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This beautiful earthenware ossuary is a Sogdian piece from the 7th century AD.  It was unearthed from the ruins of ancient Samarkand (in what is today Uzbekistan) and reflects the Zoroastrian faith of the Sogdian traders who flourished along the Silk Road in that era.

Zoroastrians believe that both fire and the earth are sacred, and thus human remains can be neither interred nor cremated.  Instead, corpses are laid out in “houses of silence” open to the heavens above, or otherwise exposed to the hungry creatures of the wasteland.   Once the vultures, jackals, maggots, and other scavengers had finished their repast, the bones were gathered up and placed into an ossuary like this one.

The figures on the front of the box (see detail immediately above) are Mazdaean priests dressed in flowing white robes as they tend the sacred flame burning upon the stepped altar.  The mouths of the priests are covered with “padam”–facemasks which prevent their breath from polluting the sacred flame.  Upon the pyramid-shaped lid are female dancers, each of whom holds plants and strange dance implements.

At the apex of the ossuary is a radiant circle and a crescent–the sun and the moon. Like the dancers, the fire, and the priests, they seem also to be turning into flowers, foliage, and herbs. The whole ossuary is colorless, dry, lifeless, and fire-themed–yet its secret meaning seems to be about greenery, wild dance, and the flowing sensuous lines of life!

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

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

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

The spring garden is right on the verge of bursting into an astonishing riot of cherry blossoms, dogwood flowers, tulips, and azaleas. I can see the buds thickening and getting ready to burst into floral splendor!

However, before we get to that stage, let’s enjoy the first flowers of spring, the hellebores and jonquils/daffodils.

I planted 3 hellebores, (AKA lenten roses) the first autumn I moved to my current location, and they have putting down roots for more than ten years. It will surprise nobody that I bought the cheapest possible hellebores–a mysterious “grab bag” selection of whatever was left over at the seed company, and so it has been exciting to find out what color they are! One plant with lovely natural pink single blossoms (top) has grown into a superb specimen plant (it has flowered before and I have written about it in the past). The second plant (which is seen in the next two photos) is finally starting to bloom. It turns out that is has incredible double flowers which are a lovely caput mortuum purple color. Hellebores have beautiful subtle colors of pink, purple, cream, brown, and green in matte tones. Somehow they simultaneously look like the brown fallen leaves of the forest floor yet also like beautiful haunted wildflowers. The two I have make me think of an emperor’s blood when seen in the twilight or an underworld wedding or something. The third hellebore has still not bloomed…but is still alive so perhaps it is another exquisite earthen hue…only time will tell. Oh and also it seems like there are some hellebore seedlings soming along. I wonder about them too.

In addition to the hellebores, a jonquil/daffodil of subtle primrose yellow popped up this year. This was a real surprise since I planted such flowers five years ago and then gave up on them when nothing appeared. I wonder if there will be more next year. These flowers are a reminder of why gardening is so frustrating (because it requires ridiculous patience), but they are also a reminder of what makes gardening such a thrill (patience actually can be rewarded in the most beautiful ways). I wonder if there were other things I did ten years ago which will unexpectedly pay off or if some lovely disturbing poison flowers are all I can hope for.

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

(Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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

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

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

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

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

Wisent (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) Ink on paper

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

The Cauldron in the Columbarium (Wayne Ferrebee, December 21, 2021) Ink on French paper

Here is a somewhat dark drawing for the longest and darkest night of the year (here in the northern hemisphere, anyway–if you are in the southern hemisphere or the tropics, happy summer!). I am not sure what is going on here (as with much of my art, this tableau came to me in a perplexing nightmare), but the various mummies, revenants, and human remnants certainly don’t seem encouraging. Also, I don’t place much faith in that nun or the insectoid bishop at far right. Frankly, the figure with the mystery light seems pretty suspect as well. Unless you trust the larvae with the insect faces (and who really does?) the only source of hope here is the gleaming woman above the cauldron. Unfortunately we don’t have quite enough visual information to say with certainty what is going on with her. Is she an allegory of the sun, momentarily inconvenienced by the solstice, but always ready to shine forth? Is she an apparition summoned forth by necromancers or some kind of Yule sacrifice? Or is she a goddess, a hero, or a sorceress? It is all unclear, which makes me think she might have something to do with the mysterious year to come. It doesn’t look exactly propitious, but you never know–sometimes naked allegorical people who spring out of cauldrons in columbariums turn out to be the best people of all [citation needed]. Let me know what you think and happy winter solstice. Oh, also, you better get out your worry beads–the biggest (and most audacious) space launch of the past two decades is coming up on Christmas Eve, so we are going to need a Christmas miracle to make sure we get our all-seeing cosmic eye in place! We will be back on Christmas Eve to talk about it. In the meantime, happy Yule…and best wishes for a happy winter (giant human cockroaches notwithstanding)!

Under the Flounder Moon (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Here are two more works from the series of pen-and-ink drawings in black and white ink on colored French paper which i have been working on. I apologize that the sienna one (above) is arguably Halloween themed (although, come to think of it, it seems unfair that carved pumpkins are so profoundly seasonal). To me, the drawing also suits the time of winter darkness which we have entered. In terms of subject matter, the drawing portrays a puritan in a cemetery gasping at the appearance of a black rabbit. Various little elves fall prey to insects and spiders as a ghoul and a ghost look on. In the background a nightjar flies past; while the extreme foreground features some fallen store-bought candies. The entire scene takes place under a great glistening flounder moon which illuminates the Jacobean manor on the hill and casts a fishy light upon the entire troubling scene.

Inside the Idol’s Cave (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

This second work shows what may or may not be an Easter scene featuring sacred eggs and yet another rabbit (is that guy really a rabbit?). The snapping turtle looks like it is about to snap up that little elf (which is maybe fair since another kobald is making off with her eggs). The entire scene takes place inside a cave where worshipers pray and present offerings to a Dagon-type idol. A bright flatfish shines an otherworldly light on the proceedings and put one in mind of the famous platonic allegory. Likewise the tapir (a famous dream-beast) indicates that this image has something to do with the vantage point from which one approaches reality. The nun (center) reminds us that faith will otherwise help smooth over any deficiencies in perception for those trapped in a cave.

The drawings are meant as companion pieces and it is interesting to see how the same elements reoccur in differing forms. There are two elves (one about to be eaten) in each piece. There is a rabbit in each work. Both works focus on a central religious-type woman in plain garb, and both works are illuminated by fishlight and by the stars. More than that, they are compositionally similar, with a big white scary thing to the immediate right and a field of stone obstacles (gravestones and stalagmites). Yet at a bigger level they are opposite. One work is about reality within the unreal and the other is about the unreal within reality. One work is about life in death and the other is about death in life.

Perhaps I should make some summer and winter companion pieces to make a complete set (assuming that all of these drawings aren’t one weird set of some sort).

Gonggong and its moon Xiangliu (red circle) seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010

While idly scanning trans-Neptunian objects & suchlike miscellaneous dwarf planets of the outer solar system, Ferrebeekeeper was stunned to see a familiar name–GongGong, the dark water dragon who messed up Chinese cosmology and nearly destroyed the world. In Chinese mythology, GongGong’s reign of chaos was stopped by the gentle creator goddess Nuwa. However, in order to repair the damage wrought by the naughty dragon, Nuwa was forced to jerryrig creation back together with turtle legs and river rocks (and the end result is decidedly more rickety than the original).

The dwarf world Gonggong was discovered by astronomers waaaaaaay back in 2007. Although it is not the most famous dwarf planet in the solar system, it is not inconsequential in size and has a diameter of 1,230 km (760 mi). Gonggong’s eccentric ecliptic orbit takes 550 Earth years and the planetoid rotates very slowly as well. At its perehelion (when it is closest to the sun) it is 55 AUs from Earth, however at its apehelion it is 101.2 AUs (1.514×1010 km) away from the gentle sun. Brrrr! Gonggong was last at perehelion fairly recently, in 1857, and now it is moving farther and farther away–so if you left your wallet there in 1857, you may just want to get a new one. The orbital diagram below shows the orbit of Gonggong (in yellow) contrasted with that of Eris.

Like the lozenge-world Haumea, Gonggong is a strange reddish pink color because of organic compounds known as tholins which cover its ancient ice. In some stories, the evil water dragon Gonggong had a copper head, so maybe the name suits it. Oh, also, in Chinese mythology GongGong has a sidekick, a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu. Gonggong the planetoid has a tiny moon which bears this name. Finally, Chinese mythology is weirdly ambiguous about whether Nuwa and Zhu Rong finished off GongGong or whether he escaped to cause trouble another day. If I were hiding out from a bunch of quasi omnipotent Earth deities for thousands of years, I know where I would go!

Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884) oil on canvas

It is the last month of a largely disappointing year. It is time to start looking forward in time and thinking about how we can maybe redeem next year from the failures and idiocies which have bedeviled this era. But it also the beginning of the holiday season, so as an early holiday treat, here is a very famous and beautiful painting from 1884 (it was very famous in 1884–perhaps less so now, but its troubling beauty endures). But why is this painting troubling? What is it even about?

This is Consulting the Oracle, by the matchless John Williams Waterhouse, one of the greatest of English painters from England’s greatest era. Like Waterhouse’s foreboding and challenging work Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden, this is a work that, at first glimpse, seems to be an overly realistic Victorian fantasy of decorative charm, exotic setting, sumptuous color, and feminine beauty without much larger import. As with the Psyche painting, this initial impression is quite far from the truth, but, to understand the painting one must research the subject.

According to Waterhouse (who must have been a very strange and learned man) “Consulting the Oracle” is about a group of young Jewish women consulting a teraph to learn the future. Teraphim appear in the Pentateuch–but the text makes their nature extremely problematic and mysterious, or, to say that a different way, teraphim are baffling forbidden items in the Bible. Hebrew scholars have lost the original meaning of the word and now just translate it as “disgraceful things.” Apparently they were household or ancestral deities, not unlike the Roman Penates. For example, In Genesis, when Jacob (the father of Israel) is finally escaping his conniving father-in-law, Laban, Jacob’s wife Rachel steals the family teraphim. Laban is suspicious about what she is sitting on (for she refuses to rise from her camel saddle), but she tells him she is menstruating and thus succeeds in making off with the items. Various disputed Talmudic sources (which I guess that Waterhouse was reading?) suggest that the teraphim were the ancestors, or to quote the Jewish Encyclopedia, that “Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first-born male adult humans. The heads were shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate.” According to Kabbalistic tradition, such objects could foretell the future if hung upon the wall and properly invoked. Modern archaeology has discovered many ceremonially plastered and mounted skulls kept inside the house as sacred ancestral totems in the ancient early cities and settlements of Palestine and the Levant. Also the sacrifice of all first born male mammals is indeed an ancient Middle Eastern tradition.

So what Waterhouse has actually given us is a peak into a ritual which casts a great deal of doubt onto just what the Old Testament is really about (in fact if you look around the room, you might notice that the torah is there, peaking out of its cupboard beneath the blue bottle at far right). Also notice that in this composition, a seat has been prepared for you the viewer to take part in this dark ritual of prophecy. You get to hear what this sacrificed mummified human head has to say. In fact the head is there too, whispering to the quack priestess who commands the audience with her stagecraft–it is just so leathery, brown, and unexpected that you probably missed it. Jeepers Creepers!

So what is this painting about? To my mind it is a warning about the false promises of magic and divination (or “religion” as we call such things). These excited young women have fallen under the dark thrall of the teraph’s interpreter. She is using the “disgraceful thing” to work everyone up and gain a hold upon them. A cursory look at Waterhouse’s full oeuvre reveal him to be obsessed with exactly such stories of sacrifice, judgement, and faith gone horribly awry. Another interpretation is that it is a painting which takes a thread from the Bible, the teraphim, and pulls at it to see what unwinds, rather in the manner Kierkegaard did with “Fear and Trembling” (or Rembrandt did with Abraham and Isaac). But this is an evil version of Fear and Trembling, for it opens a curtain into a world where God’s chosen are, well, murderers and idolators, apparently. This, of course, lays open a possible interpretation that this is an anti-Semitic work, although I personally doubt this since because, like Waterhouse’s Arthurian and Roman women, these Jewish ladies really look like Victorian/Edwardian English ladies to me. Whatever Waterhouse is saying, he is probably saying it about all people for all time.

Another interpretation is that this really is a work about augury. The teraph’s words are terrible and forbidden, but who could resist hearing them? The audience’s body language of open mouthed astonishment, horror, or outright weeping suggest that the teraph might indeed have some bad things to say (maybe about the Great War and how Waterhouse would die just before it ended of a horrible, painful cancer). In a way, the painting reminds me most of the poem “Goblin Market” (another profound work of art by another Pre-Raphaelite) it approaches forbidden and the transgressive as a legitimate source of transcendent knowledge about ourselves. So sit down, right there, in the the seat Waterhouse has prepared for you and tell me what you hear.

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