Beautiful 19th-Century Indian Drawings Show Hatha Yoga Poses Before They Reached the West

Yoga as an athletic series of postures for physical health came into being only about 100 years ago, part of a wave of gymnastics and calisthenics that spread around the Western world in the 1920s and made its way to India, combining with classical Indian spirituality and asanas, a word which translates to “seat.”  Yoga, of course, had existed as a classical spiritual discipline in India for thousands of years. (The word is first found in the Rig Veda), but it had little to do with fitness, as yoga scholar Mark Singleton found when he delved into the roots of yoga as we know it.

Asana practice was often marginal, even scorned by some 19th century Indian teachers of high caste as the domain of “fakirs” and mendicant beggars. “The first wave of ‘export yogis,’” writes Singleton, “headed by Swami Vivekananda, largely ignored asana and tended to focus instead on pranayama [breath practice], meditation, and positive thinking…. Vivekananda publicly rejected hatha yoga in general and asana in particular.”




In the 20th century, yoga became associated with Indian nationalism and anti-colonial resistance, and imported Western poses were combined with asanas for a program of intense physical training.

Westernized yoga has obscured other traditions around the world that developed over hundreds or thousands of years. For his book with James Mallinson, Roots of Yoga, Singleton consulted “yogic texts from Tibetan, Arabic, Persian, Bengali, Tamil, Pali, Kashmiri, Old Marathi, Avadhi, Braj Bhasha, and English,” notes the Public Domain Review, who bring our attention to this early 19th-century series of images from a text called the Joga Pradīpikā, made before classical yoga became known in the west by adventurous thinkers like Henry David Thoreau.

A few millennia before it was the provenance of lycra-clad teachers in boutique studios, asana practice combined rigorous, often quite painful-looking, meditative postures with mudras (“seals”), hand gestures whose origins “remain obscure,” though yoga historian Georg Feuerstein argues “they are undoubtedly the products of intensive meditation practice during [which] the body spontaneously assumes certain static as well as dynamic poses.” The collection of drawings in the 118-page book depicts 84 asanas and 24 mudras, “with explanatory notes in Braja-Bhasha verse,” notes the British Library, and one image (top) related to Kundalini yoga.

Whatever the various practices of yogic schools in both the Eastern and Western world, “the methods and lifestyles developed by the Indian philosophical and spiritual geniuses over a period of at least five millennia all have one and the same purpose,” writes Feuerstein in his seminal study, The Yoga Tradition: “to help us break through the habit patterns of our ordinary consciousness and to realize our identity (or at least union) with the perennial Reality. India’s great traditions of psychospiritual growth understand themselves as paths of liberation. Their goal is to liberate us from our conventional conditioning and hence also free us from suffering.”

Under a broad umbrella, yoga has flourished as an incredible wealth of traditions, philosophies, religious practices, and scholarship whose strands weave loosely together in what most of us know as yoga in a synthesis of East and West. Learn more at the Public Domain Review, and have a look at their new book of historic images, Affinities, here, a curated journey through visual culture.

via Public Domain Review

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Exquisite Watercolors of Demons, Magic & Signs: Behold the Compendium Of Demonology and Magic from 1775

Noli me tangere, says the title page of the Compendium of Demonology and Magic: “Do not touch me.” For the book’s target audience, one suspects, this was more enticement than warning. Written in Latin (its full title is Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae sistematisatae per celeberrimos Artis hujus Magistros) and German, the book purports to come from the year 1057. In fact it’s been dated as more than 700 years younger, though to most 21st-century beholders a book from around 1775 carries enough historical weight to be intriguing — especially if, as the Public Domain Review puts it, it depicts “a varied bestiary of grotesque demonic creatures.”

The specimens catalogued in the Compendium of Demonology and Magic are “up to all sorts of appropriately demonic activities, such as chewing down on severed legs, spitting fire and snakes from genitalia, and parading around decapitated heads on sticks.”




Grotesquely combining features of man and beast, these hideous chimeras are rendered in “more than thirty exquisite watercolors” that still look vivid today. In fact, with their punkish costumes, insouciant expressions, and often indecently exposed nether regions, these demons look ready and willing to cause a scandal even in our jaded time.

Nearly two and a half centuries ago, we might fairly assume, a greater proportion of the public believed in the existence of demons — if not these specific monstrosities, then at least the concept of the demonic in general. But we’re surely lying to ourselves if we believed that nobody in the 16th century had a sense of humor about it. Even the work of this book’s unknown illustrator evidences, beyond formidable artistic skill and wild imagination, a certain comedic instinct, serious business though demonic intentions toward humanity may be.

With its less humorous content including execution scenes and instructions for the procedures of witchcraft from divination to necromancy, the Compendium of Demonology and Magic belongs to a deeper tradition of books that elaborately catalog and depict the varieties of supernatural evil. (A much older example is the Codex Gigas, previously featured here on Open Culture, a “Devil’s Bible” that also happens to be the largest medieval manuscript in the word.)

You can behold more of these delightfully hellish illustrations at the Public Domain Review and even download the whole book free from the Wellcome Collection. (See a PDF of the entire book here.) And no matter how closely you scrutinize your digital copy, you won’t run the risk of touching it.

The Compendium of Demonology and Magic is one of the many texts featured in The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History, a new book featured on our site earlier this week.

via Public Domain Review

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Artist Makes Micro-Miniature Sculptures So Small They Fit on the Head of a Pin

The jury remains out as to the number of angels that can dance on a pin, but self-taught artist Flor Carvajal is amassing some data regarding the number of itty bitty sculptures that can be installed on the tips of matchsticks, pencil points, and — thanks to a rude encounter with a local reporter — in the eye of a needle.

According to Tucson’s Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, where her work is on display through June, The Vanguardia Liberal was considering running an interview in conjunction with an exhibit of her Christmas-themed miniatures. When she wouldn’t go on record as to whether any of the itty-bitty nativity scenes she’d been crafting for over a decade could be described as the world’s smallest, the reporter hung up on her.




Rather than stew, she immediately started experimenting, switching from Styrofoam to synthetic resin in the pursuit of increasingly miniscule manger scenes.

By sunrise, she’d managed to place the Holy Family atop a lentil, a grain of rice, the head of a nail, and the head of a pin.

These days, most of her micro-miniature sculptures require between 2 and 14 days of work, though she has been laboring on a model of Apollo 11 for over a year, using only a magnifying glass and a needle, which doubles as brush and carving tool.

In a virtual artist’s chat last month, she emphasizes that a calm mind, steady hands, and breath control are important things to bring to her workbench.

Open windows can lead to natural disaster. The odds of recovering a work-in-progress that’s been knocked to the floor are close to nil, when said piece is rendered in 1/4” scale or smaller.

Religious themes provide ongoing inspiration – a recent achievement is a 26 x 20 millimeter recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper — but she’s also drawn to subjects relating to her native Columbia, like Goranchacha, the son the Muisca Civilization’s Sun God, and Juan Valdez, the fictional representative of the national coffee growers federation.

See more of  Flor Carvajal’s micro-miniatures on her Instagram.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meet the Forgotten Female Artist Behind the World’s Most Popular Tarot Deck (1909)

As an exercise draw a composition of fear or sadness, or great sorrow, quite simply, do not bother about details now, but in a few lines tell your story. Then show it to any one of your friends, or family, or fellow students, and ask them if they can tell you what it is you meant to portray. You will soon get to know how to make it tell its tale.

– Pamela Colman-Smith, “Should the Art Student Think?” July, 1908

A year after Arts and Crafts movement magazine The Craftsman published illustrator Pamela Colman-Smith’s essay excerpted above, she spent six months creating what would become the world’s most popular tarot deck. Her graphic interpretations of such cards as The MagicianThe Tower, and The Hanged Man helped readers to get a handle on the story of every newly dealt spread.

Colman-Smith—known to friends as “Pixie”—was commissioned by occult scholar and author Arthur E. Waite, a fellow member of the British occult society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, to illustrate a pack of tarot cards.




In a humorous letter to her eventual champion, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Colman-Smith (1878 – 1951) described her 80 tarot paintings as “a big job for very little cash,” though she betrayed a touch of genuine excitement that they would be “printed in color by lithography… probably very badly.”

Although Waite had some specific visual ideas with regard to the “astrological significance” of various cards, Colman-Smith enjoyed a lot of creative leeway, particularly when it came to the Minor Arcana or pip cards.

These 56 numbered cards are divided into suits—wands, cups, swords and pentacles. Prior to Colman-Smith’s contribution, the only example of a fully illustrated Minor Arcana was to be found in the earliest surviving deck, the Sola Busca which dates to the early 1490s. A few of her Minor Arcana cards, notably 3 of Swords and 10 of Wands, make overt reference to that deck, which she likely encountered on a research expedition to the British Museum.

Mostly the images were of Colman-Smith’s own invention, informed by her sound-color synesthesia and the classical music she listened to while working. Her early experience in a touring theater company helped her to convey meaning through costume and physical attitude.

Here are Pacific Northwest witch and tarot practitioner Moe Bowstern‘s thoughts on Smith’s Three of Pentacles:

Pentacles are the suit of Earth, representative of structure and foundation. Colman-Smith’s theater-influenced designs here identify the occupations of three figures standing in an apse of what appears to be a cathedral: a carpenter with tools in hand; an architect showing plans to the group; a tonsured monk, clearly the steward of the building project. 

The overall impression is one of building something together that is much bigger than any individual and which may outlast any individual life. The collaboration is rooted in the hands-on material work of foundation building, requiring many viewpoints.

A special Pixie Smith touch is the physical elevation of the carpenter, who would have been placed on the lowest rung of medieval society hierarchies. Smith has him on a bench, showing the importance of getting hands on with the project. 

For years, Colman-Smith’s cards were referred to as the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. This gave a nod to publisher William Rider & Son, while neglecting to credit the artist responsible for the distinctive gouache illustrations. It continues to be sold under that banner, but lately, tarot enthusiasts have taken to personally amending the name to the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) or Waite Smith (WS) deck out of respect for its previously unheralded co-creator.

While Colman-Smith is best remembered for her tarot imagery, she was also a celebrated storyteller, illustrator of children’s books and a collection of Jamaican folk tales, creator of elaborate toy theater pieces, and maker of images on behalf of women’s suffrage and the war effort during WWII.

Outside of some early adventures in a traveling theater, and friendships with Stieglitz, author Bram Stoker, actress Ellen Terry, and poet William Butler Yeats, certain details of her personal life—namely her race and sexual orientation—are difficult to divine. It’s not for lack of interest. She is the focus of several biographies and an increasing number of blog posts.

It’s sad, but not a total shocker, to learn that this interesting, multi-talented woman died in poverty in 1951. Her paintings and drawings were auctioned off, with the proceeds going toward her debts. Her death certificate listed her occupation not as artist but as “Spinster of Independent Means.” Lacking funds for a headstone, she was buried in an unmarked grave.

Explore more of Pamela “Pixie” Colman-Smith’s illustrations and read some of her letters to Alfred Stieglitz at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s collection.

via MessyNessy/Hyperallergic

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When Sci-Fi Legend Ursula K. Le Guin Translated the Chinese Classic, the Tao Te Ching

Brenda (laughing): Can you imagine a Taoist advertising agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”

Ursula: There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker with a guy from an advertising agency showing his ad and the boss is saying “I think you need a little more enthusiasm Jones.” And his ad is saying, “Try our product, it really isn’t bad.”

Perhaps no Chinese text has had more lasting influence in the West than the Tao Te Ching, a work so ingrained in our culture by now, it has become a “changeless constant,” writes Maria Popova. “Every generation of admirers has felt, and continues to feel, a prescience in these ancient teachings so astonishing that they appear to have been written for their own time.” It speaks directly to us, we feel, or at least, that’s how we can feel when we find the right translation.

Admirers of the Taoist classic have included John Cage, Franz Kafka, Bruce Lee, Alan Watts, and Leo Tolstoy, all of whom were deeply affected by the millennia-old philosophical poetry attributed to Lao Tzu. That’s some heavy company for the rest of us to keep, maybe. It’s also a list of famous men. Not every reader of the Tao is male or approaches the text as the utterances of a patriarchal sage. One famous reader had the audacity to spend decades on her own, non-gendered, non-hierarchical translation, even though she didn’t read Chinese.




It’s not quite right to call Ursula Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching a translation, so much as an interpretation, or a “rendition,” as she calls it. “I don’t know Chinese,” she said in an interview with Brenda Peterson, “but I drew upon the Paul Carus translation of 1898 which has Chinese characters followed by a transliteration and a translation.” She used the Carus as a “touchstone for comparing other translations,” and started, in her twenties, “working on these poems. Every decade or so I’d do another chapter. Every reader has to start anew with such an ancient text.”

Le Guin drew out inflections in the text which have been obscured by translations that address the reader as a Ruler, Sage, Master, or King. In her introduction, Le Guin writes, “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” To immediately get a sense of the difference, we might contrast editions of Arthur Waley’s translation, The Way and Its Power: a Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought, with Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way.

Waley’s translation “is never going to be equaled for what it does,” serving as a “manual for rulers,” Le Guin says. It was also designed as a guide for scholars, in most editions appending around 100 pages of introduction and 40 pages of opening commentary to the main text. Le Guin, by contrast, reduces her editorial presence to footnotes that never overwhelm, and often don’t appear at all (one note just reads “so much for capitalism”), as well as a few pages of endnotes on sources and variants. “I didn’t figure a whole lot of rulers would be reading it,” she said. “On the other hand, people in positions of responsibility, such as mothers, might be.”

Her version represents a lifelong engagement with a text Le Guin took to heart “as a teenage girl” she says, and found throughout her life that “it obviously is a book that speaks to women.” But her rendering of the poems does not substantially alter the substance. Consider the first two stanzas of her version of Chapter 11 (which she titles “The uses of not”) contrasted with Waley’s CHAPTER XI.

Waley

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the vessel depends.

Le Guin

Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where is it’s useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.

Le Guin renders the lines as delightfully folksy oppositions with rhyme and repetition. Waley piles up argumentative clauses. “One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny,” Le Guin comments in her note,” a quality that doesn’t come through in many other translations. “He’s explaining a profound and difficult truth here, one of those counterintuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pots.”

Such images captivated the earthy anarchist Le Guin. She drew inspiration for the title of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, perhaps showing how she reads her own interests into a text, as all translators and interpreters inevitably do. No translation is definitive. The borrowing turned out to be an example of how even respected Chinese language scholars can misread a text and get it wrong. She found the “lathe of heaven” phrase in James Legge’s translation of Chuang Tzu, and later learned on good authority that there were no lathes in China in Chuang Tzu’s time. “Legge was a bit off on that one,” she writes in her notes.

Scholarly density does not make for perfect accuracy or a readable translation. The versions of Legge and several others were “so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond Western comprehension,” writes Le Guin. But as the Tao Te Ching announces at the outset: it offers a Way beyond language. In Legge’s first few lines:

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
unchanging name.

Here is how Le Guin welcomes readers to the Tao — noting that “a satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible — in the first poem she titles “Taoing”:

The way you can go 
isn’t the real way. 
The name you can say 
isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed: 
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul 
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul 
sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin, 
but different in name, 
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries! 
The door to the hidden.

All images of the text courtesy of Austin Kleon. 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Saint John Coltrane: The San Francisco Church Built On A Love Supreme

Little of San Francisco today is as it was half a century ago. But at the corner of Turk Boulevard and Lyon Street stands a true survivor: the Church of St. John Coltrane. Though officially founded in 1971, the roots of this unique musical-religious institution (previously featured here on Open Culture) go back further still. “It was our first wedding anniversary, September 18, 1965 and we celebrated the occasion by going to the Jazz Workshop,” write founders Franzo and Marina King on the Church’s web site. “When John Coltrane came onto the stage we could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit moving with him.” Overcome with the sense that Coltrane was playing directly to them, “we did not talk to each other during the performance because we were caught up in what later would be known as our Sound Baptism.”

Or as Marina puts it in this new short documentary from NPR’s Jazz Night in America, “The holy ghost fell in a jazz club in 1965, and our lives were changed forever.” This was the year of Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme, a jazz album that, in the words of The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, “isn’t merely a collection of performances. It’s both one unified composition and, in effect, a concept album. And the core of that concept is more than musical — it’s the spiritual, religious dimension.”




Coltrane, as the documentary tells it, composed the suite in isolation, determined to go cold-turkey and kick the heroin habit that got him fired from Miles Davis’ band. In the process he underwent a “spiritual awakening,” which convinced him that his music could have a much higher purpose.

It was Coltrane’s early death in 1967 that clarified the Kings’ mission in life, eventually prompting them to convert the latest in a series of jazz spaces they’d been running into a proper house of worship. “John Coltrane became their Christ, their God,” writes NPR’s Anastasia TsioulcasA Love Supreme “became their central text, and ‘Coltrane consciousness’ became their guiding principle.” Over the past 50 years, their church has endured its share of hardships. In the early 1980s a lifeline appeared in the form of the African Orthodox Church, whose leaders wanted to bring it into the fold but had, as Fanzo remembers it, one condition: “John Coltrane cannot be God, okay?” Then the Kings remembered a remark Coltrane conveniently made in a Japanese interview to the effect that, one day, he’d like to be a saint. Thenceforth, St. Coltrane it was: not bad at all for a sax player from North Carolina.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Alan Watts Reads “One of the Greatest Things Carl Jung Ever Wrote”

Carl Jung founded the field of analytical psychology more than a century ago, and many reference his insights into the human mind and condition still today. Alan Watts certainly did his bit to keep the Jungian flame alive, whatever the outward differences between a Swiss psychiatrist and an English interpreter of Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, especially of the Zen variety. Both men believed in casting a wide spiritual net, all the better to expose the common core elements of seemingly disparate ancient traditions. And in so doing they could hardly afford to ignore the religious underpinnings of the European civilization, broadly speaking, from which they emerged. In fact, Watts became an ordained Episcopal priest at the age of 30 — though, owing to the complexities of his beliefs as well as his personal life, he resigned the ministry by age 35.

But Watts’ investment in certain tenets of Christianity endured, and he named as one of Jung’s greatest writings a lecture delivered to a Swiss clergy group. “People forget that even doctors have moral scruples and that certain patient’s confessions are hard even for a doctor to swallow,” begins the speech as Watts reads it aloud in the video above. “Yet the patient does not feel himself accepted unless the very worst in him is accepted too. No one can bring this about by mere words. It comes only through reflection and through the doctor’s attitude towards himself and his own dark side.” To help another person, in other words, one must first accept that person as he is; but to accept another person as he is first requires taking oneself straight, less-than-admirable qualities and all.




According to Watts, Jung himself demonstrated this rare self-awareness. “He knew and recognized what I sometimes call the element of irreducible rascality in himself,” says Watts in a talk of his own previously featured here on Open Culture. “He knew it so strongly and so clearly, and in a way so lovingly, that he would not condemn the same thing in others, and would therefore not be led into those thoughts, feelings, and acts of violence towards others which are always characteristic of the people who project the devil in themselves upon the outside, upon somebody else, upon the scapegoat.” As Jung puts it to his clerical audience, “In the sphere of social or national relations, the state of suffering may be civil war, and this state is to be cured by the Christian virtue of forgiveness and love of one’s enemies.”

What Christianity holds as true of the outer world goes just as well, Jung argues, for the inner one. “This is why modern man has heard enough about guilt and sin. He is sorely beset by his own bad conscience and wants, rather, to know how he is to reconcile himself with his own nature, how he is to love the enemy in his own heart and call the wolf his brother.” He “does not want to know in what way he can imitate Christ, but in what way he can live his own individual life, however meagre and uninteresting it may be.” Only by being allowed to follow this “egoism” to its conclusion of “complete isolation” can he “get to know himself and learn what an invaluable treasure is the love of his fellow beings”; it is only “in the state of complete abandonment and loneliness that we experience the helpful powers of our own natures.” Without knowing our own natures, we can hardly expect even the most time-tested belief systems to put an end to the civil wars inside us.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Anti-Gluttony Door in Portugal’s Alcobaça Monastery Shamed Plump Monks to Start Fasting

Consider that you eat the sins of the people

—inscription carved above the entrance to the Monastery of Alcobaça‘s refectory

Apparently, the Monastery of Alcobaça‘s resident monks were eating plenty of other things, too.

Eventually their reputation for excessive plumpness became problematic.

A hefty physique may have signified prosperity and health in 1178 when construction began on the UNESCO World Heritage site, but by the 18th-century, those extra rolls of flesh were considered at odds with the Cistercian monks’ vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.




Its larders were well stocked, thanks in part to the rich farmland surrounding the monastery.

18th-century traveler William Beckford described the kitchen in Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha:

On one side, loads of game and venison were heaped up; on the other, vegetables and fruit in endless variety. Beyond a long line of stoves extended a row of ovens, and close to them hillocks of wheaten flour whiter than snow, rocks of sugar, jars of the purest oil, and pastry in vast abundance, which a numerous tribe of lay brothers and their attendants were rolling out and puffing up into a hundred different shapes, singing all the while as blithely as larks in a corn-field.

Later he has the opportunity to sample some of the dishes issuing from that kitchen:

The banquet itself consisted of not only the most excellent usual fare, but rarities and delicacies of past seasons and distant countries; exquisite sausages, potted lampreys, strange messes from the Brazils, and others still stranger from China (edible birds’ nests and sharks’ fins), dressed after the latest mode of Macao by a Chinese lay brother. Confectionery and fruits were out of the question here; they awaited us in an adjoining still more spacious and sumptuous apartment, to which we retired from the effluvia of viands and sauces.

Later in his travels, he is taken to meet a Spanish princess, who inquires, “How did you leave the fat waddling monks of Alcobaça? I hope you did not run races with them.”

Perhaps such tattle is what convinced the brass that something must be done.

The remedy took the form of a porta pega-gordo (or “fat catcher door”), 6′ 6″ high, but only 12.5” wide.

Keep in mind that David Bowie, at his most slender, had a 26” waist.

Allegedly, each monk was required to pass through it from the refectory to the kitchen to fetch his own meal. Those who couldn’t squeeze through were out of luck.

Did they have to sit in the refectory with their faces to the walls, silently eating the sins of the people (respicite quia peccata populi comeditis) while their slimmer brethren filled their bellies, also silently, face-to-the-wall, as a reader read religious texts aloud from a pulpit?

History is a bit unclear on this point, though Beckford’s enthusiasm waned when he got to the refectory:

…a square of seventy or eighty feet, begloomed by dark-coloured painted windows, and disgraced by tables covered with not the cleanest or least unctuous linen in the world.

According to a German Wikipedia entry, the monks passed through the porta pega-gordo monthly, rather than daily, a more manageable mortification of the flesh for those with healthy appetites.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

If you are assembling a bucket list of destinations for when we can travel freely again, consider adding this beautiful Gothic monastery (and the celebrated pastry shop across the street). Your choice whether or not to suck it in for a photo in front of the porta pega-gordo.

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Medieval Monks Complained About Constant Distractions: Learn How They Worked to Overcome Them

Mountain Monks: A Vivid Short Documentary on the Monks Who Practice an Ancient, Once-Forbidden Religion in Japan

How Tibetan Monks Use Meditation to Raise Their Peripheral Body Temperature 16-17 Degrees

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.