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This is the great Gothic window of Milan Cathedral. With its sinuous hypnotic grace, It is an exceedingly beautiful design: the window looks almost alive, like a sessile organism of the deep sea. It is ornate and strong and fragile all at one. The design is not really very characteristic of Italian churches. Because of Milanese politics, a French engineer/designer was, Nicolas de Bonaventure, was appointed, to build out the church in the late 14th century. Nicolas added flourishes in the style of Rayonnant Gothic—a French architectural style which emphasized elaborate 2 dimensional patterns. I wish I could go to Milan and look at this, but, um I am too busy doing important things in Brooklyn. Milan will have to wait…
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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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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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May 22 is World Goth Day! The holiday originated in the United Kingdom in the far distant year of…2009—jeesh, this not exactly Saturnalia we are talking about here. Goth Day does not celebrate ancient Germanic people from southern Sweden, medieval black letters, or elegant architecture based around arches so much as it celebrates the “Goth” subculture of alternative lifestyle devotees who wear severe or fetishitic rock-and-roll outfits (often black or deep red). There tends to be lots of piercings, dramatic make-up, and outre hairstyles in Goth fashion, as well. Wikipedia says the Goth scene originated in England in the early 80s as a sort of offshoot of punk…but come on we already had things like Walpole and Strawberry Hill and movie monsters and Odilon Redon. So I will go ahead and say contemporary Goth subculture seems like an outgrowth of a series of profoundly ancient cultural/aesthetic movements (punk merely being one of the more recent of a long line of progenitors rather than a sui generis single parent).
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Whatever the case, I like Goth fashion, which appeals to my taste for the bizarre, the dramatic, the anachronistic, and the complicated. I probably would have liked it even better when I was a teenager and my favorite color was black, but I was too lost in my own world to notice what other people thought was fashionable back then. According to Professor Internet, there are now all sorts of offshoots and subgenres of “Goth” some of which are quite amazing, ludicrous, or scary. We’ll get back to them another day. Today (World Goth Day!) we are just going to put up some straightforward corsets, boots, and riding cloaks and call it a day. Enjoy the miscellaneous fashions and let me know if you think of a new gothic topic for the coming year. I am starting to run out!

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Well, this week has been a good week for me socially (since I have had multiple fun events) and a bad one for me physically (since I have had a cold all week). The upshot is that I have not gotten as much blogging done as I would like. Fortunately, there will be plenty of time to relax and enjoy things in the afterlife…or at least we can enjoy anything that was buried in ceremonial symbolic form with us in our lavish tombs. Well, anyway, that is what the people of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) believed [it was a big improvement from certain early kingdoms where they dispensed with the “symbolic” part and just buried aristocrats with all of their favorite concubines and servants]. These spirit objects/grave goods are known as “Mingqi” and they make up a plurality of Han objects in museums and cultural collections. Of course, the afterlife would be empty without the most reliably delicious of all animals—so here, partway through the year of the chicken, is a Han dynasty symbolic ceremonial burial chicken which some well-heeled chicken lover took with them when they went away forever.

The chicken was made of simple baked earthenware and 2000 years of grave conditions have not altered its delicate facial features for the better, but the elegant winsome lines and perfect bold form leave no question about who the masters of ceramics have been from the time of Rome to the present. There is no news about whether the original owner is now stuck in a poultry-free afterlife since his chicken Mingqi was carried off by some ancient robber or modern archaeologist.

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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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Let’s celebrate spring by taking an internet trip to…south Poland?  Zalipie is an ancient village in the province of Lesser Poland Voivodeship (which has been a center of Polish culture since the early middle ages).  The village is a famous tourist attraction for an amazing reason.  People in Zalipie paint exquisite colorful flowers on everything!

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The tradition started more than a century ago, when women started painting bouquets to beautify their homes (or to distract attention from problem areas).  The original artists used handmade bristle brushes, easily obtained pigments, and fat from dumpling drippings as their medium, however as the years passed and the tradition was passed down over generations the paintings have become larger,  finer, and more colorful.

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The village has earned the epithet “the most beautiful village in Poland,” and judging by these pictures which I have purloined from around the internet that description is apt.  The omnipresent flower paintings in all different styles and colors shows that the artists of Zalipie are as innovative and inspired as they are tireless. Yet the photographs also indicate that the omnipresent floral folkart is not the only charm the village offers.  It looks like it would be a pastoral paradise even without the exquisite flower art.

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I can’t wait for spring to make Brooklyn into a natural gallery of flowers, but until then, I am glad I can go on the internet and check out the never-fading flower garden which the residents of Zalipie have made for themselves and the world.

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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize.   The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors.  To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard).  This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.

Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana.  He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!

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The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles.  The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship.  If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success.  On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all.  Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.

But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory.  He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard.  “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said.  The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware.  They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor.  Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him.  By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships.  The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana.  Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.

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Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves.  The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile.  Thus ended his political and military career.   The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world.  But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet.  I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up.  However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.

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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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