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In the northern hemisphere, today is the longest day of the year–the summer solstice! Go out and worship the sun and enjoy summer. To help guide you in your revels, here is a fantasy picture of wild druidic rituals among the megaliths of Stonehenge. I love summer, so this truly is a sacred holiday for me. For readers in the southern hemisphere, congratulations it just gets brighter from here.

My family has an old saying. It is on the darker side of adages, however over the years I have found it to be disconcertingly true. “You become what you hate.” It is a dark truth which operates within the parameters of classical tragedy. Like an oracle’s haunting words, a monster’s riddle, or an evil god’s curse, it is a difficult (or maybe impossible) to escape from this paradoxical trap.
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I was thinking about this troubling concept because of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” which has been in today’s news because some sponsors dropped out when “Shakespeare In the Park” performed the play with the Roman depot and senators dressed in the garb of contemporary American politicians. Of course, the play is not about how you should go out and kill tyrants (unlike some state seals, Virginia) instead it shows that when the Republic’s defenders abandoned their rules and morals in order to defend their system from a strongman, they ultimately wound up destroying what they were trying to protect. I am unsurprised that people jumped in to condemn something based on its appearance without thinking about what it really meant. People are fools and don’t read! Except…I haven’t read Julius Caesar myself.
Hate has twisted me into an obscurantist…see how fast the curse takes hold!

Anyway. For 8 years we all watched the tea party and the American right work themselves into a froth of hatred over how President Obama was destroying democracy and diminishing America’s standing in the world. They claimed he spent all of his time golfing and was an agent of foreign powers. They said he undemocratically jammed his health plan down our throats without even really knowing what it would accomplish. They said he was a liar, and a fool and a tyrant. Now those same people control the executive and legislative branches of government and just look at what they are doing with their power!

Lately it has become progressively harder to talk about our elected leaders without frothing at the mouth. What is going to happen the next swing of the pendulum? My mild-mannered friends are transmogrifying into harpies sharpening their poisoned talons. If this keeps up, we are not going to get Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders…we will end up with Pol Pot.
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But I jumped to the national level too fast in this essay. This is a family saying and it is meant to be applied liberally to the user. I remember when I first moved to New York, my father and alluded to morphing into what you hate, so I cleverly said “Well, I will hate the rich.”

He stopped in his tracks and very seriously said “You don’t hate wealthy you hate the twisted avarice which blinds the greedy to everything but wealth. You hate the conceit and arrogance with which the powerful are inclined to treat the world. If you continue in such a vein you will not be rich…but you will become grasping and mean and angry.” Way to ruin the joke, Dad. Except…
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Years later I was in a business. It gradually became evident that my business partner was an alcoholic who was twisted by greed and rage. (Don’t judge. It was so exciting at the beginning and I got to design beautiful toys…and for a while we sold millions of dollars worth of them…until I asked where all the money was going). After our feud ripped the company apart, I denounced this untrustworthy, drunk, venial lout every day over a dozen beers and a lot of uncivil talk until I noticed myself in a swirling mirror: red-faced, bibulous, and angry about that stupid company and the wealth that should have been mine! mine! mine!

So what is the solution? I suppose the Dali Lama, Yoda, or Saint Veronica would advise us not to hate, but, if you have been watching the news and you have a limbic system, you will recognize that this solution works best for rich monks, alien puppets, and long-dead saints. Instead we must keep thinking! It is easy to become what you hate which is why the Middle East is filled with blood feuds, walled ghettos, military police, and mass graves. Be aware of it. Stay mindful of how you are being manipulated, not just by politicians and the media, but by your own heart and mind. We don’t all need to follow the fringes off into their world of despicable vitriol. Put away your puglias and your sharpened tongues. The mind is sharper than such base implements. We need to think about how to reform the system within the parameters left us by our great founders. We need to take the best, brightest, uncorrupted ideas from both sides and build them into an edifice for everyone. Above all, we need to be honest. Not just about how this era is changing those despicable people on the other side* into hateful strangers but how it is doing the same to us.
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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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I had a spring cold yesterday and I didn’t post. I’m feeling much better, but I would still like to finish this wonton soup and go to bed…maybe we’ll talk about politics another day when I am feeling stronger. To tide you over though, here are some more little flounder drawings that I have been making. You may think that because I have not posted any lately, I have stopped floundering, but that is not true…not true at all. I have been floundering at a much greater level.0Untitled-1
So I will let you look these over and see what you think, The one at the top is a psychedelic seventies flounder with sundry luscious fruit. The second flounder is apparently a flounder stealing into the alien undersea garden of love. Is Cupid aiming love’s arrow at the poor fish or is it a fishing spear? His back is studded with radiant jewels, so perhaps he is being hunted for cupidity.
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Finally the last of these three was a Christmas present for my roommate who likes heavy metal. he asked for a black metal flounder–so I obliged him with pirate ships and demon babes and a jet black black ocean where this poor ghost flounder is free to rock out to his heart’s content. Let me know what you think and I’ll feature some more flatfish in the near future!

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In America, the last Friday of April is traditionally Arbor Day, a day for planting and conserving trees. I probably should have written about the cherry tree today…but the blossoms have already largely fallen off so I am going to choose a different blossoming tree to concentrate on—the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. The Hawthorn is another of the most beautiful flowering trees of the northern hemisphere. Like cherry trees, hawthorns are members of the rose family. They are small to medium sized trees of great beauty which have thorns and grey-brown bark with orange fissures. Hawthorns bear red pome fruit which is said to taste like overripe apples (the fruit of North American species of Hawthorns was a major food source for North America peoples before familiar Eurasian fruit arrived). The common hawthorn tree was originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
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The Hawthorn is known for beautiful glistening blossoms which appear in May or June and resemble five petaled roses (although the vase-shaped tree is lovely year-round. More prosaically, the trees have been used as hedges because of their dense growth, hard wood, and thorns.
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The tree features prominently in the folklore of Europe and western Asia. The Greeks esteemed it enormously—it was the symbol of hope and blossoming boughs were carried in wedding processions. In Northern Europe, the Hawthorn was identified with ancient gods. For a long time, even after Europe was Christianized, hawthorn trees were reckoned to be found near entrances to the otherworld—the realm of elves, fairies, and magical folk. It was allegedly bad luck to kill—or even cut a hawthorn tree, and the misfortunes of Delorean motor company are said to have started when they cut down a grove to build their factory.
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In Christian mythology, the crown of thorns of Jesus was putatively made from hawthorn wood. Despite this, Christians, apparently stayed fond of Hawthorn and there were medieval legends connecting it with various Saints and miracles. Hawthorn is certainly a miraculously beautiful tree. I would totally plant one for Arbor Day…if I had a sapling…or a place to plant it.
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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met.  This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.”  It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520.  The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy.  From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino.  Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.

But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green.  Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands.  Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports.  The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance.  You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).

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Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus.   The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling.  The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity.  I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals.  With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…

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One of the most popular and instantly recognized symbols of classical antiquity did not make it through the millennia.  The lituus was a spiral wand which looked a bit like a bishops crozier which was the symbol of augurs, diviners, and oracles in the Roman world.  If you waved one around today, people would think it was an obscure prop from PeeWee’s Playhouse or a messed-up art student’s idea of a fern frond.  Yet the lituus was everywhere in ancient Rome—it was on murals, and carved in statuary, and on the money.  Musicians even developed a great brass trumpet to look like the sacred symbol (or possibly it was the other way around—the Etruscans had a war-trumpet which looked a great deal like the littuus and possibly gave its name to the scrying instrument).

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Whatever the history and etymology, the Romans of the Republic and the Empire loved the lituus–and the whole world of divination, magical prophecies, and mystical portents which it represented.  The littuus itself was seemingly used to mark a section of the sky to the eye of the interpreter of signs.  Whatever birds flew through this quadrant represented what was to come.  Obviously, there was just as much fraud, skullduggery, and flimflam in Roman divination as there is in modern tealeaves, horoscopes, tarot, and other such bollocks—but at least the Roman art had the grace of the natural worlds (as well as the raw violence which was stock and trade of all aspects of society in the ancient world).

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Of course, it could be argued that the lituus isn’t quite as fully vanished as I have made it out to be.  Scholars of comparative religion see the same shape in the Bishop’s curling crozier (bishops seem to have stolen the hats of Egyptian priests as well).  To my eye the shape looks like a question mark, and has a similar meaning.  I wonder where question marks came from.

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(Crozier from Northern Italy in the early 14th century, bone and paint)

Musicians also owe fealty to the lituus, both as a symbol of otherworldly arcane spirit-knowledge and as a sort of ancient brass instrument.  Modern horns evolved, to a degree, from the lituus and I wonder if it found its way into the “fiddle heads of rebecs and violins (although I am not going to research those connections today).  Whatever the case, it is a lovely and interesting symbol for a branch of magical thought which the Romans held extremely dear and it is worth knowing by site if you plan on casting an eye on the ancient Mediterranean world.

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Here is a fresco of the Cumaean Sybil by Andrea de Castagno from his “Series of Illustrious People for the Villa Carducci.” In case you were curious, the other illustrious people were Boccachio, Petrarch, Dante, and Pippo Spano (who was apparently a confidant of of King Sigismund of Hungary).  This is sort of a strange group, but the oddest figure is the quasi mythical sybil from ancient Rome.  When we have more time to write a , we are going to come back to the Cumaean Sybil.  I need to write more about Apollo (a god who has been perplexing me more and more) and the Cumaean Sybil was one of the foremost priestesses of Apollo. In this picture (which dates from around 1450), she is dressed as a beautiful Renaissance noblewoman with a diadem and a regal purple gown.  Yet her book, her orator’s pose, and her sharp clever features clearly indicate her status a wise oracle.  Del Castagno was something of a sphinx among Florentine artists (all of Vasari’s juiciest details about his life are demonstrably wrong) yet the Cumaean Sybil here looks like she knows something.

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Every year when the month of March rolls around, Ferrebeekeeper writes about Irish mythology. It is a dark cauldron to sip from, but the taste has proven to be all-too addictive.  We have explained leprechauns (and returned to the subject to ruminate about what the little imps really portend).  We have written about the sluagh–a haunted swarm of damned spirits in the sky.  I have unflinchingly described the Leannán Sídhe, a beautiful woman who drains the blood of artists into a big red cauldron and takes their very souls (which should be scary—but the immortal nightmarish wraith who eats the hearts of artists and bathes in their blood is an amateur at tormenting creative people when compared with the title insurance office where I work during the day), and we have read the sad story of Oisín the bard, who lived for three gorgeous years in Tír na nÓg with the matchless Niamh…ah, but then…

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Hey, speaking of Ireland and bards what is with that big harp which appears on everything Irish?  Is it just…a harp? Well, I am glad you asked.  There are some who say that the harp of Ireland is indeed just a harp, albeit a harp which represents the proud and ancient tradition of bardic lore passed down from the pre-Christian Celts.  There are others though who claim it IS the harp of Oisín, which was lost somewhere in his sad story (set aside in a in a spring grove as he leapt onto the white horse behind Niamh maybe, or left across the sea in Tír na nÓg…or dropped from withering hands beside an ancient churchyard…or safely hidden forever in the hearts of the Irish people ).  But there is an entirely different myth too.

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Some people say the heraldic harp of Ireland was originally the Daghda’s harp.  Daghda was a warrior demigod (or maybe just an outright god) famous for his prowess, his appetite, his thirst…and apparently also for his amazing music.  His harp could enchant people to brave deeds in battle…or to sleep in accordance with the Daghda’s mood.  But once, before the Battle of Moytura, his harp was stolen by Formorian warriors who hoped to thereby steal the magic confidence, esprit, and bravery which the harp gave to the Tuatha de Dannan.

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Daghda was a different man without his harp, and so he searched long and wide to find the secret stronghold where the Formorians had it hung upon the wall.  He managed to sneak into the castle, but before he could get away, he was discovered and the entire Formorian army advanced on him.

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Ah, but the Daghda had his harp back.  First he played a song so hilarious that the entire host of his enemies stopped advancing on him to howl with mirth, however, as soo as he stopped playing, they stopped laughing and made for him. Immediately Daghda started playing a song of terrible sadness, and the Formorians’ eyes filled with tears and they began to wail inconsolably.  This held them a bit longer, but alas, when he stopped playing, they stopped crying.  The great multitude almost had him, when he decided to play a lullaby–shades of Hermes and Argus!  Daghda did not sing the formorian warriors to their death, as soon as they were properly asleep he stole off, but the trick of fighting with art and music instead of swords has stayed in the irish heart—to the extent that it had become the national seal.

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The harp has changed in this story—and it has changed on the coat of arms too.  Once, in the time of the Irish Kingdom it was a winsome bare-breasted woman-harp, but today it is a meticulous historical recreation of an ancient medieval Irish harp.  I wonder what it will look like in the future?

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Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter.  It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary).  Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry.  The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.

I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful.  The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power.  Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages.  However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration).  The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.

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Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)

This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival).  Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention.  There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.

Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness.  The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food.  The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict.  Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea.  Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers.  His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden.  Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy.  Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden.  The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.

Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness.  That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power.  Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement.  Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).

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