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The Madonna of the Passion (Carlo Crivelli, 1460, tempera on panel)

The Madonna of the Passion (Carlo Crivelli, 1460, tempera on panel)

Just in time for the holidays, here’s another “Madonna and Child” painting by Carlos Crivelli, the enigmatic Quattrocento master.  Ferrebeekeeper has already featured two posts about Crivelli including a short biography (which includes just about everything we know about him) and an exquisite painting of Mary Magdalene.  Today we present another Crivelli tempera masterpiece from 1460 which shows Mary holding a pensive baby Jesus as creepy little foreshadowing figures gather round.   Although Mary is not without a certain supercilious beauty, the two central figures are not nearly as fine as in other Crivelli masterpieces.  Standing on his little black velvet pillow like a demagogue orator, Jesus looks downright horrifying (and he also seems suitably appalled at knowing his own fate). The great strength of the painting lies in the supporting cast of corpulent androgynous children brandishing accoutrements of the crucifixion.  The little beings to the right solemnly proffer a crown of thorns and a cross to infant Jesus.  On the left, one child (wearing tiger skin grieves!) holds a fistful of crucifixion nails while his naked playmate grasps a classical column with spidery hands.  Behind him are children with a lance, a bucket of vinegar, and a ladder.  The little lanceman on the left is staring up at an allegorical rooster standing atop capitol.  In the background, on the right, the death of Christ takes place on a distant hill, while at the top, beyond a garland of peaches, pears, cherries, and songbirds, a final pair of putti play divine music on the harp and lute. The suffusion of tiny black pits or holes in the composition was probably not intended by Crivelli (although he did have a fascination with nail wounds), but it adds an extra dimension of entropy, torment, and decay to an already vexing painting.  Once again Crivelli deftly takes traditional religious elements of the passion and arranges them into an allegory which seems to subtly elude the comprehension of the viewer.  Is that Peter’s rooster or is it some lost symbol of 15th century Italy?  Are the childish beings with the implements of Christ’s death a vision of the anguished Christ child, or are they meant to represent us, the viewer, tormentors and torturers of the world who, like ignorant children, don’t even understand what we are doing?

Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post last Friday: the sad exigencies of the world prevented me from finishing my week-long overview of ornamental knot designs (which included the valknut, knot gardens, the Saint Jame’s arms, and the endless knot).  Today I am returning to the theme for a final post concerning Celtic knotted designs– which represent the beautiful apogee of decorative knots (with the possible exception of certain gorgeous Islamic calligraphy and artwork).

Like leprechauns and shamrocks, ornate knot designs are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of Gaelic culture.  Yet the history of how these designs came to be synonymous with all things Hibernian is far from clear.  Interlace patterns have been found in mosaics and tile work from many different parts of the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries.  It has been speculated that these designs may have originated from Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, but whatever the case, the sinuous interconnected ribbons with animal heads certainly appealed to the people of Northern Europe in the waning days of Roman hegemony.

During the so-called Migration period (the period from 400 AD to 800 AD) waves of Germanic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Steppe peoples intermingled and pushed into each other’s territory.  As these peoples intermingled (and battled), looped, braided, and geometric styles of decoration grew in popularity throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire.  Frequently these designs were elaborate knotted ribbons which terminated in interlocking animal heads.

A Sword Hilt Fitting from the Staffordshire Hoard (Mercian, ca. 7th century)

By 700 AD, the style was becoming less prominent on continental Europe, however it continued to evolve in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia.  The insular art of Irish monasteries produced unrivaled treasures such as numerous ancient stone crosses and the world famous Book of Kells, an illuminated Vulgate gospel from around 800 AD, which defies belief due to the microcosmic intricacy of its knotwork men, animals, and sacred figures.

Detail of Serpents, lions, and vines from the Book of Kells (ca. 800 AD)

Although the Book of Kells marks an apogee of lacework illumination, geometrical knots continued to be popular in Ireland thereafter.   Right on down until today, intricate ornamental knots are a hallmark of Irish culture.  For your enjoyment here is a little gallery of Celtic knots, ancient and modern.

Detail from the Book of Kells

Stained Glass Celtic Knot (from Paradise Stained Glass)

Fahan Cross-slab (Donegal Ireland, ca. 7th Century AD)

Celtic Knot Handbag

Celtic Knot foot tattoo from “Tattoo and Piercing Gallery”

Celtic Knot Stencil from “The Artful Stencil”

Traditional Celtic Knot (Drawing by by ~cosmic-tool from deviantart)

Today we head back to Gotland for another ancient knotlike symbol.  The Saint John’s arms is a square with loops at each edge.  The shape is actually not a knot but an unknot: if you pulled at it you would discover that it is a torus which has been twisted.

Fornsalen Museum, Visby ( Gotland ). Picture stone with Saint John’s Arms Knot (photo by Wolfgang Sauber)

The symbol appears carved on a 1500 year old image stone from Hablingbo, on the island of Gotland (a Swedish Island in the Baltic Sea).  Ever since then it has appeared throughout the Scandinavian/Baltic world to demark sights of interest.  Although it is especially common in Finland (where it gained a reputation for warding off evil), the Saint John’s arms can be found blazoned upon cultural attractions throughout Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden.

Rana museum, department of Natural history in Mo i Rana (Nordland, Norway)

From its obscure Scandinavian roots, the Saint John’s arms vaulted into international fame during the 80s.  Originally Apple computer utilized the “open apple” and “closed apple” as its command keys (I even remember these from my old Apple IIe and my halcyon days of adventuring in the realms of Ultima).  In 1984, when the Macintosh personal computer was introduced, Steve Jobs decided that using the apple for shortcut commands was denigrating the brand.  According to Apple insider Andy Hertzfeld, when Jobs saw how many apple commands were in an early version of MacDraw he peremptorily told the design team, “There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain! We’ve got to stop doing that!”  The bitmap artist, Susan Kare, flipped through her dictionary of international symbols until she found one that easily translated into 16 bit-resolution.  It was the Saint John’s arms symbol—which the symbol dictionary said indicated camping grounds in Sweden.

So today the Saint John’s arms, a mysterious Viking symbol carved on a weird rock on a haunted island, is in use everywhere that Apple computers are.

The Iron Crown of Lombardy

I have written about the ancient Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor.  Europe’s other truly ancient crown is the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which doubles as a reliquary containing a nail reputedly used to crucify Jesus.  Myth relates that the nail was originally the property of Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.  It is said that the sacred nail was later given to Princess Theodelinda of the Lombards in some unfathomable act of Byzantine diplomacy and she then incorporated it into her crown (which was given to her by Pope Gregory the Great in recognition for converting the Lombards to Christianity).

Although the actual age and make of the Iron Crown are unknown and shrouded in myth, laboratory tests performed on bits of wax and caustic from the crown seem to indicate it was made in the middle of the 8th century AD.  It is constructed of six segments of gold and enamel hinged together.  In addition to its famous band of iron, it is decorated with 22 jewels set inside relief forms of flowers and crosses.  The crown is small and may be missing segments (or may have actually been intended for some other use).

An illustration of the Iron Crown of Lombardy

It seems the Iron Crown was a sort of afterthought to the Holy Roman Emperors who traditionally traveled to Rome for their imperial coronations.  On the way back to Central Europe they would stop in Lombardy to be crowned as Kings of Italy. Napoleon followed this tradition and placed the crown on his own head in 1805 in Milan.  He even went so far as to proclaim the ancient ceremonial (grabby) words of coronation which go with the throne of Lombardy, “Dieu me la donne, gare à qui la touche. (God gives it to me, beware whoever touches it.)” Admittedly he said the phrase in French.

Whoever wears the crown is King of Italy (albeit not always a united Italy), but it has not been claimed since 1838 when Emperor Ferdinand I proclaimed himself King of Lombardy and Venetia .  It can still be found in the cathedral of Monza near Milan where it has been for more than a millennium (except for the years when it was kept in Vienna among Ferdinand’s crown jewels).

Monza Cathedral where the Iron Crown is located today

The Iron Crown also has a rich literary tradition and appears in many stories and fables.  My favorite allusion comes in Moby Dick when Ahab watches a sunset and fantasizes that he is wearing the Iron Crown of Lombardy as he contemplates his own madness.

Speaking of craziness, although I have no evidence, I know in my heart that Silvio Berlusconi has found a way to spend some time with the Crown of Lombardy and a mirror.  If you think about the nature of the current Prime Minister of Italy (who is also Italy’s wealthiest private citizen and a Lombard from Milan) you will come to the same conclusion.  The real question is whether he was wearing anything else when he put it on and how many other people were involved.

"Thats-a not nice! What did-a Silvio do to you, eh?"

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