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Hans_Memling_PassioneThis amazing painting is by Hans Memling a Netherlandish master of German birth who worked in Bruges during the late 15th century.  Memling painted the work around 1470 AD for a Florentine banker based in Bruges (that’s the banker’s donor portrait down there in the lower left corner).  The painting is most important for illustrating that extremely rich financiers can commision whatever sort of work they like from gifted middle aged painters in their hometown, be it medieval Bruges or, say, contemporary Brooklyn, however, the painting is also astonishingly a still painting with modality: like a sort of 15th century movie.  Instead of telling one scene from the passion of Christ, the painting tells many stories from the death and resurrection of Jesus in the same larger scene.  By moving around the painting and “reading” it, the whole story becomes evident (I especially like how ancient Jerusalem looks like a slightly exoticized version of Bruges).  Since WordPress hates art, you can only blow it up to a certain size here, but it is well worth going to Wikipedia and looking at a larger version where you can pore over the exquisite details of Memling’s craft (and contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and his execution).   For such an intricate work, the original is rather small–less than a meter wide.  Memling excelled at painting complex pictures of entire cities like this, yet despite the ornament and pageantry, the real focus never leaves Jesus as he is hailed and then denounced by the mob, judged by politicians, tortured and executed, and finally risen as a deity.  Despite its intricacy and scope this is a rather human and intimate work.  Memling seems to have known the fickle back-and-forth of society, so one can find all sorts of reticent retainers, devout followers, haughty lords, and confounded strangers in this work.  It is a reminder that the the antagonist, and the supporting characters, and even the setting of the passion are humankind–the story is meant to represent all of us.  Even Jesus, the son of man, is human until the last instance when he is revealed with his halo and scarlet robes of godhood.

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Zhu Di (1360 – 1424) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor (who, coincidentally, had a great many offspring).  When Zhu Di ascended to the throne he styled his reign as the “Yongle” reign (which means “perpetual happiness”).  The Yongle Emperor was everything an absolutist Chinese emperor was supposed to be.  His armies smote the enemies of China.  He moved the capital city to Beijing (where it remains to this day) and built the Forbidden City.  He instituted the rigorous examination system which came to dominate Chinese civil service.  Under his rule, infrastructure leaped forward to a level previously unknown in China (or anywhere else, for that matter).  The peasantry was happy and successful.  Culture, arts, industry, trade and knowledge flourished.  It was a glorious golden age for China.

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The Forbidden City as Depicted in a Ming Dynasty Painting

The Yongle Emperor was one of China’s greatest emperors—he is on a short list with Tang Taizong, Wu of Han, and Song Taizu.  During his time, China was the richest, most prosperous, and most advanced society on earth. He will be recalled forever as one of history’s truly greatest leaders…but…

Whenever the Yongle Emperor is mentioned, so too, his problematic accession must be mentioned. For Zhu Di was not the Hongwu Emperor’s first choice of heir…or even the second for that matter.  Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as the Jianwen Emperor in 1398 (in accordance with ancient rules of strict primogeniture).  The Jianwen Emperor feared that all of his many uncles would prove troublesome to his reign, so he began a campaign of demoting and executing them (Jianwen means “profoundly martial”).  In accordance with the universal rules of irony, this pogrom caused Zhu Di, then the Prince of Yan, to rise against his nephew.  In the civil war between the Prince of Yan and the “Profoundly Martial” emperor, the former thoroughly thrashed the latter.  In 1402, Zhu Di presented the world with the unrecognizably charred bodies of the Jianwen emperor, the emperor’s consort, and their son.  In that same year he proclaimed himself the Yongle Emperor (and launched his own far more ruthless pogrom against extended family and against orthodox Confucians who had stood against him).

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Detail of the hilt of a Yongle era Chinese sword

So the reign of the Yongle Emperor began against an uninspiring backdrop of civil war, charred relatives, and general devastation.  Worst of all, (from Yongle’s perspective), those charred bodies were suspiciously unrecognizable. Rumors spread that the Jianwen Emperor had taken a page from his grandfather’s playbook and escaped the palace dressed as a begging monk.  Maybe he is still out there somewhere living anonymously like Elvis and Hitler.

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This story of palace intrigue and feudal strife, lead to a bizarre postscript which is also one of the grace notes of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese society has traditionally looked inward, but the Yongle Emperor was convinced (so it was whispered) that the Jianwen Emperor was still running around somewhere.  To distract the nation from this possibility (and perhaps to find the usurped emperor living abroad and rub him out), the Yongle Emperor commissioned a fleet like no other—a vast treasure fleet to explore the known world.  The largest vessels of this fleet were said to be immense ocean-going junks 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide).  They were crewed by thousands of people and outfitted with fabulous canons. With hundreds of supporting vessels, these treasure ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa (under the command of the fabulous eunuch admiral Zheng He).  The treasure fleets left behind the traditional medieval maritime sphere of local commerce, small scale warfare, neighborhood tribute. They were on course for the true globalism which marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but alas, Yongle died as he personally led an expedition against the Mongols.  China’s eyes again turned towards its own vast internal universe. Maritime voyages and global exploration quickly became a thing of the past.

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OK, Last week was egg week here at Ferrebeekeeper where we looked at home-made egg-art and astonishing primordial mythology.  Unfortunately, due to budget constraints and temporal vicissitudes, egg week only had 4 posts—yet we also need to keep moving on.  Today’s post is therefore somewhat egg-themed….even if the real theme is more about the changing nature of language.  It is a bridge from past to future—but a humorous one which has eggs at its center.

Here is a story from the late 15th century, when English was changing from Middle English to Modern English.  The author, William Caxton, was a merchant, diplomat, and writer…and probably England’s first printer.  He wrote this story in 1490 to marvel at how quickly the language was changing (indeed he relates how he can’t understand truly old English which seems like a completely foreign tongue).  I have transcribed the story, as best I could, from the Gothic black letter manuscript (try reading some of the beautiful—but incomprehensible–Gothic calligraphy and I think you will appreciate my effort).

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The story is a vignette about how language changes, seemingly on its own.  This point is particularly poignant to modern readers who don’t speak with quite the same idiom and usage as the upstanding William Caxton!  The story is about some merchants from the north who say eggs in the Norse fashion “eggys” as opposed to the South English way of saying it “eyren.”  Misunderstanding ensues.  It is interesting to note that contemporary English speakers talk about “eggs.”  If I went to the C-town and asked for “eyren” they would probably look at me funny (or tell me where to get an iron or Irish whiskey).  The Norse word for “eggs” clearly won out over the old Anglo-Saxon word when English went global.  Anyway, here is my transcription of the story.  Kindly help me out if you can figure it out better and enjoy the eyreny…err…the irony of Caxton’s words:

Fayn wolde I satysfye every man, and so to doo toke an olde boke and redde therin and certaynly the englysshe was so rude and brood that I could not wele understande it.
And altho my lord abbot of Westmynster ded do shewe to me late certain evydences wryton in olde englysshe for to reduce it in to our englysshe now usid.
And certainly it was wrton in suche wyse that it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe.
I could not reduce ne brynge it to be understonden.
And certaynly our language now used Uaryeth ferre from that. Which was used and spoken whan I was borne.
For we englysshe men ken borne under the domynacyon of the mone.
Which is neuer stedfaste, but ever waverynge wexynge one season and waneth & dycreaseth another season
And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one Shyre varyeth from a nother.
In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a ship in tamyse for to have sayled over the see into zeland
and for lacke of wynde they taryed atte Forrlonth, and wente to lanthe for to refreshe them
And one of them named Sheffelde a mercer cam in to an hous and axed(!!) for mete, and specyally he axyd after eggys.
And the goode wyf answerde that she could speke no frenche.
And the marchant was angry for he also could speak no Frenche but wolde have egges and she understode hym not.
And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde have eyren then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel
Loo (?) What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren, Certaynly it is harde to playse every man that is in any
reputacyon in his contre. Wyll utter his comynycacyon and maters in suche maners & terms that fewe men shall understonde theym…

 

 

 

Gothic Armor (available for sale at http://www.armae.com!)

Welcome back to armor week at Ferrebeekeeper! Yesterday I introduced an ancient order of armored mollusks, the chitons, with an allegorical story about a knight of the Holy Roman Empire.  This reminded me of gothic armor, one of the most beautiful and functional styles of plate armor ever devised. Gothic armor was, in fact, used by knights of the Holy Roman Empire (and lands beyond) throughout the 15th century. The style was characterized by a full plate armor which covered the entire body.  This plate was designed with intricate structural flutings, ridges, and curves influenced by the ornamentation of Gothic art and architecture.  However the ridges and crenellations of gothic armor served a double purpose: such features strengthened the armor and deflected arrows (which had become more prevalent in the warfare of the day). Additionally the major joints and breaks of gothic armor (armpits, crotch, and knees) were protected with chain mail underneath. A warrior in gothic armor was well protected (particularly considering he was most likely an insane German nobleman carrying a great sword).

A Fine German Sallet with associated Bevor, circa 1475

In the 1480s, gothic armor from Germany was considered the finest in Europe. Protective headgear had changed as well: although some knights still wore bascinets from the previous era, the most prevalent helmet of the day was the gothic sallet, a close fitting helmet with a long sharpened tail to protect the neck.  The sallet was complimented by a bevor which protected the knight’s chin.

Ludwig III wearing gothic armor with prominent poleyns, from a fifteenth century manuscript

Illustration of a knight in Gothic armor (from Concilium zu Constanz, 1483, woodcut)

Gothic armor influenced English and Italian suits of armor.  By the sixteenth century, Italian innovations in turn caused the style of German armor making to change.  Gothic armor was left behind as armor suits became even more rounded and covered in grooves (a style known as Maximilian armor after the Holy Roman Emperor). However the great German printers, painters, and illuminators of the 15th century had already immortalized gothic armor–which is forever associated with knights to anyone familiar with such art.

Knight (Albrecht Durer, 1498))

The Crucifixion (Rogier Van der Weyden, ca. 1445, oil on panel)

Probably the most common theme of Gothic painting was the crucifixion of Christ, an event which was central to the universe-view of nearly all Europeans of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. To observe Good Friday, here is a triptych of the Crucifixion painted by one of my favorite Flemish painters, Rogier Van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 – 1464).  The painting was probably completed around 1445 and can today be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Very little is known concerning Van der Weyden’s life and training.  We know that he was an international success and rose to the position (created expressly for him) of official painter of Brussels–then the location of the renowned court of the Dukes of Burgundy. But aside from that, only tidbits are known about a man who was probably the most influential and gifted Northern European painter of the 15th century.

Detail of Right Panel

Van der Weyden painted from models, and this crucifixion demonstrates a very compelling realism.  The grief and incredulity of the mourners is conveyed in their vivid expressions and poses.  The magnificent color and beauty of their garb underlines the importance of the spectacle.  Behind the figures is a huge empty landscape which runs continuously through all three panels.  The left wing shows a medieval castle, but the other two panels present a strange idealized Jerusalem.

Mary Magdalene is the lone figure of the left panel and St. Veronica is similarly isolated on the right panel. In the middle, John the Apostle tries to comfort a distraught Mary who is grabbing the foot of the cross as her son dies.  To the right of the cross are the wealthy donors who paid Van der Weyden for painting the picture. To quote Bruce Johnson’s Van der Weyden webpage, “The donors, a married couple, have approached the Cross; they are shown on the same scale as the saints, though they are not to be seen as really part of the Crucifixion scene – they are present only in thought, in their prayer and meditation, and are thus on a different plane of reality from the other figures.”

Detail of Mary Magdalen

The greatest glory of the painting is its nuanced palette.  The magnificent vermilion and ultramarine robes leap out of the muted green landscapes. Van der Weyden was renowned for using many different colors.  Art historians have averred that even the white tones in his greatest compositions are all subtly different.  Color also lends an otherworldly numinous quality to the dark angels hovering unseen on indigo wings as the execution takes place.

Writing about a close-up of a fly’s foot has led me to thinking about the infinitesimal details in tempera paintings by Carlo Crivelli–particularly since my favorite Crivelli painting prominently includes a fly.

Madonna and Child by Carlo Crivelli (circa 1480)

The enigmatic religious artist Carlo Crivelli painted this Madonna and Child some time around 1480.  The painting is a masterpiece of gothic style: a bejeweled Mary with Byzantine eyes holds baby Jesus on a cracked parapet.  Jesus grasps a struggling sparrow but his mood is somber.  Both figures are contemplating a fat black fly which has landed near Christ’s embroidered pillow.   Christ actually looks like a healthy baby (he frequently looks nothing like a real child in art) and Mary looks like a beautiful, wealthy noblewoman but the painting is still sad and intense. The fly seems to indicate that death and misery will soon mar whatever is most perfect and flawless.  The great oversize pickle and peaches dangling by the Virgin’s face also hint at something earthy and corrupted about existence.  In the background tiny figure hatch schemes and chase each other through the fulsome forests and orchards of Le Marche.  After looking closely at this painting, it will come as no surprise that Crivelli also painted extremely visceral scenes of the torture of Christ and the suffering of his followers.

We know very little about Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435 – c. 1495).  The artists’ biographer, Vasari–with his Florence-centric worldview–elected not to not to write about him at all.  Even the dates of Crivelli’s birth and death are unclear.  Although he signed his works Carlo Crivelli “Veneti” (“of Venice”) he spent most of his life working in Le Marche where lovely sinister cliffs drop precipitously into the Adriatic. He is said to have studied under Jacobello del Fiore–or was it with Vivarini, or maybe Francesco Squarcione in Padua?  At any rate, he was apparently a master of his own shop by 1457, when he was imprisoned for six months for an adulterous affair with Tarsia Cortese, the wife of a sailor.  Additionally he was a vegetarian.  Crivelli scorned oil painting, which was sweeping into fashion throughout the Renaissance art community to concentrate wholly on egg tempera, which suited his exacting, microscopic detail.  He modeled raised objects in gesso on his panels so his paintings venture slightly into the third dimension. Usually it is the gemstones and the tears which pop out from the panel.  Although he had many commissions from the conservative religious community, his work fell steeply from fashion after his death.  For a brief time in the nineteenth century pre-Raphaelite painters embraced his paintings for their sumptuous allegorical detail and their vivid, strange emotions, however Crivelli has once more fallen into near obscurity.

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