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The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

Here is one of my favorite disturbing religious paintings.  The work was completed in 1864 by the not-easily-classified 19th century French master Édouard Manet.  At first glimpse the canvas seems like a conventional devotional painting of Christ just after he has been crucified and laid out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but, upon closer examination the multifold unsettling elements of the painting become manifest.  The figures are painted in Manet’s trademark front-lit style which flattens the figures out and gives them a hint of monstrous unearthliness.  This is particularly problematic since we are located at Jesus’ feet and his body is already foreshortened.  The effect is of an ill-shaped Jesus with dwarf’s legs looming above us.  Also, from his half-closed eyes it is unclear whether Christ is dead or not.  Is he artlessly deceased with his eyes partially opened?  Has he been resurrected already but is somehow still woozy?  Are the angels resurrecting him?  Here we get to the biggest problem of the painting:  when is this happening?  This scene is certainly not in the gospels (at least I don’t remember any episodes where weird angels with cobalt and ash wings move Jesus around like a prop).   Did Manet just make up his own disquieting interpretation of the fundamental mystery at the heart of Christianity?  It certainly seems like it!  In the foreground of the work, empty snail shells further suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning.  An adder slithers out from beneath a rock as if to suggest the poison in our doubts.  Painting this kind of problematic religious work did not win Manet any friends in the middle of the nineteenth century, however it is unquestionably a magnificent painting about faith…and about doubt.

Colorful Land Snails (artist's conception)

Colorful Land Snails (artist’s conception)

There are all sorts of snails in my Brooklyn garden which range in color from, well, from medium brown to dark brown.  I guess the local mollusks don’t make for a very exciting rainbow–so today we move to the West Indies in search of the most vibrant land snails we can find.  There are numerous lovely air-breathing snails throughout (and around) the Caribbean which can be found in a variety of eye-popping colors, but two particular species outshine the others in terms of brilliant red, yellow, black and orange swirls.  These are the Cuban land snail (Polymita picta) and the Candy Stripe land Snail (Liguus virgineus) of Hispaniola.

Polymitas picta

Polymitas picta

Polymita picta lives throughout Cuba where it eats the algae, mold, and lichen from subtropical trees and shrubs.  The single species of snails appear in a dazzling array of spiral color patterns.

Polymita picta color variation (Harvard Museum)

Polymita picta color variation (Harvard Museum)

Liguus virgineus lives only on Hispaniola (the large island which includes Haiti & the Dominican Republic).  Unlike the Cuban land snail, Liguus virgineus specimens are somewhat more homogenous in color and pattern.  The Liguus genus however is broadly successful around the Caribbean and Gulf coast and the different species have different patterns (even though they are similar tree snails with similar habitats).

Liguus virginus

Liguus virginus

Liguus Map

Map of Liguus Species

Sadly, both of these snails are at risk because of their brilliant color.  The lovely bright colors have proven irresistibly attractive to the world’s most rapacious predator.   Humans use the shells as jewelry or collectibles which has led to both species being over-harvested for collectors.

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The Picture Scroll of “Clustering Chinese Plum Flowers”by Chen Lu

Clustering Chinese Plum Flowers (Chen Lu, Early Ming, Ink on Handscroll)

The plum blossom is a favorite motif in Chinese painting.  Since the tree blooms at the end of winter it has long been a symbol of winter and the endurance of life.  Similarly, because ancient gnarled plum trees could bear elegant new blossoms, the plum evoked thoughts of long life.  Plums were also indirectly connected to Lao Tzu who was allegedly born under a plum tree.  For  more than 3000 years plums have been a favorite food in China and a favorite food for thought for Chinese artists and poets.

Plum Blossoms, hanging scroll, ink on paper

Plum Blossoms (Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty, ink on paper scroll)

These paintings are all paintings of plum blossoms by Ming dynasty master Chen Lu.  He was born in the early Ming dynasty in Huiji (which is today Shaoxing in Zhejiang province) and was one of the all-time greatest painters of bamboo, pine, orchids, and especially plum blossoms, but no one knows the exact dates of his birth and death.  The spare calligraphic lines of these monumental scrolls are interspersed with sections of wild chaos and with internal empty spaces.  The effect is not dissimilar from abstract expressionism—the plum boughs become an abstract internal voyage which the viewer embarks on through form & lack of form; from darkness to light and back.  This internal voyage element of his work was highlighted by the fact that the long horizontal work is a handscroll—the viewer is meant to spool through it and thus appreciate the modality of discovery and change (if you click on the horizontal scroll at the top of this post you will get some of this effect, although the image is smaller than one might hope).  Additionally plum blossoms opened in winter and so they are frequently interspersed with white snow and ice—an even more trenchant juxtaposition of life and non-life.

Plum Blossom and the moon (72.8*155.7 cm, by Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty)

Plum Blossom and the Moon (Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty, Ink on Scroll)

on-life.

Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist, CBE

Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist, CBE

Brian May is an astrophysicist who pursued a career in music. He is the guitarist for the rock band Queen and he is more famous for writing “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “We Will Rock You”, & “Who Wants to Live Forever” than for anything he wrote while obtaining his Astrophysics degrees.  Brian was popularizing Galaxy Zoo on his blog (Galaxy Zoo is an online project which seeks public help in classifying vast numbers of galaxies.  A Dutch fan, Hanny van Arkel (a schoolteacher by trade), became interested in the project and started working on the site when she spotted a huge weird glowing green thing below spiral galaxy IC 2497.  She presented her findings to professional astronomers, who were also perplexed by the ghostly shape.  They duly named the object in her honor “Hanny’s Voorwerp” (which is Dutch for “Hanny’s thing”).

Hanny's Voorwerp and Galaxy IC2497 (Hubble Space Telescope)

Hanny’s Voorwerp and Galaxy IC2497 (Hubble Space Telescope)

So what is Hanny’s Voorwerp? The leading theory is that the supermassive black hole in the center of IC 2497 created huge jets of energy and gas as it (messily) devoured great masses of matter at the center of that galaxy.  These esoteric plumes interacted with an unrelated stream of gaseous matter hundreds of thousands of light years long (which is longer than our galaxy).  The thin clouds of glass then fluoresced like a krypton sign or a Scooby-Doo ghost.

Hanny Van Arkel

Hanny Van Arkel

Thanks Brian May and Hanny! This is one fancy voorwerp.

Sort of an Ersatz Daffy Duck

Sort of an Ersatz Daffy Duck

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.

A cute wiener dog duck!

A cute wiener dog duck!

Duck logo new

Daisy?

Daisy?

cs205b

Cornerstone Charter Academy Mascot

Cornerstone Charter Academy Mascot

The Aflac Duck is pretty endearing (even if he does sell insurance)

The Aflac Duck is pretty endearing (even if he does sell insurance)

The Mighty Duck Mascot

The Mighty Duck Mascot

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What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

The mascot of the Oregon Ducks! What is going on here?

The mascot of the Oregon Ducks! What is going on here?

The Lost Crown of Henry VII

The Lost Crown of Henry VIII

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.

Charles I of the United Kingdom (Charles Mytens, 1631)

Charles I of the United Kingdom (Charles Mytens, 1631)

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.

Psyché obtenant de Proserpine l'elixir de beauté (Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1735)

Psyché obtenant de Proserpine l’elixir de beauté (Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1735)

This blog has addressed many different deities of the underworld, but one of the most important figures of classical Greco-Roman underworld mythology has been left out.  Persephone (or Proserpine to the Romans) was the queen of the underworld, the reluctant consort of Hades who ruled over a dark and mournful kingdom (as pictured above).  However Persephone was one of the few figures in classical mythology who could leave the underworld.  Like her mother Demeter, Persephone  was a vegetation goddess—a deity that dies and is reborn with the annual growth cycle of plants.

Persephone was not just the queen of the underworld, but also the goddess of spring.  When she emerged from the underworld, winter ended and life begin to grow and flower again.  The vase below shows her returning with Hermes from the dark realm so that spring could once more come and winter’s darkness be banished for another year.

The Return of Persephone (Attic Red Figure Vase, Greek Classical Period)

The Return of Persephone (Attic Red Figure Vase, Greek Classical Period)

Please Don't Go (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Please Don’t Go (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Maria Tomasula is a contemporary artist who paints strange collections of beautiful items coalescing into miniature glowing geometric systems (usually against an empty black outer space backdrop).  Dew, flowers, and fruit are the most frequent items in these compositions, but sculptures, amphibians, skulls, mollusks, weapons, and disembodied organs (among other things) also find their way into these little microcosms.

Ground of Being (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Ground of Being (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Tomasula paints the shining or dewy objects which make up her still life works with finicky photorealism, yet the abstract structure of the works takes these images towards mathematical abstraction. Her delightful little paintings give us the aesthetics of the natural world as viewed through a dark melting kaleidoscope.

Intercession (Maria Tomasula, 2007, oil on panel)

Intercession (Maria Tomasula, 2007, oil on panel)

Tomasula has a particular flair for teasing humankind’s magpie-like fascination with shininess and bright colors.  From across the gallery, her works beguile the viewer closer and closer.  Only when one is next to them does one notice the carnivorous pitcher plants and bird skulls among the velvet, petals, and jewels.   However the dark imagery does not outshine the sensuous appeal of these fastidious spirals, loops, and curtains.  Tomasula invites us to reach into the dark fractal pattern of beauty to grab the waxy flowers, the moist fruits, the polished gems…if we dare.

Second Nature (Maria Tomasula, 2011, oil on panel)oil on panel

Second Nature (Maria Tomasula, 2011, oil on panel)
oil on panel

 

 

snowdrop

The vernal equinox will be here in a few days.  This welcome news is hard to believe because the temperatures in Brooklyn are still dipping into the twenties at night.  However the first bulbs are beginning to crop up in the garden (although the insatiable squirrels nip them down as quickly as they appear).    A few bulbs have already flowered:  one of the earliest of spring flowers, the Galanthus (or snowdrop) has one of the most fragile and delicate appearances of any garden plant.  The translucent white hanging flowers resemble dainty tropical moths and grow from tender green shoots.

Snowdrop flower

Snowdrop flower

There are 20 species of snowdrops—all of which are hardy perennial herbaceous plants.  The pendulous white & green flower of a snowdrop has no petals but consists of 6 large tepals (3 of which are larger than the others). Snowdrops naturalize well in Northern deciduous forests.  Because they bloom so early they have the entire woodland to themselves and they form magnificent white drifts almost reminiscent of famous bluebell woods.

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Numerous poets, writers, and artists have alluded to the snowdrop as a symbol of hope and a metaphor for the passions of spring.  For example Hans Christian Anderson wrote an uplifting story for children about a snowdrop desperately aspiring to the light then blooming only to be picked and pressed in a book of poetry.  [Ed. As an aside, does anyone remember why Hans Christian Anderson was such a beloved children’s author?]

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops are not just a lovely harbinger of spring, they also have a tiny place in one of the great unfolding fights about bioengineering.  Snowdrops contain various active compounds useful for medicine or with insecticidal properties.  In 1998 a Hungarian scientist, Arpad Pusztai, publically spoke about rodent studies conducted on potatoes which had been transgenically altered to express snowdrop lectins (for insecticidal purposes).  Dr. Pusztai asserted that the modified potatoes were causing damage to the intestinal epiphelial cells of the rats (and imputed broader health dangers to the modified tubers).   The subsequent scandal impacted science, media, politics, business, and culture.  The scientific community came to the conclusion that Pusztai’s research was flawed (while anti-GMO community flocked to his support and rallied around his work as an example of how GMOs could potentially be dangerous).

snowbell?

Um, snowdrop?

chinese_dog

The first animal to be domesticated was the wolf (modern humans call domesticated wolves “dogs”).  This happened thousands (or tens of thousands) of years before any other plants or animals were domesticated.  In fact some social scientists have speculated that the dogs actually domesticated humans.  Whatever the case, our dual partnership changed both species immensely.  It was the first and most important of many changes which swept humanity away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into the agricultural world.

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

Today’s post isn’t really about the actual prehistory behind the agricultural revolution though.  Instead we are looking at an ancient Chinese myth about how humans changed from hunters into farmers.  Appropriately, even in the myth it was dogs who brought about the change.  There are two versions of the story.  In the version told by the Miao people of southern China, the dog once had nine tails.  Seeing the famine which regularly afflicted people (because of seasonal hunting fluctuations) a loyal dog ran into heaven to solve the problem.  The celestial guardians shot off eight of the dog’s tails, but the brave mutt managed to roll in the granaries of heaven and return with precious rice and wheat seeds caught in his fur.  Ever since, in memory of their heroism, dogs have one bushy tail (like a ripe head of wheat) and they are fed first when people are done eating.

dog

A second version of the tale is less heroic, but also revolves around actual canine behavior.  In the golden age, after Nüwa created humans, grain was so plentiful that people wasted it shamefully and squandered the bounty of the Earth.  In anger, the Jade Emperor came down to Earth to repossess all grains and crops.  After the chief heavenly god had gathered all of the world’s cereals, the dog ran up to him and clung piteously to his leg whining and begging.  The creature’s crying moved the god to leave a few grains of each plant stuck to the animal’s fur.  These grains became the basis of all subsequent agriculture.

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.

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