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It has been a while since we had a post celebrating all things Gothic.  Last week’s post about the Yellow Emperor has reminded me of the unsettling relationship which we all have with mirrors (which are so lifelife and yet so empty and which always feature our own aging countenances staring at us with mute appeal).  I wondered if I could find some beautiful ornamental Gothic mirrors to put up in a little gallery.  Boy howdy! There  were a lot to chose from.  Here is a little sampling:

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Of course these mirrors have the beauty of Gothic style, but they lack the disturbing simulacra of life which real mirrors furnish.  You will have to imagine your own face in them.  Or you could head over to your nearest foreboding manor to see if you can find one of these beauties underneath a big gray dusty sheet.  Or I guess you just buy them: they are mostly for sale on the internet, which is maybe the most disturbing thing of all….

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Walpurgisnacht (Engraving by W. Jury after original by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829)

There is a sort of second Halloween on the calendar: Walpurgis Night (Walpurginacht) is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th century Frankish Abbess.  The event was celebrated from the night of April 30th until the end of the night of May 1st, and although putatively sacred to Walpurga (a healer and exorcist), it was really counter-holiday against the ancient pagan rituals of spring.   In German folklore, May Eve was the night that the witches had a great dark feast/sabbath/orgy with unholy beings on the top of the Brocken, the tallest peak of northern Germany.   Similar tales of similar events are widespread across Europe.

Walpurgisnacht appears in many German operas and plays (perhaps most notably at the epic conclusion of Faust, a play which truly brings the sturm and drang!) but today I thought I would celebrate with a picture, up there at the top by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, a Hanoverian illustrator of great prowess.  Since the Elector of Hanover was also, by strange quirk of dynastic succession, the King of England, Ramberg’s illustrations had broad importance, and had great influence on opera backgrounds, storybooks, engravings, and such like popular arts.  Perhaps there is even still a dollop of his fantasy left in Hollywood and on tv and the internet.  His Walgurgisnacht picture is fairly tame (although perhaps that is because the engraver, Jury, cleaned it up) but some of his other illustrations are rather saucy. Also, I am sure my favorite graphic novelist, Jim Woodring stole a character from this engraving for his contemporary “Frank” books, which are arguably the finest works of our time.

At any rate, happy May Eve! Next year I will try to be more timely and mention the dark sabbath on the actual night so you can go out and rave with witches, instead of (checks yesterday’s post)…writing essays about Jesus??? Oh man…I need to get out more.

Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

Please accept my apologies for not publishing the promised Good Friday post when I said I would.  I am afraid I had a spring cold, and was just struggling to get through the day.  Now that it is Easter Sunday, we can put any sort of Jesus-themed artwork we want, though and we don’t have to have a ghastly crucifixion scene.  So behold: this is “Triptych with the Miracles of Christ” by the Master of the Legend of St. Catherine and his (?) workshop.

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The piece is a superb vision of the life and miracles of Jesus…and of day-to-day life in late Medieval Flanders.  It was completed sometime between 1491 and 1495 (and it is worth imagining some team of earnest painters toiling over it at the exact time that Columbus and his crew were making their way across the Atlantic.  There are nearly endless things to see in the picture (like all the endearing and strangely modern pet dogs in the foreground) but I am afraid I could not download a high-res image, so you will have to visit this link if you wish to pore over the composition (and you really should wish for that).  The background is as interesting as the foreground!  Look at this exquisite Flemish city (which also looks strangely modern).

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It is Maundy Thursday–the day before Good Friday (when the Last Supper took place in the Passion of Christ).  To celebrate, I have drawn a picture in the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry with me during my workday).  Based on some comments and feedback, it is not completely clear that everybody sees the plight of my allegorical flounder in the desired light.  Perhaps this tiny spiritual drawing will clarify the symbolic meaning somewhat.

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“Take, eat: this is my body” (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) colored pencil and ink on paper

Jesus was a fisherman too…as were the first four disciples–that is why his first symbol was a fish.  Anyway, Happy Easter! We will be back tomorrow with the annual Good Friday post!


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Anybody interested in Gothic art is mourning today, after a fire gutted Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, one of the luminous cultural treasures of the world.  The devastation is particularly cruel since it took place during Holy Week.  As I write this, the fire has only just been extinguished and a comprehensive reckoning of what was lost in the flames has not yet emerged (and may not for some time).  It seems likely that the giant ancient pipe organ is lost as is the wooden interior (much of it dating back to the 13th century), and a good deal of the large, immovable religious artwork.  Additionally the mid-19th century spire was completely destroyed. Yet the crown of thorns (a medieval relic which may date back to late antiquity) survived, as did the great church itself.  Like the Frauenkirche of Dresden, Notre Dame will be back. It will have some blackened stones and some new plaques about reproduction and restoration. It will be missing some irreplaceable artwork, yet it will be restored to full heart-lifting beauty.

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The Seine and Notre Dame in Paris, (1864, Johann Jongkind) Oil on canvas

The cathedral sits on the site of two previous churches, which themselves were built over the ruins of a temple to Jupiter (which is a reminder that nothing is immutable).  Commissioned in 1163 by King Louis VII, the great cathedral took nearly two centuries to build and it was not completely finished until 1345.  Hopefully reconstruction will not take so long.  940.jpg

 

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I wanted to write about flowers for April, but, so far this April has been a cold month and there is not much going on in the garden apart from Hellebores and crocuses.  Fortunately April is also poetry month!  Therefore, I looked up “gothic flower poetry” on Google to see if I could combine literature, flowers, and the dark foreboding beauty of Gothic aesthetics.  What Google provided was a William Blake poem from “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.  Here it is in its totality:

“The Sick Rose”

William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This poem is so short as to barely be a poem, and it is by William Blake so it is probably ridiculously famous (although I have never encountered it until now).  I was going to move on and write about something else, but the disturbing truth is that I can’t get this poem out of my head!

Like a worm or invisible larva this poem insinuates its way into the reader’s mind.  Also like a minuscule worm,  the poem uses its tininess to devastating effect.    Since there are only 34 words (divided into two disturbing 17 word stanzas), there is not much information to guide the brains to a satisfactory & comprehensive conclusion.  Thus we are trapped with the ambiguity of what the rose and the worm represent…beyond just a dying rose and an invisible infectious agent which is killing it (which is already unsettling).   The effect really is akin to some virulent nematode or spirochete burrowing deeper into a a maze of defenseless petals.

Symbolically, the poem is most obviously about love and the pathology of desire:  the bed of crimson joy is destroyed by dark secret love.  The fetishism, opprobrium, and shame of sexual lust undermines the more sanctified elements of romantic love.  The worm is a perverse predator and the rose an innocent naif.

Yet this poem is not merely about human love and longing.  It is about a real living thing, a rose, destroyed by another living thing, a worm.  Blake evokes the baffling gestalt of a world of tigers and sheep where predators and prey both rely on each other to continue.  Without the wolves, the sheep would eat all of the grass and die out.  Without parasites, weakness would flourish in ways which would unmake the host.  The poem does not just mirror pathologies of love (putatively our most sacred emotion), it showcases a miniature ecosystem which is a microcosm of the whole world.  Is it a broken system?  The rose is indeed dying…

 

I keep thinking about yesterday’s post and worrying about how I could have expressed my concepts concerning future space settlement better.  I also want to vehemently state that I don’t want for humankind to use up the world and then move on:  whatever happens, there is only one earth. We need to stop abusing it and using it up with our follies and treat it like the sacred blue jewel it is.  We will come back to this with better explanations and more cogent ideas, but right now the haunting thoughts of ecocide and possible roads to salvation won’t leave me alone.  I am going to take refuge from visions of a ruined world with one of my favorite things: Flemish religious art!

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Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 28. f. 66v (Noah’s ark). St Augustine, De civitate dei. Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Except, of course, there is no escaping this concept (especially in art of the Low Countries from an era of constant warfare and plague).  The idea of humans ruining the world with wickedness and then escaping from the devastation they caused while carrying the seeds of future life is found in the first known work of literature, “Gilgamesh,” (a story which more nakedly addresses environmental concerns than almost anything from the twentieth century), and, likewise, the story of Noah and the great flood takes a star turn in The Pentateuch/Bible. The above picture is actually an illustration from “The City of God” (a work which we may need to circle back to as we look at cities, morality, and humankind’s relationship with the larger universe), yet it is instantly familiar as chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.   Here is the relevant passage (Genesis 7) with all of the rolling thunder & sublime beauty of the King James Bible:

15 And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.

16 And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.

17 And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.

18 And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.

19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.

20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.

23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.

Even in this brief passage, the Bible contradicts itself!  But, even if you do not think The Good Book is the only source of worthwhile knowledge, it is certainly a peerless work of literature.  The illuminated picture perfectly captures the spirit of the poetry.  All of the remaining humans and the last animals are packed together in the ark, silent and solemn staring out at the dying world.  All animosity between predator and prey is forgotten as their frightened eyes take in the divine flood, which is captured with all of the ghastly verisimilitude that the artists could muster.  Forests and drowning creatures drift by the tallest church steeples of a city as rich and poor alike perish in the inundation.

For at least as long as we have been able to set down our ideas in words and images, we have looked upon the changes we are making to the world with troubled eyes and we have wondered what it means.  I am not sure that our anxiety or our heavy hearts will alter the ultimate destiny of humanity, but I think the fact that we are always worrying about whether we have corrupted the way of righteousness might be a point in our favor.

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I have run out of time today, so I am going to put up the tiniest post.  Here is a tiny jeweled charm: a pearl which has been carved into a death’s head.  Best of all, the little novelty skull is wearing a tiny silver crown.  Not only does this succeed in combining two items from the Ferrebeekeeper category list, it also looks like an apprentice’s magical item from a fantasy novel. At first I thought this was a glorious one-off, but it seems like carving pearls into tiny skulls is big business these days.  You could buy a whole necklace and pretend to be Manjushri.  A number of the carvers are Japanese, so I speculate that this art descended from the very similar school of netsuke carving (where skulls are also popular), but I really don’t know.  If anybody has any insights, I am all ears!

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Your childhood dream is fairly ludicrous clip-art!

My last post, which combined art, gardening, and Gothic architecture has made me reflect back on a treasured albeit megalomaniacal childhood fantasy.  When I grew up I wanted to live in my own beautiful castle. I was really into spooky-yet-cozy adventure stories, and the idea of living in a perfect little fortress world filled with hidden passages, charming secrets, and fairy-tale delights was irresistible.

But that was a wish from childhood: the adult world is a desperate maze filled with scams, baffling spreadsheets, impossible rules,and ersatz crap…which brings us to the subject of today’s post! The desire to have a beautiful fairytale castle for a home is hardly unique to my childhood self. Lots of people have that fantasy, however, there are only so many actual medieval keeps, schlösschen(s?), and castellets to go around. We are even running out of derelict Queen Anne villas. Plus the comforts and conveniences of real medieval castles are not in accordance with modern tastes. But, if New York has taught me anything, it is that for every dream house there is an unscrupulous developer ready to make a terrible mockery of that dream in order to get rich.

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Every man, a king!

Welcome to Burj Al Babas in Turkey! Of the many, many Potemkin villages and empty cities which have sprouted up around the world in the last decade, this is surely one of the most peculiar to behold. The town was planned and built by “Sarot Group” to appeal to affluent foreign investors who dreamed of living in castles when they were little. The project began in 2014 and was meant as a way to capitalize underused land in the distant Asia Minor suburbs of Istanbul. Each micro-castle was going to include swimming pools and jacuzzis heated by the water of local hot springs.  The target buyers were affluent middle easterners who could maybe even be lured into Turkish citizenship.

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What? They couldn’t include identical unicorns?

 

Unfortunately, the market for fake castles has been overmatched by the market for real autocrats. Turkey is sliding further and further into a dangerous spiral of dictatorship, economic malfeasance, and corruption. As the lira collapses the inflation rate has risen to 25%. Additionally, the oil-rich middle eastern who are the imagined buyers of these properties have been facing their own monetary struggles in a world awash with cheap oil.

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And notice the exquisite landscaping of dark gray mud, dead weeds, and rubble!

Perhaps the saddest thing is that, even in these glum pictures of cookie-cutter despair, some aspect of the original fantasy is still recognizable. If you had one of these things on a forest mountaintop in West Virginia or Dalmatia, it might still be a beautiful home  (although they look suspiciously apt to melt when it rains). Yet, stuck next to each other like dozens of gawky cosplayers dressed as the same superhero, the dream breaks apart and the seamy aspects of the modern real-estate scheming are laid bare.  I wonder what will eventually happen to Burj Al Babas, the city of dreams.  Will it become like Columbia Maryland, where nobody even notices that they are living in somebody else’s fantasy, or will archaeologists of the future unearth its particleboard and concrete ruins with a sad frown and a sigh?

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