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Reliquary Crown of Thorns (Cathedral of Saint Aubin in Namur)

Reliquary Crown of Thorns (Cathedral of Saint Aubin in Namur)

Not all crowns are meant to be worn by monarchs and princes. These are reliquary crowns from northern Europe—the opulent gems and precious metals exist purely in a supporting role to add gravity and ornament to the truly important sacred objects allegedly within. These sacred relics were usually pieces of the bones of Saints or splinters of the true cross—somewhat common sacred artifacts in the medieval world where bones and splinters were plentiful and provenance was dodgy. The crown at the top is in St. Aubin Cathedral in Namur, Belgium, and it is said to contain a splinter of the true cross. The very lovely crown below is the reliquary crown of Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1014 AD until his death in 1024 AD. Henry II worked ceaselessly during his reign as king and later as emperor to minimize the power of greedy nobles by making bishops more influential. The Catholic Church greatly appreciated this support and Henry II was canonized in 1146 AD by Pope Eugene III. Presumably the crown, (which is today kept at the Cathedral of Bamberg in Bavaria) contains some piece of Henry II—although there is an outside chance it was his actual crown. It is worth enlarging the photo of Henry’s reliquary crown to better see all of the strange little details such as the antique cameos, the fleur-de-lis, and the angels standing on acanthus leaves.

Reliquary Crown of Henry II (Bamberg Cathedral)

Reliquary Crown of Henry II (Bamberg Cathedral)

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Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Here are two beautiful prints of ants by the great Dutch artist M.C. Escher. In art, ants are frequently metaphors for over ripeness, rottenness or ruin (think of Dali’s ants). Yet in Escher’s works they are something else entirely. The first print, a lithograph from the grim year 1943, shows a single ant. An ant alone hardly seems to exit—they are pieces of a larger superorganism. Yet here we have one of the creatures all by herself. How lovely and delicate she is: look at her crimped antennae and graceful segmented legs. Yet the ant’s head is down, and she has a slightly forlorn cast—as though she is about to be crushed. The print was made at a time when the nations of the world organized themselves into vast battling hives and individual humans hardly seemed to exist any more than individual ants. Working in the occupied Netherlands, the comparison could hardly have escaped the artist.

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)

 

The second print is a woodcut from 1963. A line of red ants march stolidly along a Möbius strip. Because the strip they are on is non-orientable, their little universe has only one endless side. The insects are literally traveling forever. Is this print a tableau of futility or a metaphor for the infinite? The question is about more than just the microcosm the ants are trapped within.

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi

Recently I have become a bit obsessed with beautiful Africa, humankind’s original home. I know a few things about the natural history of Africa (which, after all, plays a critical role in the dance of the continents and the history of plant and animal life), but Africa’s human history—particularly recently—is sadly opaque to me. To make up for my ignorance, I am going on a blog journey across Africa from east to west.

Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Of course I could never afford to go on a real African journey, so we are doing this symbolically—specifically through national flags, which change with the frequency of streetlights in Africa’s um, dynamic political landscape. We already began our journey in the Indian Ocean on the microcontinent of Madagascar. We then traveled across the Malagasy strait to Mozambique, which features one of the craziest flags in the world. Today we push on west into the Great Rift Valley which runs down across Africa from Syria to central Mozambique and is slowly ripping the continent into two pieces (which geologists have named the Somali and the Nubian tectonic plates). As the plates are pushed apart, the area between them sinks down and fills up with water. Someday the entire fissure will become a great shallow sea, but at present it is a series of spectacular lakes including Lake Malawi (pictured in the two images above).

MalawiMap2

A millennium ago, various hunter-gathering peoples inhabited the plains to the west of Lake Malawi, but, in the 10th and 11th centuries AD, a great migration of farming Bantu peoples filled up these fertile lands. Great kingdoms burgeoned and fell. Then, in the early modern era, the entire area fell prey to horrors: the rapacious Portuguese appeared along the coast, and, worse, the Swahili-Arab slave trade captured people and funneled them north to Somalia, Turkey, and the Gulf kingdoms. In 1891, the British annexed Malawi after the frequently misplaced explorer, David Livingston, reported that it would be a fine site for European style farming (Livingston was also a devout Christian who despised slavery, so he may have also been dreaming of helping the African inhabitants of Malawi with his suggestion). Malawi gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 as part of a great wave of African independence, but sadly the nation fell immediately beneath the thumb of a totalitarian dictator, Hastings Banda, who clung to power until 1994.

Lilongwe, Capital of Malawi

Lilongwe, Capital of Malawi

Today Malawi is one of the most densely populated yet economically underdeveloped nations in the world. Livingston was right—the land is a great location for farming (and fish are available from Lake Malawi) yet there are few mineral resources, and the country is landlocked. People can survive, but not necessarily get ahead. The problem is compounded because the friendly and goodhearted people of Malawi are quick to offer sanctuary to refugees from nearby wars, political crackdowns, and disasters. Malawi has comparatively good relations with the great western democracies who have offered it great hunks of financial aid (with the usual terms and interests). The little nation is also friendly with rising China–and indeed the Chinese are rushing there to find new markets and set up shop (and are also welcomed with surprising good grace).

The Flag of Malawi (1964-2010: 2012-present)

The Flag of Malawi (1964-2010: 2012-present)

Oh, right, I was going to talk about the flag of Malawi. The first flag of Malawi was adopted in 1964 when Malawi gained independence from Great Britain. This flag (above) was a tricolor of black, red, and green modeled after the famous pan-African flag (which in turn was designed in New York in the 1920s as a high-minded response to a racist song). Unfortunately, the Pan-African flag has seen some low moments and has frequently been associated with extremist political movements or wrapped around tinpot dictators throughout Africa’s turbulent recent history (particularly by Libya, which harbored (harbors?) dreams of a Libya-led unified Africa).

Pan-African flag

Pan-African flag

The Malawi flag of 1964 placed the black bar at the top of the flag and set a red rising sun within it to celebrate the dawn of a new great era. In 2012, the president of Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika, decided that the original flag did not clearly represent Malawi and he pushed forward a new flag, which was a red, black, and green flag (with a white sun within the central black bar). The white sun was meant to represent economic progress (in lieu of actual economic progress, of which there was little). The citizens of Malawi regarded this as an irrelevant and egoistic maneuver by the president and they derisively labeled the new flag as Bingu’s flag. In 2012, after Bingu’s death, the parliament voted to re-adopt the old flag which is now restored to its official standing. All of this has caused dismay to model UN clubs and atlas publishers everywhere: it is unclear whether the pettifogging changes back and forth have done anything to help the likable yet impoverished citizens of Malawi.

Flag of Malawi (2010-2012)

Flag of Malawi (2010-2012)

Large bowl with design of miniature potted plants (Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period,  Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province,  Porcelain; underglaze blue-and-white; Tianminlou collection)

Large bowl with design of miniature potted plants (Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, Porcelain; underglaze blue-and-white; Tianminlou collection)

It’s been a while since we had any posts about how beautiful trees are. Therefore here are two Ming Dynasty bowls which feature tree art. The first bowl above is rather large and dates back to the reign of the Jiajing emperor (which lasted from 1521 AD to 1567 AD). The Jiajing emperor was a noted loon who believed absolutely in magical portents and auspicious signs—which in turn made him a pawn to corrupt court officials who used the monarch’s credulity as an opportunity to steal and/or ruin everything. However the emperor’s obsession with magic meant that Jiajing-era porcelain was marked by a beautiful sense of occult whimsy and Taoist fantasy. This bowl shows four different potted plants: a cypress, a pine, a peach, and a bamboo which are growing in a beautiful garden filled with butterflies, cicadas, and dragonflies. The plants are shaped in the form of four different auspicious words fu, shou, kang, and ning (happiness, long life, health, and composure).

Blue and white Ming Bowl with garden scenes (Chenghua reign marks)

Blue and white Ming Bowl with garden scenes (Chenghua reign marks)

Interior scene from the Chenghua bowl

Interior scene from the Chenghua bowl

The second bowl is smaller and arguably finer. It also shows a garden scene bounded beneath by two ornamental borders of extreme elegance and beauty. A dwarf flower tree is bursting into blossom among spring foliage (the opposite side of the bowl shows a bamboo grove). Inside the bowl is a beautiful miniature garden of rocks, bamboo, and flowering trees. The tiny bowl was manufactured during the Chenghua reign (from between 1464 AD and 1487 AD) which was a troubled era of court intrigues and palace murders (which took place at the orders of the villainous concubine, Lady Wan). This little bowl, however, is exquisite and seems to have escaped the shadows of its era. For half a millennium the tiny perfect Ming garden has been blooming in delicate shades of cobalt glaze.

Detail

Detail

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

Today is World Turtle Day when we celebrate all things chelonian. “That is wonderful, but what does it have to do with the fabulous Hindu tableau above?” you are probably asking. Well, the second avatar of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of all life, (who appears again and again in the world as different incarnations) was the turtle deity Kurma. The story is told above, but here is a streamlined narration to go with the painting.

Vishnu as Kurma

Vishnu as Kurma

The story begins with an elephant mishap: the great sage Durvasa presented a magnificent garland to Indra, king of the gods, who in turn presented the wreath to his magnificent war elephant. Unfortunately the elephant had limited aesthetic appreciation of the gift and trampled it. Deeply offended, Durvasa cursed the gods to lose their strength, radiance, and immortality. Thus cast down, the gods desperately looked for a solution from Vishnu, who advised them to quaff the nectar of immortality. Sadly there was no nectar available and the only way to produce more was to churn the ocean of milk with such force that the sacred milk clarified into the elixir.

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To complete the task, the gods allied themselves with the demon Asuras (power-hungry beings of near divinity who frequently fought the gods). The gods took the pillar-like Mount Mandara as a great butter churn and, with help from Vasuki, the king of all snakes, they began to churn the ocean of milk. So great was the force of gods and Asuras combined that Mount Mandara begin to sink into the ocean. Vishnu then transformed himself into the vast turtle Kurma and swam beneath the Mountain. His flippers churned the froth. The gods, demons, and great snake all exerted themselves to their utmost, and the turbulent ocean of milk became refined. Fourteen precious treasures arose from the sea, culminating in the sacred nectar of immortality.

kurma-avatar-of-vishnu

The picture at the top (which you should enlarge!) shows the gods on the left and the Asuras on the right. The king of nagas is acting as a drill rope wrapped around Mount Mandara. Vishnu sits atop the mountain and does not seem especially turtle-like. Fortunately I have included some paintings and drawings of him as a great turtle.

Hopefully you can learn a valuable lesson from this powerful myth! (Do not give treasured wreathes to elephants? Milk is healthy? Be kind to turtles? I don’t know…)

Anyway Happy World Turtle Day!

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

honeypot_ant

Like bee hives, ant colonies have all sorts of specialized ants. Soldier ants with mighty mandibles guard the hive. The queen ant becomes a gargantuan reproductive machine and pumps out an endless swarm of underlings. Drone ants develop wings to fly high into the air to mate with fledgling queens. Yet the strangest of all ant jobs (to my mind at least) is held by honeypot ants.

Honeypot ant repletes (Camponotus inflatus) hanging from the roof a hive tunnel

Honeypot ant repletes (Camponotus inflatus) hanging from the roof a hive tunnel

Honeypot ants are found in six or seven genera of seasonal ants located in Africa, Australia, Melanesia, and North America. The ants function as living granaries/reservoirs. They find an underground location deep in the hive and use their own bodies as storehouses to protect the hive from drought and famine. As soon as they develop from larvae, the specialized honeypot ants transform into grapelike spheroids capable of ballooning to many time the size of normal ants. During the rainy season, when food is plentiful, worker ants stuff the honeypot ants to the edge of bursting with prey and provender. These living warehouses can store liquids, body fat, and water for long periods in their grotesquely distended abdomens. When the dry season hits and resources become scarce, worker ants stroke the antennae of the honeypot ants and the latter to disgorge their precious stores of liquids and nutrients.

image credit: lonelyplanetimages.com

image credit: lonelyplanetimages.com

Living deep underground, honeypot ants are seldom seen by people. They were first documented in 1881 by Henry Christopher McCook (a civil war chaplain, polymath, and entomological pioneer). Yet hunter gatherers have known of them since time immemorial. The strange grapelike ants are regarded as a unique delicacy to Australia’s indigenous people who have worked the strange bulbous ants into stories of the dreamtime—the ancient magical creation of the world. Of course the world is not finished and the dreamtime is still ongoing and honeypot ants are out there, engorged in the darkness, doing their part. We just never see them.

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Harlequin (as an antique French paper doll)

Harlequin (as an antique French paper doll)

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we try and try to explain things coherently, but, alas, some things just refuse to be contained into coherent categories. One of those things appropriately is “harlequin” a word which has come to mean all sorts of contradictory things—particularly when it is used to describe color.

A Scene from the Commedia dell'Arte with Harlequin and Punchinello (Nicolas Lancret, 1734, oil on canvas)

A Scene from the Commedia dell’Arte with Harlequin and Punchinello (Nicolas Lancret, 1734, oil on canvas)

Harlequin was a main character from the Italian Commedia dell arte, a form of masked farcical theater popular from the 16th through the 18th century. Commedia dell arte emphasized certain humorous stock characters (like the stingy master, the coquettish daughter, the cowardly suitor, and so forth). Harlequin was one of the most cunning and ingenious masked servants–a character so crafty that he frequently outsmarted himself. The character evolved directly from the cunning devil character of medieval pageant plays (with a bit of the king’s fool thrown in). Just as the harlequin predated Italian farcical comedy, he (and she) outlasted the form and became an integral part of circuses, burlesque shows, advertising, cartoons, and so forth, right up until the present.

Pinup Harlequin

Pinup Harlequin

Aside from their puckish wit and masks, harlequins were famed for their mottled garb of many colored diamonds or triangles. These spangled parti-colored outfits were one of the crowning glories of Commedia dell arte, and the look quickly became a part of show culture throughout the western world. Many artists, poets, and marketers were inspired by the bold & brassy look of harlequins and the word became used to describe colors and patterns.

Harlequin (yellow-green)

Harlequin (yellow-green)

Frustratingly, the word is used by different sources to describe completely different colors and patterns. Among the classically minded it still describes a triangular or diamond pattern of many different colors. To the British, from the nineteen-twenties onward, “harlequin has been the name for a bright shade of yellow-green (inclining towards green).

Harlequin car (it's a hard effect to photograph)

Harlequin car (it’s a hard effect to photograph)

To make matters even worse, in the early 21st century, paint manufacturers created a metallic paint which changes color depending on the viewing angle. This unearthly effect is accomplished by the reflection/refraction of light upon tiny aluminum chips coated with magnesium fluoride (all embedded within chromium). Naturally one of the marketing names the paint makers chose for their product was “harlequin”.

Royal Doulton Harlequin rack plate After an original work by LeRoy Neiman

Royal Doulton Harlequin rack plate
After an original work by LeRoy Neiman

Harlequin is even used to describe a garish mélange of many crazy colors with virtually no discernible pattern!  So if you are reading a contemporary work and a color is described as “harlequin” you will have to work out for yourself what it means. The whole mess makes me feel like I have been tricked by a masked fraudster from Baroque Italy. Quite possibly we all have been.

default-ehow-images-a05-4j-6b-did-harlequin-come-800x800Postscript:  As a special bonus, I am also mentioning harrlequin colored Great Danes (as suggested by bmellor2013 in her comment below.  Apparently the pattern (or at least the name for it) is unique to certain Great Danes.  Wikipedia defines the Harlequin coat as follows:

The base color is pure white with black torn patches irregularly and well distributed over the entire body; a pure white neck is preferred. The black patches should never be large enough to give the appearance of a blanket, nor so small as to give a stippled or dappled effect. Eligible, but less desirable, are a few small grey patches (this grey is consistent with a Merle marking) or a white base with single black hairs showing through, which tend to give a salt and pepper or dirty effect.

Wow! Dog coats are serious business–especially for the Great Dane, the princely “Apollo of Dogs”.  Here is a harlequin Dane relaxing with his human companion.

Harlequin Great Dane

Harlequin Great Dane

"Happy" the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald's)

“Happy” the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald’s)

Today Ferrebeekeeper abjectly drops all discussion of space exploration, art, literature, zoology, and history in order to concentrate on the biggest trending topic of the day–a disquieting animated character who takes the form of a weird toothy box. What’s the story here? Well, it turns out that, McDonald’s, the globe-spanning fast-food eatery has introduced a new mascot, “Happy” a happy meal box who wants kids to eat their vegetables and yogurt. The internet is awash in jokes about Happy’s lurid color, ambiguous motivations, and his oh-so-human (and oh-so-large) teeth. Mascots have been a subject of great interest to me ever since the black-and-white TV introduced me to the McDonaldland gang when I was a bright nervous child so I feel like we can do better for Happy (well, better than Gawker’s boilerplate jokes at least) and unpackage some of his history.

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McDonald’s is an American restaurant (actually considering its name & its obsession with cheap beef and potatoes, maybe it’s Irish-American) which began in 1940 in California as a barbecue joint. After the Second World War it changed into a hamburger restaurant and then spread its wings to become the most successful chain restaurant in history. One of the important steps of its evolution into an international corporate hegemon was developing a colorful crew of mascot characters to sell burgers, fries, and, above all, “the McDonald’s brand” to impressionable children (like me!).

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

In the early 1970s, an advertising agency introduced a whole team of mascots collectively known as McDonaldland to the world. The concept was based on the drugged-up fantasy landscape of H.R. Pufnstuf (a surreal puppet show which has cast long delirious shadows over children’s programming ever since it aired). True to the source material, the original cast was a disquieting mélange of weird beings: Mayor McCheese, a corrupt bureaucrat whose head is made of a cheeseburger; Hamburglar, a muttering lunatic thief; and, of course, Ronald McDonald, the dangerous-looking clown prince of the anthropomorphized fast-food landscape.

Grimace

Grimace

Some of the characters were quickly revised. Grimace was originally a villainous purple octopus with a monomaniacal love for milkshakes. Unfortunately early consumer tests determined that children were terrified of the multi-armed abomination. Flummoxed ad-executives were prepared to rework the entire concept, when one perspicacious adman came up with a brainstorm characteristic of the industry. “Let’s just rip his arms off!” he said. So Grimace–whom many people doubtless think of as a mitochondria or a rhizome—is actually an octopus whose arms were amputated by drunken 1970s admen.

"Good-Bye to All That"

“Good-Bye to All That”

The McDonaldland gang hit their heyday in the 1980s, when they were everywhere. Figures were abruptly retired (like poor Captain Cook) or changed, while new ones such as Birdie the breakfast bird made sudden appearances. Yet times change, and contemporary McDonald’s is trying to put McDonaldland behind them. Ronald McDonald has kept his position as a figurehead (much like Mickey Mouse) and the other characters sometimes appear in weathered murals or old playground equipment, but today’s advertising concentrates on pseudo-healthy communities of friends eating together and “lovin’ it”.

mcdonalds im lovin it button

The happy meal, however, continues to attract children with its colorful bag and complimentary toy. It also continues to attract regulators and litigation, so McDonald’s swung into action and created Happy. The animated box started out in the minors—France and Latin America–where he (it?) attained sufficient success to leap to the American market this month.

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald's does not need two mascot controversies at once

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald’s does not need two mascot controversies at once

With his loopy eyes, boxy form, and infinite hungry maw, Happy seems like he could almost be a throwback to the McDonaldland era. Yet he is patently a computer animation rather than a human-inhabited puppet. Additionally his putative raison d’être is to convince kids to pursue healthier eating habits. According to McDonald’s own press release:

McDonald’s today introduced “Happy,” a new animated Happy Meal character that brings fun and excitement to kids’ meals while also serving as an ambassador for balanced and wholesome eating. Happy will be introduced nationwide May 23, and will encourage kids to enjoy fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and wholesome beverages such as water or juice.

That certainly sounds admirable, but adults take one look at Happy and shudder. Moreover his true purpose is obvious to us (after all we have spent a lifetime eating under the golden arches): he is obviously meant to sell McDonald’s products to kids. It’s easy to be cynical about him—but I now look back at the strained look on my parents’ faces as they endured the burglars, killer clowns, evil octopi, and pirates of my youth with new understanding. Corporate mascots are friendly monsters who entice children to buy sundry unnecessary goods and services. Kids should get used to brushing them off as soon as possible. It is fine preparation for adult life when the corporate monsters take off their googly eyes and apply their coercion more directly.

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Artist's conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Artist’s conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Have you ever wanted to have a fleet of numerous extremely tiny micro-satellites in outer space doing your bidding? Well, if so, there is bad news for you: an experimental satellite meant to test out a new paradigm for launching multiple tiny space vehicles ended in failure earlier this month. Microsatellites have become common in low earth-orbit in recent years, but the Kicksat was a special sort of tiny satellite. Within the little 10cm by 10cm by 30cm “mothership” were 104 truly tiny space vehicles which had a flat square shape measuring only 3.5 cm square by 3 mm thick.  Each weighed about 5 grams.  The little satellites (whimsically named “sprites”) were meant to launch from the central satellite in spiral waves. Each sprite included a microprocessor, a solar cell, and a radio system—some of the tiny craft had more elaborate microelectromechanical sensors.

 

The anatomy of a "sprite" satellite

The anatomy of a “sprite” satellite

Aerospace engineers had hoped that the tiny crafts would provide useful data on the behavior of small craft in space since the behavior of materials and systems in space change based on scale (particularly solar sails—which become more efficient and viable). Unfortunately it seems that solar radiation caused the system clock to reset—thus delaying the secondary sprite launch until after the main satellite burned up in reentry. Still, the telemetry of the mothership functioned properly (and also provided a valuable lesson about the need for radiation shielding). The project may evolve into a second iteration based on lessons from the failure of the first attempt and it has provided us with an amazing computer simulation of launch (below).

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, ca. 1600, oil)

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, ca. 1600, oil)

Here is a painting of the Greco-Roman underworld which was painted sometime around 1600 AD by Jan Brueghel the Elder. It is presumed that the painting shows Aeneas and the Cumaean sibyl, although a handful of scholars have argued—unsuccessfully, to my mind– that these are actually Hades and Persephone (whom I never imagine as harrowed pedestrians). Admittedly the sibyl looks quite winsome (these being her pre-jar days). Jan Brueghel does not have the same cachet as his famous father Pieter Bruegel (whose busy landscapes of 16th century Flanders do so much to enliven our understanding of the era), but the son was certainly a master artist in his own right. In this amazing vista the damned souls writhe, scream, and quiver amongst legions of demons and monsters. Along the foreground great heaps of bones and masses of snakes remind us we are in the land of the dead. Yet the painting’s greatest strength is the magnificent dark landscape itself. Honeycombed cliffs rise like a diseased columbarium while volcanoes belch magma onto the spirits. In the distance lies a brooding city of the dead where all is forever night. Strange ghost gardens march along the shores of the Acheron and shrieking…things fly overhead. It is a horrible—and beautiful—vision of a subject which had already obsessed artists for millennia when Jan Brughel painted it (and he wound up painting the underworld again and again through his career).

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