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The recent post about Orvieto’s gorgeous Gothic cathedral gave plenty of attention to the outside of the building, but I failed to illustrate the wonders which are housed within.  Today therefore, we venture into the splendid Christian church in order to look at a magnificent fresco of…the Antichrist?

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Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (Luca Signorelli, 100-1503) Ffresco

Here is Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, a large fresco by Luca Signorelli, the fifteenth-century Tuscan master of foreshortening.  In fact Signorelli (and his school of apprentices, assistants, and students) painted a whole series of large frescoes about the apocalypse and the end of earthly existence within the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio (a fifteenth century addition to Orvieto Cathedral).  The disquieting series of eschatological paintings is considered to be Signorelli’s greatest achievement–his magnum opus.  For today, let’s just look at The Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, which was the first work in the series (and which pleased the Cathedral board so well that they commissioned the rest).

 

Signorelli began the work in 1499, a mere year after the execution of Giralamo Savonarola in Florence in 1498 (Savonarola was burned at the stake for the heresy of denouncing church corruption corruption, despotic cruelty, and the exploitation of the poor: he was a sort of ur-Luther).  Death, political tumult, and questions of true righteousness were much upon people’s minds.

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In the work, the Antichrist (center bottom) preaches to a great crowd.  Although he has the features of Jesus, we recognize that the Antichrist is not the savior thanks to the pile of gold and treasure heaped at his feet by deluded followers. These so-called Christians are stupidly unable to discern the teachings of Jesus from the self-serving slander, calumny, and lies of the vile (yet sumptuously attired) puppet on the pedestal.  We art lovers however can clearly see that the Antichrist’s true lord is right there behind him, whispering the words of the sermon into his ear.

In the background, the Antichrist’s vile shocktroops (dressed in tactical black like ninjas) seize control of the church and the state.  In the foreground his coistrels and operatives slit the throats of the righteous.  Various scenes of depravity show a woman selling herself to a stupendously rich merchant as the Antichrist performs false miracles of healing and resurrection.

However the center left shows the Antichrist’s fall (figurative and literal).  The archangel Michael smites the foul false messiah with the sword of divine Justice.  Golden fire spills from heaven, laying low the Antichrist’s evil and benighted followers who die writhing in anguish.

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It is a stunning work. Signorelli knew it was his masterpiece and painted himself in black in the left corner watching events transpire (indeed, also mixed into the crowd are young Raphael, Dante, Columbus (maybe), Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cesare Borgia, and Fra Angelico in his Dominican garb), and yet it is a deeply strange and confusing painting.  The righteous and unrighteous are all jumbled together in weird intersecting groups which are hard to distinguish.  There is a great empty hole in the center of the composition and the final victory of the angel is in the mid-distance on the left (which is not where it should be in terms of classical composition).  The gentle Signorelli was perhaps troubled by the Orvieto of 1500 (which was filled with squabbling mercenaries fighting between two factions of wealthy nobles).  Also, as he was painting the work, the plague was in the 8000 person city and two or three people died every day!

It is almost as though the pious Signorelli is warning the viewer about brutal leaders who crush the peasantry for personal gain and sanctimonious “Christians” who pretend to believe in Jesus while truly serving the Devil.  The work is ostensibly about end-times but it shows Signorelli’s contemporary society coming apart from fighting, misinformation, plague, and greed.  It is wonderful to look at art, but thank goodness this is a work about the distant past. It would be truly disturbing if it offered timeless lessons about the never-ending strife, greed, and fear in the human heart or how susceptible we all are to impostors who are the exact opposite of everything Christ stood for.

 

 

In all of these posts about crowns, I have been ignoring/omitting the royal headdresses which I think are most gorgeous.  This is because crowns from this vast syncretic archipelago nation often defy traditional interpretation and classification as crowns (which sounds weird now, but which will become more comprehensible when you see today’s example).

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Also, Indonesia is enormous

Indonesia is a land of more than 17000 islands, including Java, the world’s most populous island.  Lying between major continents, oceans, hemispheres, and eco-regions, these islands have been reassembled in countless different forms into all manner of different empires, kingdoms, principalities, alliances, satrapies, colonies, and what ever other political units you can think of (although perhaps the most influential was the Majapahit Empire, a Hindu-Buddhist sea-based empire which was headquartered in Java and provided the cultural and aesthetic roots for contemporary Indonesian society).  Sometimes almost all of Indonesia has been unified.  Other times the islands have gone in different directions.

Anyway, as you can imagine, the complex history of these seventeen thousand islands partakes greatly of Indian, Chinese, South East Asian, Japanese, African, Australian, European (particularly Dutch), Melanesian, Polynesian, Papuan, Philippine, and American influences.  The gifted Indonesians (who have a particular genius for sculpture) have figured out ways to take all of these different flavors and make something which is breathtaking and uniquely their own.  Here is a crown from Singaraja, a Balinese City which was the courtly center for Dutch influence over Bali and the Sunda Islands between 1850 and 1950.  Like the British in India, the Dutch preferred to rule by subalterning small regional kingdoms into the merciless clutches of an anodyne-sounding “company” (The Dutch East India Company).

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King’s Crown from the Balinese Royal Court of Singaraja

This crown is from the second half of the nineteenth century (or maybe the early 20th century) when some local monarch had it made in emulation of a Dutch officer’s hat.  Look at how much it resembles an [American]  civil war cap!  And yet, despite its shape, this hat is nothing like an American/European military hat of that era.  It is made of gold and gemstones with undulating floral zoomorphic patterns on every inch!

Is this a crown?  Certainly. And yet if I pulled it out of a prop box, it would probably not pass muster.  Indonesian history has many similar caps, but I have never written about them, because of how hard it is to write about the baffling history of this enormous and complicated (yet not well-studied) part of the world.  Keep your eyes open for unfamiliar opulence ans (sigh) confusing and wordy explanations like this one!

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Quarantine Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Wood, Polymer, Mixed Media

America is still floundering quite a lot…and so am I! To prove it, here is a quarantine flatfish bas relief which I made on commission during the pandemic.  The Gothic-style sculpture is carved of wood and the little inhabitants (who are sheltering in place in their elegant town houses and cottages) are crafted of polymer.  I also carved the spires with a lathe, however goldsmithing is beyond me, so I ordered the base-metal crown online from a discount crown-dealer (who even knew there were such things?).  My favorite part of the work is the poor fish’s anxious expression and worried eyes.  In the upper right golden arch a fatuous king stares blearily at his malady-filled kingdom.  His vacuous first lady queen is his bookend and stares at him malevolently from the opposite side of the continent fish.  Between them is a crypt filled with sad little figures in shrouds, burial wrappings, and body bags.  A plague doctor winds his way through the virus-shrouded landscape as a gormless (and mask-less) yokel breaks quarantine near the flounder’s tail.

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Above them all, a dark spirit of pestilence wearing costly robes orchestrates events from the sunset heavens.  This is the realm of coronavirus now.   Let’s get our act together so I can build a beautiful new flounder of radiant health and justice! (Also let’s quickly go back to being a democratic republic: we may be experiencing a medieval type event, but there is no reason to go back to the venereal-disease-ridden mad king model of government).

Oh! Also…if you like my flounder art, go to Instagram and check out an endless ocean of flounder.  Now is definitely the time!

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In ancient times, the most important district of China was the landlocked region which is today the province of Shaanxi.  Xi’an, the oldest of China’s historical capital cities was/is located in Shaanxi at the eastern terminus of the silk road.  Xi’an was the capital of the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties (or “kingdom” if you are a stickler about the Western Zhou).  Today Xi’an only barely makes the top ten list of Chinese cities by population (it is tenth, with a mere 12 million inhabitants), yet its ancient cultural history is unrivaled.  The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum (aka the the tomb of the Terra Cotta soldiers) is located in Xi’an as is the great Ming-era Drum Tower of Xi’an, yet the real symbol of the city is one of the most distinctive buildings of the ancient world, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an.

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Built in 652 AD during the reign of the third Tang emperor (Gaozong of Tang, the son of the astonishing Emperor Taizong), the pagoda was literally a monument to the great 7th century flowering of Buddhism in China.  Originally the temple was 5 stories tall (but five big stories for an original height of 60 meters).  Although Gaozong built the edifice to honor his mother, it was also designed to house the holy sutras and Buddhist figurines which were brought to China by the traveling Buddhist monk Xuanzang, the real life Golden Cicada monk of “Journey to the West” (although I am still pretty sure that most of that book was fictional/allegorical).  The pagoda was constructed of rammed earth with a stone exterior.

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Fifty years after it was built, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (an alternate translation might be the Large Swan Goose Pagoda) partially collapsed.  It was rebuilt in 704 AD by Empress Wu Zetian, one of China’s most remarkable and divisive rulers (which is really, really saying something).  Wu Zetian ordered an extra 5 stories added to the pagoda, and her version stood until a massive earthquake in 1556 reduced the pagoda to near ruins.  The civil engineers of the Ming Dynasty rebuilt the pagoda (this time as a 7 story 64 meter building). It is this Ming dynasty version which stands today,  although it now has a pronounced list of several degrees to the west (even after the Communists repaired it in 1964.

The Large Wild Goose Pagoda’s history mirrors that of China (and intersects several of the biggest names and stories of Chinese history) however it also has a notable “ship of Theseus” quality since it was redesigned and rebuilt so many times.  There is no definitive story about the name (the swan goose is a magnificent migratory bird of central China), however there is an evocative myth.  A group of fasting monks saw a flock of swan geese flying across the autumn sky.  One of the younger brothers said “I wish I could taste one of those geese!”, whereupon the lead goose broke a wing and fell from the sky.  The monks were horrified and saw the accident as a chastisement from Buddha for their weakness.  They rushed to the spot where the bird fell and swore a vow of eternal vegetarianism.  That spot was where this tower was built and has stood for 1300 years as a reminder to be gentle to nature and to be careful what you wish for.

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We have written about all sorts of jeweled crowns here at ferrebeekeeper (I particularly like spinels and aquamarines), but we have avoided taking about the gemstone which is most often reputed to be accursed–the chaotic & iridescent opal!  Can you imagine a cursed opal tiara? That sounds like it could be the McGuffin at the center of a sprawling fantasy epic…or at least a prop in a cozy mystery set in a sprawling manor somewhere.  Yet sadly, when I went online and started poking around, opal crowns (and crown-adjacent aristocratic headdresses) seemed a great deal less accursed than folklore would make them sound.

Whatever your thoughts about this superstition, opal headdresses are certainly beautiful.  Here is a little gallery of opal tiaras, diadems, coronets, and crowns.  Look at the beguiling rainbow of mysterious supernatural stones…

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Perhaps opal tiaras are just rare.  It has been speculated that the reason opals are reputed to be cursed is because they are fragile.  Trapped water inside of amorphous silica is what gives opals their “fire” but it also makes them prone to unexpectedly breaking.  Semi-precious jade has a similar problem, but jade sellers solved the problem by creating their own myth–that if your jade talisman or jewelry cracks, it has absorbed a dreadful misfortune aimed at the wearer.  Now that is how you do marketing.

Alas, the finest opals are more expensive than jade, and if you spend a king’s ransom on a glittering stone that unexpectedly blows apart into sand and jagged glassy pebbles, it is probably hard to see it as anything other than a curse.

These worries however are for the jewel buying class. We can simply enjoy these opal pieces without worrying about them breaking. Ahhhh, isn’t it delightful not to be overly burdened with fragile costly gemstones?

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Thank you to everyone who played our celebratory contest! I hope you had fun looking at the images and thinking about what they are or where they are.  We will quickly go through the correct answers–or at least we will list my best understanding of what is correct.  At the end I will announce the proud winner of these exquisite mint-condition Zoomorphs toys and we can start to fumble towards the logistics of getting you your toys, hooftales…er I mean “mysterious contest winner”.

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Wherever possible, I have linked back to original articles and posts, so, if you have a moment and are curious about these strange places and things, why not click all of the links and continue voyaging through vast realms of life, time, and art!

OK, here we go with the answers:

THINGS:

1.

1

A Song Dynasty (or ‘Sung” Dynasty…if that is how you Anglicize ) ewer not wholly unlike this one or these later Mongol ewers.

2.

two

A parasitoid fairy wasp (Mymaridae family) upon a human hand

3.

3

A Melo Pearl, the world’s rarest and most expensive type of pearl!

4.

4

Whoah! It’s an ancient Visigoth votive crown from the fabled treasure of Guarrazar!

5.

5

A Chiton, the armored mollusk

6.

6

Aww! It’s an adorable school of tiny little glass catfish.

7.

7

Roses, tulips, irises and other flowers in a wicker basket, with fruit and insects on a ledge (Balthasar van der Ast, ca 1614-1619) oil on panel.  (Here is a Ferrebeekeeper post about Van der Ast).

8.

8

The Cap of Monomach, a treasure of the early tsars.  I still think Putin wears it sometimes. Hell, he’s probably wearing it right now!

9.

9

It is the brain of an Etruscan shrew, arguably the smallest mammal.  The arrows point to the trigeminal nerve (black arrows) and optic nerve (blue arrows).

10.

10

Hahahaha! These are Polish chicken chicks. Look at that expression!  The poor li’l guy does look a bit down.

11.

11

A lituus, a mysterious Roman divination device.

12.

12

The underworld deity Xolotl, the scrofulous salamander deity of Aztec mythology’s weird death realm.

13.

13

The “Borghese Vase” a colossal Ancient Roman Urn which was one of the treasures of the Garden of Sallust

PLACES:

1.

ONE

The Faroe Islands (Photo by Tom Glancz)

2.2

A Masai giraffe walking by Lake Manyara Tanzania

3.

Three

Standard Poodles in the Ohio Valley

4.

four

 

5.

five

A welwitschia plant in the Namib Desert

6.

Six

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an, Shaanxi.  I need to write a post about this one in the future!

7.

seven

Ovid Among the Scythians (Eugène Delacroix, 1862) Oil on Canvas

I find it strange that this fantasy piece about Scythians (and poets) was painted during the American Civil War.

8.eight

Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania

9.nine

The world’s largest potash fertilizer plant at Lop Nur, China

10.

ten

The Planet Venus, sans clouds. Sigh…someday

11.

eleven

The Armenian cemetery in Julfa, Azerbaijan…desecrated and bulldozed in the 1990s

12.

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A colossal snake swimming in the Trans-Saharan Seaway of Mali during the Eocene

13.

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The Site of Eridu, humankind’s first known city.

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I can’t believe how well our contestants did! I am not sure I could have identified any of these…and I have written about most of them!  There were a few humorous stray answers, but even the answers which weren’t a hundred percent right were still clever and well thought out.  Our Ferrebeekeeper mental Olympics thus ends with the following champions:

Gold: hooftales

Silver: Vicki

Bronze: eekee

Everyone is a winner (although Hooftales gets the zoomorphs and the national anthem of the hooftales homeland is currently playing as we wipe away proud tears).  I enjoyed putting this together and revisiting these concepts! Should we do another one at some point? Should the images be harder or easier or what?  Talk to me below (Hooftales, we will figure out how to get you your prize) and thanks again for playing and, above all, for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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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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