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Mary Magdalene (Carlo Crivelli, ca. 1487, tempera on panel)

Here is another painting by the underappreciated 15th century master Carlo Crivelli (whose enigmatic biography is sketched in this post concerning a beautiful Madonna and Child which he painted around 1480).  Crivelli’s paintings have been called grotesque—and there is no denying that there is something alien, and disturbing—and thrilling–about his works.  Maybe that is why he is so often out of favor in the art world compared to his more admired Quattrocento contemporaries (although his paintings have lingered on for more than half a millenium in our greatest museums and collections).

In this extremely vertical composition, a richly attired Mary Magdalene proffers a golden jar of ointment to the viewer with haughty languor.  With her right hand she lifts the jeweled vessel of salve while her left hand lifts up the pink folds of her exquisite gown. As always in Crivelli’s work, the rich details and dazzling colors pull our eyes around the composition to the weird details.  At the bottom is a garland of dull faced putti with insect wings who rest their heads on elephant-headed vine creatures. Sumptuous flowers with beguiling petals (but grasping roots and piercing thorns) frame Mary’s gilded head.  The overly ornate golden filigree of her chemise resembles fungi and lichen.  Her jewel crusted hair is so perfectly coiffed, it resembles the work of a Etruscan jeweler rather than actual human hair.

The weird details continuously distract us from the crowning achievement of the painting: Mary’s beautiful Byzantine face with sloe eyes, arch brows, and tiny chiseled mouth.  Here at last there is humanity and true beauty, but distorted through the alien  mannerism of the painters of Constantinople (which finally fell to the Turks in Crivelli’s lifetime).  The whole composition reeks with the perfume of unknown realms.  The prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair is entirely subsumed by the riches of a fabled past.  Renaissance art turned toward the human, but Crivelli’s heart was always with the Byzantines, looking toward impossible otherworldly splendor.

A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color.  The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.

I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna.  But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color?  A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog.  According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph.  While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.

La Découverte de la Pourpre (Peter Paul Ruben, ca. 1636, oil sketch)

Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct.  Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family.   Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.

The mucous secretion of a murex: the snail s use the discharge for hunting and to protect their eggs from microbes

Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite.  To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment.  Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.

Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used.  In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators.  By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian the Great

The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century.  The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.

Tyrian Purple

The Crown of Saint Stephen (AKA The Holy Crown of Hungary)

The crown of Saint Stephen (also known as the Holy Crown of Hungary) is not merely fancy headgear worn by the monarch of Hungary. By ancient tradition, the crown has legal personhood and is the monarch of Hungary—its wearer is simply the vehicle for its sovereign authority. For example, Charles Robert of Anjou had to be crowned thrice as Charles I of Hungary “because it was not until he was crowned with the Holy Crown, in 1310, that the coronation was seen as legally binding.”

Saint Stephen Wearing the Crown of Saint Stephen (not made until a century after his death)

The crown’s name comes from the myth that Saint Stephen, the first king of Hungary, offered the crown to the Nagyboldogasszony–the Virgin Mary in 1031 AD as he lay on his deathbed with no obvious heirs. The crown is actually of more recent–and more prosaic lineage. It is a kamelaukion-type crown, typical of Byzantine rulers of the 12th century and was probably fashioned during the reign of Béla III (1172-1196) by Byzantine goldsmiths. It consists of three separate pieces: the lower diadem or corona greca, the upper bands called the corona latina, and the cross at the apex–which was added much later (probably during the sixteenth century). Constructed out of solid gold, the crown is decorated with nineteen enamel paintings as well as semi-precious stones, genuine pearls, and almandine (which is a garnet-family mineral–not some sort of nut paste). There are four ornamental pendants hanging from chains on each side of the crown and one pendant dangling from the back.

Because the Crown of Saint Stephen so thoroughly embodies sovereignty over Hungary, it has been stolen, moved, hidden, or annexed many times. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 when Hungary attempted to throw off the Austrian yoke and be free of the Hapsburgs, the crown was spirited away by Lajos Kossuth, the theatrical leader of the resistance. Kossuth buried the crown in a wooden coffer in a willow forest, near Orşova in Transylvania. It was not until 1853 that it was dug up (along with the other royal jewels) and returned to the Austro-Hungarian emperor’s royal castle in Buda. During the age of nationalism and strife surrounding the first and second World Wars, the crown became the focus of right wing Hungarian propaganda. Miklós Horthy the pro-fascist regent of Hungary from 1920-1944, tied the crown to his regency and to the concept of regaining control of the so-called Lands of Saint Stephen. Horthy allied Hungary to Nazi Germany in order to attain his goal of control over certain Carpathian territories.  Hungary paid a dreadful price for the alliance:being first attacked in 1944 by its nominal German allies and then by the red army and the allied armies. On 4 May 1945, the U.S. 86th Infantry Division (the “blackhawks” of the Danube) captured the Crown of Saint Stephen. For most of the cold war, the crown sat in Fort Knox, Kentucky until Jimmy Carter returned it to the Hungarian people in 1978.

What? How did Jimmy Carter get into this story?

The crown’s most distinctive feature, its crooked cross, was added during the sixteenth century by metal workers less gifted than the original makers. The cross was not meant to be crooked—some unnamed person sloppily stowed the crown in a trunk and bent the crucifix by closing the lid too quickly.

Just look at the cross! This is why you can't have nice things....

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