Monday, January 11, 2010
Freya, the bees, and Susanna
What did the bees do with the letters Freya von Moltke hid in her beehives?
Freya von Moltke died on New Years Day in Vermont, at the age of 98. She was the widow of Count Helmuth James von Moltke, one of several German aristocrats and clerics who opposed Hitler and were executed. While her husband was imprisoned, Freya took the incriminating documents as well as his letters to her and hid them in the beehives on their estate at Kreisau. The obit does not mention what honeycomb masterpiece the bees created around those papers, only that they were an invaluable source for historians seeking to learn about the resistance to Hitler.
A couple of years ago I saw this honeycomb vase at MOMA created by a Slovakian artist, well - created by bees, with the nudging of the Slovakian artist. Since then I have been imploring CSB to let me introduce strange objects (a fountain pen, a tiara, a small book) into our beehives to see what the bees make of it. He is still considering this.
Later I went to hear my friend sing in Handel’s 1748 oratorio, “Susanna”. It’s a compelling and disturbing story: the beautiful Susana is seen bathing in the river by the lecherous elders and they accost her.
(In vain would age his ice bespread/To numb each gay desire/Tho’ seventy winters hoar my head/My heart is still on fire.)When she refuses their lewd advances the elders retaliate by accusing her of having carnal knowledge with her young man under a certain tree. She is condemned to die. (The cause is decided, the sentence decreed,/Susanna is guilty, Susanna must bleed.) Only when Daniel comes on the scene (sung by a woman, a soprano) and questions the elders separately is Susanna acquitted. Daniel wisely asks each elder under which tree Susanna was seen fornicating, and they answer with very different trees (a holm tree and a lentisk), trees that could not be mistaken one for the other.
Does this all sound painfully contemporary? It did to me.
Sitting there in my pew, I wondered how the Biblical version read, and since the concert was in a church, I thought, how convenient! I pulled the Bible out from the hymnal shelf and flipped through the book of Daniel. But there was no Susanna to be found.
Later I learned that her story has been deemed apocryphal by the Protestants (in the 39 articles) and so is only found in the RC and Easter Orthodox bibles.
Apocryphal or not, it is a story made for artists: naked bathing beauty, leering older men, and conflict.
Susanna and the Elders by Artemesia Gentileschi.
Susanna by Tintoretto.