In the last book of Homer’s Iliad, Priam ventures out of the safety of the city of Troy and makes his way to the camp of the Achilles, who is keeping with him the corpse of Priam’s eldest son Hector and daily tying it to his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy. Priam is a vulnerable old man moving across No Man’s Land in darkness to a place of greatest danger, and there on the plain of Troy the god Hermes comes to meet him (Iliad 24.360-71, tr. Hammond):
“But the very god, the kindly one, came close to him, and took the old man by the hand and spoke to him with questions: ‘Where is it, father, that you are driving your horses and mules through the immortal night, when other men are sleeping? Are you not frightened of the Achaians who breathe fury? They are your enemies and intend you harm, and they are close by. If any of them were to see you coming through the quick black night with so many treasures, what would become of you then? You are not young yourself, and your companion here is too old for defence against a man who starts a fight with you. But I will do you no harm, and indeed I will protect you from any who would—I look on you as my own father.'”
But what has the god Hermes got to do with the three-metre tall, solid bronze sculpture of a foot that is pictured at the top?
A valid question, to which the beginning of an answer is that the title of that sculpture, a work by William Tucker, is Messenger, and an account of the thinking behind it runs as follows: “Using the energy in the moment of lift of a foot leaping, Tucker describes through just one element of anatomy the idea of the classical messenger Hermes perhaps taking flight.”
William Tucker is an extremely distinguished modernist sculptor who also happens to have been a student at my college, Brasenose, studying Modern History between 1955 and 1958. Earlier in the year he contacted our Fellow in Fine Arts, Ian Kiaer, to offer one of his sculptures to his old college. After some consideration, it has been agreed that Messenger will be installed in the near future at Frewin, an accommodation annexe of Brasenose College on the other side of central Oxford.
Frewin is about to enjoy a major facelift. It is a fascinating spot, in many ways of greater historic interest than the College’s main site. It was a college in its own right once, St Mary’s, and while it lasted Erasmus spent a term there. At its heart is an old house, Frewin Hall, which I’ve written about before, and which has elements from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but a cellar that dates back to the twelfth, and a façade we owe to an eccentric, chronogram-obsessed resident at the end of the nineteenth century. Frewin Hall was badly chopped about in the eighties, but it is going to be restored in the next few years, with its ground floor suite of panelled rooms turned into a student common room/library. I’m excited also, after a chat with the architect, about the possibilities for my favourite space in the entire College, the Norman cellar.
At the same time, a beautiful new accommodation building, planning permission permitting, will be rising to the south of Frewin Hall, and the green areas of Frewin will be replanted and relandscaped. A gift from the greatest artist ever to emerge from Brasenose College, which will be a central feature of the new gardens, could not have come at a more opportune time.
Tucker’s style of sculpture has evolved over time from abstract works like this at MoMA to the more figurative style represented by Messenger. It remains the case that the impact of this piece derives, like any sculpture, from intangible things like size, material and texture as much as from any real object or associations it may evoke. But one of the best arguments for giving Messenger a permanent place at the heart of our educational establishment is the meaning conveyed by Tucker’s sculpture of a rising foot inspired by the messenger god Hermes.
Which brings us back to Hermes in the last book of the Iliad, lending his protection to Priam in the space between Troy and the Achaean camp. Because that is Hermes in his very element. We could consider this fascinating god the denizen of the spaces between, or the divine patron of transition, but in any case Hermes’ special area of jurisdiction is connections. He is of course the means of communication, as the divine herald, between gods and humans, and in a moment like his descent in Aeneid Book 4 to instruct Aeneas to leave Carthage, one level of interpretation is to see the god as the action of the special capacity, reason, that unites gods and humans, according to the ancients. Aeneas when Mercury appears to him “sees reason” in more senses than one. Hermes/Mercury bridges other spaces, escorting the souls of the dead from this world to the next, and a patron also of commerce. He invents the lyre and music; he could be understood as the inventor of language itself. He is the god of thieves and protection against thieves–again, that undefined territory in-between.
I quoted to my colleagues a neat summary of Hermes’ jurisdiction from Arlene Allan, Hermes (Routledge, 2018), 18:
“We may, with [Robert] Parker, categorise this involvement [of Hermes] in mortal life according to the triad ‘transition/communication/exchange’: he moves individuals and societies from ignorance to knowledge (communication); from point A to point B (transition); and from want to satisfaction (exchange). Or we might, as previously suggested, prefer to think of these three general areas as subsumable under the single word ‘translation’ in its various shades of meaning. However, the idea of Hermes can be further articulated by identifying what is accomplished through his interaction. Collectively the evidence points to Hermes as the power behind purposeful individual and systemic movement kata moiran (‘according to destiny’): his is the power that makes connections and builds relationships.”
A college is a society of learning, and Hermes the messenger at so many levels a perfect embodiment of its ethos. Tucker’s statue, with beautiful economy, and a lovely tension between solid metal and the deft movement it represents, captures with a brazen body part, I would propose, the essence of the College of the Brazen Nose.