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The Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia

The quintessential crown of southeast Asia is Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut, the “Great Crown of Victory” of Thailand (which Ferrebeekeeper blogged about back when Bhumibol was still in this world). Yet there is–or was–a second great crown of victory, Preah Maha Mokot Reach, the Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia. Like the Thai crown, the Cambodian crown was a tall gold cap made of diminishing conical tiers of gold set with precious gems. Passed down from king to king since the time of the Khmer Empire (which blew apart in 1431), the Cambodian crown was meant to symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred cosmic mountain which appears in Jain and Buddhist myth. The Cambodian Great Crown of Victory was held by the King of Siam (who claimed suzerainty over Cambodia) for a time in the 19th century, but it was back in Cambodian hands by 1941 in time for the charismatic yet addled Norodom Sihanouk to wear it at his first coronation.

Sihanouk at his coronation in 1941

From my constant use of the past tense verb, you have probably guessed that the ancient crown has gone missing. It has not been seen since Lon Nol’s coup in 1970. The particular circumstances of that coup were already murky thanks to the general strife, war, and confusion of Southeast Asia in 1970, and the history has grown even more confusing after the subsequent horrific events of the seventies in Cambodia. Suffice to say, Lon Nol was probably backed by the United States as part of the larger war next door in Vietnam (Grandpa probably knew the true specifics of this, but he certainly didn’t tell me). Norodom Sihanouk who was once king (and would be again) backed the communists of the Khmer Rouge–although, to be fair, Sihanouk, who spent the early seventies in exile in China and North Korea did not seemingly grasp the genocidal nature of the Khmer Rouge.

I was going to show a picture of Cambodia in the 70s but they are all too awful. This picture of absolute darkness is much cheerier.

All of which is to say, the Great Crown of Victory was most likely destroyed in 1970, although maybe the Chinese, North Koreans, Vietnamese, or Thai have it for some unknown reason. It could even conceivably be in Fullerton, California which is where Lon Noi ended up (although this isn’t really conceivable, and I am just writing it to indicate how strange that era was). But you never know. Over the course of my lifetime, Cambodia has gone from being the most hellish place on Earth to being a tourist paradise (with a purely ceremonial elected king). Maybe the crown of Cambodia is actually on a shelf or buried under a wall somewhere. But I doubt it. It represents a Cambodia which is gone.

The Crucifixion (Anthony Wierix & Martin de Vos, ca. 1590), engraving on paper

It is Good Friday, and as per tradition, here is an exquisite crucifixion artwork to mark the occasion. The beautifully engraved print is remarkable for its enormous quality, precision, and detail: just look at the lightning striking Jerusalem in the distant background! However it is also remarkable for the two (or three) levels of reality which the artists/printmakers have divided it into. In the central rectangle, Jesus is crucified on a hill in Israel as Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Saint John lament. Moving outwards by a degree, we find a second, rather more metaphorical frame which presents the instruments of the passion: the cross, the scourge, the nails, the pitcher of vinegar. Only as we examine the carefully engraved items in depth do we discover how allegorical these images really are. The coins are avarice. The flail is cruelty. The cock is denial. The vinegar is bitterness. The sepulcher is fear. These bedrock emotional drives are the true tools of the Passion. It is by means of the universal nature of humankind that Jesus was slain, but only by transcending such things and moving inwards to a more divine and transcendent level of faith, tenderness, and compassion can we be redeemed.

Of course there is an unspoken third level as well–of bare paper which has not been pressed by the plate. This reminds us that we are looking at a little nesting universe of profound ideas which are the contrivance of gifted artists working in the real world with ink, burins, presses, and paper in order to make us think more carefully about existence…or such would be the case if you were looking at this in a Duke’s library or the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Instead you are looking at this on the internet on glowing pixels on my blog–so there is really a fourth meta-level of ideological interpretation (conveniently provided by me, some random guy on the internet just writing stuff). The 16th century was an age when thrilling new media lead humankind to terrible excesses (there is a reason all of those torture implements look so realistic). Theologians, political leaders, and rabble-rousers used these new tools to whip up the sectarian passions of Christ’s followers and drive the faithful to slay the faithful in vast religious wars. There is a symbolic reason the scimitar, the torturer’s tongs, and the open crypt are closer to the viewer than Christ is: God is separated from us not just by space and time, but by supernatural and moral hierarchy as well (and by ethnicity too, as the Hebrew at the top reminds us). I wonder if His followers in the modern era will see what the Christian artists of the new mass media arts of the 16th century were trying so hard to explain…

Happy Mardi Gras! Tonight at midnight, the Lenten season of austerity begins. Today is therefor a holiday of merriment and excess in Catholic parts of the world. The most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the United States is, of course, the great Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, finally returned to full glory this year after two long years of plague and quarantine. During the corona years, however, New Orleans natives (and members of the illustrious parade krewes which put the spectacle together) did not entirely give up! They decorated certain key houses around the Big Easy in the same manner as parade floats. For tonight’s carnival delectation, here is a little gallery of some of those lovely cottages wearing their mad finery:

(Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Usually Ferrebeekeeper writes about crowns, but today, as a special treat to celebrate the end of February (which is also Black History month), we are going to write about a throne instead…and this is not just any throne! It is also my favorite visionary art installation [as an aside, I believe it would help to contextualize the problematic nature of monarchy if we called all thrones “visionary art installations”–and it wouldn’t even really be inaccurate]. Anyway, above is the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, by American outsider artist James Hampton which is currently held at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington DC. Created between 1950 and 1964, the enormous work consists of 180 individual objects hand-crafted out of broken furniture and everyday found objects which were gilded with aluminum and gold foil.

Hampton’s tale is as American as possible, while somehow simultaneously as outsider as possible too. He was born in South Carolina in 1909, the son of a Baptist preacher with the same name. His father, James Hampton Senior was a traveling Baptist preacher and a gospel singer, but he was also a grifter and a ex-convict with a history of time in the chain gang. He abandoned his family and vanished away into the William Faulkner style goings-on of the south during the tumultuous decades of the teens, twenties, and thirties leaving his 4 children and wife to scrape by as well as possible.

After this hard-scrabble upbringing, young James Hampton moved to Washington D.C. where he was a short-order cook during the Depression and was then drafted into The United States Army Air Force during Word War II. He served repairing airstrips in Guam for which he received a Bronze Star. In Guam he also first began building visionary devotional shrines. After the war he moved back to Washington and obtained a job as a janitor at the General Service Administration, where he worked until his death of stomach cancer in 1964. We would probably not remember him at all, except, when he died, his landlord approached his sister about what to do with the contents of the garage which Hampton used as a workspace/devotional area. Hampton had largely kept his artwork hidden from even his tiny circle of friends and family (perhaps he did not even regard it as artwork per se). Only after his death did it come to the world’s attention, along with St James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation a religious book which he mostly wrote in a private (and untranslated) tongue.

Hampton’s Christianity was non-sectarian (enough of his writing is in English to inform us that he wisely believed that the doctrinal schisms which characterize organized Christianity detract from the sacred unity of God) and highly mystical. I first saw the throne on a High School Field Trip in the nineties, when its awesome otherworldly glory and strangeness was enough to silence a whole class of 16 year olds (an achievement accomplished by few other cultural masterpieces in the nation’s capital). Its glistening cat-eyes and complex Baroque shapes are characteristic of American dime stores and carnivals of the early 20th century…and yet they also very much of Africa, Polynesia, and the Holy Land as well.

You will have to examine the shrine of your own–as with some of the finest religious art of South East Asia or the Middle Ages, its splendor and complexity initially baffle the eye. However, it is based on Saint John’s New Testament description of the silver and gold throne of God on Judgement Day (Revelations 4). This description includes mention of Christian elders wearing sacred crowns, and these crowns are very much a part of the larger installation, so even if you are lost in the material complexities of James Hampton’s personal devotion, at least there is highly recognizable iconography for the rulers of Earth…and for this blog’s readers too!

Wisent (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) Ink on paper

Happy Saint Valentine’s Day! To my shame I realize that last week I got all caught up in the breathtaking (ly amoral) spectacle of international sport and I failed to put up any new content during these winter doldrums. Therefore, here is my latest ink drawing which features a magnificent European wisent carefully weighing the moral arguments behind various species of monotheism (represented, respectively, by a cardinal from the developing world, a dodgy Mithraic priest in a tree, and a little person blowing a shofar). Although these characters could conceivably offer the noble zubr spiritual solace of one sort or another, my personal opinion is that the wood bison is likely to be most drawn towards some sort of personal animism as championed by the sentient tree, the condor, or the omnipresent flatfish. Kindly note the nightjar hiding by the oil lantern in the left foreground!

Last night my roommate was watching the end of an NFL (American football) playoff game and I sat down to watch the conclusion with him. It was a thrilling shootout finale which featured all sorts of touchdowns, fieldgoals, and overtime…all within a few minutes of gameplay! It was extremely exciting–except for the team themselves which represented America’s 36th and 76th largest cities. How does the NFL ever even find these places? We will say nothing of the losing team (although I preferred them morally, aesthetically, and geographically) and instead concentrate on the victor–the Kansas City Chiefs who are apparently indeed from Kansas City, a rather large and prosperous city in Missouri.

After wracking my brain I realized that I have, in fact, heard of Kansas City–as the location of “Road House” a strange 80s film about a superbouncer (?) cleaning up a large violent bar just outside the city. Aside from bar-fighting, the most distinctive thing about “Road House” was the fact that everything in the film was run by a king-like crime boss with quasi-legitimate connections to business and politics. I looked it up and truly, Kansas City was made by a weird political boss who was fixated with royalty and living like a king. References to kings, monarchs, sovereigns, rulership, royalty and chiefs are everywhere. Kansas City is even a sister city with Xi’an, a famous and important city which people have actually heard of, which was the capital of China during the Qin, Tang and Sui dynasties (among others).

Anyway…all of this is a roundabout way of saying that Kansas City famously makes use of kingly crowns as a sort of symbol/trademark (city historians aver that this is because of “The American Royal” an important livestock show held in Kansas City since 1899–although how did that get its name?). Indeed, not only is the city known for the Kansas City Royals (a major-league baseball team) but for whimsical crown themed lighting in winter time. Here we have finally reached the point of this post (sorry if I buried the lede somewhat): check out these amazing lighted crowns from Kansas City!

I have a feeling we will be seeing more of these Kansas City Chiefs. In fact my football editor is calling to tell me that the Chiefs won the Superbowl outright two years ago (yet, although I watched that game with my friends, I have very limited memories of any Kansas or Missouri people involved). I will also work to find out about this giant livestock show and the famous gangster who built Kansas City. Right now let’s just relax and enjoy these scintillating crowns made of light.

Happy Epiphany! This holiday, also known variously as “Three Kings Day”, “Little Christmas”, and “Theophany,” celebrates the revelation of Christ to the gentiles. In ancient Christian tradition, Christmas has 12 days, starting upon December 25th when Mithras–I mean Jesus!–was born and ending when the wise men arrive to present their gifts and acknowledge Christ as king of Earth. Observed on January 6th, it also brings an end to the joyous Christmas season (which reminds me, I need to take down my tree this weekend…sigh). If you live your life in accordance with liturgical colors (which I find hard to imagine you doing unless you are the pope), January 6th marks the return to ordinary green.

When I was growing up, I always liked the three wise men, who seemed like cosmopolitan outsiders in the somewhat insular & Jewish world of the synaptic gospels. Plus I always played Melchior in Christmas pageants (with exotic orientalist “robes” and an inlaid mother-of-pearl jewelry box from my mother’s vanity table!

The Adoration of the Kings (Jan Gossaert, ca. 1515), oil on oak panel

Anyway, to properly celebrate this holiday-which-ends-the-holidays, here is a favorite artistic interpretation of the momentous visit by Flemish genius, Jan Gossaert. The painting has a sort of “find-these 30 hidden objects” quality to it (which is something I love about Flemish art), so it is worth really looking at it for a while. You might want to head over to the National Gallery’s website where you can really blow up the image to see the incredible details in every inch of the masterwork.

The kings’ names (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior) are not found in the Bible. In fact in the gospels they are not even kings but “wise men.” Apparently their name and rank came from 5th century AD Greek texts. Interestingly it was the venerable Bede (an 8th century Northumbrian monk) who first wrote of Balthasar being black! The kings’ diverse ethnicity later became their signature feature during the Renaissance (when Gossaert was painting) as the age of exploration brought newfound fascination with ethnology.

Oh no! I just noticed that I published an incomplete version of the special Halloween post about “Spoon River” I mow cannot find the full post so, I guess, don’t read that post until I go back and rewrite it (at some time in the future! Right now I am too weak to wrestle any more with the larger themes of that dark cross sectional diagram of American society). Speaking of dark views of society, our Halloween-theme weeks invariably feature a post about Gothic aesthetics. It would be unconscionable not to have a post about Gothic tombs–but there are so many contenders! Where do I even start?

The answer is…Portugal? Above is the exquisite sarcophagus of Pedro I of Portugal who ruled the Iberian nation from 1357 until his death in 1367. The magnificent royal coffin is located in the Royal Monastery of Alcobaça right next to the equally splendid matching sarcophagus of Inês de Castro, a Gallician noblewoman whose life and death was the central story of Pedro’s life and career. The full horrible story of their cursed love has been told in numerous operas and was universally known in Portugal in the 14th century, however since there are few 14th century Portuguese gossip mongers still around, we will have to outline the story here. This is bad news since not only is the story a full-on “Game of Thrones style” disaster, but many of the parties involved shared similar names (which I guess were common to all Iberian princes and princesses).

Pedro I was the son of Afonso IV of Portugal (1291 –1357) an important king who kicked off the age of exploration (and made Portugal a world power), but Afonso IV struggled mightily against his powerful neighbors, the Kings of Castile. In 1325 Alfonso XI of Castile entered a child-marriage with Constanza Manuel of Castile, the daughter of Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (and great granddaughter of Ferdinand I of Castile) . Two years later, Alfonzo XI of Castile annulled this marriage to Constanza Manuel in order to marry Afonso IV of Portugal’s daughter Maria of Portugal (Pedro’s sister). Unfortunately (but perhaps unsurprisingly) Alfonzo XI of Castile mistreated Maria of Portugal (who would have expected such behavior from a man who threw his child bride to the curb to grasp for more power?)

Anyway, Afonso IV of Portugal reached out to the equally aggrieved Juan Manuel (the powerful father of Constanza Manuel) and Constanza Manuel was married to Prince Pedro (later to become King Pedro I, whose sarcophagus we are writing about). Alas, Constanza Manuel brought the noblewoman Inês de Castro with her to Portugal as a lady-in-waiting. Pedro married Constanza Manuel, but he began a love affair with Inês de Castro which scandalized the nation. In 1345, Constanza Manuel bore Peter a son, Ferdinand, and then died. Afonso IV banished Inês de Castro to a convent, but Pedro kept seeing her (and she kept bearing him children). Fearing Castilian influence (and worried that Pedro’s sickly legitimate son would fall prey to the multitudinous illegitimate ones), Afonso IV sent three courtly assassins to deal with Inês de Castro. In 1355, the king’s goons beheaded her in the convent in front of her children. Afonso IV believed this would solve the problem, but, for some reason, it instead sent Pedro into a towering rage. Prince Pedro rebelled against his father and begin to ravage the heartlands of Portugal. Afonso IV martialed his army and defeated Pedro in battle, but as soon as he was victorious, he died and Prince Pedro became Pedro I, King of Portugal.

“The Death of Inês de Castro”, Karl Pavlovic Brjullov

Two of the assassins who had executed Inês de Castro fled to Castile, but King Pedro I offered Alfonzo XI various hostages in exchange for the fugitives. Once he had the killers back in Portugal he tried them for murder and when they were convicted, he personally, physically, literally ripped their hearts out (although the third killer, Diogo Lopes Pacheco, got away and after many adventures returned to die as an elderly prosperous Portuguese nobleman with his heart in its proper place).

A historical re-enactment

According to legend, Pedro I had a magnificent throne made for the mummified body of Inês de Castro and would force courtiers to kiss her leathery hand. Actual primary sources from 14th century Portugal do not corroborate this detail (although they also don’t explicitly say that Pedro I didn’t build a throne for his mummified posthumous wife). However what is certain is that he arranged for exquisite matching coffins so that she would be the first person he saw after resurrecting (excepting Jesus or super angels or whatever).

The Coffin of Inês de Castro, Portugal’s posthumous queen

It is a terrible story…but they really are beautiful fancy coffins. I don’t know, though, something about this story makes me wonder if it is actually worth it to be King of Portugal. Maybe supremely high social status is not the panacea we imagine it to be. I guess we can ask King Pedro I.

Sometimes you have to rip out a few hearts

More-often-than-not, Ferrebeekeeper has featured crowns from long ago.  We try to feature crowns from antiquity or the Middle Ages (since that is where monarchs belong) but, because the development of the world is halting and uneven, we have seen quite a few crowns from the early modern era and the nineteenth century.  After saying all that, here is a contemporary crown from the quasi-present.  This is a crown made of emeralds and black gold (which is “oil” in my book, but apparently mean something else to jewelers) which was famously worn by Queen-Consort Rania of Jordan in 2003.  The piece was designed by Solange Azagury-Partridge for the French jeweler Boucheron (who, as far as I can tell) may still hold the piece.  The tiara is in the form of a twining circlet of ivy. Since Rania is both famous and infamous as a fashion icon, the modern elegance of the piece suits her quite well. I tend to prefer crowns to be medieval and symmetric with lots of cabochon gemstones and heavy YELLOW gold arches & crosses, however this piece has an elven charm about it which lifts it above the ugly abstract minimalism of most contemporary pieces.  In fact, projecting backwards, I think it is a shame that more historical crowns don’t feature leaves, animals, insects or suchlike naturalistic details and ornaments.  For example, one of the best crowns, the raven crown, has embroidered skulls and raven heads and looks as awesome as it sounds.  Maybe Queen Rania and Druk Gyalpo, the Dragon King of Bhutan, should hang out more for reasons of pure bling (although the Dragon King is a reformer, whereas the jury is still out on the Hashemite Dynasty).

I promise I will blog more about the kindly yet strange wild goose, LG, who lives on my parents’ farm (there has been a big change in his life!), but first let’s get to what everyone cares about most–princely secession within the aristocracy of a distant foreign federal republic (where royalty isn’t even an official thing).

“What on earth are you talking about?” you might well be saying. “‘Unofficial aristocrats of a distant federal republic?’ Is this some weird version of the Nigerian Prince scam?” I guess the answer to that rhetorical question is: maybe?

Behold! Here is Omo Oba Utienyinoritsetsola Emiko, the brand new Olu (king) of Warri (a tribal nation of Nigeria’s southern Delta, which was subsumed into greater Nigeria during unification in the 20th century). The new olu was crowned on August 21st, 2021 after the death of his uncle (the previous king). Kings, emirs, and other hereditary aristocrats have no actual authority within the Nigerian constitution, however some such noblefolk still possess substantial cultural and religious clout. Accordingly, King Emiko used his new royal authority to reverse a curse cast by one of his ancestors upon the nation of Nigeria. He also remarked upon the power and importance of women and suggested that Nigeria needs to diversify its economy beyond reliance on oil. It is a promising start by the (American educated) ceremonial king.

Yet King Emiko’s coronation did not proceed without incident. King Emiko’s mother was a Yoruba woman and thus born outside of Warri nobility. Some traditional minded Warri, (including the sons of the previous king) felt that this fact might disqualify Prince Emiko from the throne. Also, just prior to the coronation, the ancient crown of Warri went missing and police were summoned to discuss the matter with the late king’s sons. The crown is said to date back to the time of the first Olu of Warri who ruled from 1625 to 1643 and received the gilded headdress from the king of Portugal in exchange for organizing a port for slavetrading at Warri.

Fortunately, the crown was quickly discovered (just after the police became involved). The coronation day was a day of celebration and happiness. Thus far the new king has evinced a forward looking philosophy and it is hoped that he really can use his cultural capital to dispel some of the curses which linger over Warri. If such is his intention, perhaps his majesty should himself hide that crown: I personally wouldn’t want anything from House Aviz OR House Braganza (the Portuguese throne also changed dynasties during the period between 1625 and 1643). Anyway hopefully this little news bulletin has clarified the original source of royalty in the Delta region of Nigeria and answered some questions about the role of kingship in the modern world.

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