Svaneti 1. Stones

I am Michael. Saint Michael, archangel. One of the seven who stand in the glorious presence of the Lord, always ready to serve Him (Tob 12:15). I am from the village of Lahili, the gorge of Latali, from the solitary Church of the Archangel of Mkheri standing on a hilltop above the gorge, opposite the village.

I am an icon, molded of silver, sheathed with gold, in the custom of the valley of Svaneti, where paint is rarer than silver, and brush than hammer, and therefore the Byzantine icons brought from the south are here imitated in silver and gold, with such abundance, that even today they fill the ninety-four churches in the valley and the surrounding mountains.

If someone should butt in with, how can I be an archangel and an icon at the same time, he is most certainly a Latin heretic raised on the breast of vain reasoning. They, indeed, have separated the image and the holy person depicted on it since their Council of Trent, asserting that veneration is only due to the latter. But an Orthodox believer does not waste his time with such hairsplitting ontology. For the khoros of the venerable Second Council of Nicaea authorizing the veneration of the holy images states that “the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerate the image venerate in it the reality of what is there represented.” I am therefore Saint Michael, an archangel who appears to the believer as if through a pane of glass, in the form of this icon, for veneration and to anticipate heavenly realities.

It is now eight centuries since I have protected the village of Lahili, the gorge of Latali, the mount of Mkheri, the valley of Svaneti and the whole of Georgia against evil, which ceaselessly attacks from all sides, so there is plenty of work. This was beseeched of me by the Deacon Abram, way back in the golden age of Georgia, in the time of King Giorgi Laska. Whosoever wants to read of this, it is written on my back, or at least I think it is still there, because even an archangel cannot look upon his own backside.

ქ. წმიდაო მთავარანგელოზო მუხერისაო, ჴელთუქმარო, ადიდენ მეფენი ბაგრატუნიანნი, და დადიანი, და დიდებულნი და ერთობილი საქართველო და ერთობილნი სუანნი და ჴევი ლატალისა; და აღაშენე მაშენებელი შენი სოფელი ლაილისა და ყოველნი მადიდებელნი შენნი, ამენ
მე მამასახლისსა ცოდვილსა და დეკანოზსა აბრამს შეუნდკენ ღმერთმან

Oh Holy Archangel of M(u)kheri, not made by human hand, glorify the Bagrationi kings, and Dadiani and the nobles and united Georgia and the united Svans and the Latali ravine and build your building village of La(h)ili and all who praise thee. Amen.
Oh God, forgive me, the sinful elder and deacon Abram.

The 12th-century Church of the Holy Archangel in Mkheri and the Latali Gorge

Truly it was a glorious and rare moment in the history of Georgia when I alone was not tasked with the protection of the country, but was also joined in this by the king and the nobles, and the province of Svaneti, from its lord Prince Dadiani down to the last Svan village, was united. It was such a long time ago, that maybe it was, anyway, not so.

I was created by the icon writer Irakli up here in St. Jonah’s monastery in Yenashi. Are you struck by the term? We, the Orthodox, name the maker of holy icons as an icon writer, ხატმწერი khathmcheri: he is the one who writes, წერს chers, and not paints, ხატავს khathavs the ხატი khathi, image, like the მხატვარი mkhathvari, the painter. There are many reasons for this. On the one hand, this is how we took the term from the Greek, where the maker of the icon is also called εἰκονόγραφος, icon writer, although today this simply means an illustrator, and our master is rather called ἁγιόγραφος, the writer of the holy image. It is true that in the Greek there has never been any separate term for painting and writing, and the painter of secular images has also been called ζωγράφος, “a writer after life”. But the Russians also call him this, an иконописец, with the composition of икона and писать, while they call the ordinary painter a художник, in which someone who has lived for as many centuries as me, still clearly feels the ancient Proto-Germanic term of *handu-gaz, “working with the hand”. True, the icon writer also creates the icon with the hand, even the so-called нерукотворный, “not-made-by-human-hand” icon. But the decisive moment is not this, but the spiritual prototype he sees in his mind or soul and writes on the icon panel, like the writer the text, and unlike the ordinary painter who duplicates on the panel or canvas what he sees, saw or could see with his bodily eyes. This is the intellectual surplus in “writing”, as compared to “representation”. Both create visual signs, but while mere images represent themselves, the characters – just like the icons – point beyond themselves to the meanings of a higher reality. Here I pray the over-learnt egghead Western heretical readers not to bring up the fact that “mere images” are also symbols. I have also read Cassirer on symbolic forms, I know what they are talking about, but I pray them try to understand what I am talking about. Of course, that would take humility, which is not a characteristic of the heretics.

The 12th-century church of the monastery of St. Jonas in Yenashi, and a monk in front of its Holy Archangels icon

While we are at the Warburg school, everyone remembers what Wittkower wrote in Born under Saturn, that the Renaissance painter tried to break out of the medieval category of “craftsman” – which put painters and apothecaries in the same guild, since both are essentially crushing powders – by trying to prove the spiritual essence of his work in a thousand ways, until in the end all had accepted him as a visionary, a spiritual twin of the writer or the poet. In order to maintain his relatively high social status, the “icon writer” also seeks to keep distance from the artisan-painter by linking his own identity and name to the superior writing and the transcendent reality revealing itself through writing, thus becoming a kin of the writers of the Gospels and other sacred texts, a богослов, a theologian indeed. And he can also justify this with a holy text, since the already mentioned Second Council of Nicaea uses the word περιγράφει, “describe” when authorizing the visual representation of Christ and the saints.

Bees buzzing at the hives of St. Jonah monastery. Recording by Lloyd Dunn

So I was created by icon writer Irakli up there, in the monastery of St. Jonah in Yenashi, where now, eight hundred years after my creation, the great road passes. If you raised your eyebrows at the fact that the icon painter working with paint was called an icon writer, then you may as well know that the icon writer of Svaneti writes the icon, not with a brush, but with a hammer. He takes a straight pine board that has dried for seven years. He inserts narrow beech shims into its reverse to stiffen it and prevent it from twisting, and then he carves a rectangular image field into its obverse. On this he roughly forms the body in molten beeswax to serve as the representation of my bodiless person. Then he hammers a thin plate of the silver that comes from the head of this valley, the mines of Mount Shkara. He stretches it on the board and gently hammers out the outlines of my body along the wax figure. My image largely fills the image field, and where there remains empty space, he fills it out with vegetal ornaments, tendrils and palmettes. And on the frame he hammers tendrils and grid patterns taken from holy manuscripts.

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Even so, he does not cover the whole frame with patterns. He leaves the four corners blank, as well as the middle of the frames of the four sides. Why? Because he knew he has only launched the icon on its worldly carreer, but he must also leave space for others so they may add the work of their own hands during the centuries to come.

In the West, it is believed that the image reaches perfection with the final brushstroke, so that nothing can be added or taken away, as the pagan Aristotle says. Such hubris! The icon, as the equally pagan Umberto Eco would say, is an open work, unlike the Western work of art. Ever since it leaves the hands of its maker, it is continuously increasing. Every believer enriches it with his prayers, which radiate back onto his offspring, and augment the value of the icon from generation to generation. God allows miracles to happen through it, which endow it with a sacred history and power. The severed hand of St. John of Damascus is placed on the icon of the Virgin, and henceforth it lives on as part of it, as the third hand of the Virgin. But even damage will become part of the icon’s history. If a Western image is attacked with a knife or a hammer, the owners immediately try to restore it to its original condition, which is considered perfect. However, the icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa displays the double sword-slashes of the Tatar bandits on her face so proudly that she even dripped the paint used to repair her wound; and without these scars she can no longer be imagined as the protector of wounded Poland.

And the grateful offspring express their appreciation and gratitude for the icon with a variety of additions. Painted icons are enriched with an icon cover in silver which obscures what is irrelevant and, leaving it free, highlights what is essential: the face and hands of the holy person. And in the icon, which is already made of silver, they insert precious stones for major events and historical turning points. With this in mind, the icon writer leaves empty spaces where the stones will be inserted. The stones are mostly not particularly valuable pieces, rather peasant fairings, but the owners, when meditating before the icon, can accurately recall the story of the insertion of each stone, and these stories make them truly valuable and personal family heirlooms. Have another look at me from this point of view.

This colleague of my age from the Sethi Saint George Church of Mestia has not worked hard for extra additions, although spectacular spaces have been left for them

This 10th or 11th-century Saint George from Labechin’s Church of the Holy Archangels, which, like a true Georgian man, strikes not the dragon but the Emperor Diocletian, persecutor of the Christians, now only boasts one red stone, but its frame, which has not survived, may have held more.

Well, this 11th-century Zestaponi icon of the Crucifixion and Ascension must have worked hard for its money, because in addition to the numerous small and large stones, whole brooches, typical of the 17th century, have been inserted on it over the centuries

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In this series, which is just beginning, we will enrich, over the course of a year, the image of Svaneti, which we received almost ten years ago, with thirty-seven stones, thirty-seven stories, corresponding to the 33 letters of the Georgian alphabet, plus the four special letters used in written Svan. Each story will be introduced by a monologue of an old Svan icon, an ancient protector of this valley and Georgia. And the stories will tell you how we wandered and got to know the medieval churches and villages of the Svan mountains, and what we learned about them, about Georgia and about ourselves.

Winter in Mallorca

In Palma de Mallorca I usually stay at Hostal Pons in the heart of the old town, in Carrer del Vi, Wine Street. It is a small hotel converted from an old aristocratic palace, with an Arab-Renaisance columned patio, so characteristic of the city. The owners – a young brother and sister – also live here, in the back. It offers beautiful views, especially in the morning and early afternoon, as sunlight passes through and breaks in a thousand different ways in the columned courtyard, the windows of the hall and the small rooms. The only problem is that the rooms have no heating. Of course, it is not needed for most of the year, as it is mostly hot, and fortunately the tourist season also falls on that period. But Palma can also be cold, especially in January. Most other hotels are therefore not open either, since there are no visitors. I am also alone in Pons. The owners don’t show up very often, so I feel like the last bachelor descendant of a baronial family in his mountain mansion, as described by Llorenç Villalonga in his Bearn, or a mansion in Mallorca. Fortunately, the brothers were attentive enough to set up a mobile gas convector in the hall for the evening, so I can work at one of the tables without the risk of freezing. I remember when living in Rome, where, in early March, central heating is already switched off but the heat of the sun is not yet turned on, so that cold radiates profusely from the damp walls, my landlord consoled me that a Swede lived there before me, who complained that he had never had a cold in all his life as he did here in Rome.

The windows of the bathrooms overlook the courtyard of the St. Alfonso Liguori School. The sound of children chirping wakes me in the morning. As I slowly get up, the second-stage wake-up call comes on, the bells of the medieval Church of the Holy Cross behind the block of the hotel. It is one of the best preserved medieval churches in Palma, but its beautiful interior can only be seen once a week, at eleven on Sundays, when a Mass is held in German. I once mingled with the priest after Mass, and it turned out that not only was he from Berlin, but we even had a common regular pub on Yorckstraße. Of course, it is understandable that I never see him there, since he spends all his time in Mallorca.

Leaving the hotel, I head to the beach for the first coffee at Plaçe Drassana, the place of the former shipyard. In January, most of the bars, restaurants and shops in Palma are closed, which is now also justified by covid. The Drassana, usually throbbing from the crowds in the bars around it, is now completely abandoned. Only two places are open, a curry eatery and the Bar Arenas 1951, the area’s popular pub. I sit in there. While working on my laptop, I am listening to the girl at the bar serving guests. Altough I said there were no tourists, nevertheless occasionally some English and Italian slips in: probably expats living here. She speaks in excellent English and Italian with them, besides Spanish and Catalan, obvious here. “Enhorabuena, how many languages you speak and how well,” I congratulate her when I pay. “Oh, I also speak German and French”, she adds modestly. “Where did you learn so many languages? Here, in the bar?” “No, at home.” It turns out that she was born in Verona, in an Italian family, but her grandmother was Romanian, and her grandfather German, apparently a Saxon from Transylvania, and then she worked in many bars all over Europe. “Here in Mallorca is the best”, she says, “the freedom is great, and the guests are relaxed. This is better than anything else. But it’s very important that you work,” she underlines seriously.

If they opened a window on the place of the giant poster, you would see more or less the same as on the poster: the Gothic cathedral of Mallorca:

On the way back, the “old gallery” almost opposite the hotel is also closed. Although I do not remember of having ever seen it open in the twenty years since I have been coming to Mallorca.

Its being a gallery is only confirmed by the ad hoc exhibition on the façade. To the left of the gate, a “found poem”, written in chalk:

I want to sleep a while. A while, a minute, a century. But all must know that I have not died, Federico is alive.

Federico García Lorca: Gacela de la muerte oscura (The ghazal of the dark death)

Quiero dormir el sueño de las manzanas
Alejarme del tumulto de los cementerios.
Quiero dormir el sueño de aquel niño
Que quería cortarse el corazón en alta mar.

No quiero que me repitan que los muertos no pierden la sangre;
Que la boca podrida sigue pidiendo agua.
No quiero enterarme de los martirios que da la hierba,
Ni de la luna con boca de serpiente
Que trabaja antes del amanecer.

Quiero dormir un rato,
Un rato, un minuto, un siglo;
Pero que todos sepan que no he muerto;
Que haya un establo de oro en mis labios;
Que soy un pequeño amigo del viento Oeste;
Que soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas.

Cúbreme por la aurora con un velo,
Porque me arrojará puñados de hormigas,
Y moja con agua dura mis zapatos
Para que resbale la pinza de su alacrán.

Porque quiero dormir el sueño de las manzanas
Para aprender un llanto que me limpie de tierra;
Porque quiero vivir con aquel niño oscuro
Que quería cortarse el corazón en alta mar.

I want to sleep the dream of the apples,
to withdraw from the tumult of the cemeteries.
I want to sleep the dream of that child, who
wanted to cut his heart on the high seas.

I don't want to hear again that the dead do not lose their blood
That the putrid mouth goes on asking for water
I don't want to learn of the tortures of the grass
Nor of the moon with the serpent's mouth that labors before dawn

I want to sleep a while
A while, a minute, a century
But all must know that I have not died
That there is a stable of gold in my lips
That I am the small friend of the west wind
That I am the immense shadow of my tears

Cover me at dawn with a veil
Because dawn will throw fistsful of ants at me
And wet with hard water my shoes
So that the pincers of the scorpion slide

For I want to sleep the dream of the apples
To learn a lament that will cleanse me of the earth
For I want to live with that dark child
Who wanted to cut his heart on the high seas.

English version by Joan Baez

There are two small niches in the wall on each side. The installation arranged in them completes the experience. To the right is a distorted photograph of a child and a half-eaten apple, as if to hint at the poet’s dream.

And to the left, a peculiar association, the image of the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, who fought on the side of the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, although she was only allowed to shoot once, because she was nearsighted, and her target unsure.

In the evening, as I am coming home, a candle burns in front of the photo. I stop, but I don’t have a camera, I cannot take pictures. At the gate opposite, two boys are just saying goodbye. The one who stays turns to him: “Do you like it? I have put there the photo, because it fits so well. And I light the candle in front of it.” Then it turns out he does not even know who Simone Weil was. The absurd genius of Spain continues to work. Federico is alive.

The Magi from Paris

The Magi have been returning here to Río Wang year after year. First they descended from the bronze gates of the cathedral of Pisa, proving with early Christian and Orthodox depictions that in this world we can see them only through a glass, darkly, and cannot know anything about their true identity. Then we met them and other kings in Persia, understandably, since they came from there according to the earliest tradition. Later we saw how the uncrowned kings of Florence, the Medici, made the procession of the Three Kings Magi a city feast representing the power of their family, and how they immortalized it in a number of public works of art with the greatest artists, Fra Angelico, Botticelli or Leonardo, while preserving their most gorgeous representation for their private chapel in the Medici Palace. An this year they are coming from Paris.

In Prince Berry’s famous Beautiful Book of Hours, the masterpiece of Franco-Flemish Gothic manuscript art, painted by the Limbourg brothers between 1412 and 1416, the Feast of the Magi is illustrated by a double miniature on pages 51v-52r. The double full-page depiction marks the importance of the feast for the contemporary aristocracy. However, it is strange that the two miniatures painted on two separate sheets of parchment were only retrospectively inserted into the codex, in the Christmas section of the Marian lauds.

In the right-side picture we see a traditional Magi scene. The Magi arrive with a princely cortege before the Holy Family sitting in the barn. The oldest king is already kneeling before the King of Kings and giving Him his gift. In the background, on a green hill, shepherds graze their flocks and look up at the sky, where, under a heavenly lunette protruding from the earthly world, we see both the angels announcing the birth and the star of Bethlehem leading the Magi.

In the left-side picture, however, we see an unusual episode. The thre Magi and their entourage are coming from three winds towards the Gothic image column in the center. Such roadside image columns, which displayed statues or pictures of saints to the travelers and blessed their journey, lined the road from Paris to St. Denis. Around them, there is the wilderness, with animals usually symbolizing the wilderness of Bethlehem, like the lion and the bear (the latter is also the crest animal of Prince Berry). And in the background, a magnificent city is shining under a golden sun, apparently Jerusalem. However, it is unmistakably identified by the characteristic buildings of medieval Paris, Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle and Louvre, which are also included in earlier miniatures of the codex.

The wilderness and the city refer to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and the three groups suggest that the three Magi met for the first time in Bethlehem. Yet in the Gospels it is stated that they came together to Jerusalem to inquire about the newborn king of the Jews, whose star they saw in the east.

However, the Limbourg brothers and their contemporaries read more than the Gospel of Matthew. The laconic information of the Gospels were readily imagined further by medieval people who preferred to make up colorful precedents histories to such brief, in medias res introductions like His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” or “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked”. Such was the Gospel of James (Protoevangelium Jacobi), which tells the story of Mary from her conception to that of Jesus. And such book was the Historia trium regum, the History of the Three Kings, that is, the Magi.

The book was written by the Carmelite monk Johannes de Hildesheim (1310-1375), author of several popular books, sometime after 1364, on commission by the Bishop of Münster, to provide a worthy spiritual and historical background for the relics of the Magi revered in Cologne. The relics had been collected by Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in the Holy Land, from where she took them to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and later entrusted by Constantine to the custody of Bishop Eustorgius of Milan. From Milan they were sent to Cologne during the Investiture Controversy by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1164, after he conquered the city. In Cologne they attracted masses of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. The Historia trium regum, immediately translated into their mother tongues, German, French, Flemish and English, served as their “guidebook”.

The reliquiary of the Magi in the Cologne Cathedral, 1181-1230, work of Nicholas of Verdun, the masterpiece of Meuse jewelry

This book has gathered everything worth or not worth knowing about the Magi from a number of authentic or imaginative sources. It gives a detailed description of their countries, the “three Indies” (one of which appears to have been somewhere in Nubia), their customs and products, and how the three kings took notice of the Star of Bethlehem independently of each other, how rich entourage they composed, and how they miraculously arrived in only twelve days to Jerusalem. But when they were only two miles away from the city, a great dark cloud covered the sky and the star, “as Isaias says”, says Johannes: “Arise, shine, Jerusalem, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you, and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is 60:1-3).

Palestrina: Surge, illuminare Jerusalem (Arise, shine, Jerusalem) (1575) – Tallis Scholars

And “under the cloud they got closer and closer to Jerusalem, and finally they met under the city, and sent ambassadors to each other and asked each other what they were looking for there. And when it turned out that they were all involved in the same matter, they became very happy and rode together, hugging and kissing each other, and their determination to search further became even sronger and hotter.”

The description of the meeting in the 1483 German edition of Historia trium regum. Strasbourg, Heinrich Knoblotzer

Thus, the first miniature represents this apocryphal moment: when the three rulers of “the three Indies”, led by the same star, finally meet under Jerusalem on a crossroads localized by the Historia somewhere between the Golgotha and the Mount of Olives, both lying outside the city at that time.

And the depiction of the Magi owes something else to the Historia. The previous chapters describe in detail how many treasures, ornate equipments and great entourage – “riche tresoure and riche ornamentis and grete multitude of pepil”, as the contemporary English translation says – were collected by the King Magi before they set out, thereby fulfilling the continuation of the above prophecy of Isaiah: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: … The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth will serve you; they will be accepted as offerings on my altar, and I will adorn my glorious temple. Who are these that fly along like clouds, like doves to their nests? Surely the islands look to me; in the lead are the ships of Tarshish, bringing your children from afar, with their silver and gold, to the honor of the Lord your God.” (Is 60:3-9).

And this is how the depiction of the three Kings Magi develops from a previous three-figure composition into a rich procession covering all the landscape, which really suits kings, and which aristocratic customers like to identify with. It is no coincidence that the first such representation is found in the Book of Hours of Prince Berry, a son of a king of France, jut a few decades after the French translation of the Historia. And this attractive model will soon be followed by other representative commissions. With the spread of International Gothic from the Paris court, the new composition is conveyed to the court of Avignon, and from there, to the painting of Siena and Florence, where, in the absence of aristocrats, the emerging Medici employ it and portray themselves in the shape of the kings that turn their wealth to godly purposes.

Bartolo di Fredi: Adoration of the kings, 1375-85, originally in the Siena Cathedral, today in Siena’s Pinacoteca Nazionale

Gentile da Fabriano: Adoration of the kings, 1423, today in the Uffizi (click for details!)

Benozzo Gozzoli: The march of the Three Kings on the walls of the Medici Palace in Florence, 1459. Detail with the portraits of the Medici family, and with the twelve-year old Lorenzo il Magnifico in the middle. For the complete fresco and its history, see our previous post.

Hotel Meissl & Schadn

During the season of the great exhibitions in Vienna from late autumn to early spring, one often walks along the Kärntnerstraße which leads from Stephansdom to the museums. On the corner where you have to turn to the Albertina, an unusual mosaic running across the entire second floor of a building attracts your attention among the hypermodern façades of the elegant shopping street. The figures in the mosaic symbolize different peoples. If one carefully decyphers their identities, they add up to the ethnography of the five continents.

The central axis of the building is, of course, filled with allegories of Europe, with the coat of arms of Austria in the center, surrounded by a woman symbolizing the city of Vienna and an armored German knight. Above them, a man and a woman symbolize trade and industry, the vocations of Europe. From the characteristic peoples of Europe, we can see on the left a Frenchman with a revolutionary Frygian cap, and an Italian with a Doge’s hat, and on the right two hard-to-identify peoples – perhaps an ancient German and one of the lucky Eastern Europeans. At the top of the group rises the genius of Light, which floods all the other continents with the light from here.

On the left axis, the peoples of the New World are lying in happy idleness, a mixture of Indians and Gauchos. Beneath the window, a golden Mayan motif evokes the highest level of civilization they have ever achieved. The pose of the Indian woman evokes the river statues of the Donner Fountain in the neighboring Neumarkt, as well as Michelangelo’s Medici epitaphs. In a strange way, an Austrian Old Shatterhand also appears among them in wild western dress, who brings them the light of Europe and the flag of Austria on a white horse.

In terms of composition and motifs, the third axis to the right is the most exciting one, with the allegories of the peoples of the East. In the middle, between the two windows, opens a horseshoe-shaped Andalusian Moorish gate, through which a young black camel driver steps out, leading his camel on a bridle. To the left is an Indian couple, to the right an Arab one: the stereotypical attribute of the former is the incense, and of the latter, the seductive odalisk. Between the two couples, a Japanese lady in a kimono holds a Chinese vase, alluding to the Japonisme of the turn of the century. The background of the Indian couple includes a stylized Javanese pattern, of the Arabians a Persian rug.

And the most peculiar motif: to the right of the horseshoe-arched gate, above the window, there is a faravahar, the identity symbol of the Iranian Zoroastrians, an allegory of God with the extended wings. True, a little arbitrarily transformed: the usual blessing male figure is missing from the middle of it, and the two bird feet are reinterpreted as cobras. It seems that the artist had already seen the motif, but did not understand it, or considered it a freely variable oriental decorative element.

Where did a Viennese artist see the Zoroastrian symbol of God at the turn of the century? It might be surprising, but he had quite a few occasions to. As Encyclopaedia Iranica describes in detail, commercial and later diplomatic, military and cultural relations between Austria and Persia developed greatly during the 19th century. The Shah, struggling with the pliers of Russia and Britain, found an external ally in Austria, still a great power at the time. From here he asked for support and specialists for the modernization of Persian education and military technology, and there was a considerable Austro-Persian trade between the ports of Trieste and Trabzon. Shah Naser-al-Din, who was of the same age as Francis Joseph and who took the throne in the same year of 1848, also took part in the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair, and, after his Austrian visit in 1878, also in the 1891 Vienna Carpet Show, which had a special focus on the Persian carpet industry. A multitude of enthusiastic Austro-Hungarian Orientalists visited the monuments of Persia and published their experiences at home. And they did not overlook the exotic faravahar.

The faravahar in Persepolis, on the 5th-c BC palace of King Darius, on which many 19th-century Austro-Hungarian travelers left their carved signatures

What building could have been adorned with such magnificent mosaics? Nowadays, the ground floor houses a currency exchange, which would somehow justify the display of the peoples of the world, but upstairs there is a clothing store, which obviously would have been completely uninteresting to a significant part of the peoples depicted.

But nowadays, the rest of the building does not even look as it did in its heyday, at the turn of the century, when it was visited from its Kärtnerstraße side by all the peoples of the world, and from the Neuer Markt by the elite of Vienna. In fact, the block, built in 1894-1896 in the Romantic Neo-Gothic style, was the Hotel & Restaurant Meissl & Schadn. From Kärtnerstraße, one of Vienna’s most elegant hotels, whose guests are referenced in the mosaic of the façade made by Eduard Veith, the only element surviving from the building, which was bombed by the Americans and looted and set on fire by the Soviets. And from the Neuer Markt it was one of the best restaurants in the city, praised by contemporary authors as “Rindfleischparadies”.

In fact, the restaurant of Meissl & Schadn offered no less than twenty-four beef dishes with ten different garnishes, all following centuries-old Viennese recipes. It was a privilege to dine here that only Vienna’s elite could enjoy. It is no coincidence that on October 16, 1916 the socialist Friedrich Adler shot dead Prime Minister Count Karl Stürgkh at the dining table of the Groser Speisesaal here in protest against the war. (Count Stürgkh also signed Franz Joseph’s edict To my Peoples). The assassination made both Count Stürgkh and Adler a martyr – the former, in his death, and the latter, during his lifetime – and it further enhanced the reputation of the restaurant. So much that the really high-caliber authors – Karl Kraus, Egon Erwin Kisch, Maximilian Harden – only then devoted articles to the restaurants, in which, in addition to issues of political justice, they also wrote about the other virtues of the dining table. But they were all surpassed by Joseph Wechsberg, whose recollection of Meissl & Schadn’s Tafelspitz is both an anthem to Viennese cuisine and to the disappeared old Vienna.

Joseph Wechsberg, like so many who made the imperial city great, came from the provinces, of a Moravian Jewish family. After studying in Vienna and Paris, he became a journalist in Prague. The Czech government sent him to America in 1938 – just in time – to promote the Czech position on the Sudetenland. From there, he only returned in 1943 as a U.S. Army correspondent. From then on, he wrote only in English, promoting to the American public the disappeared Europe in which he grew up. In his book Blue Trout and Black Truffles: Peregrinations of an Epicure, an apotheosis of European cuisine, published in 1954, he devotes a separate chapter to the beef menu of the former Meissl & Schadn.

“The Hofrat’s Tafelspitz

Few Americans think of boiled beef as the gastronomic treat it is known for in central Europe. In Vienna there was a restaurant that was held in high esteem by local epicures for its boiled beef – twenty-four different varieties of it, to be exact.

The restaurant was Meissl & Schadn, an eating-place of international reputation, and the boiled beef specialties of the house were called Tafelspitz, Tafeldeckel, Rieddeckel, Beinfleisch, Rippenfleisch, Kavalierspitz, Kruspelspitz, Hieferschwanzl, Schulterschwanzl, Schulterscherzl, Mageres Meisel (or Mäuserl), Fettes Meisel, Zwerchried, Mittleres Kügerl, Dünnes Kügerl, Dickes Kügerl, Bröselfleisch, Ausgelöstes, Brustkern, Brustfleisch, Weisses Scherzl, Schwarzes Scherzl, Zapfen, and Ortschwanzl.

The terminology was bound to stump anybody who had not spent the first half of his adult life within the city limits of Vienna. It was concise and ambiguous at the same time; even Viennese patriarchs did not always agree exactly where the Weisses Scherzl ended and the Ortschwanzl began. Fellow Austrians from the dark, Alpine hinterlands of Salzburg and Tyrol rarely knew the fine points of distinction between, say, Tafelspitz, Schwarzes Scherzl and Hieferschwanzl – all referred to in America as brisket or plate of beef – or between the various Kügerls. Old-time Viennese butchers with the steady hand of distinguished brain surgeons were able to dissect the carcass of a steer into thirty-two different cuts, and four qualities, of meat. Among the first-quality cuts were not only tenderloin, porterhouse, sirloin, and prime rib of beef, as elsewhere, but also five cuts used exclusively for boiling: two Scherzls, two Schwanzls, and Tafelspitz. Unlike in present-day America, where a steer is cut up in a less complicated, altogether different manner, in Vienna only the very best beef was good enough to be boiled.

You had to be a butcher, a veterinarian, or a Meissl & Schadn habitué of long standing to know the exact characteristics of these Gustostückerln. Many Viennese had been born in the Austro-Hungarian monachy’s provinces of Upper Austria, Serbia, Slovakia, South Tyrol, Bohemia, or Moravia. (Even today certain pages of the Vienna telephone directory contain as many Czech-sounding names as the Prague directory.) These ex-provincials were eager to obliterate their un-Viennese past; they tried to veneer their arrivisme; they wanted to be more Viennese than the people born and brought up there. One way to show one’s Bodenständigkeit was to display a scholarly knowledge of the technical terms for boiled beef. It was almost like the coded parlance of an exclusive club. In Vienna a person who couldn’t talk learnedly about at least a dozen different cuts of boiled beef, didn’t belong, no matter how much money he’d made, or whether the Kaiser had awarded him the title of Hofrat (court councilor) or Kommerzialrat.

The guests of Meissl & Schadn were thoroughly familiar with the physical build of a steer and knew the exact anatomical location of Kügerls, Scherzls, and Schwanzls. At Meissl & Schadn, precision was the keynote. You didn’t merely order “boiled beef” – you wouldn’t step into Tiffany’s and ask for “a stone” – but made it quite clear exactly what you wanted. If you happened to be a habitué of the house, you didn’t have to order, for they would know what you wanted. A Meissl & Schadn habitué never changed his favorite cut of boiled beef.

The restaurant was part of the famous Hotel Meissl & Schadn on Hoher Markt, which was popular with incognito potentates for its discreet, highly personalized service. The chambermaids looked like abesses and knew the idisyncrasies of every guest. If a man came to Meissl & Schadn who hadn’t been there for ten years, he might find a small, hard pillow under his head because the abbess hadn’t forgotten that he liked to sleep hard.

There were two restaurants, the Schwemme on the ground floor – a plebeian place with lower prices and checkered tablecloths – and the de-luxe Restaurant on the second floor, with high prices and snow-white damask tablecloths. The upper regions were under the command of the great Heinrich, who was already a venerable octogenarian when I first saw him in the late twenties.

* * *

He was a massive, corpulent man with the pink cheeks of a healthy baby and the wisdom of a Biblical patriarch. His hands and jowls were sagging and he had serious trouble keeping his eyes open. He never budged from his command post near the door, from where he could overlook all tables, like an admiral on the bridge of his flagship surveying the units of his fleet. Few people in Vienna had ever seen an admiral in the flesh, but everybody agreed that Heinrich looked more an admiral than many a real one. Once in a while his pulse would stop beating and his eyelids would droop, and he would remain suspended between life and death, but the défilé of the waiters carrying silver plates with various cuts of boiled beef never failed to revive him.

Heinrich had spent his life in the faithful service of emperors, kings, archdukes, Hofräte, artists, and generals, bowing to them, kissing the hands of their ladies, or wives. His bent back had taken on the curvature of the rainbow, reflecting the fine nuances of his reverence, from the impersonal half-bow, with which he would dispose of the nouveaux riches, to the affectionate deep-bow, which was reserved for his old habitués, impoverished court councilors, and aristocrats living from the sale of one painting to the next.

Between Heinrich and his habitués there ruled a highly civilized, strictly regulated protocol. Upon entering the restaurant the guest would be greeted by Heinrich – or, rather, by Heinrich’s bent back expressing the exact degree of respect in which the guest was held. The depth of Heinrich’s bow depended upon the guest’s social standing, his taste for, and his knowledge of, boiled beef, and his seniority. It took a man from twenty-five to thirty years to earn the full deep-bow. Such people were greeted by “Meine Verehrung, küss die Hand”, which was breathed rather than whispered, and never spoken; Heinrich wasn’t able to speak any more.

The guest would be taken to his table by one of Heinrich’s captains. Each guest always had the same table and the same waiter. There was mutual respect between waiter and guest; when either one died, the other would go to his funeral. The waiter would hold the chair for the guest; he would wait until the guest was comfortably seated. One of Heinrich’s axioms was that “a man doesn’t enjoy his beef unless he sits well.”

When the guest was seted, the waiter would stand in front of him, waiting for the guest’s order. That was a mere formality, since the waiter knew what the guest wanted. The guest would nod to the waiter; the waiter, in turn, would nod to the commis; and the commis would depart for the kitchen.

The commis’s order to the cooks had the highly personal flavor that distinguished all transactions at Meissl & Schadn. It would be “The Schulterscherzl for General D.” or “Count H. is waiting for his Kavalierspitz.” This implied a high degree of finickiness on the part of the habitué, who wouldn’t be satisfied with so narrow a definition as the Kavalierspitz; his refined plate demanded that he gets his private, very special part of a Kavalierspitz.

After a suitable interval the commis would bring in the meat on a massive, covered silver plate. Some people would have a consommé before the meat; clear consommé was the only preceeding dish Heinrich approved of. The commis was followed by the piccolo, an eight-year-old gnome wearing a tiny tuxedo and a toy bow tie. The piccolo’s job was to serve the garniture: grated horseardish, prepared with vinegar (Essigkren), with apple sauce (Apfelkren), or with whipped cream (Oberskren); mustard, pickles, boiled potatoes, boiled cabbage, spinach, or anything else the guest wanted with the meat.

An elaborate ritual would ensue. The waiter had been standing motionless, watching his subordinates as they put the various plates on a small serving-table next to the guest’s table. Now the waiter would step forward, lift the cover off the silver plate, and perform the “presentation” of the meat. This was another mere motion, since the guest’s enthusiastic approval was a foregone conclusion. The waiter would serve the meat on a hot plate, place it on the table in front of the guest, make a step back, and glance at Heinrich. Then the guest, in turn, would glance at Heinrich.

There followed a minute heavy with suspense. From his command post Heinrich would review the table, with a short, sweeping glance taking in the meat, the garniture, the accessories, the setting, the position of chair and table. It was hard to understand how he managed to see anything through the narrow slit of his almost closed eyelids; but see he did. He would give a slight nod of approval to the waiter, and to the guest. Only then would a genuine habitué start to eat.

* * *

Words of ordinary prose have generally been held inadequate to express the delights of boiled beef at Meissl & Schadn. Many Austrian poets were moved to rhymed praise while they regaled themselves on a well-night perfect Hieferschwanzl. But poets, especially Austrian poets, are rarely given to tenacity of purpose, and somehow the poets didn’t bother to write down their poems after leaving the restaurant. Richard Strauss, an ardent devotee of the Beinfleisch, often considered writing a tone poem about his favorite dish, but after he finished his ballet Schlagobers (Whipped Cream), he thought that another major composition devoted to an Austrian food speccialty might be misinterpreted by posterity and resented by his admirers in Germany, who, like most Germans, disliked Vienna. Strauss, not unaware of his considerable German royalties, dropped the project.

“Too bad he did,” a Viennese music-critic and Strauss-admirer said not long ago. “A tone poem on Beinfleisch might have surpassed even the transcendental beauty of Death and Transfiguration.

* * *

There was a reason for the excellence of the beef served at Meissl & Schadn. The restaurant owned herds of cattle that were kept inside a large sugar refinery in a village north of Vienna. There the steers were fed on molasses and sugar-beet mash, which gave their meat its extraordinary marble texture, taste, tenderness, and juice. The animals were slaughtered just at the right time, and the meat was kept in the refrigerators from one to two weeks.

In Vienna, in those days, boiled beef was not a dish; it was a way of life. Citizens of the Danube capital, venturing into hostile, foreign lands where boiled beef was simply boiled beef, would take Viennese cookbooks along that contained the anatomical diagram of a steer, with numbered partitions and subdivisions indicating the Gustostückerln. This was a wise precaution. Even in German-speaking lands the technical expressions denoting various cuts of beef differ from land to land. Vienna’s Tafelspitz (brisket), for instance, is called Tafelstück by the Germans and Huft by the German-speaking Swiss. A Viennese Beinfleisch is called Zwerchried in Germany and plat-de-côte among the Swiss.

* * *

Vienna’s boiled-beef-eaters are vehement chauvinists. They don’t recognize the American New England dinner, the French pot-au-feu, or the petite marmite.

“The meat of the petite marmite is cooked in an earthenware stock-pot,” a Tafelspitz scholar explained to me. “And the necks and wings of fowl are added. Incredible!” He shuddered slightly.

The Viennese experts take a dim view of boeuf saignant à la ficelle, rare beef with a string, a great French dish. A piece of fillet is tightly wrapped around with a string, roasted quickly in a very hot oven, and dipped for sixty seconds – not for fift-eight or sixty-two, but for sixty – in boiling consommé, just before it is served. The juice is kept inside the pinkish meat by the trick of quick roasting and boiling.

But the Viennese do recognize Tellerfleisch, another local speciality. Tellerfleisch (the name means “plate meat”) is eaten only between meals. It consists of a soup plate filled two thirds with clear beef soup, boiled carrots, split green onions, chopped parsley, with a piece of almost but not quite boiled beef and several slices of marrow sprinkled with chopped chive.

There were two schools of cooking beef in Vienna. People who cared more about a strong soup than about the meat put the raw meat into cold water and let it cook gently, for hours, on a slow fire. They would add parsley, carrots, green onions celery, salt, and pepper. After an hour the white foam that had formed on top was skimmed off. Sometimes half an onion, fried on the open range plate, was put in to give the soup a dark color. Others, who wanted their beef juicy and tender, put it straight into boiling water and let it simmer. This would close the pores of the meat and keep the juices inside.

* * *

The Meissl & Schadn was hit by American bombs in March 1945. A few weeks later, Red Army liberators tossed gasoline-sokaed rags and gas into the half-destroyed building and set fire to it. The hotel burned down. But the tradition that had made Meissl & Schadn a great restaurant had come to an end long before. The restaurant was a creation of the Habsburg monarchy; its prosperity and decay reflected the greatness and decline of the Danube empire. With the help of Heinrich, it survived the hectic twenties, but when he died, the restaurant was doomed.

“People would come in and ask for ʻboiled beef’,” an ex-habitué now remembers. “It was shocking.”

Vienna’s butchers have forgotten the fine points of cutting up a steer, and the chefs don’t know how to slice a Tafelspitz. The small pieces at the pointed end of the triangular Tafelspitz are cut lengthwise, but the large, long, fibrous, upper end must be cut along its breadth.

Today most Viennese restaurants serve Rindfleisch or Beinfleisch, without any specification. The cattle are raised, and the meat is cut and cooked without the loving care that made it such a treat. It is often tough and dry, and served by ignorant waiters who recommend to their customers expensive “outside” dishes, such as Styrian pullet or imported lobster. The waiters are more interested in the size of their tips than in the contentment of the guest’s palate. Restaurant-owners, operating on the get-rich-quick principle, no longer keep herds of cattle inside sugar refineries. It wouldn’t be profitable, they say; besides, many refineries are located in the Soviet Zone of Austria.

* * *

Where Meissl & Schadn once stood, there is now an office building. Most of Heinrich’s habitués are dead, and the few survivors have been scattered to the winds by the last war. Once in a while two of them may meet in an undistinguished Viennese restaurant whose menu offers a Tafelspitz, a first-quality cut of boiled beef which, the old habitués can see at a glance, is really Kruspelspitz, a fourth-quality cut, somewhat comparable to an American chuck or round of beef.

At such moments of gloom the old habitués are likely to remember, with a nostalgic sigh, the day in the late twenties when old, dignified Hofrat von B., one of Heinrich’s favorite guests, came into the dining-room of Meissl & Schadn, exactly at twelve fifteen, as he had done almost every day in the past twenty-seven years, and was ceremoniously guided to his table. Everybody knew, of course, that the Herr Hofrat came for “his” Tafelspitz, the narrow part of that special cut which almost, but not quite, touches another first-quality Viennese cut, called Hieferschwanzl. If the Kaiser himself had come in, he wouldn’t have got the Hofrat’s particular piece of Tafelspitz. Heinrich was loyal to his habitués.

On that day, as on any other day, there was the familiar ceremonial after the Hofrat had sat down. In due time the commis appeared with the covered silver plate, followed by the piccolo who carried the Apfelkren. But at this point the waiter did not lift the cover off the silver plate to “present” the meat, as he’d always done. Instead he discreetly glanced at Heinrich. Then the old man himself advanced toward the Hofrat’s table, slowly and cautiously, like a large ocean liner moving toward the pier. Everybody looked up at him. It had become very quiet in the dining-room.

Heinrich bent his back until his mouth almost touched the Hofrat’s ear.

“I’m disconsolate, Herr Hofrat,” he whispered. “A regrettable accident in the kitchen. The Hofrat’s Tafelspitz has been cooked too long. It has –” Heinrich didn’t have the strength to finish the sentence, but the tips of his fingers twitched, indicating that the meat had dissolved in the soup like snowflakes in the March sunshine. He was very pale and his jowls were sagging. He looked as though he had been dead for a while and had been resurrected by mistake.

His breath almost gave out, but with a supreme effort he continued: “I have taken the liberty to order for the Herr Hofrat the rear part of the Hieferschwanzl, close to, and very much like, the Tafelspitz.

He made an effort to open his eyes and nearly succeeded. At his nod, the waiter lifted the cover off the plate with a flourish and presented the meat. There it was, a large, beautiful cut, tender and juicy, sprinkled with consommé, as delicate and enticing a piece of boiled beef as you could find anywhere in the world.

The Hofrat sat up stiffly. He cast one short, shocked glance at the meat. When he spoke, at last, his voice had the ring of arrogance – arrogance instilled in him by generations of boiled-beef-eating ancestors who had been around in Vienna in 1683 while the city fought off the assault of the Turks and saved – for a while, at least – Western civilization.

“My dear Heinrich,” the Hofrat said, with a magnificent sweep of his hand, and accentuating every single syllable, “you might just as well have offered me a veal cutlet.” A slight shiver seemed to run down his spine. He got up. “My hat and cane, please.”

He strode stiffly toward the door. Heinrich made his deepest full-bow, and he remained bent down until the Hofrat had left. But people sitting near Heinrich swear that there was a smile on his face. He looked almost happy.