Thursday, April 4, 2013

Visions of angels with jars

Thinking about Ishmael's vision of angels with jars of spermaceti (Moby-Dick, chapter 94) after reading Caleb Crain on Melville's Secrets led me to the "jolly angel with the jar" in the poem below, a sestet embedded in the amber vase of Melville's prose sketch "Under the Rose":
Specks, tiny specks, in this translucent amber:
Your leave, bride-roses, may one pry and see?
How odd! a dainty little skeleton-chamber;
And—odder yet—sealed walls but windows be!
Death’s open secret.—Well, we are:
And here the jolly angel with the jar!
“Under the Rose”  (Call Me Herman)
Attributing the original verses to the Persian poet Sugar Lips, Melville's fictive narrator "Geoffrey" ostensibly gives the impromptu translation by a Greek polyglot under the influence.

As Geoffrey explains at the start of the sketch, angel and jar appear in miniature "relievos" that adorn a particularly attractive amber vase of roses:
“They were of a mystical type, methought, something like certain pictures in the great Dutch Bible in a library at Oxon setting forth the enigmas of the Song of the Wise Man, to wit, King Solomon. I hardly knew what to make of them; and so would as lief have seen the roses in their stead.  Yet for the grace of it, if not the import whichever that might be, was I pleased with a round device of sculpture on one side, about the bigness of my Lord's seal to a parchment, showing the figure of an angel with a spade under arm like a vineyarder, and bearing roses in a pot; and a like angel-figure clad like a cellerer, and with a wine-jar on his shoulder; and these two angels side by side pacing toward a meagre wight very doleful and Job-like, squatted hard by a sepulcher, as meditating thereon; and all done very lively in small.”
So then, could Geoffrey's jolly angel and Ishmael's visionary angels with jars have been inspired by a similar, possibly traditional motif in some painting or engraving of paradise?   Turns out it's harder than I imagined to find a picture of an angel with a jar.  Then I remembered, John M. J. Gretchko found one in a Christianized map of the constellations.  In his 1990 note on "Herman Melville and Andreas Cellarius," Gretchko shows Melville's probable debt for several images in "Under the Rose" to the second of Julius Schiller's two star charts as published by Cellarius in the Harmonia Macrocosmica(Melvillean Ambiguities, 47-49)

Harmonia Macrocosmica, Plate 23
Second hemisphere with the Christianized firmament
Angel with jar on shoulder, check. 
Hydria Chananaea
Yes it's a water jar, but look! it's that jar from the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turned the water into wine.  So it's both, a water-jar and a wine-jar. 

Gretchko takes the "cellerer" detail in Melville's sketch as an allusion to Cellarius.  Plausible enough, though something more seems to be going on with the garden and tomb imagery of "Under the Rose."  Melville's narrator Geoffrey specifically likens the reliefs in amber to bible illustrations, allegorical representations of the Song of Solomon.  A number of New Testament scenes familiar to Melville are traditionally associated with Christian readings of the erotically charged Song of Songs as an allegory of Christ and the Church, including the Cana wedding and Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, encountering the risen Christ as a gardener.

Melville revisits Mary Magdalene's vision of Jesus as gardener in Clarel 1.5, in lines that recall also the engraving Melville owned by G. Levy after Rembrandt, Noli me Tangere. As Robert K. Wallace shows in his March 2000 Leviathan article on Melville's Prints.

Clarel and where else, I wonder.

Related posts:
  • Under the Rose

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