraits of women in all of Benin’s art history and its existence is evidence of her immense power and importance to the kingdom.

Idia has lovely curly hair and she wears a cool tiara that contains carvings of mudfish, which are very aggressive animals that emit electric shocks and can live on land and in the water.  Their fierceness and adaptability were deemed valuable characteristics in leaders of Benin. Idia’s tiara also contains carvings of Portuguese men!  According the Metropolitan’s website, the Portuguese were believed to be from “the spirit realm”, with the power to bring riches and power to the king.  Our guide noted that Idia got along really well with the Portuguese and even persuaded them to offer military help to her son.

Those vertical lines on her forehead?  According to our guide, it was foretold that Idia was to marry a king, but she didn’t want to, so she applied “medicine” to her forehead in order to repel the king.  Instead, the king removed the repellant and married Idia despite the scars left by the medicine. The scars were said to be the source of some of her metaphysical powers.  We will be sure to visit Idia on our class tour at the Metropolitan!