Graven Images

Posted on August 24th, 2017 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

 

The civil war was long since over.  One side had won.  One side had lost.  But in 1929, the defeated commissioned a statue to honor the bravery of their ancestors.

The plaque below the statue reads in part:

This monument is dedicated to the lasting memory of

THE UNITED EMPIRE LOYALISTS

who, after the Declaration of Independence, came into British North America from the seceded American colonies and who, with faith and fortitude, and under great pioneering difficulties, largely laid the foundations of this Canadian nation as an integral part of the British Empire.

Neither confiscation of their property, the pitiless persecution of their kinsmen in revolt, nor the galling chains of inprisonment could break their spirits, or divorce them from a loyalty almost without parallel.

No country ever had such founders —
No country in the world —
No, not since the days of Abraham. – Lady Tennyson

Yes, the “civil war” I’m talking about is the “civil war” for British North America.  A war in which American loyalists supported the king and American rebels supported independence.  The statue is located in Hamilton, Ontario.  I think you would be hard pressed to find a statue to the bravery of loyalists inside the USA.  This does not mean there were no brave loyalists.  It does mean that as a nation we have decided to celebrate the cause of Independence as the American cause.  In fact, we started taking down statues at the very start of the revolution.

Most famously, the statue of King George III was toppled by the mob (otherwise known as “the Sons of Liberty”) on July 9, 1776.  To the best of my knowledge, no one made speeches about “erasing history” or the loss of British “heritage.”  It was simply that the new nation stopped venerating kings, so keeping up a statue of a king in the public square seemed completely inappropriate.

America’s second civil war, the one in the 1860s, might have ended the same way.  The initial reaction of the United States army on to how to deal with General Lee was not to put up a statue but to transform his beloved home into a cemetery.  The National Republican reported in 1864:

The ‘powers that be’ have been induced to appropriate two hundred acres, immediately around the house of General Lee, on Arlington Heights, for the burial of soldiers dying in the army hospitals of this city. …. The people of the entire nation will one day, not very far distant, heartily thank the initiators of this movement…. This and the contraband establishment there are righteous uses of the estate of the rebel General Lee, and will never dishonor the spot made venerable by the occupation of Washington.

Though Arlington Cemetery is today a place of honor, its origins were in part a punishment for Lee’s decision to join the rebels.

Most of the statues that honor the Confederacy were not erected in the immediate aftermath of the war but rather decades later as part of an ongoing effort to normalize the rebellion as a “war between the states” rather than treason against our national government.  This was an effort that coincided with the interests of those who wished to persecute and marginalize African-American citizens.  So for those genuinely concerned with efforts to change history, I would suggest reexamining the origins of these statues in the 20th century.

The events of the last ten days have me thinking not only about American history but about my Jewish roots as well.  As a kid, I always remember thinking that the Ten Commandments were rather uneven – mixed in with injunctions to avoid murder, theft, adultery and other behaviors that clearly harmed people was a prohibition on “graven images.”  Back then I thought that this commandment was not only easy to keep but probably unnecessary in the modern world.  After all, I didn’t know many idol worshipers.  But seeing statues turned into quasi-religious vessels has caused me to reevaluate the merits of aniconism (prohibitions related to idolatry and sculpture). In addition to multiple references in the Torah itself, there is an entire section of the Shulchan Aruch dedicated to the topic.  The prohibition is said to broadly apply to creating an image of “anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land.”   I feel reasonably confident that statues of generals, both Confederate and Union, are covered by this ban.  Personally, I am comfortable with statues as art (if art was truly their purpose) and I am ok with statues as symbols of shared values (see my last post on the Statue of Liberty), but statues are not a substitute for history and we should not confuse respect for history with veneration of graven images – in my view that’s as problematic today as it was 5000 years ago.

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Missing Mendes Cohen

Posted on August 5th, 2015 by

I love walking into the Feldman Gallery and looking at so many movie posters from the past .  I love the way that Joanna and our interns have delved into research to seek out the images of the movie theaters that actually showed the movies during the 1930-1960’s.  I have enjoyed listening to our visitors reminisce of the past but I do have to admit….I am missing the Amazing  Mendes Cohen!   I miss not seeing Mendes’ face in the Feldman Gallery, both donning a turban and also posing  as a young man in the early 19th century.  I miss not hearing the piano music of Charles -Valentin Alkan, as you enter the gallery; one of the first Jewish composers to incorporate Jewish melodies to his music.  I miss the puzzle pieces and watching groups of students working together to put puzzle pieces in place.  I see Flat Mendes every day- but I still miss the Amazing Mendes Cohen in my life at the JMM.

This past weekend- my hubby and I decided to play tourist in Baltimore in the hope that I could get “my fix” of Mendes Cohen. On Sunday we started our day at the Farmer’s Market underneath the Jones Falls Expressway.  After buying two coffees, pastry, and two kinds of string beans; we headed north to Mount Vernon.  In particular, I wanted to climb the Washington Monument which was rededicated on July 4, 2015; 200 years after the initial cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815.  I wanted to see the building where Mendes and the famous Cohen brothers were instrumental in the state – funded lottery business that helped to raise the money to build the first monument dedicated to the first President of the United States, George Washington. I wanted to see some sort of mention of Mendes Cohen at the monument.

Washington Monument, 1890

Washington Monument, 1890

Robert Mills is credited with the design of the structure of the Washington Monument.  I understood that the citizens of Baltimore were particularly proud to erect this monument to Washington in light of their recent role in securing American liberty during the Battle of Baltimore, a turning point in the War of 1812.  Baltimoreans were also proud that the monument was built of local white marble, from quarries north of the city.

I was excited to begin my 160 foot climb to the top.   I thought it was interesting to see how the bricks were laid on their sides in a circular ring as we hiked up the steps.

Washington Monument bricks - circular staircase

Washington Monument bricks – circular staircase

I also thought it was interesting  to see how narrow the space was and I understood that the staff at the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy only allows five people to climb the monument at any given time during tours.

As we continued our climb up the narrow steps,  I was happy to see a marker dated 1818 noting that we had climbed 106 feet.

1818 marker denoting 106 feet

That’s a lot of steps!

I also noticed some graffiti where someone had written “1908” in black on the walls.  By 1829, the main column of the monument was completed, and the statue of Washington, sculpted by the Italian artist Henrico Causici, was raised to the top.  As we were getting closer to the top, I was excited to see the view- and I wondered if Mendes ever climbed the steps to the top and saw the spectacular view of Mount Vernon Place.

When you get to the top of the monument, you do get a chance to see Baltimore from all directions north, east, west and south.  However, you must stay inside and behind the glass to take your pictures….. a bit disappointing.   At the top, you begin to understand how the Washington Monument quickly became an important symbol of the city and state of Maryland.  President John Quincy Adams, who assisted in composing the text of the bronze inscriptions on the monument’s base outlining the key events in Washington’s life, dubbed Baltimore “The Monumental City.”

Images taken at the top of the Washington Monument

View From the Top

As we climbed down, I realized how lucky we were to have had the opportunity to climb to the top.  I am certain the citizens living in Baltimore  in the early 19th century  were in awe of this impressive structure built and dedicated to the nation’s first president. It was fun to imagine Mendes Cohen wandering the grounds where the monument was built in the early 19th century. The structure is a wonderful testament to the builders of Baltimore and a beautiful place for citizens to gather and enjoy all that Baltimore has to offer.

Kelly Suredam Potter poses at the Washington Monument

The wonderful Kelly Suredam Potter

I want to thank JMM Museum Educator, Kelly Suredam Potter, who also works at the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy for telling me about the opportunity to climb the monument.  It was a lot of fun to climb this iconic landmark as well as try to appease my longing to connect with the Amazing Colonel Mendes I. Cohen.  Long Live Mendes!

ileneA blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

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