Exiting October: A Still Life
Why is it only today that I realized how much I enjoy still lifes and that I would like to learn more about their history? In art museums, I gravitate toward them, not portraits or landscapes, perhaps because they offer a glimpse into the everyday life of the painter, the objects lying around at the moment brush touched canvas. Food is a common subject – fruit, for example – and flowers too. And then there are still lifes with a momento mori touch: a skull here, an hourglass there, reminding the viewer that everything in life is in a state of perpetual change, that all is fleeting.
Of course still lifes can be joyful, a carefully arranged composition of disparate objects. The one you see above offers a visual summary of the previous week. I finished knitting a cabled rectangle that will soon be folded and made into a pencil/double point needle case. A friend gave me the blank yellow notebook for my birthday. The pendant with the Roman goddess Ceres is a souvenir of a trip to the living history museum at the site of Carnuntum, a camp along the Limes which protected the ancient Roman province of Pannonia and where Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations. The loaf is a Striezel, a braided yeast bread with raisins typically eaten on All Saint’s Day in Austria and southern Germany. TC will make a batch of laundry detergent with the horse chestnuts we gathered. And the leaves are from one of the oldest trees in Austria.
This oak tree near Bad Blumau in eastern Styria is more than 1,000 years old – not the oldest oak in Europe as it claims to be, but still awe inspiring. Younger than the Roman walls at Carnuntum, yet older than the House of Habsburg. It was wonderful to be able to approach it, to walk around it, to touch its bark. I am thankful it was not roped off like a museum piece. My thoughts meandered back to a story I had just heard. There was a storyteller at Carnuntum reading ancient Roman myths. TC and I sat down to listen to one. It just happened to be a version of Ovid’s tale of Philemon and Baucis. The gods Jupiter and Mercury disguise themselves as peasants and visit a town, looking for a place to sleep at night. The only people to offer them hospitality are an old couple, Baucis and Philemon. As a reward, the gods grant them one wish. Satisfied with their life up till that point despite living in poverty, they ask to die at the same time so as not to be alone in old age. The gods grant them their wish, and after the couple die, they are transformed into two trees, an oak and a linden, whose roots grow together intertwined, keeping them united in death. I did not see a linden near this oak tree, so it must have been a bachelor.
After our visit to Carnuntum, we took a stroll along the Danube at Bad Deutsch-Altenburg, a small spa town also dating back to Roman times. We were not alone as we watched the traffic on the river. I have heard of trainspotters, so I assume the middle aged man taking a selfie of himself against the backdrop of each of the boats that went by is a member of the species Homo sapiens boatspotterus. In a lovely park full of fallen leaves, we happened upon this sculpture of the river god Danuvius. Previous visitors had left him an offering of horse chestnuts.
Autumn is a beautiful word, derived from the Latin autumnus of uncertain origin. One theory I like is that it comes from the Etruscan and means the passing of the year. Its synonym, fall, comes from the Old English feallan, to fall or die, indicating the prevalence of deciduous trees in the area where the language developed. The German word for autumn/fall, Herbst, is related to the English word harvest. The Polish word for November, listopad, means leaves fall, and by the end of the upcoming month this natural process will be complete for the year. Only a few more weeks to marvel at the blaze of yellow and feel the sink of your feet into a layer of leaves.
Enjoy the fleeting beauty of everything around you!