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Hey, remember the super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy?  Well, scientists have been thinking about it too, and they concluded that other black holes should sink into the middle of the galaxy near to the central monster.  To find out if this holds true, they utilized the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (an x-ray telescope located on a satellite in orbit around Earth) to observe stars near to the center of the galaxy.  Black holes can’t be detected on their own, but if they interact with nearby stars they produce esoteric x-rays which can be detected (so long as the x-ray telescope is outside of a planetary atmosphere, which absorbs x-rays, thank goodness).  Within the tiny (er, relatively tiny) three light year area which they scrutinized, the astronomers discovered dozens of black holes.  Extrapolating this data leads them to conclude there are more than 10,000 black holes at the center of our galaxy.  I wish I could contextualize this for you, but I just can’t… the concept of 10,000 super-dense gravity wells flattening and tearing all of the spacetime in the center of the galaxy into Swiss cheese is to disturbing for me to deal with (in any other way than blurting it out in a midnight blog).  I’m not sure this universe is safe at all. I am going to go lie down.

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Question Flounder

I have been working on a personal animation project (more news to follow) which involves the mysterious color-changing master of the muddy ocean bottom–the flounder.  Regular readers will know that the pleuronectiformes have been my leitmotif for the last couple of years, and sadly, the whole order is woefully under-represented in cartoons: the only flounder anyone knows is Ariel’s annoying sidekick “Flounder” and he was a sergeant-major fish (Abudefduf saxatilis). What a bait-and-switch!

Unfortunately this test gif isn’t quite what I was aiming for.  Animation turns out to be ridiculously hard: how on earth did anyone ever make “Snow White” or “Spirited Away”?  Yet despite the deficiencies,  I think the work conveys some of the great flatfish’s unfathomable grasp of the secrets of the deep.  Kindly let me know what you think.  I desperately need everyone’s help on this project.

Hans_Memling_PassioneThis amazing painting is by Hans Memling a Netherlandish master of German birth who worked in Bruges during the late 15th century.  Memling painted the work around 1470 AD for a Florentine banker based in Bruges (that’s the banker’s donor portrait down there in the lower left corner).  The painting is most important for illustrating that extremely rich financiers can commision whatever sort of work they like from gifted middle aged painters in their hometown, be it medieval Bruges or, say, contemporary Brooklyn, however, the painting is also astonishingly a still painting with modality: like a sort of 15th century movie.  Instead of telling one scene from the passion of Christ, the painting tells many stories from the death and resurrection of Jesus in the same larger scene.  By moving around the painting and “reading” it, the whole story becomes evident (I especially like how ancient Jerusalem looks like a slightly exoticized version of Bruges).  Since WordPress hates art, you can only blow it up to a certain size here, but it is well worth going to Wikipedia and looking at a larger version where you can pore over the exquisite details of Memling’s craft (and contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and his execution).   For such an intricate work, the original is rather small–less than a meter wide.  Memling excelled at painting complex pictures of entire cities like this, yet despite the ornament and pageantry, the real focus never leaves Jesus as he is hailed and then denounced by the mob, judged by politicians, tortured and executed, and finally risen as a deity.  Despite its intricacy and scope this is a rather human and intimate work.  Memling seems to have known the fickle back-and-forth of society, so one can find all sorts of reticent retainers, devout followers, haughty lords, and confounded strangers in this work.  It is a reminder that the the antagonist, and the supporting characters, and even the setting of the passion are humankind–the story is meant to represent all of us.  Even Jesus, the son of man, is human until the last instance when he is revealed with his halo and scarlet robes of godhood.

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Happy year of the Earth Dog!  Today marks the beginning of Lunar Year 4715 in the Chinese calendar.  Where did the time go? We have finally worked our way past all of the fire roosters and metal horses to the familiar dog—an exceedingly great animal! According to augury, the coming year will be a very good year, particularly vis a vis financial matters…however, the year will also be enervating and could feature health problems related to stress, exhaustion, and strife (it looks like the augurs have at least been reading the frontpage headlines).

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The same Earth element which provides the success of the Earth Dog year will also mean there will be stretches of extreme dullness.  Once again it seems like the oracles can see right into my actual life! Who writes this stuff? Finally, the site I looked at says “postponing and procrastinating are words you will need to remove from your vocabulary during this year.”  Sadly, my vocabulary is very extensive and I am not about to forget THOSE words.  However even for tempestuous & disorganized tigers, the dog year will be a year when projects come to fruition.  The dog year is the eleventh year in the 12 year cycle so it is the beginning of a cycle of rebirth.  We can look forward to that as well…and to some dumplings and fireworks!

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Thanks to my exigent schedule, I can’t really have a dog in New York, but I love them.  Dogs are the first domesticated animal by tens of thousands of years (or maybe much more).  In their wild form, dogs are known as “wolves” and they are one of the apex predators of the Holocene. Wolves and humans are one of the all-time great pairings like Laurel and Hardy, peanut butter and jelly, or water and sodium—two super aggressive hierarchical social predators who just innately get each other (wait, what was Laurel and Hardy about again?). I have been meaning to write about dogs since they are dear to me (and since the converging stories of our two species explains things about living beings). I will do so next week to celebrate the Year of the Dog. For now though  “Gǒu nián dà jí” – Lots of luck for this year of the dog!

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When it comes to colors, our understanding has cultural and historical connotations.  The names of colors change over time as points of cultural relevance change and as the language evolves.  Many colors we are familiar with today (thanks to the miracles of synthetic chemistry and industrialization) were extremely esoteric to Europeans of the ancient and medieval world.  The old Latin and Greek words for exotic colors were influenced by rare jewels and unusual birds (which might be the only shared terrestrial examples of hues which were only seen in sunsets and other mutable natural phenomena).  We have already written about the ponderous word “icterine” an old Greco-Roman term for the beautiful pale yellow of various birds and insects. Today we take on an even more dissonant word which entered Middle-English in the 14th century from ancient Greek (possibly by way of France).  “Smaragdine” is the bright blue-green color of emeralds. It was a color which was rare and precious in the 14th century world.  The word has lingered in the corners of English and is still on the books today (although, if you ask your colleague to hand you the smaragdine mousepad you might not get the green one…or anything other than an angry stare or sharp words).  Even if the word smaragdine is not euphonic to modern ears, the color is exquisite and rich.  The chief conclusion of this etymological diversion is that Ferrebeekeeper needs to write more about emeralds.

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We have lots of unofficial holidays.  Nearly every day of the year has multiple different sobriquets like “National Doughnut Day” or “National Wear Red Day” or whatever.  Sometimes when I am chronically behind in my daily schedule I look at these lesser holidays for inspiration, and thus February 1st forcefully struck me.  It’s “National Serpent Day” and serpents are a major topic here at Ferrebeekeeper. Yes!  But then I was struck anew at what a strange choice of day this is for National Serpent Day.  Serpents are ectothermic: the frigid first day of February, when winter’s dreadful wrack holds sway everywhere except for the very southern tip of the nation (and for naturally snake-free Hawaii) is a bad choice.  To be blunt, most of the nation’s snakes are sleeping through National Snake Day in biological suspension called “brumation.”  They are unable to appreciate the National Snake Day cakes, the festive snake-theme merchandise which marketing professionals are peddling, or the thoughtful cards we send them.  Perhaps this choice of day, reflects the ambiguous feelings Americans have about snakes.  We love sleek racing lines, amoral snakelike behavior, and poisonous politicians who tempt us with promises we know we should never consider…yet the snake is taboo in Judeo-Christian tradition, and many people are naturally phobic. I wonder if National Serpent Day is on a different day in snake-loving pantheistic societies like India, Ancient Greece, or China.

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Anyway, to celebrate the day, I am including some coral snake pictures, since I think there is hardly a more beautiful animal than these colorful snakes with their beautiful scarlet, black, and red coloring. I also like their blunt foreshortened faces and laconic expressions.  Also all the red will start getting us ready for Valentine’s Day.  In the mean time enjoy National Serpent Day, by thinking about your favorite snakes (unless you live in the tropics or the Southern hemisphere, in which case you should go romp with your favorite legless friends).

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This time of year, winter begins to drag on and I start to dream of the flower gardens of spring and summer.  Unfortunately, the garden is currently a lifeless grey ruin beneath a layer of frost (although I personally know there are some bulbs down there sleeping until April), so, in order to enjoy the beauty of flowers, we need some help from art…which is where anonymous master artisans of the Ching dynasty come in.  Above is an exceedingly fine famille rose tripod censer from the middle (?) of the Qianlong reign (the Qianlong emperor reigned longer than any sovereign in Chinese history from 1735 to 1796).  It features auspicious symbols like twinned fish and a lucky vase amidst an otherworldy garden of calligraphic vines and splendid pink and white florets…all against a backdrop of imperial yellow like some divine custard.  The censor’s amazing shape hearkens back to the ancient origins of Chinese ceremonial vessels and offers a glimpse of the shamanistic magics and animistic spirits (which are never far away from Chinese art), but its execution is pure 18th century ornate frivolity.  The fulsome garden and brilliant spring colors would not look out of place in a piece from the other side of the world from Rococo France, yet there is something more satisfying in the flourishes and rootlets and buds of this Chinese garden.  The brilliant colors will have to dispel the gray of winter and last until spring (but since they have been undiminished for more than 2 centuries, that should be no stretch.

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Earlier this week I wrote about the (alleged) crown of Montezuma.  The main element of that crown was not a gem or gold structural elements, but the exquisite iridescent emerald feathers of Pharomachrus mocinno, the resplendent quetzal.  These birds live in the rainforests of Central America from southern Mexico down across Guatemala and into western Panama.  They are solitary birds which generally eat fruit (which they supplement with small animals).  They are weak fliers and are preyed on by hawks, eagles, owls, and even toucanets and squirrels (it must be embarrassing to be eaten by a small mean toucan or a squirrel).

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Because of their exquisite feathers resplendent quetzals were associated with the flying snake god Quetzalcotl by various Mesoamerican civilizations.  Elite individuals of the Maya and the Aztecs did indeed wear headdresses made from quetzal feathers, and it was taboo to kill the bird.  Feathers were collected from captured birds which were set free (for quetzals do not flourish in captivity).  They were seen as symbols of divinity, freedom, and wealth (Guatemalan money is known as the quetzal).

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I wish I could tell you more about this jewel-like bird, but they quietly keep their secrets.  A myth of the conquest is that before Spaniards came to the Americas, quetzals sang beautifully and had plain breasts, but since that time their breasts have been red with blood and they have been silent.  They do indeed seem to be a stupendous visual phenomenon (like today’s post which is really about the pictures of this exquisite animal).

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To my delight, I discovered that, against all odds, the crown of the Aztec Empire is (apparently) still extant.  Allegedly, the Conquistadors hung onto Montezuma’s original feathered headdress and brought it back to Europe where it found its way into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family who put it in a scary museum somewhere in Vienna. However, as I tried to find out more about the crown of Montezuma, I ended up reading more about the Aztecs.  Now, I always regarded the Aztecs as a death-cult society built on top of a base of cruel slavery and vicious warfare.  The truth is more complicated.  The “empire” was really a grand alliance of three neighboring city-states from the Valley of Mexico. The Triple Alliance (as the Aztecs called themselves) conquered the surrounding tribes and kingdoms through war and political/cultural means, yet whenever this alliance took over a new region they left the nobility and social structures intact and “ruled” through extracting tribute and demanding other cultural concessions.  Their “flower wars” were not traditional wars of conquest familiar to say, the Romans or the French, but highly stylized affairs…however the (pre-ordained) losers were indeed sacrificed to appease the astonishing yet bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec pantheon.

We will come back to all of this later this week.  For right now, let’s get back to the crown of Montezuma II.  This beautiful item is remarkable in many ways, but, um, being “real” isn’t necessarily one of them (speaking of which, the original is pictured at the top of the post , and the other pictures are museum reproductions).  The provenance of this headdress (if it is a headdress) is highly disputed.  Not only does it not match the (questionable) illustrations we have of Aztec headdresses, but also the 16th century records about the piece have some holes .  According to lore the crown was seized during the conquest of Mexico (ca. 1520) and sent back to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.  The piece is then recorded in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II in Ambras (near Innsbruck Austria) in 1575.  It became an object of fascination in the mid to late 19th century. Since it is made from delicate iridescent feathers (which fade over time) the crown was “restored” in 1878.  the European restorers used kingfisher feathers and restored it as a standard (a sort of flag as opposed to a “Moorish hat” (which is how it was recorded in the Grand Duke’s collection).

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The restored crown is over a meter in height and 1.75 meters across (4 feet by 6 feet).  it is crafted of layers of feathers, which seem to have conferred certain spiritual significance in the afterlife (and in the Aztec court, where special feather workers were kept to work with innumerable caged birds).  The layers of feathers are described in detail on Wikipedia:

“The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long.”

To conclude, I have written about a emperor’s crown which is not necessarily a crown for an empire which was not necessarily an empire.   Everything in this post is suspect. Our fundamental view of the Aztecs (who didn’t even call themselves that) seems as questionable as this imperial crown.  Yet, despite these very real questions, the crown of Montezuma today has become the focus of an intense political campaign to return the piece to Mexico.  Austria and Mexico exchange diplomatic statements about it and teams of scientists and ethnologists study the fragile treasure. Whether it actually belonged to Montezuma or not, the piece definitely seems to be an Aztec artifact of enormous significance and equally great beauty.   It is as splendid–or perhaps more splendid– as any of the other crowns I have written about, yet it is sad too, with its bloody history, its ongoing mysteries, and the contemporary conflict which swirls around it. The fact that it is made of fragile feathers of  long gone birds gives it additional beauty and pathos.

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Meanwhile…three quarters of a billion kilometers away, the Juno space probe continues its exploration of the gas giant Jupiter.   The probes orbit brings it to within 4,200 kilometers (2500 miles) of the cloudtops once every 53 days.  So far, Juno has made 10 such passes (out of a planned 12 before the mission’s end in July).  As the astrophysicists and planetary scientists work to make sense of mission data, NASA has made the raw image data available to the world.  Private citizens have used it to create these stunning images of the largest world in the Solar System.  Since I can’t even begin to explain the vast atmospheric complexities behind these swirling psychedelic wonders, I will leave them here without comment.  Marvel at our huge planetary neighbor with its marbelized super storms and spare a moment to thank Gerald Eichstädt & Seán Doran for putting these amazing pictures together.

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