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In all of our explorations of crowns and crown jewels, we have barely addressed the most famous crown jewels of all–those of the United Kingdom. Ferrebeekeeper posted about the giant dark spinel in the imperial state crown (aka “the black prince’s ruby“) and about the crown of the Tudor kings–which was destroyed back in the 17th century–and that is about all we have said about the most famous royal regalia. The reason for the paucity of posts is that the crown jewels of the United Kingdom were themselves destroyed in 1649 at the order of Oliver Cromwell, a puritan anti-monarchist who seized control of England and had no use for such things. Interestingly, this was (at least) the second time that all of the crown jewels were lost: in 1216 Bad King John somehow sank all of the previous crown jewels (and most of the treasury) in the Wash River (we will explore that humorous catastrophe in a future post).

Anyway, the real point of all of this is that although Cromwell destroyed all of the golden crowns, jeweled scepters, ancient magic swords and whatnot, he did not quite destroy all of the crown jewels. A single metal item from the ancient medieval royal collection of England survived the meltdown and is now the oldest item in the crown jewels (although the Black Prince’s ruby (which was sold and later returned) is pretty ancient too). The sacred coronation spoon of the ancient kings of England survived the Commonwealth. As the crown jewels were being torn apart and melted by stern religious zealots, there was apparently a spoon enthusiast (?) in the crowd. This Mr. Kynnersley bought the ancient coronation spoon for 16 shillings.

The first mention of the coronation spoon was in 1349, but even then it was said to be “of ancient form” so the true age and origin of the spoon are lost in history (although experts surmise that it is from the 12th century). The coronation spoon is decorated with monster’s heads and ornate medieval scrollwork. It was probably originally used to mix water and wine (a critical component of drinking in ancient times which ensured that the imbiber neither died of dysentery nor blacked out from alcohol poisoning). If you squint a bit, the spoon has quite a lot of resemblance to a modern bartender’s mixing spoon.

As far as I can tell, the spoon is too famous and special to be photographed, but there are many high quality drawings and reproductions of it. I wonder how this spoon will fare during the next 800 years of royal history, or will it fall victim to a new King John or another Cromwell somewhere down the line?

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.

Here is a silver diadem discovered in a recently excavated Bronze age tomb from the La Almoloya archaeological site in southern Spain. The tomb consisted of a great earthenware jar containing the remains of two elites–a man and a woman (the jar was buried under a sort of longhouse/mead hall/political assembly building). Since the Argaric people were early masters of metallurgy, both skeletons were richly arrayed in gold and silver jewelry, however the female skeleton was the one wearing the diadem. The NYTimes article which I read went to great length describing how shocking the highly polished reflective silver would be in an era when mirrors and reflective surfaces were not omnipresent (the author of that article also took pains to describe the tintinnabulation that this Bronze age chieftainess would have made with all of her bangles, plugs, earrings, and necklaces). Archaeologists have traditionally assumed that Argaric society was patriarchal, but this discovery has caused experts to reassess that conclusion (and to take note that previous graves also contained crown-wearing, high-status Argaric women). Perhaps power was shared between the genders or even apportioned in some sort of matriarchal fashion (although I think we will be left to speculate about this unless more conclusive evidence is discovered).

Argaric culture flourished from 2200 to 1550 BC. As bronzeworking warriors surrounded by less technologically advanced tribes, they were able to rapidly expand into an empire of sorts. I wonder how much they knew of the great contemporary palace civilizations of Mycenae and Knossos to the east. Alas, their technology seems to have been their undoing, since the need for timber, charcoal, and arable land resulted in widespread deforestation and agricultural collapse.

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.

Siege of Ostend (Peter Snayers, ca early 17th century) oil on canvas

The Siege of Ostend (1601-1604) was a devastating siege which lasted three years and effectively destroyed the city of Ostend in West Flanders. The defenders of Ostend were the rebel Dutch “Geuzen” (and their English allies) who stood up to the hegemonic and reactionary Spanish Crown. The siege was important to two different wars–the 80 Years’ War (a struggle for independence by the Dutch) and the Anglo-Spanish War, an undeclared and intermittent war between Spain and England for naval supremacy.

Ostend was a small coastal city of perhaps 3000 inhabitants who mostly made their living from fishing. It ended up being at the center of one of Europe’s most costly and prolonged sieges by the accidents of war since, in 1601, Ostend was the only piece of territory which the Dutch Republic held in Flanders. Spain was a towering world power during the 16th century and honor demanded that Ostend be retaken (presumably as a prelude to a grand defeat of Dutch and English forces). The Spanish side had a famous aristocratic leader, the Archduke Albert, who commanded vast armies of soldiers. The Spanish also had an Italian inventor, Pompeo Targone, who kept creating outlandish new siege devices (see illustrations below) and they had a Catholic turncoat embedded within the English garrison. None of these assets proved particularly helpful. The Spanish commander had a penchant for huge frontal assaults which cost tens of thousands of besiegers their lives. Exposed to saltwater, gunpowder, and sand, the innovative siege devices of Pompeo Targone had a way of breaking and turning into deadly rubble. The English turncoat was found out and sentenced to death (although, in a show of goodhearted English mercy he was merely stripped and whipped out of town).

What could go wrong?

On the other side, the English and Dutch had the ability to resupply from the ocean, which proved invaluable in defeating the hunger and scarcity which are the purposes of a siege. Although they could never field the endless men or martial the vast material resources of the Spanish, the defenders could hide out behind heavily fortified walls, palisades, moats, and so forth. Then, whenever the Spanish breached the fortifications through sheer heroic bravado, the Dutch could pour grapeshot onto the invaders, or collapse walls of sand onto Albert’s men, or, perhaps most devastatingly, break the levees and drown the armored soldiers.

After long years of this, the Spanish crown finally replaced Archduke Albert with Ambrogio Spinola, a Genoese general who understood that the siege could only be won by carefully building elaborate earthworks and methodically bringing up larger and larger artillery. The Spanish were victorious in September of 1604, when the Dutch commanders allowed the garrison to surrender (the Dutch had just conquered the city of Sluis and no longer needed Ostend). The terms of the surrender allowed Ostend’s defenders to depart with their weapons and their colors–and they marched right off to Sluis. the Spanish finally entered Ostend which was effectively destroyed. Only two civilian inhabitants were left. The siege had cost over 100,000 lives. The Spanish victory proved pyrrhic, since, its cost caused the Spanish crown to go bankrupt three years later, which in turn lead to the twelve years truce (and an era of Dutch ascendancy).

Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New Year!

Here is the golden crown of the Sultan of Banten. Manufactured around AD 1700, the crown is made of gold and silver filigree with non-faceted precious stones (presumably rubies, spinels, and garnets). The foliate design of the piece are typical of the Islamic goldsmithing and sculptural traditions of Java.

Straddling the western tip of Java and the south eastern end of Sumatra, the Sultanate of Banten was one of the most important of the Indonesian Islamic kingdoms which the Dutch worked so hard to subaltern and ultimately conquer. You might note that Indonesia’s contemporary capital Jakarta (assuming they haven’t moved it yet) is located in what was once Banten territory. The sultans of Banten derived their wealth and power from trading, and they were initially eager to trade with the Dutch and the English (whom they played against each other). Unfortunately for the Bantens, the Dutch destroyed Jayakarta and built a fortified town, Batavia on the ruins. Throughout the 17th century, Banten influence and wealth waned as the Dutch grew in power. A disastrous fight between father and son rivals for the sultanate allowed the Dutch to seize power and reduce the once powerful sultanate to a puppet kingdom.

Unfortunately, before we can get back to bats and artwork, we must deal with the misbegotten election of 2020, a dark tempest which has been blackening the national offing ever since it became evident that Republicans have no interest in laws, public well-being, or representative democracy but are instead trying to use underhanded means to ensure permanent authoritarian one-party rule in the United States of America.

For the election of 2016 I wrote a thoughtful and fair-spoken endorsement which stands the test of time…and yet is also clearly from the halcyon era before Trump pulled us all onto the road to hell which we are now walking together as a nation. You should go back and check it out! I used to write so prettily before it became evident that nobody cares about that sort of thing!

The outrageous acrimony of the 2020 election however calls for a different approach. When disputes devolve to pure emotional terms of screaming, fighting, and breathless accusations of lies & criminality, it becomes hard for conscientious arbiters to figure out who is lying. There is a story from the Bible about this(confused Evangelical Christians might recognize this unknown text as the mysterious black rectangular prop which their lord and savior, Donald Trump, was holding in his June 1st photo op).

“How does this thing go in the VCR?”

Solomon the Wise, the heir of King David of Israel, was renowned for his probity, honor, and good sense in adjudicating other people’s disputes (sadly his wisdom abandoned him in his own family affairs, which were a mess, but we can talk about that later if at all). Anyway, two women came to King Solomon with a seemingly insoluble dispute about an infant. Here is the relevant passage from the King James Bible (Kings, Chapter 3, Verses 16 to 28):

Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him.And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house. And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also: and we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house. And this woman’s child died in the night; because she overlaid it. And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear. And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and the living is my son. Thus they spake before the king.

Then said the king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth, and thy son is the dead: and the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead, and my son is the living. And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king. And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.

Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.

And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.

The real mother was the woman who actually cared about the child and would rather see him given to a lying stranger than be destroyed. Again and again this year, similar choices have been put before America’s two different parties and their answers have revealed exactly which party is concerned with the national well-being and which party does not care if the nation is destroyed so long as they can cling to power and appoint incompetent judges (no matter how little of a national mandate they have).

The most telling of these incidents involved the second round of stimulus money, which is necessary to forestall a ruinous recession on Main Street. The Democratic House passed a generous second stimulus bill back at the end of spring. The Republican senate keeps tearing it to pieces and filling it with poisonous pills so that it cannot pass. Even if the stimulus money would help the entire nation (and help Donald Trump get re-elected) it is unacceptable to Mitch McConnell if it gives anything to needy Americans or gives the Democrats the appearance of a win. A truly cynical (but probably correct) interpretation is that McConnell has decided that Biden will win the election and he wants the nation to fail as precipitously and absolutely as possible during a Biden administration. (McConnell, one of American history’s greatest villains, is like the harlot who does not care if the child is killed…if that harlot were 300 million times more vindictive, spiteful, & murderous and somehow also looked like a melted turtle).

Other similar “Go ahead and cut him in half” moments include the Trumpist stance in the national argument over face masks & lockdowns, the acquittal of Donald Trump in the Senate despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, the grotesque mischaracterization of the Muller report, the abandonment of longstanding national allies, the jettisoning of the emoluments clause etc etc etc…

So, to be nakedly blunt about my political endorsements, every Republican other than Mitt Romney should be voted out of office as quickly as possible (if you are in Utah, Massachusetts, Michigan, or France…or wherever it is the plutocratic-yet-honest Romney calls home these days, you can judge him on his own merits). The GOP is now a party of Quislings, liars, extortionists, criminals, and outright white supremacists who are not worthy of holding public office. When Solomon said “cut the United States of America in half” Republicans happily got out their saws, scalpels, lasers, calipers, and scales to ensure that they have exactly enough of the corpse to claim complete control in accordance with the rigged anti-Democratic rules they have been foisting upon us. The health of the child in this endeavor has never entered GOP calculations at all.

I have traditionally been in sympathy with Republican’s stated platform of strong national defense and sufficient R&D to keep the nation competitive in the future (and you know…solve problems and make life better). Their actions have revealed that their true motivation is naked love of power and all other items are pretexts which will be swiftly abandoned in pursuit of their true goal.

Of course intelligent people will recognize there is a problem for all of us within the parameters of my metaphor. The Republicans do not care in any way about the nation but are happy to threaten our collective well-being in order to take what they and their billionaire masters want. Our current crisis arguably stems from past episodes where Democrats sighed heavily and let the Republicans walk away with the living child instead of cutting him in half (the controversial Bush/Gore election of 2000, the terms of the financial bailout of 2008, and the Obama administration’s capitulation to government shutdown theatrics all spring to mind). What if there were no Solomon? What if the loud and aggressive bad harlot had walked off with the baby because its true mother was afraid of hurting it by fighting? How can we save a hostage which the Republican party is perfectly happy to kill?

In days to come, we will find out if there is an answer. But fellow citizens, remember: you are not merely the threatened child in this scenario, you are Solomon too. The power to find a good solution belongs to you, dear voter…and nobody can take that decision from you. Well…they can’t take our capacity to make decisions about our lives unless we vote for Trump to become King of America (and, appallingly, that horrible scenario happens to be on the ballot tomorrow).

[P.S. Coincidentally, Joe Biden is a very decent person and a gifted leader who might actually have it in him to be a great president. However the shocking malfeasance of Republicans during the last four years has made writing about Biden unnecessary. Biden is a patriot and he is not a criminal. Sadly that is all we are required to know about him until Donald Trump is out of the White House]

Behold the Crown of Liège, an ancient reliquary crown which was acquired by the Louvre in…1947? Well, despite the fact that the French State took a while to get a hold of it, the crown was manufactured back at the end of the 13th century. It consists of eight plaques each of which is ornamented with fleurons set off with precious stones and stamped oak leaves. The plaques are separated from each other by metal angels.

Each plaque also contains a tiny hollow cavity behind the central jewel. This crown was not made for a human head, but was constructed to house the contents of these cavities.

King Louis IX, was one of the most esteemed rulers of the Middle Ages: he was a legal reformer who banned trial by ordeal and introduced the concept of “presumption of innocence” to jurisprudence. Famed throughout Europe for his heartfelt Christianity, Louis acquired what he believed to be Christ’s Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the true cross from Emperor Baldwin II of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (Baldwin’s story involves the bizarre and misdirected 4th Crusade–a story for another day). At any rate, King Louis IX gave away some of the fragments of his dearly bought relics, and this crown houses them.

For a time it was believed that the crown was Parisian in origin, but art historians and jewelsmiths now believe that it was made in the Meuse Valley, which runs through Belgium, Amsterdam, and Germany.

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