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Vishnu is one of the supreme Vedic beings of Hinduism. He is an all-powerful deity who sustains and protects the universe–indeed, all beings within the universe are part of him. Vishnu is the past, present and future. He creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys all aspects of existence. The multiple avatars of Vishnu—worldly incarnations which he assumes to directly experience and affect existence—lie at the center of Hindu myth. Vishnu has lived many lives as Varaha, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha (well, at least to some of the devout), and performed many heroic deeds but his true divine nature transcends human understanding.
When not incarnated as an avatar (and slaying demons, seducing milkmaids, or explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun), Vishnu dwells in an abode known as Vaikuntha which transcends the material universe. Sometimes Vaikuntha is imagined as floating atop a sea of milk or suspended in the infinite blackness of space. In this numinous cosmological state of being, Vishnu reclines with his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, beauty, and prosperity. In his four arms he holds a great conch shell, a mace, a chakra, and a lotus (padmus) which may or may not be the universe itself.
Most interestingly, in his ultimate aspect of godhood, Vishnu reclines on another supreme deity, Ananta-Shesa, the king of all nagas, who is simultaneously a dasa (servant) of Vishnu and an incarnation of Vishnu himself. Ananta-Shesa is sometimes portrayed as a five or seven headed cobra, but he is most commonly imagined as a naga (snake spirit) with immense numbers of cobra heads. Each one of these snake heads supports a planet and all of the heads constantly sing praises to Lord Vishnu. In Hindu iconography the heads are typically topped with crowns (but maybe you should imagine exoplanets instead).
When Kalki–the final incarnation of Vishnu–manifests himself and ends the Kali Yuga (the current fallen incarnation of the universe) Ananta-Shesha will be one of the only things left. The great snake god is eternal and stands outside the eternal cycle of death and rebirth of the universe.
I am sorry it has come to this. I have to write an article for Star Magazine about Elvis movies—a task which requires me to watch all 31 Elvis movies in a short amount of time. Naturally I’ll write a post about the, um, insights into celebrity, aesthetics, and the national character which the experience has afforded me. However, at the moment, I am neck deep in go-go girls, guitars, and musical routines about water skiing. Today, therefore, I am simply posting a photo of contemporary pop princess Katy Perry wearing a beautiful crown and a Byzantine-themed Dolce & Gabbana gown at the 2013 Met Gala. I am sorry to do this to you (and I am stunned that Miss Perry has somehow sneaked into my blog by putting on a crown a second time). I will shamefacedly admit that she looks very beautiful and Byzantine in her jewels and beadwork. This year’s fashion theme at the Met Gala was “punk” and anyone who regards Byzantine royalty as fitting into that criteria cannot be wholly bad (maugre the gossip evidence).
Behold the moderately exciting crown of João VI! Crafted in 1817, the crown served as the sole royal crown of Portugal until a revolution in 1910 transformed that nation into a republic. Made by the Portuguese royal jeweler, the crown lacks gemstones and if crafted wholly of gold, silver, iron, and velvet. Eight half arches (which somewhat resemble octopus arms) meet at a monde (a globe like ball) surmounted by a cross. Although the crown may not be as exciting as more ancient or ostentatious royal regalia, it forms the central decoration of the Portuguese royal coat of arms (below) which is very exciting and strange. Two frowning spear-tongued wyverns hold up a shield (which is inexplicably wearing a crucifix necklace). Upon the shield are seven castles and five smaller shields–each with a quincunx (five spots in an ancient Roman pattern). The whole thing is like some weird royalist arithmetic question.
In Hellenic culture, Tyche was the sacred goddess of a city’s destiny. Confusingly, each different city worshipped a different tutelary version of the goddess, however Tychewas always the same goddess–a daughter of Aphrodite by Hermes (or possibly a daughter of an Oceanic titan by Zeus). Tyche represented the fortunes of a city in a time when cities were frequently destroyed by famine, war, or disaster—so she was regarded as a fickle goddess. Her emblem was a crown in the shape of a city’s walls and parapets. In time she evolved into the Roman goddess of Fortuna—a goddess of luck and chance (whom many poets reviled as a fickle harlot). Even after the decline of the Roman principate in the west, Fortuna was a common theme of medieval literature and song.
Tyche’s crown—otherwise known as the mural crown–went on to acquire a different (though related) significance. As the Romans swept through the Mediterranean world conquering city after city and state after state, the Roman army was often put in the position of besieging walled or fortified cities. This was a profoundly dangerous task, as the defending army had the upper hand until the walls were stormed or breached. The first Roman soldier to climb the wall of an enemy city and place the Roman standard atop it was rewarded with the mural crown (“corona muralis”). The corona muralis was the ultimate reward for bravery (and fortune) and was regarded as second in martial honor only to the grass crown presented to a general who had saved an entire army. Unlike the grass crown, which was made of, well, grass, (or the laurel crown presented to a victorious general) the mural crown was made of solid gold and thus had an immediate practical value as well as being a symbol of tremendous bravery.
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.
Many of the most amazing historical crowns were destroyed during the tumultuous hurly-burly of history. This is a reproduction of the crown worn by the infamous Henry VIII, the powerful plus-sized king with many wives. The original was made either for Henry VIII or his father Henry VII and was worn by subsequent Tudor and Stuart monarchs up until it was broken apart & melted down at the Tower of London in 1649 under the orders of Oliver Cromwell (when the monarchy was abolished and replaced by the Protectorate). The original crown was made of solid gold and inset with various rubies, emeralds, sapphires, spinels, and pearls. After Henry VIII’s schism with the Catholic Church, tiny enameled sculptures of four saints and the Madonna and child were added to emphasize the monarchy’s authority over the Church of England.
Although the reproduction was not made with solid gold or natural pearls (which would be prohibitively expensive) it was painstakingly crafted by master jewel smiths using period techniques. The jewelers were able to recreate the original crown in great detail because many paintings and descriptions are available, including the amazing picture of Charles I by Daniel Mytens above. Charles I lost his head and the crown with his obdurate insistence on the absolute authority of the monarch—a point of view which Cromwell sharply disputed.
The 85th Annual Academy Award Show just happened this past Sunday. While memories of Hollywood magic are fresh in everyone’s mind, this is an ideal time to present a list of fantasy crowns from various movies and TV shows. I borrowed the concept (and a couple of crowns) from this online gallery, however I certainly found crowns everywhere on the silver screen & the small screen. Something about the theatric pomp of royalty makes royal headdresses a favorite part of costume & fantasy dramas.
As is often the case with movies, some of these crowns look far better than actual crowns (which tend to be bizarre medieval or colonial relics). It is funny to think that rhinestones, paste, foil, and gold paint sparkle more brightly than actual gold and gems (in fact, there is probably a broad moral somewhere in that fact). Of course that is in only relevant the cases where there is even a physical actor—there were so many cartoon princesses and kings that I only included a smattering here.
Estonian mythology all seems strangely familiar and yet jarringly bizarre—like songs you hear in dreams or children’s books read in unknown languages. The stories have Greek parallels (and owe much to Finnish mythology) but the narrative is off-putting. A cunning blacksmith makes a beautiful woman out of gold but is unable to give her a soul or a mind. Beings from the land of the dead come back through a sacred grove to seduce maidens in the evening. Forests grow tired of human greed and get up and move away.
Perhaps the most familiar-yet-strange figure in Estonian myth is Vanatühi, the god of the underworld. Vanatühi means “old empty one” and the deity is famed for being stupid–nearly to the point of being inert. Whereas other underworld gods are always up to some malevolent scheme, Vanatühi is a big dumb farmer with crude ogre features. Because of his stupidity, Vanatühi is always being outwitted by Kaval Ants (“Crafty Hans”), the cunning trickster of Estonian myth (who usually starts out as a farmhand working for Vanatühi.
Vanatühi has two mythological items of great power, the stranger of which is küüntest kübar, a magical crown made of fingernails (yuck!) which renders the wearer invisible. The other mystical item he has is a whistle which he stole from Pikne, the god of lightning, however the whistle never seems to come into play. Maybe Vanatühi swallowed it?
From the era of Frankish Kings until the French Revolution, the kings of France were crowned with the so-called Crown of Charlemagne, a circlet of four gold rectangles inset with jewels. The crown was made for Charles the Bald, the Holy Roman Emperor who lived in the ninth century (who apparently needed an ornate head covering for some unknown reason). Four large jeweled fleur-de-lis were added in the late twelfth century along with a connecting cap ornamented with gems. A matching crown for the queen of France was melted down by the Catholic League in 1590 when Paris was besieged by the Protestant king Henry IV (before he was, you know, stabbed to death by a zealot when the royal carriage was stuck in traffic), yet the crown of Charlemagne survived France’s religious wars & was used in coronations up until 1775 when Louis XVI was crowned. The crown vanished during the French revolution and has never been seen since. A certain Corsican monarch crafted a replacement: the second Crown of Charlemagne was completely different and will be the subject of a subsequent post.
Until recently Bhutan was an anomaly among world nations. The tiny landlocked monarchy at the eastern end of the Himalayas was famous for being untouched by time. Under the absolute authority of the king, the Bhutanese pursued a medieval agrarian lifestyle with few trappings of the modernized world. However in 2006 the king, Jigme Singye, used his absolute authority to proclaim that the kingdom was transitioning to a constitutional monarchy and would hold elections. He then abdicated in favor of his Western-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel, who was crowned on November 6, 2008, and is now the figurehead ruler of the world’s youngest democracy. The young king is the fifth monarch of the Wangchuck dynasty which consolidated control of Bhutan’s warring fiefdoms in 1907.
The crown of Bhutan is known as the raven crown. It is based on the battle helmet worn by Jigme Namgyel (1825–81), aka “the black regent” who was the father of the first king (and whose warlike life consolidated central authority over feuding nobles and kept Bhutan independent of Great Britain). The raven is the national bird of Bhutan and represents Mahākāla, a protective deity/ dharmapāla particularly esteemed in the Buddhism of Tibet & Bhutan.
The raven crown is a warrior’s hat surmounted by a raven and embroidered with the skulls, which are emblematic of Mahākāla. The aesthetic effect is striking, but–to anyone unfamiliar with the Buddhism of the Eastern Himalayas—the skulls and ravens make it look like the young king is a dark wizard or a death knight. Fortunately, judging by the esteem in which he is held, this seems to be far from the case!