Modern Art And Spirituality: Brâncuși

1. Constantin Brâncuși: The Folksy Artist

More than any artists we have met thus far, Constantin Brâncuși grew up poor, his parents peasants. The Romanian would, also, live a life of simplicity, continuing with the habits, cuisine, and religious practices of his forbears. Although versed in philosophy and friends with many names we have already covered, he remained folksy. Here, we will consider Brâncuși’s First World War memorial at Tirgu-Jiu entitled The Endless Column. Yet, appreciating the subtlety of Brâncuși’s world heritage piece means attending to how Romanian folk and Orthodox religious ideas influenced him.

2. The Endless Column

2.1. A Monument Cemented in Romanian Rural Culture

Given Brâncuși’s humble upbringing and obvious love for all things Romanian, one cannot help wonder how it influenced his art. Gheorhui (Gheorghiu, 1996) wrote an excellent article linking Brâncuși’s Tirgu-Jiu memorial The Endless Column with Romanian folk and Orthodox rituals practised during Brâncuși’s childhood. One such superstition claims, for example, if you looked at a grain of wheat close enough it could show Christ’s face. Here is a synopsis of Gheorhu’s illumination of the various syncretistic practices of peasant Romanian Orthodoxy which influenced Brâncuși’s The Endless Column.

2.1.1. The Wedding of the Dead

Gheorhu first links the Romanian nunta mortului [the wedding of the dead] with the common Indo-European practice of the fir-tree-bride or fir-tree-groom. Nunta morului designates a church ritual where the deceased were married to the living, echoing Christ’s marriage to the church. The fir-tree-bride or fir-tree-groom refers to a decorated tree placed near the deceased’s head. With young lovers who died together these two trees intertwined. Such trees were, however, also used as symbols during weddings.

2.2.2. Days of the Dead

Second, Gheorhu recounts how Romanian peasant Orthodoxy had multiple days of the dead. The rituals for the dead almost always included meals. Indeed, the Romanian words for alms (pomana), religious services or feasts (praznic), is related to the word for the religious service or prayer in memory of the dead (pomenire).

2.2.3. Numerology

Third, Romanians, like many Christians, derived a numerology from dogmatic Orthodoxy. The pertinent numbers for the current endeavour being forty and twelve. Forty designates the forty days before Christ’s ascension. Maybe, even more, the sarindar–forty days the Orthodox priest prayed for those who died, in particular, those who died away from home. Twelve, as many would expect, designates the tribes of Israel or Jesus’ disciples.

2.2.4. The Arch

Gheorhu illuminates a last element, less particular to Romania, the arch. In many cultures, arches are architectural elements denoting transition or triumph. We are now ready to analyse the three prominent elements of The Endless Column–commissioned as a memorial to Romanians who died during the First World War.

2.2. Elements of The Endless Column: Romanian Remix

One element is a round stone table with twelve stools. Twelve tells of the last supper and the feast days of the dead. The living congregates here to celebrate the fallen. Another part is the towering column which echoes the fir-tree-bride or fir-tree-groom planted at the head of those deceased. Small sections make up the taller belfry maybe alluding to the intertwining of youths lost in the war. The arch, as the third element, has forty embracing couples engraved on it. Are these sarindar prayers cut in stone ever expecting the triumphant marriage of Christ and his bride? Or do they symbolise embraces lost, awaiting restoration in the resurrection of those who died needless deaths?

2.3. Transforming Rural Idiosyncrasies Into Identities

What does Brâncuși and his The Endless Column teach us about spirituality? Folksiness need not equal idiocy. Today, most of us live in cities. Often the urban gifts networks, sophistication, and urbanity not possible in more agrarian vistas. One should however always guard against equating information with wisdom. Under the draconic suspicion of modernism, we are often told sophistication equals stripping ourselves of passion. It becomes easy to think cold calculation dissuades the inevitable chaos of community and silly unprovable nonsense.

Now, while our emotions and superstitions can often turn evil, humans are never passionless and rational. Indeed, Brâncuși’s The Endless Column is a strange anomaly on our past artists. He did not raid the treasures of the ancient, divorced them from the original meaning and reintroduced them willy nilly. Rather, he took the celebratory rhythms of the Romanian people and channelled them into a public experience. The Endless Column mourns more than the Romanian fallen and the needless deaths of war. It mourns a richness lost in our new capitalistic, realistic, and mathematizing superstitions. It mourns the loss of Christ’s face in each grain of wheat.

References

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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