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Today’s post is courtesy of a friend, the renowned silver expert, Benjamin Miller.  This is a literal Bohemian Crown (in that it is from Bohemia, the westernmost duchy of Moravia–in what is now the Czech Republic). Manufactured from silver gilt, pearls, and glass/paste “jewels”, the piece is not precious in the ostentatious manner of crowns like the Great Crown of Victory, or the Cap of Monomakh, and yet it has its own winsome beauty. Indeed, the tiny crown reminds me of the garden in the morning when the dew is still on it.   The size of the piece is also reminiscent of fairyland: the diameter is a mere 15.25 centimeters (6 inches).

The crown is today in the possession of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Unfortunately, I could find very little additional information about the piece.  One imagines that it was crafted as a votive crown or as the ornament for a saint’s statue (although it could have been for a child or for some ceremonial purpose).  Such matters notwithstanding, the little silver crown does date back to 15th century, and it is possible that it was crafted before Columbus sailed! Look at how cunning and intricate the articulated silver panels are!

Here at Ferrebeekeeper, we have featured some very ancient crowns (like this ancient Greek funerary crown, the legendary grass crown, the polos, or the pharaoh’s crowns from Ancient Egypt).  All of these rich and venerable royal headdresses beg the question: what is the oldest crown we know about? As with most questions, the correct answer depends on how you define the terms of the question.  Is a crown a chieftain’s hat or an ornamental star-shaped thing made of precious materials or a very specific royal object made a very specific way?  We fed these queries into the Ferrebeekeeper crown algorithm, and it spat out this strong contender for the oldest crown: a copper-age headpiece from the Judaean Desert (by the Dead Sea in what is now modern Israel) which was discovered in 1961 as part of the mysterious “Nahal Mishar” Hoard.

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Dating to circa 4000 – 3500 BC, the crown is wrought of copper and features two vultures next to two strange  shamanistic portals (or that is how the shapes are generally construed, at any rate…maybe they are elderly flamingos next to peg boards.  Maybe this isn’t a crown at all! Perhaps it is a trivet or a potholder or something. The piece did not come with an explanation).   Based on the other objects in the hoard (pottery vessels, ossuaries, religious statues, and wands/scepters) it is believed that this crown was utilized in the funerary ceremonies for high status individuals.  However the Nahal Mishar hoard is still perplexing to archaeologists.  Their best guess is that is that the objects are the sacred regalia of a shrine at Ein Gedi, (a habitation site twelve kilometers away), but nobody really knows what most of the objects are or why they were hidden in a cave.  Just to add to the ambiguities of today’s post, here are some of the other objects (sans explanation, of course).

 

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Here is a very classic consort crown from British history.  This is the Crown of Mary of Modena, the wife of James II of the United Kingdom.  Explaining how it came into being involves a short story from English history.  The classic English crown of the Tudors and Stuarts was torn apart and sold as pieces at the order of Oliver Cromwell during the Protectorate (1653-1659).  Charles II was the first king of the restored monarchy, but since he was unmarried at the time of his coronation, no consort crown was produced for his queen the Portuguese, Catherine of Braganza.  After the death of Charles II in 1685, his brother, James became king for 3 years until deposed in the glorious revolution.

James had never imagined he would become the King of England and had initially married a commoner. When she died in 1671, he took an Italian princess, Mary of Modena as his bride.    Above is the state consort crown which Mary bought and paid for (from her own pocket).  It was crafted by the jeweler, Richard de Beauvoir, and was originally set with diamonds.  Because it was such a lovely piece, the state crown was used as a coronation crown by all subsequent consorts until 1831.  Although it was initially crafted with a fortune of diamonds (£35,000 worth of jewels in pre-inflation 1685 money!) the jewels have since been replaced with crystals and the diamonds were cannibalized for use in later crowns.  You can see the original crown at the Tower of London, that is if anybody likes crowns by the end of the year.  

 

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Larval Flounder with Parasite (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and colored pencil on paper

The strictures of the world’s new routine have allowed me to finish coloring/inking an ocean-themed drawing I have been working on.  Unfortunately, no matter how I adjust the darkness and the contrast, I can’t get it to look like it does in the real world, so I am afraid that you will have to accept this frustrating digital simulacra (aka the jpeg above).

Broadly speaking, this series of flatfish artwork concern the anthropogenic crisis facing Earth life (particularly life in the oceans, which most people tend to overlook and undervalue), however they are not meant as simple political polemics.  Hopefully, these artworks reflect the ambiguous relationships within life’s innumerable intersecting webs of symbiosis, predation, and parasitism.

Humankind appears directly in this artwork–but symbolically rendered as sea creatures so that we can contemplate our nature at a level of remove.  From left to right, one of these merpeople is the host of a big arrow crab which seems to have stolen his mind (in the manner of a cunning paper octopus hijacking a jellyfish).  The larval flounder is itself being ridden (and skeletonized) by a great hungry caterpillar man thing which has sunk its claw legs deep into the bone.  A lovely merlady plucks away a parasitic frond from a cookie-cutter shark as a shrimpman hunts and a chickenman stands baffled on the ocean bottom.

As we learn more about life we learn how it melds together, works in tandem, and jumps unexpectedly from species to species, or speciates into new forms. I wish I could describe this better, since to my comprehension it seems like the closest thing to a numinous truth we are likely to encounter in a world where gods are made up.  I have abandoned essays to try to portray the sacred and profane ways that lifeforms come together with art.  Let me know what you think, and I will see if I can scan it better.

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Crown from the Akan people of Ghana | Velvet, wood and gold leaf | Early to mid 1900

The Akan people are a matrilineal culture of west Africa who have dominated the Gold Coast (present Day Ghana) sine the 11th century AD.  It is believed that they migrated from the Sahara and the Sahel due to desertification and famine.  Akan political hierarchy has the same sort of feudal layering familiar from medieval Europe.  Powerful emperors and kings ruled over lesser local kings who in turn demanded liege homage from war chieftains and local chiefs.  As in medieval Europe, all of these tiers of kings, leaders, chiefs, and aristocrats involved plenty of materialistic status objects.  The Gold Coast derives its name not in a Greenland/Iceland style misdirection campaign, or from the Gold Family, or because of the glittering yellow sunsets.  It is called that because large quantities of gold were found there in historical times.  All of which leads us to today’s crown, which was crafted for an important chief or a lesser king of the the Akan sometime in the 19th century.  The dominant (and delightful) feature of the headdress are geometric charms crafted of wood and covered with gold leaf.  Against the black velvet background they look a bit like the starry nighttime sky. The charms undoubtedly have indivdual symbolic meanings which are beyond me, but the larger meaning–that the wearer is an important person with wealth and important connections–are instantly obvious.  One symbol though is quite recognizable: the crown is surmounted by star and crescent symbol of Islam which was brought to the Akan early on by caravan traders from the north.  For centuries Islam has existed alongside the ancient traditional mythology (which involves a spider sky god!) and Christianity.

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Tonight is the last night of Carnival…tomorrow is Ash Wednesday which begins the ritual austerities of Lent (which means spring is now truly on the way).  I grew up reading eye-popping tales set in Venice during Carnival (or in Medieval France, or New Orleans, or Rio de Janeiro), yet somehow I always miss out on carnival’s over-the-top pageantry and mad frolics.  I blame this on my Methodist upbringing: Protestants conceive of Lent very differently than Catholics! (even fallen Methodists) but maybe I should blame the weird schedule. I am sure there are carnival festivities going on somewhere in Brooklyn right now, but, come on, it is Tuesday night.  I just got home from work: there is no time to put on 50,000 beads and learn a samba routine.

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\Anyway, to capture this strange mixture of temptation, wariness, sin, redemption, and multi-color ultra-spectacle (and as a call-back to yesterday’s rainbow serpent post), I have decided to post pictures of some snake themed carnival floats from around the world/internet.

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The snake is obviously an important carnival animal, and I can see no other interpretation of the reptile other than in its Biblical role as a representative of temptation and sin (which are obviously themselves major components of carnival).  Perhaps the snake’s ribbon morphology is a secondary component (since this is a great shape for floats).  It is worth noting though the the West African religions which syncretized with Christianity to create the vodou faiths of the New World are very snake oriented.  One of the most august Vodou loas is the great fertility/father figure Dumballah, who is represented as a great serene river serpent.  I wonder if  he might be an influence on some of these displays.

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PuppetsUp Parade 2013

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Hopefully these ARE carnival snakes.  As I was looking for them, I kept finding Chinese “Year of the Snake” floats and Saint Patrick’s Day “Get these snakes out of Ireland” snakes (to say nothing of Hindu cobras and Australian snakes of some unknown provenance).  Maybe parade-goers simply love snakes because all parades kind of are snakes at some level.  Or perhaps there is a deeper cultural connection which eludes me on Tuesday night and must be looked into further in snake-themed posts of the future.  In the meantime Happy Shrove Tuesday!  Go eat some colorful cake and start getting ready for a new season!

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Portrait of Kubaba (8th century B.C.) Carved Basalt

Kubaba of Kish is the only woman ruler listed on the Sumerian King List (which is exactly what it sounds like– a list of ancient kings of Mesopotamian city states).  According to the king list she ruled Kish in the Third Dynasty period (ca. 2500-2330 BC) and was originally a brewer/tavern keeper.  One wonders how she rose from alewife to queen, but politics has always featured surprising vicissitudes, and beer had a central sacred place in ancient Mesopotamia anyway.

We know all too little about the history of Kubaba the ruler (although surprising new texts from the dawn of civilization sometimes come to light), however we know slightly more about Kubaba the goddess!  Apparently she was successful enough that shrines to her began spreading throughout the fertile crescent and, by the late Hurrian/early Hittite period, worship of Kubaba became widespread (this is the era which that splendid basalt sculpture above is from).

Kubaba the Goddess wears a a cylindrical headdress like the polos (albeit with some fancy flowers, braids, and strange hooks).  She holds a pod which scandalized Victorian anthropologists sometimes identified as a pomegranate, but which we can probably safely say is an opium poppy. Some strange fertility and astrological signs drift around her head, but she maintains the stern clear-eyed visage which one might expect from a true pioneer of women in power (or from a hard-headed tavern keeper).

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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s most popular posts of all time was a short essay on the kingly crowns of ancient Egypt: the hedjet, the ancient white (vulture) crown of upper Egypt; the deshret, the red (bumblebee) crown of fertile lower Egypt; and the khepresh, the blue battle crown worn by the pharaoh when he mounted his war chariot to smite the kingdom’s enemies in person!  Immediately below are some little refresher pictures to show these three crowns (plus, if you want to know more about them, you could always read the original article).

This is already a lot of crowns, especially considering that the three were combined in various ways (and mixed with various other royal regalia) for sundry ceremonial purposes–and yet there were other crowns in ancient Egypt worn by beings even more important than the pharaoh.  Today’s post concerns a prime example–the “atef”, the ostrich crown of Osiris.  In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Osiris played a central role as the first pharaoh, the king of the underworld and the lord of death, rebirth, agriculture, and mummification.   His all-important story (death at the hands of his wicked brother and reincarnation thanks to his loving wife) was the central myth of ancient Egypt, which informed people about the afterlife.  As a pharaoh and the eternal ruler of the underworld, Osiris wore a kingly crown, but the underworld is neither upper nor lower Egypt (nor is it a battle as such) and so the atef crown of Osiris is a whole different crown–a knobbed version of the white hedjet of upper Egypt with symbolic rainbow ostrich feathers rising around it.  There is a schematic digital representation of the atef at the top of the post, and here is a 3300 year old painting of it:

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Osiris portrayed on a wall frieze from the tomb of Nefertari (c. 1295-1255 B.C.)

The two ostrich feathers respectively symbolized truth and justice (the nearly identical feather of Maat is one of the most important religious symbols of Egypt–with a nearly identical meaning).  The bulbous central crown was sometimes pictured as a classic white hedjet (as in the image from Nefertari’s tomb above) and sometimes portrayed as a rainbow hedjet surmounted by an astrological-looking cardioid of gold and midnight blue (as in the crown Osiris wears below).

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“Wow” you are probably thinking.  “There were so many crowns in ancient Egypt! Were there still more?”  Of course there were!  However the answers start getting murkier as we move to other rulers (and other crowns).  Come back to Ferrebeekeeper to find out more (or, you know, Google it, and find out all you can bear to know.

 

 

 

 

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The medieval architecture of France includes many of the most renowned examples of Gothic architecture. Thus you are probably asking  yourself, “Were the French a part of the Gothic revival architecture movement of the 19th century?”

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The answer is Oui! Boy were they ever! This is the Chapelle royale de Dreux, the burial place of important members of the House of Bourbon-Orléans (the royal family of France after the revolution).  Its story is interesting.  During the French Revolution, an enraged mob burst desecrated the family chapel of the Duke of Orléans and threw all of the corpses which had been therein interred into a common mass grave at the the Chanoines cemetery of the Collégiale Saint Étienne.  After the revolution was over, the Duke’s daughter arranged for a grand chapel to be built over this new burial site.  Later on, when her son Louis Philippe became King of France, he added substantially to the grand new building which was built to mimic the great ancient structures lost to the revolution.  As a bonus, Alexandre Brogniart, the director of manufacturing for Sèvres porcelain, used his resources to produce huge fired enamel paintings on large panes of glass to go in the chapel.

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The Rich Man (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526) woodcut (detail)

Today’s post features three of our favorite topics: crowns, serpents, and China!  But, alas, as sometimes happens, these themes have combined in a terrible manner to make frightening headlines around the world.  The past two decades have seen the emergence of strange flu-like respiratory viruses from Asia.  The most infamous was SARS-CoV which emerged from China in 2003, but there was a sequel in the two thousand teens, MERS-CoV, which seems to have originated in Arabia by jumping species from camels.  Now the world’s communicable disease experts are once more on high alert as a new respiratory virus has been identified.  The new new virus is going by the name 2019-nCoV and it causes similar symptoms to  SARS: unlucky humans infected with the virus suffer severe inflammatory response which can lead to (sometimes fatal) respiratory complications.

The virus has been traced back to Hubei to the city of Wuhan, one of the most ancient cities of China.  Wuhan is also the largest city of central China with a population of 11 million people!  So this explains the China angle, but what about crowns and snakes? that sounds like Russian folktale territory!

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A Diagram of a Coronavirus

It turns out that 2019-nCoV is a coronavirus, a category of virus which takes its name from the appearance of the virion as scanned by an electron microscope.  Tiny knobbed spicules emerge from the caplets of coronaviruses which make the round structures superficially resemble the royal headdress (particularly the classical knobbed crown of Medieval Europe).

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Coronaviruses are highly zoonotic–meaning they can easily be transmitted from animals to humans.  Sars was first thought to originate from Asian palm civets (although it seems the poor civets may ultimately have been a vector).  At this juncture scientists are starting to trace 2019-nCoV back to many-banded kraits (Bungarus multicinctus) a black and white striped elapid snake of coastal and central China.  People are not making out with kraits (which is good, because the snakes are super venomous) but the poor kraits are apparently popular as exotic cuisine.  Edipemiologists have pinpointed the origination of  2019-nCoV as the Wuhan seafood wholesale market, which sells all sorts of animals slated for the table, including many-banded kraits.

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This conclusion surprises me, since cold-blooded snakes are not a normal virus vector (in fact the word “never” might be applicable). However, with SARS, the palm civets turned out not to be the ultimate source of the disease.  The civets were eating horseshoe bats which were the original source of the virus.  Perhaps these snakes play a similar intermediary role (I can easily imagine nocturnal predatory kraits eating bats).

People should not eat primates or chiropterans for reasons of public health (eating such close cousins strikes me as morally opprobrious anyway, although admittedly, I am spoiled and haven’t had to subsist as a hunter gatherer).  Maybe they shouldn’t eat kraits now either.   Undoubtedly virologists, epidemiologists, and doctors will keep working to figure out the precise relationship between people, kraits, bats, and 2019-nCoV. Hopefully the scientists from the United States who should be dealing with this emerging plague have not all had their position eliminated by budget cuts to the NIH (although our dolt president has probably already tried to appoint 2019-nCoV as the director of the CDC).  Anyway, stay safe out there and we will figure this all out before summer. It’s never the one you see coming, and the Chinese, at least, are getting better at public health measures.

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