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Duccio di Buoninsegna was born in the middle of Sienna in the 13th century. Before his death in 1319 or 1320, Duccio combined the stiff formal conventions of Byzantine and Romanesque art with newfound Italian interests in modeled forms, three dimensional architectural interiors, and naturalistic emotions. Along with Cimabue, Giotto, and Pietro Cavallini he is regarded as one of the progenitors of Western art (and the sole father of Siennese gothic art).
Duccio’s painting Announcement of Death to the Virgin is one of only thirteen surviving works by the master. A beautiful gothic angel has materialized before Mary as she reads from a psalter. The heavenly visitor silently presents Christ’s mother with a palm frond to symbolize the coming death of her son. Mary gestures in resolute horror at the message. Beyond the three-dimensional room delicate arches lead to a background of blackness.
Little is known of Duccio’s life, but we know that it was a disorganized mess. He had seven children and thanks to an inability to manage money he was frequently in trouble with debts and fines. Fortunately his gifts as an artist outshone his problems with organization. By the beginning of the 14th century he was the most famous (and revolutionary) painter in Sienna and he managed to solve his financial problems by painting numerous commissions around the thriving communal republic.
Kindly accept my apologies for the lack of posts on Thanksgiving week: I was hunting and feasting in wild forested hills far away from the city (and my computer).
When writing about mythology, this blog traditionally concentrates on stories of the underworld and the dark beings and divinities which exist beyond the mortal veil. However to celebrate the wild joys of the forest, I am dedicating this week to Artemis/Diana–goddess of the hunt and protector of animals. Even though Artemis was primarily a virgin goddess of unspoiled wilderness, wild creatures, and of hunters and hunted, she had a dark underworld aspect as well. In stark opposition to her role as protector of children and women in childbirth she was a plague goddess who killed swiftly with afflictions which struck like divine arrows.
Artemis was the twin sister of glorious Apollo. Both siblings were the children of Zeus and Leto (a daughter of obscure Titans). Hera/Juno was angry about Zeus’ philandering and tried to prevent the birth of the twins by cursing the land they were born in, but Leto found a floating Island, Delos, which escaped Hera’s wrath by being unmoored. After the birth of the twins, Delos was cemented to the seafloor and became a sacred location.
Artemis was the elder twin. Although Leto bore Artemis quickly and painlessly, Apollo’s birth was a terrible ordeal of prolonged painful labor which lasted nine days and nights. By the end of this time, Artemis had grown into a full goddess and she helped her mother bring her twin into the world—hence her connection with childbirth. Thereafter Artemis was identified with the moon and the wilderness while Apollo has always been a sun god associated with civilization and society. When Artemis met Zeus she asked to always remain a virgin and a loner, a request which the king of the gods quickly granted to his lovely daughter.
Artemis had several attributes: a bow and a quiver full of arrows, a knee-length tunic, and packs of attendant hounds and nymphs. The sacred animal of Artemis is the deer, and she is often portrayed caressing a deer, being carried in a chariot drawn by deer with golden antlers, or hunting stags in the forest. One of Hercules’ most challenging labors was to capture a golden-antlered hind sacred to the goddess. The magical deer could outrun arrows (and anyways Heracles knew that shooting it would bring him the disfavor of the goddess and disaster). For a year he unsuccessfully pursued the deer on foot and he only succeeded in catching the doe when he fell down in desperation and groveled before the goddess (who transferred her wrath to Eurystheus). Another myth involving deer and Artemis does not end so well for the mortal protagonist. Once when she was bathing–nude, chaste, and beautiful—she was accidentally spotted by the unlucky Theban hunter Actaeon. In fury that a mortal had espied her loveliness, she transformed the hunter into a stag, whereupon he was torn to shreds by his own dogs–which did not recognize their master or know the anguished voice trying to call them off with the tongue of a deer. For some reason this scene is a timeless favorite of artists!
This last story hints at Artemis’ dark aspects. When wronged, Artemis was a fearsome being and her wild vengeance rivals that of any underworld deity. Several of the more troubling stories from classical myth involve her wrath. For example, her anger led directly to the Caledonian boar hunt, the defining heroic event of the era just prior to the Trojan War. One year King Oeneus of Calydon disastrously forgot to include Artemis in his annual sacrifices. To punish the King, she sent a monstrous male pig, a scion of the primal monster Echidna to ravage the countryside. This in turn brought the greatest hunters and heroes of Greece together with sad consequences. In other tales Artemis was even more direct with her vengeance. She visited plague upon Kondylea until the citizens adjusted their worship of her. She famously slew the many daughters of Niobe with painless arrows and turned their mother into a weeping stone.
Artemis is a self-contradicting figure–a virgin who was the goddess of childbirth; a protector of wild animals who was also goddess of the hunt; and a friend to maidens, mothers, and children who wielded the plague to smite down mortals. Her temples were frequently on the edge of civilization—at the end of the croplands where the forest began or at the edge of useable land where terra firma gave way to swamps and morasses. This highlights the main fact about Artemis—she was a nature goddess. wildness and inconsistency were parts of her. Worshiping Artemis was how the Greeks venerated and sanctified the savage beauty and random gore of the greenwood.
Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests. Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.
Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent. Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve. The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.
The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands. Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent. In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers. Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.
During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest. Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers. When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters. When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.
Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands. The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.
The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”
Here is a tiny painting by Petrus Christus who worked in Bruges during the middle of the fifteenth century. Painted around 1456, and measuring a mere 5 3/4 x 4 7/8 inches, the painting shows the virgin mother standing in the hollow of a darkened thorn tree holding the infant Jesus. The imagery is unusual for Christian religious art. The tree may stand for the long lost tree of knowledge–barren since the expulsion from paradise, but about to be brought back to life by Jesus. Alternately the image may have an idiosyncratic meaning: Christus belonged to “the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree” and probably painted this work as personal devotional object for a wealthy fellow member. Whatever the exact meaning, the barren tree’s wicked thorns certainly foreshadow the crown of thorns and Christ’s execution on the Cross. The tree is hung with lower-case letter “a”s fashioned of gold. The symbolic meaning of the letters is somewhat obscure—the most likely possibility is that they stand for “Ave Marias” and represent the 15 mysteries of the Rosary (a widespread devotional rite which represents the life of Jesus). However they might also allude to knowledge outright, or to some personal reference (one must avoid the urge to think they represent the grade inflation now so rampant in the academic sphere). Whatever its meaning, this little painting is a triumph of mysterious late-gothic mood.