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I love spring. Whoever designed the garden behind the Brooklyn townhouse I live in felt the same way. This unknown benefactor from the past planted three beautiful flowering trees which come into blossom at the same time (um, and a holly, but we’ll talk about that another time). The king of these trees (and maybe of all flowering trees is the Kwanzan flowering cherry (which I have celebrated in spring of years past, but there is also a dogwood and a purple crabapple.
I have been trying to plant flowers which come into blossom at the same time as the trees so as to have a perfect week of flowers. The tulips which I have found that work best are Leen Van Der Mark and Don Quichotte. Miami Sunset also unexpectedly bloomed at the same time (as did some white jonquils, which I rescued from a neighbor’s garden when it was replaced with turf).
This year the bleeding hearts (a perfect Brooklyn flower) also bloomed at the same time as the tree. There are also some primroses, hellebores, violas, and pansies in there too, but being a different scale, it is hard to see them. The April blossom garden is a success, but May should have some delights too, in the form of the iris, the peonies, and the azalea. Hopefully my Hydrangea was not nipped by the March blizzard to the point it will have no blossoms, this year. I guess we’ll find out. In the mean time enjoy the flowers!
Today we present one of the treasures of the Louvre—a duck shaped cosmetics kit from a tomb at Minet el-Beida—a Levantine city which stood beside the ancient harbor of Ugarit (which is in what is today (or was yesterday) Syria). One of the pegs is a pivot and the other is a clip. By pulling one out, the lid can be swung opened to access the powder or ointment within.
The duck was carved out of Hippopotamus ivory by a master craftsperson of long ago. It was made in Ugarit in 1300 or 1200 BC—roughly contemporary with Mycenaean civilization. There were civilizations ringing the Mediterranean in this era—Hittites, Amorites, Mycenaeans & Cretans, Ilrians, Trojans, Etruscans, and Cimmerians. They traded with distant cultures like the Harrapans and Iberians. To the south was the great kingdom of Egypt. Indeed, this duck is a creation made possible by the flourishing trade of this era. It is of African ivory, but was made in Ugarit.
Around 1200, mysterious barbarian hordes from the west swept away this entire world. These “sea people” swamped each kingdom in turn and swept it away—until the Egyptian army commanded by the god-king Ramses III (first pharaoh of the 20th dynasty) halted their advance around 1180. Alas, Ugarit was destroyed and burned to the ground by the uncouth barbarians who had no care for trade, however we still have this exquisite makeup duck to remember the city of traders and priests and farmers and charioteers. With its enigmatic expression and wide shocked eyes, there is something sad about the duck, but there is a comic playfulness too.
I wonder if 3300 years from now our cities and lives will be boiled down to a single tragicomic plastic makeup kit in an unvisited room in a museum in a yet unfounded city. It is a disturbing thought.
Today we have an AMAZING post which comes to us thanks to good fortune (and the tireless work of archaeologists). Datong is an ancient city in Shanxi, a province in north-central China. The Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology has been excavating 31 tombs from throughout the city’s long history. One of the tombs was a circular “well” tomb from the Liao dynasty. The circular tomb featured four fresco murals painted on fine clay (and separated by painted columns of red). These paintings show servants going about the business of everyday life a thousand years ago: laying out fine clothes and setting the table. One panel just shows stylized cranes perched at a window/porch. The cremated remains of the dead upper class couple who (presumably) commissioned the grave were found in an urn in the center of the tomb.
The tomb dates from the Liao Dynasty, which flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries. Attentive readers, will note that this is the same timeframe as the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), which Ferrebeekeeper is forever extolling as a cultural and artistic zenith for China (although sadly, I can never seem to decide whether to call it “Song” or “Sung”). Well the Song dynasty was a time of immense cultural achievement, but the Song emperors did not unify China as fully as other empires. The Liao Dynasty was a non-Han dynasty established by the Khitan people in northern China, Mongolia, and northern Korea. To what extent the Liao dynasty was “Chinese” (even the exact nature of whom the Khitan people were) is the subject of much scholarly argument. But look at these amazing paintings! Clearly the Khitan were just as creatively inspired as their neighbors to the south—but in different ways.
The cranes have a freshness and verve which is completely different from the naturalism of Song animal painting and yet wholly enchanting and wonderful in its own right. The beautiful colors and personality-filled faces of the servants bring a bygone-era back to life. Look at the efficient artistic finesse evident in the bold colorful lines. If you told me that these images were made last week by China’s most admired graphic novelist, I would believe you.
These murals are masterpieces in their own right, but they are also a reminder that Ferrebeekeeper needs to look beyond the most famous parts of Chinese history in order to more fully appreciate the never-ending beauty and depth of Chinese art.
Every year when the month of March rolls around, Ferrebeekeeper writes about Irish mythology. It is a dark cauldron to sip from, but the taste has proven to be all-too addictive. We have explained leprechauns (and returned to the subject to ruminate about what the little imps really portend). We have written about the sluagh–a haunted swarm of damned spirits in the sky. I have unflinchingly described the Leannán Sídhe, a beautiful woman who drains the blood of artists into a big red cauldron and takes their very souls (which should be scary—but the immortal nightmarish wraith who eats the hearts of artists and bathes in their blood is an amateur at tormenting creative people when compared with the title insurance office where I work during the day), and we have read the sad story of Oisín the bard, who lived for three gorgeous years in Tír na nÓg with the matchless Niamh…ah, but then…
Hey, speaking of Ireland and bards what is with that big harp which appears on everything Irish? Is it just…a harp? Well, I am glad you asked. There are some who say that the harp of Ireland is indeed just a harp, albeit a harp which represents the proud and ancient tradition of bardic lore passed down from the pre-Christian Celts. There are others though who claim it IS the harp of Oisín, which was lost somewhere in his sad story (set aside in a in a spring grove as he leapt onto the white horse behind Niamh maybe, or left across the sea in Tír na nÓg…or dropped from withering hands beside an ancient churchyard…or safely hidden forever in the hearts of the Irish people ). But there is an entirely different myth too.
Some people say the heraldic harp of Ireland was originally the Daghda’s harp. Daghda was a warrior demigod (or maybe just an outright god) famous for his prowess, his appetite, his thirst…and apparently also for his amazing music. His harp could enchant people to brave deeds in battle…or to sleep in accordance with the Daghda’s mood. But once, before the Battle of Moytura, his harp was stolen by Formorian warriors who hoped to thereby steal the magic confidence, esprit, and bravery which the harp gave to the Tuatha de Dannan.
Daghda was a different man without his harp, and so he searched long and wide to find the secret stronghold where the Formorians had it hung upon the wall. He managed to sneak into the castle, but before he could get away, he was discovered and the entire Formorian army advanced on him.
Ah, but the Daghda had his harp back. First he played a song so hilarious that the entire host of his enemies stopped advancing on him to howl with mirth, however, as soo as he stopped playing, they stopped laughing and made for him. Immediately Daghda started playing a song of terrible sadness, and the Formorians’ eyes filled with tears and they began to wail inconsolably. This held them a bit longer, but alas, when he stopped playing, they stopped crying. The great multitude almost had him, when he decided to play a lullaby–shades of Hermes and Argus! Daghda did not sing the formorian warriors to their death, as soon as they were properly asleep he stole off, but the trick of fighting with art and music instead of swords has stayed in the irish heart—to the extent that it had become the national seal.
The harp has changed in this story—and it has changed on the coat of arms too. Once, in the time of the Irish Kingdom it was a winsome bare-breasted woman-harp, but today it is a meticulous historical recreation of an ancient medieval Irish harp. I wonder what it will look like in the future?
Happy Holi! Today is the festival of color and spring is close at hand (although it doesn’t feel that way in New York where the city is girding itself for a massive blizzard). We might not be in the tropical subcontinent (indeed, we might be under 3 feet of snow), but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate some vivid color—even if I can’t literally throw it in your face.
Now I love all of the glowing shades of Holi. Indeed, with typical Hindu heterogeneousness, the festival does not have one or two colors associated with it like parsimonious western holidays, but it is a festival of all color. However I think the most typical Holi color in my mind is the glowing beautiful magenta which you always see in pictures of Holi. Where did that crazy color originate?
Well, actually it seems like the beautiful purples and magentas of Holi are natural and come from boiled beetroot (or sometimes kachnar powder). This amazing glowing color comes from betacyanins–antioxidant phytonutrients which are always causing nutritionists to swoon because of anti-inflammatory benefits. You may recognize the hue from fancy boiled eggs—and apparently beetroot can also be used to dye yarn and fabric.
I would love to talk more about this exquisite magenta, but according to an earlier post, it doesn’t exist. That is a paradoxical conclusion to reach on the holiday of colors, but Holi comes from the same cosmology which gave us Kali, the goddess of destruction—and ultimate creation. Ponder the vicissitudes of color and non-color as we gear up for spring and have a happy Holi!
Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter. It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary). Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry. The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.
I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful. The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power. Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages. However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration). The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.
Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)
This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival). Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention. There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.
Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness. The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food. The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict. Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea. Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers. His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden. Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy. Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden. The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.
Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness. That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power. Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement. Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).
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.
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).”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.