Predicting the Past

“The most difficult task for a Communist historian is to predict the past.” —damned if I know where this comes from

Ahab may require more mental gymnastics than many other parts of the Agincourt story. I wonder if these threads can make a tapestry?

  • Living (and dying) in the late 3rd century Mediterranean, Ahab was a fisherman-turned-pirate in its Adriatic arm, heavily traveled with cargo from the eastern Empire. He might be described as “an accidental Christian”, martyred in the Christian cause but not actually being a believer himself. So, despite his relics having been brought to Azincourt, France by returning Crusaders, the saint has a place in both the Eastern and Western kalendars. The icon format seems entirely appropriate.
  • Sister parishes (Azincourt and Agincourt; yes, the French spell it differently) dedicated to this obscure Liburnian saint each look to Croatia, site of his martyrdom, burial, and first miracles. Perhaps it was his piracy against Rome that had made Ahab so attractive to Constantinople: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And then the East-West saint—martyred in one; interred in the other—found his way to northwestern Iowa. Plausible.
  • Christ the King parish in Agincourt had initially been dedicated to Ahab, the only church in this hemisphere bearing his name. And 2018 is its 150th anniversary, an opportunity to celebrate, perhaps the exchange of gifts. The icon under discussion is coming here; I wonder what is going the other direction.
  • Despite “The French Connection”, an English artist would be far better equipped to incorporate Pre-Raphaelite imagery. But the English Channel is as potent a cultural barrier as the rift that divides Rome from the Orthodox East. Ah, but my research on the British presence in Dakota Territory gives me a likely scenario: Did you know the Channel Islands, where the Union Jack flies within sight of France, were populated with large numbers of Huguenots, French Protestants who came when it was unsafe to practice their faith on French soil? One of those exotic characters showed up in the Red River Valley in the 1890s, a grain dealer named Gautier de Ste Croix, who had offices in Ada, Grand Forks, and Duluth, and actually proposed a canal from the Red eastward to Lake Superior and a more direct route for Dakota grain to lucrative European markets. Screw Pillsbury and Peavey!
  • Do I know enough about the de Ste Croix family to suspect an artist was among them? It’s more problematic to imagine him/her with a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites.
  • So…a Huguenot artist paints an Orthodox religious icon for a Roman Catholic parish in the style of Holman Hunt. Makes perfect sense to me.

“Night with her Train of Stars” (1912) / by Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914)

Iconic Saint Ahab

There is an old Russian joke — perhaps even predating the 1917 Revolution — regarding history and its relationship with us: “The most difficult task for a Communist historian is to predict the past.” Facts drawn from the past can be marshaled to conform with the present; indeed, to appear that they have shaped it. Inconvenient bits of information are easily “misplaced” or countered with “alternative facts” to suit the prevailing point of view. The shape, the shaping, and the shaper.

”History” has become histories in our current deconstructed academic world as departments of history sprout free-standing programs for Black, Feminist, LGBTQ, and other cultural subgroups craving a place at the table of what has been the White Male European historical banquet, from which others had been consigned to the kiddie’s corner in another room. If that seems harsh or value laden, it wasn’t intended. But I can marshall several facts to support it. That’s what we do at Agincourt: predict the past.

In the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, May Morris (Mrs William Morris) became the icon for feminine beauty. This portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti shows May as triplets, in wistful reverie with herselves.

Photography arrived on the scene almost simultaneous with the Pre-Raphaelites.

What began as a straightforward search for an Orthodox religious icon — representing Ahab’s situation on the interface between Eastern and Western Christianity; like many such lines — a militarized confrontation between contending ideologies — it has morphed into something unexpected: a hybrid representation of Saint Ahab, not straddling the breech between Rome and Constantinople, but sharing some of the imagery drawn from both Orthodox hagiography and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Religious icons seem more alike than different from an outsiders point of view, but that comes from more than mere tradition. Their production must follow strict guidelines, adhering to an accepted canon of symbols and composition and rigorous technical processes. Tradition dictates that it be painted on olive wood which has been primed and sanded multiple times to the smoothest possible surface. It is painted with egg tempera, an ancient organic medium (using egg white) so durable that its colors are still vivid on Egyptian mummy cases more than 2,000 years old. The biggest surprise concerns the requisite gold leaf, the lustrous surface that surrounds each face: I was shocked to learn that its application occurs before any paint is applied. That’s right; the entire gessoed surface is covered with thin layers of gold and then almost completely covered with paint.

Symbols often come from the church’s official biography—hagiography—and in Ahab’s case it would draw from his status as a “red saint” martyred for his faith (rather than “white” who have led blameless lives). It might include elements which reference his work (a sailor turned pirate) and/or the means of his martyrdom (in Ahab’s case, being crucified on the mast of his own ship). Of course, attainment of sainthood also requires miracles—most often inexplicable medical cures; that, too, might be incorporated in the composition.

The Pre-Raphaelites’ philosophy was similarly driven by notions of moral rectitude; of living the very sort of “good” life encouraged by the cult of the saints. Artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt [don’t you love those evocative names?] supported the notion of a moral art that was “not only beautiful”; they believed that art cannot please the eye until it has first addressed the soul. So what had initially seemed an odd amalgam—an Eastern art form fused to (filtered through) a Victorian art movement—now makes a sort of sense that deserves more investigation and thought. I’ll be surprised if it hasn’t been tried before. There is, of course, an actual artist at work on this component of the next Agincourt exhibit (in fewer than five weeks!), but does it also cry out for a backstory? Of course it does and that prospect makes me smile, because I feel a story coming on.


nar·ra·tol·o·gy [nerəˈtäləjē]

  1. the branch of knowledge or literary criticism that deals with the structure and function of narrative and its themes, conventions, and symbols.

On first encounter, I’d have bet narratology was a medical specialization an M.D. might choose following residency. Turns out it’s a way to understand what we’ve been up to in the Agincourt Project.

Professor Mieke Bal’s Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative is one of the many books Amazon’s computers have recommended for my shelves, so I’ve begun to digest it and hope to measure Agincourt against the framework of her model. Could this be the catalyst for bringing the project to publication?

Eva Auld Watson [1889-1948]

WATSON, Eva Ault (1889–1948)

“Gulls and Spray”


linoleum cut on paper / 8 15/16 inches by 8 9/16 inches (image)

Eva Auld Watson met her husband Ernest William Watson [1884–1969] when attending one of his art classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. After marrying in 1911 they spent summers in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, where they co-founded the Berkshire Summer School of Art. Together they “studied, developed, and applied many of the same block printing techniques; however, Eva’s designs were often more stylized, focusing on rich color and vibrant, harmonious landscapes” rather than more figurative work by Ernest. The distinctive characteristic of their prints is the subtle gradations of color from a single block, which almost guarantees variation within an edition. Ernest Watson also co-founded Watson-Guptill, publishers of art books.

“Gulls and Spray” was issued in an edition of one hundred and fifty by the Albany Print Club for its members. It came to us from one of their descendants.

St Ahab’s—Context

Christ the King occupies the southeast “church lot” as part of Agincourt’s civic core. In this plat map (one of the first drawings prepared as part of the seminar that resulted in exhibit #1), the Roman Catholic lot is the block just southeast of “The Academy” which itself is immediately east of “The Commons”, one of the two green squares at the center of the original plat. Got it?

The block has an unusual shape and includes lots for both the church and others that are part of the the Southeast Quadrant. That portion owned by the Catholics measures 320 feet N-S and 290 feet E-W, with a corner nicked off. Adjacent buildings include houses to the east and the public library on the south [the red rectangle]. North, across Agincourt Avenue, is the Episcopal Church of St Joseph the Carpenter.

[More to follow]

St Ahab’s Chapel


Altar to St Anselm, Canterbury Cathedral / Stephen Cox, sculptor (2005)

Despite these troubling times (or possibly because of them), I feel pretty good about the 150th anniversary of Christ the King parish this year and their commitment to add a chapel dedicated to St Ahab. At least a couple generations in Agincourt have grown up unaware that the church had a different name when the parish was founded in 1868.

Our friend Jonathan Rutter is creating an icon of St Ahab—painted as a traditional representation of Orthodox saints and martyrs—and I’m pleased to report that fifteen third-year architecture students are undertaking the design of the chapel that will house it. And all of that will form a major component of the next Agincourt exhibit. If I have any negative reaction to all this, it’s probably that ending my teaching career will eliminate any opportunity to repeat the experience. Students have been the mainstay of this project; their creative enthusiasm is infectious, and it has surely infected me. I’ll be sorry to find distance between me and them—particularly if I’ve put it there.

Gethsemane Chapel, Coventry Cathedral / Sir Basil Spence, architect

Baptismal Tank, Church of St John, Bourbourg, FR / Anthony Caro, artist

Altar, St Stephen Walbrook. London / Sir Henry Moore, artist (1972; 1978)

Thom O’Connor [born 1937]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

O’CONNOR, Thom (American / born 1937)

“The Witch”

ca 1965

etching on paper / 5 3/4 inches x 4 7/8 inches (image)


ca 1965

etching on paper / 3 3/4 inches by 2 5/8 inches (image)

Thom O’Connor has focused on the portrait in his early career. We are fortunate to have two new additions — “The Witch” and “GB” — bringing the total to fourteen (four individual and a suite of ten). All are representative of his work in the 1960s. They make an interesting comparison with the similar etchings of artist Robert Marx.