12/10/2010

Eyes, Mouth and a Castle Head


Several years ago, after returning from a visit to Krakow and it's Wawel Kings Castle, I hung on my office wall a replica of an encased head sculpture by Sebastian Tauerbach. It was a woman’s head with a piece of cloth, or scarf, covering her mouth. It gave an appearance as if she was muzzled.

Woman With a Scarf on Her Mouth. Replica. Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland

Tauerbach, and his partner craftsman, Hans Snycerz, created 194 masterly crafted and realistic linden tree, in polychrome Wawel Heads, depicting people who lived in the early XVI century, and were the subjects of King Sigismund I the Old. It is not known why nor who was immortalized in this creative manner. Some commentators believe the Wawel Heads bear features of the courtiers of King Sigismund and his Italian wife Bona Sforza. Thus their faces, eyes and lips, offer expressions of a symbolic poignancy.

For me, he head of a "silenced woman" expresses a treatment of an intentionally stalled communication - a ‘no-no’ for someone to speak. Soon enough, I was on a search for a possible explanation to this Renaissance treatment of the freedom of expression, or it's denial. When I purchased the replica at the Sukiennice Cloth Hall crafts stall, I was offered one of the explanations of what I was holding in my hand.

What could be behind this symbolic creation, I asked? A shopkeeper said, that among the many legends was a story that the King Sigismund II August upon hearing that a woman was caught eavesdropping on a conversation between the monarch and his advisors, he opted to award a gag on her. Rather than having her imprisoned, she was to bear a testimony for posterity that not everything is for public consumption, and heaven forbid, become a fodder for gossip. A crafty king, he was, I concluded. The explanation was consistent with the king’s experimental policies with civil rights and freedoms, including religious tolerance.

There is another legend associated with the head of the "silenced" or "muzzled" woman. Today, 30 heads, each encased, are a part of a decorated ceiling in the Envoy's Hall of the Wawel Castle, the very room where the king would meet with foreign diplomats, hold audiences and issue judgments.

The king was known for procrastination, having a fancy to leave decisions for the next day. However, one day, being bored with executing judgments, and pushing the envelope quickly, he made an unjust pronouncement. It was at that very time when one of the coffered ceiling heads spoke: "Rex Auguste, iudica iuste" (King August, judge with justice). In his anger, he asked the court craftsman to add a gag on the demanding justice, taking head's mouth.

Created around 1540, the Wawel Heads depict people of different social standing and gender - kings, soldiers, courtiers, and the townspeople. As for this particular female talking head, the art history experts agree that the piece of cloth or scarf covering her mouth is consistent with the attire of townswomen, typical of the Renaissance period. Such a covering could have been used as a neck or mouth wrap. Often women did that as an expression of mourning. Perhaps, the woman was a widow, it is being speculated.

Such a gesture could be interpreted in a symbolic way, we are told. The reign of the two Polish Kings, Sigismund I the Elder, and his son Sigismund II August, was, as it turned out, the closure of the Jagiellonian dynasty, a time which is also remembered for curbing the bourgeoise political rights for the benefit of the only ruling class, the nobility.

Reflecting on the topic of our day, was the talking head a precursor of the Wikileaks syndrome? The 16th century approach to justice and human rights is not the best example of how to silence our contemporary talking heads. Gagging can only serve temporary needs of someone who has something to hide. In the Internet world, when everyone can be a publisher, we serve our interests best when we are open, honest and transparent.

Privacy requires guardianship. If you are sloppy with guarding your parlor, don't be upset when we all become observers of your actions. This applies to both the personal affairs, and the way we run society, its organizations and communities. The realm of religion is not excluded. And there is more...

Notwithstanding the proverbial washing of dirty clothes in public, and attempts to kill the messenger, the common good, whether we like it or not, requires public exposure and scrutiny of motives and actions. When the secret deals are cut and the laws circumvented, and when the common benefits are tampered with, watch out ... You will be found out.

Consider a wise poetic comment of Cyprian Kamil Norwid. An animator of the literary Age of Romanticism, he wrote about freedom and responsibility. His comment that it's not the bird that fouls the nest, but the one that forbids talking about it, seems to be on target.

Above: Havana Lips. Below: Nairobi Mouth.

A photographer's eye focuses on details. I looked up, and saw a muted head encased in a coffered ceiling of the Envoy’s Hall. What was behind this creative expression, I asked then. I keep wondering what stories and lessons is behind the graffiti on many a city wall? As I shoot the images of … eyes and mouths, perhaps they speak a message, that it's not only what you see that matters, but consider that somebody may be watching you, too.

Above: Cuba Eye. Below: Kaunas Eye.