…and to dust ye shall return

The Professor is reading another book. Well, she’s always reading a book, but you know what I mean. An obscure book that she’s heard about somewhere and that she’s decided will make a good addition to her mental library of recondite information. And, as always, I’m the lucky recipient of a resulting etymology alert.

The current tome is Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece. I would have guessed that the title referred to a Van Gogh, maybe, or to a Picasso.¹ However, the definition of “most coveted,” in this case, is “most frequently stolen” (13 times since its creation in 1432). I suppose that’s an appropriate yardstick in the art world. The work in question is Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, a 12-panel oil painting² often referred to by the name of its central panel, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.”

In the panel being discussed in the portion forwarded to me by The Professor, the Angel Gabriel is approaching Mary: “The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends upon her, signaling her impregnation with the future Christ. Her hands are crossed on her chest in a gesture of humility. She kneels on the floor as a further reference to her humility—humilitas in Latin, meaning ‘close to the earth.'”

Interesting. The “hum-” portion of the word immediately made me think of humus, a term we often hear in this corner of the Pacific Northwest where gardening is a popular topic in newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV. Humus is the rich dark material produced by the decomposition of organic matter (think compost).

Indeed, humus is Latin for mold, ground, or soil. Humility, along with related words like humble and humiliate, all stem from this root, as does exhume (literally, “out of the ground”) and the now obsolete inhume (to inter, of which the “ter” part also means earth, like terra firma).

Posthumous, however, is an etymological sleight of hand. One would think it came from roots meaning “after a person goes into the ground,” but its original source was the Latin word postumus, one of whose meanings referred to a child born after a father’s death. Later, through a folk etymological association with either humus or humare (to bury), it took on its current form.

The Online Etymology Dictionary asserts that human is probably related to humus, but the OED is silent on the matter. The OnlineED draws from a couple dozen etymological sources, so we don’t know exactly who went out on that particular limb. Homo (as in sapiens) may also be a distant relative.

The Professor enjoyed Mystic Lamb for what she learned about art history and the history of art crime, including the ransacking of art pieces during Napoleon’s reign and both World Wars. Check it out if you think you might like a tale of looting, plunderage and conspiracy. One of the panels is currently still missing.
¹ However, several sources I found list Jackson Pollock’s Number 5, at $140 million, as the most expensive painting ever sold
² Known as a polyptych, but having nothing to do with a colonoscopy. Formed by combining the Greek prefix poly- (many) with ptych (fold).

About Verla

Wordfreak. Retired private investigator and Spanish court interpreter. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, in New Mexico by choice. Lover of things purple. Passionate participant in the Librivox audiobook recording project. We record books that are in the public domain in the U.S. The recordings are then placed in the public domain themselves.
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