Mordecai Ardon

Missa Dura: The Knight, Crystal Night, House No. 5


Not on display

Mordecai Ardon 1896–1992
Original title
Missa Dura: Ritter, Kristallnacht, Haus nr. 5
Oil paint on canvas
Displayed: 195 × 520 mm
Presented by the Miriam Sacher Charitable Trust through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1963

Catalogue entry

Mordecai Ardon born 1896 [- 1992]

T00608 Missa Dura 1958-60

Inscribed 'Ardon 58-60' b.r. of right-hand panel
Oil on canvas, triptych, the two outer panels each 76 3/4 x 51 1/4 (195 x 130), the centre panel 76 3/4 x 102 1/2 (195 x 260); overall dimensions 76 3/4 x 205 (195 x 520)
Presented by the Miriam Sacher Charitable Trust through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1963
Prov: Purchased by the Trust from the artist through Marlborough Fine Art
Exh: Ardon, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, December 1960-January 1961 (17-19, right-hand panel repr.); Städtische Galerie, Munich, January-March 1961 (17-19, right-hand panel repr.); Kunsthalle, Recklinghausen, March-April 1961 (17-19, right-hand panel repr.); Ardon, Marlborough Fine Art, London, February-March 1962 (12, repr.); Art Israel 1964: 23 Israel Artists, Bezalel National Museum, Jerusalem, May 1964 and Israel tour, June-September 1964 (8, repr.); Art Israel: 26 Painters and Sculptors, Jewish Museum, New York, December 1964-January 1965 and US tour, February-October 1965 (works not numbered, repr.); Ardon, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, April 1967 (6, repr.); Mordecai Ardon: Bilder aus den Jahren 1953-1978, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Berlin, October-November 1978 (7, repr.)
Repr: Aujourd'hui, No.26, April 1960, p.24 (the right-hand panel) as 'Le sermon bleu'; The Friends of the Tate Gallery: Annual Report 1 May 1963-30 April 1964 (London 1964), between pp.12 and 13

The artist said that the three panels are named respectively from left to right 'The Knight', 'Crystal Night' and 'House No.5', and analysed their symbolism as follows:

The Knight
The little figure of the knight has a moustache and hair like Hitler's. Hitler always thought of himself as a German knight. The medieval houses at the bottom are of a type still quite common in Germany. One of them has a wall that is broken - it is a Jewish house. At the upper right is a uniform of the SS, with an iron cross. The strips of newspaper and the little flag have signs on them like swastikas, though he avoided putting actual swastikas. Months after the picture was finished he realised that the shape formed by the uniform, the two largest areas of newspaper and the zone below looked like a Nazi jackboot; this effect was produced quite unconsciously. Ringing bells at the top, to left and right, allude to the church bells which rang in the new Reich.

Crystal Night
Crystal Night was the night (9 November 1938) when about 150 synagogues were burned down, the Jewish newspapers closed, hundreds of Jews killed and thirty thousand more sent to concentration camps. It has become known as Crystal Night on account of the quantity of broken glass found in the streets the next morning. In the Bible, Jacob's ladder stretched from earth to heaven; in this picture one sees the topmost rung of Jacob's ladder, but here there is no heaven. In the upper part of the picture appear two hands of Adam and God (left and right) from Michaelangelo's 'Creation of Adam', but this time they are not free for both are tied. Strings lead from them to marionettes. On the left is a newspaper on which appears the face of Michaelangelo's Adam; but it is depicted as a double head like Janus's which also has its dark counterpart (suggestive of Adam's bad shadow or the evil side of mankind). The strings stretch further and are attached to shapes like cards. On three of these cards there is the mouth of Hitler shouting and ranting; on three others, Hitler's moustache. In addition there are three with hieroglyphs intended to suggest in an ambiguous manner the opening letters of Hitler's name and also the swastika emblem. Strings then lead to ninepins which are in the act of falling - these are the Jews. The ninepins are forever falling, without having committed any fault or any crime. They are situated above Jacob's ladder. All that is left for the Jews is Psalm LXIX written on the parchment.

House No.5
This is a house in a concentration camp (though not a specific one). The two candles have lost their flames, which have become detached. Orthodox Jews, like members of various other religions, have the custom of lighting candles for the dead. To the right of the centre is a woman with a concentration camp number on her dress and a real medieval cabalistic sign symbolising the spheres of the soul. At the bottom right is a form like a stove which has six flames in it, one for each million of the 6,000,000 Jews who were burnt. At the top right further flames are drifting out into the surrounding air. Who then is still alive? Only the mouse in the extreme bottom corner.
As in the first picture, the church bells are ringing (at the top). The triptych begins and ends with the bells, like a nightmare.

The artist added that everything in the picture had a precise meaning for him, but he didn't want to be too obvious or literary. His aim was to give shape to a feeling, by means of hieroglyphs or signs.

In a letter to William Sandberg, the Director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, written from Jerusalem on 15 August 1960, Ardon said that he had made a slight addition to the 'Black Sermon' (i.e. 'Missa Dura') and gave the following commentary (translated here from the German):

'In the beginning were Knight, Newspaper and Decree.
Then the jackboot sang:
"The crooked Jews run back and forth ..."

Psalm LXIX is rasped;
Words choke in parchment
While mouth cries and moustache shrills.

Midnight, and the ninepins tumble into the grave
they themselves have dug.

Flame left its wick,
heart's ripped from yellow badge.
And the mouse appeared,
only she knew her way about.
He blessed her and the spring of '33,
saw it was good. Then there was night,
then morning ...'

The artist told the compiler that this was not really a poem but a note, and does not exist in any more complete form. After he finishes a picture - but only after it is finished - he sometimes feels the need to add some words. The lines 'He blessed her and the spring of '33 | saw it was good' are of course a biblical echo, but are used here not without a note of irony.

He said that the only study he made for this triptych was a very small oil and collage study for the left-hand panel, now in the collection of Prof. Leo Picard of Jerusalem.

(These notes were based on information from the artist 4 April 1973, and were subsequently approved by him).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.19-21, reproduced p.19

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