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This is Rudolf IV of Austria (1339 –1365).  He was the first Archduke of Austria…or of anywhere (like some sort of 14th century rapper, he invented the rank of Archduke for himself, in case you were curious where that ponderous title originally came from) and he was also Duke of Styria and Carinthia from 1358, as well as Count of Tyrol from 1363 and first Duke of Carniola from 1364 until his death in July of 1365. Rudolf IV’s megalomania and grandiose plans laid the foundations of Vienna’s future greatness (and Austria’s).  The future imperial city was a backwater without even an episcopal see before Rudolf started building cathedrals, modernizing his duchy, and inventing fancy titles for himself (he invented some counterfeit royal charters too). In this post, however, we are concentrating not on on his historical importance to Habsburg dynasty building, but on his splendid portrait, the first half frontal portrait in Western Europe.  Like much of Rudolf’s legacy, the archducal crown of wild vines, arches, and jewels, was seemingly invented.  The intimate and introspective style of the work was partially borrowed from the master painters of Byzantium, but was also an Austrian painting innovation.  Like Rudolf’s reign it forshadowed wonders to come.

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Today’s post features an excitingly strange intersection between 3 of our favorite topics here at Ferrebeekeeper: crowns, China, and cities.   This is the Bund Center in the Huangpu area of Shanghai.  The building was finished in 2002 by the architects of John Portman and Associates.  It stands 198 meters (650 feet) tall—approximately the same height as the Sony Tower in Manhattan (which is probably now named after some other monolithic company, but which New Yorkers will instantly know as the building that looks like a Queen Anne highboy).  Like most skyscrapers, the purpose of this tower is surprisingly banal—it holds a bunch of offices for paper-pushers, financiers, and cell phone makers—however the top is anything but dull!  Look at that splendid daisy-style crown in glittering steel and lights.  I really thought the Chinese were on to something with their lovable propensity for making amazing novelty buildings during the 90s and the aughts.  The central authorities have since cracked down on that trend out of fear that too much imagination and fun would make the Chinese subjects less biddable to the whims of their new emperor erm president-for-life, but frankly we Americans have no moral authority anymore when it comes to subjects like evil autocrats and gaudy/banal towers.  All of which is to say, I like the top of the Bund Center!  I wish I could go to Shanghai and get a closer look at the new model for an international super-city…

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Do you know the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal?  It is in the Bible in the First Book of Kings Chapter 18.  Israel was then ruled by King Ahab who was unduly influenced by his fancy Phoenician wife, Jezebel, (a Baal worshiper!).  Because of the royal couple’s idolatry and persecution of God’s chosen prophets, the land suffered three years of drought and was turning into a desert.  The great prophet Elijah had been in hiding during this time, but, as the drought changed the political climate (in addition to the real climate), he revealed himself for a dramatic supernatural face-off with the 450 prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel.

The terms of the contest were thus: the prophets of Baal and Elijah would each sacrifice a bull and cut it to pieces and lay it on their respective altar (repairing the neglected altar of Yahweh is a big part of this story…but I will leave the altar-repair instructions out).  Neither camp would light the burnt offerings themselves:  instead they would pray to the respective deities for fire.

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The prophets of Baal went first (which sounds optimal, but think of how this always goes in the Olympics).  They prayed all day–indeed Elijah mocks them at noon suggesting their god must be busy thinking or important doing divine things or just couldn’t hear them.  At the end of the day, at sacrifice time, their bull was unconsumed by divine fire.

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Elijah then sacrificed his bull and laid it out upon the altar.  He then soaked the sacrifice with four barrels of water, which filled up a shallow trench he had dug around the altar. When these preparations were complete, Elijah called upon the God of Israel as described in the Bible

36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.

37 Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.41 And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees…

So why am I telling this story? Is it a parable about wicked leaders and their foreign consorts? Is this a story about divine wrath concerning a king’s corruption and God’s complete control of the weather?  Is this about how even the most revered religious traditions sometimes need to be tested by evidence-based criteria? Am I perhaps somehow suggesting that our own land has been given over metaphorically (or maybe literally) to Baal and his charlatan acolytes?

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No! Of course not! Our very own evangelical leaders have assured us from their private jets and mega-churches that our national leadership is exactly as it should be. This post is just an excuse to show some crazy art concerning prophetic contests!  Look at these wild pictures!  I particularly like the Baal worshipers–it is a shame what happened to them, but, after all, this is only a story. I, for one, certainly don’t believe in Biblical literalism.

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(Speaking of pictures, WordPress has made it impossible for me to properly label images without causing them to go off-center such that they are half obscured, but this last picture is by Lucas Cranach, about whom I have written much).

 

 

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Today’s post features a true oddball in the world of royal headpieces.  This strange yet compelling crown is “the diadem of the stars.” It was made in 1863 for Maria Pia of Savoy, wife of King Luís I of Portugal.   Although the piece was made in the mid-19th century its minimalist lines and weird geometric pentagons have a distinctly modern appearance.

I love space art (a category which I will reluctantly go ahead and put this crown under), but I am not sure I care for the diadem’s look in comparison with more traditional arch-and-cross type crowns.  The white. pink, and yellow diamonds do make me yearn for the stars though (a feeling which I wish more of us would embrace) so maybe the Queen Consort was onto something.

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From afar, Dubai has always struck me as disgusting (indeed the Gulf States as a whole raise my hackles).  It is a society where the super-rich who can purchase the good graces of the Sultan (or whatever rinky-dink title their life autocrat styles for himself) can literally do anything to anybody without any consequences.  It is a slave state built on the suffering of others–mostly Indian and Pakistani workers who are bamboozled to come over and then worked to death in the oppressive heat or robbed by goons working for the aristocracy.  It is a petro-state in which the oceans of wealth come from one and only one industry (a dangerous and supremely problematic industry at that). The flagrant & ostentatious Muslim extremism which is such a feature of life in the Middle East is much on display, but naturally the opprobrious strictures of the faith do not apply to the wealthy, and Mohammed’s lessons of compassion, self-discipline, and striving seem to be lost on his most outspoken followers in the middle and lower tiers of society (who read the divine poetry of the Koran and find only reasons that they are better than everybody else and excuses to abuse outsiders at their will).  Also, the whole place is in a sweltering desert.  It is what the United States aspires to be in the era of Donald Trump: a fundamentalist kleptocracy with lots of ugly towers where the sordid pleasures of the few eclipse the suffering of the many.

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But what pleasures they are! Today’s essay is a work of bemused praise for Dubai (sorry if that purpose got a bit, um, muddled in the first paragraph up there).  The crazed rulers of the place have built one of the world’s most lavish pleasure gardens:  the Dubai Miracle Garden.  The garden is indeed a miracle, since it is built on a reclaimed desert.  It is also a miracle of gardening artifice so formal, disciplined, and rigid, that it almost looks synthetic. Indeed it looks very synthetic: as though Mickey Mouse ate a lot of cheap candy and barfed on the set of Blade Runner.

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Opened on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the Dubai Miracle Garden is allegedly the world’s largest flower garden (as opposed to larger less densely planted parks, or the flower fields of Holland or Africa). With over 109 million blooming plants covering 72,000 square meters (about 18 acres), it certainly sounds like the most densely planted garden.  The flowers are built into pavilions, buildings, and colossal sculptures like some nightmare from Jeff Koontz.

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To my eye, the plants of the Dubai pleasure garden mostly look like flashy annuals.  That would be highly appropriate since it is a disposable venue.  Every year the gardeners tear everything out and build a whole new world out of flowers.  The greatest highlight seems to have been the flower version of the Emirates Airbus A380 (pictures of which are heavily featured in this post).  However certain features, like the flower clock and the 850,000 sq ft multistory garage seem to be perennial (I could not tell if the garage was made of flowers too, or of some more prosaic material).

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Although I have poked fun at it, I really would like to see the Dubai Pleasure Garden.  It is an astonishing accomplishment and the sheer excess gives it a Baroque beauty. Indeed my appetite for extremes makes me want to see all of Dubai (which exemplifies the same excessive style), but I feel like I might have burned some bridges in that respect with this selfsame blog post.  Fortunately, if I wait around, Brooklyn will probably look the same in 20 years.  Since I doubt I am going to become an oligarch, I might even get the opportunity to build the Brooklyn Miracle Garden with my own two hands as Jared Kushner or some such cruel overseer master gardener directs with the whip long flower pointer.

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Here is the Crown of Kazan.  It belonged to Ediger Mahmet, the last ruler of the Tartar state of Kazan.  The Khanate of Kazan encompassed parts of modern Tatarstan, Udmurtia, Bashkortostan, Mari El, Chuvashia, and Mordovia—rich forested lands at the extreme eastern edge of Europe which abutted the great Central Asian steppe (indeed Kazan was one of the last pieces of the Mongol Empire which had briefly ruled most of Eurasia). After the death of Genghis Khan, the empire shattered into successor states such as the Khanate of the Golden Horde.  Kazan emerged from the turmoil as a powerful state between the early 15th and mid 16th centuries AD.

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Although it had a strong beginning, Kazan’s later years were a sad story of Russian meddling, interference, and outright assault.  The noble houses of Kazan were more interested in fighting each other for control of the kingdom–which grew more ossified and derelict as the Turkic nobles fought one another and ignored the needs of their oppressed peasantry. Their stupidity, weakness, and ridiculous inability to understand the profound threat from Moscow strikes one as hard to believe. Initially, a Russian puppet, Shahghali, was placed on the throne, but, as civil wars broke out, he proved unable to keep the population subdued under the yoke of Moscow as civil war. In August 1552, forces of Ivan the Terrible invaded and annexed the kingdom outright.

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(The Kazans Genuflect Before the Tsar)

After Ivan the Terrible took over Kazan, Russian forces slaughtered more than 110,000 of the nobles, soldiers, and peasants.  Pro-Russian traitors who had worked insidiously to ensure the defeat of their country were rewarded by being allowed to keep their lands and towers (and, of course, the gold which Ivan had used to buy them off).

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Today the Crown of Kazan is found inside the Kremlin armory with early Russian crowns like the Cap of Monomakh as well as crowns from other kingdoms swallowed whole by the insatiable Russian Empire. Here is a picture of Gerhard Schroeder looking bored/horrified (borified?) as Vladimir Putin explains this history to him and tells how Russia weakened and annexed its competitors during the Middle Ages.

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Imagine that you are sitting in a great baroque theater filled with fashionable and cosmopolitan people from around the world.  A hush falls upon the crowd and the house lights go out, plunging you into darkness.  There is a palpable intake of breath from the audience, and then trumpets, oboes, French horns, violas, and that haunting musical saw (which is played like a violin but sounds like a warbling ghost) all launch into a dazzling overture which reminds you of the ocean.  The music deepens and becomes more ominous and yet more lovely too: it is as though you were sinking down into the briny deep to the nacreous halls of Poseidon. The spotlight shines on the shimmering blue velvet curtain which lifts and behold!

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Today, after a long development period I present the Great Flounder!  In your mind’s eye you can see the fish–a great behemoth lying on the bottom of the world ocean.  Its body is pockmarked like an ancient asteroid.  Its great fins are oddly transparent and yet occasionally they flicker to remind you the great sage is alive. Its eyes are huge glabrous pearls glistening in the watery depths—they are blank, yet they see all of the secrets of the ocean deep.   If you dared, you could ask the fish a question about the past…about the present…lo verily, about the future itself—that unknowable realm which mortals cannot kin.

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Or actually you don’t have to imagine this at all. Together with my friends (a team of brilliant computer programmers) and some books of forbidden lore (lure?) I have built this online oracle for you!  Now all of your questions will be answered! Now you will truly know all the secrets of the deep!*

[Timpani pound out a thunderous melody and a cymbal crashes at the crescendo!]

Of course, long-time readers will know that I am a humanist and a rational thinker, so it is possible that this great oracular fish is really a toy, like the magic eight ball, the Ouija board, or the oracle bones.  The Mermaid Parade on Saturday was the official launch (the parade was a huge success by the way).  I always liked the magical eight ball, fortune cookies, and the fortune telling machine that gives out cards, but their answers were never quite what I wanted to hear.  Instead of a bland platitude wouldn’t you prefer an enigmatic yet deep riddle of the sort one encounters in classical drama?  For a long time, I sought until I found an oracle which gives such answers.  Now you can ask all of your questions too.

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This is Great Flounder 1.0 so please, please let me know what you think in the comments below.  Perhaps, if your comment is trenchant enough, the great sagacious fish will magically change to be more like what you want! You know you want to click the link! Go on! It is destiny! [fading laughter]

*for novelty purposes only. Void where prohibited. Flounder is not affiliated with that stupid sidekick from “The Little Mermaid” or with the portly naif from “Animal House”

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I was going to showcase a mermaid painting from the glorious 19th century–a golden age of exquisite oil painting (when the technique of the masters combined with stupendous wealth and the camera made visual refernces available for the first time without yet stealing the show), but then I looked up at the wall and noticed I have my own mermaid painting–it just isn’t finished yet.  So I am afraid the 19th century masters will have to rest on their laurels until another day…and I am also afraid you will have to use your imagination to fill in some of the unfinished details of this work in progress.  This is one of the last of my torus-themed paintings, and you can see the great flounder lurking beneath it, preparing to take over as the central leitmotif of this era of my art.   The torus is made of a coil of strange purple cells (or rope) which is surmounted by an alien lotus blossom.  On the left a classic mermaid sings meltingly of the splendor of the seas, while on the right a trio of sinister dark carnival “mermaids” race towards the enigmatic central shape.  All around them the ocean blooms with life–mollusks and crabs desport themselves as a made-up roosterfish swims by and a moray looks on in wonder. Yet humankind is also present.  The lost lure with its beguilement and hooks hints at our trickery, although a masked diver suggests we are not inured to the lure of the dep in our own right.  Tune in later to see how it looks when it is done!

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Today’s post takes a closer look at a troubling tale from Canada.  During the period between 2001 and 2008, as American investors were bilked out of money by Bernie Madoff, a similar Ponzi scheme was taking place in the north.  However, in the northern version, the McGuffin at the heart of the grift wasn’t finance/investing…it was pigeons.  The man behind the scam, the pigeon king himself, was Arlan Galbraith (his business was even named “Pigeon King International”).  In seven years he sold $42 million worth of pigeons and, when his empire collapsed, he was on the hook to buy $356 million worth of breeding pairs of pigeons.  Aside from Mike Tyson’s prize roller pigeons or suchlike fancy birds, pigeons are not really expensive creatures.  The mind shrinks back from imagining how many pigeons one could buy for $356 million dollars.

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The pigeon Ponzi scheme didn’t really make any sense as a business or as a scam. Galbraith sold breeding pigeons to small farmers with a promise to buy back the offspring.  He would then sell the resulting pigeons to other farmers with the same promise.  Since he paid for the fowl (and since farmers are competent at poultry husbandry), the pigeons produced by this scheme burgeoned in population.  Galbraith enticed investors with talk of breeding fancy pigeons to sell to foreign pigeon fanciers, poultry, magnates and Arab sheiks.  He also claimed his program was producing a new sort of meat bird to bring squab to the dinner table everywhere in lieu of chicken and turkey.  Yet the birds in the “program” were just normal garden-variety pigeons. It was a recipe for limitless growth to nowhere.  Hundreds and hundreds of farmers joined Pigeon King International as suppliers/marks.

Except, of course, there is no such thing as limitless growth.  As soon as Galbraith ran out of new investors, he could not pay for all of the pigeons being produced (it is a miracle he dealt with the logistics of this crazy idea for as long as he did).  The end was profoundly sad.  Small farmers across Canada were left with whole barns and aviaries filled with unsaleable mongrel pigeons.  There were no Arab sheiks.  There was no market for squab.   There was nothing but the pigeon king dashing around the country buying pigeons and immediately selling them to others.

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The authorities were left with a situation where broke farmers had hundreds of thousands of worthless pigeons eating them out of house and home.  Releasing the birds into the wild would have been cruel to the pigeons (and dangerous to public health) so the authorities visited the largest barns with carbon monoxide rigs to gas the pigeons. Smaller operations were left euthanizing their stock on their own. Galbraith was arrested and conducted his own defense (in a manner as earnest, incompetent, and peculiar as his business).  He is now in jail and, since he is not young, that is probably the last act of his tale. Innumerable farmers were ruined by this saga.  Hundreds of thousands of pigeons died.  The pigeon king is spending his dotage in prison, and for what?

I have been staring at this story in puzzled wonder trying to determine the lesson (as more than a general cautionary tale against pyramid schemes). Aside from pyramid schemes, there is no precise analogy for the pigeon king’s business plan which leaps to mind…save one. The pigeon scheme required infinite growth to work (and more and more energy to maintain) even though there was no final payoff plan or escape hatch. It reminds me a bit of, well, everything.

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Society requires everyone to buy plastic junk that nobody will want in a year.  The garment industry churns out shirts that disintegrate after we wear them a few times.  The internet mostly consists of website after website of the same listicles and idiotic celebrity folderol.  If we stopped making this stuff and did better things with our time, everyone would go broke and the world economy would break. There are worthwhile things going on and goods and services which people truly need (or really want badly enough to be worthwhile), but beneath it all there is the same impossible promise of endless growth.  If that growth sputters out in any big way, the great international machine which we are all part of breaks.  Even if (human) populations decline, the capitalist system enters a dark feedback loop of too few consumers which is hard to escape.

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Conmen call their targets “pigeons.”  The story has me concerned that we are all pigeons in both a figurative and a literal way.  We are all busy producing pigeons of one sort or another for the Galbraiths of the world and praying that we can keep juggling everything before the Earth’s climate breaks, or we run out of oil, or there are too many bankrupt people to keep the system afloat.  Last week I wrote a post excoriating economists for not understanding primate behavior.  In this post I am begging them to go back into the library and come up with a system that does not rely so utterly on impossible growth targets.  If you walk through my beloved home of New York and look at all the people strutting bipedally in their drab business casual garb I feel like you might be reminded of certain avian colonies.  Take a look at Japan’s demographics, or the projected population of the United States…or the world, then compare those graphs with what companies say they will sell.  Spare a moment of panicky prayer for all the pigeons…and for the pigeon king too.

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