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The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1308-1311,
tempera on poplar panel)

In a previous post we analyzed how the devil gradually became red and goatlike in popular imagination (even though scripture does not mention such details).  Here is a stunningly dramatic gothic painting by the Sienese master Duccio which shows how the devil was conceived of at the beginning the 14th century.  The painting illustrates one of the narrative high points of the New Testament:  the devil tempting Jesus by offering him power over all the nations of Earth.  Here is how Matthew relates the story in the fourth chapter of his gospel:

8Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 9And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. 10Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 11Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

Duccio illustrates the very end of the episode as the bird-footed, spiky-haired gray devil waves his hand in disgust and prepares to fly off.  Additionally Satan has gnome ears, bat wings, and seems to be cast in a permanent shadow of decay. Androgynous angels in voluminous robes approach Christ from beyond the horizon to tend to him after his forty days and nights of fasting in the desert. The head of Jesus is naturally at the apex of the composition.  All around him, the architecture of the world is represented in miniature:  the crenellations and towers of the delicate pink and cream colored buildings look like dollhouses beneath the feet of Christ.  The pomp and power of the world’s cities is empty and small compared with divinity.

Fuchsia denticulata (from cloud forests of the Andes mountains)

Fuchsias are flowering shrubs and trees which have gained vast popularity in the garden for their lovely colorful blossoms.  The genus has nearly 110 different species, most of which are indigenous to South America.  Additionally some fuchsias occur northwards into Central America and westward across the South Pacific on island chains such as Tahiti.  The genus extends all the way to New Zealand where the largest fuchsia, Kotukutuku (Fuchsia excorticata), is a tree which can grow to sizes of up to 15 meters (45 feet) in height. The majority of fuchsias however are much much smaller.

The plants were first discovered and named (by Europeans) on the island of Hispaniola in 1703 by Charles Plumier, a French Minim monk.  Plumier was a polymath who excelled at math, physics, painting, draftsmanship, woodworking, and the creation of scientific instruments.  He was appointed royal botanist in 1693 and cataloged the plants of the French Caribbean over the course of several voyages.  Plumier named the beautiful shrub after Leonhart Fuchs a Medieval German physician who was one of the three fathers of modern botany.

Portrait of Fuchs (Heinrich Füllmaurer, Tübingen, 1541)

The flowers of the fuchsia are teardrop-shaped dangling blossoms with four short broad petals and four long slender sepals.  These blossoms are usually extremely colorful in order to attract the animals which fertilize them–hummingbirds.  The flowers can be red, white, blue, violet, or orange, but the majority of fuchsias occur in lovely shades of pink and purple. The purple-pink color of many garden fuchsias is so distinct and characteristic that the color itself is now called fuchsia (and has been since the nineteenth century).  That is how one of the loveliest and most flamboyant of all colors (and one of the most nonexistent) has come to be named for a medieval German doctor!

A Hummingbird drinking from a Fuchsia

Fuchsias form a small edible berry which is said to taste like a subtle combination of mild grape and black pepper (although I have never “harvested” the plants in my garden).  There are immense numbers of hybrid fuchsias in cultivation in gardens around the world and whole horticultural societies devoted to the plant, yet it does not have the myth and mystique of other beloved flowers like roses, orchids, and lilies.  Perhaps the new world origins of the fuchsia have subsumed the folklore of the flower.  Whatever the case, fuchsias are a stunning garden treat. They are one of my favorite plants in my shady Brooklyn garden and fuchsia is a favorite color.

A collage of different fancy fuchsias

Bornean Slow Loris (Nycticebus menagensis) Photo courtesy of the Danau Girang Field Centre

Slow lorises are primates from the genus Nycticebus. All five species of slow lorises live in Southern and Southeast Asia.  The various species are scattered across a swath of territory running from southern India down across Southern China across the Malay Peninsula and throughout Indonesia. All of the slow lorises are nocturnal and arboreal.  Their large eyes help them see at night and their sense of smell is unusually acute.  The primates are omnivorous and consume insects, fruit, and plant matter.  Their metabolism is very low and their movements are slow and methodical.

Slow lorises are strepsirrhine primates: they have traits which biologists consider to be “ancestral” for primates such as rhinariums (i.e. “wet” noses such as dogs, cats, and bunnies have), multiple sets of nipples, and the ability to enzymatically manufacture ascorbic acid.

Illustration of a Slow Loris’ Brachial Gland

Slow lorises also have glands on their elbows called brachial glands which produce a strong smelling secretion.  They anoint themselves with this substance and groom it through their fur using their tooth combs (which consist of needle-like teeth on the lower jaw used for grooming).  Some zoological literature contends that slow lorises are poisonous and that the combination of their saliva and the secretion from their brachial glands is toxic to humans, however this is not exactly correct.  Humans are allergic to slow loris secretions and sometimes go into anaphylactic shock when bitten, yet the secretions are not toxic per se.

Slow Loris (from Cute Overload)

In the wild slow lorises are preyed on by large snakes, hawk-eagles, and orangutans (who are evidently not quite as vegetarian as they are made out to be).  Predictably, the hugely expanding human population of Southeast Asia constitutes the most serious threat to the various species of slow loris.  Many of the little creatures are captured for the pet trade.  Since slow loris bites are painful, hunters cut out captured animals’ teeth—an operation which is frequently fatal and, if successful, leaves them  defenseless and lacking their principle means of cleaning themselves and interacting with other lorises (since grooming is a part of bonding).

Not only are slow lorises threatened by the pet trade.  Local superstition attributes magical protection powers to the slow loris, an so their bodies are burned or cut up for various spells, potions, and nostrums (evidently the protective magic does nothing for the slow lorises themselves). David Adam, detailed some of the consequences of magical myths about lorises in an article written for The Guardian:

As a result [of superstition], the luckless lorises frequently find themselves roasted alive over wood fires while eager people catch the supposedly life-giving liquor that drips out. Bits of their bodies are used in traditional medicine. And legend has it that villagers anxious about traffic safety need only bury a loris beneath a new road to keep it free from accidents.

As stupid and malicious as human reasons for hunting slow lorises are, the most serious threat to the animals comes from deforestation and habitat destruction.  Hopefully the rampant destruction of Southeast Asia’s rainforests will halt in time to save our big eyed cousins.

Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post last Friday: the sad exigencies of the world prevented me from finishing my week-long overview of ornamental knot designs (which included the valknut, knot gardens, the Saint Jame’s arms, and the endless knot).  Today I am returning to the theme for a final post concerning Celtic knotted designs– which represent the beautiful apogee of decorative knots (with the possible exception of certain gorgeous Islamic calligraphy and artwork).

Like leprechauns and shamrocks, ornate knot designs are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of Gaelic culture.  Yet the history of how these designs came to be synonymous with all things Hibernian is far from clear.  Interlace patterns have been found in mosaics and tile work from many different parts of the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries.  It has been speculated that these designs may have originated from Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, but whatever the case, the sinuous interconnected ribbons with animal heads certainly appealed to the people of Northern Europe in the waning days of Roman hegemony.

During the so-called Migration period (the period from 400 AD to 800 AD) waves of Germanic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Steppe peoples intermingled and pushed into each other’s territory.  As these peoples intermingled (and battled), looped, braided, and geometric styles of decoration grew in popularity throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire.  Frequently these designs were elaborate knotted ribbons which terminated in interlocking animal heads.

A Sword Hilt Fitting from the Staffordshire Hoard (Mercian, ca. 7th century)

By 700 AD, the style was becoming less prominent on continental Europe, however it continued to evolve in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia.  The insular art of Irish monasteries produced unrivaled treasures such as numerous ancient stone crosses and the world famous Book of Kells, an illuminated Vulgate gospel from around 800 AD, which defies belief due to the microcosmic intricacy of its knotwork men, animals, and sacred figures.

Detail of Serpents, lions, and vines from the Book of Kells (ca. 800 AD)

Although the Book of Kells marks an apogee of lacework illumination, geometrical knots continued to be popular in Ireland thereafter.   Right on down until today, intricate ornamental knots are a hallmark of Irish culture.  For your enjoyment here is a little gallery of Celtic knots, ancient and modern.

Detail from the Book of Kells

Stained Glass Celtic Knot (from Paradise Stained Glass)

Fahan Cross-slab (Donegal Ireland, ca. 7th Century AD)

Celtic Knot Handbag

Celtic Knot foot tattoo from “Tattoo and Piercing Gallery”

Celtic Knot Stencil from “The Artful Stencil”

Traditional Celtic Knot (Drawing by by ~cosmic-tool from deviantart)

The Endless Knot

In Chinese art the endless knot (Chinese: 盤長; pán cháng) is one of the eight auspicious symbols or “eight treasures” which were borrowed from Indian Buddhism (which in turn probably borrowed the symbols from earlier Hindu mysticism).  Among the eight, the mystic knot is especially popular, since it “ties together” so many different metaphorical concepts.

Since it has no end, the knot is said to represent that which is divine and eternal:  essentially it is an Asian version of the infinity symbol.  To people who believe in reincarnation, the knot represents samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in which all living beings are imprisoned.  Each different faith conceives of such endlessness differently and to different worshippers the knot has different sources and varied meanings.  In Hindu religious paintings the knot was found upon the breast of Vishnu the preserver of the universe, while Buddhists see it as the intestines of the Buddha. To some it is a symbol of individual longevity, while others regard it as emblematic of the eternal nature of perfect love.

 

Or the permanent nature of a tattoo…

To the most subtle philosophers the knot is itself a sort of koan which cannot be untied or solved.  It represents being and non-being knotted together inextricably.  The emptiness around the knot defines the knot itself just as emptiness and nothingness pervade and define the apparent reality of existence (according to Buddhist monks and atomic physicists anyway).

My favorite interpretation of the endless knot however is not so abstruse and cosmic but has a rather more human cast. Some sages assert that the knot represents compassion and wisdom, which are components of each other. Without wisdom, compassion is empty and to no avail, whereas without compassion, there is no true wisdom. Each concept grows out of and encompasses the other.

Today we head back to Gotland for another ancient knotlike symbol.  The Saint John’s arms is a square with loops at each edge.  The shape is actually not a knot but an unknot: if you pulled at it you would discover that it is a torus which has been twisted.

Fornsalen Museum, Visby ( Gotland ). Picture stone with Saint John’s Arms Knot (photo by Wolfgang Sauber)

The symbol appears carved on a 1500 year old image stone from Hablingbo, on the island of Gotland (a Swedish Island in the Baltic Sea).  Ever since then it has appeared throughout the Scandinavian/Baltic world to demark sights of interest.  Although it is especially common in Finland (where it gained a reputation for warding off evil), the Saint John’s arms can be found blazoned upon cultural attractions throughout Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden.

Rana museum, department of Natural history in Mo i Rana (Nordland, Norway)

From its obscure Scandinavian roots, the Saint John’s arms vaulted into international fame during the 80s.  Originally Apple computer utilized the “open apple” and “closed apple” as its command keys (I even remember these from my old Apple IIe and my halcyon days of adventuring in the realms of Ultima).  In 1984, when the Macintosh personal computer was introduced, Steve Jobs decided that using the apple for shortcut commands was denigrating the brand.  According to Apple insider Andy Hertzfeld, when Jobs saw how many apple commands were in an early version of MacDraw he peremptorily told the design team, “There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain! We’ve got to stop doing that!”  The bitmap artist, Susan Kare, flipped through her dictionary of international symbols until she found one that easily translated into 16 bit-resolution.  It was the Saint John’s arms symbol—which the symbol dictionary said indicated camping grounds in Sweden.

So today the Saint John’s arms, a mysterious Viking symbol carved on a weird rock on a haunted island, is in use everywhere that Apple computers are.

Classic Knot Garden at Helmingham

A knot garden is exactly what it sounds like–a formal garden laid out to resemble a decorative knot. The concept is known to date back to Elizabethan times and may be even more ancient.  Renaissance knot gardens consisted of square compartments planted with different herbs and aromatic plants, however, as gardening developed, knot gardens took on more and more of the formal decorative elements of parterre gardens. Although today’s knot gardens are often based around boxwood parterres or other formally clipped topiary hedges, many knot gardens still have an herbal component as a reminder of Renaissance knot gardens (which were meant to have a culinary medicinal, and even magical purposes).

Traditional Elizabethan Knot Garden of Lemon Thyme and Grey Santalina

Here is a little gallery of various pretty knot gardens from around the world (although they mostly seem to be English).

A contemporary knot garden photographed by Mick Hales.

Miniature tabletop knot garden at Filoli

Tudor Knot Garden

Jacobean style Knot Garden is at the rear of the Hertford Museum, Hertfordshire

Jardins de Villandry: extravagant parterre gardens in the Loire Valley

Knot Garden at the London Garden Museum

Rosemary Verey’s Knot Garden

Margot Pattison’s Traditional Knot Garden in Winter

An English knot garden at Bill and Mary Wayne Dixon’s home

Unicursal form of Valknut–the Triquetra Knot

 

Tricursal form of Valknut–the Borromian Rings

 

The Valknut is an ancient Viking design (although the word itself is new).  A Valknut consists of three interlinking triangles.  Classic Viking valknuts as seen in ancient stone carvings are one of two topological forms: the unicursal form or “triquetra” and the tricursal form, which consists of three linked triangles (also known as Borromean rings). The triquetra valknut has been found, for example, on the 7th century Tängelgårda stone (which stands on the island of Gotland, Sweden).  The tricursal valknut is found on a different ancient Gottland monument–the Lärbro stones.

A relief carving of human sacrifice from the Stora Hammars stones of Lärbro (circa 8th to 11th century)

Above is one of the carvings from the Lärbro stones (also known as the Stora Hammar rune stones).  The violent relief carving is filled with symbols of Odin:  a warrior holds a captive facedown and flays open his back with a spear as two ravens (or eagles) fly overhead.  To the right a troop of armored warriors look upon the sacrifice while at the left another victim hangs from a tree.  The valknut is in the center of the composition just above the spearman killing the supine figure.  Scholars suspect that it is a symbol of Odin, the allfather in his dark manifestation as god of battle death and human sacrifice.  Other scholars have speculated that the points of the three interlinked triangles may represent the nine realms linked together through Yggdrasil.  In contemporary times, the valknut has been used by neopagans as a symbol of their devotion to Norse gods, but it also has darker connotations and is sometimes adapted into the symbols of Scandinavian white supremacists and hate groups.  Because of its antiquity and its strong ties to Swedish history the Valknut is also used by many corporations, sports teams, and individuals who are in no way neopagans or white supremacists!

The valknut as closed 3-link chain–a modern topological configuration not used by Vikings

The 2012 London Olympics are passing into history.  Congratulations to all of the athletes and planners (and to the British in general).  Now the world is becoming curious about what’s going to happen in the next summer Olympics in Brazil.  Will that nation continue its meteoric rise from underperforming “developing” economy into a major international powerhouse?  Will municipal authorities clean up street crime in Rio de Janeiro?  Will Cariocas continue to disdain all but the skimpiest of garments—even with the eyes of the world upon them? These answers will only be known in four years: it is impossible to see into the future.  But maybe it’s worthwhile to take another look back at the past.  The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896 thanks to a late nineteenth century obsession with fitness, the hard work of Pierre de Coubertin, and a widespread interest in the classical Olympics (the roots of which are lost in history, but which are mythically believed to have been initiated by Hercules).  Yet there were earlier modern Olympic-style contests which preceded the 1896 Olympics.  The Wenlock Olympic games, an annual local gaming festival which originated in the 1850’s in Shropshire, England, have been much discussed by the English during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics (in fact one of the awful mascots takes his name from the venerable tradition), however an even older modern Olympics festival was celebrated in much stranger circumstances.

On September 11, 1796 (also known as “1er vendémiaire, an IV” under the crazy Republican calendar) the “First Olympiad of the Republic” took place in Paris at the Champ de Mars.  As many as 300,000 spectators watched some part of the contests. The opening ceremony was dedicated to “peace and fertility” and then teams of competitors participated in various sporting events modeled on those of classical antiquity.  The first event, a foot race, was a tie between a student named Jean-Joseph Cosme and a “pomegranate” named Villemereux [I had to break out the French-English dictionary to determine that Villemereux was (probably) a grenadier instead some sort of seedy fruit].  The Olympiad also features horse and chariot racing.  The victors were crowned with laurel and rode in a chariot of victory.  The event ended with fireworks and an all-night drinking holiday.  The event was very popular with the public and the press.

There were two more Olympiads of the Republic, in 1797 and 1798.  The 1797 Olympiad was modeled closely on the 1796 event, however the 1798 Olympiad took additional inspiration from the classical Olympics and from the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason.  Wrestling was added to the contests and the games featured the first ever use of the metric system in sports.  However in 1798, the ominous shadows lengthening over Europe were apparent at the games.  As the athletes marched onto the field, they passed in front of effigies which represented all of the original French provinces, but they also passed before effigies which represented the newly conquered provinces from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and northern Italy.  The armies of the French Republic were surging through Europe.  As the Directory gave way to the Consulate the games were subsumed by more serious martial conflict, and the first consul—soon known as Emperor Napoleon, apparently saw no reason to bring them back.

Napoleon

Magpies and Hare (Ts’ui Po, 1061 AD, ink and watercolor on silk)

Here is an exquisite painting by the Song dynasty master Ts’ui Po which shows two magpies haranguing a passing hare.  It is strange to think that this delicate and refined work was painted 5 years before the battle of Hastings.  The word for magpie is homonymous with the word for happiness—so two magpies represent double happiness–shuāngxǐ—which is one of the most universal Chinese concepts. Lucky shuāngxǐ symbols are plastered all over all sorts of Chinese establishments and goods (I put one at the bottom of this post and I’m sure you’ll recognize it).  Ts’ui Po was famed for his ability to find the underlying rhythm in natural subjects and express it with simple fluid brushwork:  the entire painting is structured as a gentle S-shaped curve, but within that compositional framework the hare and the magpies have their own calligraphic energy.  Also note how wind is blowing back the branches, leaves, and weeds in the painting.   Ts’ui Po captured the tao moving within a small ephemeral moment of natural beauty.

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