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So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month? While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms. Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy! Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot. The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell. The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit. The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa): this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing. Maybe he is going to grade school?
This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post). The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish… Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.
Ducks are pretty cute, and, based on that general truism, I assumed that duck mascots would be pretty cute too. Boy was I wrong! Here is a group of pictures of duck mascots from sports teams and corporations (as well as some general duck costumes for fun). Aside from the duck dachshund and the actual duck they are pretty horrifying…It provides more opportunity for sober reflection on what mascots are and why we are so attached to them.
It has been a long time since we had a post about mascots, which is a real shame, since they tend to be the weirdest posts on Ferrebeekeeper (which is saying something since this is a blog about dark gods, strange art, exotic mollusks, and brain vivisection). Therefore today we highlight space-themed mascots—symbolic beings/objects which represent a group or entity by means of anthropomorphized celestial bodies (or other zany astronomical concepts). I am pleased by all of the stars and suns but somehow I wanted something more celestial and mysterious. Also why are so many of them yellow?
We mentioned the troubles Ole Miss was having phasing out their previous mascot in favor of something less divisive. Here is Star War’s own Admiral Ackbar filling in that role.
Hmm, I’m not sure whether that has furthered my dearly-held and oft’ stated goal to prod humankind back towards the exploration of outer space, but you never know what will work best with different people and, at least we saw some really strange mascots.
Here’s another strange painting from contemporary master of surrealism, Mark Ryden. The subject is the “tree of life” a subject which comes up in religion, philosophy, science, and art. A tree of life from Greek myth even found its way onto this blog several Octobers ago. In Ryden’s interpretation, a princess with a bouquet and a baby sits suspended in a sentient tree. Hidden among the boughs are the seven platonic solids. Beneath her a bear and a monarch symbolize some unknown dualism.Somehow this painting combines Crivelli’s creepy diagram-like realism with half of the topics from Ferrebeekeeper. Seriously there are hymenopterans, crowns, trees, mammals, a snake, and garden flowers (not to mention all of the colorsfrom a master’s palate). The only things missing are a Chinese spaceship and an underworld god (and even the latter is hinted at by the death’s head and the tree’s occult eye).
As always I am moved by Ryden’s realism and by his eerie milieu, but I am at a loss as to the cohesive meaning. Perhaps there isn’t one and the piece is meant to convey atmospheric mystery and sacredness of a renowned tree which does not actually exist anymore than does platonic perfection.
The Olympics is continually remade to reflect contemporary taste. Sports which were once important are gradually abandoned. Exciting new sports which appeal to younger audiences (or boring old sports which appeal to wealthier audiences) are tried out. For example, the 2016 Olympics in Rio will feature two new sports—rugby sevens and golf (which has repeatedly been part of the Olympics in the past—and has repeatedly been dropped because it is an unwatchable festival of abject tedium). The extent to which things have gradually changed becomes apparent when one looks back at the canceled sports of yesteryear, many of which are so anachronistic they seem like Monty Python gags. The Economist illustrates the point with this delightful chart which features live pigeon shooting, javelin free style, and pistol dueling for teams (!?). One of the discontinued sports which sounded most exciting to me was club swinging which conjures heady images of hirsute cavepersons belaboring each other with wooden cudgels. Was this the original sport?
Alas, my research into club swinging has revealed that the sport was not the Neanderthal free-for-all for which I was hoping (nor even some sort of amoral 70’s party event). Apparently the “clubs” are those weird elongated bowling pin things that jugglers use. The club swinger would take these objects and whirl them about his head and trunk in a discipline which combined saber-dancing, juggling, gymnastics, and just plain looking ridiculous. The sport had such a circus appearance that it gave rise to rumors that juggling was once an Olympics sport (which it never was). Club swinging was also known as Indian club swinging because gifted participants apparently looked like they were taking part in some intricately choreographed Native American ritual. In the fullness of time club swinging devolved into rhythmic gymnastics, that strange pseudo sport where a young Bulgarian dances and tumbles with a ribbon on a stick (which always makes my poor father apoplectic when he sees it on TV).
Club swinging was only a medal event at two Olympics festivals—the Saint Louis Olympics of 1904 and the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932. Both of these Olympics were dominated by Americans because, in the age before cheap jet travel, the Olympics were not nearly as International as they now are.
The 1932 Olympics took place at the high point (or low point?) of the Great Depression and underlines the sad exigencies of those times. The gold medalist in club swinging was George Roth, an unemployed gymnast who was hit particularly hard by that economic catastrophe (in fact the Guardian reports that he once went 15 days without eating—so he probably looked like today’s gymnasts). Roth embodied Baron de Coubertin’s ideal of unpaid amateur sports to an unwholesome degree: as soon as he was awarded with his gold medal he left the stadium and sadly hitchhiked home.
More than usual the future seems uncertain. The most cunning augurs and oracles can not see whether economic turmoil in Europe and turmoil in the Middle East will capsize the world economy. The Pax Americana still holds but China’s rise promises a less stable, less happy balance of world power. The world’s climate is changing. Technology is evolving in unknown directions.
To mark this uncertainty, I am dedicating today’s post to the quintessential symbol of all things shifting and mercurial–the weathervane (a choice which seems even more appropriate in the year when Mitt Romney is running for president). A weathervane is an instrument dedicated to determining the direction the wind is blowing from. As the wind changes, an arrow attached to a metal sail shifts to point in the direction the breeze originates. These devices had a very practical function in the days before up-to-the-minute worldwide meteorological observations and projections were available: they continue to be popular as architectural flourishes.
Sometimes I fantasize about what sort of weathervane I would put on the cupola of my imaginary mansion or at the apex of the folly tower of my non-existent formal garden. A quick search of the internet reveals that many of my favorite topics are favorite subjects of weathervanes. Catfish, turkeys, snakes, crowns, and mollusks are favorite subjects for metal sculptors to work in iron or copper. So are mammals (represented here by whales and deer), farm creatures (goats and turkeys), and trees. Even gods of the underworld make an appearance–in the form of the devil who points to the wind with his pitchfork
For the sake of space I left out all sorts of beautiful marlins, swordfish, dolphins, capricorns, poseidons, sea horses, sharks, and clipper ships, however I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a few buxom mermaids and sirens (and with the reminder to all fellow New Yorkers that the 30th annual mermaid parade is happening tomorrow at Coney Island. Why not take a break from the vagaries of watching the weather and worrying about the uncertain future by participating in a festival in honor of Poseidon and the world’s oceans!
The Magic Circus is a bizarre contemporary gothic painting created in 2001 by Mark Ryden, the king of the pop surrealist painters. Ryden was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Southern California. At the beginning of his career, he was a commercial artist who created magazine illustrations, book covers, and album covers, but due to the outlandish visionary intensity of his work, he has successfully broken into the rarified top echelon of contemporary painters. His works have sold very successfully for over a decade (although he is regarded as a bizarre outsider by the unofficial “academy” of curators and critics).
The Magic Circus is an eye popping juxtaposition of cartoonlike hybrid animal/toy characters, science book illustrations, and delicate vulnerable children. The upbeat but sinister pastel circus landscape has been rendered with the precise and exacting realism of the finest illustration. As with 16th century Flemish art, dark horrors lurk among the details. Looking past the dazzling crown and jewel-like bees and cheery dancing octopus, the viewer notices a striped winged demon with a shrunken head drinking a chalice of blood. Jesus and Abraham Lincoln are rendered as toys and lifeless sculptures while a plush stuffed animal capers in the foreground with lively malice.
Many of Ryden’s works involve the idea that our icons and consumer goods are springing to malevolent life and taking over. The Magic Circus has the visceral appeal of a child’s nightmare. The toys are coming to life and putting on a show, but there is a dark and horrible side to the carnival. Within the interlocking “rings” of childlike delight, scientific materialism, and commercial exploitation, Ryden includes symbols and themes which he reuses again and again in his paintings.
Pop Surrealism takes kitsch elements from everyday life and arranges them in a way to maximize the emotional, sentimental, and psychological aspects of everyday symbols. The narrative focus, realistic technique, and psychological intensity of this diffuse school have all been disparaged by “high-brow” art schools and abstract/conceptual artists for the past few decades. Yet as the visual language of the internet becomes more pervasive (and as mainstream art languishes in a conceptual rut), Pop Surrealism has been finding broader acceptance
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.
In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair. Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete). The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence. Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon). My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:
And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.
In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone. The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading. When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.
Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture. Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.
In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil. The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.
Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world. Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image. The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.