Gary Vikan


Going medieval in the time of the pandemic

Josse Lieferinxe - The Walters Art Museum
Josse Lieferinxe, Saint Sebastian Interceding for Victims of the Black Death, Provence, 1497–1499, the Walters Art Museum

The following essay is drawn from a chapter in ‘The Holy Shroud: A Brilliant Hoax in the Time of the Black Death,’ the latest book by former Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan. The book was published May 5, 2020 by Pegasus Books.

The COVID-19 virus is new, but some of our responses to it are downright medieval: from Jim Bakker’s $125 “Silver Solution” and Alex Jones’ sham anti-virus toothpaste, to Donald Trump’s Hydroxychloroquine tablets – to his shouting “hoax” and blaming minorities and foreigners.

Woodstock – in Eight Trippy Minutes

Gary and Elana Vikan at Woodstock.
Gary and Elana Vikan at Woodstock.

Writer Gary Vikan–director of the Walters Art Museum from 1994-2013–reflects on his quick trip to Woodstock, a glorified study break during grad school, and what happened on the stormy way home.

“Wanna score a lid – $25?” Elana and I were in a small, old-fashioned grocery store attached to a gas station, on a rural highway in southern New York State. It was late morning, Sunday, August 18th, 1969. It was sunny and mild. We had stopped to gas up my 1968 red VW Beetle – the one that had yellow and lavender teardrop-shaped psychedelic decals in its rear windows, until a heavy-handed “pig” made me peel them off, claiming that they somehow blocked my view of the road. That VW was our understated hippy-mobile, and Elana and I were its understated hippies, on our way that morning to Woodstock. We had bought tickets just for Sunday, the last day of the festival, because Friday and Saturday, even in the dog days of August, were study days for grad-grind PhDs-in-the-making like us. The tickets, which I still have, were $7 each. That entrepreneurial hippy was offering us weed at what I knew was an inflated price because, I assumed, he had figured out we were Woodstock bound, and he guessed that we may not have planned ahead. A clue to our destination was the God’s eye, woven out of multi-colored yarn around two matchsticks, which Elana was wearing around her neck. She had picked it up the previous September somewhere between Big Sur State Park and the Esalen Institute, on California Interstate #1. We were hitchhiking, on our way to be part of the fifth annual Big Sur Folk Festival at Esalen. A small band of potheads in a VW van had picked us up; they were busily churning out God’s eyes in the intervals between stopping, in their paranoid delirium, once again to check out that odd knocking sound under the hood – a noise they heard but we could not.