Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) was a German-Austrian sculptor most famous for his "character heads", a collection of busts with faces contorted in extreme facial expressions.

Messerschmidt was a skillful Bavarian craftsman who was headed for a career at the Habsburg court in Vienna until he exhibited symptoms that denied him advancement and sent him deep inside himself to explore his own (and often extreme) emotional states, which he sculpted in marble, carved in alabaster or cast in lead alloy (1771-83). Around 1771, as his health apparently deteriorated, he started working on his "character heads", using himself as a model. He created a series of heads with grimacing faces. He produced the life-sized busts rapidly, 69 within a 13-year period. Collectively, Messerschmidt's "heads" display a range of emotions and, although they are not self-portraits, many resemble the artist.

He never intended to exhibit or sell them. Yet, he may have made them as physiognomic studies, perhaps inspired by experiments enacted by his friend, the controversial physician Franz Anton Mesmer. Messerschmidt probably also knew of Johann Caspar Lavater, who popularized "physiognomy"--the notion that human character is discernable by a person's physical appearance.

The Gentle Quiet Sleep

Apart from The Gentle Quiet Sleep, there is no classical ethos in Messerschmidt's sculptures, but an expressionist quality that introduces him as a lost soul of the European Enlightenment. The bust form can be reminiscent of the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome, the Messerschmidt's heads are idiosyncratic, capricious and self-centered. Moreover, the artist's facial expression is often ambivalent. Seemingly, Messerschmidt is a sculptor that falls somewhere between the Baroque and the Classicism, as his statues combine baroque expressive movement with classical clear forms and aggressive characterization with prosaic reproduction (M. Donner).

The Vexed Man is one of the series of 69 portrait busts or "character heads." The bust portrays a middle-aged man with a sour expression, which seems to fall somewhere between a grimace and a scowl. The most telling aspect may be the furrowed brow above squinting eyes and a scrunched nose. But natural cracks in the bust's alabaster surface seem to echo the topography of his skin, both softened by age yet hardened by the extreme expression. The man's receding hairline, wrinkles, and sagging jawline contrast with tensed cheek and neck muscles. Although the character seems to express irritation and annoyance, it is not certain whether Messerschmidt intended that interpretation, because he did not give the bust a title. A contemporary wrote that Messerschmidt told him that by making the character heads, he hoped to ward away spirits that invaded his mind (Getty Museum).

According to Jonathan Jones, Messerschmidt's work is "not so much the depiction of physiognomy as of the unfathomable self, alone and confounded, puzzled, grimly amused and fantastically assured of his own fascinating monstrosity." It repels curiosity even if commanding it. Messerschmidt, Jones states, exhibits himself as a freak, and laughs at medical or philosophical attempts to understand him.

Possibly, the character heads may be manifestations of madness. Yet, considering the artist's declared digestive problems, the may also have to do with constipation.

Indeed, it appears that for many years Messerschmidt had been suffering from an undiagnosed digestive complaint (now believed to be Crohn's disease), which caused him considerable discomfort. In order to focus his thoughts away from his condition, Messerschmidt devised a series of pinches he administered to his right lower rib. Observing the resulting facial expressions in a mirror, Messerschmidt then set about recording them in marble and bronze. His intention, he told Friedrich Nicolai in 1781, was to represent the "canonical grimaces" of the human face using himself as a template.

Animation by Edward Rose and Nick Reynolds

It is likely that Messerschmidt inteded to depict his physiological state and its facial response as he used bodily stimulation (Herb Ranharter).

With the Heads, with sometimes bizarrely grimacing facial features that express human emotions like fear, disgust, irritation, joy, pain, or sadness, Messerschmidt radicalized the genre of the portrait bust and at the end of his artistic career broke once and for all with traditional forms of depiction. The physiognomic search for emotions and a transparent inner being was, however, reduced to the absurd by seemingly arbitrary combinations of various forms of expression. Although the details of the movements of facial muscles are rendered realistically, many of them cannot in reality be reproduced simultaneously, and their effects are often exaggerated. The heads are, contrary to all experience of reality, symmetrically constructed; the forms of expression and movements of the heads are stylized by defining wrinkles and muscles. Likewise, the hair and eyebrows are not realistically depicted but instead follow the principles of ornament or drawing. Thus Messerschmidt abandoned a connection to reality, but in the process the expressive power of his art increased considerably (Städel Museum, Frankfurt).

Artists such as Francis Bacon have been inspired by Messerschmidt’s work.

Online resources
Digital Belvedere | Slovak National Gallery | Kuriositas
Nicolai, Friedrich. Description of a Journey through Germany and Switzerland in the Year 1781, trans. Herbert Ranharter, The Paris Review, 30.9.2010
Schmid, Theodor. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's Heads, 2009
Eitner, Lorenz. The Grand Eccentrics, ed. Thomas Hess & John Ashbery, Collier Books, 1971 (cited by John Coulthart, "The Art of Messerschmidt," Feuilleton, 23.6.2006).
_____. The Grand Eccentrics (cited by Dennis Cooper, CD, 6.4.2011).
Jones, Jonathan. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Guardian, 28.1.2011

• La joie de vivre: images of Messerschmidt's heads


Hurva Synagogue

¿Kahn’s project versus Meltzer’s restoration?

"A painted horse is not a zebra," expressed once Louis I. Kahn. Were he alive today and regarding the new Hurva Synagogue, ¿would the celebrated American architect say those words once again if contemplating Nauhm Meltzer's restoration today?

Now that things have been clarified regarding certain misrepresentation y other historical aspects concerning the Hurva Synagogue, we may compare Kahn’s 1968 project with Meltzer’s 2003 restoration.

As it was presented in 1968, Kahn’s initial project had a great impact in Jerusalem, where many admired it and some were astonished because of its magnitude and symbolism.* The project was appreciated, but there were also objections. To build or not to build Kahn's Hurva that was the big question all along the 1970s. More than forty years were going to be necessary to have "the Ruin" restored, only in 2010.

Today the building has been completely restored, and if we considering Jerusalem’s difficult reality, then Meltzer has been responsible and sensitive in doing his job. Moreover, his restoration doesn’t diminish the great evocative character of Kahn’s design (developed 1968-1974). As it happens with Leonardo’s sketches showing temples that remained unbuilt, also Kahn’s Hurva Synagogue Project remains magnetic and powerful as a design.

It is perhaps of little use to make efforts in indicating which proposal is the best. The point is not some 'either this or that.' Besides, Kahn’s project and Meltzer’s restoration need to be contemplated each in its respective historical context. Clearly, each of the architects did the best he could and he did so under difficult conditions. Kahn envisioned what would have been an ideal synagogue; Meltzer was requested to build a real one, responding to communitarian needs.

It is noteworthy that when Kahn’s project was being developed the Hurva was itself literally in ruins and there were neither Great Synagogue of Jerusalem nor Israel Museum.

Unfolding extraordinary compositional creativity and symbolic daring, Kahn concieved in a single design what would have been a Great Synagogue of Jerusalem and Israel Museum at once. Kahn delineated a most important project, but one that if ever built would have needed to be dimensionally adjusted to the living conditions that characterize Jerusalem, otherwise would have entailed a major urban modification in the Old City.

The important principles that Kahn had considered along his career continue inspiring architects up to now. Especially his respectful approach to what he called "Beginnings" and the History of Architecture as such. Memory and poetry are fused in Kahn’s architectural configurations with vision and wisdom. And regarding the magnitude of the Hurva Synagoge Kahn projected, he probably would have adjusted it to the needs of the environment. For no other architect has ever been so interested in "what the building wants to be" as Kahn opportunely was. And, above all, Kahn’s Hurva would have had Monumentality.

The restored synagogue lacks of monumentality, yet it fits the always hypersensitive environment of Jerusalem. As Meltzer aptly notes, the old Hurva, with its neo-Byzantine typology, was a synagogue as there was no other in Jerusalem, not even in the whole Holy Land. That building even served as a model to other synagogues abroad (source).

Kahn’s design fused the achievements of Modern architecture with a poetical dimension that were not oblivious of the very origins of Hebrew architecture, which the Pennsylvania architect believed were in king Solomon’s Temple. It is probably because of all this that his Hurva Synagogue Project had become an architectural paradigm and keeps on being perceived as a prominent configuration. Besides, Kahn’s design is a remarkable example of inclusion (or what Robert Venturi used to call the "both-and" phenomenon).

Jerusalem is a city closely related to Tradition. With its Hurva Synagogue Project, Kahn had envisioned an architectural masterpiece, one somehow comparable to the Dome of the Rock. Jerusalem’s major Teddy Kollek opportunely expressed his satisfaction concerning Kahn’s project, yet he did not really encourage its construction.

The 21st-century followers of the 19th-century rabbis preferred to restore the synagogue, having it as their predecessors had built it in the past. No architecturally innovative temple has thus been built. They have just rebuilt “the Ruin” once again. The local needs, however, do not deprive Meltzer’s building of a certain global symbolism, although this is quite far from the one in Kahn’s proposal.

The building restored by Meltzer has modest dimensions and its decoration is austere. The architect from Jerusalem architect has proven to be sensitive about the history of the building and its environment. He did a subtle job.
Undoubtedly, Melter’s greatest achievement is to have finished with the insipid arch that during almost three decades served as a reminder of a ruined synagogue. And positive in this sense is the fact that the transitory arch erected in 1977 has finally been removed to give subsequently place to a built temple.

Kahn proposed and Meltzer reconstructed. Each in his own way has contributed to build Jerusalem. The History of Architecture is composed by facts, being these both projects and buildings. The history of the Hurva Synagogue is additionally significant in its own, and not only from an architectural viewpoint. Given the contrasting events which have marked its history and existence, the Hurva (as both concept and building) will always constitute a symbol of resonant significance.

* "The Evocative Character of Louis Kahn's Hurva Synagogue Project, 1967-1974," in: The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art, ed. by Bianca Kühnel, 1998, pp. 245-53.

Additional resources
• Kahn, Order Is, 1960
Reinventing [?] Jerusalem, Documenta, 21.7.2011

• También en español: Ricca y su publicada tergiversación (8.7.11) y Sinagoga Hurva: ¿El proyecto de Kahn versus la restauración de Meltzer? (20.7.11).


"Reinventing [?] Jerusalem"

Simone Ricca, Reinventing Jerusalem, London: I.B.Tauris, 2007. According to the information provided by Google books online, this "fascinating" book is about "History."

But, unfortunately, it is not. And what one finds in it is a critical analysis on "politics of heritage conservation," well impregnated with ideologically-inspired interpretation.

Ricca presents some facts concerning Jerusalem, but keeps for himself those he prefers not to deal with. Then he proceeds to interpret the fragmentary piece of evidence he has chosen and, in the end, he provides one with an avalanche of farfetched criticism.

A British writer who had been working as a UNESCO employee, Ricca is somewhat economical with the truth. As a matter of fact his Reinventing Jerusalem is itself a reinvention of the history of Jerusalem in its own right.

Ricca's book includes misinterpretations, misspellings and misleading captions, such as the one visible in the first image, which reads "The ruins of the Hurva synagogue." This is inaccurate, for what the photograph shows is not only "the ruins of the Hurva synagogue," desecrated and blown up in 1948, but also one of its arches, reconstructed in 1977. Such ruins plus the reconstructed arch constitute from 1977 onwards a memorial site, and not merely "ruins." The photograph shows the 1977 arch functioning as a reminder of what once was a major synagogue of Jerusalem, a historical landmark. The 1977 arch was added to the ruins as a temporary solution and until the Hurva Synagogue would be build once again.

Ruins plus an arch is not a synagogue. Yet, Ricca describes them as "celebrative ruins" (p. 111).

How can a manifestation of destruction be a reason for celebration?

Whatever the answer, the fact is that in the well-known 1977 memorial combining a ruined synagogue and its reconstructed arch, Ricca discovers a fascinating source of inspiration, and even "new aesthetical values" (p. 224, n. 34).

Isn't his approach grotesque? And don't Ricca's ideas recall the ones expressed in 1975 by British painter Francis Bacon about being fascinated with the "kind of beauty" he had eventually found in some decomposing matter?

Discarded newspapers changing colour in the sunlight, bones and carcasses that have been in the sea or sun for a long time, gradually change into other things. There is a kind of beauty in that—a kind of magic (Bacon, "Remarks from a conversation with Peter Beard," Francis Bacon, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975, p. 16).

According to Ricca, those who had lost their sanctuary were supposed to be happy [and presumably even thankful] for having provided with a highly suggestive memorial, ruined for ages.

The ruined condition of Synagoga, a several-times-restored medieval sculpture (Cathedral of Rochester, United Kingdom), is no doubt more than compatible with Ricca's "celebrative ruins"

It comes as no surprise Ricca condemning in his book some words expressed against the temporary Hurva arch in the mid-1990s, then aptly described as "a lonely architectural sign standing as an insipid memorial for a nineteenth-century synagogue in ruins" (Reinventing Jerusalem, p. 111). Regardless of what Ricca may think about such words, the fact is that the solitary 1977 arch was a transitory solution, and by the mid-1990s, it became "an absolutely objectionable substitute" for a blown up temple (ibid; see also The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art, ed. by Bianca Kühnel, 1998, pp. 245-53).

Ricca: "Beyond commemorating the destruction, the Hurva memorial allows the entire [...] community collectively to appropriate the site in an extremely powerful and profound manner, unrivalled by any architectural design. Indeed, the collective [...] memory can, tragically, superimpose, to the sight of yet another ruin, countless images of destroyed synagogues and pogroms" (Reinventing Jerusalem, p. 111; photo by C. Barnard)

« And Sarah laughed within. » Genesis 18:12

The Hurva Synagogue
Several synagogues were built and subsequently destroyed on the same site in Jerusalem.
1267 Original synagogue
1421 Document refers to the original synagogue
1585 Intentionally desecrated and destroyed
1700 The Rabbi Yehuda ha-Hasid Synagogue, built by his students and followers
1721 Intentionally desecrated and destroyed; nick-named "The Hurva"
1836 Rebuilding restarts thanks to Rabbi Abraham Shlomo Zalman Zoref
1864 The Bet Yaakob Synagogue, built by the disciples of Rabbi Eliyahi Ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer, the Vilna Gaon, is inaugurated as the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem
1948 Intentionally desecrated, burnt and blown up
1968-74 Louis I. Kahn develops the Hurva Synagogue Project (unbuilt)
1977 Arch is erected, marking a memorial site
2003-10 The Hurva Synagogue, built by Jerusalem architect Nahum Meltzer ("Mitzer" according to Ricca, p. 111).

Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem, 1864-1948 (Yaacov Ben Dov)

1948-1967 In ruins

1977-2003 Memorial arch

1968-1974 Unbuilt project by Louis I. Kahn (Kent Larson, MIT)

2010 The Hurva Synagogue

The Hurva Synagogue was part of a neighborhood dating back to the eighteenth century. It was named after Rabbi Yehuda ha-Hassid, a mystic from Poland who began to build it, but died within days of his arrival in Jerusalem. The temple was burned down in 1721. Since then it became known as the "Hurva" (the Ruin). It was still called so even after it was rebuilt in 1864. The second rebuilding brought the temple to the height of twenty four meters. It was blown up by the Jordanian army in 1948. A single Hurva arch was rebuilt in 1977. After almost four decades of community and architectural discussions and successive plans that were put forward and dropped, the Hurva Synagogue was rebuilt in 2005 and rededicated in 2010. The new building follows closely the 1864, neo-Byzantine Hurva Synagogue, of which it is practically a replica.

In Reinventing Jerusalem, Ricca claims that the Old City's reconstruction did not preserve the past. This is idea is mistaken today: Meltzer's Hurva Synagogue, for instance, is a building which has been conceived precisely to preserve the past.

According to Jerusalem architect Nahum Meltzer,

The Hurva synagogue was destroyed just over half a century ago, and many details of the building have been preserved. These details are based on precise, constant measurements of the building, the surviving remnants, the large number of interior and exterior photographs that exist, and eyewitness reports both oral and written. These extensive details enable us to conceive a complete architectural restoration of the building and return it to its former state without making any assumptions. We know, with a great deal of certainty, the formation of the walls, the character of the portals, the dimensions of the dome and the technique used to lay it on the walls of the synagogue.
All these make the restoration concept legitimate, both scientifically and within the parameters of accepted ethical code used for restoration work, as expressed in the ninth paragraph of the Venice Convention. "The object of restoration is the preservation revelation of the monument's historical and aesthetic values, and is based on respect to the existent and correct, un-manipulated documentation which must end at the point where all conjecture begins" (A statement by Architect Nahum Meltzer).

In a 2007 article entitled A New Ruin Raising, published three years before Meltzer's reconstruction had been finished, Gavriel Rosenfeld noted, "The only certainty is that the future synagogue will be guilty of the sin of all reconstructions: that of falsifying the past. Once the Hurva is completely rebuilt, its dome will no doubt blend harmoniously into the Old City’s ancient skyline. It will do so, however, not as an authentic historic artifact but rather as a postmodern simulacrum. When the new synagogue is rededicated, some of the initial reactions will likely be critical. [...] Historic preservationists will complain about the fabrication of an architectural forgery."

In Reinventing Jerusalem, Ricca complains non stop.

However, as Rosenfeld wrote, "In the long run, [...] few will know or care that the restored Hurva is a copy of a copy," to finally recognize that "Our world is full of counterfeit buildings —think of Venice’s campanile on the Piazza San Marco, or Colonial Williamsburg— none of which seems to affect us in any adverse way."

Writing these ideas Rosenfeld was more or less right. The only thing one may not agree with Rosenfeld is his idea that "for those who value the opportunity to encounter the authentic traces of history, the Hurva’s restoration will hardly be a cause for celebration." In this, Rosenfeld was not totally right. Ricca may probably never celebrate Meltzer's reconstruction of the Hurva, nevertheless the Jerusalem architect's work is a fine restoration, which significantly includes "authentic traces of history," such as the structural remnants of the 1864 Bet Yaakob Synagogue, whose original yet fragmentary Jerusalem stone wall Meltzer has left visible in an architecturally honest restoration.

Interior view of the Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem, May 2010. Architect Nahum Meltzer

Additional references
Sacred Destinations
The History of the Hurva Synagogue
Rosenfeld, Gavriel. "A New Ruin Rising: The Hurva Synagogue’s Latest Incarnation," Forward, 9.11.2007
Yehuda Azoulay, "Rebuilding the Ruins," Sepharadic Legacy, September 2010, pp. 54-60, PDF
¿Kahn’s project versus Meltzer’s restoration?, 21.7.11
Photographs by William Hamblin. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Abel Pann, « And Sarah laughed within. » (Genesis 18:12), 1925
pastel, 40 x 42 cm. Private collection
Pann, The Palestine Weekly, January 1924: "I wish to picture the heroes of the Bible as human beings made of flesh and bone, beings in whose veins blood flows. I wish the characters of the Bible to be shown as possessing the passions of human beings just as they are pictured in the Book, with their virtues and vices, loves and hatreds, stories of tragedy and humour, poetry and prose." Moreover, "The task I have set myself involves a serious responsability. The enthusiasm which my work arouses in me is often clouded by painful doubts and questionings. For that same Book which has inspired many a genius to produce his masterpiece has proved to be beyond the reach of a far greater number of artists. A son of the race which produced this marvelous Book, I feel that I, better than some others, may be able to size its true spirit, and to communicate it to my fellow-men. But the absolute truth is with God alone" (Personal Statement). Abel Pann's youngest son was killed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Additional resources
• Kahn, Order Is, 1960
Hurva Synagogue: Kahn vs Meltzer?, Documenta, 21.7.2011

• También en español: Ricca y su publicada tergiversación (8.7.11) y Sinagoga Hurva: ¿El proyecto de Kahn versus la restauración de Meltzer? (20.7.11).


Vishnu Padmanabha

by Mariano Akerman

The Padmanabhaswamy Temple Treasure. Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple which is located in the city of Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), Kerala, south India is making headlines on account of the vast treasure found in its secret vaults devouted to Vishnu. The treasure is literally invaluable: the biggest discovered in India, and the biggest ever found in the world.

Vishnu Padmanabha, gold, 16th century
Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Trivandrum, Kerala, India

The main findings include a remarkable gold idol of Vishnu and a 30 kg golden anki. The pure gold idol of Vishnu is believed to be a replica of the one used in the temple. The golden idol of Padmanabhaswamy (with no less than 1000 precious stones) is valued to around Rupees 500 Crore. Another 5 kg gold idol of Krishna was also found and so were plenty of golden coins (some of which are believed to have been issued during the reign of Krishnadeva Raya in the 16th century CE.), in the temple in Kerala, precisely where the Maharaja comes every morning to pray.

Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple is a famous Hindu temple dedicated to god Vishnu. It is maintained by the Travancore Royal Family and located inside the city of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala State, South India. The date of the temple is unknown, but the temple is mentioned in the writings of the Alvars (6th-9th centuries CE), and various renovations are thought to have taken place until the 18th century. The principal deity, Padmanabhaswamy, is Vishnu in the "Ananta-sayanam" posture. That is, Vishnu in the eternal sleep on the hooded serpent Ananta.

In Hinduism, the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer. Such deities compose "the Hindu triad" or "Great Trinity".

Vishnu is depicted as a four-armed male figure. The four arms indicate his all-powerful and all-pervasive nature. The physical existence of Vishnu is represented by the two arms in the front while the two arms at the back represent his presence in the spiritual world. The Upanishad titled Gopal Uttartapani describes the four arms of Vishnu.

In the Padmanabhaswamy Temple (Sree Padmanabhaswamy, Trivandrum), Vishnu can be seen in the traditional reclining posture (Anananthasayanam posture of eternal sleep).

Vishnu Padmanabha (Ananthapadmanabhan, Ananthashayanam), painting, three panels. Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Trivandrum

The main idol for worship at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is Vishnu lying on the snake Anantha. This avatar of Vishnu is called Ananthapadmanabhan and Vishnu's posture lying on the snake is popularly known as Ananthashayanam. Vishnu is the ultimate omnipresent reality, his nature ia all-pervasive. Anantha is an immortal, infinite snake.

As the gold statue of Vishnu in this posture is one of the biggest in India. Preserved in a special room, the idol cannot be fully seen. Thus three doors are needed. On such doors the divinity is depicted as well. Padmanabha (lotus-navel) is a traditional aspect of Vishnu, with a lotus issuing from his navel on which Brahma sits.


Four-armed, Padmanabha Vishnu, sculpture, Munneswaram Temple, Puttalam, Sri Lanka (Leon Meerson)

Vishnu Padmanabha, painting, 1780-90. The National Museum, New Delhi. Vishnu reclines on the coil of the great serpent Shesha, while the four-headed Brahma springs from his navel. Lakshmi, Vishnu's consort, caresses his feet with devotion.

Vishnu Padmanabha, painting, c. 1700-50. Banaras Hindu University. Eighteenth century Vaishnava painting decipting Vishnu, on the serpent Anant Shesha, with consort Lakshmi, caressing his feet; sage Markandeya pays his respects to Vishnu, while Brahma emerges in a lotus from Vishnu's navel.

The lotus flower (Padma) represents spiritual liberation, divine perfection, purity and the unfolding of spiritual consciousness within the individual. The lotus in Vishnu's hand symbolizes that god is the power and source from which the universe and the individual soul emerges. The lotus also introduces Vishnu as the embodiment of spiritual perfection and purity.

According to Hinduism, the Padmanabha is a lotus-naveled god and the one from whose navel sprang the lotus which contained Brahma, who created the universe.

Online resources
Hindu Deities
Le grand trésor hindou à Trivandrum
Vishnu en flor