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The last few blossoms are dropping from the cherry tree and now even the late tulips are blooming. Spring has sprung and we are moving past cherry blossom season towards summer. Yet even though summer is my favorite season, I feel a melancholy pang every year when the blossoms flutter down. Time moves by so fast and nothing can arrest its inexorable passing…nothing except for the magic of art, that is! Therefore, here is my yearly blossom painting. I made this one with watercolor and ink and I was hoping to capture the transitory moment when the sun dips from the sky and the lanterns come on and yet the sky remains heavenly blue (it is an ephemeral moment of the day which mirrors the equinox moments of the year.

Kwanzan Cherry Tree in Brooklyn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Although the real subject of my picture is the blossoming cherry tree (the full beauty of which has, yet again, eluded me), I tried to capture some other garden delights–the crabapple tree blossoms (at far right), the dogwood blossoms (at top left), the riot of tulips, and the ornamental winter cabbage which somehow survived living under two feet of snow in January and February in order to bloom in May. One of my roommates is back there in her golden ochre coat looking at bingo on her phone and the faces of the garden statues can be glimpsed in the tulip beds. At the center of the picture is another wistful figure tinged with melancholia. My best friend is a tiny black cat with a dab of white who sneaked into the basement when she was a kitten. After the death of Sepia Cat back in March, Sumi Cat is now my only pet. She is as loving and domesticated as any cat I have met and sleeps in my arms at night (indeed she is cavorting on the keyboard this very moment, trying to type over what I am writing and command my attention). But Sumi has relatives on the outside. On the other side of the sliding door she has siblings and nieces and nephews who are not domesticated but live the short yet intense lives of feral cats. I think that is her sister’s daughter there in the garden (she looks identical to Sumi, except Sumi has a white fingerprint on her heart where Kwan Yin touched her), and I am always sad that I didn’t trap her and her brother (and their little siblings who vanished forever when they were the size of teacups) and drag them to the “Cats of Flatbush” cat rescue organization. Sigh. What are we going to do about the way of the world?

ghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghnhyhyhyhyuuuu (Sumi added that post script so I am putting in a little author picture below)

Sumi doesn’t really look like this at all..but black cats are impossible to photograph…

Always stalking around the edges of Ferrebeekeeper we find those enigmatic horselords of the ancient steppe, the Scythians! The classical Scythians were nomadic people (or peoples) who dominated the Pontic steppe between 700 and 300 BC. Since they existed just beyond the outermost fringes of Greek civilization (and since they were charismatic yet completely un-Greek) they loomed large in the ancient Hellenic imagination–and cast their thrall over all of the subsequent scholars who have looked to ancient Greece for inspiration and explanations. Thus we have weird stories of Hercules (the ultimate Greek hero) sleeping with the ultimate monster to beget the Scythians, or tales of how the Scythians were the ancestors of the Scottish (although I guess all human beings are pretty closely related). Anyway, for the Scythians, none of this mattered–what mattered were their beloved horses, which were always at the center of their rituals, trading, fighting, and just about every other part of their lives (indeed it seems like domesticated horses might have come from the part of the world which became Scythia). Thus, today, I wanted to show you a historical recreation of how Scythian horses were arrayed for rituals or for battle (see the image at top). We have found ample Scythian equestrian gear preserved in the old cold barrows which dot the steppe. Recently some Scythian enthusiasts reconstructed how it might have looked with original colors on a steppe horse of yore. Obviously this equipage is not stupendously practical, but it truly is stupendous! I am going to have to look around to see if I can find some more artworks of Scythian horses!

It is blossom season in New York! Instead of writing blogs about mollusks, gothic art, and politics, I have been looking at flowers and trees. The cherry tree at the top of the post is down by the Manhattan Court House (as you can hopefully tell by the World Trade Center/Freedom Tower/Whatever-it-is-called-now), but the rest of the images are from my garden in Brooklyn. The centerpiece of the garden is a Kwanzan flowering cherry which usually blooms for a fortnight (although, thanks to the cold snap, it seemed more like 6 days this year). I have blogged about the cherry blossoms at length in years past, yet, every year I am struck anew by the beauty and evanescence of the pink blooms.

Here are the blossoms in my back yard (my roommate added those plastic flamingos, by the way). Speaking of other gardeners who change things around in the flower garden…here is another character who lives in the neighborhood who cannot keep his paws off of the blossoms. Every day during tulip season he beheads a couple of tulips to see if they are good to eat. When he realizes they are not squirrel food, he tosses them down. Sigh…

Below is a patch of pastel pink tulips. You can see one of the beheaded stems at far left.

These white tulips are known as “Pays Bas” and I think they came out particularly lovely! This year, in addition to the cherry tree, the old ornamental crabapple also blossomed (which is a rarity). You can see the darker pink blossoms in the foreground in the picture immediately below.

I am going to see if I can draw/photograph/capture some more of the garden’s spring charms for you (it never looks right on the computer screen), but for now I am going to go back out and enjoy the showers of falling petals…

In the United States, April 12th is celebrated (or maybe “observed”?) as National Licorice Day! Happy Licorice Day! [Ed’s note: in British English, licorice is spelled “liquorice” but I guess since this piece celebrates America’s national licorice day, we will stick with American spelling]

For a while some of the people at my dayjob had an informal “candy club” on Friday, and I quickly learned that no candy (and precious few foodstuffs of any sort) evokes more passionate reactions than licorice. There are people out there who haaaaaate licorice. They just hate it! They hate licorice like it personally wronged them. Possibly it did. Although I am actually a partisan of licorice in small amounts, real licorice (as opposed to anise candy or those plastic/strawberry whip things) is uncanny stuff and the active ingredient is perfectly capable of killing people (and has been known to do so).

Real licorice (which, like real anything, is increasingly rare and expensive) is made from the roots of Glycyrrhiza glabra, a plant from the bean family which grows native in southern Europe and Western Asia. There are a host of of complex organic compounds in licorice (including several natural phenols which effectively mimic various hormones in the human body) however, so that this essay does not sound (quite as much) like a chemistry treatise I am going to concentrate on glycyrrhizin which gives licorice its strange sweetness. Glycyrrhizin is uncanny stuff–as you can see from the molecular diagram below which is glittering with hydroxyls and carboxylic groups. Glycyrrhizin is thirty to fifty times sweeter than pure sucrose (!), however the flavor is also quite distinct from sucrose being less tart and instant (but instead lasting longer and conveying more complicated nuances of flavor). This is why true licorice has such a complicated bouquet of strange and esoteric flavors both beautiful and dreadful.

Glycyrrhizin also has potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, however it is also cortical steroid (and gut bacteria can metabolize it into other cortical steroids). To quote the abstract from an endocrinology journal article, “Glycyrrhetic acid, the active metabolite in licorice, inhibits the enzyme 11-ß-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase enzyme type 2 with a resultant cortisol-induced mineralocorticoid effect and the tendency towards the elevation of sodium and reduction of potassium levels.” On October of 2017, the FDA issued a statement that consuming the glycyrrhizin found in licorice may prompt potassium levels in the body to decline, which may lead to issues including abnormal heart rate, high blood pressure, edema, lethargy and even congestive heart failure. Glycyrrhizin is not recommended for anyone who is taking the following:

  • blood pressure medications
  • blood thinners
  • cholesterol lowering medications, including statins
  • diuretics
  • estrogen-based contraceptives
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

Glycyrrhizin has also been linked with fairly sever birth defects and should not be consumed in large quantities by pregnant women.

Gosh I set out to write about how great licorice is, but instead I have written a post which more-or-less makes it sound like a poison. Obviously, licorice is perfectly safe if taken in small doses (and provided the user is not also taking any of the drugs mentioned above). Indeed, as far as I can tell, nobody has actually outright died of licorice abuse since [checks notes] uh, September of 2020, when a Massachussetts resident died of heart complications after eating a bag of licorice every day for several weeks (apparently the man ate little else). All of which is to say that licorice is mostly fine and you should enjoy its strange complicated flavor in a responsible manner. Happy Licorice Day!

At its best, Chinese calligraphy is ineffably beautiful and seems to come from some transcendent celestial realm. Of course, in reality, such art doesn’t come from heaven at all. Instead it comes from distracted scholarly human beings carefully writing with bristle brushes sopping with India ink which, trust me, will not wash out of any textile. Indeed India ink stains most things other than the most impervious vitreous surfaces [sadly looks at black stipples, spots, and spatters on desk]. The Chinese attempted to coral this problem by manufacturing a class of small porcelain objects for the literati–exquisite brush rests! My favorite of these were made during the Ming Dynasty when handicraft cobalt glazed porcelain reached its aesthetic zenith.

Brush-rest with Arabic Script in Underglaze Blue, China-Ming Zhengde Period (1506–21)

Here is a little gallery of little Ming brush rests. I have great confidence in the authenticity of the first five of these rests which follow a familiar silk-road pattern (note the Persian and Arabic characters, which, I am told, say things like “brush stand” and “pen rest”). It is exciting to see how individual artisans take different directions with very similar designs and elements. Indeed, in the first two examples at the top, you can see how different glaze painters literally followed the same pattern (slavishly copying from a template was very common in the great Ming porcelain production centers–but the results strike our industrialized sensibilities as being quite markedly different).

The brush holders also exemplify how the glories of Ming ornamental design come from a mishmash of Chinese, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern sources. Even if the little stylized blue vines and flowers are clearly cobalt they still look realistic and seem as though they might wither if not watered or sprout additional buds.

1973.7-26.366 Blue-and-white brushrest OA

Although these last two brush rests are different than the rest, the one above is pretty obviously a real Ming piece. The brush holder which seems out of place (and is not in the collection of the Met or the British Museum or the Liang Yi Museum) is the final one. I am of two minds about it. Although the super glossy porcelain has the look of real dynastic porcelain (along with some of the little brown spots and flea bites which are invariably found in actual handmade goods from Medieval China), there is something fishy about those ribbon-y scholars. I love the overall shape though and the the expressiveness of those escarpment rocks on the first and fourth peaks. I guess you will have to be the judge about the last one on your own.

Crucifixion Diptych (Rogier van der Weyden, 1460), oil on panel

I failed to post a beautiful crucifixion painting for Good Friday this year…but don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the tradition, and I was thinking about the right painting over Easter weekend. Here is Crucifixion Diptych, a late work by Rogier van der Weyden which shows Saint John and Mary on the left panel lamenting Christ’s death which takes place on the right panel. Although the figures are beautifully painted, the colors and composition are unusually stark and the background elements–Golgotha, a stone wall, the night sky–are flattened and simplified. The painting does not suffer from this, but rather the jagged abstract shapes of vivid white, red, and green make it pop out among the other works of its era. I saw it back in the 1980s before a “reverse restoration” returned the sky to night blue (a restoration artist of the 1940s decided the sky should be gold), but even with the colors wrong it demanded attention. The work was painted in 1460, a few years before van der Weyden’s death and the profound stillness of the figures has led some art historians to speculate it was his last painting. Van der Weyden’s son joined the Carthusian monastery (which received gifts of cash and devotional paintings from van der Weyden), and it is possible that the red and white painting may also have been a private Carthusian devotional piece.

Flounder with Kitchen Scissors [Wayne Ferrebee, 2021] Ink and watercolor on paper

It is Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday today (he was born on March 30, 1853). To mark the occasion, it occurred to me that I have an appropriate humorous cartoon in the small moleskine sketchbook which I carry around everywhere.

Van Gogh is pictured in the upper left corner wearing his trademark green coat and ear bandage. Presumably he is exhorting the artists of today to work hard at their precious craft. At the center of the composition is a flounder, a ridiculous-looking fish which everyone agrees is ideal for the table. Probably that is why a hand is reaching down from the heavens with scissors to prepare the silly fish as a delicious banquet. Speaking of hands, a white marble statuary hand is pushing up through the floor of the cinereous wasteland where this tableau takes place. Sadly the hand seems to be a bit broken. A crown-of-thorns starfish restlessly roves the dust and stumps.

I wanted to practice lettering with my steel nib, however I did not want to actually write anything, so I just jotted down some nonsense words in moon language. Sorry for the gibberish! But who cares about language anyway? Some people have suggested that artists are wholly unreliable when it comes to writing about their own work, and you should concentrate on the images themselves.

There is an enormous hexagonal storm on the north pole of Saturn which is large enough to drop the Earth into. Ferrebeekeeper has long been fascinated by this giant yet geometrically-regular storm, and that was before we learned that the hexastorm…changes color!

Like Earth, Saturn is tilted, and, as with Earth, the tilt affects how much sunlight reaches different hemispheres of the planet as it proceeds around the sun. Since Saturn is rather farther from the sun than the Earth is, a Saturn “year” lasts for 29 Earth years. Due to this somewhat lengthened calendar (and because we have only recently acquired some of the necessary tools to study other planets) the seasonal variances on Saturn are only now being recognized.

Using the Hubble Space telescope, scientists have been keeping an eye on Saturn’s seasons (each of which last for 7.25 years). As summer in the northern hemisphere changes to fall, the color of the atmosphere is changing and so are the appearances of the bands within the atmosphere. NASA scientists speculate that increased sunlight may lead to increased photochemical hazes in the atmosphere which causes the shift from winter blue to summer gold. As we continue to study Saturn in years to come, it will be interesting to see how much of this color shift is seasonal and how much it changes based on larger cycles.

Although I published this year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post yesterday (about mysterious obscene Medieval statues!), it is still technically March 17th and my need for the green holiday has not yet abated. Therefore, today we are presenting a post about the native green mushrooms of Britain and Ireland. Behold the Parrot Waxcap (Gliophorus psittacinus) a colorful yellow-green mushrooom which appears in “cropped grassland” (AKA lawns) in summer and early autumn.

Alas I am no mycologist and I cannot explain the secret hidden kingdom of the fungi, so today’s post is almost entirely visual. These mushrooms are widespread in Britain and Ireland, but they can also be found in both continental Europe and in North America. The article I read suggested that it is unclear if they are edible or if they are toxic, but added that most people are too disquieted by their sliminess to even try them (even if they were big enough to eat). To me that sounds like a verdict of “not edible”, but like i said, i am no mycologist.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the Byzantine Empire and the long webs of connections which the Eastern Empire cast across western culture. We will talk more about this later, but, for now, let’s check out a world famous Byzantine treasure! This is the porphyry head of a Byzantine Emperor (tentatively, yet inconclusively identified as Justinian). In Venice, where the stone head has been located since the very beginning of the 13th century (as far as anyone can tell) it is known as “Carmagnola” (more about that below). Sadly, most Byzantine art objects were scattered to the four winds (or destroyed outright) when the Turks seized the city in AD 1453, however Constantinople, city of impregnable walls, had also fallen once before in AD 1203 as a part of the misbegotten Fourth Crusade (a tragicomic series of blunders and Venetian manipulation which we also need to write about). This porphyry head escaped the latter sack because it was carried off during the former!

Based on its style and construction, Carmagnola was originally manufactured by Byzantine sculptors at an unknown date sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries (AD). The diadem worn by the figure is indisputably the headdress of a late Roman Emperor who ruled a vast Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empire out of Constantinople (I guess we need to talk about the diadem of the basileus at some point too). Scholars have speculated that the original statue may have been located in the Philadelphion, a central square of old Constantinople. The figure’s nose was damaged at some point (perhaps during the iconoclasm movement or as a political statement) but has been successfully polished flat. Speaking of statue breakage, it is possible that the head goes with a large headless Byzantine trunk made of porphyry which is now located in Ravenna (although such a provenance would make it seem unlikely that the sculpture was originally located in the Philadelphion). Whatever the original location might have been, the statue was installed upon the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the all-important main location of Venice) after it came to the City of Canals. The head is arguably the most important object among the strange collection of cultural objects which the Venetians arranged along the Saint Mark’s facade over the centuries like an Italian grandmother putting important knickknacks on a mantle. The head’s nickname Carmagnola originates from a Venetian incident and is not some ancient Byzantine allusion: a certain infamous condottiero, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on 5 May 1432 on the Piazzetta in front of Saint Mark’s after the rascally mercenary tried to trifle with the Council of Ten (who had employed him to fight his former master Duke Visconti of Milan). The red imperial head perhaps resembled the severed head of the angry squash-nosed mercenary and locals began to jestingly call it by the same name. Isn’t history funny? Anyway, in case you were trying to find it on a picture of Saint Mark’s, I have marked its location on the picture below.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2021