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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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Here we are in the hottest months of the year—the Shepheardes Calender year that is (uh, and the real year too, I guess).  I must confess, sometimes Spenser’s 16th century political allusions and classical references (and even his religious homilies and analogies) leave me confounded and sorely vex’d.  However in July, the poetic meter suddenly takes on a chantlike quality and the allegorical meaning of the text becomes more straightforward too (and more familiar to my Protestant Appalachian roots—in attitude if not in altitude).  Morrel, a somewhat grandiloquent and pompous goatherd has called down from a mountain to Thomalin a shepherd who lives on the plains. The goatherd wants the shepherd to come up to the loftier station, but the latter wants to stay close to his roots and avoid the excesses of pride.  Also Morrel’s guileful goats are running amok, whereas Thomalin dutifully keeps his sheep together.

This straightforward (yet somewhat contrived) set-up becomes a metaphor for the contest between Protestantism and Catholicism in England–an all-too-familiar theme for Spenser’s original audience.  Thus, as we proceed through the poem, we find ourselves mired in a theological controversy which runs the entire length and breadth of England. The pastoral frolics of sheep and goats transmogrify into a sly commentary on the politicians and theology of the day.  In Dante-esque fashion Spenser combines this with classical allusions, and personal grudges.  This little poem thus represents the spiritual, the natural, the personal, and the political–all mashed together in the form of two yokels shouting at each other on a hill.

This sounds amazing and it is–but it is also couched in Spenser’s faux Middle English, and the poem contains allusions to historical personages who are no longer well-known. Thus amongst the classical deities and Biblical personages we find the peculiar figure of Algrind—a not-very-subtle anagram of Grindal–who was the bishop of London at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign.  Fortunately for us, the bishop encounters another Ferrebeekeeper theme—a mollusk, dropped upon his head by an eagle.   It is enough to give the reader brain fever…or maybe that is just July’s heat….

At any rate, without further preamble, allow me to present:

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The Shepheardes Calender: July

 Ægloga Septima.

 A R G V M E N T.

THis Æglogue is made in the honour and commendation of good shepheardes, and to the shame and disprayse of proude and ambitious Pastours. Such as Morrell is here imagined to bee.

THOMALIN. MORREL.

Is not thilk same a Goat-herd proud,
That sits on yonder Bank;
Whose straying Herd themself doth shroud
Emong the Bushes rank?

MORREL.
What ho, thou jolly Shepherd’s Swain,
Come up the Hill to me:
Better is, than the lowly Plain,
Als for thy Flock and thee.

THOMALIN.
Ah! God shield, Man, that I should clime,
And learn to look aloft
This Read is rife, that oftentime
Great Climbers fall unsoft.
In humble Dales is footing fast,
The Trode is not so tickle;
And though one fall through heedless haste,
Yet is his Miss not mickle.
And now the Sun hath reared up
His fiery-footed Teme,
Making his way between the Cup
And golden Diademe:
The rampant Lion hunts he fast,
With Dogs of noisom Breath,
Whose baleful barking brings in haste,
Pine, Plagues, and drery Death.
Against his cruel scorching Heat,
Where thou hast Coverture,
The wasteful Hills unto his Threat
Is a plain Overture.
But if thee lust, to holden chat
With seely Shepherd’s Swain:
Come down, and learn the little what,
That Thomalin can sain.

MORREL.
Siker, thous but a lasy Loord,
And rekes much of thy Swink,
That with fond Terms, and witless Words
To blear mine Eyes dost think.
In evil hour thou henst in hond
Thus holy Hills to blame;
For sacred unto Saints they stond,
And of them han their Name.
St. Michel’s Mount who does not know,
That wards the Western Coast?
And of St. Bridget’s Bow’r I trow,
All Kent can rightly boast:
And they that con of Muses Skill,
Fain most what, that they dwell
(As Goat-herds wont) upon a Hill,
Beside a learned Well.
And wonned not the great God Pan
Upon Mount Olivet;
Feeding the blessed Flock of Dan,
Which did himself beget?

THOMALIN.
O blessed Sheep! O Shepherd great!
That bought his Flock so dear:
And them did save with bloody Sweat,
From Wolves that would them tear.

MORREL.
Beside, as holy Fathers sain,
There is a holy Place,
Where Titan riseth from the Main,
To ren his daily Race:
Upon whose Tops the Stars been staied,
And all the Sky doth lean;
There is the Cave where Phoebe laied
The Shepherd long to dream.
Whilom there used Shepherds all
To feed their Flocks at will,
Till by his Folly one did fall,
That all the rest did spill.
And sithence Shepherds been foresaid
From Places of Delight;
For-thy, I ween thou be afraid,
To clime this Hilles hight.
Of Synah an I tell thee more,
And of our Lady’s Bow’r:
But little needs to crow my Store,
Suffice this Hill of our.
Here hen the holy Faunes Recourse,
And Sylvanes haunten rathe;
Here has the salt Medway his Sourse,
Wherein the Nymphs do bathe:
The salt Medway, that trickling streams
Adown the Dales of Kent,
Till with his elder Brother Thames,
His brackish Waves be meynt.
Here grows Melampode, every where,
And Teribinth, good for Goats:
The one, my madding Kids to smear,
The next to heal their Throats.
Hereto, the Hills been nigher Heaven,
And thence the Passage eath:
As well can prove the piercing Levin,
That seldom falls beneath.

THOMALIN.
Siker thou speakest like a lewd Lorel,
Of Heaven to deemen so:
How be I am but rude and borrel,
Yet nearer ways I know.
To Kirk the nar, so God more far,
Has been an old said Saw;
And he that strives to touch a Star,
Oft stumbles at a Straw.
Alsoon may Shepherds clime to Sky,
That leads in lowly Dales;
As Goat-herd proud, that sitting high,
Upon the Mountain fails.
My seely Sheep like well below,
They need not Melampode;
For they been hale enough, I trow,
And liken their Abode.
But if they with thy Goats should yede,
They soon might be corrupted;
Or like not of the frowy Fede,
Or with the Weeds be glutted.
The Hills, where dwelled holy Saints,
I reverence and adore;
Not for themself, but for the Saints,
Which hen been dead of yore.
And now they been to Heaven forewent,
Their Good is with them go;
Their Sample only to us lent,
That als we mought do so.
Shepherds they weren of the best,
And lived in lowly Leas;
And sith their Souls be now at rest,
Why done we them Disease?
Such one he was (as I have heard
Old Algrind often sain)
That whilom was the first Shepherd;
And liv’d with little Gain:
And meek he was, as meek mought be;
Simple, as simple Sheep;
Humble, and like in each degree
The Flock which he did keep.
Often he used of his Keep
A Sacrifice to bring;
Now with a Kid, now with a Sheep,
The Altars hallowing.
So louted he unto the Lord,
Such Favour couth he find,
That never sithence was abhor’d
The simple Shepherds kind.
And such I ween the Brethren were,
That came from Canaan;
The Brethren twelve, that kept yfere
The Flocks of mighty Pan.
But nothing such thilk Shepherd was,
Whom Ida Hill did bear,
That left his Flock to fetch a Lass,
Whose Love he bought too dear:
For he was proud, that ill was paid,
(No such mought Shepherds be)
And with leud Lust was over-laid;
Tway things doen ill agree.
But Shepherds mought be meek and mild,
Well eyed, as Argus was,
With fleshly Follies undefil’d,
And stout as Steed of Brass.
Sike one (said Algrind) Moses was,
That saw his Maker’s Face,
His Face more clear than crystal Glass,
And spake to him in place.
This had a Brother (his Name I know)
The first of all his Coat:
A Shepherd true, yet not so true,
As he that earst I hote.
Whilom all these were low, and leef,
And lov’d their Flocks to feed,
They never stroven to be chief,
And simple was their Weed.
But now (thanked be God therefore)
The World is well amend:
Their Weeds been not so nightly wore,
Such Simpless mought them shend.
They been yclad in Purple and Pall,
So hath their God them blist;
They reign and rulen over all,
And lord it as they list:
Ygirt with Belts of Glitter and Gold,
(Mought they good Shepherds been)
Their Pan their Sheep to them has sold,
I say, as some have seen.
For Palinode (if thou him ken)
Yode late on Pilgrimage
To Rome (if such be Rome) and then
He saw thilk Misusage.
For Shepherds (said he) there doen lead,
As Lords done otherwhere;
Their Sheep han Crusts, and they the Bread;
The Chips, and they the Chear:
They han the Fleece, and eke the Flesh,
(O seely Sheep the while!)
The Corn is theirs, let others thresh,
Their Hands they may not file.
They han great Store, and thrifty Flocks,
Great Friends, and feeble Foes:
What need hem caren for their Flocks,
Their Boys can look to those?
These Wizards welter in Wealth’s Waves,
Pamper’d in Pleasures deep;
They han fat Kerns and leany Knaves,
Their fasting flocks to keep.
Sike mister Men been all misgone,
They heapen Hills of Wrath:
Sike sirly Shepherds hen we none,
They keepen all the Path.

MORREL.
Here is a great deal of good Matter,
Lost for lack of telling:
Now siker I see thou dost but clatter,
Harm may come of melling.
Thou meddlest more than shall have thank
To witen Shepherd’s Wealth:
When Folk been fat, and Riches rank,
It is a Sign of Health.
But say me, what is Algrind, he
That is so oft bynempt?

THOMALIN.
He is a Shepherd great in Gree,
But hath been long ypent:
One day he sate upon a Hill,
(As now thou wouldest me,
But I am taught by Algrind’s Ill,
To love the low degree)
For sitting so with bared Scalp,
An Eagle soared high,
That weening his white Heat was Chalk,
A Shell-Fish down let fly.
She ween’d the Shell-Fish to have broke,
But therewith bruis’d his Brain:
So now astonied with the Stroke,
He lies in lingring Pain.

MORREL.
Ah! good Algrind, his Hap was ill,
But shall be better in time:
Now farewel, Shepherd, sith this Hill
Thou hast such doubt to clime.

PALINODE’S EMBLEM.
In medio Virtus.

MORREL’S EMBLEM.
In summo Felicitas.

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Apparently May is “Ride Your Bike to Work” month, but it has been so gray and wet and cold every day so far that today was the first day I peddled from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  It was still gray and cold…but there was a delightful treat on the ride!  Here is Brooklyn the flowering dogwoods are in full bloom and they were so beautiful…particularly the pink ones.

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I have always thought that I was allergic to flowering dogwood (Cornus floridus) but there is one in my backyard, and it doesn’t seem to be doing me particular harm.  Maybe I need to speak out more enthusiastically about these magnificent trees.

New York University- Pink Dogwood trees and Tulips

I was hoping to tell a myth of the dogwood in the underworld or a stirring anecdote about its taxonomic relationship to an unexpected plant, but there is less to go on than I might have hoped.  When I was growing up, there was a myth that it was the tree Christ was crucified on and that is why it has white cross shaped flowers with red dots on the end, but this seems to be an American myth from the early 20th century.  Wikipedia helpfully notes that “The hard, dense wood [of the dogwood] has been used for products such as golf club heads, mallets, wooden rake teeth, tool handles, jeweler’s boxes and butcher’s blocks.” I guess golf clubs are ok but they are hardly a new race of human beings.

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Maybe we need to work on some myths which are as beautiful as the lovely dogwood. I am not allergic to it.  It didn’t kill Christ and, in our debased mass-market world nobody cares about what mallets and rake teeth are made of.   Does anybody out there have anything better for this beautiful tree?  I guess we could always make something up.

 

Corona votiva de Recesvinto. Parte del Tesoro de Guarrazar. Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España, Madrid.

Behold! This is the votive crown of the Visigoth King Reccesuinth. It is the finest piece from the fabled “Treasure of Guarrazar” a collection of 27 votive crowns, numerous hanging crosses, and various gold buckles and brooches which was discovered in a Spanish orchard in the 1850s. The treasure was manufactured by master jewelers and goldsmiths of the Visigoths during the 7th century AD. The pieces display a breathtaking combination of Byzantine and Germanic style. Nobody knows how they ended up in the orchard (which may have once been a graveyard or a fallen Roman ruin), although some people have speculated they were hidden there from the Moors. Although much of the treasure has vanished over the years (including an almost equally fine votive crown of King Suinthila) what remains is extraordinary—even after many of the pieces have vanished, the Treasure of Guarrazar is still the finest collection of early medieval votive crowns.

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Speaking of which, a votive crown is not meant to be worn. It is a treasure in the shape of a crown given to the church by a sovereign (or some other entity rich enough to be handing out jeweled crowns). These were hung above the altar of a church. In a way I is a sort of hanging sculpture–as is further illustrated by the “pendilla” the dangling ornaments hanging beneath the crown (a style which was also used in the medieval Crown of Saint Stephen). The letters among the pendilla spell out “RECCESVINTHVS REX OFFERET“ (King Reccesuinth gave this). The dark blue stones are sapphires from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which illustrates that, even in the 7th century, trade was a global affair.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera,  1634, oil on canvas)

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera, 1634, oil on canvas)

Saint Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Christ… Yet, considering the exalted company he kept, we do not know very much about Bartholomew.  Bartholomew means “son of the furrows” in Aramaic, which suggests he was possiblya ploughman…or at least descended from farmers (it is also funny to think that Bart Simpson’s name is originally Aramaic).  Bartholomew shows up by name in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “Synoptic” gospels, which give roughly the same account of events) but he is replaced by Nathaniel in the enigmaticand iconoclastic gospel of John.

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Whatever the case, sources (such as they are) place Bartholomew at the Ascension–the Greek-myth style apotheosis of Christ, when the risen savior ascended bodily into heaven to assimilate with the divine.  Bartholomew’s story gets a lot more interesting thereafter.  While other apostles went west and north to spread Christianity to the Roman Empire, Bartholomew headed East, right out of the boundaries of the known world. Along with Saint Thomas, he is credited with bringing Christianity to India.  Along the way he is alleged (by varying sources) to have stopped to spread the faith in Mesopotamia, Parthia, and Lycaonia.

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

However Bartholomew is most affiliated with Armenian Christianity.  Along with his fellow apostle, Saint Jude, he is credited with bringing the faith to Armenia in the 1st Century and the two are the Co-founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia was also the site of his thrilling martyrdom.  According to popular tradition,Bartholomew converted Polymius, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. This infuritated the king’s brother Astyages, a devout pagan who thought that getting rid of the proslytizer would get rid of the faith.  Astyages had Bartholomew seized, crucified and flayed alive–which seems like overkill.  In some accounts the holy man was drowned or beheaded (maybe Astyages feared a Rasputin type situation and had Bartholomew crucified, flayed, drowned, and beheaded).  Armenia is not necessarily the center of the world in contemporary times, but it was a thriving society in the early medieval world.  There were huge cities filled with great cathedrals to Saint Bartholomew   Whatever the case of the real Bartholomew, popular imagination seized on the flaying aspect of this tale.  This death of Saint Bartholomew became favorite theme of artists  Michaelangelo even painted himself as Saint Bartholomew’s nightmarish skin in the last judgement.  There he is between heaven and hell in the saint’s flayed hand.  Will he be cast down and discarded of ascend as a saint?

Detail from "The Last Judgment" (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Detail from “The Last Judgment” (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Some scolars have noted a deliberate similarity between Bartholomew and the Greco-Roman demigod Hercules. Churches to the saint were often located on former sites of cult centers to the strongman. Additionally the two shared iconongraphy: Bartholomew frequently holds of wears his skin like Hercules wears the Nemean lion’s skin. There are even certainly weird parallels between the figures. Hercules transcended death through physical strength: excellence at fighting and a divine pedigree allowed him to rise to heaven.  Saint Bartholomew a normal man–a farmer–transcended mortality by spiritual strength–he shrugged off the most terrible death possible and joined Jesus in heaven (and in working miracles here on Earth).  Barthomew and Hercules even shared a doom caused throught the skin.  Barthomew was flayed, while Hercules was poisoned intracutaneously and ripped his own skin off.  It is a good theory, but it overlooks the even more straightforward Christian message of Bartholomew. He transcended his mortality through his association with Jesus. He shrugged off his human flesh and became part of the divine.  The raw power of the tale is instantly recognizable in the beautiful & horrible art.

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

January 14th was a fanciful medieval holiday known as the “Feast of the Ass.” The feast commemorates the flight into Egypt, a biblical episode from Christ’s (very) early career. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea heard a prophecy that a greater king than himself had just been born in Palestine. The king launched a murderous anti-infant pogrom to rid himself of competition before his rival could reach adulthood (an ugly spate of newborn killing known in Christianity as “the Massacre of the innocents”). Mary and Joseph fled Palestine with the baby Jesus. The little family traveled down into Roman Egypt with the exhausted post-partum Mary and her baby traveling on an ass (you can read about this directly in the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-23)). It was not the only episode in the Bible to portray Jesus on donkey back. On Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem (and to his ultimate death) he was mounted on a white ass. The medieval feast gently celebrated the donkey’s importance to Christianity with banqueting, sermons about the biblical events, and pageantry. A beautiful girl bearing a child would ride a donkey through town to the church. Thereafter the donkey stood beside the altar during the sermon. The congregation participated in the fun by answering the priest’s questions and observances by shouting “hee haw” (or whatever donkeys say in France–where the celebration was most often observed).

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1530s, oil on panel)

In our age of internet and celebrity worship, every day is the feast of the ass, but I wanted to write about the medieval celebration (which fell out of favor and vanished in the fifteenth century) so I could share these three beautiful paintings of the flight into Egypt. I also wanted this episode to be an introduction to tomorrow’s post about the donkey—for the poor animals are terribly underappreciated—being so disparagingly associated with human posteriors and loutish individuals. Additionally the donkey’s place in the world has been taken over by modern engines, and fancy patrician folk have not held on to them as a status symbol (as happened to the horse). It’s worth taking a moment and remembering that donkeys are very sacred in Christianity and have a better scriptural claim to being the animal of Christ than any other creature other than perhaps the sheep. More about asses tomorrow!

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

 

 

In 1837, the American financial system melted down and took the United States into a horrible economic death spiral.  In the same year, on the other side of the world, an obscure Chinese peasant named Hong Huoxiu had a nervous breakdown because he failed to pass the imperial civil service examinations (which only one out of a hundred test-takers passed anyway).  Strangely enough, Hong’s private meltdown ultimately proved far more damaging to humanity than the collapse of the entire U.S. banking system.   The ramifications of Hong’s actions are still being felt (and still being interpreted), but what is certain is that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 20 to 30 million people.

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Huoxiu was born the third son of a poor Hakka farmer in Guangzhou, Guangdong in 1814. He proved to be an apt scholar who had a way with words and concepts and, more importantly, an ability to memorize the Confucian classics which were the subject of the all-important imperial exams (which determined one’s status in life).  His family tried to support him in his studies, and he came in first at the local preliminary civil service examinations, however he failed the actual imperial examinations four times (the exams at the time were very difficult, but they were also corrupt—and many people passed thanks to gold rather than correct answers).  After failing for the fourth time, Hong fell into a serious illness and was tormented by bizarre dreams in which he traveled to the sky to meet a wise father figure and a powerful elder-brother dressed in a black dragon robe.  Because of this dream epiphany, Hong changed his name to Hong Xiuquan (at the behest of the figures in his dreams).  He stopped studying for the exam and became a tutor.

For six years thereafter, Hong scraped by, trying to understand the strange figures and portents from his delirium.  He read and reread some tracts which had been given to him by Christian missionaries, and suddenly everything came clear to him in a startling revelation: the authority figure from his dreams was the Judeo-Christian god and the respected elder brother was Jesus.  Hong realized that he was Jesus’ younger Chinese brother.  Armed with this knowledge, he began to gather disciples and converts among the poor Hakka charcoal burners of Guanxi.  In 1847, he made a formal study of Christianity and the Old Testament (which, not surprisingly, cemented his belief in his own divinity).  Hong preached a strange mixture of communal sharing, Christian evangelism, and fiery rebellion.  He had two immense symbolic swords forged (for the purpose of sweeping corruption and heresy out of China) and he burned Taoist and Budhhist books wherever he went.

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

In most other times, nobody would have paid attention to Hong (or the secret police would have noted him and dealt with him in a peremptory fashion), however in mid nineteenth century China the situation was ripe for millenarian craziness and fraudulent prophets.  The corrupt Qing dynasty was floundering badly as crooked ministers feuded with each other and robbed the treasury.  Famine and disaster stalked the land while bandits and rebellions popped up everywhere.  The Western powers were openly squabbled over zones of influence within China.  Opium addiction, religious extremism, and nihilism were popular panaceas.  Against this horrible backdrop, the imperial government did not notice Hong until he had gathered 30,000 followers.  In 1850, they dispatched a small army to dispense his followers, but by then it was too late.  The imperial army was defeated and Hong’s forces executed the Manchu commander.  The rebellion had begun in earnest:  on January 11, 1851, Hong proclaimed the founding of the “Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace”.  He assembled armies which he put in command of family and favorites and began conquering southern China in the name of a communal theocratic state.

Scroll painting from "Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855."

Scroll painting from “Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855.”

The subsequent Taiping rebellion—a civil war between the Qing dynasty and the Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace—was one of the most destructive conflicts in history.  At the height of the movement the Taiping rebels controlled 30 million subjects.  As huge armies clashed, tens of millions of people were uprooted.  Famine and disease became universal and the great cities of southern China were repeatedly besieged and burned.

The increasingly unstable Hong Xiuquan was a distant and hypocritical king to his strange and mismanaged kingdom. By 1853 he had withdrawn from day-to-day control of his kingdom’s policies and administration.  He became an isolated quasi-divine figurehead who ruled through written proclamations and strange religious pronouncements (while being carried from palace to palace in a sedan chair born by beautiful concubines).   For eleven years, his generals, prophets, and revolutionary figureheads fought an internecine war with imperial China, which only came to an end when the United Kingdom became involved and sent gunboats and British officers to assist the Emperor (most famously, Charles Gordon, a British military adventurer who went on to have one of the nineteenth century’s most colorful and infamous careers).  Lead and organized by Gordon and by General Tso (who is forever memorialized as a sweet-sour chicken dish), the imperial forces who were ironically renamed “the ever-victorious army” finally crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1864.

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

Reclining amongst his dozens of wives and hundreds of concubines, Hong is said to have taken poison (or perhaps he died of eating noxious weeds—in accordance with a religious vision).  Whatever the case, the Taiping rebellion was at an end. Thanks to a decade and a half of brutal fighting, southern China was devastated: huge piles of rotting corpses were littered throughout the Yangtze valley.  Jesus’ Chinese brother, a nobody with a messiah complex, was directly responsible for one of the most violent and senseless incidents in history.  By some accounts, he personally outdid the destruction caused by World War I.

nicholas

In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead.  Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger.  This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires).  However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.

In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire.  His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan.  Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian.  Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas

In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea.  The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity.  Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence.  Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans.  The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument.  Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings.  After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos.  Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile.  Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there.  Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world.  Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.

The Death of Nikolaos

The Death of Nikolaos

He died as a revered figure in 343 AD.  Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:

Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.

Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman.  But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning.  After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint.  His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world.  Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.

The Tomb of Nikolaos

The Tomb of Nikolaos

Candlelight Cottage (Thomas Kinkade)

Thomas Kinkade “Painter of Light” died Friday (April 6, 2012) in Los Gatos, California at the age of 54.  Kinkade was one of the world’s most successful artists with a business empire said to generate over 100 million dollars a year (at least back in the boom days before the recession).  In order to produce his vast cannon of work, he painted swiftly with a somewhat cartoony impressionist shorthand style, and then reproduced his work through a wide range of technologies.  Copies of his paintings were available in every price grade: if one was unable to buy original artworks, there were (and are) an endless choice of hand-signed lithographs, high-tech canvas prints, posters, printed materials (calendars, cards, books, etc.), as well as plates, sculptures, clocks, and on and on.  All of this was available through multiple sales channels including the internet, catalogs, galleries, and a line of brick-and-mortar stores.  Kinkade was a uniquely American artist who took William Turner’s famous sobriquet “Painter of Light” and literally trademarked it as his own.

Art by Thomas Kinkade

Although he frequently suffered the scorn of art critics, Kinkade was upbeat about his work, which he regarded as a means to create a pleasant emotional experience for the widest possible audience.  The subjects of his paintings include idealized cottages, gardens, small towns, and churches–all of which are bathed in a fluorescent haze.  The tiny cottages glow with nostalgic perfection and the June gardens are forever soaked in the hues of sunset.  Joan Didion, an essayist who explores the interplay between aesthetics and morality in contemporary American society did not seem to regard Kinkade very highly, yet she wrote the most evocative description of his art:

A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.

Thomas Kinkade did not usually paint people in his works.  The majority of his canvases display obvious hints of life, but the inhabitants themselves are missing.  Religious iconography however is much in evidence and Kinkade frequently talked about his oeuvres in context of his Christianity.

Stepping beyond Kinkade’s obvious and remarkable business genius, his work does seem to directly touch the nostalgic, religious, avaricious wellspring of American sentiment.  It is not for Ferrebeekeeper to judge the quality of his art [ good, we would have to fend off a libel suit from his estate–ed.];  instead, as is traditional on this blog, we judge his work solely on the gothic elements therein—and these are plentiful!  Underneath the colorful candy-floss veneer there is a gothic heart.  The little bungalows and miniature mansions sitting in the deserted suburbs share architectural kinship with the glowering ruins painted by Caper David Friedrich.  The treacle gardens and empty town squares betray a similarity with churchyards and standing stones of German romanticism.  Didion is fundamentally right with her Hansel and Gretel metaphor—there is a fairy tale lurking in Kincaid’s work (and under his highly successful life).  What happens to Hansel and Gretel in our world of melting mortgages, outsourced jobs, and ecological havoc is far from clear, but it is worth pausing a moment to remember Thomas Kinkade, the warlock who stole Turner’s epithet and ruined Monet’s style in order to spin a river of gold from candy houses.

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