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Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market. Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.” The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature. True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid. For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available. The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations. Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.
Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla. These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas. Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia. According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.” As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.
Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods. Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods. Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks. The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded. Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.
The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long. From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans. When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.
Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient. Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid. It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods. It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret. The vanilla flower (Vanilla planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.
Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion, discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery. He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.
Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available. The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products. Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile: anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former. Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess which synthetic compounds can never capture.
And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.
Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life. Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight. Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim. To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images. These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work. When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other. It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).
My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise. Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre. Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.
Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).
It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much. Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism. Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar). A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.
But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads. Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?
Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art. Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier, I wanted to address his work further. Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths. The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums. Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day. Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!
Mayan cosmology, which shrinks neither from darkness and violence nor from beauty and heroism, features one of the most strange and transformative tales of the underworld. The story is found in the Popul Vuh, the most comprehensive remaining work of Mayan mythical literature (which was recorded in the Quiché language by a Domenican friar in 1701 AD). The most important and cohesive part of the Popul Vuh recounts how twin heroes, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, challenged the gods of the underworld to a multi-match ball tournament. Episodes from the story are recognizable in art from the golden age of the Classic Mayas (from 200-900 AD).
The story begins when Hun Hunahpu, the father to both twins, challenged the greedy and corrupt gods of Xibalba (the Mayan underworld) to a ball game. Mayan ball was a sort of high impact racquetball with scoring hoops (rather like rollerball). In important tournaments, the losers were sacrificed and their severed heads became permanent additions to the court. When Hun Hunahpu lost the ball game to the gods of the dark house, they ripped him apart and left his head impaled on a tree. However, Xquic, a lovely blood goddess of the underworld fell in love with the head of the brave and handsome Hun Hunahpu and became impregnated by his spit. She raised her twin sons, Hunahpu and Xbalanque hidden away from the eyes of the gods below, but when the two grew to manhood they inevitably found their father’s sports equipment. Learning of his downfall they set out to defeat the gods of Xibalba, whose malign influence was corrupting the world of life (also, by besting the gods at the sacred ball game, they hoped to restore life to their father).
After deliberately losing several ball matches in order to obtain a strategic advantage, the brothers were forced to take shelter in a dark house in Xibalba, which was filled with killer bats and with the horrifying bat gods, the Camazotz. To escape the bats, the brothers took refuge inside their blowguns, but Hunahpu, mistakenly believing that dawn had arrived, stuck his head out to look around. A Camazotz (or the Camazotz—their nature is unclear) promptly snipped Hunahpu’s head off with razor claws, and carried the bleeding head to the ceremonial ball court for use during the next day’s ball game.
Grieving for his dead brother, Xbalanque summoned the animals of the jungle and asked them to bring their favorite food. Many animals brought leaves or grubs or worthless carrion, but the coati brought a calabash gourd, which Xbalanque then fashioned into a surrogate head for his brother. During the ballgame, he managed to exchange the fake head for the real one and the brothers ultimately went on to win the tournament.
Enraged by the loss, the Xibalbans constructed a great oven in which they immolated the meddlesome twins. The deities of hell then ground the twins’ burned bones to dust and threw them in a river. However Xbalanque and Hunahpu were again one step ahead. They magically regenerated as a pair of catfish which gradually changed into boys. Amazed by this miracle, and not recognizing the now-transformed twins, the Xibalbans hired the orphans as magical entertainers. The twins performed increasingly spectacular magical miracles for the Xibalbans. They transformed into animals and burned buildings only to restore them perfectly unburned. Finally the two magicians were called to appear before One Death and Seven Death, the ranking rulers of Xibalba. The twins performed a spectacular magic show which culminated with Xbalanque sacrificing Hunahpu, only to have the latter emerge more powerful and vigorous then before. One Death and Seven Death applauded and demanded the twins put them through the same transformation. Naturally the twins sacrificed the rulers of Xibalba, but they did not restore them to life. They then revealed their true identities and began to slaughter their former tormentors. The forces of Xibalba surrendered utterly and begged for mercy.
The story ends with the twins granting clemency to the surviving gods of hell on the condition that the world of life no longer need worship them or present offerings to the underworld. The brothers then dug up their father’s remains and pieced them together. But their magical skills could not bring him fully back to life. Maimed and broken, he was left on the ball court where they found him. Some say he became maize and gave life to the world. Others say he became the fragile hope which lingers for all things lost and dead.
The brothers then left the underworld, but as they ascended to the world of the living, they found that it had become somehow diminished to them. Their mighty magical transformations had put the affairs of life behind them. The two kept climbing and transcended the world entirely. They are still visible as the sun and the moon. Their story is the Mayan story of the creation and how life was redeemed—at least for a time—from the greedy deities of the underworld.