Thursday, June 12, 2008

Not a crime, but a question

(Twelfth Street near Passyunk Avenue and Morris Street, South Philadelphia)

Can anyone tell me what's going on in these murals — or write a caption for this odd juxtaposition?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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33 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Clearly the guy on the left is peering through a periscope. The guy on the right appears to be looking at a boiler fire or something like it behind a glass door.

Is this location near an old Navy Yard? If so, could this be commemmorating ships/subs built there?

(Except that I used to live across the river from Groton, CT and thought all submarines were built there.)

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The left half is clear enough, and I agree with you about the right, although I hadn't noticed a glass door. I'd always thought the guy on the right was wearing clerical vestments of some kind. Even if that's not the case, I see from the architectural details that he appears to be in a church. Maybe he's kneeling before a kind of hellfire in a box?

The right half has always seemed the odder of the two to me and at least one other neighbrohood resident, and the juxtaposition is beyond our power to figure out what's going on.

And no, it's not especially close to the Navy Yard, so I'd never made that connection. Perhaps a local notable was affiliated with the shipyard, with the Navy or both.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Ah. My lapsed Catholic self has surfaced. The guy on the right could be a priest who's removed his cassock and is listening to a parishioner through the confessional window.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I thought confessional as well, but would the priest be kneeling? And would hellfire have a place in such a picture? Those certainly look like flames to me.

Now, bring on the whimsical suggestions!

June 12, 2008  
Anonymous Albert said...

I too believe that the right is confessing, perhaps because the past is reflected in the left.

June 12, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe he's praying "for those who serve"?

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

The picture on the right has an almost mystical quality about it. It seems as though the fire is in a picture frame (note the scrolling). The gentleman is holding prayer beads and (strangely enough) seems to have a hearing aid. Meditating before the "Holy Flame of God"? I dunno ...

June 12, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

They're looking into the abyss from two points in time.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger sunnytosh said...

"How do you find God?"

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

"Meet the Elements" - Underwater spy repents and later confesses for fear of hellfire? Is there a reformatory tale somewhere?

June 12, 2008  
Blogger GJG said...

The picture on the left, denotes a military action/observation---a man taking stock of physical facts via a periscope. The pic on the left, a man gripping prayer beads, concentrating on a religous Icon, contemplating the spiratual way of things. thus the two pics side by side are meant to imply all things are not as simple as they might appear,---that one should not leap to quick conclusions. all very philosophical----with a touch of james bond thrown in.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

First of all, I have to say that posting these images has sharpened my powers of observation, in part because you get me to see things that had eluded me before. I had not noticed that the apparent priest on the right held beads, for example. And it was only once I started looking more carefully at the picture that I noticed architecutal details that prove he is indeed in a church. I feel like a detective!

I like the suggestion that he is meditating. He could be meditating before one of the portable devotional paintings that artists in the Renaissance painted all the time, but in that case, one would expect to see a Crucifixion or some other religious scene. Wouldn't it be great if the muralist intended to paint such a scene but simply forgot to do so?

Given the part of town where the murals are situated, it is possible that he is praying for those who serve, and a reformatory connection is plausible. Until forty or fifty years ago, a prison was situated nearby.

Sunny, Patti and Albert offered related answers, an approach perhaps best summed up by my mother, who writes in a private communication with the blogkeeper:

"Contrasting beliefs.
G-d will provide the answers
Science/technology " " "

"a) they are both trying to find their way through a world on fire i.e. today's world = hell.
one searches for answers through prayer, the other through technology

"b) the 'apparent' believer in a higher power searches for answers by staring into the 'world on fire'.

"The man who believes that technology/science will provide the answers is looking 'on high' for the right path to follow."

This is indeed "all very philosophical----with a touch of james bond thrown in."

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I believe, by the way, that this question may repay some investigation in the neighborhood.

You may be able to tell that the murals are painted not on a single wall, but rather on two walls that meet at a slight angle. It is just possible, then, that they depict two separate scenes, with no intended connection between the two. I shall see what I can find out.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Abbey said...

I see the man on the right as the same man, but younger, on the left. The man on the right is not a priest, but he definitely Catholic. I know a man who served in a war (and who is Catholic) and he fights within himself every day over "killing" and it being sinful, yet he was fighting for his country. It is a very, very difficult and emotional thing.

As with my friend, the man who is praying and reflecting on his young years as a military man and doing things that go against his very nature and religious beliefs is seeking absolution. God has forgiven him. But, he is unable to forgive himself and sees the fires of hell where he feels he will go when his time comes. When he is able to forgive himself, the fire will disappear.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Very interesting, the suggestion that best combines the hellfire and the periscope in a single coherent account. Looking though a periscope seems fairly benign as far as military acts go, though, even allowing for the likelihood that the mural's designers wanted to avoid getting too graphic.

The murals are situated in area that is by tradition heavily Catholic, and probably one where residents were more likely to support the military than to join a peace protest. And this brings up the question of when the murals were painted. I shall make that part of my investigation.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, and I have just now realized that both figures are depicted in the act of looking, and looking rather intently.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Are the murals signed? Could the artist be Googled?

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if the murals are signed, but it should not be too hard to find out who the artist is or the artists are. Most murals in Philadelphia were either sponsored or were part of a city program or both. That means there are usually names of individuals and organizations on record.

I'm all right with whatever turns up, as long as it does not transpire that the murals encode a secret message about Templars, Rosicrucians or the persistence of the royal line of Jesus.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Serendipity said...

Hi Peter, thank you for stopping by. =)

It looks as if the man on the right is praying but he may not necessarily be catholic? The setting looks more middle eastern to me while his dress may be more catholic. Note the window on the edge of the mural is blocked in with bricks? I'm not sure what that could indicate.

Excellent discussion topic.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

My uncle did many murals in Philly in the first half of the last century. If it reads Tom Morrison, what a kick.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Nope those cars in the lower right side are very recent. Can't be him.

June 13, 2008  
Anonymous Jim Carmin said...

At the risk of ending this interesting speculation, the librarian in me found this article on the mural from May 9th on philly.com; SPOILER: don't read this unless you want to know details of the mural...

http://www.philly.com/philly/travel/visitors_guide/20070509_The_mural_of________huh_.html

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Serendipity: You're welcome, and perhaps I can stop by your blog again and learn something. The post on which I commented was supremely practical. I might add that a bag of fresh snap peas, while costing more than a dollar, will provide days of snacking (they keep well).

We're pretty sure that he's Catholic both because of the clerical dress and the beads, though worry/prayer beads are not exclusive to Roman Catholics. Also, the neighborhood is by tradition heavily Roman Catholic, a fact we investigators must take into consideration. I think the setting is characteristic of a church, too. The arches of the window and along the cornice of the ceiling look Gothic to me, and neo-Gothic is a common style for churches in these parts.

And I had not noticed until now that that window appears bricked in. I'm not sure what that could indicate. Perhaps it demonstrates that the muralist forgot to paint what was intended to be a stained-glass window.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jim, I'll compromise. I won't read the article until I after I post this comment.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It appears that my mother came closest to getting it right, or at least to guessing what the artist intended. Congratulations, Mum!

The article to which Jim links above says that the mural is due to be painted over. Of course, that article is more than a year old. Still, shall I investigate and see if an effort to save this enduring piece of South Philadelphia surrealism is in the cards?

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, your uncle is part of an illustrious tradition, then. My local post office, which from a service standpoint may be the worst in the Western world, has some attractive WPA-era murals.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger meryl said...

Couldn't find the article on the mural, but it struck me as a man hoping to surface and see above all the mistakes and complications in his life while he begs for forgiveness of the same mistakes and complications -- sound profound enough? I love murals and graffiti because of the raw emotions. Street art has always fascinated me.

June 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The article is here.

Yep, the very oddness of this mural has given rise to misty and profound speculation of all kinds. Philadelphia is a fine city for murals, in part and probably at first -- though it is ideologically not comme il faut to say so -- because of a relatively large number of abandoned buildings.

The city's fine Mural Arts program has done some wonderful work, and murals have sprouted everywhere, some of the less skillfully executed ones in my part of town.

June 15, 2008  
Blogger meryl said...

Thanks, Peter - I checked out the article and the website for murals. It makes me want to travel to Philly, once again, to do a tour of the artistry.

June 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In the meantime, the Mural Arts program puts out a lavishly illustrated calendar each year that may be available by mail or online.

June 15, 2008  
Blogger Diva said...

Seek and you shall find!

June 18, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok, this is not what the artist intended. The arts project, ala jane golden, decided to "enhance" the origionals to look more like the 2 paintings completed in 2010 on the other side of the parking lot on Passyunk ave in Philadelphia, PA. The "Church" was added as well as the frame around the "Fire" and the ugly trim mouldings. When first painted, there was a "priest with a hearing aid and beads with a stormy sky behind him looking at an opening with a soft fire in it. That is it, the other side has a odd likeness of the world and no fancy paint and trim. Actually, the painting never went to the groud, but ended about 8' up from the pavement. It was painted by anyone who wanted to paint a 12"x12" square. jane and adonis blended it all together. The meaning? evolution/creation- war and peace- or whatever you see in it. They were from a group of 4 paintings by mr. desaderio from south philly.

December 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. The hearing aid is still there, or at least the in-ear part, is still there. And the murals look nothing like the ones across the parking lot, at least not to my eyes. The result is one odd visual assemblage.

There's an excellent database of old Philadelphia photographs somewhere. I wonder if any exist of these two murals before the additions.

December 21, 2011  

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