Friday, October 31, 2008

The Spirit Photographs of William Hope

William Hope (1863 - 1933) was a little known English medium in life, gaining posthumous fame after an album of his 'spirit' photographs was unearthed in a Lancashire antiques shop. Here is the link to the complete set: The Spirit Photographs of William Hope @ the Flickr Commons.

Follows a short biography of Hope, from Flickr, where I found these pictures.

"Born in 1863 in Crewe, Hope started his working life as a carpenter. In about 1905 he became interested in spirit photography after capturing the supposed image of a ghost while photographing a friend.

He went on to found the Crewe Circle – a group of six spirit photographers led by Hope. When Archbishop Thomas Colley joined the group they began to publicise their work.

Following World War I support for the Crewe Circle grew as the grieving relatives of those lost to the war sought a means of contacting their loved ones.

By 1922 Hope had moved to London where he became a professional medium. The work of the Crew Circle was investigated on various occasions.

The most famous of these took place in 1922, when the Society for Psychical Research sent Harry Price to investigate the group.

Price collected evidence that Hope was substituting glass plates bearing ghostly images in order to produce his spirit photographs.

Later the same year Price published his findings, exposing Hope as a fraudster. However, many of Hope’s most ardent supporters spoke out on his behalf, the most famous being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Hope continued to practice, despite his exposure. He died in London on 7 March 1933."

The Evocation of Mephisto

I thought I'd post something scary for Halloween. The following clip is taken from F.W. Murnau's 1926 adaptation of 'Faust'. In this scene, Faust, having found a book of the dark arts, attempts to conjure the demon Mephistopheles whilst in the middle of a crossroad, under a full and leprous moon. Murnau's skill at evoking the dread and power of the supernatural is something to behold. His skill at inducing chills up one's spine is simply legendary, and puts to shame the 'efforts' of so many derivative filmmakers who choose to focus on cheap thrills and loud noises to convey that feeling of dread we all love.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The Pabasa is a Filipino Holy Week tradition, wherein the Passion of Our Lord is chanted in verse. The tone of the hymn varies from region to region, but the text is almost universal; forget about your chant workshops and Tallis motets for a little while and enjoy the haunting, guttural warbling that defined the faith of the laity in the Philippines for hundreds of years. This particular pabasa was filmed in Cardona, Rizal.

Friday, October 24, 2008

De profundis

I'm going to the cemetery tomorrow.

Think of it as a pre-All Souls' Day vigil. Here in the Philippines October and November are always very mystical months; there is a great deal of mystery and wonder that envelops them. Locally, November 1 and 2 are known as the 'undas', so-called, because of the waves upon waves of people visiting the dead on these two days. But no ordinary visits, these-- from Mexico, something of the Dia de Los Muertos seems to have been imported to our country. Thus undas in Manila means spending all day-- sometimes up to midnight-- in the cemeteries. There is always drinking, eating, merry-making, gambling (if you're lucky), and an occasional impromptu family reunion, happening right beside your loved ones' tombs.

The cemetery where my grandfather is buried is middle class, more or less. But you will still see people playing music and talking rather loudly, as it has always been. The older ones say, the dead need company; if we do not keep vigil with them for the day, it will come back to haunt us. Thus, prayers are recited-- novenas, rosaries, chaplets, the occasional song, litanies, and supplications. One always has to be wary, though, since many take it upon themselves to dress up as priests, and collect those delicious stole fees for their own benefit.

I am sure it will be an interesting trip. We will be going with some Protestant relatives, and some hardcore, mantilla-wearing, rosary-praying, knee-walking, statue-kissing Catholics. One time a Protestant aunt, observing a Catholic grand aunt lighting a candle for the deceased, took me aside and told me: 'I don't mean to be rude, but lighting a candle won't do anything for your lolo, since he is either in heaven or hell, and nothing will change that.' I replied: 'But the lighting of the candle is not a salvific act, it's merely for remembrance.' She replied to me: 'That's what you think. Our elders always told us that candles have other properties.'

It was then that I realized that I knew nothing at all about these traditions. I kept quiet, mumbling to myself in the head. Then another Protestant relative stepped forward, "Talked" to my grandfather for a bit, and then started to pray an Our Father, a Haily Mary (!!!), and a Glory Be. It is amazing how the cult of the saints, the rhythm of countless rosaries, the urge to visit and converse with the dead, can be so firmly rooted in the human soul, that even a self-confessed Born-Again Evangelical Protestant, would find herself muttering these forgotten, ancient, 'pagan' incantations. De profundis, indeed.

The days are running faster, it is growing darker earlier, and already the air seems to smell of lagrimas (a local flower associated with funerals) and candle wax. Tomorrow I will see all of these things-- if not all, then some. And I will become that naive, little boy I once was, and I will sleep in the bosom of these strange and forgotten rituals. I hope I don't see a ghost.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Trinity

This depiction of the Holy Trinity is known in Latin America as the 'Trinidad Trifacial'. This particular example hails from Colombia, and was painted by Gregorio Vasquez de Arce y Ceballos. It is worth mentioning that, officially, this iconographic representation of the Trinity is discouraged by the Church; I recall reading somewhere about an edict that tried to suppress this particular 'icon', as well as one of the Holy Trinity inside the Virgin Mary's womb. I will try to find out more about that soon.

Castrum Doloris

The castrum doloris or castle of woes was an often elaborate, theatrical structure, which shelters the catafalque of a deceased person of immense prestige or nobility. In the Philippines, the use of the castrum doloris persisted up until the end of the Spanish occupation. Seen here is a photo of the castle of woes built for the death of Alfonso XII of Spain, in the old Manila Cathedral.

Friday, October 17, 2008

La Guadalupana

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Battle of Lepanto

Ask most people about the Battle of Lepanto today and you will be met with wither an uneasy smile or ignorance. For most of modern, secular Europe, Lepanto was a bloodthirsty massacre inspired by religious bigotry, a blight upon history whose memory must be forgotten, suppressed, and buried. Yet five hundred and thirty seven years ago, that fateful battle forever fixed the boundaries of the Mediterranean.

Few will probably know that Lepanto was the deciding factor that put a stop to Ottoman expansionism; a loss for the Christian side could have very easily meant the fall of Europe. On one side we have the Christian Holy League, under the aegis of the Spanish Hapsburgs, and sailing with the blessing of the Pope himself; on the other, the Ottoman champions, under the leadership of Ali Pasha. But at stake was more than just military power or economic dominance; indeed, one could probably say that Lepanto was as much a battle for the survival of Europe.

No easy task was this-- the mid 1500's was a time of upheaval in Europe. The convocation of the Holy League itself was fraught by mutual suspicion on the parts of those involved. The neutral Venetians were seen as self-serving and treacherous; Spain was seen as too prudent; and everyone secretly balked at the pope's wish to reclaim the Holy Land. Jealousy and division, and not to mention an almost genetically disposed inferiority complex against the Ottomans (conquerors of Byzantium), plagued the Christian side.

Fast forward to 7 October 1571, to one of the bloodiest days in history. In the span of but four hours, 40,000 people darkened the sea with their blood; fire and flame and smoke were everywhere, as the thunderous din of combat blasted ear drums and shook the marrow of men on both sides. However the day would ultimately go to the Christian side, thanks in part to the heavily armed Venetian galleases and the brilliant leadership of Don Juan of Austria. It was nothing short of a miracle-- the Christian Holy League, which up until a few hours before the conflict were arguing amongst themselves, would crush Ottoman power in a victory nothing short of remarkable-- and dangerously close. The leader of the Ottoman fleet, Ali Pasha, resplendent in his brilliant robes, was said to have been felled by an arquebus shot, after which his head had been decapitated by a Spanish soldier and attached to the tip of a spear. It was said that Don Juan was appalled by this barbarous treatment of what he considered a most worthy opponent.

In Europe, a collective sigh of relief was breathed, with the Venetians rejoicing the most. In Rome, it was said that St. Pius V, while in the middle of prayer, was roused by the vision of the enemy kapudan pasha (admiral), Ali Pasha, falling into the sea. It was a sign of victory, and on a most auspicious day, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Pius made sure to add another gem to the Virgin's crown, naming her Our Lady of Victories for the Christian victory against the Turk. The victory of Lepanto had put a permanent check on the expansionist dreams of the Ottomans; henceforth, the Mediterranean would be in a stalemate. Divided Europe came dangerously close to being subjected to Islamic dominance, with the Mediterranean serving as the bloody theater of history. Malta alone locked Europe from the Ottomans, and from then it would be a short way to Rome, the center of Christendom. Philip turned his attention west, to the New World, while the sultan Selim had Persia on his mind. In time, both empires' power would be checked, Philip in the disastrous loss of his armada, and Selim and his successors by the unblinking thrust of modernity.

Today tensions have generally cooled off. Lepanto has largely been forgotten, the people it saved shrugging off the old myths and legends, its heroes and champions dubbed fanatics. In 1965, the pope returned the captured sail of the main Ottoman warship, the Sultana, to Istanbul; it was a large, green sail, embroidered with the 99 names of Allah repeated close to thirty thousand times. People have forgotten, too, the French knight for whom the capital of Malta, Valleta, was named: Sir Jean Parisot La Valette, who had previously crushed the vastly superior Ottoman forces in the great siege of Malta. He would later go on in history as one of the order's most illustrious grand masters, defending Birgu to the last man with a steely resolve that would infuriate Suleiman the Magnificent himself.

In 1646, Manila was threatened by the sudden appearance of five Dutch warships, bent on conquering the city. The soldiers, Spanish and Filipino alike, vowed to our Lady of the Rosary to feast her with a lavish procession if she gave them this victory. And sure enough, the Dutch invaders were repelled; but the most remarkable thing was that this was to happen for five times. Today, Our Lady of the Rosary is known in the Philippines as Nuestra Senora de La Naval. She is truly the Queen of Victories, savior of Europe and Asia.

Friday, October 03, 2008