Saturday, December 13, 2008

Keep your hands off my honey pot

Tomorrow (Sunday, Dec. 14) is the last chance to see an important retrospective show at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, Pursuit of the Spirit. The museum, on the campus of Saint Louis University, is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This exhibition includes works spanning a wide range of media and subject matter, and represents more than 40 artists who have been exhibited at MOCRA in the past 15 years - including Noli me tangere by Seyed Alavi, which I attempted to sketch the afternoon the show opened.

As a photo of the piece on Art Tattler makes clear (scroll halfway down the gorgeously illustrated page ...), it's nothing more (or less) than a lead bowl about two-thirds full of honey.

I'm not sure when Art Tattler got its photograph or how accurate my drawing is, but I have the lead bowl more full on opening day than it appears in the photograph. This actually is meaningful, based on what could be a literary source for the piece, one of the miracles of the Prophet Muhammad told in Mirat-i Kainat:


A woman sent some honey to him as a present. He accepted the honey and sent back the empty pot. But when she took her pot she saw that it was full of honey. The woman came back to the Prophet and asked, "O! Prophet of Allah. Why didn't you accept my present? I wonder, what is my sin?" He answered: "We have accepted your present. The honey you see in your pot is the blessing given by Allah for your present." The woman ate the honey with her children for months. It never decreased. One day, they inadvertently put the honey into another pot. In the new pot the honey was eventually used up. They reported this to the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him). He declared: "If it had been left in the pot I sent, they could have eaten it until the end of the world; it would not have decreased at all."


Seyed Alavi's bowl of honey could refer back to this blessed pot of honey from Islamic tradition. Certainly, his honey should never decrease, being an untouchable museum piece - indeed, being a museum piece with a name that means (in William Tyndale's translation, which was picked up by the King James translators): "Touch me not."

Tyndale was translating Chapter 20, Verse 17 of The Gospel of John. Seyed Alavi's piece uses the Latin translation of the Greek original, the Vulgate: Noli me tangere. This is what Jesus Christ says to Mary Magdalene when she comes to his empty tomb and is surprised to find him risen from the dead (first, she mistakes him for the gardener!).

It's a puzzling moment, a fitting moment for art, and one that often has been painted. Jesus says, "Touch me not (noli me tangere), for I have not yet ascended to my father." It seems to me to be the recognition of a transitional undead status, Jesus as zombie - I've risen from the dead but not yet taken on the godhead. "You really don't want to touch me yet."

Not sure how you pour all of this back into a lead bowl of honey, but Seyed Alavi has given us plenty to think about. And the piece does have a quiet natural beauty.

Finally, I spent so much time on this piece, in part, because of a coincidence. One of the few poems I have memorized is a Sir Thomas Wyatt translation of a Petrarch love lyric that also includes that line in Latin, Noli me tangere. I have had the pleasure of attempting to mispronounce it (often, after a few cocktails, when I decide to show off) hundreds of times.

In Wyatt's adaptation of Petrarch, Noli me tangere is carved into diamonds worn around the neck of a beloved. There's much more to it than that - he was probably writing in not very well disguised code about Queen Ann Boleyn - but leave it to my boy Thomas Wyatt to sex up scripture!

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