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Here is another painting by the underappreciated 15th century master Carlo Crivelli (whose enigmatic biography is sketched in this post concerning a beautiful Madonna and Child which he painted around 1480). Crivelli’s paintings have been called grotesque—and there is no denying that there is something alien, and disturbing—and thrilling–about his works. Maybe that is why he is so often out of favor in the art world compared to his more admired Quattrocento contemporaries (although his paintings have lingered on for more than half a millenium in our greatest museums and collections).
In this extremely vertical composition, a richly attired Mary Magdalene proffers a golden jar of ointment to the viewer with haughty languor. With her right hand she lifts the jeweled vessel of salve while her left hand lifts up the pink folds of her exquisite gown. As always in Crivelli’s work, the rich details and dazzling colors pull our eyes around the composition to the weird details. At the bottom is a garland of dull faced putti with insect wings who rest their heads on elephant-headed vine creatures. Sumptuous flowers with beguiling petals (but grasping roots and piercing thorns) frame Mary’s gilded head. The overly ornate golden filigree of her chemise resembles fungi and lichen. Her jewel crusted hair is so perfectly coiffed, it resembles the work of a Etruscan jeweler rather than actual human hair.
The weird details continuously distract us from the crowning achievement of the painting: Mary’s beautiful Byzantine face with sloe eyes, arch brows, and tiny chiseled mouth. Here at last there is humanity and true beauty, but distorted through the alien mannerism of the painters of Constantinople (which finally fell to the Turks in Crivelli’s lifetime). The whole composition reeks with the perfume of unknown realms. The prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair is entirely subsumed by the riches of a fabled past. Renaissance art turned toward the human, but Crivelli’s heart was always with the Byzantines, looking toward impossible otherworldly splendor.
The Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) is not a jellyfish, in fact it is not a discreet animal at all, but instead a siphonophore—a colonial medusoid made up of specialized animal polyps working together as an organism. These siphonophores have stinging tentacles which typically measure 10 metres (30 ft) in length but can be up to 50 metres (165 ft) long. Being stung by a man o’ war does not typically cause death, but sailors and mariners who have survived the experience assert that it taught them a new definition of agony.
But the fearsome man o’ war is not the subject of this post. Instead we are concentrating on the animal which feeds on the man ‘o war (as well as other siphonophores which drift in the great blue expanses of the open ocean). One is inclined to imagine that men o’ war are eaten only by armored giants with impervious skins and great shearing beaks (and indeed the world’s largest turtles, the loggerheads, are the main predators of siphonophores), however another much less likely predator is out there in the open ocean gnawing away at the mighty stinging colonies. Glaucus atlanticus, the blue sea slug, is a tiny shell-free mollusk which lives in the open ocean. The little nudibranch only grows up to 3 cm in length but it hunts and eats a variety of large hydrozoans, pelagic mollusks, and siphonophores (including the man o’ war).
Although not quite as gaudy as its lovely cousins from tropical coral reefs, Glaucus atlanticus is a pretty animal of pale grey, silver, and deep blue with delicate blue appendages radiating out from its six appendages. The little mollusks live in temperate and tropical oceans worldwide. They float at the top of the water thanks to a swallowed air bubble stored in a special sack in their gastric cavity. Because of this flotation aid, the slug is able to cling upside down to the surface tension of the waves. Since it is entirely immune to the venomous nematocysts of the man o’ war, the sea slug can store some of the man o’ wars venom for its own use. The tendrils at the edge of Glaucus atlanticus’ body can produce an extremely potent sting (so it is best to leave the tiny creatures alone, if you happen to somehow come across them).
Each and every Glaucus atlanticus is a hermaphrodite with a complete set of sex organs for both genders. Incapable of mating with themselves they ventrally (and thoroughly) embrace another blue sea slug during breeding, and both parties then produce strings of eggs. The hatchling nudibranchs have a shell during their larval stages, but this vestige quickly disappears as they mature into hunters of the open ocean.
My apologies for the blogging break last week. Usually I try to write a new post every weekday, but last week was a blogging holiday. To reinvigorate things after the lost week, let’s turn to a big subject—in fact a super-massive subject! Long ago, Ferrebeekeeper featured a post about Eta Carinae, a blue hypergiant with a hundred times the mass of the sun (which is itself a million times more massive than Earth). Stars like Eta Carinae are rarely formed and short lived—there are probably less than a dozen in our galaxy. However compared to the most massive object in the galaxy, Eta Carinae is puny and common. Twenty six thousand light years away from the solar system there exists a truly monstrous space object!
In 1974, Astronomers discovered an astronomical feature which was emitting exotic radio waves in the Sagittarius constellation. The scientists named the feature “Sagittarius A” and set out to determine what it was. Part of the feature seems to be the remnants of a star which had gone supernova. A second part of the feature is a cloud of ionized gas surrounded by an even larger torus of molecular gas. In the middle of Sagittarius A is something which is emitting most of the high energy electromagnetic radiation visible to radio telescopes. The cloud of ionized gas seems to be emptying into it and nearby stars orbit it with greater velocity than stars move anywhere else in the galaxy (in fact the object affects the proper motion of thousands of nearby stars). And yet the space object at the center of Sagittarius A has a diameter of only 44 million kilometers–a bit less than the distance between the middle of the sun and Mercury at its perihelion (when the rocky planet is closest to the sun). By calculating the proper motion of thousands of nearby stars, scientists determined that the mysterious object at the center of Sagittarius A (which they took to calling Sagitarrius A*) has mass of 4.31 million suns (i.e. solar masses). Whatever lies at the center of Sagittarius A–which I probably should have mentioned, is also the center of the Milky Way Galaxy–is smaller in volume than a large star, but has a mass which exceeds by many orders of magnitude even exotic hypergiants like Eta Carina.
Of course the only kinds of discrete objects which we know (or even hypothesize) to be capable of attaining such mass are black holes. It is believed that most (indeed probably all) galaxies have super-massive black hole at their centers. Smaller galaxies have small super massive black holes (forgive the oxymoron) but large galaxies have immense central black holes which can equal billions of solar masses. Radio astronomers have observed plumes of exotic electromagnetic radiation coming from the center of other galaxies, and they wondered where the Milky Way’s galactic center was located. It seems that a supernova near the galactic center blew away a great deal of the dust and gas on which the black hole would otherwise “feed” thereby making the galactic center of the Milky Way less energetic than the active center of farther (e.g. older) galaxies.
The super massive black holes which lie at the center of galaxies may be a result of the accretion of matter around stellar-sized black holes (which could grow quickly in matter-rich galactic cores) but most astrophysicists believe they are instead a primordial feature of the Big Bang around which galaxies themselves coalesced. The ultimate nature of super massive black holes remains unknown and seems to be tied to the nature and shape of our universe.
In prehistoric times there was no sugar. Sweetness was only to be found in fruits and berries–with one gleaming exception. Pre-agricultural humans were obsessed with hunting honey (in fact there are rock paintings from 15,000 years ago showing humans robbing honey from wild bees). The golden food made by bees from pollen and nectar of flowers was not merely delectable: honey is antiseptic and was used as a medicine or preservative. The wax was also valued for numerous artistic, magical, medicinal, sealing, and manufacturing purposes.
But wild bees were hard to find and capable of protecting themselves with their fearsome stinging abilities. One of the most useful early forms of agriculture was therefore beekeeping. The first records we have of domesticated bees come from ancient Egypt. An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb. The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC. Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.
Honey was treasured in the (sugar-free) world of ancient Egypt. It was given as a fancy gift and used as an ointment for wounds. Although honey was too expensive for the lowest orders of society to afford, ancient texts have come down to us concerning thieving servants “seduced by sweetness.” Wax was also precious. Wax tablets were used for writing. Wax was an ingredient in cosmetics, an adhesive, a medicine, and a waterproofing agent. Wigs were shaped with wax. It served as the binding agent for paints. Mummification required wax for all sorts of unpleasant mortuary functions. Perhaps most seriously (to the ancient Egyptian mind at least) wax was necessary for magic casting. By crafting a replica of a person, place, or thing, Egyptians believed they could affect the real world version.
According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the golden tears of Ra, the sun god, fell to earth. Bees are even a part of the foundation of the Egyptian state—one of the pharaoh’s titles was “king bee” (although Egyptians might have grasped rudimentary beekeeping skills they missed many of the important nuances of hive life and they thought the queen was a king). The symbol of fertile Lower Egypt was the honey bee and the Deshret–the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is believed to be a stylized representation of a bee’s sting and its proboscis.
This blog has featured replicas of two ancient sailing ships–the Greek trireme Olympias and the Norwegian Viking ship Dragon King Harald—however the prettiest modern replica of an ancient ship is a reconstruction of a much older vessel. The ship Min of the Desert was hand built by 4 men and 2 teenage boys in the modern Hamdi Lahma & Brothers shipyard in Rashid, Egypt (which was called Rosetta in classical times). The builders used traditional tools and original techniques to craft the Min after a sea-going Egyptian trade ship from 3500 years ago.
Archaeologists know a great deal about the boats which sailed the Nile–since they have the actual ships (which were preserved in tombs in order that Pharaohs could sail in the next world). However sea-faring ships were not preserved in the same way and only trace evidence from underwater archaeological sights survives. To build the Min, the modern shipwrights looked to river ships from tombs for technique, but they looked at ancient Egyptian art for a design. A 3,500-year-old bas relief from the pharaoh Hatshepsut ‘s funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes, provided the basic design for the Min of the Desert.
The ships pictured on the bas relief were trade ships which participated in Hatshepsut ‘s trade expedition to Punt, which took place in the ninth year of her reign (Hatshepsut was a lady pharaoh who lived in the 15th century B.C. and reigned as the fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty). From the time of the old kingdom onward, Egyptians had launched expeditions to the land of Punt, a kingdom rich in gold, frankincense, myrrh, and exotic timber. Numerous ancient Egyptian sources mention Punt (which was a trade destination for the Egyptians for over a thousand years) but none actually mention where it is—apparently everyone back then just knew. The actual location has eluded Egyptologists for 150 years. To get to Punt, ships were carried in pieces across the desert to the Red Sea port of Saww. Then the vessels sailed on the Red Sea…to where? Modern day Somalia and Arabia are the best guesses, but the issue remains in doubt.
When completed Min of the Desert measured 20 meters (66 ft) long and nearly 5 meters (16 ft) wide with a cargo capacity of about 17 tons. Held together entirely by mortise-and-tenon joints, the ship proved to be surprisingly seaworthy and fast. Sailors rowed the Min in to position to raise the sail (a labor which required substantial physical strength) and then traveled along at speeds between 5 and 9 knots. The ship handled 25 knot winds and 3 meter swells with ease. The modern sailors were surprised by the excellence of the 3500 year old ship.
In the desolate desert 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo there is a fearsome arid valley (wadi) of cliffs, carved buttes, and sandblasted erratic boulders. The bleached landscape has an otherworldly emptiness as though it were located on a lifeless alien planet, though if you look closely, the desert is filled with austere furtive life like dorcas gazelles, tiny sand colored lizards, cobras, scorpions, and fennec foxes. The name of the place is even more otherworldly—“Wadi Al-Hitan” which is Arabic for “valley of the whales” and although the great smooth rocks buckling out of the sand might momentarily be taken for the backs of huge whales, the utter absence of the ocean (or of water of any kind) makes the name seem fanciful. The nearby Mount Garet Gohannam (which means mountain of hell because of the way it glows like flames at sunset) seems to be more aptly named.
However the name of Wadi Al-Hitan is remarkably literal–for the valley contains the remains of hundreds of huge ancient cetaceans which died in the Eocene and were fossilized in the yellowish sandstone. Forty million years ago the valley was a marine lagoon. Although the remains of numerous sirenians, sawfish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, and even swamp dwelling moeritheriums have been discovered in the wadi, the valley takes its name from the most spectacular and numerous fossils which belong to four different species of primitive whales. The most commonly discovered fossils belong to Dorudon, which was 3-5 meters long (9-15 feet) and fed on fish and mollusks, and to Basilosaurus, which was 15-22 meter (50-72 foot) and fed on everything else in the ocean.
Basilosaurus was first discovered in Louisiana in the early 19th century. Its immense size and serpentine form initially convinced naturalists that it was a marine reptile and they misnamed the creature Basilosaurus (which means “king lizard”). The mistake soon became obvious and Basilosaurus was classified among the Archaeoceti, a paraphyletic suborder of the cetaceans, however the giant kept its dinosaur name. Different species of Basilosaurus flourished in oceans worldwide during the wet, tropical Eocene and, even though they were obviously very adept at ocean living (indeed rising to the top of the food chain) the creatures betray vestiges of terrestrial living which modern whales have entirely dispensed with. Not only do Basilosaurus fossils have teeth and jaws which retain reatures from their artiodactyl ancestors, they also have tiny vestigial back legs a mere half meter in length (which would scarely help a 22 meter animal get around). Additionally Basilosaurus was different from modern whales in that it probably moved with eel-like horizontal thrashing of its long tail (modern whales move their flukes vertically). Basilosaurus probably did not dive very deeply, but moved about near the surface of the oceans hunting for smaller marine animals.
Although Wadi Al-Hitan was discovered by Europeans in 1902-1903, some archaeologists and anthropologists have speculated that it was known long before that and have been irresistibly drawn towards comparing basilosaurus with the giant crocodiles and earth spanning serpent gods which populate ancient Egyptian cosmology.
In ancient Egypt the sky was a gleaming blue, the sacred lotuses had blue petals, the pharaoh’s battle crown was blue, beautiful women wore chokers made of blue stone, and, above all, the life-giving Nile was blue. The ancient Egyptians needed azure pigment to portray these essential elements of life within their sacred art, but the only natural blue pigments were from turquoise and lapis lazuli—semi-precious stones which were rare and expensive. To provide a sufficient supply of blue pigment for painting, jewelry, and sculpture, the Egyptians therefore invented the first synthetic pigment which today is appropriately known as “Egyptian blue” (well, it is also appropriately known as calcium copper silicate–CaCuSi4O10 or CaO·CuO·4SiO2—but I’m going to keep calling it Egyptian blue).
Egyptian blue was synthesized in the 4th Dynasty (c.2575-2467 BC) when the newly created pigment was first used to color limestone sculptures, beads, and cylinder seals. Its use became more prevalent in the Middle Kingdom, and then increased again during the New Kingdom when blue was used for the production of numerous everyday objects. Throughout the Hellenic and Roman age, Egyptian blue was a mainstay of the nascent chemical industry, and it found its way into all sorts of art, jewelry, crafts, and artisan wares. Then, in the fourth century the secret of its manufacture was lost. Only in the beginning of the nineteenth century did interest revive as the English and French pioneers of the chemical trade rushed to synthesize useful compounds. As one might surmise from the fact that the manufacturing process was lost for a millennium and a half, the method to make Egyptian blue is surprisingly involved. Citing a British Museum publication, Wikipedia describes it thus:
Several experiments have been carried out by scientists and archaeologists interested in analyzing the composition of Egyptian blue and the techniques used to manufacture it. It is now generally regarded as a multi-phase material that was produced by heating together quartz sand, a copper compound, calcium carbonate, and a small amount of an alkali (plantash or natron) at temperatures ranging between 800–1000 °C (depending on the amount of alkali used) for several hours. The result is cuprorivaite or Egyptian blue, carbon dioxide and water vapor…
The Egyptians were clearly people who took their pigments seriously, and thankfully so–the blue tints they crafted have lasted for thousands of years (and helped us find our way to synthesized pigments). It is strange to think of the subtle ways that the Nile still flows through our lives.
Welcome to Egypt week at Ferrebeekeeper! All of this week’s posts will share an Egyptian theme. To start out Egypt week, we cast our gaze deep into the underworld beneath the Nile and the burning desert. The dark river passages beneath the world are said to be the home of the principle ancient Egyptian god of chaos, the great serpent Apep (AKA Apopis or Apophis).
According to myth, the sun god Ra carried the sun across the heavens on a mystical solar boat every day. Then every evening Ra returned from west to east via an unseen river path through the underworld. As night covered the world and the sun god struggled to return to the farthest point in the east in time for sunrise, the great serpent would appear from the dark waters to attack the boat.
Apep would try with all of his might to devour the sun in the manner than a serpent eats an egg. Some myths maintain that Apep was the sun god before Ra and wanted the sun back out of dynastic bitterness. In other sources the great demon is not ascribed with a back story and is only a huge snake who wants to eat the sun. Sources agree that Apep was not so much worshiped as “worshiped against.” Many prayers and liturgies from ancient Egypt are magical incantations to help the gods stave off attacks by the huge poisonous snake.
Ra was assisted in fighting off the nightly attack by an unlikely figure, the powerful god Set–a fratricidal maniac with the head of an unknown animal (who doubles as the god of evil and the desert). Whatever Set’s other faults might be, lack of vigilance against giant chaos serpents was not among them. In several passages from ancient literature, Set is heard to boast about his prowess and bravery in making sure the sun gets past the serpent in order to rise on time. The spirits of the devout who had passed to the next life could also help out by rowing the beautiful boat. In later Egyptian myth, the battle goddess Bastet would also assist Ra and Set in fighting the demon.
Of course despite the best intentions of the gods, Apep would occasionally get the upper hand and temporarily run off with the sun. Such (rare) days were marked by storm and overcast skies. Additionally the wily snake demon would sometimes leave the underworld and try to devour the sun as it gloriously made its way across the heavens. According to Egyptian superstition, these occasional daytime attacks were responsible for solar eclipses. Fortunately Ra and the other protectors of the sun could always rely on a reservoir of spiritual energy to drive back the snake (helping the gods defeat Apep was one of the purposes of worship in ancient Eypt). Because of the power of prayer, Apep, dreadful demon snake of the underworld, never did succeed in devouring the sun.
Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter. From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy. He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time. Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals. Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners. These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.
In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness. Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards. In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance). Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness. Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society. A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage. A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag. This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together: there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.
Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad. As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars. Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus. The huge felines are one more the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].
There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well. He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter. In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum. Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s emotional breakdown. I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.
The aggressive drive and single minded focus which bees and wasps bring to creating and defending their hives have long drawn the attention of warriors, rulers, and merchants. There is a long history of bees as heraldic logos, military insignia, and as corporate logos and or mascots. Additionally, bees and hornets are surprisingly popular in the world of sports. Here is a miniature gallery of bees used as insignias or as mascots throughout the ages.
The Barberini were a bloodthirsty Italian aristocratic house from Florence.
The Barberini reached the apex of their power in the 17th century when Maffeo Barberini ascended to the throne of Saint Peter as Urban VIII (who was noted for melting down classic bronzes and having the birds in the Vatican garden poisoned).
Napoleon was also a fan of industrious bees. Closely looking at his coat of arms reveals that the red cloak framing the eagle shield is embroidered with bees. Not only do the bees represent hard work, ferocity, and fecundity, they are meant to allude to the golden bees/cicadas found in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric I, who founded the French throne in 457.
Bees and hornets are also favored by more contemporary soldiers.
My personal favorite of all bee-themed logos is the Seabees logo which was designed in the war year of 1942 and has remained unchanged since then. The Seabees are the Naval Construction forces, who were (and are) expected to build critical military infrastructure like airstrips and docks even under fire. Their motto is “Construimus, Batuimus“ (“We build, We fight!”) and the pugnacious bee on their logo reflects this with his machine gun, wrench, and hammer.
In the US Air Force one of the prominent all-weather, multi-role fighter jets is the F/A-18 Hornet and a number of badges represent the fighting elan of the men and women who fly and service them (like this badge showing a hornet beating up a tomcat).
Beyond the manor and the battlefield, there are numerous corporate bees and hornets.
The New Orleans hornets are a professional basketball team. The fierce hornet has been elided with the city’s trademark fleur de lis.
The honey nut cheerio bee has been hard-selling honey flavored oat cereal for General Mills for long years. Here the bee is pictured wobbling in space time as he annoys a professional wrestler.
The Green hornet is a comic book hero who dresses up like a stinging insect and makes his Asian manservant fight crime.
The Bumble Bee man is a long-suffering Mexican-American TV star in the cartoon world of the Simpsons. The Bee man finally brings us to real world bee costumes which I think largely speak for themselves.