|That Darn Fox:
A cautionary tale for my grandchildren
with footnotes, afterwards and illustrations.1
Polymers, plaster, oak, copper,
acrylics and oils
14.5” x 15.5” x 15.5”
As the tattoo artist
worked away on my shoulder blade, it occurred to me that
I hadn’t given any thought to the tattooing process
since my mom’s dire warning, “You better never
get a tattoo. They shoot you with needles and you can get
diseases.” I was ten or eleven years old and in those
days only sailors or prisoners got tattoos, of which, I
was neither. Straining my neck, I peered down at my shoulder
and watched the tiny bubbles of blood appear behind the
needle’s tract. It was an odd time to have this recollection.
Remembering how I hated needles, I considered telling the
tattoo artist, “Hey wait a second, I forgot I was
afraid of needles,” but wasn’t sure if the guy
would get my sense of humor… He looked the type that
had tattooed many sailors and prisoners.
The image that was being imprinted on my shoulder was from
a painting called, An Allegory of the Martyrdom of Charles
I, an obscure painting from the 17th century, by Cornelis
Saftleven. In moments between the droplets of blood being
wiped away with a tissue and the stippling of the gun, I
watched the image of a fox emerge. A sly little creature
on his hind legs wearing a human mask stood in the painting’s
foreground. In one arm he held a head chopping ax and a
bucket of blood; his other arm rested against a painting
of a public gathering. In the middle, a man in a red cape
rode a white horse. An apocalyptic landscape of flying goblins
and crazed animals unfurled around the fox, and the background
of the painting was illuminated by a burning city.
I spent several years researching the painting, traveling
to libraries and museums across the country in search of
answers. Cornelis Saftleven was Dutch. He had a father and
brother who also were painters. They painted the landscapes
and portraits which were typical of the period. Art historians
consider Cornelis the most prominent of the three painters,
but besides short biographies written in art encyclopedias
and cross-references with listings of other Dutch Artists,
I could find little else written about his life and artwork.
In various catalogs I found some reproductions of his works.
These included, The Temptation of St Anthony, Salome Delivering
the Head of St. John, Hunter Sleeping on a Hillside, Rhineland
Fantasy View, A Cat Looking Though a Fence. These paintings,
similar in style and technique, lack the fantastical imagery
I saw in An Allegory of Martyrdom of Charles I. This painting’s
imagery is more reminiscent of the Flemish painter Hieronymus
Bosch and the earlier Dutch painter Bruegel. His Peasants
Smoking and Drinking in a Barn with Devils Dancing Beyond
and the Meeting of Witches seemed more influenced by the
earlier painters, but I didn’t run across these until
With the passage of time, I found my fox becoming elusive.
While learning nothing about the image in my research, as
long as I didn’t stand still and think about it too
long, it seemed like I was doing something important. I
thought maybe I was just trying to answer a simple question.
How far should I let curiosity take me? There was no reward.
One afternoon I was reading a magazine. I flipped the page
and saw the painting. It looked interesting. I had some
free time. I went to the library. I didn’t find anything.
I thought - maybe I’ll try another library. And when
I found nothing at the next library or the one after that
I started delving into circuitous searches. Seventeenth
century Dutch art, English history, Oliver Crownwell and
Charles I, Charles I’s jesters John Armstrong and
Muckle John.3 These searches, at times, yielded
interesting facts, but no insight on my little friend. Finally,
while digging around in the National Gallery of Art Library
in Washington D.C., I found a journal article that mentioned
the painting several times, unfortunately it was in German…or
maybe it was Dutch.
Stepping back, I should point out I was aware my research
method was flawed. From the day I saw the painting, an illustration
in the Journal The Sciences, I knew who its owners were,
a Museum in Sussex, England. I have hung out with enough
art historians to realize the importance of knowing a painting’s
provenance. I could have very easily written the current
owners, and inquired about the painting’s history
and any relevant research they might have had. While there
was no certainty that they would reply or even if they had
any useful information, this should have been my first step.
I never wrote the museum. So other than curiosity about
the painting, what was I looking for? I do like visiting
libraries. I enjoy the journeys they can take you on. I
like watching people on their own quest. I enjoy exploring
the stacks and finding their most quiet and desolate spots.
It feels a lot like being alone in a beautiful forest…
except there are no birds or animals and your shoes don’t
usually get dirty.
During the years I was researching An Allegory of the Martyrdom
of Charles I, I started making pottery. I received a minor
in Scientific Russian Translation. Moved to Washington D.C..
Was accepted and dropped out of law school. Twice. Got married
and divorced.4 Took some etching and drawing courses. Moved
back to St. Louis. Retook my old bar job waiting tables.
There, I spent my evenings with colleagues drinking free
alcohol, smoking and throwing darts. One day, my manager
invited me along with her to the tattoo parlor. She was
going to add to her growing collection of insects and reptiles
and I had recently mentioned to her I was thinking about
getting my first tattoo. I showed her a photo copy of the
painting, pointing out the fox, the head-chopping ax and
his bucket of blood. “It’s either that,”
I said, then pointed to another image, “or the pig.”
The pig leaned over a wall, and appeared to be throwing
up writing parchment, letters, and what looked like a personal
I entered the Library of Congress through a rear door.
It required identification and signing my name into a log,
followed by a search of my book bag and a walk through a
metal detector. The collection is divided between three
buildings, all in near proximity to the Capital. Thomas
Jefferson, the building I entered, was the oldest of the
three and was dedicated in 1897. Built as a repository of
knowledge to serve the Congress and the American people,
it was called, “a glorious national monument, and
"the largest, the costliest, and the safest" library
building in the world.”5 Normally tourists can enter
the building in the front, into a grand hall with exhibition
wings to either side. In these exhibition halls, citizens
could see examples of important documents in the library’s
collection. But at that time, the building was closed for
renovations, only researchers like myself, Congress, and
their staff could enter the building.
Hidden behind the walls of the reading room, lay the library’s
old card catalog. Seldom used since the advent of the computer
catalog, the massivecollection of old wooden files lay abandoned
in a cavernous room that looked like the underbelly of a
football stadium. I sat in a discarded office chair; the
room to myself. It was the most tranquil spot I had found
in the library. Out of the corner of my eye something caught
my attention. A shadow cast, by light passing through a
small transom and striking some banal object, but I could
imagine it being something else. A small fox scurrying through
the stacks. An aberration wanting me to follow.
Through a side door I walked into a long empty hall. Down
at the bottom of some steps, I found myself in another corridor
at the end of which I came to an elevator bay. Thinking
I should head backed up into a more public part of the Library,
I pressed the elevator call button. Inside the elevator
I looked at a panel and noticed there was yet another floor
below the one I was on. Instead of pressing a button that
might take me nearer to the library’s reading room,
I pressed the lowest one.
The doors opened into a darkened corridor. Fluorescent
lights above me flickered on. The ceiling was lower than
the floors above and the halls followed a different path.
There were no offices and the hall stretched far into distance,
darkened and reaching out further than I could see. I was
in a tunnel. These subterranean halls connected the individual
buildings of the Library of Congress and probably continued
onto the Capital and the other congressional buildings.
I continued forward and eventually came to a room with glass
paneled doors. In the room, a soda machine stood next to
an automatic coffee machine, and there were several tables
and chairs. I went in and bought myself a cup of coffee.
I tried to read a book, but distracted by the fear that
I might be some place I wasn’t supposed to be and
a need for nicotine, I soon got up to leave. I had been
in the library for six hours. I needed to be outside.
I passed an elevator I failed to notice
before. Pressing the button, I was startled to see the doors
open immediately before me. I rode the elevator. The doors
opened into a gigantic room lined with workers’ scaffolding
lining the walls. Where was I? I stepped into the room and
the elevator doors closed behind me. No lights were on,
but the sun filled the room through enormous picture windows.
I looked up and could see the paintings in the giant rotunda
of the grand foyer of the Library of Congress. Peering around
the room, I had several quick realizations. First, I definitely
wasn’t supposed to be in there; second, with the closing
of the elevator doors, I might just have locked myself in
this place and thirdly; I had the entire library to myself.
I took another hesitant step forward, my third realization
drowning out the others. Was this a dream come true? I took
another step. I had no idea this was where I would end up
today. Through a window, I could see the edge of the Capitol’s
dome. Above, light from outside flickered on the crystals
of a giant chandelier. My parsed lips opened. “Damn,”
I said and in a split second I was greeted by my echo. Reaching
into my shirt pocket, I pulled out my pack of cigarettes.
All it took was a brief moment of awe and amazement to fail
to notice the smoke rising from the painter’s tarp
on which my match fell.
The walls of the tattoo parlor were covered with hundreds
of photos. Some of the images where humorous, others disturbing.
All were statements or expressions, of some sort, of one’s
individuality. My tattoo would be that, but I also saw it
as a scare. A self-inflected wound. A permanent reminder
of my folly. In the corner of Cornelis’ painting,
a falling meteor streaked through the sky. On the evening
Charles I was executed, Londoners reported seeing the meteor.
A great ball of light illuminating the evening sky. This
can only be speculation on my part, but Charles I, who had
a fascination with astronomy and had his own observatory
and telescope, might have been waiting most of his life
to see such an event. Maybe being poked with needles was
responsible for my overly dramatic thoughts, but sitting
in the chair, I realized the irony of my situation. I had
seen my Meteor and I was still alive. I hadn’t been
in a dark tower. I was not beheaded.
1I have no grandchildren and there is no afterwards.
2Current online research reveals a little more
information than it did ten years ago, but I still found
no mention of An Allegory of the Martyrdom of Charles I…
Unless I missed it, but I’m not falling into that
3Muckle John, the last official Court Jester.
It seemed like an interesting subject to research as well.
And boy did I, with similar but less destructive result.
4My editor feels I should take this last sentence
out because it’s not true. In a compromise, I agreed
to leave out my children. But I was afraid I would be headed
for a slippery slope if I took out much more.
5From the History of the Library of Congress’
web page. www.loc.gov/about/history/