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This beautiful earthenware ossuary is a Sogdian piece from the 7th century AD.  It was unearthed from the ruins of ancient Samarkand (in what is today Uzbekistan) and reflects the Zoroastrian faith of the Sogdian traders who flourished along the Silk Road in that era.

Zoroastrians believe that both fire and the earth are sacred, and thus human remains can be neither interred nor cremated.  Instead, corpses are laid out in “houses of silence” open to the heavens above, or otherwise exposed to the hungry creatures of the wasteland.   Once the vultures, jackals, maggots, and other scavengers had finished their repast, the bones were gathered up and placed into an ossuary like this one.

The figures on the front of the box (see detail immediately above) are Mazdaean priests dressed in flowing white robes as they tend the sacred flame burning upon the stepped altar.  The mouths of the priests are covered with “padam”–facemasks which prevent their breath from polluting the sacred flame.  Upon the pyramid-shaped lid are female dancers, each of whom holds plants and strange dance implements.

At the apex of the ossuary is a radiant circle and a crescent–the sun and the moon. Like the dancers, the fire, and the priests, they seem also to be turning into flowers, foliage, and herbs. The whole ossuary is colorless, dry, lifeless, and fire-themed–yet its secret meaning seems to be about greenery, wild dance, and the flowing sensuous lines of life!

The Crucifixion (Anthony Wierix & Martin de Vos, ca. 1590), engraving on paper

It is Good Friday, and as per tradition, here is an exquisite crucifixion artwork to mark the occasion. The beautifully engraved print is remarkable for its enormous quality, precision, and detail: just look at the lightning striking Jerusalem in the distant background! However it is also remarkable for the two (or three) levels of reality which the artists/printmakers have divided it into. In the central rectangle, Jesus is crucified on a hill in Israel as Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Saint John lament. Moving outwards by a degree, we find a second, rather more metaphorical frame which presents the instruments of the passion: the cross, the scourge, the nails, the pitcher of vinegar. Only as we examine the carefully engraved items in depth do we discover how allegorical these images really are. The coins are avarice. The flail is cruelty. The cock is denial. The vinegar is bitterness. The sepulcher is fear. These bedrock emotional drives are the true tools of the Passion. It is by means of the universal nature of humankind that Jesus was slain, but only by transcending such things and moving inwards to a more divine and transcendent level of faith, tenderness, and compassion can we be redeemed.

Of course there is an unspoken third level as well–of bare paper which has not been pressed by the plate. This reminds us that we are looking at a little nesting universe of profound ideas which are the contrivance of gifted artists working in the real world with ink, burins, presses, and paper in order to make us think more carefully about existence…or such would be the case if you were looking at this in a Duke’s library or the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Instead you are looking at this on the internet on glowing pixels on my blog–so there is really a fourth meta-level of ideological interpretation (conveniently provided by me, some random guy on the internet just writing stuff). The 16th century was an age when thrilling new media lead humankind to terrible excesses (there is a reason all of those torture implements look so realistic). Theologians, political leaders, and rabble-rousers used these new tools to whip up the sectarian passions of Christ’s followers and drive the faithful to slay the faithful in vast religious wars. There is a symbolic reason the scimitar, the torturer’s tongs, and the open crypt are closer to the viewer than Christ is: God is separated from us not just by space and time, but by supernatural and moral hierarchy as well (and by ethnicity too, as the Hebrew at the top reminds us). I wonder if His followers in the modern era will see what the Christian artists of the new mass media arts of the 16th century were trying so hard to explain…

Usually Ferrebeekeeper writes about crowns, but today, as a special treat to celebrate the end of February (which is also Black History month), we are going to write about a throne instead…and this is not just any throne! It is also my favorite visionary art installation [as an aside, I believe it would help to contextualize the problematic nature of monarchy if we called all thrones “visionary art installations”–and it wouldn’t even really be inaccurate]. Anyway, above is the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, by American outsider artist James Hampton which is currently held at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington DC. Created between 1950 and 1964, the enormous work consists of 180 individual objects hand-crafted out of broken furniture and everyday found objects which were gilded with aluminum and gold foil.

Hampton’s tale is as American as possible, while somehow simultaneously as outsider as possible too. He was born in South Carolina in 1909, the son of a Baptist preacher with the same name. His father, James Hampton Senior was a traveling Baptist preacher and a gospel singer, but he was also a grifter and a ex-convict with a history of time in the chain gang. He abandoned his family and vanished away into the William Faulkner style goings-on of the south during the tumultuous decades of the teens, twenties, and thirties leaving his 4 children and wife to scrape by as well as possible.

After this hard-scrabble upbringing, young James Hampton moved to Washington D.C. where he was a short-order cook during the Depression and was then drafted into The United States Army Air Force during Word War II. He served repairing airstrips in Guam for which he received a Bronze Star. In Guam he also first began building visionary devotional shrines. After the war he moved back to Washington and obtained a job as a janitor at the General Service Administration, where he worked until his death of stomach cancer in 1964. We would probably not remember him at all, except, when he died, his landlord approached his sister about what to do with the contents of the garage which Hampton used as a workspace/devotional area. Hampton had largely kept his artwork hidden from even his tiny circle of friends and family (perhaps he did not even regard it as artwork per se). Only after his death did it come to the world’s attention, along with St James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation a religious book which he mostly wrote in a private (and untranslated) tongue.

Hampton’s Christianity was non-sectarian (enough of his writing is in English to inform us that he wisely believed that the doctrinal schisms which characterize organized Christianity detract from the sacred unity of God) and highly mystical. I first saw the throne on a High School Field Trip in the nineties, when its awesome otherworldly glory and strangeness was enough to silence a whole class of 16 year olds (an achievement accomplished by few other cultural masterpieces in the nation’s capital). Its glistening cat-eyes and complex Baroque shapes are characteristic of American dime stores and carnivals of the early 20th century…and yet they also very much of Africa, Polynesia, and the Holy Land as well.

You will have to examine the shrine of your own–as with some of the finest religious art of South East Asia or the Middle Ages, its splendor and complexity initially baffle the eye. However, it is based on Saint John’s New Testament description of the silver and gold throne of God on Judgement Day (Revelations 4). This description includes mention of Christian elders wearing sacred crowns, and these crowns are very much a part of the larger installation, so even if you are lost in the material complexities of James Hampton’s personal devotion, at least there is highly recognizable iconography for the rulers of Earth…and for this blog’s readers too!

The year of the tiger continues…and now we are counting down to China’s thrilling authoritarian Olympics, as well! Stay tuned for some incredible live blogging of the opening ceremonies! Will any nation’s winter parade outfit top Benin’s noble bombas from the summer Olympics? We will find out on Friday. Before we get there, though, I wanted to showcase a piece of tiger art from dynastic China. Classical Chinese scroll painting features all sorts of quintessentially Chinese things: exquisite mountain landscape, trees of otherworldly beauty, all sorts of bustling functionaries, lovely temples, ethereal women, and every variety of realistic animals (not to mention dragons out the wazoo), yet there are precious few tigers–at least until we get to 19th and 20th century art. The handful of tigers that are lurking around in ancient Chinese artwork look kind of flat-headed–like the family cat from the Simpsons. To demonstrate this, here is a really good Ming dynasty tiger painted by an unknown artist.

Oh man, that guy looks grumpy and dangerous. Apparently, in 1404, residents of the Shenhou mountains reported seeing an alarming mythical creature–the zouyou– creeping around the mountains and scaring people. The Prince of Zhou led a party of soldiers and hunters out to capture the creature…and they came back with this white tiger, which they presented to the Yongle Emperor (who had a bestiary filled with exotic and auspicious animals). Since the tiger was held in the Emperor’s court, artists got a chance to look at the living animal (which is perhaps why this work seems like such a leap forward from the fantastic tigers of earlier art).

Happy Epiphany! This holiday, also known variously as “Three Kings Day”, “Little Christmas”, and “Theophany,” celebrates the revelation of Christ to the gentiles. In ancient Christian tradition, Christmas has 12 days, starting upon December 25th when Mithras–I mean Jesus!–was born and ending when the wise men arrive to present their gifts and acknowledge Christ as king of Earth. Observed on January 6th, it also brings an end to the joyous Christmas season (which reminds me, I need to take down my tree this weekend…sigh). If you live your life in accordance with liturgical colors (which I find hard to imagine you doing unless you are the pope), January 6th marks the return to ordinary green.

When I was growing up, I always liked the three wise men, who seemed like cosmopolitan outsiders in the somewhat insular & Jewish world of the synaptic gospels. Plus I always played Melchior in Christmas pageants (with exotic orientalist “robes” and an inlaid mother-of-pearl jewelry box from my mother’s vanity table!

The Adoration of the Kings (Jan Gossaert, ca. 1515), oil on oak panel

Anyway, to properly celebrate this holiday-which-ends-the-holidays, here is a favorite artistic interpretation of the momentous visit by Flemish genius, Jan Gossaert. The painting has a sort of “find-these 30 hidden objects” quality to it (which is something I love about Flemish art), so it is worth really looking at it for a while. You might want to head over to the National Gallery’s website where you can really blow up the image to see the incredible details in every inch of the masterwork.

The kings’ names (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior) are not found in the Bible. In fact in the gospels they are not even kings but “wise men.” Apparently their name and rank came from 5th century AD Greek texts. Interestingly it was the venerable Bede (an 8th century Northumbrian monk) who first wrote of Balthasar being black! The kings’ diverse ethnicity later became their signature feature during the Renaissance (when Gossaert was painting) as the age of exploration brought newfound fascination with ethnology.

Hi everyone! Kindly forgive me for the terrible paucity of posts during the last week. I am back home, visiting my family in the rural fastnesses of old Appalachia/the post-industrial hinterlands of the Ohio Valley. It is so beautiful out here in August, when great cumulus clouds blow up over the soybean fields and oakwoods. Anyway, expect some pictures and posts about country living when I get back to my workstation in Brooklyn. In the meantime here is a drawing from my little moleskine sketchbook to tide you over.

Naumachia (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) watercolor and ink on paper

This is my vision of the fearsome naumachia, the naval gladiatorial combat of the ancient Greco-Roman world. In order to sate the Roman audience’s lust for novelty (and, um, blood, of course), the masters of the ancient games would sometimes flood the amphitheaters and host miniature ship battles on these tiny lakes. In my version there are some sea monsters thrown into the mix (and a saucy sea goddess sitting on the proscenium arch with a eurypterid in one arm and a merbabe in the other). In the upper left a port city carries on the commerce of the time, while the ruins of the even more ancient world can be seen in the upper right. In the lower right corner of the painting, citizens stumble around a peculiar lichyard with a tall mausoleum. Prdictably the pleasure garden in the lower left corner is quite empty. Perhaps it is for exclusive use of the nobles (or maybe I forgot to draw anyone in there). Why didn’t I at least include a peacock or some other ornamental garden beast? Last of all, a group of celebrity heralds, ringmasters, and spokespeople direct the attention of the audience from center stage. They could almost be mistaken for the game masters…and yet there is something curiously pupeetlike about them too, isn’t there? Who is really directing this theater of maritime carnage and for what purpose?

Fortunately this is a fantasy of the ancient world and the maritime devastation, pointless posturing, and savage competition have nothing to do with the way we live now…or DO they? [sinister chord]

On an unrelated note, I will be on vacation a bit longer. I truly apologize for how few blog posts I have posted lately and I solemnly vow to do better when I return from the countryside rested and refreshed. For now, check out my Instagram page, and I will see if I can find a fresh act to throw into the amphitheater for your delectation while I am gone. Perhaps the great science-fiction author, Dan Claymore, can once again tear his vision away from the dark world of the near future and take the helm. Or maybe I can find a skipper…er… author with entirely fresh perspectives (and a different moral compass) to sail Ferrebeekeeper to uncharted realms. So prepare yourself for anything…or for nothing at all.

The Olympics games continue in Tokyo and I wanted to put up a brief post to honor the festival (before going off to watch some more of the drama on television). This year’s Olympic controversies have featured plenty of questions about appropriate costumes, which strikes me as funny, since the original ancient Greek games were a largely nude affair. However, even in the ancient games there were exceptions. This 5th century Attic vase shows one of the most grueling non-nude events–the hoplitodromos–the race in armor.

A red-figure vase depicting an athlete running the hoplitodromos by “the Berlin Painter”, ca. 480 BC (collection of the Louvre)

Participants wore a heavy bronze helmet, metal greaves, and carried a heavy wooden shield (which was issued by the game organizers so as to prevent cheating). The hoplitodromos was thought to be so fundamentally different from fully nude footracing that no athlete could win at both, however, the greatest Olympic champion of classical antiquity, Leonidas of Rhodes, proved such opinions wrong by winning the premier short races and the hoplitodromos for 4 Olympics in a row.

The point of today’s post is not really to rhapsodize about Leonidas of Rhodes (whose glory remains undiminished after 2200 or so years), and to enjoy this exquisite red-figure vase by “The Berlin painter” an unknown master artist whose work still remains, even if his name has not survived. Of course, the Berlin painter was not really from Berlin (although his work wound up there), but was an Athenian of the golden era. Whatever his story was, he certainly knew how to portray the fatigue and the emotional pressure faced by ancient athletes competing in the armor race (we know that the figure on the vase is an athlete because he has neither sword nor cuirass…nor even a loincloth).

Jupiter and Ganymede (Roman, late 3rd century) mosaic

Yesterday’s post about the solar system’s largest moon, Ganymede, begs for a follow-up post about the myth of Ganymede. Ganymede was an adolescent Trojan prince known for his supreme comeliness. For some reason, the young prince was out slumming as a shepherd (which is a thing princes do in myths but not in real life) and this twinkish coquetry drove all-seeing Zeus into a lather. Overcome by lust, the king of the gods assumed the form of a giant eagle and grabbed the pretty prince up in his talons and carried him off to Olympus (leaving Ganymede’s distraught hound dog baying at the clouds). At Olympus, in the halls of the gods, Ganymede became the cupbearer (and favorite male concubine) of Zeus/Jupiter and was thus granted immortality and a sort of second-rate godhood. The whole tale is a sort of a gigolo apotheosis (although classical artists did not always portray Ganymede as a willing captive).

For various reasons, all sorts of artists have been attracted to the tale over the years. The magnificent sky-god eagle and the beautiful nude prince do indeed make for a really dramatic tableau. Yet my favorite visual representations of the story are Roman, like this gorgeous relief.

Abduction of Ganymede (unknown Greco-Roman sculptor, AD 140-150), marble relief

As slave-owning masters of the world, the Romans knew the ambiguous joys of love-by-command and somehow there is always a wistful hint of coercion and mortal sadness in Roman versions of the tale (perhaps the Greek sculptors forced to carve these pieces had some commentary of their own to add). For example, in the matchless piece above, the beautiful Ganymede wears a Phrygian cap (which was a cap from Phrygia, a conquered Roman province in Greece…but also the universally understood symbol of a manumitted slave). Now, that I come to think of it, Jove’s eagle was the symbol of the Roman Empire.

Ganymede feeding the Eagle (Roman, late first century), Marble

Of course, there is more than a hint of mortal sadness in the tale anyway. We mortals have a name for when the gods snatch away our favorite people and carry them off up to dwell in cloudtop palaces forever. Maybe this is why the Ganymede theme appears again and again in Roman sarcophagi and funerary art.

Here is an example which was carried off by the English at the height of their Empire and placed in the British Museum!
Flemish Flatfish (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) ink and watercolor on paper

Happy Solstice! I wanted to finish off the ocean theme and celebrate the longest day of the year by coloring one of my large flounder drawings (which I originally designed to be in a huge strange flatfish coloring book). Unfortunately, coloring the image took sooo long that the longest day of the year is now over! (and I am still not happy with the coloring–which turns out to be just as hard as I recall from childhood)

Anyway, here is a sky flounder with a Dutch still life on his/her body swimming over the flat sea by the low countries. Little Flemish details dot the composition (like the clay pipe at the bottom, the bagpiper by the beach, and Audrey Hepburn in a 17th century dress) however the endearing minutiae can not forever distract the viewer from larger themes of sacrifice and the ineluctable passage of time (both of which are fine ideas to contemplate on this druidic holiday).

As always, we will return to these ideas, but for now, happy summer!

The last few blossoms are dropping from the cherry tree and now even the late tulips are blooming. Spring has sprung and we are moving past cherry blossom season towards summer. Yet even though summer is my favorite season, I feel a melancholy pang every year when the blossoms flutter down. Time moves by so fast and nothing can arrest its inexorable passing…nothing except for the magic of art, that is! Therefore, here is my yearly blossom painting. I made this one with watercolor and ink and I was hoping to capture the transitory moment when the sun dips from the sky and the lanterns come on and yet the sky remains heavenly blue (it is an ephemeral moment of the day which mirrors the equinox moments of the year.

Kwanzan Cherry Tree in Brooklyn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Although the real subject of my picture is the blossoming cherry tree (the full beauty of which has, yet again, eluded me), I tried to capture some other garden delights–the crabapple tree blossoms (at far right), the dogwood blossoms (at top left), the riot of tulips, and the ornamental winter cabbage which somehow survived living under two feet of snow in January and February in order to bloom in May. One of my roommates is back there in her golden ochre coat looking at bingo on her phone and the faces of the garden statues can be glimpsed in the tulip beds. At the center of the picture is another wistful figure tinged with melancholia. My best friend is a tiny black cat with a dab of white who sneaked into the basement when she was a kitten. After the death of Sepia Cat back in March, Sumi Cat is now my only pet. She is as loving and domesticated as any cat I have met and sleeps in my arms at night (indeed she is cavorting on the keyboard this very moment, trying to type over what I am writing and command my attention). But Sumi has relatives on the outside. On the other side of the sliding door she has siblings and nieces and nephews who are not domesticated but live the short yet intense lives of feral cats. I think that is her sister’s daughter there in the garden (she looks identical to Sumi, except Sumi has a white fingerprint on her heart where Kwan Yin touched her), and I am always sad that I didn’t trap her and her brother (and their little siblings who vanished forever when they were the size of teacups) and drag them to the “Cats of Flatbush” cat rescue organization. Sigh. What are we going to do about the way of the world?

ghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghnhyhyhyhyuuuu (Sumi added that post script so I am putting in a little author picture below)

Sumi doesn’t really look like this at all..but black cats are impossible to photograph…

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