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OK…for a second Valentine’s Day post, I wanted to post a beautiful crown with a heart at the center, however, although that concept certainly exists in cartoons and illustrations…and as endless rhinestone costume crowns (see example above), the actual item proved difficult to find.   Yet, in the end, I did find such a crown.  This is the Milford Haven Ruby Tiara, a real golden tiara with a real heart shaped ruby.  It has found its way to the United Kingdom, but its history starts in Russia and runs through European nobility.

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Here is a quote which describes the head spinning history of the piece: “A gold tiara in kokoshnik form, set with faceted and cabochon rubies and diamonds in the form of stars and crescents, fleurs-de-lys, trefoils and a central radiant heart.  Several of the motifs can be detached and worn as brooches.  Made by Bolin, for the Grand Duke Michael Michaelovitch, grandson of Tsar Nicholas I, for his bride Sophie de Merenberg, Countess Torby.  It passed to his daughter, Countess Nadejda of Torby, who married Prince George of Battenberg (later the second Marquess of Milford Haven).”

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Whatever the provenance, it is a splendiferous headdress! The ruby heart is beautiful, but the overall balance of the composition is the real treat.  It looks like a magical spirit garden in heaven.  Who knew something so ostentatious could be so subtle?

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On Tuesday we wrote about the Red junglefowl, the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken.  To progress further with this Stendhalian color theme, here is a human-made chicken, crafted by means of artificial selection over the centuries—the Ayam Cemani—the back chickens of Java.  These amazing birds are all black.  I mean they are really black…so exceedingly black they make Kerry James Marshall weep with aesthetic envy.

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Not only do Ayam Cemani chickens have black feathers, black faces, black beaks, and black wattles, their very organs are black.  Even their bones are as black as India ink.  It would be downright disconcerting… if they didn’t wear it so stylishly.

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The birds’ black color is a sort of reverse of albinism—the Ayam Cemani chickens have a surfeit of pigment.  This is genetic condition is known as fibromelanosis.   For generations and generations farmers have selected it until they have produced this rooster who looks like he stepped into the barnyard from the event horizon of a black hole.

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Yet the Ayam Cemani is not completely black…they have red blood and they lay cream colored eggs (although they are unreliable sitters, so without fashionistas looking after the survival of the breed, they might vanish real fast).  Speaking of which, why did the Javans collectively make such a crazy striking animal?  The internet says that the chickens are used for ceremonial purposes and for meals, but it looks like an amazing work of intergenerational conceptual art to me.  If you want you can get some for yourself, but unless you are headed to Java, they are rare and cost thousands of dollars in the United States (if you can find a seller).  It looks like it might be money well spent though.  These are stunning roosters.  Let’s hope the year of the fire rooster is as stylish as they are (but maybe not quite so dark).

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OK, time to get 2017 started in earnest! I have some resolutions and ideas–and I’m looking forward to hearing your New Year plans too. But first there is extremely good news in the paper, so let’s lead with that:  the People’s Republic of China has announced that they are shutting down their national trade in ivory by the end of 2017.  The world’s most populous nation is by far the world’s largest ivory consumer: estimates suggest that it accounts for as much as 70% of ivory demand.  The tusks of slaughtered elephants reach the nation illegally and then become part of a vast economy of carvers, traders, dodgy antiques merchants, and suchlike sellers.  All of this is to feed the growing appetite of China’s new middle class, who are hungry for anything which confers status (but who do not necessarily understand just how sapient, compassionate, and irreplaceable elephants are).

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The ban is said to be a direct result of a meeting between the world’s two most powerful men, President Xi Jinping and President Obama, who laid the groundwork for a comprehensive ban when they met in Washington in 2015.  Obama tightened up surprisingly lax ivory rules in America in an effort to save the last proboscideans.  It is a great pleasure to see China’s leadership follow the same path.  The New York Times has noted that the ban is not just sound environmental policy, but also makes sense both politically and economically.  Perhaps other ivory-consuming nations will follow suite! I will be sure to praise their far-sighted leaders as well.

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However elephant conservationists must not pretend the Chinese ivory ban alone has saved our big gray friends. Elephants are in deep trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, and, above all, poaching still threaten the giants. Powerful forces in China (and even here, in the increasingly reactionary United States) will conspire to restart the ghastly trade.  Additionally the mayhem in central Africa which has allowed poachers to flourish is far from over.  Yet this unexpected boon from the Middle Kingdom is a cause for great hope. Let us thank our friends in China for their thoughtfulness and use their fine example as a cause to redouble our own efforts.  If we keep working together we can make sure elephants are still with us not just in 2017 but in all the years to come.

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Ferrebeekeeper has a great love of space-themed art. Yet the beginnings of western art as we know it today were not about space, but instead about religion. Christian iconography dominated: the heavens were not the literal heavens but instead the supernatural …uh…actually, never mind.  This is a fresco by Giotto from the Arena Chapel.  Giotto single-handedly reshaped the classical and medieval precepts of art (and remade our notion of visual culture).  The Arena Chapel is his masterwork–a project where Byzantine opulence, Christian devotion, linear perspective, and new Italian realism converged to give birth to the European artistic tradition (although, to be sure, Western art had many grandparents…and lots of weird uncles that were an influence before–and after–Giotto).

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Here is the birth of art…showing the birth of Christ, and there, proudly in the center of the composition, right above Jesus and the adoring Magi, is a comet which would not look out of place in nineteen-sixties space art.  The flying ball of fire points directly into the manger where the astonished kings (and their even more astonished camels pay homage to the new-born savior who has appeared as a refugee child).  It is a beautiful picture–and an unexpected appearance of outer space imagery right at the dawn of the 14th century as art began to manifest itself in familiar fashion.

 

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Here is a marble vase crafted by unknown Roman master artisans in the latter half of the 2nd century A.D.  Two beautiful sinuous snakes coil around the edges of a sumptuous ogee shaped body.  The snakes’ bodies form the handles for the vase which is covered in lovely double “S” curves (as is the lid which is surmounted by a finial).  There are no inscriptions on the vase, so it is unclear if it was a funerary vessel, but the shape was a characteristic one for cremated remains.  Likewise, snakes had a religious significance in classical society. They were regarded as sacred to the gods below the Earth.  These serpents certainly have knowing expressions appropriate for chthonic intermediaries who know the secrets of the underworld.  However snakes have always looked like that to me.  Can you imagine carving this…out of stone…by hand?  I am pretty good with my hands, but the idea of all these perfect matched curves is beyond me.  Whoever this vase was originally meant for, it is now a monument to the master makers who lived nearly two thousand years ago.  It is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art right here in New York–hopefully it will there sit on an elegant plinth while adoring crowds coo at it for another 2,000 years…yet the future has a disturbing way of eluding our hopes.

The November eclogue of the Shepheardes Calender is the best and strongest, but, alas, it is also the most mournful.  It is an elegy for a dead shepherd maiden.  The poetry actually accomplishes what some other parts of the work do not: it marries the allusions of ancient Rome and Greece with the Christian worldview of Early Modern England. Additionally  the poem alloys the Chaucerian English (which Spenser always looks back towards with such longing) with the modern English he used for writing and speaking.  The best parts of the poem anticipate metaphysical poetry…and maybe even some of Victorian verse.  If you listen to the sad yet thunderous music of the lament there is also not a little of Shakespeare in it: it is strange to be reminded that he had powerful antecedents and did not spring like Minerva from godhead.

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Shepheardes Calender XI: November.

Edmund Spenser

THENOT. COLIN.

Colin, my Dear, when shall it please thee sing,
As thou wert wont, Songs of some Jouisance
Thy Muse too long slumbereth in sorrowing,
Lulled asleep through Love’s misgovernance.
Now somewhat sing, whose endless Sovenance
Emong the Shepherds Swains may aye remain;
Whether thee list thy loved Lass advance,
Or honour Pan with Hymns of higher Vein.

COLIN.
Thenot, now nis the time of Merry-make,
Nor Pan to herie, nor with Love to play;
Sike Mirth in May is meetest for to make,
Or Summer Shade, under the cocked Hay.
But now sad Winter welked hath the Day,
And Phoebus weary of his yearly Task,
Ystablisht hath his Steeds in lowly lay,
And taken up his Inn in Fishes Hask,
Thilk sullen Season sadder Plight doth ask,
And loatheth sike Delights, as thou doost praise:
The mournful Muse in Mirth now list ne mask,
As she was wont in Youngth and Summer-days.
But if thou algate lust light Virelays,
And looser Songs of Love to underfong
Who but thy self deserves sike Poet’s Praise?
Relieve thy Oaten Pipes, that sleepen long.

THENOT.
The Nightingale is Sovereign of Song,
Before him fits the Titmouse silent be:
And I, unfit to thrust in skilful Throng,
Should Colin make judge of my foolery?
Nay, better learn of hem that learned be,
And han been watred at the Muses Well:
The kindly Dew drops from the higher Tree,
And wets the little Plants that lowly dwell.
But if sad Winter’s Wrath, and Season chill,
Accord not with thy Muse’s Merriment;
To sadder times thou maist attune thy Quill,
And sing of Sorrow and Death’s Dreriment,
For dead is Dido, dead alas and drent!
Dido, the great Shepherd his Daughter sheen:
The fairest May she was that ever went,
Her like she has not left behind I ween.
And if thou wilt bewail my woeful Teen,
I shall thee give yond Cosset for thy pain:
And if thy Rimes as round and rueful been,
As those that did thy Rosalind complain,
Much greater Gifts for Guerdon thou shalt gain,
Than Kid or Cosset, which I thee benempt;
Then up I say, thou jolly Shepherd Swain,
Let not my small Demand be so contempt.

COLIN.
Thenot, to that I chose, thou dost me tempt,
But ah! too well I wote my humble vein,
And how my Rimes been rugged and unkempt:
Yet as I con, my Cunning I will strain.

Up then Melpomene, the mournfulst Muse of nine,
Such cause of mourning never hadst afore;
Up grisly Ghosts, and up my ruful Rime,
Matter of Mirth now shalt thou have no more:
For dead she is, that Mirth thee made of yore,
Dido my Dear, alas, is dead,
Dead, and lieth wrapt in Lead:
O heavy Herse!
Let streaming Tears be poured out in store:
O careful Verse!

Shepherds, that by your Flocks on Kentish Downs abide,
Wail ye this woful Waste of Nature’s Wark:
Wail we the Wight, whose Presence was our Pride;
Wail we the Wight, whose Absence is our Cark.
The Sun of all the World is dim and dark;
The Earth now wants her wonted light,
And all we dwell in deadly Night;
O heavy Herse!
Break we our Pipes, that shrill’d as loud as Lark:
O careful Verse!

Why do we longer live, (ah why live we so long?)
Whose better Days Death hath shut up in Woe?
The fairest Flower our Girlond all among,
Is faded quite, and into Dust ygo;
Sing now ye Shepherd’s Daughters, sing no mo
The Songs that Colin made you in her praise,
But into Weeping turn your wanton Lays.
O heavy Herse!
Now is time to die: Nay, time was long ygo.
O careful Verse!

Whence is it, that the Flowret of the Field doth fade,
And lieth buried long in Winter’s Bale?
Yet soon as Spring his Mantle hath displayde,
It flowreth fresh, as it should never fail.
But thing on Earth that is of most avail,
As Vertue’s Branch and Beauty’s Bud,
Reliven not for any good.
O heavy Herse!
The Branch once dead, the Bud eke needs must quail:
O careful Verse!

She while she was, (that was a woful Word to sain)
For Beauty’s Praise and Pleasance had no Peer:
So well she couth the Shepherds entertain
With Cakes and Cracknels, and such Country Cheer.
Ne would she scorn the simple Shepherd’s Swain;
For she would call him often heam,
And give him Curds and clouted Cream.
O heavy Herse!
Als Colin Clout she would not once disdain:
O careful Verse!

But now sike happy Cheer is turn’d to heavy Chaunce,
Such Pleasance now displac’d by Dolor’s dint:
All Musick sleeps, where Death doth lead the Daunce,
And Shepherds wonted Solace is extinct.
The blue in black, the green in gray is tinct:
The gaudy Girlonds deck her Grave,
The faded Flowers her Corse embrave.
O heavy Herse!
Mourn now my Muse, now mourn with Tears besprint:
O careful Verse!

O thou great Shepherd Lobbin, how great is thy Grief,
Where bin the Nosegays that she dight for thee?
The coloured Chaplets wrought with a chief,
The knotted Rush-rings, and gilt Rosemaree?
For she deemed nothing too dear for thee.
Ah, they been all yclad in Clay,
One bitter Blast blew all away.
O heavy Herse!
Thereof nought remains but the Memoree:
O careful Verse!

Ay me that dreery Death should strike so mortal Stroke,
That can undo Dame Nature’s kindly Course:
The faded Locks fall from the lofty Oke,
The Flouds do gasp, for dried is their Source,
And Flouds of Tears flow in their stead perforce.
The mantled Meadows mourn,
Their sundry Colours tourn:
O heavy Herse!
The Heavens do melt in Tears without remorse:
O careful Verse!

The feeble Flocks in Field refuse their former Food,
And hang their Heads, as they would learn to weep:
The Beasts in Forest wail as they were wood,
Except the Wolves, that chase the wandring Sheep,
Now she is gone, that safely did hem keep.
The Turtle on the bared Branch,
Laments the Wound, that Death did lanch.
O heavy Herse!
And Philomel her Song with Tears doth steep:
O careful Verse!

The Water Nymphs, that wont with her to sing and dance,
And for her Girlond Olive Branches bear,
Now baleful Boughs of Cypress done advance:
The Muses that were wont green Bays to wear,
How bringen bitter Elder Branches sere:
The fatal Sisters eke repent,
Her vital Threed so soon was spent.
O heavy Herse!
Mourn now my Muse, now mourn with heavy Chear:
O careful Verse!

O trustless State of earthly things, and slipper Hope
Of mortal Men, that swink and sweat for nought,
And shooting wide, do miss the marked Scope:
Now have I learn’d (a Lesson dearly bought)
That nis on Earth assurance to be sought:
For what might be in earthly Mould;
That did her buried Body hold;
O heavy Herse!
Yet saw I on the Beere when it was brought:
O careful Verse!

But maugre Death, and dreaded Sisters deadly spight:
And Gates of Hell, and fiery Furies force;
She hath the Bonds broke of eternal Night,
Her Soul unbodied of the burdenous Corse.
Why then weeps Lobbin so without remorse?
O Lobb, thy Loss no longer lament;
Dido nis dead, but into Heaven hent:
O happy Herse!
Cease now my Muse, now cease thy Sorrow’s sourse,
O joyful Verse!

Why wail we then? why weary we the Gods with Plaints,
As if some Evil were to her betight?
She reigns a Goddess now emong the Saints,
That whylom was the Saint of Shepherds light;
And is enstalled now in Heavens hight.
I see the blessed soul, I see,
Walk in Elysian Fields so free.
O happy Herse!
Might I once come to thee (O that I might!)
O joyful Verse!

Unwise and wretched Men to weet what’s Good or Ill,
We deem of Death as doom of ill Desert:
But knew we, Fools, what it us brings until,
Die would we daily, once it to expert:
No Danger there the Shepherd can assert;
Fair Fields and pleasant Layes there been;
The Fields aye fresh, the Grass aye green:
O happy Herse!
Cease now my Song, my Woe now wasted is,
O joyful Verse!

Dido is gone afore (whose turn shall be the next?)
There lives she with the blessed Gods in Bliss;
There drinks she Nectar with Ambrosia mixt,
And Joys enjoys, that mortal Men do miss.
The Honour now of highest Gods she is,
That whylom was poor Shepherds Pride,
While here on Earth she did abide:
O happy Herse!
Cease now my Song, my Woe now wasted is:
O joyful Verse!

THENOT.
Aye frank Shepherd, how been thy Verses meint
With doleful Pleasance, so as I ne wot,
Whether rejoyce or weep for great constraint?
Thine be the Cosset, well hast thou it got.
Up Colin up, ynough thou mourned hast:
Now ‘gins to mizzle, hie we homeward fast.

COLIN’S EMBLEM.
La mort ny mord.

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The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple or Thiruvarangam is a colossal temple to the Hindu god Vishnu (or, more specifically, it is dedicated to Ranganātha, a reclining form of Vishnu).  Located on an island in the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu, the temple is one of the most illustrious (and largest) temples in India. The complex includes 21 monumental ornamental towers (including the 72 meter (236 foot)  Rajagopuram), 39 pavilions, fifty shrines, all within a 156 acre complex which includes six miles of concentric walls.  The shrines, walls, and towers are bedecked in stunning stone statuary painted in all of the brilliant colors of South India.

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The story of the temple’s creation is steeped in Hindu myth: Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu completed his devotions to Vishnu by worshiping a mysterious idol.  After killing Ravana and returning victorious from Sri Lanka (as detailed in the Ramayana) Rama gave this sacred statue to King Vibhishana.  The king planned on taking the statue to Sri Lanka, but when he set it down while resting on an island, it became rooted to the spot.

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The temple itself was built by the Chola Dynasty, India’s longest lived dynasty.  There is a further legend of the temple’s construction: a Chola king chased a parrot into the deep forest and found the idol overgrown by jungle.  He built the complex around the statue and the temple was maintained and expanded by the great dynasties of Southern India–the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties.  The oldest parts of the building seem to date back to the 10th century AD, but written sources do not accurately convey the precise chronology.  The great temples of South India are themselves primary historical sources, but alas, they are not as particular about dates as historians might like.

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It is difficult to even begin to describe the sumptuous beauty and complexity of the ornaments of Sri Ranganathaswamy.  The colorful and intricate statues of the figures from Vishnu’s lives and incarnations have an otherworldly and alien beauty not found elsewhere.  Nor will I attempt to  describe the meaning of Vishnu’s iconography (although if you are as smitten by his reclining beauty as I am you can read about Ananta Shesha, the many headed cobra god which serves as his divine couch).

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Autumn3.jpgI’m sorry.  November is flying by on russet wings and still I have posted no photos of autumn color!  i meant to write about beautiful autumn foliage, but, with one thing or another, I never managed to get out of New York. So…the only thing to do was to head out to my garden in Brooklyn and take some leaf pictures at home.

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Autumn gardens have their own chaotic beauty of fallen leaves, brown spots, and jagged red vines.  Plus it has been warm this year so there are still plenty of flowers.

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However the queen of the garden, as always, is the ornamental Kwanzan cherry tree, which is nearly as beautiful covered in glowing yellow leaves as it is in summer wearing bright grass green…or even in spring when it is a lambent pink cloud.  I love that tree!

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José de Ribera (1591 – 1652) was one of the greatest of Spanish artists. I paint–I studied very seriously with a master portraitist for many years–and I can usually understand how a painting was put together and executed, but the craftmanship of Ribera paintings tends to stand beyond my comprehension. When I come across one of his works in a museum, the dazzling virtuosity leaves me stupefied. He should be one of the foremost of the old masters…his name upon every lip like Rembrandt, Tintoretto, or Caravaggio. Yet in the museum, I see the other visitors turn away from his canvases.

Though a Spaniard, Ribera studied in Italy, and spent most of his life working there. In the 17th century, the peninsula was divided by great powers, and Spain, at the zenith of its empire, controlled the Kingdom of Naples. Ribera, a Spaniard who painted exquisitely in the Italian style was the favorite of the Spanish viceroys who ruled Naples. Ribera is an exceedingly great painter, but he was an exceedingly dark painter…a Tenebrist, and he is said to have had a matching dark personality. There are whispers that he utilized ruthless court intrigue and outright violence to monopolize worthwhile artistic commissions in Naples (a city with its own shadowside and a sinister history). This brings us to today’s dark artwork which I have put at the top of the post. This is “Apollo and Marsyas” (Jusepe de Ribera, 1637, oil on canvas). Ribera’s art combined the dark action and shadowy super-realism of Caravaggio with the deliquescent supernatural otherworldiness of Corregio (a puissant and disquieting combination). Here is the nightmare denouement of the tale of Apollo and Marsyas (you should reacquaint yourself with the myth if you are unfamiliar). A pure black diagonal bar slashes across the composition: Marsyas is inside that void, upside down, screaming in agony as the flaying begins. Apollo looms above him, both an omnipotent god and an implacable killer. His red cloak billows behind him like a tunnel of blood through which he has burst into the mortal world. The witnesses look on in dazed shock or scream outright at the nature of the proceedings. The instruments of music are cast aside forgotten, as violence and pain take center stage. It is a bloodbath on canvas–a horror movie painted by the matchless hand of an all-time master.

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And here is where Ribera goes wrong. The son of a shoe-maker painted his way to unparalleled wealth and status. Through his hard work and ruthless machinations, his family was enobled, but the struggle cast shadows across his work. There is real sadism in the beautiful and intent visage of Apollo as he fingers the incarnadine slit. There is true pain in the inverted face of Marsyas. Look at the other works of Ribera–they are all so gorgeous…but they are all so awful. In the allegory of Apollo and Marsyas, a personal challenge each artist must face, Ribera cast himself as Apollo. He and his art failed a moral challenge. Look upon it, dear reader, are there tests which you are failing too?

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This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.

Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.

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Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?

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Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.

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