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Flounder with Kitchen Scissors [Wayne Ferrebee, 2021] Ink and watercolor on paper

It is Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday today (he was born on March 30, 1853). To mark the occasion, it occurred to me that I have an appropriate humorous cartoon in the small moleskine sketchbook which I carry around everywhere.

Van Gogh is pictured in the upper left corner wearing his trademark green coat and ear bandage. Presumably he is exhorting the artists of today to work hard at their precious craft. At the center of the composition is a flounder, a ridiculous-looking fish which everyone agrees is ideal for the table. Probably that is why a hand is reaching down from the heavens with scissors to prepare the silly fish as a delicious banquet. Speaking of hands, a white marble statuary hand is pushing up through the floor of the cinereous wasteland where this tableau takes place. Sadly the hand seems to be a bit broken. A crown-of-thorns starfish restlessly roves the dust and stumps.

I wanted to practice lettering with my steel nib, however I did not want to actually write anything, so I just jotted down some nonsense words in moon language. Sorry for the gibberish! But who cares about language anyway? Some people have suggested that artists are wholly unreliable when it comes to writing about their own work, and you should concentrate on the images themselves.

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the Byzantine Empire and the long webs of connections which the Eastern Empire cast across western culture. We will talk more about this later, but, for now, let’s check out a world famous Byzantine treasure! This is the porphyry head of a Byzantine Emperor (tentatively, yet inconclusively identified as Justinian). In Venice, where the stone head has been located since the very beginning of the 13th century (as far as anyone can tell) it is known as “Carmagnola” (more about that below). Sadly, most Byzantine art objects were scattered to the four winds (or destroyed outright) when the Turks seized the city in AD 1453, however Constantinople, city of impregnable walls, had also fallen once before in AD 1203 as a part of the misbegotten Fourth Crusade (a tragicomic series of blunders and Venetian manipulation which we also need to write about). This porphyry head escaped the latter sack because it was carried off during the former!

Based on its style and construction, Carmagnola was originally manufactured by Byzantine sculptors at an unknown date sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries (AD). The diadem worn by the figure is indisputably the headdress of a late Roman Emperor who ruled a vast Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empire out of Constantinople (I guess we need to talk about the diadem of the basileus at some point too). Scholars have speculated that the original statue may have been located in the Philadelphion, a central square of old Constantinople. The figure’s nose was damaged at some point (perhaps during the iconoclasm movement or as a political statement) but has been successfully polished flat. Speaking of statue breakage, it is possible that the head goes with a large headless Byzantine trunk made of porphyry which is now located in Ravenna (although such a provenance would make it seem unlikely that the sculpture was originally located in the Philadelphion). Whatever the original location might have been, the statue was installed upon the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the all-important main location of Venice) after it came to the City of Canals. The head is arguably the most important object among the strange collection of cultural objects which the Venetians arranged along the Saint Mark’s facade over the centuries like an Italian grandmother putting important knickknacks on a mantle. The head’s nickname Carmagnola originates from a Venetian incident and is not some ancient Byzantine allusion: a certain infamous condottiero, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on 5 May 1432 on the Piazzetta in front of Saint Mark’s after the rascally mercenary tried to trifle with the Council of Ten (who had employed him to fight his former master Duke Visconti of Milan). The red imperial head perhaps resembled the severed head of the angry squash-nosed mercenary and locals began to jestingly call it by the same name. Isn’t history funny? Anyway, in case you were trying to find it on a picture of Saint Mark’s, I have marked its location on the picture below.

Palace Progress (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Watercolor & ink on paper

Here is a watercolor picture from my the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. A pompous, three-legged grandee makes his serene progress through a palace landscape. Around him are fawning moth courtiers and little fairies (as well as a horrified little flatfish who has somehow wound up in the garden’s reflecting pool). Although it is good to poke fun at the airs of aristocrats, my favorite part of the picture are the fluffy pink flying fox in the center and the ancient monotreme. Watercolor is not my finest medium, but maybe if I keep trying to capture fantastical foibles with the set I carry in my bag, I will keep improving…

During this pandemic we can’t really travel internationally (or domestically, even, for that matter), but that doesn’t mean we can’t mentally visit amazing places around the world. Thus, today’s post features an astonishing place which I have always wanted to visit (even if I will probably never make it there in reality). Behold the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, a great Cistercian monastery located at the edge of the Great North York Moors of Yorkshire.

If you were wondering about the French name, Rievaulx Abbey was founded in AD 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvoux Abbey, the birthplace of the Cistercian order (Saint Barnard founded Clairvoux in 1115). The Cistercian order was a reform order of monasticism, meant to undo the worldly excesses which had crept into the Benedictine order (the dominant form of cloistered life throughout Europe since the 9th century). Barnard and his followers wanted to embrace a much starker asceticism so they could truly focus on divinity.

Perhaps because of this austere zeal, Rievaulx Abbey flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries. In order that they could properly concentrate on their Christian devotions, the monks created a substantial commercial empire based around mining lead and tin, producing and selling fine wool throughout Europe, and smelting iron! For a time Rievaulx Abbey was one of the greatest and most prosperous abbeys of England. Yet, inevitably, the rot set in. A sheep disease ruined the abbey’s wool trade and the diminished number of actual brothers began to live in much more comfortable and luxurious manner off of the incomes of their estate.

Like all great English monasteries, Rievaulx was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. The rapacious but far-sighted king discovered a way to purge the Catholic Church from his kingdom and his private life while also obtaining vast productive estates to grant to his most loyal supporters (or his own royal household). The buildings were stripped of valuables and “rendered uninhabitable”. However the superb stonework remains, testament to the organization which, at its height, consisted of hundreds of monks and lay brothers running thousands of acres of land (and attendant enterprises and pursuits).

Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New Year!

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

For our special annual Halloween theme, Ferrebeekeeper usually features a subject which is scary or disquieting. However, since this year has featured an unprecedented amount of scary and disquieting content on its own, we are instead featuring a heartwarming subject which many people tragically misidentify as scary. I am talking about bats, one of my very favorite mammalian orders (and that is really saying something, considering that mammals are a class which includes all-time great orders like Proboscidea and Cetacea).

In subsequent posts we will talk about what bats are (they are near relatives of primates but their close taxonomical relationship to humans is obscured by their alien appearance and by the fact that cladists keep changing their understanding of the precise way we share ancestors). We will also talk about why people are scared of bats and about why bats are wonderful and useful. Additionally, due to this year’s tragic events we will highlight how bats need to be be treated with respect and carefully safeguarded (unless you would like a future with even MORE coronaviruses).

For right now though, let’s start out with a gallery of bat mascots (batscots?). Unfortunately, the fact that bats are a taboo animal to Christians means that, in the west, Batman and Bacardi are practically the only entities that chose the bat as a logo (well, them and the Louisville Bats, a minor league baseball team with a penchant for wordplay).

Buddy the Bat!

However there are a whole flock of lesser known (or completely unknown) bat mascots just waiting in the wings 9as it were). Check them out below

Good heavens! now that I look at all the wings and cartoon fangs, I wonder if I should have written about chiropteran biology before venturing out into popular culture. But whatever. There are some pretty endearing bats in all of that (particularly considering our culture’s unhappy relationship with bats as symbols). We will take the bat mascot as a starting point and explore the wonderful world of these amazing and precious animals in subsequent posts. Even if we can’t flit around the neighborhood we will make this a good Halloween… and hopefully we can save some bats too.

Gothic rib vault ceiling of the Saint-Séverin church in Paris

As we move closer to Halloween, it is time to present some more beautiful Gothic imagery…but there is a problem. Ferrebeekeeper has already featured posts about Gothic clocks, gates, gazebos, houses, gingerbread houses, beds, mirrors, Christmas trees, literature, fonts and, uh Goths. What is left?

The great Gothic churches and cathedrals of yesteryear were built in an age before elaborate & inexpensive steel work. While it is easy to understand how stone columns, tall stone arches, and flying buttresses could be used to give height to the great cathedrals of the middle ages, what is harder to grasp is how these huge halls had ceilings! Timber has certain limits of size & strength. Stone, though strong, is heavy! How did the great architects of medieval Europe surmount these limitations so that they didn’t have to pray in the rain?

Church of Saint-Pierre, Caen (15th century)

The answer is that they designed elaborate and beautiful rib vaults. These structures utilized crossed or diagonal arched “ribs” of stone as a supporting framework for thin stone ceiling panels. The results are as stunning as the outside of the cathedrals–but in a more functional way.

Lierne vaulting of Gloucester Cathedral (1331)
Canterbury Cathedral vaulted nave (late 14th century)
Exeter Cathedral has the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England
Vault at Bern Cathedral (mid 15th century)
Decorated vaulted ceiling in Salisbury Cathedral showing three different patterns and design.

To show what I mean, here is a gallery of famous Gothic vaults. Some are plain whereas others are complex. A few are even ornamented (although the ceilings seem to have been left less encrusted with statues, paintings, and mosaics than other parts of the cathedral because they were a weak point and they needed to be functional. The beauty of these structures is thus more like the beauty of diatoms and less like the beauty of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling…although…come to think of it…

The interior of the Sistine Chapel showing the vault in relation to the famous wall murals

There are whole architectural treatises detailing the fans, crosses, liernes, groins, stars, and domes of such cathedrals (and all of the ways they can be combined) but for now let’s just savor the beauty and artistry of stone made into sky.

Bath Abbey

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?

Luca_Signorelli_-_Sermon_and_Deeds_of_the_Antichrist_-_WGA21202

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.

picture-of-antichrist

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.

220px-Signorelli,_Luca_-_selfportrait_alone

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.

 

 

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