“tomorrow, tomorrow “ cries the crow / “cras, cras” krast de kraai

What a wonderful discipline art history is!  

It can turn one into a connoisseur of birds’ Latin cries while suggesting a link with a rousing 80s disco song.
It shows the way to fortitude amidst a sea of troubles.
It can send one on a hunt for a caged crow through deserted museum rooms.  

Let me explain.

Hope as a Crow Clinging to Pandora’s Box.

When despairing of current world affairs, what better consolation than a book about the iconological metamorphoses of Pandora’s box? (1)

That box out of which all evil escaped …. before Pandora could put on the lid again …. But what remained, clinging like a bird to the edge?  Hope! Hope for a better tomorrow faithfully stayed with a hapless humanity. And which bird sparks hope, speaking of tomorrow, because it cannot speak of today? (2)

The crow - with its croaky cry “ Cras! Cras!” – which in Latin means “Tomorrow! Tomorrow!

In a later age, Grace Jones would also vigorously sing:   "Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love you tomorrow. Tomorrow is only a day away!” 

Allegory of Hope (“SPES”) as Industry & Good Husbandry   

About hope the Old Masters, too,  were never wrong. How well they understood it’s always best to just stubbornly plough along when all else goes wrong. As in  Bruegel’s  picture “Spes” / “Hope” (3)

Shovel, Scythe, Beehive  --- the tools of the industrious worker are the symbols of hope. Hope standing calmly in “a sea of troubles” with around her “men suffering all manner of catastrophe, loss, and misery”.


The assurance that hope gives us is most pleasant and most essential to an existence amid so many nearly insupportable woes. (3)

Hope , again, and now with all attributes.

Panofsky shows another picture as a metamorphosis of Pandora and Hope (4)  

Beehive, Scythe, Ship (with all sails set for SPES)  - this must mean hope! And yes, there is Pandora's faithful bird, too. The caged bird, assuring that hope is here to stay with us.
The legend under the picture reads   L’espérance, vitrail de 1519. Bruxelles, Musée du Cinquantenaire” (Hope, Stained Glass Window, Brussels  Cinquantenaire Museum)
Hey, that’s here in Brussels. 

So of course I rushed off to the Museum to find Hope! 
Apparently nobody else had - neither tourists (not particularly wanting to be in a Brussels these days), nor Belgians (who probably all went to the seaside). 

So I wandered alone through deserted museum rooms … finding Byzantine- Greek icons and swaying Northern Madonna’s lovingly cradling their child. Finding a sweeping Roman Victory (alas beheaded) and ponderous Roman heads (without bodies). Finding Syrian mosaics , lavish Flemish Brussels tapestries, and much more…  

I did not find my “Hope with the Caged Bird”. But what more could one hope for than finding calm and light washing through still rooms preserving humanity’s artefacts throughout the ages.

When I left the museum I heard a crow crying, I looked around but didn't see any hopping bird. Looking up , all I saw was an angel with fluttering wings, arms outstretched towards the sky.

Opening a  box of notes

  1. Dora & Erwin Panofsky: « La boîte de Pandore »  "Pandora's Box"
  2.    « Mais pourquoi [demande-t-on à l’Espérance] t’assies-tu sur un tonneau oisive ? » « Toute seule ie fus [répond-elle], qui demeuray restive sur le bord du tonneau alors que les malheurs voloient de tous costez avecques mille peurs. » « Mais qui est cet oiseau ? » « La corbeille  fidelle, ne pouvant entonner ‘il est’ , dit ‘il sera’  «  (Alciata, Emblemata – as cited in Panofsky’s Boîte de Pandore) 
  3.    H. Arthur Klein,  Graphic Worlds of Pieter Bruegel The Elder  
  4.     « La boîte de Pandore », p28

tears - not too tiny to paint

Is it with a hint of disapproval that Friedländer thus describes the manner of Bernard van Orley  (painter in Brussels around 1520) : 

"Schmerz und Klage  sind mit der dem Zeitgeschmäck zusagenden Sentimentalität in gerunzelten Stirnen und geöffneten Mündern ausgedrückt. (1)"

But not a word about the tears (2) – which I am staring at, fascinated.

The gestures & cries of lamentations are universal – these days the media are full of them.       
People are shown crying, for sure, but their tears? Their tears are too silent, too tiny for TV.
Not too tiny to be painted though, at least not for the old masters, who never disdained detail.     

And so, across generations, one can find consolation in tiny blobs of paint, more permanent than we are, preserving things as fleeting as a tear rolling down a nose.


(1) "Pain and lamenting are expressed, according to the sentimental taste of the time, through wrinkled foreheads and open mouths."  (Friedländer -  Altniederländische Malerei VIII)

(2) Orley could of course draw on a rich heritage - notably on the work of Rogier van der Weyden, who painted "the most beautiful tears in our art history" (Leen Huet - "Mijn België")

(3) apologies for the dark photos - painting tears may be feasible, photographing them is yet another matter. Especially in a the dimmed light of a museum room, and with Orley's dark/light "to heigthen pathos and to facilitate his own job" "Das Pathos dadurch steigernd verhüllt er mit Dunkelheit Schwächen der Form und erleichtert sich die Arbeit."

"our beloved country, Belgium"

Calimero Against the Conceited Anglo-Saxons

Old & new Belgians do share a common trait – a certain sulking Calimero attitude, feeling wronged by the bigger boys.

Unfair – all this Belgium & Brussels Bashing. Unfair – all this Molenbeek & Muslim bashing.

The Anglo-Saxon press is the worst! – with their conceited condescendence!  Knowing next to nothing of our country (1)! even less of our history! let alone of our ‘glories’ (past or present (1))!  
Always mocking & criticising us! It's not fair!

But instead of being lectured by others, let’s do our criticism ourselves, having a candid look at how "it" could happen, at what we can do better. (I'm being very constructive here - almost sounding like my boss when he tries to align the troops for another company battle -  pas d’états d’âme. Il faut avancer dans l’ordre, ne pas se lancer des fusés  entre nous »)

Brussels (my beloved city?)

Take for instance Brussels – a cosmopolitan tolerant haven for misfits of all sorts.  That has always been its charm, even in the 19th century when French rebels of all stripes found refuge here. I too, as the misfit of the family, was irresistibly attracted.  So diverse a place, so indulgent that even I could feel at home. 
But so diverse a place, so indulgent that also each & every criminal can hide out here?  

Brussels’ governance is probably ill adapted to contemporary challenges. Its position makes it a logistic centre of Europe, not only for regular trade, but also for criminal gangs and for illegal weapons (which flooded the market when the iron curtain came down). 

It's a city governance struggling with the complexities of preserving a precarious balance between Flemish & Walloon claims, and with 19 boroughs doing their own thing. A city suffering from both the ‘Flemish’ drive to dismantle central power, and from a certain unhappy neglect of “integration” issues by some ‘french-speaking’ parties.  Compulsory integration courses (focusing on learning the language, learning the ropes of how things work) for instance were long seen as “stigmatising” for newcomers.  Based on some absolute principle of total diversity, this was a well-meaning but terribly ill-guided reaction against a far right discourse of absolute assimilation.

Someone had blundered, or not? 

And what about Belgian security blunders?  Naiveté, underestimation of the challenges? Maybe. Peut-être.Misschien. Het kan zijn. I now read that Belgium’s security budget per capita is about 3 times below that of neighbouring countries.

Could it simply be that the influx of newcomers has been too big and too fast for Belgium to absorb? Could it be that the systematic exploitation of the “back-door-entry” of family reunification (marrying a young girl or boy from the initial home region) has brought Belgium almost by stealth far too many people ill equipped for a post-industrial labor market? Could it be that too many of the newcomers too easily settled in their cosy Arabic speaking community,  watching only home country TV channels, listening to Arabic sermons by imported Moroccan or Saudi imams.  Sermons that may be peaceful enough, but that, removed from contemporary Belgian customs, feed the alienation of the youngsters.

“our beloved country, Belgium”

The Molenbeek imam in the Al Khalil mosquee reportedly fought against his tears during the Friday prayers (He spoke in Arabic, but his discourse was translated in French). “We must unite against radicalism. We all live in a single boat that we must protect and defend. […] May this attack be the last one for our beloved country, Belgium”.

The leader of the party-with-the-independence-of-Flanders-in-its-statutes,  since Tuesday twice spoke of “our country” .  I never heard him say that before, it was always (with a smirk) “this” county  - Belgiekske Nikske.

So, shall we be more united after this catastrophe? Defending “our country”? Maybe, peut- être, het kan zijn, misschien. I do hope so.

On the other hand, could this catastrophe be a catalyst for the acceleration of centrifugal forces?    In Belgium. In Europe (Brexit).  Well - maybe, peut-être, het kan zijn.  I do hope not. 

And the victims?

We don’t know much yet.
What we do know: the wounded are severely wounded, with ripped off limbs, with livers & lungs punctured by nails & shrapnel, brain trauma’s . And the dead are so unrecognizably dead that identification is progressing only very slowly.

What we do know: the victims are as diverse as Brussels – of all nationalities & religions. 

  1. The number of gross factual errors in the international press are a sobering reminder of how the press merely shows us a shadowy distorted image of reality. 
  2. The perfidious Anglo-Saxons even stole the God particle from us! Surreptitiously calling it the Higgs boson,  while it was a Brussels professor (François Englert) who first found it and published about it. “Oh, Charlemagne, you say he was from the region around Liège? That is now in Belgium? Really?” “Oh , Van Dyck, was he yours?” "Oh really,  did you lot paint landscapes before Turner & Constable did?”“Oh really,  did you play polyphonic music before we gave te world Purcell and the Beatles?
  3.  How about the political & socio-economic aspects of a partially failed integration? Belgium used to get good marks for political integration of immigtants (full civic rights, good representativeness in local councils etc.)  Social housing with minimum standards of comfort is ensured, there’s a comprehensive social security.  Molenbeek for instance has heavily invested in urban renewal over the past decade.  Last summer a friend who lives there, proudly walked us around, showing the new town square (very welcoming, almost Italian), the new park, the new businesses springing up, …    Schooling is free for all – but schools struggle with the influx of too many pupils speaking neither French nor Dutch at home. The drop-out rate is alarming. Another challenge we have probably underestimated. And racism? Yes alas, there is racism in daily life, and there is only so much that laws can do against that. But anti-racism laws do exist and they are being enforced. Local press and TV-channels do more and more efforts to be multi-coloured.
  4.  So far "the Belgian reaction" has been very dignified - mourning. But today, on Easter day, apparently a bunch of drunken Vilvoorde football hooligans descended upon  the city centre .