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Earlier this week I wrote about the (alleged) crown of Montezuma.  The main element of that crown was not a gem or gold structural elements, but the exquisite iridescent emerald feathers of Pharomachrus mocinno, the resplendent quetzal.  These birds live in the rainforests of Central America from southern Mexico down across Guatemala and into western Panama.  They are solitary birds which generally eat fruit (which they supplement with small animals).  They are weak fliers and are preyed on by hawks, eagles, owls, and even toucanets and squirrels (it must be embarrassing to be eaten by a small mean toucan or a squirrel).

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Because of their exquisite feathers resplendent quetzals were associated with the flying snake god Quetzalcotl by various Mesoamerican civilizations.  Elite individuals of the Maya and the Aztecs did indeed wear headdresses made from quetzal feathers, and it was taboo to kill the bird.  Feathers were collected from captured birds which were set free (for quetzals do not flourish in captivity).  They were seen as symbols of divinity, freedom, and wealth (Guatemalan money is known as the quetzal).

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I wish I could tell you more about this jewel-like bird, but they quietly keep their secrets.  A myth of the conquest is that before Spaniards came to the Americas, quetzals sang beautifully and had plain breasts, but since that time their breasts have been red with blood and they have been silent.  They do indeed seem to be a stupendous visual phenomenon (like today’s post which is really about the pictures of this exquisite animal).

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To my delight, I discovered that, against all odds, the crown of the Aztec Empire is (apparently) still extant.  Allegedly, the Conquistadors hung onto Montezuma’s original feathered headdress and brought it back to Europe where it found its way into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family who put it in a scary museum somewhere in Vienna. However, as I tried to find out more about the crown of Montezuma, I ended up reading more about the Aztecs.  Now, I always regarded the Aztecs as a death-cult society built on top of a base of cruel slavery and vicious warfare.  The truth is more complicated.  The “empire” was really a grand alliance of three neighboring city-states from the Valley of Mexico. The Triple Alliance (as the Aztecs called themselves) conquered the surrounding tribes and kingdoms through war and political/cultural means, yet whenever this alliance took over a new region they left the nobility and social structures intact and “ruled” through extracting tribute and demanding other cultural concessions.  Their “flower wars” were not traditional wars of conquest familiar to say, the Romans or the French, but highly stylized affairs…however the (pre-ordained) losers were indeed sacrificed to appease the astonishing yet bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec pantheon.

We will come back to all of this later this week.  For right now, let’s get back to the crown of Montezuma II.  This beautiful item is remarkable in many ways, but, um, being “real” isn’t necessarily one of them (speaking of which, the original is pictured at the top of the post , and the other pictures are museum reproductions).  The provenance of this headdress (if it is a headdress) is highly disputed.  Not only does it not match the (questionable) illustrations we have of Aztec headdresses, but also the 16th century records about the piece have some holes .  According to lore the crown was seized during the conquest of Mexico (ca. 1520) and sent back to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.  The piece is then recorded in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II in Ambras (near Innsbruck Austria) in 1575.  It became an object of fascination in the mid to late 19th century. Since it is made from delicate iridescent feathers (which fade over time) the crown was “restored” in 1878.  the European restorers used kingfisher feathers and restored it as a standard (a sort of flag as opposed to a “Moorish hat” (which is how it was recorded in the Grand Duke’s collection).

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The restored crown is over a meter in height and 1.75 meters across (4 feet by 6 feet).  it is crafted of layers of feathers, which seem to have conferred certain spiritual significance in the afterlife (and in the Aztec court, where special feather workers were kept to work with innumerable caged birds).  The layers of feathers are described in detail on Wikipedia:

“The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long.”

To conclude, I have written about a emperor’s crown which is not necessarily a crown for an empire which was not necessarily an empire.   Everything in this post is suspect. Our fundamental view of the Aztecs (who didn’t even call themselves that) seems as questionable as this imperial crown.  Yet, despite these very real questions, the crown of Montezuma today has become the focus of an intense political campaign to return the piece to Mexico.  Austria and Mexico exchange diplomatic statements about it and teams of scientists and ethnologists study the fragile treasure. Whether it actually belonged to Montezuma or not, the piece definitely seems to be an Aztec artifact of enormous significance and equally great beauty.   It is as splendid–or perhaps more splendid– as any of the other crowns I have written about, yet it is sad too, with its bloody history, its ongoing mysteries, and the contemporary conflict which swirls around it. The fact that it is made of fragile feathers of  long gone birds gives it additional beauty and pathos.

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Meanwhile…three quarters of a billion kilometers away, the Juno space probe continues its exploration of the gas giant Jupiter.   The probes orbit brings it to within 4,200 kilometers (2500 miles) of the cloudtops once every 53 days.  So far, Juno has made 10 such passes (out of a planned 12 before the mission’s end in July).  As the astrophysicists and planetary scientists work to make sense of mission data, NASA has made the raw image data available to the world.  Private citizens have used it to create these stunning images of the largest world in the Solar System.  Since I can’t even begin to explain the vast atmospheric complexities behind these swirling psychedelic wonders, I will leave them here without comment.  Marvel at our huge planetary neighbor with its marbelized super storms and spare a moment to thank Gerald Eichstädt & Seán Doran for putting these amazing pictures together.

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Ferrebeekeeper’s love of gardens is well known, but there is an aspect of gardens which I love nearly as much as the gardens themselves.  Yet they are not really plants or gardens.  They can be found beyond the garden in public squares or in the center of deserts…in preschools or in abandoned palaces.  I am speaking, of course, of fountains and I intend to put a lot more images of ornamental water features on this blog.  To start with I am featuring this ornate geometric tree fountain from an unknown location in Morocco.  I guess if I had a fountain I would want a baroque fountain with lots of river gods and naked nymphs and ogee shapes…but the Islamic conception of sumptuously tiled fountains with beautiful arabesque curves made of filigree might be just as elegant.  I will post more pictures of these treasures…and I also need to write about the Lote Tree (I have a suspicion the tree in this fountain might allude to it (but who can say).  There is more to follow!  Thanks for bearing with me.  Sometimes the fountain is a rivulet and sometimes it is a mighty torrent but it is always flowing.

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My garden this year was not necessarily the magical success which I had hoped for it to be…but that’s ok, I can just write about someone else’s garden.  My go-to garden for this kind of lazy blogging is Longwood Garden, a magical gilded age paradise in Chester County Pennsylvania which was the summer seat of the DuPont family.

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Autumn is not the traditional apex of the gardening season, however Longwood Garden is such a stupendous garden that its planners can insouciantly eschew such conventional thinking.  Every season is the apex of the gardening season there…up to and including winter (which is no petty feat in our temperate clime).  To celebrate late autumn, Longwood created a Chrysanthemum festival with thousands of chrysanthemums agonizingly shaped into geometric forms by otherworldly patience (and by weird sadistic potting contraptions).

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The effect is stupendous—it’s like what would happen if the world were invaded and colonized by beautiful alien flowers with a disturbing penchant for symmetry (although I guess that sort of did happen at the end of the Cretaceous).  I hope someday I manage to actually get to Longwood to see the Chrysanthemum Festival in person.  These pictures never do justice to the ineffable power of their pleasure gardens.  The show runs until November the 19th so maybe my East Coast readers want to visit too.

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Happy Halloween! I am celebrating by taking the day off and presenting nothing other than a gallery of amazing old prints of epic snake monsters!  Be sssssafe and have fun!

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In Hindu mythology there was an entire class of intelligent beings who were snakes—the nāgas (a male is a nāga: a female is a nāgī or nāgiṇī). In contemporary Hinduism the nagas are regarded as the protectors of springs, wells, streams, and rivers.  Sometimes nagas assume human form (with all of the abilities, appurtenances, and liabilities) but largely they are huge beautiful king cobras. The nagas tend to live in their own realm, Pātāla, the seventh of the nether kingdoms, yet they appear in other places too and interact with gods, mortals, demons, and animals.  Neither evil nor entirely good, the nagas have their own enmities, problems, and tales (although these intersect sometimes with the human protagonists of Hinduism’s great epics and myths).

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A particular problem of the nagas is the swift and terrible eagle god Garuda, who is an enemy to the serpent people. He despises them because once he was their slave (through a complex family geas which you will have to look up on your own).  Garuda escaped this servitude by bringing the potion of immortality to the nagas, but, as soon as he presented it to them and escaped his servitude, he spilled the potion upon the sword grass.  The nagas desperately licked up the remnants from the razor grass…but it is a bit unclear whether they attained immortality or not—the grasss certainly cut their tongues most cruelly and nagas (and snakes) have forked tongues up to this day.

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The world itself rests on the head of a naga. The naga prince Shesha practiced such astringent asceticism that Brahma became amazed by him.  Shesha’s body (which was already that of a snake) became so knotted and powerful and slender that he slipped downward into a hole which lead all the way to the bottom of the world.  There Brahma entrusted him with the sacred burden of holding the entire planet and all of us.

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With this in mind, it is unsurprising that in certain parts of India, Bali, and Nepal, the naga are worshiped.  Nag stones are a particular object of cultic reverence. Cobras likewise are venerated.

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My grandfather grew up in West Virginia (where snakes are taboo in accordance with longstanding Judeo-Christian cultic practice) but his work took him around the world–which was not quite so homogeneous in the 40s, 50s, and 60s! When I was a child he used to tell me stories of the nagas and their struggles.  He also told me that one of the defining moments of strangeness in his life was when he was passing through South India and saw a woman put out a saucer for (what grandpa assumed was) a pet.  He was surprised when she squeezed some breast milk into it, but stunned when a huge glistening cobra crawled out of a wall and lapped up the milk.

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Here is a very beautiful painting by Pre-Raphaelite luminary Evelyn de Morgan.  This work is titled The Angel with the Serpent and it was completed between 1870 and 1875. Although the work is a religious allegory, its meaning is surprisingly elusive.  In Judeo-Christian myth, the serpent represents sexuality, subversiveness, knowledge (and evil). These meanings certainly pertain to this work, yet the angel’s tenderness for the snake seems to suggest that God has wrought these aspects of existence too.

Admittedly this painting might depict a world before the fall (the sumptuous flowering bush and the bare lands beyond hint at this possibility).  Is the handsome angel in the red robes Lucifer before he was cast down?  Even if this painting does depict the time of Eden, it still suggests that the snake was always part of God’s plan and is dear to the Divinity and his agents (a forbidden idea which raises numerous troubling questions).

I am presenting the painting not just so you ponder the metaphorical meanings of Genesis (although I hope you are doing so), but also to introduce my Halloween week theme of supernatural snakes.  Ferrebeekeeper is no stranger to snake deities and monsters at all levels, but snakes have always been part of every mythos except for those of the farthest north and so there are plenty more to get to.  Enjoy Evelyn de Morgan’s lovely painting and get used to numinous snakes–we are going to see some amazing scales and forked tongues before next Tuesday!

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One of the great classical forms of Chinese porcelain is the Lonquan ewer. These green-glazed wine vessels are named for the the Longquan kiln complex in (what is now the) Zhejiang province of South China. The ewers originated in the Song dynasty and the form was characteristic up until the Ming dynasty—but perhaps the heyday of Lonquan ware was during the Yuan dynasty when Mongols ruled China. I suspect most (or all) of these examples are from the Yuan dynasty. Look at the beautiful pear form of the vessels and the sinuous grace of the handles.

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Today we head to the other side of the world to check out a very special mollusk— the black lip oyster (Pinctada margaritifera). This oyster is a suspension feeder which thrives in tropical coral seas amidst the colorful darting fish, exquisite anemones, and amazing biodiversity of reef life. The black lip oyster lives from the Persian Gulf, throughout the northern Indian Ocean across the IndoPacific divide up to Japan and around the islands of Micronesia, and Polynesia. However it is not the oyster’s (enviable) lifestyle that makes it famous, but what it produces –Tahitian pearls aka black pearls.
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Tahitian pearls are one of the four great categories of cultured pearls. They occur in a rainbow variety of colors but mostly are charcoal, silver, or dark green with an iridescent sheen of green, purple, silver, blue, or gold. Since the black lip oyster is an exceedingly large mollusk, which can grow to weight of more than 4 kilograms (8-10 pounds), it can produce a capacious harvest of cultured pearls and can also produce extremely large pearls. The name black pearls is evocative and poetic and descriptive (since the pearls are dark), however true black Tahitian pearls are rare and precious.
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When I was growing up in southwest Ohio, far from the beach, I remember encountering all sorts of stories concerning black pearls–thrilling tales of pearl divers, pirates, mermaid, giant Manta rays and such-like exoticism of a past era–however seemingly the internet, globalized commerce, and industrial aquaculture have taken some of the luster from these bright dreams (or do preadolescents still have feverish conversations about black pearls?). Maybe that was all because of the eighties and that decades taste for the darkly exotic and colorful….yet whatever the tastes and tides of fashion, I still find black pearls remarkably beautiful, and I would like to seek out some crowns and myths for you to adorn Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category. Hopefully I can avoid being cursed by a manta ray spirit (which, in retrospect, sounds beautiful and gentle)…but I promise nothing!
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