Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Vitzliputzli



1. Heidegger in the Tropics

Cancun is an awful place. Once, there was a barrier island, a strip of wild jungle guarding a great, tepid lagoon frayed by the Caribbean into beaches on its seaside. The adjacent Yucatan is entirely flat, venomous with serpents, an immense scrub forest rooted in crumbling limestone. The sea has undercut the entire peninsula in subtle and sinister ways and so the whole limestone landscape seems a raft tenuously floating on subterranean waters. The ground is not earth, but a kind of crust, like the scab over a wound.

Huge resorts tower over the lagoon on the land side and the soupy water is slashed and cut and whipped by jet skis and catamarans skimming the glassy estuary. The fragile scimiter of the barrier island is heaped with hotels and all-inclusive resorts, cheek-by-jowl, the pale beach subdivided into two-hundred yard segments up and down miles of sea-coast. The resorts look like ziggurats or Mayan pyramids or the kind of stubby high-rise hotels that ring big-city airports. They are too big and heavy and overbuilt, too pompous for the slender, attenuated crescent of the barrier island and one has the feeling that some day a hurricane or earthquake will simply whisk all of this rubbish into the turquoise sea. To be sure, the turquoise sea and the tumultuous thunderheads rising over it, and the neon blue sky are pretty enough, but the manmade detritus huddled on the beaches is garish and dispiriting.

In the hotels, there are bars where workers dressed like French chefs dispense watery drinks endlessly to all-inclusive patrons. Mule-like housekeepers trudge miles of carpeted corridor, always gritty with sand marched into the place by the tourists. At dawn, buses prowling the lane that stretches along the island disgorge college girls who vomit disco-tequila into the flower bushes while emerald green iguanas stare at them impassively. In steamy office-suites buried in the hotels, lady-realtors bully drunken tourists into buying timeshare – if you spend $20,000, they will give you a big jug of Kahlua or a bottle of rot-gut Mezcal. The buffets never close down and the air stinks of rotting shrimp and scallops and hustlers crouch beside ruined, waterless fountains or in the arcades of hotels that have gone bankrupt and are under new management and, therefore, being remodeled, sallying forth to importune you with surreal offers, threats, sinister innuendo – "Senor, the place where you are shall I say...’condemned’...due to...intestinal complaints from the food and the water is –" Of course, you can avoid this misery if you cancel your reservation and stay at the place that the hustler is promoting and this would do him a great kindness also since he is studying veterinary medicine and hopes to care for the sheep and cattle in his remote village, but has, now, run out of money, and his mother is sick as well with cancer and his sister’s baby is anemic and if you will just come out of the noonday glare into this quiet bar with murals of Aztecs tearing out human hearts on the walls, he will buy you and the missus a drink and, perhaps, you can transact some business together...

Every day the sea on the beach-side of the island swallows one or two drunken tourists and their bodies are sometimes recovered and sometimes not and far away, on the horizon where Cuba lurks, some big ships are becalmed in the tropical sea, floating factories that leak black smoke up into the skies and the sands are wriggling with pale-skinned bodies, men and women like crabs piled up along the edge of the surf and blindly waving their claws to summon waiters with fresh drinks and someone is towed by on a parasail high above and casts a shadow like a vulture or turkey buzzard over the sunbathers and you shudder a tiny bit in the shadow at the restaurants, management makes a Kabuki-drama of hygiene and cleanliness, the Mexican cooks exhibited in glass boxes as if at a zoo, all of them swathed in mouth-masks as if, even, a tremor of Mexican breath might carry germs capable of infecting your food, the men and women wearing surgical gowns and gloves and those white masks so that you can see only their eyes, impassive, dark, expressionless as black obsidian, looking at you over the mask and through the steam-fogged glass. The tourists are fat, rude, demanding, imperious – they stride through the lobbies and past the liquor bars that seem crammed into every nook, and cranny of the resorts, this multitude of building contractors, lawyers, retired accountants, HVAC vendors, financial advisors – all of them adopting a grand manner as if they were kings and queens, princes and princesses or, at least, TV stars or minor diplomats, emissaries of a conquering army that has occupied these beaches and lagoons and irrevocably ruined them.

At Cancun, every day is the same and every day is good – there are no weekends, no holidays, rather it is all weekend and all holiday and sun shines interminably and the lizards feast on the garbage and the meaningless rot and repetition of nature (one vine-enshrouded tree, one cockroach, one beach edged with flotsam and sea-wrack the same as every other beach, tree, and cockroach) has been supplanted by the febrile redundancy of the leisure industry, like Vegas, like south Florida, a huge concatenation of the same human artifacts over and over again, the same scoured and swept sand beach like a lawn dipping into the surf, the same cabanas, high-rises, buffets, drinks, a febrile fever dream of the same thing endlessly repeated, and, therefore, a sort of nightmare.

In an glass-enclosed skyway, overlooking the Caribbean, some Mexican kitchen-workers were on break. They wore uniforms and some of them still had their hair encased in plastic hair-nets and they were chattering and smoking cigarettes. The sun was high overhead and its rays were magnified by the glass and the plastic tables where the Mexican workers were taking their breaks were scalded by the bright light. I supposed that this was the closest that these workers came to sunbathing on the beaches spread out below the skyway, the resorts, more or less, inaccessible to the laborers who had come here by bus from small villages in the Sierra Madre or from the barrios of the Federal District. A studious-looking young man was bent over a paperback. I thought that he was a bus-boy that I had seen at our resort, unobtrusively sliding dirty dishes out from under your nose while you sat with other revelers at dinner, waiting for the danza folclorico floor-show of half-naked girls in feathers and the caballeros, with gigolo-eyes, in their silver-brimmed cowboy hats. As I passed the young man, I could see that he was reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Will to Power. He was, I supposed, a college student. But he peered into that book lit by the superfluous scalding sun as if it were a mighty abyss that his eyes were searching, a darkness in the center of all that majestic, unnecessary light.

What would happen if German idealism were to take root in the tropic, in ancient fatalistic Mexico? What would Heidegger be like in this torrid zone? How might the world be changed? Outside, on the beaches, handsome young boys hurled themselves into the surf. A jet ski had toppled onto it’s side and, now, unattended it rose and fell like a barrel on the long diagonal waves. The jet ski’s rider was missing. A motor-boat circled the abandoned jet ski. Storms stood on the horizon hurling water into water.


2. Heine

In Fontane’s novel "Effi Briest," I came upon a reference to a narrative poem by Heinrich Heine that I had never read, something called "Vitzliputzli." In the novel, Major Crampas applies himself to seducing the young and innocent Effi Briest, the child-wife of a Prussian civil servant Baron von Instettin. Crampas makes reference to the poetry of Heinrich Heine, verse that he intends to have an aphrodisiac effect on Effi. The young woman is superstitious and easily frightened and so Crampas mentions "Vitzliputzli" as an example of the sadistic and gruesome, hoping to induce a shudder in Effi – it is the strategy of the adolescent escorting his girlfriend to a horror movie in the hope that his date’s terror will urge her into his arms. Crampas clearly thinks that the macabre and brutal poem will frighten Effi and that Heine’s cynical romanticism, the poet’s frank treatment of sex in his love poems, will encourage her to adultery with him. Fontane’s plotting is beside the point – my interest was piqued by the idea that the German poet had devoted his energies to writing narrative verse about an Aztec war god. I immediately thought of Cancun and the bus-boy reading Nietzsche – Heine’s long poem seemed similarly unlikely, the northern writer improbably immersing himself in the gory mythology of the ancient Mexicans.

Heine published "Vitzliputzli" in 1851 in his great volume of poems Romanzero. This book was the last collection of poetry that Heine published during his life; a later volume of poems printed in 1853 was posthumous. Romanzero was written during Heine’s final exile in Paris, the city that he called "the capitol of freedom." The first section of Romanzero is entitled "Histories" and includes as its last poem the lengthy ballad, "Vitzliputzli." "Lamentations" is the title of the second part of the book, a miscellaneous collection of verse that includes satirical attacks on other German poets and the famously bitter and mournful cycle of lyrics entitled "Lazarus," poems that address directly Heine’s debilitating illness. Many of the poems in the book were dictated to Heine’s secretary. By this time in his life, Heine was completely paralyzed, confined to a bed that he called his Matratzengruft ("mattress-grave"). Heine’s doctors claimed that he was suffering from an exacerbation of "lead poisoning" and, ineffectively, treated him for that illness – in fact, as Heine himself understood, he was dying of tertiary syphilis and, during the composition of Romanzero, was largely dependant on morphine for analgesia. The final sequence of poems in the volume is entitled "Hebraic Melodies," a reference both Heine’s own Jewish origins as well as Byron’s famous "Hebrew Melodies" of 1815. (The first verses that Heine published were translations from Lord Byron that the German poet made before 1825.)

Not a page in Romanzero is without something unexpected, startling, even shocking. Heine indulges in romantic and sentimental conceits only to savagely undercut and disavow them. Heine’s history poems focus on the losers, defenders of lost causes, people at the margins of historical narrative – characteristically, his account of the battle of Hastings takes the perspective of the defeated Anglo-Saxon King, Harald. Heine’s version of the French revolution features a soiree of court ladies, all of them headless, gathered around the similarly headless Marie Antoinette – the beheaded corpses communicate through their rumps. The last poem in the "History" section of the book is "Vitzliputzli," ostensibly Heine’s account of the final days of the Aztec empire, although, of course, digressive and inflected with other, and more subversive, concerns as well.

In my reading, the Cortez and the Aztec death-god, Vitzliputzli, represent the clash of civilizations, a theme that obsessed Heine. Elsewhere in Romanzero, Heine considers the Moor’s "last sigh," the mournful Boabdil looking down upon the groves of Grenada one last time before being expelled by the Christian crusaders. Boabdil, in turn, is a figure, an anti-type, as it were, for the Sephardic Jews, later also driven from their immemorial homes by the intolerant Spanish. The Sephardic Jews, appear in several poems, particularly a long ballad-like narrative (really a digressive anti-narrative) in the third section of Romanzero, "Jehuda Ben Halevy." "Jehuda Ben Halevy" feints toward biography – the verse suggests that it will be an account of the Sephardic poet’s life in Toledo, but, somewhat like Tristram Shandy, can’t quite muster the fortitude (or the linear logic) to tell the story of Jewish writer’s life: the text slips into Jewish mysticism and love poetry and, then, abruptly, fizzles out, a note announcing that it is a "fragment." "Jehuda Ben Halevy" is followed by a long satirical account of a theological debate between Christian monks and Jewish rabbis, also Sephardic, an apocryphal encounter said to have occurred under the supervision of the Spanish Queen. Both sides heap amusingly vitriolic abuse on one another leaving the Queen with the equivocal conclusion that "both monks and rabbis stink equally." I interpret the final two poems of Romanzero set in Grenada as a rejoinder, and commentary on, "Vitzliputzli". As evidence for this proposition, I cite the fact that "Jehuda ben Halevy" is written in the same meter as "Vitzliputzli" – that is, unrhymed trochaic quatrains almost invariably containing four feet, or eight, syllables per line. (When Heine rhymes these lines as in Deutschland, Ein Wintermaerchen, the effect is like the knittelvers in which the Niebelungenlied is composed.) "Jehuda ben Levy" is composed in three sections and the final poem depicting the debate between the monks and rabbis seems an appendix to the ballad-like verse about the Sephardic poet. "Vitzliputzli" similarly is composed in three sections with a Prelude comprising the fourth part of the poem. Both "Vitzliputzli" and the poems at the end of "Hebraic Melodies"involve a potentially violent clash (or violent) clash between Catholic Spanish Christians and non-Christian people. In my view, Romanzero is mirror-symmetrical: the prelude and three long chapters in the story of Vitzliputzli and Cortez mirror the three long chapters in the story of Jehuda ben Levy (whose people were exiled from Spain by the same kind of militant Christians who destroyed the Aztecs) with the pendant account of the theological debate equivalent to the prelude preceding the appearance of Cortez in "Vitzliputzli."

Probably, Heine viewed both historical situations – the plight of the Aztecs and the Sephardim – as manifestations of the age-old theme of intolerance and bigotry opposed to freedom. Heine was in exile in Paris as a result of his support of German revolutionaries who had attempted in 1848, and failed, to liberate the German-speaking principalities from autocratic rule. Undoubtedly, the theme of exile resonated with him. Jehuda ben Levy’s people are exiled; the Moors were exiled; at the end of Vitzliputzli, the ugly little death-god goes into exile in Europe. Not surprisingly, Romanzero was banned both in Munich and Prussia.


4. Mexico City – A Matter of Pronunciation

At a Sanborn’s in Mexico City, I ate mole on chicken. The mole was too spicy for me. My brow and cheeks were wet with sweat. Outside, across the busy street, several men were repairing a panel of concrete on the sidewalk in front of a hotel. The hotel was a nice place with a wreath of floral wrought iron woven around its door. A doorman in a tasseled uniform with epaulets surveyed the concrete workers and the floods of taxis, almost all of them battered-looking Volkswagen beetles, surging up and down the road. Two men were squatting to adjust the flimsy-looking lathe form into which two other workers were shoveling cement. Some sacks of concrete slumped against the facade of the hotel and two or three other men were mixing the stuff in big plastic buckets. A craftsman with a trowel stood ready to smooth the cement where it had been shoveled into the form. A hose supplied water for the project and, when not in use drained a trickle of water over the curb and along the gutter. The hose was screwed into another length of hose that ran up the sidewalk, creating a sinuous trip hazard, to yet another hose section, leaking at that connection so that a pale stream of water flowed out over the pavement at the foot of a dark-skinned, nervous-looking soldier who was holding a machine gun across his belly. The young soldier shuffled back and forth; he was guarding at ATM in the foyer of a bank. I wondered how many hose lengths had been screwed together to convey water to the sidewalk in front of the hotel where the little construction project was underway. Perhaps, the hose ran up alleyways and past the apartment buildings with the big, black vats of water on their roofs, along avenues where the busts of famous men stood on battered pedestals gazing with inert, bulging eyes at the tattered-looking trees separating them, section after section of hose rising into the denuded mountains scarred by mudslides into the shanty-towns where the only light at night was the beer signs at the cantinas upward to a tanker truck parked at the intersection of two nameless streets overlooking the vast city. It seemed to me that the five or six workers were too many men to assign to the task of replacing a panel of concrete sidewalk the size of a small table-cloth.

Later, we took a bus tour through the city. In Mexico City, everyone is working, but the work is done piece-meal by gangs of laborers, simple tasks broken down into small, and bizarre sub-tasks. There are bosses bossing other bosses and every laborer seems to have a subordinate helper extending downward in the hierarchy of work to the ragged children whose jobs seemed to involve running errands to the nearby convenience store, carrying messages and burritos along the city streets. On the bus tour, a dignified older man wearing a brown suit, his sunglasses clipped to his breast-pocket pointed out landmarks. He seemed to be a retired High School teacher. The teacher had an assistant, a younger man, perhaps a guide-in-training, who whispered cues to him, providing a commentary to his commentary sotto voce. The busdriver had a "spotter" who stood at his side, precariously clinging to a vertical steel pole as the bus lurched and writhed through the dense traffic. The "spotters" job was to exit the bus at tight corners, entering the deadly traffic to ease the vehicle around turns, waving and gesturing to both the driver and flocks of VW beetles swirling through the intersection. There was a fifth man crowded into the front of the bus. His sole function was to carry the two plastic bins, turned downward to make impromptu stools for the guide and his subordinate. All five of the men chatted with one another in Spanish between announcements made by the dignified, silver-haired guide. They seemed to be commenting on the weather and pointing out stylishly dressed women on the street corners and, perhaps, cursing in a good-natured way, the heavy traffic.

At the Plaza de los Tres Culturas (the Plaza of the Three Cultures), the bus inserted itself between several school buses and we stepped down to stroll among the ruins in that place. Big heaps of stone formed low platforms and ruined walls hedged pits that were dark, underground grottos full of human bones. These ruins had once been the center of the Aztec metropolis, Tenochtitlan, and the place was, as the scholar David Carrasco has written, "a city of sacrifice." Tens of thousands of men and women and children had been sacrificed to Aztec gods in this place and fissures in the field of shattered walls and blunted pedestals, their tops hacked-off by the Spaniards to make their own temples, were clogged with skeletons.

The dignified guide gestured at the ruins. The stonework was heavy, ominous, black rubble and the outcroppings of the ruins looked like lava-fields exposed under the cone of great, smoking volcano. I will never forget how the guide pronounced the name of the Death god whose rites were celebrated in these temples. "Here is where human beings were sacrificed daily to the great god, Huitzilopochtli." "Huitzilopochtli," the current spelling for the god that Heine calls "Vitzliputzli," is pronounced "Tweet - see - loh - POACH -lee." The school teacher emphasized the "Poach" and, indeed, gave a slightly hard, even, Germanic sound to the "ch" – something like a combination of "k" and "sh." The syllable sounded rich and deep, a confection of vowels – it tasted in the mouth like the fiery mole at Sanborn’s: a dense, rich chocolate vivid with dissolved chile, tasting of the sun and the mud of the earth at the same time.


5. The Humming Bird of the Left

Huitzili is a Mexica word for "humming bird." Opochtli means "left hand" or "left side" in the same language. It is seductive to name the god that Heine calls Vitzliputzli, "Humming bird of the left." But linguists observe that this appellation ignores the grammatical construction of the compound word Huitzilopochtli – "left hand" doesn’t modify "hummingbird," rather, the reverse is true. Thus, Huitzilopochtli means something like "humming bird-like lefthandedness" – no one knows for sure what this means. (I will venture a guess: Muhammed Ali said that he could "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee;" I think Huitzilopochtli means something similar – the deity was initially a war-god and the name means, I think, to strike a swift blow that is almost unseen from the left side. In other words, I suspect the name celebrates a certain kind of deft unexpected, left-hand punch that "stings like a bee.")

The warlike Aztecs spoke Nahuatl. Originally, Huitzilopochtli was of little interest to them. But when they conquered the Mexica, like the Romans assuming Greek cultural traditions, they adopted the customs and deities of the more urban and civilized tribes in the valley of Mexico. Huitzilopochtli was elevated to sun-god and worshiped at the Templo Mayor at the center of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capitol. As he was promoted to solar status, the god became progressively more demanding and bloodthirsty. The Aztecs boasted that they had sacrificed more than 20,000 victims in just four days in 1484 on Huitzilopochtli’s feast day. Undoubtedly this was a gross exaggeration. But what if the Aztec priests had killed only four- or five-thousand sacrificial victims? What would this have looked like?

Huitzilopochtli was the last and most aggressive son of the virgin Earth Mother, Coatlicue – "Serpent skirt." One day, while she was sweeping out a temple, Coatlicue encountered a whirling ball of feathers. Somehow, the feathers impregnated her and she gave birth to the beautiful Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, and his brother, Xolotl, the god of death, deformity, and disease. The spinning globe of feathers was virile and, later, Coatlicue, gave birth to 400 warlike sons, the Centzonuitznaua, and their sister, Coyaolxauhqui. These things happened on Serpent Mountain, a place called in Nahuatl, Coatepec.

Coyaolxauhqui was jealous of her mother and enflamed her 400 brothers to revolt. They threatened Coatlicue with dismemberment. This peril engendered its own nemesis: Coatlicue gave birth to her last son, Huitzilopochtli. He defeated the Centzonuitznaua in a pitched battle, seized his sister Coyaolxauhqui on the summit of Serpent Mountain, and tearing off her head, cast her body down from the heights.

The central Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan was a lofty pyramid that represented Coatepec, Serpent Mountain. Excavations have revealed a huge monolith carved to represent a headless female corpse fountaining blood from her severed neck. This colossal statue stood at the foot of the temple mount. The bodies of virgins sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli were thrown from the top of the pyramid and, then, dragged to rest under the huge stone image of the butchered Coyaolxauhqui. Hundreds of headless skeletons were found in that area when excavations for a new subway station were undertaken at the edge of the Templo Mayor complex.

The Templo Mayor, located in what is now called the Plaza of Three Cultures, is dark and bloody ground. In 1968, students protesting in that Plaza were attacked by the police and hundreds of them were murdered. The bodies were carted away and loaded into helicopters to be dropped into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the people falling from the sky were wounded and still alive when they were flung down from the brilliant sky into the blood-warm waters of the Gulf.


6. Neil Young

He came dancing across the water

With his galleons and guns

Looking for the new world

In the palace in the sun

On the shore lay Montezuma

With his coca leaves and pearls,

In his halls he often wondered

With the secrets of the worlds,

And his subjects gathered ‘round him

Like leaves around a tree

In their clothes of many colors

For the angry gods to see...



He came dancing across the water

Cortez, Cortez,

What a killer.



Behold this America!

Behold this brave new world!

Not today’s hemisphere,

Now wilted europeanized —

Behold here this new world

As when Christopher Columbus

Yanked it forth from the ocean

Sparkling still in its flood-freshness,

Dribbling still pearls of water

Dispersed, spraying colors about

As they kiss the light of the sun,

So sound and healthy this world!

Here, no churchyard, all romantic,

Here no old midden of shards

Made from moldering symbols

And petrified powdered wigs.

And from wholesome soils sprout

Wholesome fruit, no tree

Bloated nor infected

Nor sick in its spinal marrow. 20

On the limbs of trees, rocking

Immense birds. Their feathered wings

Iridescent. Equipped with grave

Elongated beaks and eyes

Bepectacled with black horn rims,

They peer at you below, silent –

‘Til, suddenly, they shriek shrilly

And chatter, like gossips at coffee.

Oh, I don’t what they’re saying

Thought I’m fluent in bird-language,

Wise as old King Solomon

Who possessed a thousand wives

And knew all avian tongues

Not only the modern tones

But also ancient moribund

Dialects stuffed-up like roast turkeys.

Brand-new terrain, brand new flowers!

New flowers and and new fragrances!

Unheard of, savage fragrances

Driven in my nostrils
 Tempting, tickling, passionately

And my sense of smell rooting around

Tormented: Where did I once

Smell something so similar?

Was it, perhaps, on Regent Street

In the sunburnt yellow arms

Of that slim girl from Java

Perpetually hawking flowers,

Or was it in Rotterdam

Next to the Erasmus column

In the white-washed waffle-booth

With the mysterious curtain?

But while I propose to address

The New World like a casual friend,

Seemingly, I inspire still

Greater revulsion – a monkey

Who absconds appalled, bush-wards

Crosses himself on glimpsing me

Crying fearfully: "A ghost

A ghost come come from the old world!" 60

Monkey! Have no fear. I’m not

Andy sort of ghost, nor a spook,

Life boils in my arteries,

I’m life’s most loyal son.

Though through decades of intercourse

With the dead, I have assumed

The mannerisms of the extinct

And their concealed oddities.

O! The best years of my life —

Those I spent in Kyffhauser cave

Or in Venusberg and various

Grottoes of Teuton romanticism.

Do not fear, my simian friend!

I hold you dear since on hairless

Leathery-chafed buttocks, you carry

Those colors that I salute!

Precious hues! Black-red-yellow-gold

Those ape-ass tints, swaths of color

That remind me most sadly

Of Barbarossa’s brave banner. 80



On his head, he wore laurel wreathed

And on his boots there sparkled

Golden spurs – and, yet, this man was

Not a hero, also no knight.

Only a bandit chieftain this man

Who inscribed in the book of fame

With his own bold, battering fist

His own bold, brutal name: Cortez.

Beneath the name of Columbus

He wrote "Cortez" closely lettered

And the school boy at his school desk

Learns by heart both of those names.

After Christopher Columbus

Now he names Fernando Cortez

As the second greatest man

In the New World’s pantheon.

Heroic destiny’s best jest:

Our good name coupled, at the end,

With that of a two-bit hustler

Always in human memory. 100

Better, by far, to fade away

Unknown than to be hauled through

Tediously long eternities

In such close association.

Monsieur Christoper Columbus

Was a hero and his spirit

Like the sun was nothing but

Solar generosity.

Many, of course, have given much,

But Columbus granted us all

The gift of an entire new world –

And it’s name is America.

No liberation for us

From our foul geographic prison,

But, at least, he enlarged it

And lengthened the chains binding us.

Thankful mankind praised his great feat,

Those not merely tired of Europe,

But also Africa and Asia,

At last, equally dull to us — 120

One only, a singular hero,

Gave us more than Columbus

And Cortez – and that hero

Was given the world by God.

His honored father was named Amram

And his mother named Jochebeth,

The man himself was called Moses

And he is the greatest hero.

But my Pegasus, you tarry

Much too long with Kit Columbus,

Our winged excursion today

Involves the lesser man, Cortez.

So spread your colorful pinions

Winged horse! And carry me

To that lovely New World land

Which goes by the name, Mexico!

Bear me to that fortress

Where the great King Montezuma

Hospitably offered lodging

To his warlike Spanish guests 140

And not shelter alone and food

In profligate abundance,

But gave the prince of those strange knights

Gifts as well, rich and splendid.

Precious things, cleverly fashioned

Of weighty gold, glittering jewels

Attesting to the monarch’s

Generosity and splendor.

This wholly uncivilized

Blindly superstitious heathen

Who believed still in honor and

The sacred troth owed to the guest.

He acceded to the offer

To attend at a grand feast

That the Spaniards hosted in his

Honor at their encampment.

And, accompanied by his court,

Unafraid, glorious, the King came

Into the Spaniard’s living quarters

Where fanfares saluted him. 160

The title of this comedy

I know not. Perhaps, it’s named

"Spanish Honor" – Yet, I know

The Author – Fernando Cortez.

Cortez gave the sign – suddenly

The King was ambushed, set upon,

And they tied and imprisoned him

In the fortress as a hostage.

And, so. Montezuma died

And the dam was shattered

That protected the rash hero

From the rage of the King’s subjects.

Then, the horrid tempest began

Like a wild, unruly sea,

Tossing, raging, coming ever

Closer, waves of frenzied warriors.

Boldly, the Spaniards beat back

Each storm. But, day after day,

The fortress was besieged, battered

And the combat was exhausting. 180

After the King’s murder, provisions

Were cut off, embargoed all,

And, as rations grew shorter,

Faces frowned and grew longer.

And, so, with these long visages

Hispaniola’s sons brooded

And they sighed as they recalled

Their beloved Christian homeland

That distant and precious homeland

Where the pious bells resound

And at the hearth, peacefully

Steaming, Ollea - Potrida

Smothered thick with garbanzo beans

Under which: the rascal fragrance,

The sizzling giggle of concealed

And worthy chorizo sausages.

A council of war was convened,

The captain commanded retreat.

The next morning, at dawn,

The troop would depart the city. 200

Easy enough to enter

Before by Cortez’ cunning

But, withdrawal toard firm land

Posed deadly difficulties.

Mexico, island-city,

Built in the big lake’s center,

In the middle, flood-enveloped,

A proud aquatic fortresss.

Egress to lake-shore afforded by

Canoes and rafts and causeways

Resting on giant wooden pilings,

Little islands linked as bridges.

So, before the sun began to rise

The Spaniards set forth marching

Without the beat of a drum,

Without trumpet to blow reveille,

Didn’t want to rouse their hosts

From their sweet slumbers

(A hundred-thousand Indian warriors

Encamped in Mexico City 220

The Spaniard’s plan to sneak away

And avoid the bill owed for their stay.

But, this daw, even earlier,

The Mexicans had arisen.

At the bridges, on the floating rafts,

Blocking all the fords, Indians

There to tip a cordial cup

To their Spanish lodgers.

Body pressed to body, tight-packed,

And, on naked warrior torsos

The imprint embossed in flesh of

Armored breastplate arabesques.

Throttling, choking a tumult of

Butchery that slowly, so slowly,

Raged, creeping over the causeway,

Across bridges, floating rafts, the fords.

The Indians sang, bellowed,

But the Spaniards were grim, silent,

Battling step by step to conquer

Earth enough for their retreat.  240

In this claustrophobic combat

Old Europe’s rigorous war-craft

Of armor, firearms, horses

Offered only slight advantage.

And many Spaniards were also

Heavily laden with the gold

That they had just extorted, looted

So that yellow burden of guilt

Lamed them, restrained them in battle,

And that satanic metal

Not only cost them their souls

But also destroyed their bodies.

At the same time, the lake was

Covered over with boats, canoes,

Warriors floated there and shot

At the causeway and rafts and fords.

In the chaos, their darts hits

Many of their own brothers,

But, also, struck down enough

Arrogant hidalgos.

On the third bridge, there fell

The cavalier, Gaston, who

Carried the banner that day, an

Image of the Blessed Virgin,

This picture itself a magnet

To arrows of the Indians,

Six projectiles were left thrust

Through her heart – naked arrows

Like unto those golden swords

that pierced the suffering breast

Of the Mater Dolorosa

Carried in Lenten processions.

Mortally wounded, Don Gaston

Handed to the flag of Gonsalvo

Who was hit and dropped

Down in death himself – Then, Cortez

Himself seized the precious banner,

Their leader and captain, and he

Carried it aloft on horseback

Until evening when the slaughter ceased.  280

One-hundred sixty Spaniards died

On that bloody day.

Over eighty were taken

Alive by the Indians.

Badly wounded, there were many

That only later perished.

Almost a dozen horses were

Either killed or captured.

It was evening when Cortez

And his band reached terra firma

Solid ground, a lake-shore planted

Rudely with weeping willow trees.



After combat’s day of terror

Comes the spectral night of triumph,

A hundred-thousand festive lamps

Flickering in Mexico.

A hundred-thousand festive lamps,

Hard wood torches, creosote flames,

Cast the lurid light of day

On  palaces, shrines of the gods.  300

Gilded houses and, also,

Brightening Vitzliputzli’s temple,

Idol-summit of red brick,

Strangely reminiscent of

Egyptian, Babylonian,

Assyrian structures -- vast,

Colossal, like monstrosities

In paintings by John Martin.

Yes, here are those self-same

Ramps with stairs, also immense,

Upon which waves rise and fall

Of many thousand Mexicans,

Encampments on the terraces,

Regiments of wild warriors

Orgies of banqueting, men

Drunk on victory and palm-wine.

These ramped stairs ascend upward

Toward the high platform,

Like a balustrade around

The monstrous temple's thatched roof. 320
There upon his altar-throne

Sits the great Vitzliputzli,

Mexico’s bloodthirsty war-god,

An evil chimera, horrid.

Yet, his visages seems cute –

So grotesque an so childish

That, despite our inner shudder,

We’re tickled into laughter –

And, at his sight, we recall

At the same time, things whimsical

Such as the pale Death of Basel

Or Brussel’s Manneken-Pis.

At the deity’s side stand

Laity on the right, priests left

In ornate gowns of colored feathers

That adorn the clergy this day.

Atop the altar’s marble steps

Squats a hundred-year old man,

Tiny, no hair on chin or skull,

Wearing a scarlet camisole.  340

This is the sacrifice-priest

And he hones his agate blade,

Hones it smiling as he gazes

Now and then, up to his god.

Vitzliputzli acknowledges,

It seems, the glance of his servant

Bats his stony eyelashes and

Even moves his lips as if to speak.

On the altar-steps gathered,

The temple-musicians in force,

Drums beaten, conch-shell cornets,

A rattling and a tooting –

A rattling and a tooting

And added, choral voices

A Mexican Te Deum,

A miaowing like that of cats -

A miaowing like that of cats,

But of the largest species

That we sometimes call tiger-cats,

And that devour people, not mice!

When the night wind caught this music

And threw it toward the lake shore,

The Spaniards bivouacked there felt

Hung-over and desolate,

Weeping among the weeping willows,

The soldiers stood paralyzed

Staring toward that bright-lit city

Reflected in the gloomy lake,

A mirror mocking them cruelly,

Showing the joyous foe’s bonfires –

Spaniard’s standing as if in the stalls

Of an enormous theater,

On which the brightly-lit platform

Of Vitzliputzli’s shrine is stage,

Where a victory festival

Becomes a mystic tragedy,

A play called "Human Sacrifice,"

An ancient subject, this mythos,

In Christian adaptation

The drama is not so awful. (380)

Because the blood becomes red wine

And the corpse which is produced

Is transubstantiated

Into a harmless thin wafer –

But here, with these wild warriors

Their fun is rather raw, gravely

Literal: they feast on flesh

And the blood is from human veins.

Indeed, old Christian blood quaffed

Of rare and purest vintage,

Never adulterated with

Blood of the Moors or the Hebrews.

Rejoice Vitzliputzli, rejoice!

Today there will be Spanish blood

And the warm sweet aroma shall

Gladden your mighty nostrils.

This day slaughtered for you shall be

Eighty Spaniards, prideful bratwurst

For the table of your holy men

Whom their flesh shall nourish.  400

For these priests are merely mortal,

And mortals, with bellies to feed

Can not live on the reeking odor

Alone, nor on smoke like the gods.

Listen! The death-drum drones now

And the evil conch horn shrieks,

Sounds that announce the appearance

Of the column of condemned men.

Eighty Spaniards, abject, naked,

Their hands tightly bound behind

Their backs as they are dragged, yanked

Up the lofty temple stairway

To kneel before Vitzliputzli,

Forced to crouch beneath the idol

And, then, to dance comically

Compelled to this by tortures that

Are so gruesome and horrible

That the panicked screams of tormented

Men out-howl the entire savage

Cannibal choir’s bellowing – 420

Poor spectators on the lakeshore,

Cortez and his comrades-in-arms.

They hear clearly and recognize

Their friends howls of fear and pain

On that lofty stage, luridly lit

They saw it all, exactly enough,

The figures and their demeanor –

Saw the knife, saw the spray of blood,

And they wrenched their helmets from off

Their heads and together knelt down

Giving voice to that psalm of death,

All of them singing – De Profundis!

And, among those dying that night,

Was one Raimond de Mendoza,

Son of a lovely abbess,

Cortez’ first youthful beloved.

And, as he recalled the locket

Dangling upon the young man’s breast

Protecting the image her image,

Cortez wept bright, glistening tears, 440

‘Though he brushed them from his eyes

With his hard glove clad in chainmail,

Sighed deeply and sang with his men’s

Morose choir: Miserere!


Already more pale shimmering stars

And morning mists rising upward

From the lake water like specters

Trailing behind them appalled shrouds.

Feast and torches now extinguished

On the heights of the god’s temple

Where pastor and flock are snoring

Pillowed on blood-drenched paving stones.

Only Red-Jacket waits and watches

By the light of the final lamp.

Merrily grinning and jesting,

The High-Priest speaks to the idol:

"Vitzliputzli, Putzlivitzli,

Dear little god Vitzilputzli,

Are you well-amused by this day?

Have you sniffed the sweet smoke-perfume? 460

Today, good Spanish blood was spilled,

O, it steamed appetizingly

And your fine, delicate nostrils

Sucked the scent voluptuously.

Tomorrow, we’ll sacrifice horses,

Whinnying, noble, monstrous beasts,

Begotten by the wind’s spirit

On beloved sea-spirit manatees.

If you’re so inclined, I’ll slaughter

Both of my nephews to praise you,

Charming little lads, juicy blood,

The pride and joy of my old age.

You must be well disposed to us

And must grant us new victories.

Let us conquer, my dead godling,

Putzlivitzli, Vitzliputzli!

O destroy all our enemies,

These strangers from foreign lands,

Still undiscovered lands far away,

Men who have come across oceans – 480

Why did they depart their homeland?

Driven by hunger or blood-feud?

Stay at home and be nourished there

Honestly – an old wise proverb.

What do they desire? They secrete

Our gold in their armored pockets

And they wish, it seems, that we be

Happy only when in heaven above.

At first, we believed that they were

Beings of highest pedigree,

Sons of the sun, immortal,

Defended by lightning, thunder.

But they were people, killable

Like the rest of us, and my knife,

Last night, has proven most surely

Their poor human mortality.

Just human beings, no better

Or prettier than others here,

Ugly as the apes in the trees,

Hairy as those monkeys above 500

Their bearded faces -- and, they say,

Many concealed in their trousers

Prehensile monkey appendages:

If you’re not an ape, you don’t need pants.

Morals as ugly as their mugs,

No knowledge of the true faith,

And, it’s been said, that they even

Gobble up their very own gods.

O! Exterminate this no-good

Wicked brood, these god-devourers,

Vitzliputzli, Putzlivitzli,

Let us triumph, Vitzliputzli!"

Thus, the old priest spoke to his god

And the god’s answer resounded,

Sighing, rustling, like the night-wind

Caressing the lake-side reeds:

Red-Jacket, old blood-stained butcher

Who has slaughtered many thousands,

Drills now his sacrificial knife

Into his own ancient body, 520

Expelled from slit-open belly,

Dragged outward the old priest’s soul,

Over gravel, over twig, branch,

Skipping to celestial frogs in sky trees

Where Old Aunty squats there,

Queen of the rats – and she will say:

"Good morning, my dear naked soul,

How are you doing my nephew?

Is Vitzliputzli pleased with you

In this amber, honeyed sweet light?

Good fortune whisks away the flies

And drives all cares from your furrowed brow.

Or have you been scratched by horrid

Katzlagaza, misfortunes’ goddess,

With her iron-clawed, ink-black paws

Well-steeped in otter’s venom?

Naked soul, give me your answer:

Vitzliputzli bids me greet you,

And wishes pestilence on you,

In your belly, accursed soul! 540

Because you counseled him to war

And your advice was an abyss –

Fulfilling the evil, primal,

Ancient and wicked prophecies –

Of our Kingdom’s sudden collapse

Due to fearsome bearded strangers

Blown here out of the eastern sea,

Borne upon wooden, flying birds.

And, an old proverb says it all:

Woman’s desire, the god’s desire

And doubled when the god’s will

The desires of the Mother of God.

It is her who heaps scorn on me,

The prideful princess of Heaven,

A virgin beyond all compare,

Bewitching us, doing wonders,

She protects the Spanish soldiers

So we must go down to defeat,

I...the poorest of all the gods,

and my poor, sad Mexico... 560

Good and faithful servant, Red-Coat,

You naked soul shall creep into

A hole in the sand – rest in peace!

Happy not to see my sorrow!

This temple falls into itself,

And I...even I sink away

In the fog – only ruins, smoke,

None shall ever see me again.

But, I don’t perish: we gods wax

Old like the parrots in the trees,

And we only molt and, like them,

Exchange old feathers for new ones.

To the home of my enemies

– They call that world "Europa" --

I’ll fly, I think, and begin there

A new, illustrious career.

I’ll bedevil them, this god

Insinuated into their hymns;

Evil enemy of my foes,

There I’ll set up housekeeping. 580

Happily torturing my foes,

Terrorizing them with phantoms,

A little foretaste of hell, they

Shall smell sulphur’s stink all the time.

Their wise men and their idiots

I’ll cajole and tempt and tease,

I’ll tickle them in their virtues

Until they giggle like butchers.

Indeed, I’ll become their devil

And, as comrades, I’ll salute

Satan, old Nick, Belial,

Ashtaroth and Beelzelbub.

I’ll give you my regards, Lilith

Sin-mother, bald serpent’s consort,

Tutor me in your cruelty,

And your lovely arts of deceit.

My much beloved Mexico,

I’m no more your salvation –

But fearful shall be my revenge,

O my beloved Mexico!" 600





20 – "sick in its spinal marrow..." – Heine wrote Vitzliputzli while paralyzed with tertiary syphilis, a disease that attacks the cerebrospinal fluids.

45 – Regent Street – a commercial street famous for markets and upscale terrace homes located in the West End of London – Heine’s reference is self-consciously cosmopolitan.

50 – Erasmus’ column – a statue of Erasmus in Rotterdam, the oldest monument in the Netherlands. Characteristically, Heine references Erasmus, a symbol of European reason and skepticism as opposed to Martin Luther, a figure who, perhaps, represents Germanic irrationality and fanaticism for Heine

70 (et. seq.) – Kyfhauser cave and Venusberg – Kyffhaeuser cave is a legendary grotto within a dome-shaped mountain in Thuringia, Germany. Frederick Barbarossa ("red beard") is said to sleep there, awaiting the time that he is needed by the German people. Barbarossa was a German king who drowned during the Third Crusade crossing a river in Turkey. He is a symbol of German romanticism and the dream that German-speaking peoples would be united in a single country. Venusberg is a mythological mountain somewhere in Germany harboring another grotto. In this grotto, Venus lives and celebrates her rites. The German grail-knight Tannhaeuser is supposed to have spent a year there worshiping Venus.

76 (et. seq.) Black-red- yellow-gold and Barbarossa’ banner – Heine sardonically compares the colors on the buttocks of a New World ape to the colors on the German flag. In this regard, see Heine’s related remarks in the 1844 preface to Deutschland: Ein Wintersmaerchen:

(Referring to the "black-red-gold livery" of the lackeys of the German enemies of democracy, Heine says:) "I already hear their beery voices: You even dare to blaspheme our national colors. Despiser of the Fatherland, friend to the French whom you would like to see crossing the Rhine! Calm down: I will honor your colors and respect them when they deserve to be honored and respected, when they are no longer an idle or slavish mockery. Plant the black-red- gold banner on the heights of German thought, make them the rallying point of free humanity and I will shed the best blood of my heart for them..." (My translation)

160 - 181 – (Montezuma’s) murder – Heine’s account of Cortez and Monteczuma II’s is inaccurate, although dramatically effective. The poet compresses months of political maneuvering into a single continuous episode. In fact, Cortez entered Tenochtitlan and met the emperor, Monteczuma II, on the causeway in November 1519. Monteczuma gave Cortez several massive golden medallions as gifts. With his men, Cortez was lodged as a guest in Monteczuma’s huge palace. Gradually, Monteczuma seems to have become a prisoner in his own house. In May 1520, Cortez departed Tenochtitlan with a detachment of soldiers to fight a fellow Spaniard, Panfilo de Navaez. Cortez had entered the Valley of Mexico without orders from the Spanish crown and was thought to be a rebel by the King. Navaez was dispatched from Cuba to capture him for punishment. Cortez allied himself with local Indians and defeated Navaez. However, while he was absent from Tenochtitlan, his garrison in that city attacked Indian noblemen and their families attending a human sacrifice in the Templo Mayor at a festival to Huitzliopochtli. This led to a massacre and resulted in the Spaniards being besieged in Monteczuma’s palace. During these events, Monteczuma II died – it is not known how he was killed; both Bernal Diaz and Cortez claimed that Monteczuma was killed by his own countrymen in retribution for his weakness in dealing with the Spanish threat. 
241 – In this claustrophobic conflict – Cortez returned from his combat with Panfilo de Navarez to discover that the Indian population of Tenochtitlan was on the verge of revolt. Cortez decided to leave the city, a place that he now construed as a death-trap. He invited his soldiers to load up as much gold and other loot as they could carry and on June 30, 1520, in the dead of night, his army fled the city-center toward one of the causeways crossing Lake Texcoco. A woman saw the Spaniards fleeing raised the alarm and a desperate battle ensued. This fight, occurring mostly on the causeway between Tenochtitlan and the lakeshore suburb of Tlacopan. In Mexican history, the battle is called La Noche Triste ("Night of Sorrow"). Cortez ultimately reached Tlacopan but paid a heavy price – probably about 250 of his men were killed along with a 2000 of their Indian allies. (Almost all the camp-followers, mostly women and children who had become associated with the Spaniards were murdered.) A huge and ancient tree in Mexico City is said to mark the place on the shore where the conquistadors rested and bathed their wounds after the deadly combat.

272 – Don Gaston and Gonsalvo – Two of Cortez’ men. Gonsalvo was Cortez’ lieutenant who went with him to fight Panfilo de Navaez. In fact, Gonsalvo captured Navaez in the battle. Gonsalvo led the charge across the causeway on La Noche Triste. He survived the fight and the ensuing battles resulting in the conquest of Tenochtitlan. He died in 1528 while returning to Spain. In his luggage were 14 bars of solid gold ingot that were stolen before the ship reached Spain.

308 – John Martin – Martin was an eccentric British romantic painter and engraver. He specialized in vast canvases showing scenes of destruction and damnation. He illustrated Milton and the Bible, painted the Last Judgement as well as the devastation of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He died in 1858.

328 et. seq.Death of Basel and Manneken-pis – The Death of Basel is a carved figure that emerges hourly from a medieval clock in the townsquare to conduct a Totentanz ("Dance of Death"). Manneken Pis is a bronze statue 61 cm tall showing an infant boy urinating into a fountain. It is located in Brussels and was made in the early 17th century by Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Elder. Across the street is a modern correlate: Jeannacke Pis showing a little girl urinating. Nearby, you can see Zinnecke Pis, a bronze statue of a dog lifting its leg against a fire hydrant.

What did the idol of Vitzliputzli look like? This is a mystery. In Codex imagery, Huitzliopochtli is shown as a humming bird or a man with a black face and an elaborate headdress carrying a winged fire-serpent and a mirror. Dancers and warriors portraying Huitzliopochtli wore humming birds in the visors of their headdresses. In the Templo Mayor, there was an ancient cult image of Huitzliopochtli. It was thought to be destroyed by the Spaniards and has never been described. In fact, the idol was spirited away to a cave and protected by the god’s priests. The statue re-emerged during heresy and witchcraft trials conducted by Bishop Zumarraga in 1533 and, then, seems to have been lost once more.

432 – Raimond de Mendoza – Heine invents an illegitimate son for Cortez to die in the battle on the causeway. Cortez had a dozen illegitimate children, some of them with Monteczuma’s princesses, but this lad is fictional as is the "lovely abbess."

490 – beings of highest pedigree – The old priest is referring to the belief held by some Aztecs that Cortez and his men were avatars of Quetzalcoatl, the benign feathered serpent. Dismayed at human sacrifice, Quetzalcoatl was said to have fled Mexico and traveled east. According to the myth, his return to Mexico, which would bring an era of peace and harmony, was the subject of prophecy. It was said that he would arrive from the east on winged vessels. Cortez reports that he was mistaken for Quetzalcoatl in some of his accounts of the Conquest and that the Indians thought the sails on his ships were wings. Modern historians tend to disbelieve this story.

505 – Morals as ugly as their mugs – The irony of the conflict between the conquistadors and the Aztecs is that the two peoples were remarkably similar. Both thought of themselves as conquerors – the Aztecs conquered the vale of Mexico and made its people their subjects about one-hundred years before the Spaniards arrived; the Spaniards, of course, were the veterans of long and brutal wars fought against the Moors and had recently recaptured Alhambra. Both peoples were fanatical, warlike, and intensely religious, perceiving that their tribe was invested with a messianic role in world history. Both the Aztecs and Spaniards were ruled by castes of elite nobleman and warriors who were zealous about protecting the purity of their bloodlines. In order to preserve the purity of Spanish blood, the Spaniards had recently expelled all moors (Muslims) and Jews from the Iberian peninsula. The Aztec elites were similarly jealous of their pedigrees – Tenochtitlan was ruled by sumptuary laws that forbade commoners, for instance, from wearing cotton gowns and the city center was off-limits to most peasants. There was little distinction between Cortez and his Aztec enemies – when the Aztecs conquered a town, they tore down the idols on its temple pyramid and erected their own gods in its place. When Cortez captured the Templo Mayor, he smashed the idols and erected crosses on the platform’s gory heights. Heine, who was a Lutheran convert from Judaism, (to use the term in vogue in Spain in the 16th century, a Converso) has no regard for this sort of fanaticism. In the last poem in Romanzero, Heine uses ballad-form stanzas to recount a disputation between Jews and Christians conducted for the benefit of Spanish queen. Representatives of the two faiths heap abuse on one another. At the end, the Queen is asked to decide who has won the debate. She responds that no one has prevailed and, in her opinion, the disputation proves only that "priests of both sects stink."

Old Aunty525 – Surprisingly, it appears that Huitzliopochtli is really a minor god, a deity less significant that this Earth Goddess. This is a turning or reversal characteristic to Heine’s narrative poetry. The world of war and valiant conquistadors, even the sphere of awesome priestly power, are shown to be subordinate to something far older, female, and more primordial. Whether Heine refers here to Tonantzin, the Mother Goddess of the Aztecs, and a being so powerful that she was not visible and could not really be portrayed, is uncertain.

Katzlagaza532 – Allegedly, the Aztec goddess of misfortune, she is one of Heine’s inventions.

Woman’s desire, the gods’ desire – 550Part of the poem’s surprising reversal: what woman desires is what the gods’ desire. In other words, cycles of birth and death, the machinery of fertility driven by female desire, is the mechanism that controls the world. Note that Old Aunty, the Aztec Mother Goddess, views the conflict with the Spaniards as a female rivalry – the pale Virgin versus the dark mother goddess. In the battle, the arrows and javelins of the Aztecs pierce the banner showing the Mater Dolorosa – that is, the darts through the Virgin’s breast are like the sorrows that she feels when her son is crucified. This theme has an anthropological and syncretic echo in Mexican history. The Virgin of Guadulupe revealed herself to Don Juan Diego on the hill of Teyepec near the ruins of Tenochtitlan in January 1531 – on the hill of Teyepec was a shrine and temple that once been sacred to Tonantzin, the Mother Goddess. Thus, some have argued that the Mother Goddess Tonantzin and the Virgin of Guadulupe are, in fact, different incarnations of the same female deity.

Lilith - 593 – Heine ends the poem with a reference to another female demi-god. Lilith was Adam’s first wife in Jewish mythology, a kind of female demon. This allusion arises in the context of Heine’s revelation that the entire poem has proceeded under the auspices of a wrathful female goddess. In Heine’s imagination, the spirit of fanatical superstition and violent autocracy travels from beautiful Mexico to the true dark continent, Europe, there to reign as an idol to those dark and medieval forces of superstition and intolerance that persecuted Heine’s people and that were responsible, for instance, for the suppression of the revolutions of 1848.

As Heine famously wrote: Das war ein Vorspiel, dort wo an Buecher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen. (That was merely a prelude – there where they burn books, they will burn people in the end.)


Saturday, August 30, 2014

On the Largest Painting in the World



Bad Frankenhausen is a small German city surrounded by rolling hills. The wooded heights overlooking the town are foothills to the Kyffhauser Mountains. In a grotto hidden beneath the dome of the Kyffhauser, Frederick Red Beard (Barbarossa) sits at an oak table. The German emperor seems to be dead, but he is only sleeping. This can be ascertained by the immense scroll of his red beard, a wilderness of whiskers that has pierced the oak table and cascades down to the limestone floor of the cave. The beard is flame-red and it has been growing untended for more than 900 years, the period of time that has lapsed since the German ruler was said to be drowned crossing a river in Turkey swollen with meltwater from the high mountains during his march across Asia Minor to Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. According to legend, the emperor did not die in this ignominious accident, but was instead spirited across the Dardanelles, carried over the Carpathanian mountains and deposited sound asleep in the secret cavern under the summit of the Kyffhauser. Frederick Barbarossa is said to be roused from his sleep and active in the defense of the Germans when needed by his people. Hitler’s invasion of Russia was named Operation Barbarossa in his honor. Apparently, he wasn’t of much assistance with respect to that endeavor.

At the center of Bad Frankenhausen, there is a medieval church with a curiously crooked tower. The church leans precipitously over the adjacent buildings and the town square. The leaning tower is massive and it looks threatening like a thunderstorm poised to pelt the rest of the town with rain and hail and staring at it for too long will make you dizzy. When I was there, I felt a little unsteady on my feet, afflicted by vertigo – the leaning burly leaning tower made me feel as if I were leaning as well. If you stand in the square and look away from the church toward the blue and green mountains rising above the village, you will see a peculiar structure located on near the crest of one of the wooded ridges rising over the town. The building is circular, a rotunda with fluted metallic sides. The local people call the structure the "silo" or, sometimes, Elefantsklo – the "Elephant’s toilet." A casual glance might persuade you that the building is some kind of sleek, bright water-tower or, perhaps, a reservoir for natural gas. This curious apparition sits on the hilltop of the Schlachtberg, a sinister name that means "Slaughter-mountain" or "Battle-peak."

In fact, the structure gleaming in the Kyffhauser foothills is the Panorama Museum. The rotunda is a cyclorama that houses the largest painting in the world, Werner Tuebke’s monumental canvas "Early Bougeoise Revolution in Germany." The web-site for the Panorama Museum and tourist literature downplay the rather daunting name for the enormous mural – these writings simply describe the painting as the centerpiece of "the Sistine Chapel of the North." The canvas is 123 meters long – that is, 404 feet, or a football field and a half in length. The painting is 14 feet tall. All told, Tuebke and his assistants painted 1722 square meters of canvas.


The name Schlachtberg is prosaically descriptive. On the hill overlooking Bad Frankenhausen, Landsknecht mercenaries under the command of the princes of Saxony and Hesse massacred an army of peasants led by the radical preacher, Thomas Muentzer. The slaughter occurred on May 15, 1525. In the fighting, the peasant army withdrew into a fortification made from overturned wagons, the so-called Wagonsberg. The rotunda containing Tuebke’s huge canvas is built on the place where the Wagonsberg was located during the battle. The destruction of the peasant’s army at Bad Frankenhausen was decisive in the so-called Peasant’s War. Thomas Muentzer was captured, tortured, and beheaded. And, although there were other skirmishes and massacres, the calamity at Bad Frankenhausen effectively ended any hope that the peasant’s might succeed in their quixotic rebellion.

Like many terrible events in history, the Peasant’s War arose from a misunderstanding. Martin Luther’s Reformation discredited the Catholic Church in much of Germany. The Church was entangled in secular affairs and many of the German princes were closely aligned with Roman Catholic interests. As a result of a variety of economic factors, the princes were impoverished, at least, by their standards, and imposed a series of increasingly confiscatory demands on their serfs. The exercise of arbitrary and tyrannical power over the peasants – for instance, demands that they cease their agricultural labor to gather snail shells for ornamenting the garments of princesses – led to widespread unrest. Luther wrote an open letter to the princes’ recognizing the the peasant’s grievances and admonishing them to behave in a more humane and just manner. Peasant insurgents interpreted Luther’s letter as support. Furthermore, the peasant’s mistakenly believed that Martin Luther’s defiance of the Catholic Church licensed them to revolt against princes and nobility closely associated with the Church.

Thomas Muentzer was a Protestant preacher and visionary. His dreams convinced him that he was another Daniel, a prophet living in apocalyptic end-times. Muentzer encouraged the peasant’s to arm themselves and rise in violent insurrection against the feudal princes. (It is an open question as to whether Muentzer led the peasants or, opportunistically, joined their rising and was, in effect, led by them.) Gangs of peasants attacked cloisters and abbeys. Noblemen were assaulted and some of them killed. An expedition mounted by several of the princes was ambushed and a number of noblemen were tortured to death. Martin Luther was horrified. He took up pen and wrote a notorious diatribe Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Luther believed that it was the duty of all Christians to be obedient to secular authority and that the only passive resistance was authorized against the nobles. However, Luther’s immoderate prose style is particularly prone to misinterpretation – the nobles construed his polemic as authorizing indiscriminate slaughter of all "murderous and thieving" peasants.

At Bad Frankenhausen a ragtag peasant army, perhaps as many as 8000 insurgents, was surrounded by mercenary forces. In the ensuing battle, almost all the peasants perished. Thomas Muentzer was captured. Under torture, he confessed that he had preached the doctrine of omnia sunt communa – that is, "all things should be held in common." By the end of 1525, the peasant revolt had been brutally suppressed. Luther was urged to retract the vehement words that he had written in his screed against the peasants. He refused, although also alleging that the prince’s had misconstrued his polemic and that their brutality was unwarranted.

Werner Tuebke’s painting was conceived in 1975 to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the massacre at Bad Frankenhausen. The canvas cyclorama stands on the site where the slaughter occurred.



The Panorama Museum has a large parking lot a couple hundred yards from the cyclorama structure. The walk from parking to the museum is pleasant. The vista from the Schlachtberg is impressive and there are places to sit and enjoy the view of the rolling fields and green meadows around Bad Frankenhausen.

The Museum is entered through a modernist annex, a variant on the minimalist modular structures designed by Mies van der Rohe. In the annex, there is a gift shop, a small restaurant, and gallery – the museum hosts exhibitions of figurative artists. Some subterranean ramps lead to the underbelly of the cyclorama where there are some artifacts, mostly ornate scabbards and rusty cannon balls, together with facsimiles of luridly illustrated pamphlets written by participants in the uprising – a copy of Luther’s notorious diatribe is on display.

You can take an elevator or a spiral staircase up into the rotunda where the painting is encircles the exterior walls of the cyclorama building. I recommend that you use the staircase to ascend to the picture. In the former DDR, for many years, deodorant was thought to be a capitalist luxury – workers in the workers republic were supposed to smell like workers. People either were soused in perfume or reeked of body odor. The residue of these stinks remains in the elevator – perhaps, the smell makes some people nostalgic, because it reminds them of the good old days in the Deutsches Demokratisches Republik. Standards in personal hygiene have improved markedly in East Germany today, but traces, olfactory remnants of the past remain and, unless you are interested in encountering them, you should take the steps to the upper level where Tuebke’s picture is displayed. (In any event, the elevator is an elderly socialist-vintage contraption, airless, claustrophobic, and very slow.)

On first impression, Tuebke’s panorama is breathtaking. There is no place to focus the eye and the huge painting wrapped around the walls in a 360 degree display induces a kind of visual panic. The eye slips from place to place in the picture and finds itself lost in a labyrinth of convoluted and interlocking forms. About a third of the canvas is very brightly painted – this is the battle itself – and has a glittering, brilliantly agitated surface. The remainder of the canvas is gloomy, painted in dull browns with highlights for fire and fields of cream-colored snow. The figures in the foreground of the image are, more or less, life-size, but the perspective recedes rapidly and the people and animals depicting in the middle distance, that is, higher on the wall, are small, but mostly clearly legible. Every forty or fifty feet, there is a node, that is, an intersection where turbulent fields of figures form a sort of vortex, often swirling around a single statuesquely painted allegorical emblem. The painting’s composition exploits a rhythm of alternating compression and decompression – in some areas, the hordes of soldiers are so densely painted that they form solid, mosaic blocks of writhing figures; but these passages of tightly compressed men and women alternate with open spaces in which vignette-like tableaux are scattered across ominously dark fields or snowy distances – the tableaux have something of the character of Brueghel’s paintings of Netherlands proverbs: we see groups of figures sufficiently isolated to be read as allegorical or symbolic emblems, metaphoric icons set apart from the frenzied action around them.

The canvas is not exactly beautiful, but it is certainly immensely impressive and daunting. The painting exhausts you in looking at it. People emerging from the elevator or coming up the steps into the rotunda invariably greet the picture with gasps, laughter, little squeals of astonishment. But, then, a morose silence sets in – the eye must slog through the windrows of violently gesticulating figures and the task of seeing becomes arduous. Don’t let your cell-phone ring here: security is quick to pounce and they will admonish you for your rudeness in torrents of German abuse.

Tuebke’s smaller figures – that is, those that are half life-size or less – have a curious elongated and mannerist character. The soldiers and allegorical personages in the painting look flimsy and they are not conceived in volumetric terms (such as the figures in the Sistine Chapel). Rather, Tuebke’s people are imagined as marks on the canvas, somewhat spidery and two-dimensional, a bit like the harlequins and prancing mercenaries in Jacques Callot’s graphic works. In general, the hordes of smaller figures are grotesque: they lunge and hop around like marionettes or flames caught in crosswinds. The people have mask-like faces that seem somewhat bloated – their eyes are dead, dull buttons. There is a disconcerting sense that the huge mobs of soldiers and peasants are figures resurrected from mass-graves – there is a faint aroma of decomposition about their expressionless faces. Tuebke, unlike other German figurative painters (for instance, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix) is uncomfortable painting flesh – the great German painters of the 20th century luxuriated in fat, heavy bellies and breasts, plump bodies encased in blubber. Tuebke’s figures are much more ascetic, emaciated – the larger personages look somewhat like El Greco saints, some mystical force is whirling and twisting them upward like points of fire.

A dozent will explain the picture to you in German, but be prepared for a long, tendentious lecture. If you squint, or blur the focus of your eyes, large portions of the painting will look like Jackson Pollock to you – that is, fields of squiggles unified by a color composition, vaguely organic brackets and parenthesis markers, elbows and genitals, all tangled together on a surface of agitated oil paint.



What you will look at first, but, perhaps, most superficially, is the part of the painting that seems to be historical – that is, the representation of the Battle of Bad Frankenhausen. This comprises about a third of the canvas surface and is brightly: turbulent rivers of figures sweeping across green meadows in a vast sunlit landscape that rolls back into the blue distances of the Kyffhauser Mountains. It is May and everything sparkles as if lit by sun on dewdrops. A couple thousand figures, most of them a foot high or so, are locked in combat and there is a smear of horses, lances, and pennants where the armies collide. The tangle of armaments and writhing men is indecipherable, an almost abstract mass of limbs and armor and helmets, zombie-like faces floating on the surface of tangled thicket of soldiers. (Parts of this sector of the painting look like Albrecht Altdorfer’s surreal Battle of Darius in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, an extraordinary foliage of knotted troops, figures like the leaves in dense shrubbery, displayed against a bluish visionary landscape.)

The arch of a rainbow defines the scope of the battle. At one of the arch, the colors seems to rise prismatically above a harlequin figure, a dead fool lying on his side under the throng of battling soldiers. At the far end of the rainbow, the female figure of Justice sits rather uncomfortably on a sphere the size of Volkswagen and apparently representing the world. Justice holds a scales in one hand and a huge sword in the other, but she seems indifferent to the massacre occurring next to her. Another ornately dressed woman flanks Justice – an advisor is whispering to her, but he is, unfortunately, a skeleton clad in a monk’s robes. Above the dead fool, men are carrying a flag that is featureless. A bird of prey, perhaps an black disheveled eagle, although with something of the mien of a vulture, flies toward the flag and casts a shadow on the banner – the eagle against the flag looks like a imperial standard, but the effect is an illusion, a trick on the eye. (Some writers have imagined this eagle to be outside the picture-plane and fluttering around within the spectator’s space within the cyclorama – I don’t think this interpretation is valid.) Another banner that says Freiheit rhymes with the first flag – it stands on the opposite side of the field in a turbulent mass of men and horses near where the other prong of the rainbow comes to earth.

Directly under the center of the rainbow, Thomas Muentzer stands alone on a greensward between mobs of fighting men. In the distance behind him, we can see the modest ramparts of the wagon corral. Muentzer looks disconsolate and droopy. With one of his hands, he ineffectually strikes his chest – with the other, he holds another fallen flag.

At the edge of the picture, closest to us, a crowd of famous men stands around a big fountain that looks something like a masonry punch bowl. Blue fluid fills the punchbowl and brilliantly red lilypads are floating in that liquid – the effect is like an expensive mixed drink, perhaps, with strawberries floating in it, albeit on a colossal scale. The famous men and their punchbowl are screened by the battle by a dark hedge and they seem indifferent to the carnage behind them. The men are notable figures from the early 16th century: Hans Sachs, the Meistersinger, Columbus, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Johannes Gutenberg, Erasmus, Copernicus, the banker Jacob Fugger, and, at the center of this frieze of life-size portraits, Albrecht Duerer and Martin Luther (as portrayed in the famous painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder.)

Above the arch of the rainbow, Icarus falls from the sky in a halo-shaped "glory". Thomas Muentzer’s flag carried at Bad Frankenhausen bore, in fact, the image of a rainbow.



Friedrich Engels wrote a book on the Peasant’s War of 1524 and 1525. Engels thought the war was a precursor to the unsuccessful socialist and communist uprisings that had occurred across Europe in 1848 and he interpreted the 16th century conflict in that light. The Peasant’s War was an "early bourgeois" revolution, hence, the title of Tuebke’s painting. In Engels’ view, the peasants were defeated because they were insufficiently radical – that is, they failed because they were not prepared to adopt a wholly materialist and economic view of the world: By entrusting leadership of their rebellion to figures that were intrinsically conservative – that is, the preacher Thomas Muentzer -- the peasants signed their own death warrant. (Today, even Marxists don’t accept Engels’ interpretation of the Peasants’ Uprising.)

In East Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Muentzer was revered as a sort of proto-Lenin, also a profound misconstruction of his aims and character. Although Muentzer had failed, his revolt was claimed to be instrumental in forging a new class-consciousness among the peasants and, further, had instituted an alliance, albeit a fragile one, between the nascent working class and their rural brothers.

Werner Tuebke was East Germany’s most renowned painter. In the mid-seventies, he was engaged in completing a massive fresco at the Leipzig University, entitled Intelligentsia and the Working Class. (This painting is probably Tuebke’s most accomplished work and his masterpiece – it is 42 feet long and eight feet tall.) On the strength of this mural, Erich Honecker, the prime minister of the DDR, met with Tuebke personally and enlisted him in the project of commemorating the 450th anniversary of the massacre at Bad Frankenhausen. Another commemoration was on the horizon – 1988 would be the 500th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Muentzer.

Tuebke made sketches and preliminary paintings and, by 1982, had created a 1 to 10 cartoon on which to base the finished painting to be installed in the cyclorama. Tuebke’s 1 to 10 prototype for the large canvas was, itself, forty feet long and a one and a half feet wide. The picture was displayed in Leipzig and Honecker himself congratulated Tuebek on the brilliance of this preliminary work. An order for canvas suitable for painting and 400 feet long by 14 feet was placed with Sursk, a manufacturing firm in the Soviet Union. No one had ever produced a canvas on that scale before and special equipment had to be devised to manufacture the surface on which the painting was made. East German and Soviet scientists, apparently, collaborated on the process and cultural emissaries from both nations spend considerable time inspecting the great swath of canvas and preening themselves on their enterprise in ultimately manufacturing the thing.

One might detect a slightly aggressive and, even, hostile agenda in the interactions between the Soviet Union and its East German satellite with respect to Tuebke’s painting. First, the rotunda painting was planned to be the same approximate size as the cyclorama showing the Battle of Borodino unveiled in 1911 and supervised by the Russian artist, Franz Alexsayevich Roubaud. Originally, the painting was exhibited on the Smolensk Road near Moscow at the location of the Kutuzov hut, the place where the council of war prior to the battle with Napoleon was conducted. In 1962, the picture was moved to Victory Hill in the Poklonayya central Moscow and installed in its current building – that structure is identical to the rotunda on the Schlachtberg at Bad Frankenhausen. The fact that little East Germany might compete with the mighty Soviet union with respect to this cyclorama must, certainly, have rankled some Russians.

But more problematic is the subject matter of the German cyclorama. In Engels’ view, the peasants’ revolution failed because it occurred too early in the class struggle. The revolt among the rural peasants was doomed because it was historically premature. Engels wrote: "The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and the realization of the measures which such domination would imply." Clearly, this idea has relevance to the Russian Revolution which was, to some extent, founded on a peasant revolt in a largely agrarian, and non-industrialized country. How could the Russian Revolution succeed in the absence of a fully developed industrial working class?

These concerns were not merely theoretical. In the debate between Lenin and the less radical Mensheviks, Engels’ historical interpretation of the peasant’s revolution was cited for the proposition that communism would surely fail in Russia. Indeed, the quotation from Engels’ cited above was repeatedly used to argue that Lenin was asserting vanguard revolutionary ideas that could not take root in Russia because the revolutionary class would be comprised, largely, of peasants. Thus, the East German celebration of the failed Peasants’ Revolutions masks a critique of the Marxist - Leninist regime in Soviet Russia. Perhaps, the East German regime was suggesting to their Soviet masters that the true revolution might be possible in industrialized Germany but was likely untenable in Russia.



Paintings are always present-tense. There is no before or after. In a picture, events depicted occur simultaneously. This impairs narrative, an arrangement of incidents that depends on causality.

Italian painters in the Trecento sometimes divided narratives into separate images and distributed events in the story occurring at different times to different parts of the landscape: a saint suffers martyrdom in the picture’s foreground but beyond a hedge of trees or rocks he casts out hairy red demons or performs some other miracle. Tuebke uses this device to some extent in the Bad Frankenhausen painting – Thomas Muentzer and Martin Luther appear at various locations in the panorama. But the canvas is designed as a cyclorama – it forms a continuous, uninterrupted panorama with neither beginning nor end -- that is, a perpetual present.

What were the causes of the Peasants’ War? Thirty or forty feet of canvas immediately to the left of the sunlit battle-scene address this issue. Here, Tuebke probably operated under constraint. All organized societies are hierarchical and embody certain inevitable, structural injustices. Certainly, the Communist regime in East Germany was as dissolute, corrupt, and unjust as any other social order and, indeed, was probably worse than most. Thus, depicting the causes of the rebellion runs the risk of satirizing inequities that were rampant in the DDR. A building imagined to exist in the 16th century might look suspiciously like the headquarters for the STASI, the state secret police. A cruel prelate might be given Erich Honecker’s features and a drunkard staggering through the snow might resemble, albeit coincidentally, Brezhnev or some other figure in the Soviet politburo. It is inevitable that the past will be read as symbolic of the present. Tuebke’s problem was to invent a pictorial grammar and iconography that would not run afoul of local authorities or their patrons in Moscow. For this reason, Tuebke adopts imagery that is fantastic, grotesque, surreal; he loots the pictorial repertoire of Bosch and Brueghel for monsters, devils, and tortures. A characteristic of art created under conditions of tyranny is its indirection, its highly metaphorical and symbolic nature, its retreat away from reality into allegorical representation.

Immediately to the left of the quasi-historical battle scene, the sky is pitch black. It is night and winter. Fields of snow marked with pink highlights of spilled blood outline masses of figures that all seem hurrying in one direction or another. The shattered masonry mass of the Tower of Babel, as imagined by Brueghel, rears up against the inky sky. Part of the Tower is a labyrinth opening into catacombs. At the mouth of the maze, Thomas Muentzer is preaching to group of huddled peasants. To the left of Muentzer, an enormous blue-green fish floats over a field of snow where there is a perfectly elliptical egg, white against white, beneath the fish’s belly. The fish may be some kind of pennant – it is attached at the tail to a withered and oddly-shaped tree but the nature of the apparitions is unclear. In its guts, the fish bears a naked man and is marked with the sun and moon. A veil of blue fin or, perhaps, an emanation of hazy blue, transparent light emerges from the fish and falls on the snow, casting a ghostly aura around a ruined city, fortified towers and steeples fallen so as to resemble the ice-field in Caspar Friedrich’s Wreck of the "Hoffnung" ("Hope") – Arctic Sea. Mercenaries are looting a town and murdering farmers. Crowds of refugees stagger across the snow and there are strange monsters with peacock feathers emerging from their foreheads squatting under barren trees. A naked woman is being shoved into a barrel and weirdly mechanized hordes of soldiers like robot armies collide under the black sky. A man broken on the wheel hangs over a cavalcade of horseman crossing a snowy field and a ragged veteran with a pegleg looks up at the corpse. In the sky, the pope is borne aloft by a floral garland of small winged monsters. Golgotha is visible on a distant hill but no one pays any attention to it. A pig peers into a box-like pit where men are confined and a woman rides a galloping horse peering into a mirror that she holds before her face. Marching along the edges of a ruined city, a procession of plague victim carries a huge banner that depicts Christ in his grave as a colossal, disfigured corpse.



After eleven years of often-agonizing labor, Werner Tuebke’s panorama was finished in 1987. Tuebke had been hospitalized several times for muscle injuries to his right arm and hand, the extremity that he used to paint the canvas. His work was complete in August 1987. Assistants completed the painting in September and Tuebke signed the painting on October 16, 1987.

Construction work delayed the opening of the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen until 1989. In any event, the initial exhibition of completed panorama was planned for August 1989, the 500th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Muentzer. On August 22, 1989, the DDR issued five commemorative postage stamps illustrated with images from Tuebke’s painting. The grand opening of the museum occurred a week later.

The former "iron curtain" borders of East Germany had become porous and tens of thousands of its citizens were flooding into Prague, Budapest and Vienna. The regime was collapsing, bankrupt, mortgaged to Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, an empire that was equally moribund. Erich Honecker was sick; he had tumors in his colon and on his liver and kidneys and underwent emergency surgery in August 1989. Unable to attend the debut of Tuebke’s mural, Honecker sent his wife, Margot. The world’s greatest example of "socialist realism" was first shown to dignitaries and, then, the awestruck public only eight weeks before the collapse of the Deutsches Demokratisches Republik.

Honecker was deposed and the Berlin Wall collapsed. (Honecker became famous for another huge painting, a mural drawn on the Wall showing him kissing Leonid Brezhnev on the mouth: the painting by Dmitri Vrubel was labeled: May God Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love.) In 1961, Honecker had facilitated the building of the Berlin Wall, an act that he later justified as done to "avoid a third world war in which millions would have died." He had given the order that sentries on the wall should shoot to kill defectors escaping across the no-man’s-land between the two Berlins. Accordingly, after his regime collapsed, Honecker was indicted on 68 charges of murder and tried in Berlin. The case dragged on for half a year and Honecker’s cancer flared again. Excused for attendance at the trial, he fled to Moscow and, then, Santiago, Chili where he died in 1994. His trial was never concluded.

Werner Tuebke had been awarded the medal of the Order of Karl Marx in 1989 in recognition of the eleven years of his life that he spent painting the Peasants’ War panorama. In 1990 and 1991, he painted several large canvases containing self-portraits of the artist wandering in a maze filled with grotesque and terrible monsters. With his wife, he traveled to Italy and designed set decorations for opera companies – one notably beautiful set for Weber’s Der Freischutz restored him to some level of fame. He accepted commissions to paint altar-pieces for German churches and continued this work until his death in 2004. Tuebke’s altars feature lurid images of the Last Judgement. His Christ figures are emaciated and cruelly lacerated, surrounded by furry, flying monsters.



To the right of the rainbow demarcating the bright battle scene, an avalanche of brownish corpses falls out of the sky. The sky is stormy, lit with eerie bruise-colored highlights. A ship has run aground on a rocky shore and its sails collapse over battered seaman. A tempest is approaching. This part of the painting is Tuebke’s vision of the Last Judgement. His apocalypse occupies about half of the cyclorama.

The Last Judgement consists of figures clumped together in enigmatic groups scattered across a stony, brown wasteland. The painted surface is mostly monochromatic but shot through with areas of discordant color: violet, acid greens, neon blues. The wedge of bodies falling out of the sky, representing, it seems, the triumph of death is painted as a brown turgid grisaille, a single dirty-looking shaft of corpses raining down on the denuded earth.

Below the falling bodies, Pilate washes his hands while a jester mocks him. A woman with long braided pony tails dances in front of a gallows on which corpses are hanging. Nobles dine behind a high wall, surrounded by musicians who, undoubtedly, try to drown out the roar of the trumpets and trombones signalling the Last Trump. Like chimney stacks, ranks of trombones crowd together, herds of inverted bronze-colored antlers. Martin Luther, Janus-faced, burns a papal bull at the edge of blood-red lagoon and, above a hellish-looking print shop, elegantly tasselled tents house mice and cat and dog generals, supervising a battle between the species. Tuebke has painted himself in the middle of this chaos, gazing quizzically out of the picture to the spectator. His wife mounted on a horse holds up an extinguished candle. And a few feet higher up, we see Tuebke again, this time as a naked corpse with a demon extracting his soul from between his rigid jaws.

On a grim, rocky ridge, St. Anthony is being gnawed by rat-faced, verminous demons under Christ crucified. Monks hang from trees. The world sphere shines like will-o-wisp on a hilltop. Sphere contains a disk on which the map of the world as once imagined, a flat plain with oceans inscribed on them, transects the globe. A skull-faced angel appears to a distraught peasant announcing that Columbus was right and the world is, in fact, globular. Angels dump purple clouds of poisonous mist from basins held in their arms. The poison gas forms mist around knights in armor on armored caparisoned horses. Jeremiah stands in a yellow beam of light next to the waxy-looking corpse of a young woman, her baby reaching toward her dead breast. Conga-lines of monsters dance across the landscape passing a calf wearing a papal tiara and there are boar-headed prelates, figures with crocodile profiles, parrot beaks, jackal and ibis heads. Counterfeiters forge currency and moneylenders scuttle like cockroaches across the waste land. Above a crucified pope a demon with a monkey tail rockets upward. Near the figure of Jeremiah, a crowd of noblemen, princes, and dukes are gathered around cloud. In the center of the cloud, a decapitated head shrieks at the center of a nimbus of fire. Amidst the lords and ladies, a fool wearing a cap with tassels and bells drooping over his face weeps.

In the center of the desolation, a ship sits on pebbly dry land. The vessel is crowded with craftsmen, artists and engravers, silver smiths, men holding keys and instruments of their labor. At the back of the boat, an old man paddles vainly, stirring the soil with a shovel-shaped oar that does nothing except disarrange an old shoe lying beside the stranded vessel.



Whatever else he was, Tuebke was no party-hack. There is a crazy integrity to his paintings. The retrograde esthetics of the DDR let Tuebke exist and, even, flourish. In West Germany, he would have matured into an artist like Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke, fashionable, enigmatic, sardonic and obscure. But in East Germany, Tuebke was free from prevailing trends in the art world, liberated from art-market pressures. He didn’t have to be ironic or imitate Duchamp or Andy Warhol or the Pop Artists to sell his work. There never was any market for his work in any event – he was state-subsidized, the much respected Rector of the Leipzig Art Academy until the DDR collapsed. Tuebke was sincere and earnest, a solemn heir to great traditions in art and the gigantic fantasia in Bad Frankenhausen must have secretly appalled and dismayed the commissars who purchased it for their regime. Conceived on the scale of Tintoretto, and sharing with that Master some of the turbulent, sinister energy of the Venetian’s great frescos, the panorama invokes Duerer and Brueghel, Bosch and a host of other artists, and the message conveyed by the massive work is almost completely indecipherable, hermetic, mystical and, even, occult. Certainly, the East German officials did not expect the kind of work that they received. (And, if they did anticipate the bizarre outcome of Tuebke’s eleven years of labor, these administrators are to be saluted for their radical boldness.)

In some ways, the 20th century artist that Werner Tuebke most resembles is Max Beckmann. Beckmann was a figurative artist and worked on a large-scale. Before World War One, his two signature paintings were both on grave and portentous historical subjects – the sinking of the Titanic and the earthquake at Messina. Each of those pictures were conceived on a massive scale and involved dozens of figures in Baroque and hectic interaction with one another. After World War Two, Beckmann’s work became more boldly stylized but still was thematically ambitious. Indeed, in the last twenty-five years of his life, he painted enormous triptychs, wall-sized paintings that were overtly symbolic. The vocabulary of Baroque emblems exploited by Tuebke is similar in many respects to Beckmann’s gaudy imagery of harlequins, masked figures, dancers and circus performers, sages and fortune-tellers and sinister jesters. In Beckmann, we find the same quasi-religious iconography: terrible tortures and martyrdoms, elongated Gothic personages, men falling from the sky, the world-globe, and supernatural fish. Tuebke borrows one figure directly from Beckmann. At the Museum of Modern Art, Max Beckmann’s most famous triptych, Departure ("Abscheid"), depicts a noble king with his wife and child setting sail: their ship holds a net filled with fish and an ominous helmeted figure stands in the stern of the vessel. On both sides of the serene central panel, there are images of torture – bodies trussed to columns and mutilated, people hanging upside-down, a man beating a bass drum. (Like Tuebke’s painting, Beckmann’s works are full of images of people playing musical instruments – oboes, flutes, trombones, and drums.) In the left-hand panel, a figure is bound with hands fettered over his head; the figure is squatting on his knees and bent over a sphere, apparently an image for a crystal ball or, perhaps, the world itself. The figure’s face is not visible, pushed up against the translucent sphere over which he is crouched. In Tuebke’s Bad Frankenhausen canvas, the same figure appears, bound and crouching face-down on a plank. Tuebke ups the ante by showing a goat-headed demon slicing the skin from the back of the bound man. Another demon squats behind the man who is tonsured like a monk. That demon seems to inspect the man’s anus. To my eye, Tuebke has clearly borrowed this personage from the left-hand panel of Beckmann’s Departure. (Although I hasten to observe that there is a common source for this figure – the little squatting demons displaying their rectums in the engravings of the deadly sins made by Hieronymous Bosch in the mid-16th century).

Common to Max Beckmann and Werner Tuebke is the theme of the Theatrum Mundi, that is, the world as a stage. The World-Theater has several meanings, all of them relevant. First, "world-theaters" were little marionette or puppet stages equipped with simple levers, pulleys, and string apparatus to animate stylized figures (knights, ladies, jesters, monsters). Metaphorically, the Theatrum Mundi refers to the idea that people have no real identities, that they are merely performers in a vast theatrical work whose meaning they can’t grasp – we are all marionettes buffeted by hidden forces that we don’t comprehend. Our freedom is merely an illusion. Finally, the Theatrum Mundi implies that nothing is real; the world is a meaningless, incoherent spectacle. Ultimately, all human endeavor is play-acting and, fundamentally, inconsequential. What we see is not what exists, but, rather, only a kind of charade. Both Max Beckmann and Werner Tuebke’s major works of art express this nihilistic proposition.




Why do sixty linear feet of Tuebke’s canvas show the end of the world? Why is the dark sky full of serpentine vortices and clouds full of fire? Why do the nine muses, each labeled like beauty contestants (Miss Idaho, Miss New York, Miss Minnesota) march in a column to the place where a statuesque Adam and Eve are filching fruit from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil? Why is a farmer sowing tiny heads in field as if they were seeds? And are those cabbage-shaped vegetables growing in the furrows also decapitated heads? Why is the sower followed by a woman on a white horse wearing a bright green dress and carrying a whip? Why are noblemen gambling and throwing dice? Why are peacock feathers set like tendrils of a rare plant in a big pot? Why are meteors and comets plunging to earth? Why does Cain gloat over the murdered body of Abel? Why are there six men dragging a rope to which there is attached the cyclopean tail of a fox? Who is this well-dressed Death breaking a staff across the apron of his elegant garments? Why is the Pentecost occurring next to painting of the crucifixion, bright orange flames sprouting from the company’s heads? A pelican has opened its beak and uses it like a caliper – what is the bird measuring? Who are the dead men being deposed like Christ from wooden gallows, a scaffold that is defended by an animate corpse who has climbed into a tree on the edge of a snowy field?



It is remarkable that the final spasms of Eastern Bloc communism yielded Werner Tuebke’s vast panorama at Bad Frankenhausen. Marxist thought purports to be materialist, anti-religious, and invested in the idea that history, originating in class struggle, progresses inevitably toward certain necessary outcomes. But Tuebke’s painting is mystical, densely inflected with religious symbolism, and entirely ahistorical. Indeed, the very form of the painting, a huge cyclorama, defeats Marxist notions of historical progress and the inevitable succession of social organizations developed as a result of class struggle. Tuebke’s State, the DDR, regarded itself as historically inevitable, the result of class struggle that led inevitably to the Communist regime. To Marxist idealogues, history had a direction and meaning – it moved in a certain direction in accord with certain Hegelian rules. But, of course, the circular form of Tuebke’s painting defeats this idea. You walk around the vast canvas, inspecting it on the rotunda where it is displayed. Tuebke has constructed the cyclorama to follow the progression of the seasons: Winter gives way to Spring (and the May battle on the mountain), followed by desolate, sulphurous Summer and an even more tempestuous Autumn and, then, it is Winter again and the bands of brigands sweep across the snowfields once more to ravage the village under the Tower of Babel. The cycle of the seasons is circular – no progress can occur because the engine of the seasons simply repeats itself. As you scrutinize the canvas, you walk in a circle and, inevitably, end up exactly where you began. History doesn’t progress: we simply move in circles.

Critics suggest two ways of thinking about Tuebke’s 404 foot long painting. Perhaps, the canvas painted on specially manufactured Russian fabric and supervised by German and Soviet commissars is a work of subversion. Perhaps, the chaos and brutality that Tuebke shows in the painting is simply a disguised portrait of Marxist-Leninist doctrine and a critique of the decomposing DDR. Some writers think that Tuebke either intentionally, or accidentally, painted the portrait of the tyrannical, moribund political system in which he worked. By this account, Tuebke’s painting encodes a secret message of resistance to the corrupt East German regime. I’m skeptical of this theory. Tuebke was a serious, apparently humorless, German with an interest in utopia – we know this because of interviews that he gave – and a belief in the artist’s high calling, his vocation as prophet and revelator of a paradise that we have lost, but can, perhaps, regain. (In books published in the DDR, the artist is always referred to as the Rector of the Leipzig School of Art, "Prof. Dr. h. c. WernerTuebke".) To regard the battle canvas at Bad Frankenhausen as satirical requires us to impute irony to the image and, even, a sly kind of comedy. I don’t think Werner Tuebke was capable of irony and think it unlikely that he saw the enterprise of painting the massive cyclorama as an occasion for comedy.

A second approach to the painting is more fruitful. Tuebke read everything he could find about the Peasants’ Rebellion. He studied Engel’s book and other academic histories including Marxist treatises by Manfred Bensing and Siegfried Heyer. As preparation for his work on the painting, he visited the Schlachtberg, sketched its landscape, and the medieval buildings in the town. Tuebke examined renaissance armor, architecture and building techniques, learned how people dressed in 1525, read sermons that Thomas Muentzer preached, and immersed himself in the writings of Martin Luther. In short, Tuebke imagined as fulsomely as possible what it would be like to live in the era of the Reformation. Tuebke didn’t so much paint the appearance of that age, but its psychology – what was the nature of the soul of man in 1525?

The Reformation and late medieval period in Germany was an era of enormous and frightening change. An entire New World had been discovered – Tuebke refers to this in the image of the world globe and the demonic angel’s annunciation to the peasant: the world is not a flat disk, it is a sphere teeming with strange peoples and lands. Scientists were plotting the laws of planetary motion, but construing the celestial mechanisms in terms of astrology and the occult: Sir Isaac Newton spent the last years of his life writing about Daniel’s prophecies. Tuebke’s imagination, I think, was steeped in the febrile fears and hopes of the early Reformation, imbued with wild utopian longings and terrible hatreds. He imagined a intensely religious world, a world governed by certain immutable symbols, that was falling apart, dissolving before the horrified eyes of its inhabitants. Werner Tuebke set out to portray that Zeitgeist, to show what it was like to live in a new world that was not yet fully formed, but that was arising out of the wreckage of the old truths that had once governed men’s lives. The Reformation and the scientific and geographic revolutions occurring simultaneously made reality seem mutable: the world had become fantastic, abysmal, no one could trust the earth on which they walked – huge voids and chasms were opening up everywhere. All that was solid seemed to be melting into the air. The world was a pageant of sound and fury that signified nothing – a Theatrum Mundi made from desire and dream and the imagination. By creating a psychological portrait of that age, by embodying the apocalyptic fears and hopes of its people, Werner Tuebke inadvertently painted his own portrait, the image of a man struggling with collapse of his world.


A Note:

Werner Tuebke’s painting is not the largest in the world. The Guinness Book of Records asserts that the world’s largest painting is David Aberg’s picture "Mother Earth," painted on the roof of an aircraft hangar near Stockholm. That picture, really a huge cartoon of a woman and a peace-sign, covers 86,000 square feet – that is, the painting is about 293 feet square; in fact, it’s shape is rectangular. To be appreciated, the picture has to be photographed from the air. Aberg claims to have used 200 tons of paint and worked on the picture for 2 ½ years, finishing the work in 2006.

Aberg’s painting doubles the size of Eric Waugh’s canvas at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the painting called "Hero". Waugh is an Australian artist who paints abstractions in bright pop-art colors. "Hero" is reported to be 41,4000 feet or about 203 feet on each side.

More mysterious and questionable are reports of an immense painting somewhere in Shandong province, China. That painting is said to be called "The Beautiful Soul of China" and is alleged to be 232,442 square feet in extent. It’s not clear where this painting is supposed to be, how it was made, or the surface on which it is located. An artist named Sun Lei is said to have made this image around 2009. Internet images show a rather conventional Chinese landscape of karst formation cliffs, mists, and lacy waterfalls. The painting appears to be in a one to four aspect ratio – that is, it is four times longer than it is tall. However, the images don’t provide any sort of perspective on the image or context – something that seems suspicious to me since the scale of the picture, after all, is its principal claim to fame. Assuming 1 x 4 format, the picture would be 810 feet tall and 3050 feet long – it is hard to imagine a surface this size. Accordingly, I am assuming the Sun Lei’s gigantic painting is some kind of misunderstanding or myth.

Tuebke’s image of the Bad Frankenhausen battle is not even the largest cyclorama in the world. That honor belongs to a Soviet-era depiction of the Battle of Stalingrad that is about ten feet taller and 30 feet longer that Tuebke’s picture. I don’t know if anyone has taken the measure of several thousand square feet of panorama at Ataturk’s mausoleum complex in Ankara. I have see huge murals there of bloody massacres of Turks and the battle of Gallipoli displayed on the walls of huge darkened corridors with realistic debris piled up in front of paintings. For instance, the picture showing Gallipoli is exhibited in a long corridor with barbed wire lining the walkways and mannequins of dead bodies strewn around the base of the painting.

Some critics have construed Tuebke’s Early Bourgeois Revolution as a Totentanz – that is, an image of "the Dance of Death." Clearly, Tuebke has in mind Brueghel’s big painting called "The Triumph of Death". Anne Sexton wrote a verse about the painting in her poem: "Two Views of the Cadaver Room" --

‘In Brueghel’s panorama of smoke and slaughter

Two people only are blind to the carrion army:

He, afloat in the sea of her blue satin

Skirts, singes in the direction of her bare shoulder, while she bends

To finger a leaflet of music over him,

Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands

Of the death’s head shadowing their song.

These Flemish lovers flourish; not for long.

Yet desolation stalled in paint, spares the little country

Foolish, delicate, in the lower right hand corner.